I’ve written some books!

I’ve written some books. Quiz books. Available on Kindle and in paperback. If you like trivia, do yourself a favour and get a copy for you and ten more for your family and friends.

1000 Pub Quiz Questions

1000 Pub Quiz Questions: Link Round Special

Posted in History, Literature, Sport, World politics | Leave a comment

The cost of living crisis; London and Tokyo

For around the last three months, I’ve been intending to move back to London in September to start a new job. Of course I knew the cost of living was going to be higher than here in Tokyo, especially in terms of rent. But, I had somewhat blindly and foolishly presumed that even a starting salary in a professional firm would be enough to live in the UK.
This is the calculation that caused me to put that assumption firmly to one side, and reconsider moving back.

Situation: My wife and I would like to live in our own place in London. Within a few years we would like to start a family, in which case she would not be able to work, hence earnings she might make are not included here. I’m calculating this based on the scenario that we’re attempting to find a 1 bedroom flat in Walthamstow, with enough space to raise a child, in the early years at least. . I haven’t chosen this area for a specific reason, but it seems like somewhere that approaches a reasonable intersection between cost and proximity to work, and the calculation had to start somewhere. All figures are monthly.

Post-tax salary: £1600
After tax, NI contributions, student loan repayments and the like. It’s slightly lower than the average salary for London, but slightly higher than the average salary for the UK as a whole.

Rent: £1000
Based on a rough average of the cheapest places available on Zoopla.com, rightmove.com etc.

Council tax: £94.32
Band B house, Borough of Waltham Forest

Zone 1-3 Travelcard: £141.40

Utilities: £90
This was the hardest amount to estimate. Many figures are available for average family homes, but our house will likely be much smaller. However, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the International Students Network and the website iamintheuk.com do provide figures, of which this is an average. However all the figures are from prior to 2013’s drastic energy price rises, so the actual figure may well be more than £100 per month.

Grocery bills: £164.90
Again, not easy to calculate exactly. DEFRA figures suggest that the average low income family spends £16.49 per week on food. Assuming a baby may require half the budget of an adult, and multiplying by 4 gives this monthly figure. I’m sure the actual figure might well be higher in reality.

Subtracting the expenses from the monthly salary gives a remainder of £109.38, or just over £25 per week. However, if we were to have a child, I believe this would entitle us to child benefit of £20.80 per week, giving a weekly figure of £45.80 per week. However, my wife is foreign, which may disqualify both of us from child benefit under current rules – I haven’t been able to find the relevant information on the government’s website.

This remaining fraction would need to cover; any other bills such as TV license, phone or internet, travel of any kind for my wife and child, clothes, shoes, nappies, home improvements, and the like. Any kind of luxury, even half a pint of ale in the local pub, is clearly an impossibility, and the idea of saving to buy one’s own house would be so far divorced from reality as to qualify you for immediate consignment to the asylum. The rental cost, at 62.5% of income, is classified under the Mayor’s standard definition as “extremely unaffordable” (more than 50% of take home pay).

So, what are the options?

1. Move further away from the centre, to zone 5, 6 or further. However this increases transport costs at the same time as decreasing rent, to say nothing of the physical and psychological cost of a total daily commuting time of up to three houtrs.

2. Leave London. Unfortunately there are very few jobs for Japanese speakers outside the capital.

3. Asking my wife to work. This may be an option, though I’m sceptical that her wages would be far enough above the resulting cost of childcare to be practical, to say nothing of the emotional cost.

So, I come to the inevitable conclusion that if I move to London, having a child will be impossible for a number of years, at which point age factors may make things difficult (should my wife happen upon this piece I’m not going to disclose details for fear of my vital organs remaining intact).

The cost of living crisis should be more of a scandal. I’m completely aware that I’m in a far better situation than many tens of thousands of people trying to get by in London and the rest of the country; as I mentioned, the salary this calculation is based on is higher than the national average. How these calculations must work for newly trained nurses, police officers, social workers or many hundreds of other vitally important people, I can only imagine; they have my undiluted admiration.

I currently live in Tokyo; just in case anyone has an image that life in Japan’s capital must be more expensive than life in London’s, here is a similar calculation for comparison, based on the same initial pre-tax salary. In this case there is no need for guesses, all figures are just my current expenses. £1 = 167.9 yen.

Salary: 350,000 yen
After all applicable Japanese taxes

Rent: 115,000 yen
Good-sized one bedroom flat, around 20 minutes by train from the city centre.

Council Tax: 12,000 yen

Travelcard: 8130 yen

Grocery bills: 28000 yen per month

Utilities: 10000 yen per month

This leaves a remainder of 176870 yen per month, or £1053.44 – over £260 per week, or ten times the London figure with no child benefit, five times with child benefit; an amount at which one can envisage a comfortable existence, savings and perhaps even the idea of purchasing a house that was so divorced from reality in the London example.

As I say, I know I’m lucky. This is an option that the vast majority of people in working poverty in London just don’t have, so I’m clearly moaning about something that is only a problem if I choose to make it one by moving back to London. But, no matter how much of a middle-class whinge it might sound, I really believe that I shouldn’t be economically disqualified from living in my own country, and that no-one in full-time work should be living in conditions so financially straitened that at the end of a working week, after paying all expenses they don’t have the money left-over to buy essentials for the home, replace worn clothes or shoes, take any non-essential trip or connect to the rest of the world through the phone or internet. I can only hope that before my children are my age, they look at a more favourable outlook on life in the capital. That is, if they ever live there; the chances of them being Tokyo born and bred looks likelier by the day.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Say no to neckties!

On an inside page of my morning paper today, after the news that the Americans have been spying on us since the day after they declared independence, came a short piece about the closure of Tie Rack, the British necktie shop. After that news came not one but two mournful pieces decrying not just the loss of a well known retailer, but also the declining use of ties in general. To me it hardly seems a surprise that Tie Rack has closed down, as it seems to be appealing to the very limited demographic of people who are currently tieless but going to a place where they need a tie, and are passing through a major train station or airport. More astonishing by far was the subsequent torrent of necktie nostalgia. For who, really, can convincingly explain the point of a tie? Who enjoys wearing one? As far as I can tell, there is no more redundant, uncomfortable, soul sapping piece of attire. It is the sartorial equivalent of the words “audit committee” at work or “And now, time for You and Yours” when listening to the radio. It bespeaks boredom, drudgery and discomfort that no amount of novelty pattern can ever overcome. My argument, the first blast of the trumpet against pointless neckwear, runs as follows.

Firstly, ties have absolutely no practical purpose. They originally came into fashion during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when Croatian mercenaries fighting for the French used a kind of knotted neckerchief to distinguish themselves on the battlefield, and the fashion caught on among their a la mode Parisian comrades. Ties became so associated with the Balkan troops that our word “cravat” comes from Hrvati, the Croatian word for Croat. Now, wearing a necktie in battle to ensure that you don’t mistake someone for the enemy and inadvertently slice off a compatriot’s limb is eminently sensible. However, I fear that is a situation of some implausibility in the modern business world. I tend to recognize people working for the same company not by their necktie, but because they are in the same building as me and I presume that anyone coming to work is doing so because they actually work here, not because of a deep desire to do some incognito, unpaid auditing work.

So, shorn of any practical identification function, are there any other reasons to wear a tie? One colleague suggested that ties are useful because they cover up your buttons. I can only offer my sincerest condolences to the poor souls who are so sensitive they can be discombobulated by the very sight of shirt fastenings, for their lives must be a daily catalogue of trauma. A second colleague mentioned that they keep you warm, giving you an extra layer of warmth in that upper chest region that a suit jacket leaves brazenly exposed. I don’t know that such a foolhardy argument dignifies a response, but I’m quite sure that when tasked with going to the South Pole, Ranulph Fiennes is not detained for long by the tough decision over whether to take a Gore-tex triple insulated coat protect against the sub-zero temperatures, or a necktie. If I challenged someone to design a piece of clothing to keep me warm, and they came back to me with a scrap of fabric two foot long but no wider than a post-it note, and then told me I would have to pay ten pounds for it into the bargain, I believe I would have him consigned to the asylum post-haste. 

Secondly, neckties are simply a depressing piece of attire. Does anyone believe that the best way to start a productive and enjoyable day is to get a length of cloth, tie it in a knot, and tighten that knot around your neck? Aside from the health issues involved, it can’t be good for one’s mental health either. After all, should one want to hang oneself, it strikes me that there are two steps to the process. First, tie a knot around your neck. Second, tie a knot around something higher than you. It can hardly do our collective psychological wellbeing any good when taking half the steps required to commit suicide are as much a part of our morning ritual as having a cup of tea or brushing our teeth. 

