Often, when I write, I try to put myself in the subject’s shoes and imagine seeing life from their perspective or hearing the sounds around them. This can’t be the case for Helen Keller. I did attempt to place myself on the tenji buroku, or the bumpy yellow lines for the vision impaired on Japanese sidewalks, close my eyes and plug my ears. I made it about five steps before giving up.
Helen Keller did not give up. Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880 to a former captain of the Confederate Army and a “Memphis Belle” 20 years his junior, Keller lost her sight and hearing from a severe illness (some say scarlet fever or meningitis) at 19 months old. It wasn’t until Anne Sullivan, a determined 20-year-old teacher from the Perkins School for the Blind, brought Keller’s hand under a fountain and palm-spelled the word "water" that she began to interact with the world that surrounded her. Before Sullivan, Keller had been a temperamental and terrified 7-year-old, but as she recounts in her 1903 autobiography, "The Story of My Life," Sullivan, or “Teacher,” rescued her from a “dark, soundless silence.”
From that epiphanic moment at the fountain, the “little bronco” would go on to live an enormous life, traveling to over 30 countries and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 before passing away four years later at the age of 87. Other than starting Helen Keller International in the United States, Keller’s greatest societal impact can be found in Japan, where she visited in 1937, 1948 and 1955. Today, we’ll look at her first visit.
Video — Lunch with Helen Keller (1954):
On April 15, 1937, Helen Keller and Polly Thomson (her “eyes and ears”), landed in Yokohama Bay after a two-week voyage across the Pacific aboard the Asama Maru. The trip had been discussed as far back as 1934, when Kwansei Gakuin professor and Nippon Lighthouse founder Takeo Iwahashi traveled to her home in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York, where he was greeted by Keller’s eight pet dogs.
Back then, Anne Sullivan (the teacher who first brought a 7-year-old Keller from that “dark, soundless silence”) implored her to visit Japan and help the very roughly estimated 160,000 blind and 100,000 deaf citizens of Japan — only 4,000 of whom (according to Iwahashi) were receiving any form of education. Sullivan would soon pass away in 1936, leaving a heartbroken Keller with an incredible desire to fulfill her best friend’s request.
The Japanese government made sure to welcome her with royalty-size crowds. One of the reasons stemmed from Keller’s bond with then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The president had given Keller a letter of friendship meant, according to scholar Chizuru Saeki, to “reconfirm” what had become a frayed relationship due to Japan’s actions in Manchuria in 1931 (FDR: “Keller’s visit to Japan would be the spirit of friendship and good will between American people and the people of Japan upon which good international relations must rest.” Diplomatic words, but Japan had grown wary of Roosevelt’s side-taking actions by offering “at least 50 million dollars” in aid “to Chiang Kai-shek’s China.”
Keller was well aware of her precarious position between peacemaker and American propagandist, but she had her own message of “hope and light” to pass on and she would spend the next 10 weeks visiting 33 cities as she gave talks to “more than 1,000,000 people.” To Keller, and the Japanese people, her inspiring story usurped any kind of political agenda: “I am overwhelmed by Japan’s gracious, generous welcome,” Keller communicated by hand to Thomson, who spoke to the crowd. “I am happy on the start of my new adventure in the Orient for the sake of those who neither see, nor hear, nor speak.”
The trip didn’t start well.
On the same day she arrived in Yokohama, a “pickpocket” (police suspected a Japanese teenage boy) ran past Keller and stole her “address book and more than 200 yen (around $57.18).” The incident was published in English-language newspapers in Japan as well as local newspapers in the United States. Japanese government officials (who sponsored Keller’s tour) were embarrassed, but their published statement about the matter showed the ever-growing contentious relationship between the two countries. “In Japan,” wrote the Asahi Daily News, “we have a phrase ‘chivalrous robber,’ but the offense against the holy American woman who brought light and hope to the world’s millions of deaf, dumb and blind is the crime of an unchivalrous robber, amounting to a national shame.” Hmm, American newspaper readers may have thought, so if the thief had stolen from a “typical” American, it would have been chivalrous?
On Friday, April 16, Keller and Thomson attended a cherry blossom festival in Tokyo and she introduced herself to Emperor Hirohito. The moment affected Keller deeply, later communicating that “at this minute an incident that I cannot forget happened. Both the Emperor and the Empress stood beside me. The Emperor shook hands gently. In his hands I felt grace. He gave me a few words through translation. I answered this is such an honorable moment in my life that I cannot find words for my appreciation.”
Unfortunately for Keller, the “imperial household officials” couldn’t reciprocate their appreciations. Annoyed murmurs rippled throughout the country that Keller “wore a black dress and a three-quarter length black coat. Court rules forbid anything suggestive of mourning.” Without knowing, Keller, the American, had disrespected the emperor on his own soil.
