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Helen on Helen: Helen Keller's Travels Through Japan

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Helen's travels through Japan

A fascinating and relatively unknown story is that of Helen and Japan. Helen Keller loved the Japanese people and culture and the Japanese people loved and still love her. Helen traveled to Japan on three occasions, in 1937, 1948 and 1955. The Helen Keller Archives contains over 300 artifacts, and a disproportionate number of these are beautiful gifts that she received during those trips—the image posted below* is an exquisite tiered ceramic incense burner, possibly Hirado ware from the early 19th century. We do not know who gave Helen this gift. However, the question remains: how did this strong bond between Helen and the Japanese people come about?

Helen was initially invited to Japan in 1936 by Takeo Iwahashi. Iwahashi was the director of the Osaka Lighthouse in Japan. He was blind, Christian and spoke English. His invitation was the beginning of a life-long friendship between the two of them, and one of the few close friendships she had with a non-sighted person.

Anne Sullivan Macy, before she died in October of 1936, encouraged Helen to travel to Japan in aid of their blind citizens. The huge loss that Helen felt upon her teacher's death motivated her to do just that. She and her companion Polly Thomson arrived at Yokohama in April 1937 and stayed in the Far East until the late summer. They traveled everywhere and were feted by everyone. They were received by Prince and Princess Takamatsu who, in turn, secured invitations for them to attend the Imperial Cherry Viewing Party at the Shinjuku Imperial Gardens in Tokyo. There they were received by the Emperor and Empress of Japan; in Nara, they touched the sacred bronze Buddha, the first women to be allowed to do so; and in Hakone the two women stayed at the famous Hakone Hotel where they were photographed holding a bird bred to have an extremely long tail—in this case 18 feet! They visited about five to six venues a day, where Helen often spoke with the aid of Polly as translator. Polly recounted their travels:

"Everywhere crowds gather to pay Helen honor. I understand the school children and students know more about Helen Keller than they do about their own men in high office. It is astounding, and oh, the gifts! How they keep piling up and up! We are writing Ambassador Grew to ask him how we shall manage at the Customs..."

In my next post, I'll continue discussing Helen and Polly's travels through Japan.

[Read Part 2 of Helen Keller's Travels Through Japan]

Japanese incense burner, 19th century. White porcelain. 3 bowls, perforated with a honeycomb design, that sit on top of each other.

*Image description: Japanese incense burner. White porcelain with filigree work, possibly Hirado ware from Kyushu, Japan, early 19th century. Stands 15 1/2 inches tall and 6 3/4 wide at its base. Three bowls, perforated with a honey comb design, sit on top of each other. Each bowl has two handles—ther side; each handle has a multi-petal flower design at the top. The artifact is graduated, with each bowl becoming progressively smaller.