Thirdly, for something entirely unnecessary, ties are impressively uncomfortable. In summer sweat from the constricted neck area builds up, leading to discomfort and unsightly sweat marks on the rest of the shirt, spoiling the very image of smartness the tie supposedly promotes. Like ill-fitting shoes or racist elderly relatives, the tie can be ignored but never forgotten entirely. It will dig in to your neck at inopportune moments, or fall out of your jacket and be magically attracted to fall into the fresh cup of tea you’ve just poured. On a more serious level, having a flapping piece of cloth attached to one of the most vulnerable parts of your body can be a recipe for disaster around machinery and moving parts. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any statistics on the number of deaths and accidents caused by neckties, but the possibility for blunder around shredders, lifts and other large, clattery implements is clear. In the United States, some hospitals have banned their doctors from wearing neckties because they are such efficient carriers of bacteria, pathogens, and other microscopic nasties that will leave you in a state of discomfort. Indeed, one Alain Picard has seen it necessary to write a whole article on how to avoid the risks inherent in necktie usage; an article I find it hard to imagine has been written about bowler hats or gloves, say. 

So, neckties are useless, uncomfortable and dangerous. Surely it is time for a change. Time to ditch preconceived ideas of what is “smart” and instead prioritize being comfortable and unrestricted. Time to accept that the day of the necktie, like the day of Tie Rack, has passed. Heinrich Heine once said that those who start by burning books will ultimately burn people. If we start by burning neckties, we’ll just end up a lot more comfortable.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ten brilliant polymaths

1. Christopher Wren (1632-1723)

In London, it is in the most literal sense hard to escape Wren’s shadow, as he designed 52 churches across the city after the Great Fire of London in 1666. But he was not a professional architect; indeed, not many people were in the 17th century, as there were no recognized qualifications for architecture in Britain until the end of the 19th century. Wren began his life as an astronomer, receiving his MA from Oxford in 1653 and becoming a professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London, in 1657. His weekly lectures in Latin and English were said to be so popular that he would start them in the early hours of the morning to keep the crowds down to a manageable size.
His expertise was not only in astronomy, however. While at Oxford he had also studied biology, and became the first person to inject something into the bloodstream of a living creature (a dog), paving the way for the later science of vaccination. Through a study of mathematics and mechanics, he discovered the length of the arc of a cycloid, and tackled the vital issue of determining longitude at sea. He also made important advances in ballistics, optics and agriculture. It was not until 1663 that he turned to architecture when he was asked by his uncle to design a chapel for Pembroke College, Oxford, but his talents shone here too, and just three years later he was appointed by King Charles II to design the new St. Paul’s Cathedral. He lived to see it completed thirty-five years later at the ripe old age of 82. Not content with seeing it from the outside, he then designed a kind of pulley and basket system that would allow him to be hoisted to the top of the building, and finally enjoy the view he had waited so long to enjoy.

2. C.B. Fry (1872-1956)

C.B. Fry was called “probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age” by cricket commentator John Arlott. It is hard to disagree; this is a man who played soccer in the FA Cup at the age of sixteen and went on to win the Southern League with Southampton and represent England, a man who played cricket for England for 18 years, a man who once held the long jump world record, and a man who also represented Oxford University at the shot put, the hammer, ice skating, cross country running, and golf. Finally, he was also able to jump backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing position until well into his seventies, though how this talent was discovered seems likely to remain forever a mystery.
Later in life, after his sporting career came to an end in the 1920s, he turned his hand to a number of other disciplines. One of his few unsuccessful forays was into politics, where he was three times defeated in by-elections in 1922, 1923 and 1924. In the 1930’s he turned out newspaper columns for the Evening Standard, and launched two boys’ magazines, one with the brilliantly straightforward title C.B. Fry’s Magazine. He also branched out into radio and television, becoming a well regarded cricket commentator from 1936 until his death twenty years later.
Perhaps the most remarkable incident in a remarkable life came as a result of playing cricket for Surrey in 1920, when Fry’s teammate Ranjit Sinhji was chosen as one of India’s three representatives at the League of Nations. Sinhji asked Fry to accompany him as an assistant. Fry performed well in the role, and used the experience to write the “Key-Book of the League of Nations” in 1921. While there, Fry claims he was offered the throne of Albania, an extraordinary twist even in this man’s brilliantly unconventional life.

3. Mori Ogai (1862-1962)

The Japanese author Mori Ogai is not much known in the west, but in Japan he is often considered one of the finest writers and most important modernizers the country has ever produced.
A prodigy from childhood, Ogai learned the basics of medicine from his doctor father, and then lied about his age in order to get into the medical department of Tokyo University at the age of 13. He graduated at age 18, a record which stands to this day. To further his study of medicine, he travelled to Germany from 1884 to 1888, studying under such great names as the Nobel Prize Winner Robert Koch. On his return, he entered the army as a doctor and oversaw the introduction of Western hygiene into the Japanese army, causing the number of deaths from disease in combat to halve during the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, leading to his promotion to Surgeon General of the Army in 1902.
This would have kept most people quite busy enough, but Ogai simultaneously pursued a glittering literary career. In 1890 he published his first novel, The Dancing Girl, based on a love affair from his time in Berlin, and continued to publish novels, plays, poems, translations and criticism for the next twenty years, and left his stamp on the Japanese language itself when he started to use colloquial spoken Japanese in his writing, paving the way for all future vernacular literature. He also lectured on Western Art and Aesthetics at Tokyo Arts University.
His success in rising to the peak of two entirely different fields, literature and medicine, is astonishing; as if Shakespeare had found time to discover the circulation of the blood between writing sonnets, or if Alexander Fleming had picked up a Nobel Prize for literature before turning to biology and discovering penicillin.
Deeply affected by the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, Ogai turned to writing historical biographies, but also took on new responsibilities as the director of Tokyo’s new Museum of Art, and continued to lecture at various Tokyo Universities until his death from kidney failure in 1922.

4. Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

You might think Joan of Arc died too young to be considered a true polymath, merely famous for having been burned at the stake after a briefly successful campaign against the English. However, her brief span on Earth, and her very humble origins, only serve to illustrate how remarkable her breadth and speed of learning must have been.
At the age of twelve, Joan was working in the fields owned by her parents in eastern France when she experienced her first vision, of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. The saints ordered her to drive out the English and bring the Dauphin to Reims so he could be crowned. Reims was then firmly under English control.
At sixteen, she visited the royal court at Chinon, using male disguise to pass through hostile territory. She impressed Charles VII during a private meeting, and was allowed to travel with an army bound on a relief expedition to Orleans, though she had to borrow all her equipment from other members of the entourage. Perhaps nothing says more about the desperate state of the French forces at this time than that a sixteen-year-old peasant girl who claimed to be guided by voices was given an important military role.
She lost little time after arriving, and despite being excluded from decision making by the local commander, attacked and captured two fortresses with a tiny force. Two days later she disobeyed direct orders to lead the army in an attack on the main English force, which she won despite sustaining an arrow to the neck during the battle. She achieved in nine days what the established army leadership had not been able to in five months.
This success led her to be promoted to co-commander of the army, and her bold strategy continued with the recovery of Jargeau, Meung-sur-Loire and Beaugency in quick succession. Reims, which just two months earlier had been 100 miles inside enemy territory, was captured in July 1429, where Joan led fighting all day despite being struck by a crossbow bolt in the early afternoon.

In 1430, after a truce with the English disintegrated, Joan travelled to Compiegne to defend the city against an English and Burgundian siege. The attack went poorly, and she was captured and imprisoned. In a political move to bolster the Burgundian claim to the French throne, Joan was not ransomed or imprisoned, but put on trial for heresy by Bishop Cauchon of Beavuais, despite a commission not being able to find evidence against her. Joan was denied a legal adviser, and while under public examination not a single supporter was allowed into court. The assembled bishops and nobles must have thought it would be no hard matter to outwit this illiterate girl and put her to death, but the trial demonstrated a remarkable intellect. After several weeks in which she ably defended herself against religious accusations from Bishop Cauchon and legal accusations from Jean LeMaitre, the exasperated accusers were forced to doctor court records against her in order to convict her. Even then, heresy was only a capital crime if it was a second offence; nonetheless, Joan was sentenced to burn at the stake on May 30 1431. She maintained her belief that she was guided by God until the end.

So, in a mere five years the young Joan showed military skill that bested the finest commanders in the army, theological knowledge that stunned the highest religious figures in the land, and legal knowledge that flummoxed the most learned lawyers of the age, despite her upbringing as an illiterate peasant. Add to this an almost inconceivable level of bravery and grace under pressure, and we can readily agree with historian Stephen Richey that “her achievements leave anyone who knows her story shaking his head in amazed wonder.”

