Donald Keene’s Japan (Pt. 17): Bonding with ‘Genji’ translator and Crown Prince Akihito

Arthur Waley, left, and Donald Keene are seen at King’s College of the University of Cambridge in around 1953. Keene’s close relationship with his mentor continued for a long time. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO — In early 1949, as he was growing accustomed to life in the UK, Donald Keene resolved to go meet Arthur Waley (1889-1966), a writer he admired. Waley was an orientalist known for his English translations of Chinese and Japanese literature, and his chief works include “The Tale of Genji” — the first piece of Japanese literature Keene ever held in his hands. It was the autumn of 1940 when an 18-year-old Keene encountered the classical masterpiece in a used bookstore in New York. The following passages from Keene’s autobiography show his nervousness and excitement over meeting the person he looked up to.


The one person I wanted most to meet in England, even before I left America, was Arthur Waley. His translations of Japanese and Chinese literature had been my inspiration during the long years of learning to read these languages. I still have somewhere a copy of his More Translations from the Chinese with the Chinese texts laboriously (and clumsily) copied in my hand at a time when I was groping ahead in the dark towards the light that was Waley.

I preferred his translations from the Japanese, and sometimes I tried to persuade myself that he really liked Japanese literature better than Chinese. He once told me that his partial translation of The Pillow-Book of Sei Shonagon was his own favorite among his works. I had been moved especially by the beauty of his translation of The Tale of Genji, a marvelous re-creation in English of a text a thousand years old. During the war I had tried to read the original in a class at the University of Hawaii, and this painful experience had aroused renewed admiration, even awe, for Waley’s accomplishment.

This May 2017 photo shows Donald Keene at the Royal Opera House in London, when he watched the opera Don Carlos. He also visited London to watch operas during his free time when he was at the University of Cambridge. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

I had been told before leaving America that Waley worked at the British Museum, but this had not been true for many years. As I was wondering how to meet him, I learned in January 1949 that he was to lecture in Cambridge and wrote inviting him to tea. I had no introduction, and only an ironclad desire to meet him can explain what gave me the courage to offer this invitation. Waley replied with a postcard, the message written in minuscule handwriting at the top, saying that I should introduce myself after his lecture.

That afternoon I was listening to a broadcast from Germany of a Wagnerian opera, when there was a knock on my door. “Come in!” I shouted unceremoniously, and an unknown man entered. “I am Dr. Waley,” the man said. In great confusion, I switched off the radio, and stammered something about having been studying.

His lecture that night was on the Ainu epic Kutune Shirka. All I knew about the Ainu was the stereotype of “the hairy Ainu,” but Waley’s rendering of the epic made me realize they had composed delicate and beautiful poetry. He read aloud in a rather high-pitched voice, interrupting himself occasionally to make some comment on the poetry, which he obviously loved. The possibility of discovering another variety of poetry had induced him to study the Ainu language, although he was of an age when learning a new language is by no means easy.

In the years that followed I visited Waley from time to time in London. I have met people who complained that they could never get a word out of Waley, but we always found topics of mutual interest, and sometimes we sat in his room talking until it became too dark even to see each other.

(On Familiar Terms)


This June 2, 1953 edition of The Mainichi announces that the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, who was aged 27, is to take place on that day.

At this time, Keene was aged 27, while Waley was 60. They had an age difference that could have made them parent and child. According to Keene, Waley had a natural gift for languages. In addition to Chinese, Japanese and European languages, he also acquired Sanskrit and Mongolian by studying them on his own. Waley apparently said that it was possible to read classical Japanese literature in three months’ time. However, he had never visited Japan. The Japanese government made numerous attempts to invite him, but it is said he continued to refuse, saying he only had an interest in the “Japan of the Heian period (794-1185), not Japan of the modern age.”

Waley was also recognized for being unsociable, so he must have really enjoyed Keene’s company as they continued to get together for a long time after their first encounter.