After these two incidents, the trip soon became a sparkling streak of positivity for Japan’s then-underrepresented disabled community. On April 17, Keller brought over 3,000 people to “tears” when she spoke (yes, spoke) these words: “Love is power. Power is love. Let power and love build an independent and happy life for the physically handicapped. Let the light of sympathy brighten up the darkness of their lives.”
My teacher found me in the dark, soundless silence. Not even my mother could communicate with me. Then, with a little word from the fingers of a woman’s hand, a light from another soul touched my life. —Helen Keller
The Asahi Shimbun later wrote that Keller’s “miraculous voice” was also heard by Hisako Nakamura, who at 39 years of age had inspired Japan by living a full life despite losing her arms and legs from gangrene at the age of 3. Nakamura-san brought Keller to tears by presenting her with fragrant “flowers and dolls” that she’d made herself. They embraced and Keller empathized with her condition, expressing that Nakamura-san has had to endure an even more troublesome life than her own.
Another April event in Yokohama stood out thanks to an article by female Australian journalist G. L. Winchester, writing for “The Age Literary Supplement.” What the journalist witnessed that day without question stands as a communicative miracle.
First, Keller, Thomson and Iwahashi (who had become blind during his Waseda university years) were introduced to the large crowd — a combination of non-disabled and disabled attendees — and given “a deafening applause,” according to Winchester. Winchester later found out that Keller “always knew when people applauded, as she got the vibrations through the floor and the chair.”
The trio stood side-by-side and expressed themselves via a three-step process. Keller would first fingerspell into Thomson’s palm and Thomson, standing in the middle, would then speak to the crowd in English as Iwahashi translated her words into Japanese.
Next, they explained how they were able to devise a way for Keller to listen to Thomson’s speaking voice. “With her fingers on Miss Thomson’s face, she could understand the questions [Thomson] asked, and she answered them herself.” Keller then pronounced “Yokohama” and “Manchuria” with clarity and the “correct emphasis.”
Video: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan on how she learned to talk (1928):
Eventually, Keller communicated to the people who needed her story most — the blind or deaf children living without fundamental education systems or public infrastructure (no tenji buroku back then — not until around 1967). “The origin of my visit to Japan was to promote interest in the 700,000 blind in the empire… when I heard there were so many blind here without help, I knew that there was work for me — and here I am.” For a few minutes, Keller agreed to talk with Winchester. One question that stood out was Keller’s thoughts on Australia, a “warm, sunny land.” Keller took a moment to remind herself of the country, then said “the warmth of the sun is the first thing I remember. If one must be blind, it is better to live in sunshine.”
After visiting Korea and Manchuria, Keller and Thomson returned home with an overwhelming amount of gifts — none more treasured than an Akita puppy named Kamikaze-go, who joined the pack of eight other dogs at their Easton, Connecticut home, nicknamed Arcan Ridge. Sadly, Kamikaze-go, (the first Akita to be raised in the U.S., according to biographer Dorothy Hermann), passed away after six months only to be replaced by her Japanese supporters with Kenzan-go. Keller had a passionate love for dogs, appreciating their “happy spontaneity.” Dogs such as Kenzan-go “are quick to discover that I cannot see or hear. Considerately they rise as I come near, so that I may not stumble.”
Despite the early bumps, Keller enjoyed her 10 weeks in the country, beginning a legacy that remains in place to this day. By November of 1937, newspapers reported that Japan would begin to go ahead with plans for “a new home for the blind containing an eye clinic, conveniences for vocational guidance, consultation rooms, and a Braille library.” But tensions between Japan, China and the United States were escalating, and after Keller had visited Korea and Manchuria, she came home that year deeply concerned with the coming future. “This terrible situation [between Japan and China],” she feared in late August 1937, “will advance to a distant date the coming of permanent peace.”
Still, Keller would return to Japan two more times and with each visit new supporting facilities for the disabled were created thanks to an increase in fundraising and public awareness. One of these programs became the Tokyo Helen Keller Association, established in 1950, and is still going strong in Shinjuku.
For Keller, the key to life was remaining overly active toward a cause you believe in. That at its core was the reason for her restless, productive life. “Keep busy,” Keller said, after returning from Asia in 1937, “if you want to forget your troubles and afflictions.”
Next month, we’ll explore the life of the Great Bambino — Babe Ruth — and the extremes of patriotism during his 1934 baseball tour in Japan.
Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series.
Patrick Parr is the author of “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.” His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Politico and The Boston Globe, among others.© Japan Today