5. Tom Lehrer (1928-)

Tom Lehrer is rightly regarded as the finest musical satirist of the 20th century, but this barely hints at the breadth and depth of his pursuits. His brilliance is easily summed up in a single sentence; after retiring from the musical world, he taught math, physics, political science and musical theatre at the University of California. His path through life has been as unconventional as it has been brilliant; after gaining a masters degree in mathematics from Harvard at the age of 20, he entered its doctoral program. During this time, he would write comic songs to entertain his friends, and some of these, such as “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” would later be released on his first album, The Physical Revue.

Lehrer’s doctoral work was interrupted by a spell working as a researcher in the Los Alamos nuclear project, which became the inspiration for “The Wild West is Where I Wanna Be”, and another between 1955 and 1957 when he served in the US Army, leading to the song “It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier”.
Encouraged by friends, in 1954 he released an album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, which he sold himself on campus and in college stores; the often controversial subject matter he tackled meant local radio would not give him airtime. Through word of mouth his popularity spread to the extent that in 1959 he was able to embark on a series of concert tours and promote a second album.
Touring tired him, however, and after just one year, which led to one studio and one live album, he retired from the circuit and moved to the post of resident songwriter on the US edition of That Was The Week That Was. Here his output became more directly political and topical, lampooning religion (“The Vatican Rag”), nuclear proliferation (“Who’s Next”), and race relations (“National Brotherhood Week”). These were later released as an album, That Was the Year That Was.
However, Lehrer was never a great by touring, and would generally only embark on a tour to visit a new part of the world, as with his tours of Australia in 1960 and Scandinavia in 1967, or to promote a new albums. He performed and wrote songs only sporadically after 1964, but it is perhaps a mark of the timeless brilliance of his work that he is still so popular despite recording just 37 songs over 20 years and performing a little over 100 live shows.
After 1973, he returned to the world of academia at the University of California; he stated that the award of the Nobel Peace Price to Henry Kissinger was so absurd it made political satire obsolete. He continued to use music in his math and physics lectures, and his work was celebrated in a long running Broadway musical, Tom Foolery. His last original composition nicely sums up his dedication to music and mathematics; it was a 1993 update to “That’s Mathematics” celebrating Andrew Wiles’ solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem. Ever self-deprecating, he commented in the 1997 liner notes to Songs and More Songs that “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

6. Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Paul Robeson’s achievements in the fields of athletics, acting, singing, law, social activism and languages (he learned to speak 20 in his lifetime) would be remarkable in any country in any age. To achieve this as a black man in the first 75 years of the 20th century in the United States, facing discrimination and ostracism throughout his life, can be considered truly amazing.
Born in 1898, Robeson’s talents became apparent at Rutgers University, where he was only the third African-American student ever to attend. He succeeded both on the football field, where his success won him first-team All-American selection, and in class, where he was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and was elected valedictorian by his classmates. He moved to Columbia Law School in 1919, where it is surprising he had time for any study at all; while there he played for the Milwaukee Badgers and Akron Pros NFL teams, worked as football coach at Lincoln University, and began such a successful singing career that in 1921 he went to Britain with a tour of the hit musical Taboo. Somehow he found time to graduate in 1922 and embarked on a law career that, in a familiar pattern, would be cut short because of entrenched prejudice against a black man in the overwhelmingly white legal profession.
Supported by his wife Essie, he entered the theatre, and achieved critical acclaim in a number of plays that catapulted him to unexpected fame; by 1926 he was spending holidays on the French Riviera with Gertrude Stein and Claude McKay.
In 1933 he became the first black man to have a starring role in a Hollywood film, as Brutus in The Emperor Jones. This coincided with a period of political and ideological awakening, and his wish to understand his heritage and history led to his enrolment in the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1934, where his talent for languages soon became apparent. During this time he also visited the Soviet Union and Germany, which led him to espouse the former as a place of liberating racial equality and the latter as a great threat to the world order. In 1938 he went to Spain to see and participate directly in the fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
During World War Two, Robeson returned to his entertainment roots, becoming a familiar face as an actor and singer on US television, and receiving widespread acclaim for his 1943 portrayal of Othello on Broadway. However, after the war he became caught up in the purge of suspected communist sympathizers in the entertainment world; he was a natural target as someone who had previously visited and praised the USSR. After refusing to renounce his affiliation with the Communist party, he was condemned, and he was stopped from working in film or television, and from travelling abroad.
After the furor of McCarthyism died down in the late 1950s, Robeson embarked on a world tour from London, taking up causes as diverse as the equality of Australian Aborigines and the preservation of Welsh culture in the United Kingdom. However after a visit to Moscow in 1961, his mental health suffered a rapid breakdown; he attempted suicide twice and treated for some time at the Priory Clinic in London and the Buch Clinic in East Berlin. Robeson later confessed to his son he believed he had been drugged and subjected to mental conditioning by the CIA and MI5; whether this is true or not, both organizations were certainly monitoring him closely.
After 1963 he recovered somewhat, but ceased to play an active role in public life. He lived quietly with his son until his death from a stroke in 1976. His life had been lived on the grandest scale, across continents and languages, he counted among his acquaintances Nikita Khrushchev, Harry Truman, Jawarhalal Nehru and Aneurin Bevan. Few could claim a life lived more fully.
As a sad postscript, it was only after his death in 1978 that the US ban on his works was fully lifted, and his films could again be shown on television.

7. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo Da Vinci is the original Renaissance Man, and no list of polymaths would be complete without him. We know more than you might expect about Leonardo’s life and times, because unlike so many geniuses he was recognized as such during his lifetime, so a conscious effort was made to record the facts of his life.
Born in 1452 to a wealthy notary in Vinci, near Florence, Leonardo was apprenticed at 14 to the famed painter Verrocchio; in this 16th century biography Vasari claims that when Leonardo painted an angel in a picture he was helping with, his skill was so great that Verrocchio put down his brush and vowed never to paint again.
Great as Leonardo’s skill as a painter undoubtedly was, it is in his 13000 pages of notebooks that his genius is truly revealed. His curiosity was unbounded, and he committed to paper every observation and thought about science, technology and invention; “the most complete records of a human mind ever committed to paper” in the words of John Lloyd.
His devotion to research was unbounded; he dissected cadavers at a time when this was illegal, not for profit or gain but simply to understand how the body worked. His diagrams depict devices ranging from the fantastical (the human powered flight machine) to the eminently practical (the parachute and the aqualung) and the mundane (the egg slicer, the mixer tap). While our image of him is often as in his one authenticated self-portrait, a stern, bald, bearded sage, in his youth Vasari tells us he was both unnaturally strong (“he could bend horseshoes of iron as if it was nothing”) and charming, and we know that at the age of 24 he was accused but acquitted of sodomy in Florence.
As his fame grew, he was sought out across Europe for assistance in the most diverse matters. In 1502 he designed a 220 meter long bridge for the Ottoman Sultan of Constantinople, though it was not built because the Sultan did not believe it possible. In the same year Cesare Borgia hired him as his chief military engineer after he displayed his prowess in mapmaking, and a few years later he was hired by the city of Venice to devise a scheme for diverting the flow of the Arno River. His work on anatomy was centuries ahead of its time, but his idiosyncratic style and habit of writing in mirror image meant that no-one felt able to put the notes into manuscript form after his death; had they done so it would have undoubtedly brought the study of anatomy forward by at least a century. Leonardo’s renown was such that Kind Francis I of France himself is said to have nursed him in his dying hours.
To quote the marvelously named Hippolyte Taine, “”There may not be in the world an example of another genius so universal, so incapable of fulfillment, so full of yearning for the infinite, so naturally refined, so far ahead of his own century and the following centuries.” Hear, hear.