Around five years had passed since Keene started living in Britain. On June 2, 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place in London. She was crowned queen at age 27, after she acceded to the throne the previous year. Queen Elizabeth II spent over 70 years on the throne until she passed away aged 96 on Sept. 8, 2022, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

A page in the June 5, 1953 edition of The Mainichi shows photos of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which took place on June 2, 1953. The Queen spent over 70 years on the throne, and was known in Japan as the “mother of the British people.”

Royalty, heads of state, and other important guests gathered from around the world to join the celebration of the young queen. From Japan, then Crown Prince Akihito, who presided over the Heisei era (1989-2019) and is now the Emperor Emeritus, attended the 1953 coronation.

The crown prince visited the University of Cambridge prior to the coronation ceremony, and Keene served as his guide. He was apparently singled out and selected to accompany the crown prince as a precious expert on Japan residing in the UK

Keene’s autobiographies do not mention anything about this time, what happened afterwards, or episodes regarding the Emperor Emeritus. He seems to have shied away from leaving a written record. However, Keene told the reporter the following (in Japanese) during an interview in response to then Emperor Akihito’s July 2016 announcement on his apparent wish to abdicate before he dies.

“I have deep, personal memories with the Emperor. I first met him when he was the crown prince. He visited the University of Cambridge at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and I, who belonged to the university at the time, showed him around the town. Afterwards, I was invited to dinners during his stay in (the central Japan resort town of) Karuizawa and at the Imperial Residence, and also received invitations for music recitals. On such occasions, the Emperor played the cello, while the Empress played the piano. There were heartwarming scenes, such as when the Emperor himself adjusted the mic’s position for the Empress. There are royal families in Europe, but there is no such royal family that is as cultured as Japan’s imperial family, with many of its members playing instruments themselves. I believe this is something to be extremely proud of.

This June 2, 1953 edition of The Mainichi shows then Crown Prince Akihito, aged 19, who visited Britain to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, during his overseas travels which lasted for around six months from late March 1953. He is seen shaking hands with former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the photo on the right.

“The Emperor is someone who is very gentle and humorous, and has peaceful views. I never tire of chatting with him. Moreover, the Empress, who is by the Emperor’s side, has a strong presence. There are charity concerts and other events in which the Empress participates on her own. The Empress must be the most popular female figure in Japan.”

(Taken from the “Ronten” section on the July 15, 2016 morning edition of the Mainichi Shimbun)

Keene’s close relationship with Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko lasted for many years, and he was frequently invited to the Imperial Palace. Gifts from the Emperor Emeritus and other mementos are carefully stored inside Keene’s home. His memories of the young crown prince must have been very special for Keene, who later wrote “Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912,” and he became an expert on Japan’s imperial system.

* * *

Donald Keene is seen at a secondhand bookshop in London in June 2017. He stopped by used bookstores wherever he went, and said he was happy when he found the occasional rare item. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

This series navigates the past century on the 100th anniversary of Donald Keene’s birth — also the centennial of The Mainichi — by following the life of the late scholar, who contributed to the elevation of Japanese culture and literature in the world.

(This is Part 17 of a series. The next “Donald Keene’s Japan” story will be published on Nov. 8.)

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer and Donald Keene Memorial Foundation director)

The original text of Donald Keene’s autobiographies is used with permission from the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation. The foundation’s website can be reached at:

* * *


Donald Keene was born on June 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a Japanese literature scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia University. After earning postgraduate degrees at Columbia University and Cambridge University, he received a fellowship to study at Kyoto University in 1953. Keene developed friendships with prominent Japanese authors, including Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Over the course of half a century, Keene traveled back and forth between the US and Japan, and continued to study Japanese literature and culture, while conveying their charms to the world in English. His main works include a multivolume history of Japanese literature, “Travelers of a Hundred Ages,” and “Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912.” In 2008, Keene received the Order of Culture from the Japanese government. The scholar obtained Japanese citizenship in the year following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He died on Feb. 24, 2019, at age 96.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button