My first visit to Japan was very short, only a week or so in December 1945. Three months earlier, while on the island of Guam, I had heard the broadcast by the Emperor announcing the end of the war. Soon afterward, I was sent from Guam to China to serve as an interpreter between the Americans and the Japanese military and civilians.
After four months, I received orders to return to my original command. I was aware that the original command was in Hawaii, but when the plane from Shanghai landed at Atsugi I felt a strong desire to visit Japan. Every day during the previous four years, ever since entering the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School, I had thought about Japan. I yearned to see it, but I was afraid of being caught if I violated orders. In the end, I persuaded myself that, now that the war had ended, my crime, if detected, would be treated as minor. I informed a naval officer at Atsugi that my original command had moved to Yokosuka. He believed me and I was safely in Japan.
The drive from Atsugi was bleak. As the jeep approached the city of Tokyo, buildings grew steadily fewer until all that were left were smokestacks and sheds. Once in the city, I found the building where the other interpreters were quartered, and was told by my friends that there was an empty bed. They described the destruction they had seen in various Japanese cities, but they had not yet realized the terrible significance of the atomic bomb.
They all agreed that it would take at least 50 years for Japan to recover its pre-war status. Nobody spoke of a possible revival of Japan. This may be why only 20 or 30 of the thousand or so young men trained in Japanese by the Navy and Army attempted to find a career which involved knowledge of the language.
My second visit to Japan was in 1953, this time in Kyoto as a graduate student. I chose Kyoto not only because of its history, but because it had escaped bombing. My wartime friend, Otis Cary, then teaching at Doshisha University, found an ideal place for me to live. I intended to study at Kyoto University, but in fact, I did not spend much time there because the professor so seldom appeared. As it grew colder in the unheated classroom, I felt less and less ready to wait in vain for the professor, and was glad to spend my time in Kyoto sightseeing instead of shivering in a classroom.
I enjoyed wandering at random in the city, fascinated by the names of places I knew from works of Japanese literature and history. The streets were surprisingly quiet, probably because at the time there were no privately owned cars in Kyoto, only company vehicles. I was delighted one day when I saw two elderly ladies happening to meet while crossing in the middle of Kawaramachi, the busiest street in the city. They politely removed their haori jackets and bowed to each other, not in the least worried by possible traffic. Of course, not everything in Kyoto was so pleasing. I saw slum areas not only around the railway station but in the middle of the city, and there were many boys eager to polish one’s shoes. But I managed to accept these sad results of the long warfare that the Japanese had suffered.
I was captivated not only by the city, but the surroundings and I visited every temple on the tourist map. I enjoyed walking along streets with rows of shops, all selling the same article, whether bamboo baskets, stone badgers, or dusty secondhand books. Most of these shops no longer exist, victims of progress.
My main occupation in Kyoto was studying Japanese literature, but on one occasion I was asked to be a “reporter” at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Pacific Affairs. My task was to make summaries of the statements made by the distinguished people who attended. About half the participants were Japanese; the rest were Americans, Canadians and British.
The Japanese, mainly economists, were convinced that Japan’s future was dismal. They were sure that if there were any improvement in the economy, it would result in demands by workers for rises in pay, and if they obtained more money, this would make Japanese goods more expensive. They seemed to believe that cheap prices were the one factor in the sale of Japanese goods abroad.
The non-Japanese participants did their best to suggest ways for improving the Japanese economy. An American, after praising the Japanese for their skill with their hands, urged them to concentrate on making delicate objects like fishhooks. The Japanese delegates did not seem to think that their economy could be rescued with fishhooks. A British delegate proposed that the Japanese should give more attention to molecules, but no one else showed his enthusiasm for molecules as a cure for a poor economy.
The general impressions of the conference, at least to an outsider like myself, were of resignation on the part of the Japanese and friendly but unhelpful attempts by non-Japanese to cheer them. I could not detect anything positive arising from the discussions.
At no point in the discussions was Japanese culture mentioned. This was perhaps natural in a gathering of economists and politicians, but someone might have pointed out that, despite the hardships that the Japanese people had undergone, the postwar period was a golden age of Japanese culture.
The extraordinary outburst of major literature was largely the result of the freedom that had come with the end of Japanese military rule. Junichiro Tanizaki had begun publishing serially his masterpiece “The Makioka Sisters” in 1942, but after three episodes had appeared, the magazine was ordered to cease publication of the work, on the grounds that it was unsuitable to wartime Japan.