8. Hildegard of Bingen (1098?-1179)

The only saint in this list, Hildegard of Bingen was from a very early age destined for a life in the Church. At a young but unknown age, she was offered as an oblate to Disibodenberg Monastery in the Palatinate Forest, in the care of an elder nun named Jutta. She must have impressed the monastic community, for on Jutta’s death in 1136 Hildegard was made magistra of the community, a kind of spiritual adviser and leader.
Hildegard had visions throughout her life, later claiming that they started at the age of three, but it was in 1141 that her polymath skills began to develop when she saw a vision instructing her to write down what she saw and heard in her visions. This led to an outpouring of works of all kinds, most significantly three volumes of visionary theology which outlined her interpretation of her visions encompassing a history of Christianity through to the End of Days, an instruction manual for a moral and pious existence, and the nature of and relationship between God and man.
Hildegard was also an early exponent of music in promoting the message of the Church. Her most famous work, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), may well be the earliest surviving morality play, but sixty-nine other musical compositions also survive. This gives her one of the largest repertoires of any medieval composer, and she profoundly influenced the development of Church music for centuries to come.
These were not the only strings to her bow. Her fame as a healer was known throughout the Palatinate region, and her expertise was eventually funneled into a book of medicine, Causae et Curae (Causes and Cures) and a book of natural philosophy, Physica. Her belief in the healing properties of plants and animals was backed up by the theological idea that everything on Earth was put there for man’s benefit; thus, plants that could not be eaten or otherwise usefully used must have a medicinal application. Finally, she also invented a modified Latin alphabet that she used in her artificial language Lingua Ignota, prefacing the Esperanto of Louis Zamenhof by over 700 years.
All this may give the impression that while intellectually inspired, Hildegard was a reclusive figure, dedicated to solitary thought. This is very far from the truth; she was an active campaigner, preacher and speaker who founded two monasteries at Rupertsburg and Eibingen, and conducted four preaching tours of Germany, speaking to clergy and laity alike to encourage Church reform, a highly unusual activity for a woman in the 11th century. She also kept up lively correspondence with Popes (Anastasius IV, Eugene III), statesmen (Abbot Suger) and Emperors (Frederick I Barbarossa). Through these networks her interpretation of scripture and views on reform were known and acted upon throughout Germany; indeed, by her death in September 1179 she was arguably the most influential woman in the Church of the entire medieval period. More than nine centuries later, her fellow German Pope Benedict XVI made her a Doctor of the Church, a title given to those saints recognized as having made a specific contribution to theology or doctrine. She became only the fourth woman in two thousand years to be accorded such an honour.

9. Jose Rizal (1861-1896)

Without Jose Rizal, the Philippines as we know it would not exist today. Not only was he the intellectual firepower behind the Philippine independence movement, he also created some of its finest and most venerable works of literature. He was primarily an ophthalmologist, author and revolutionary, but also dabbled in fields as unrelated as martial arts, cartography, architecture and Freemasonry, and spoke 22 languages into the bargain; a fact that has long hampered his biographers, as he often switched between languages numerous times even within a single document. All this was achieved in a mere 35 years before his execution in 1896 by the Spanish colonizers he was working against.
Rizal’s intended degree subject was law, but on discovering that his mother was going blind he secretly switched to medicine, supported by his brother Paciano. After two years of study in Manila, he enrolled at Madrid University, achieving a medical degree in 1885. He then moved to Heidelberg to complete a specialization in ophthalmology; here he also delivered an address in German to the Anthropological Society on the orthography and structure of Tagalog. He also managed to complete his first and perhaps greatest novel, Noli me Tangere (Latin for “Don’t Touch Me”), a social commentary on Spanish colonization that inspired armed fanatics and peaceful revolutionaries alike in their fight against Spanish mastery.
He returned to the Philippines in 1887, where he was able to operate on his mother’s eye problem using the newly invented ophthalmoscope that he had brought from Berlin. His visit was cut short, however, as he was persecuted by the authorities who had learned of the publication of Noli me Tangere in Berlin. He returned to Europe later that year, this time to Paris, Brussels and Spain, continuing to write and campaign for equality for Filipinos and representation in parliament, but his impact was limited and he decided to return to the Philippines in 1892 to take a more active role in the movement. He founded the Philippine League, which advocated non-violent action, and was rapidly exiled internally to Dapitan, on the island of Mindanao. During this period he continued to practice medicine and take on students. He also used his facility with languages to infuriate the Spanish censors, exchanging correspondence in German, French, Dutch and English with his European friends.
In 1896, Rizal applied for and received leave to visit Cuba, to help treat victims of a yellow fever outbreak. However, when in 1896 a violent rebel group called Kaputinan launched a revolt, Rizal was arrested for treason in the ensuing chaos, despite not being affiliated to the group and disavowing their violent methods. After a show trial in Manila, a Filipino execution squad blew his brains out on December 30th, 1896. His life was at an end, but his life and works would continue to inspire the cause of Philippine independence well into the 20th century.

10. Omar Khayyam (1048-1131?)

Omar Khayyam is best known to us today largely through an intermediary, Edward Fitzgerald, who translated his poems from Persian into English in the 18th century in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Were this the only thing that he produced, he would still be rightly celebrated. His poems have a joie de vivre that carries effortlessly across centuries and continents; anyone tired by the rat race will surely appreciate this exhortation to stop trying so hard and have a drink instead.

How long, how long in infinite pursuit
Of this or that endeavour or dispute
Better be merry with the fruitful grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter fruit.

Poetry, though, was merely a hobby for Khayyam, and it may be that some of his scientific and mathematical work is of greater importance. Born in Nishapur, Iran, in 1048, little is known of his early life, but his education must have been first rate, as by 1068 he was in attendance at the court of the Seljuk Sultan Malik-Shah I as an adviser and teacher. In common with all our polymaths, he was an incredibly hard worker; by day he would teach algebra and geometry by day, advise the Sultan in the evening and return to his quarters at night to complete astronomical observations, for at this time most court mathematicians were simultaneously employed as astronomers. From 1070 to 1090, he made huge leaps forward in both disciplines. In mathematics he made important advances in Euclidian geometry, and applied these advances to the study of algebra, allowing him to develop the first exact method of solving cubic equations by intersecting a circle with a parabola. His belief that it was impossible to solve cubic equations using only ruler and compass methods was proved correct 750 years after his death, while his work on quadrilaterals was not surpassed until the work of Giordano Vitale 600 years later. Finally, he is also considered to be the first to conceive of binomial theorem.
As an astronomer, he was in charge of calendar reform in Persia, and the Jalali calendar that he developed, with an error of just one day in 3770 years is still the most accurate solar calendar in use today; more accurate than our Gregorian calendar, and more accurate than the calendar currently used in Iran which sacrificed Khayyam’s accuracy for standardized month lengths. He may also have demonstrated that the Earth rotates on its axis, but the evidence for this is disputed.
In 1092, Sultan Malik-Shah died, and his widow was less favorably disposed towards Khayyam, who wisely decided it would be a good time to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are expected to undertake once in their lifetime. On his return some years later, he was allowed back to court as an astronomer, and as a teacher again of geometry and algebra, but also of medicine. It is not known where he came across this knowledge, but it seems likely he somehow studied while on the journey to Mecca. He also devoted himself to the arts, writing revolutionary theses on the philosophy of mathematics and religion, as well as starting to compose the short quatrains that he is now most famous for.
His later life is unknown; perhaps he was simply taking a well-earned retirement, or he may even have died; his date of death is not certain. What is clear is that his contributions to the sum of human knowledge, as mathematician, astronomer, poet and philosopher are greater than all but a handful of individuals in the history of the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Syria: Lest we forget

Syria: Lest we forget

I don’t normally touch on non-Japan related issues, but the civil war in Syria is too important not to comment on. While it is out of sight, having largely disappeared from our newspapers and evening bulletins, we should not let it slip out of mind as well, condemning hundreds of thousands to be part of a forgotten catastrophe. The civil war that began in March 2011 shows no sign of abating. The UN estimates there to have been 70,000 deaths in the conflict, around half of which were civilian. A staggering two million people, ten percent of the population, are thought to have been internally displaced and live as refugees in their own country. Another million have made their way out of Syria and sought asylum elsewhere, mainly in Turkey and Jordan. President Bashar Assad and his Ba’ath party forces are aligned against a range of competing, disunited opposition groups, from the Islamic fundamentalist Nusra front to the secular National Coalition. Both sides are entrenched, neither looks to be able to achieve a victory.

In September 2010, I spent ten days travelling through Syria. The following is an account of the places I visited as they were then, and as they are now.


