Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chronicles of Keene's Life

From Donald Keene's Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of
Japan, Columbia University Press, 2008:

"Not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor I heard a radio
commentator declare that only 50 Americans knew Japanese. I wondered
if, on the basis of my summer in the mountains, I was one of the 50.
The commentator was misinformed. Not fifty but hundreds of thousands
of Japanese-Americans knew Japanese and some had been educated in
Japan. The best I could do, with the help of two dictionaries, was to
read a simple newspaper article. I could not utter one sentence in
Japanese, and did not understand Japanese when it was spoken.

I was painfully aware, of course, of these limitations. That is why,
when I learned of the Navy Japanese Language School, I wrote to the
Navy Department asking to be admitted. A letter came from Washington
soon afterwards requesting me to appear for an interview. I don't
recall what I was asked during the interview, but a few weeks later I
received a notice stating that I should report to the University of
California for induction into the language school."

Later, Keene was one of the Americans who translated captured Japanese
documents:

"For the first few days we were excited to think that our secret work
was going to help end the war, but the documents were so unmistakeably
without value that the euphoria did not last long. The documents had
been picked up on Guadalcanal, an island in the South Pacific where a
long battle took place between the Japanese, who had seized the
island, and the Americans who eventually succeeded in taking it back.
By this time the fighting on Guadalcanal had ended and the Japanese
there had been killed, but we went on translating routine reports on
platoons that no longer existed or on the number of sheets of paper
and bottles of ink in their possession.

Translating such materials was so tedious that we tried making it more
interesting by rendering the Japanese documents into old-fashioned
English or into the language of popular fiction. The lieutenant, who
knew Japanese, sometimes read over our translations. He would then
summon us and point out our errors in a rage, translating our English
into Navy language."

"One day I noticed a large wooden box containing captured documents.
The documents gave off a faint, unpleasant odor. I was told that the
little notebooks were diaries taken from the bodies of dead Japanese
soldiers or found floating in the sea. The odor came from the
bloodstains. I felt squeamish about touching the little books but,
carefully selecting one that seemed free of bloodstains, I began to
translate it. At first I had trouble reading the handwriting, but the
diaries, unlike the printed or mimeographed documents I previously had
translated, were at times almost unbearably moving, recording the
suffering of a soldier in his last days.

Members of the American armed forces were forbidden to keep diaries,
lest they reveal strategic information to whoever found them; but
Japanese soldiers and sailors were issued with diaries each New Year
and were expected to write down their thoughts each day. They were
aware that they might be required to show their diaries to a superior,
to make sure the writer's sentiments were correct, so they filled
their pages with patriotic slogans as long as they were still in
Japan. But when the ship next to the diarist's was sunk by an enemy
submarine or when the diarist, somewhere in the South Pacific, was
alone and suffering from malaria, there was no element of deceit. He
wrote what he really felt.

Sometimes the last page of a Japanese soldier's diary contained a
message in English, asking the American who found the diary to return
it to his family after the war. I hid such diaries, though it was
forbidden, intending to return the diaries to the diarist's family,
but my desk was searched and the diaries were confiscated. This was a
great disappointment. The first Japanese I ever really knew were the
writers of the diaries, though they were all dead by the time I met
them."

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