Tanizaki continued to write and privately published the first volume. The whole novel could be published only after the war ended. Kafu Nagai, an extremely popular writer, refused to publish a single work during the war, but in his diary (later published) he expressed his anger and contempt for the military. He returned to publishing in 1949. Tanizaki and Naoya Shiga, a writer worshipped by his admirers, were awarded in 1949 with the Bunka Kunsho, the highest decoration given by the government, an unmistakeable indication of the importance of literature in the postwar period.
Two of the best novels of Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese author to win a Nobel Prize, appeared about the time I was living in Kyoto. Younger writers who wrote in the postwar period included Osamu Dazai, Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe. I wonder if there has ever been such a group of novelists working at the same time. I was fortunate to know almost all these writers and became friends with several.
Not only literature, but drama of many varieties flourished during the postwar era. I went regularly to Osaka to see bunraku. The performers — singers, puppet operators and shamisen players — have never been equaled since then.
Kabuki and noh were performed by actors who became legendary. However, the most popular play was “Twilight Crane,” by Junji Kinoshita, based on a Japanese folk tale. This work deeply moved audiences at a time when Japanese traditions seemed to have been negated by defeat in the war; Kinoshita’s discovery of modern meanings in the old traditions made audiences understand the value of what had seemed to be a disgraced culture.
I joined a group in Kyoto of people who worked in various arts. All were eager to revive Japanese culture and the starting point of their discussions was often “Twilight Crane,” as a model of the use of Japanese traditions in new art.
Painting was stimulated by exhibitions of works from foreign museums. Some painters were attracted by their first experience of avant-garde modernism. I remember a painting created by an artist who made a toy car drive around on a canvas. Black paint leaking from the car became the painting.
This work did not inspire my admiration, but I shared in the excitement of the artist’s freedom to paint whatever he chose.
In 1959, after another stay in Japan, I wrote “Living Japan,” a book intended to introduce Japan to non-Japanese readers. I did not expect it to be read by Japanese, but it was translated and sold unexpectedly well. Japanese readers were intrigued to learn about life in Japan of 10 or 20 years earlier than I had described. The changes in Japan that occurred even in a short period were startling and people quickly forgot the past or remembered it with nostalgia.
Some things changed completely.
In 1959 there was not a condominium in Tokyo (or anywhere else). Almost everyone lived in private houses. Statements I made in my book on the basis of what I had seen or heard from friends came to be mistaken or even absurd because conditions changed drastically.
For example, I wrote that several Japanese employees were needed to do the work of one stenographer in an American office. I had evidence for this statement, but it soon became untrue, and I naturally could not imagine what one Japanese stenographer could now do with a computer.
In 1959 many Japanese emigrated to Brazil because there was not enough work in their country. I described the jobs that seemed to have been created to give work to surplus people.
“There are girls whose sole function is apparently to keep a cup of tea filled in front of every customer and employee; girls to stand at the entrance to shops and bow a thousand times, ten thousand times a day, with the uniform greeting, ‘Thank you for coming’; girls to pass back and forth interminably on all the trains, sweeping and selling sweets and soft drinks. …”
Such women have mostly disappeared, their jobs taken by machines. It is more pleasant to be welcomed into an elevator by a young woman than by a machine with its endlessly repeated message, but young women have now found better, less monotonous work.
Some unpleasant features of life in the Tokyo of 1959 no longer exist. I wrote about taxi drivers “They send their cars racing through the streets with all but suicidal abandon. They are not simply reckless: they are desperately anxious to pick up even one additional fare.” I do not miss the terrifying experience of kamikaze taxis.
I do miss Kyoto as it was when I first arrived in the city.
The beautiful houses in Gion grow fewer each year and will never be replaced. The side streets lined with Japanese-style houses are either mixed with dreary apartments or totally destroyed. Kyoto streets on a Sunday are now jammed with cars. No old lady is advised to cross a street without caution. Greed and a demand for convenience have taken the place of beauty.
But, I tell myself, the people of Kyoto are probably healthier and lead more agreeable lives than the people I knew 60 years ago. I have resolved to remember this whenever I feel like complaining about changes.
Donald Keene is a professor emeritus at New York’s Columbia University and a famed scholar of Japanese literature. Born in 1922 in New York, he has written numerous books on Japanese literature, history and culture, including “Meiji Tenno,” a biography of the Emperor Meiji. In 2008, he received the Order of Culture (Bunka Kunsho), which is given by the Japanese government to those who have greatly contributed to Japanese art, literature or culture. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, 2011, Keene moved to Japan permanently and became a Japanese citizen in 2012.