I crossed the border into Syria from Antakya in Turkey by bus, heading for Aleppo in northern Syria. I had hit across the idea of travelling across Europe to Syria overland. When people ask why I chose Syria, I usually say something about wanting to see the edges of the old Roman Empire in the deserts where the remains were best preserved. I do love history, and it sounds reasonable enough. But I still don’t quite know why I chose to go to Syria, other than it seeming like something of an adventure and being far enough away to count as a challenge. Whatever the reason, on that bright morning in the southernmost extremity of Turkey I boarded an old bus with lime green seats and brown velour curtains, terribly excited at the prospect of reaching the much storied city of Aleppo by mid afternoon. Syrian border formalities were disorganised but friendlier than I had expected; the only real trouble came after we had crossed the border. The bus was supposed to go to Aleppo, drop off passengers and then make for Damascus, two hundred miles south, but after asking for a show of hands from people going to Aleppo and discovering there to be only five of us, the driver decided that it was really quite a large detour and he’d rather skip Aleppo and give himself more chance of getting home in time for tea. So, he struck a fairly one-sided deal with the Aleppo group, offering us half our ticket fare back if we got on the bus and caught a local minibus the rest of the way to Aleppo. It wasn’t much of a choice as he made it clear that he wasn’t driving to Aleppo in any instance, and he was supported by the other thirty or so people on the bus who must also have had a nice tea awaiting them in Damascus.
Luckily, the Syrian public transport system worked splendidly; five minutes after being dropped off, an old minibus bound for Aleppo pulled up. It was one of the old Japanese minibuses that seem to make up the majority of public transport infrastructure across the Arab world from Syria to Morocco. The minibus sped across an arid desert landscape dotted with low rise stone houses. Occasional towns came and went, each main street a huge informal meeting place for men to drink tea and smoke, the thick water tobacco smoke wreathing each in an ethereal shroud from which he conducted his affairs. Large pictures of President Assad peered owlishly down on the traffic from gantries rigged over the road, the only sign of the dictatorial burden the nation groaned under. Each town seemed lively and harmonious, with an air of neighbourliness evident even from the window of a speeding bus.
And speed it did; our driver was another one who had no time to lose in returning home for tea. Other cars are left in his wake as the old Hiace engine whizzed, clanged and rattled furiously at his bidding, overtaking now on the inside, now on the outside, and now, when there is no room to overtake two slow lorries on the road, on the shrub-dotted sand that makes up the verge. A policeman was one of my fellow passengers, and he shouted at the driver to slow down. The driver retorted that it was his minibus and he would drive how he wished; the policeman took out a pair of handcuffs and shook them gently, threateningly, by the driver’s face. We slowed down.
Arriving in Aleppo was a bewildering, brilliant surprise. Compared to Turkey, everything was less familiar and more exciting. Arabic script prevailed, rendering me instantly illiterate. Ahead was a market square and a high, ancient wall; the fabled Aleppo Souk. To the left was the only point of reference I had in the city; the Aleppo clocktower, built in 1899 by the Austrian architect Charles Chartier; a reminder of how cosmopolitan Aleppo was in the era around the end of the Ottoman empire, when Agatha Christie, Charles Lindbergh, Theodore Roosevelt, T.E. Lawrence and Charles De Gaulle all sipped drinks at one time or another in the bar of the Barons Hotel.

A less famous visitor to the Barons hotel bar

A less famous visitor to the Barons hotel bar

The souk, the largest covered market in the world, was a labyrinth of passages in which all sense of direction and time is left at the entrance. People have traded here since the 14th century, when the silk road brought silk from Iran, spices and dyes from India and paper and fabric from China to be sold to the Mamluk elites. Aside from the acceptance of credit cards, little seemed to have changed. The division of the souk according to crafts had been maintained across the centuries, and the main method of transporting goods under the ancient stone arches was still the humble donkey. The smells of aromatic woods, spices and dyes mingled with the breakneck sales patter of the stallholders and constant bustle of traffic in that enclosed otherworld to take you back in time, as if each stone archway pushed the calendar back a decade.

Wide load in the Aleppo Souk

Wide load in the Aleppo Souk

With friends outside the bathhouse in the Aleppo Souk, now occupied by rebel fighters.

With friends outside the bathhouse in the Aleppo Souk, now occupied by rebel fighters.

Emerging from the souk brought a no less memorable sight in the form of the Aleppo Citadel. Sited on an artificial mound with a 45 degree slope all around, a twenty metre deep moat and a single, monumentally fortified gateway, it was intimidating enough to look at as a tourist, but to imagine being a soldier in a company charged with storming the castle was a truly terrifying thought. The walls of the main gate and outer battlements were fully six feet thick, presenting an unbroken facade of immovable stone and defensive arrow slits. In its heyday, the sides of the mound would have been faced with limestone, dazzling prospective attackers and adding blindness to their already considerable list of disadvantages. Anyone who did breach this dizzying list of obstacles would then have been faced by a vaulted entrance ramp which twisted and turned six times before reaching the inner gate. Machiolations (also known on less formal occasions as murder-holes) in the vaulting allowed the defenders to pour hot oil and water on the attackers from above. It is no surprise that the castle was never taken by force; what is surprising is that anyone dared to try.

The only entrance to Aleppo Citadel. If someone asked me to storm this, I think I would have very quickly remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere.

The only entrance to Aleppo Citadel. If someone asked me to storm this, I think I would have very quickly remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere.

The current citadel is largely a 13th century construction, though the citadel area has been used for defence since the third millennium BC. Aleppo is a city that astounds with its age, and preservation. The clock tower mentioned above is considered new, being a mere hundred years old, and the city itself is thought by archaeologists to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, with evidence for habitation reaching back to the sixth millennium BC, only very shortly after people in the fertile crescent started farming and got the hang of collective living at all. The city and its dry climate preserve ancient artefacts so well that a Polish archaeologist I met at the citadel complained that he was looking for evidence of material culture from before the Roman invasion in 64 BC but kept digging up Roman coins and helmets. I don’t know many places in the world where an archaeologist would be disappointed to find ‘only’ Roman remains and nothing older.

A short distance outside the city is another historical highlight; the Church of St. Simeon Stylites, dating from the fifth century. Simeon Stylites were a spectacularly odd fellow. He followed the life of a religious hermit, but found that even in a cave in the desert, his reputation was such that people would seek him out to ask for his religious teaching. As a hermit, he was rather unhappy about this state of affairs, and took the somewhat bizarre decision to live on a small platform atop a pole, where it would be impossible for people to bother him. This had rather the opposite of the desired effect, and crowds came from miles around to see the hermit living in the sky. At this point it might have been sensible to try and choose a less obvious form of anonymity than living on top of the tallest structure for miles around, but Simeon was not one to give up on such a wonderfully eccentric idea. Rather than coming down, he gradually increased the height of the pole until he was living fully fifty feet above the ground. This caused even more visitors to call, and his life of religious contemplation was constantly interrupted by petitioners shouting from ground level for his advice. Evidently a pragmatist, Simeon struck a deal with the crowds; he would come down and preach twice a day, in return for being left in peace the rest of the time. This seems to have suited all parties, and he lived on his pole for 37 years until his death in 459, upon which the church was constructed around the pole. Unfortunately centuries of relic-hunting visitors chipping away at the famous pole has left it barely worthy of being called a stump, let alone anything grander. However, the grandeur of the fifth century church ruins around it still remains, as does the magic of being in one of the oldest churches in the world.

The remains of the church of St Simeon, and the remains of the pole he lived atop for 37 years

The remains of the church of St Simeon, and the remains of the pole he lived atop for 37 years

Aleppo indeed wears its history well. People live in it, not around it; in 2010 the souk was as alive as it must ever have been, the citadel area was busy with people congregating in cafes to talk over tea and sweets, and in every row and alleyway of ancient houses life pulsed busily indoors and out.

Aleppo streetscape

Aleppo streetscape

Aleppo sweets, each one drenched in honey and ridiculously delicious

Aleppo sweets, each one drenched in honey and ridiculously delicious

Today, in April 2013, a ceasefire was announced in Aleppo. The reason was not because the Syrian government has come to an accord with rebel groups, not because all sides have decided to abandon the madness and go home. It was simply a temporary truce to allow the Red Crescent to pick up bodies, shot by government snipers in the street. Until now, it has been too dangerous to retrieve them, so they lay there, decomposing, unable to receive a burial, unable to be mourned. The living eke out an existence as best they can, waiting for hours in line to receive a bread ration or some clean water while mortars and shells tear the sky apart overhead. The passages and alleyways of the souk which once took the visitor back in time are now ripped apart, the fourteenth century stonework strong enough to make an inviting base for both government and rebel fighters. The traders have long since deserted their pitches, and the only shouts to be heard are those ordering an attack or a retreat as fighting for each area of the souk continues with unabated ferocity.
The citadel, which surely most Aleppians thought had seen its last fighting during the Ottoman Empire, is again a sought after military target on high ground in the centre of the city. Its walls still stand, but the imposing fortified entrance was partially destroyed in August by shells and explosives that its medieval builders could scarcely have conceived. Government forces now control the citadel and are using it as both a lookout point and artillery compound, from which rebel districts are bombarded to break resistance to the regime. After these areas have been reduced to rubble, the army and the Mukhabarat (secret police) comb the destruction for survivors and rebel fighters, and take them away to be tortured and shot.
A short walk down the road from the citadel stands the Umayyad mosque, just over the road from a shwarma shop where I stopped for lunch back in September 2010, and fell into conversation with the owner about Manchester United’s newest signing, Javier Hernandez. I very much doubt that he is still in business, and if he is he doubtless has more pressing concerns than the vagaries of the premier league transfer window.

The Umayyad Mosque at evening prayers

The Umayyad Mosque at evening prayers

The mosque was also an early target for government troops for its surveillance opportunities from the eleventh century minaret, the tallest free standing stone tower in the world of such an age. Each side’s facade shows off a different style of the period, making it an exceedingly important example of Seljuk architecture. However, historical merit counts for little in the fog of war. After President Assad’s forces took the mosque, on October 10 last year rebel groupings tried to overcome the mosque by blasting holes in its mosaic-covered 13th century walls and storming through. However, they were repelled and forced to retreat, attacking now only with sniper fire from surrounding neighbourhoods.
It is this sniper fire which has truly killed off normal life in Aleppo, as it did in the similarly intractable conflict in Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s. The mundane sounds of social life have been muted, the fabric and colour of the city washed away. Both rebel fighters and ordinary civilians have taken to using underground tunnels where possible to get around town, though these hastily built warrens carry the very real danger of collapse, especially when mortar fire lands nearby. Tens of thousands have left this fine old city, whose heart is being ripped out street by street, whose people are being shelled, shot and starved every day they manage to survive another day of life.


Unlike Aleppo’s forsaken thousands, I was able to leave in the comfort of a highway bus, the main means of intercity public transport in Syria. I was heading for Hama, the fifth largest city in Syria after Damascus and Aleppo, famous for its huge wooden noria (waterwheels) dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The largest is over twenty metres in diameter.

The king of noria

The king of noria

The waterwheels served the vital function of channeling water from the Orontes river into aqueducts which provided water for irrigation in the surrounding farmland. There is much debate as to their origins; the earliest evidence of noria in Hama is from the later Byzantine period of around 1000 years ago, but a mosaic dating from the 5th century at nearby Apamea shows a noria-like construction, suggesting an even earlier origin than the end of the first millennium. These days the noria are purely decorative, and the continuous creaking of those lumbering wooden giants as they turn sounds a mournful protest across the centre of Hama, as if they are objecting to still having to work at such a great age.

Noria from afar

Noria from afar

Hama’s more recent history also provides some clues about the current conflict. Hama was the centre of the last sustained challenge to the Assad regime; from 1978 to 1984 the Sunni Muslim population rose against the Baathist regime, then led by the current president’s father Hafeez Assad. The conservative Sunni of Hama considered the secular, nationalist Alawite sect that the Assad family adhere to as heretical, and the Sunni group known as the Muslim Brotherhood began a concerted guerrilla campaign against the government from 1978. This included one nearly successful attempt on Hafeez Assad’s life in 1980, when Muslim Brotherhood guerrilas attempted to gun down the president during a state visit by the president of Mali. In 1982 he took bloody revenge on the Brotherhood in their stronghold of Hama by declaring war on the city a week in advance, and declaring that anyone who failed to evacuate within that period would be considered a rebel. The army, the Mukhabarat and the airforce descended on the city, led by the president’s brother Rifaat Assad. Planes bombed rebel districts to allow infantry and tank units to march through the rubble. The army shelled areas of fierce resistance for three weeks before combing the ruins for survivors. Tunnels under the city were pumped full of diesel fuel and set alight. The journalist Robert Fisk estimated casualties to be around 20,000, while Amnesty International gave a figure of 25,000. Rifaat Assad himself boasted of having killed 38,000.
After the Hama Massacre, membership of the Muslim Brotherhood was made a criminal offense and Hafeez Assad continued down the road of repression and state sponsored violence for the rest of his reign. This helps explain why the younger Assad is holding on to power even as the country goes to hell in a handcart; his father survived a six year insurgency, albeit on a more limited, single city scale. The current conflict has continued for two years, and Assad may still believe he can manage some kind of decisive victory which allows him to claim victory and further crush the battered country under his vicious rule, though it is hard to see how given the fractured nature of the fighting, with districts and even streets within towns and cities divided by allegiance to the rebels or the government.
He is also in a situation where realistically all he can do to give himself the best chance of survival is to stay in power and try to fight his way out. The murder of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya will have served as a signal lesson that, if the rebels gain the upper hand he and his clique can expect no mercy, and even escape would likely lead to imprisonment and a high profile trial at the International Criminal Court; he has few friends left in the international community, and perhaps none who would risk becoming a pariah state for giving him shelter.
I wonder if he ever wishes he had stayed in his previous life, which might not have given him the same power, but would certainly have brought less mayhem and suffering to the world. For Bashar Assad was never meant to follow in his father’s footsteps; that duty was placed squarely on the shoulders of his older brother Basil. Basil joined the army after university, rising to the rank of commander and taking charge of presidential security. From 1984, he began to accompany his father on presidential visits both at home and abroad receiving the classic education of a dictator in waiting. The national press eulogised him as the brave, pure successor to the presidency.
Meanwhile, Bashar Assad was allowed to pursue his own role, free from the responsibility of future political office. He trained as a doctor, working for four years in Tishrin, the largest army hospital in Syria. In 1992 he moved to London to do postgraduate research in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital, and settled into a comfortable life in the city. Love also bloomed in England when he met his future wife Asma al-Akhras. The comfortable life of a surgeon in London, perhaps with a lucrative Harley Street surgery, awaited the younger Assad.
On January 21st 1994, everything changed. Basil Assad collided with a roundabout while driving to the airport in fog for an early morning flight. Not wearing a seatbelt, he was flung through the windscreen and killed instantly. In this instant, Bashar’s comfortable future in the medical profession was erased, his life turned on its head by a momentary but fatal lapse in his elder brother’s concentration. Hafeez Assad called him back to Syria immediately, where he was put on the fast-track to the succession always intended for Basil. He entered the military and rose in five years to the rank of Colonel, with his father ensuring he was always surrounded by sympathetic fellow Alawites. Simultaneously he engaged in public life and government, culminating with his taking charge of relations with Syria’s most important neighbour Lebanon.
In 2000, Hafeez Assad succumbed to a heart attack, and Bashar became president in June with a level of popular support seen only in dictatorships (97.2%). While there were hopes for liberalization and democratization under the English speaking, western educated Assad, the paths he chose eventually led to the present, where he fights to keep a semblance of control over a country torn asunder beneath him, to ensure the survival of his regime and himself. So, is it too much to imagine that occasionally he wishes he were back in London troubled only by a tricky eye procedure or tube strike?

Krak Des Chevaliers

Hama’s waterwheels sounded me a sad farewell as I left the city, but my heart was full of childlike enthusiasm as I was on the way to one of the places I had most wanted to visit in Syria – the unsurpassable Crusader castle known as Krak des Chevaliers (castle of the knights). Lawrence of Arabia once called it

“perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world, which forms a fitting commentary on any account of the Crusading buildings of Syria”

It was built in three stages, reaching its current extent over one hundred years after the first limestone block had been laid by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli and son in law of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, in 1142. The final stages of construction were the outer keep and the central chapel. The construction of the outer keep created a corridor fully 137 metres long which invaders would have to pass through to reach the inner keep, all the while being attacked with projectiles and boiling liquids through murder holes in the walls on each side. Attackers would also have had to notice a sharp hairpin bend in the passage to reach the inner gate, as going straight on would have brought them out in a no-man’s land between the inner and outer walls of the castle, where death and destruction could be freely brought down upon them. Like the Aleppo Citadel, it is no surprise that it was never taken by force, instead being lost only when the crusaders left the Levant entirely after the fall of Acre in 1291. Historian Hugh Kennedy called the defensive structures of the Krak “the most elaborate and developed anywhere in the Latin east … the whole structure is a brilliantly designed and superbly built fighting machine”

The Krak from afar; the classic crusader castle

The Krak from afar; the classic crusader castle

The chapel is a small but beautiful building in the centre of the huge complex. Its barrel vaulted roof is more typical of Norman design than thirteenth century Gothic, and it would have been considered old fashioned in contemporary France. The crusaders were at the forefront of technology when it came to castle construction, but their churches understandably lagged behind the latest architectural styles of Western Europe.It is in the chapel more than anywhere in the castle that you can still imagine the presence of those crusader knights in the 13th century, praying for success in their missions to retake the Holy Land the night before riding out to battle. On one side of the church, a more modern Gothic vaulted corridor still survives, and it is striking to consider that the very same vaulted arches might be found in any of the older Oxford colleges or adorning a monastery nestled in a remote valley somewhere in rural Languedoc.

Chapel of the Krak des Chevaliers

Chapel of the Krak des Chevaliers

The Krak des Chevaliers is another great monument which has suffered depredations in the civil war which it was not built to withstand. Its importance in defending the Homs Gap, which links the large central city of Homs with Tripoli and the sea, is still relevant today. After rebel soldiers took shelter there in the first months of the uprising, the Syrian army shelled it, destroying some of the inner defenses and part of the beautiful chapel with its precious thirteenth century fresco remains. It will take a lot to destroy the monumental Krak, and we can but hope that even the might of a modern military offensive may not be enough to lay down the great old beast.


After touring the Krak and pretending to be a Crusader knight, I was finally ready to see Damascus, oldest capital city in the world, and the city that first bus driver from Turkey had been so eager to reach. Like so much of Syria, Damascus overflows with history, and having survived these six thousand years past, it will surely live through the current conflict despite enduring some of its fiercest fighting. I got on another gaudily decorated bus (peach coloured curtains paired with lime green seats) which came with its own travelling salesman. He walked up and down the bus every five minutes peddling goods that ranged from ice-cream to toothbrushes. In fact, on closer inspection they were the only things he was selling. Presumably they came as a set; after the sugary hit of a nice scoop of vanilla a quick brush makes sense, though as the temperature in the bus was approaching 30 degrees he seemed to be doing a much brisker trade in the latter than the former. Discussion with my fellow passengers revealed that while the man who sold me the ticket assured me the bus was going straight to the centre of Damascus, his version of ‘central’ was somewhat akin to Ryanair’s, and that the nearest I could be dropped to the capital was on the ring road skirting it. Bus travel in Syria is always something of a lottery, but the unbounded kindness of Syrians ensures that no matter how far you end up from your intended destination, someone will put you back on the right track, and if the first person you ask doesn’t know the way he can be relied on to find someone who does. I speak no Arabic (beyond being able to ask furtively if a newsagent might stock some illicit beer behind the counter), but I never felt lost, confused or threatened once thanks to the kindness of Syrian strangers. So it was that when I got off the bus, fellow passengers would not let the bus continue until they had put me safely in a taxi heading for the actual centre of the city. The journey to the old city where I was staying proceeded uneventfully through the outer reaches of town, until the taxi driver pointed to an older looking stretch of wall, a gate over the road crowned with a plain white minaret.
“That’s 2000 years old. Roman. It’s called Bab Sharqi (The Eastern Gate)”
he said matter of factly, as if pointing out a telephone box or public convenience.
And so it is in Damascus, which “measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin”
as Mark Twain wrote in 1869 in ‘The Innocents Abroad’. Bab Sharqi is only one third the age of the city as a whole, which was first populated at least four thousand years before the Roman invasion by Pompey Magnus in 64 BC. Damascus was part of the territory of Hyksos, who harried and overran Lower Egypt in the seventeenth century B.C., and some of the earliest Egyptian writing to survive comes from the Amarna letters, diplomatic correspondence between Damascus, then called Dimasqu, and the Egyptian administration. History is a constant here; “old Damascus is by right, the Eternal City”, to let Mark Twain do to the talking again.
The old city presented its credentials as I walked through the gate; a row of shops on one side that would not have looked out of place in any of the last five centuries, and on the other side an Armenian church that provided a timely reminder of Syria’s two thousand year old link with the Christian religion. Ten percent of the Syrian population is Christian, though that simple statistic obscures the dazzling variety of denominations that make up that fraction; joining the Armenian Catholics in the church by Bab Sharqi are Syriac Catholics, Maronites, Melkites, Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians.

In the civil war, thus far there has been an impressive lack of religious intolerance or victimisation, though very recently the BBC reported that two senior clerics, the heads of the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox church in Syria had been kidnapped by militants in a rebel held area near Aleppo, though they were thankfully released the next day. The allegiance of the kidnappers is not known, and we must hope it is not a sign of religious conflict becoming enmeshed in the existing Gordian knot of war.

Damascus streetscape

Damascus streetscape


A street covered with vines to shade strollers from the sun

A street covered with vines to shade strollers from the sun

A bakery

A bakery

The road leading down from Bab Sharqi is called Straight Street, which sounds somewhat prosaic, but the familiar magic of Damascus returns when you hear that it was down this same street that the blinded Paul was led after his conversion. Straight Street leads straight to the main souk, called Medhat Pasha souk after the Ottoman governor who ordered its renovation and roofing in the middle of the 19th century. All along the Medhat Pasha souk and its ancient offshoots, shops no wider than a bicycle sell nuts, dried fruits and spices out of enormous jute sacks grouped together on the ancient cobbles.

A Damascus perfumier pulling in the crowds

A Damascus perfumier pulling in the crowds

The souk at night during a festival

The souk at night during a festival

A beautiful Damascene door

A beautiful Damascene door

Shafts of light piercing through that lead roof talk of earlier conflict; in 1925, an uprising against the French mandate put in place in the aftermath of World War One brought French military might down on Damascus, and the souk was machine-gunned from the air to quiet the rebellious natives, giving it something of a cheese grater appearance.

The roof of the damascus souk, complete with holes supplied by the French

The roof of the damascus souk, complete with holes supplied by the French

In the most recent conflict the souk has been quiet aside from demonstrations early on in the uprising, perhaps because any street called Straight Street is likely to make sitting ducks of anyone unwise enough to try fighting in it.

Halfway along the souk, I went to one of Damascus’s most famous shops. Bakdash has been serving ice-cream to Damascenes for over one hundred and thirty years, and even today fluffy, snow white mounds of ice cream are pounded by huge wooden mallets wielded by men with biceps like balloons. They advertised different flavours on the menu, but I didn’t see anyone order anything other than a booza, a pistachio covered mastic flavoured ice cream that tastes something like pine smells. I have no idea whether they have been able to continue the venerable tradition through the civil war, but rumour has it that they continued to sell ice cream even as the French biplanes were strafing them overhead, so perhaps there is room for optimism.

Bakdash's famous ice-cream

Bakdash’s famous ice-cream

At the end of the souk is the gate of the Temple Of Jupiter, a Roman stone edifice that would be a site of national importance almost anywhere else but in Damascus is just another incidental speck of history.

The Gate of Jupiter, now outside the Damascus souk but once entrance to a huge roman temple on the site of the current Umayyad mosque

The Gate of Jupiter, now outside the Damascus souk but once entrance to a huge roman temple on the site of the current Umayyad mosque

Opposite is the Umayyad Mosque, Syria’s largest and oldest mosque; indeed, in this city of superlatives it should come as little surprise that it is the oldest continuously used mosque in the world. The sixth Umayyad caliph, Walid I decreed that a mosque be built on the site of the old Byzantine cathedral in 706, less than a lifetime after the death of Mohammad.

The Umayyad Mosque's huge central courtyard and 12th century minaret.

The Umayyad Mosque’s huge central courtyard and 12th century minaret.

It is a monumental construction. The central courtyard would be comfortably large enough to old a rugby match, though perhaps the two eighth century domes at each end would be a hindrance to the free flow of play. The interior courtyard walls are decorated with gold leaf mosaic depicting trees, landscapes and the Barada river that flows through Damascus. While much of the work has been restored over time, some of the mosaics in the Western vestibule date from the original decoration of the mosque in 715. I cannot express how astonishing I find it to think that, one thousand three hundred years ago, an artist etched a pattern on a wall, plastered small tiles and stones into the pattern and decorated parts of it with gold leaf, then stepped back to admire his work and reflect on a job well done, and be satisfied that he had done his God proud with such fine handiwork. Over the following centuries the Vikings roamed and ransacked Europe, the Black Death annihilated possibly one fifth of all people in the world, Gutenberg invented his printing press and clever chaps in Italy reformed the basis of all knowledge and called it the renaissance. Trains, telegraphy, the industrial revolution, modern medicine, flight and space travel and a thousand other things all came into being, and all the while some pieces of stone stayed, unmoved, undamaged, affixed to the wall of this remarkable building for me to stare at in wonderment well over a millennium later.

Decoration inside the Umayyad mosque

Decoration inside the Umayyad mosque

“In Damascus there is a mosque that has no equal in the world, not one with such fine proportion, nor one so solidly constructed, nor one vaulted so securely, nor one more marvellously laid out, nor one so admirably decorated in gold mosaics and diverse designs, with enamelled tiles and polished marbles.”

commented the Arab geographer Mohammed al-Idrisi in 1154. Eight and a half intervening centuries have done nothing to make the sentiment less true.

Another surprise about the Umayyad mosque is its lively inclusivity. The bones of John the Baptist (Yahya to Muslims) are said to be interred here, and many Christians also visit to pay their respects, the most august of them being Pope John Paul II who visited in 2001, becoming the first pope ever to set foot inside a mosque. Adherents to any other religion are welcome too, and the atmosphere inside this and every other mosque I visited in Syria was a long way from the forbidding piety I had expected. Children ran around playing football or tag, ladies chatted in aisles and men relaxed and napped in the courtyard.

Football and chat in the Umayyad mosque

Football and chat in the Umayyad mosque

It is this very openness that allows the Umayyad mosque to transcend religion, and become the beating heart of Damascus.
Opposite the mosque, I stopped to rest tired legs at a lively looking cafe. As so often happens in Syria, a man sitting nearby turned to say hello. He was perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties, with a splendid grey moustache wider than his face, and accompanied by his wife. He was a mathematics teacher by profession, but he spoke English very well, and he told me about his life and family. He had come into the centre of town with his wife to buy a toy for his grandson’s fifth birthday, and he proudly showed me the toy robot he had picked up in the souk. Politics is not an acceptable topic when the Mukhabarat might be listening, so we stuck to Syrian history, of which citizens are understandably proud. He told me that Damascus’s old city held over five thousand houses from the Ottoman Empire, almost all of which were architectural jewels in one way or another. He touched on the French occupation before the second world war, but abruptly stopped when we got to the post war period.
“I should stop there”
he said, evidently not willing to speak about Syria after 1966 when it came under Ba’ath party rule. It was the only sign I saw in Syria of oppression, of a lack of freedom of speech or thought. He returned then to the distant past, talking of the Romans, Seljuks and Crusaders with a passion and depth of knowledge remarkable for someone trained in mathematics, and with a kindly patience that became one of my most enduring memories of the Syrian people.
My companion’s wife whispered something to him, and he explained that he had to leave to go and see his grandson. We said our goodbyes, and it was only when I left half an hour later that I found he had paid for my drink and sweet as well. He was typical of the Syrians I met across the country, who simply wanted more people to visit and appreciate the wonders Syria had to offer, and were kind enough to share their knowledge and help those who had visited in any capacity they could.

Just outside the mosque is the tomb of Saladin, and one wonders what he would make of people from all over the world coming to the city he tried so hard to defend from the west and their righteous armies of religion during the Crusades. Eight hundred years ago, he fought more than two years of almost daily conflicts with England’s Lionheart, Richard I during the Third Crusade (1189-1202). Despite being mortal enemies, Saladin and Richard enjoyed a warm and chivalrous relationship that sets at odds the brutality of many combatants in the medieval Holy Land; when Richard was ill, Saladin sent him fine fruits and delicacies, and when Richard’s horse was killed in the Battle of Arsuf Saladin sent him a fine Arabian steed. In return, Richard went so far as to propose that Saladin’s brother marry his sister Joan, Queen of Sicily, and Jerusalem be the wedding gift, though the offer was rejected.
Having successfully defended Jerusalem from Richard’s army, they negotiated safe passage for the remains of the Crusader force and Jerusalem’s Christians to Acre, destroying once and for all the European dream of bringing Jerusalem back inside the empire of Christendom Far from being reviled in Europe for this, Saladin became a celebrated example of knightly virtue. When he died in 1193, he possessed not enough money to pay for his funeral, having given the majority of his wealth to the poorest of his subjects.
So perhaps Saladin would not mind so much the stream of Western visitors to his tomb and the mosque; certainly a much greater threat comes from the Syrian conflict. While the centre of the city has thankfully been spared the destruction that Aleppo’s historic monuments have suffered, fierce fighting has destroyed outer districts, causing rebel fighters to shelter in increasingly central locations. The army will not give ancient monuments a second thought in their efforts, and it is fearfully easy to imagine a noose of fire tightening around the 350 acres of the old city, with its thousands of precious monuments, palaces, mosques and houses, the area about which Tahir Shah wrote;

“For me, a journey to Damascus is an amazing hunt from beginning to end, a slice through layers of history in search of treasure.”

Just outside the city stands the mountain of Jebel Qassoon. When I visited it was a popular sightseeing spot, and the night view from its summit is truly impressive, with the city radiating out from the unmistakable open space of the Umayyad Mosque in the centre of the panorama. It was also an exceedingly popular spot for trysting couples, away from the prying eyes and disapproving murmurs of the city. If a young Damascene says that he ‘went to Jebel Qassoon last night’, the chances are it was not solely to enjoy the view.

Though, you have to say the view is rather good

Though, you have to say the view is rather good

Today, alas, that romantic opportunity is lost to Syrians. As with the citadel in Aleppo, the high ground was soon taken by government forces, who have blockaded the mountain and stationed artillery atop it, within easy reach of the city centre. One can only pray that the mortars and missile launchers will not be used against the old city as an alternative to tanks which cannot negotiate its narrow, twisting alleyways of shadow and stone.

Damascus is in great danger, of a modern and terrible kind which it has not faced before. I will leave the last word to Mark Twain, in the hope that he was correct when he wrote

“She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”

Bosra and Deraa

My final stops in Syria were Bosra and Deraa in the extreme south of Syria by the border with Jordan, and the origin of the current conflict. Bosra is home to a fine Roman amphitheatre of the mid second century, when the Empire stretched to its largest extent and enjoyed its days of glory under the wise rule of the Five Good Emperors. It is the largest and most complete Roman theatre in the Middle East, and is unusual in having been built on level ground rather than into a hillside as was typical. In Roman Syria’s heyday, fifteen thousand spectators would have enjoyed the classic works of the likes of Juvenal and Horace played out on the basalt stage. Records covering the administration of Bosra in these days reveal that the theatre would once have been draped in silk hangings to protect audiences from summer sun and seasonal showers, while perfumed water was also evaporated during a performance for a final touch of luxury.

The Wembley Stadium of Roman Syria

The Wembley Stadium of Roman Syria

The stage at Bosra's amphitheatre

The stage at Bosra’s amphitheatre

The structure is so solid and imposing that when the Islamic rulers decided to build a fortress in Bosra in the 14th century, they could think of no better solution than to build a reinforced wall around the theatre and declare it a castle; it was these later ramparts that have helped to preserve the theatre so beautifully to the present day. In the space between the theatre and the walls, later generations have arranged local artefacts such as tablets and gravestones, the Greek and Latin script another reminder, as if any were needed, of the great age of this town and country.

Latin inscriptions at Bosra

Latin inscriptions at Bosra

If anyone better educated than me can translate, I'd be fascinated to know what this says.

If anyone better educated than me can translate, I’d be fascinated to know what this says.

A fraction of the famed Roman Eagle, under which they conquered the known world, lying around in the Bosra theatre

A fraction of the famed Roman Eagle, under which they conquered the known world, lying around in the Bosra theatre

Unfortunately, the cities where the rebellion started have come in for some of the heaviest punishment from government forces. It was in Deraa, the “cradle of the revolution” and Bosra’s near neighbour, that the revolution began in March 2011. Protests began in response to the arrest and torture of several teenagers for writing anti-government graffiti. Demonstrators clashed with police, and intensified after Friday prayers on March 18th when thousands took to the streets. The local Ba’ath party headquarters were burned down on the 20th, and in response police used live ammunition on the rebels, killing fifteen. The following Friday, the 25th, similar protests spread nationwide, with 100,000 marching in Deraa, and tens of thousands engaging in pro-democracy demonstrations length and breadth of the nation in cities such as Homs, Hama, Baniyas, Jasim, Aleppo, Damascus, Deir-ez-Zor and Latakia. From June the first armed rebel militias began to appear, and in July they had evolved and coalesced far enough to announce the formation of the Free Syrian Army, helped by large numbers of deserters from the regular army, where morale sank with every order to fire on unarmed Syrians. A number of soldiers were also court martialled and execued for refusing to fire on civilians when ordered. In August the Syrian National Council was formed to unite opposition voices, but even today it remains a fractious patchwork of political groups, long term exiles, grass roots demonstrators and militants. Since the formation of an opposition army, protests have been replaced by armed struggle, with every city in the country being torn apart to a greater or lesser extent by the fighting. Ceasefires proposed by notables such as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan were roundly ignored on all sides, and the international community is both divided and understandably shows no signs of wanting to send troops into such an insoluble conflict. The United States, United Kingdom and France among others have recognised the rebel Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate government of Syria, and provided it with non lethal aid in the form of communications equipment and medical kit, while Britain has also provided intelligence from bases in Cyprus. Recent rhetoric has opened the door to military goods also being supplied from the US. Meaningful international action such as sanctions against the Assad regime have run aground on the shoals of Russian and Chinese suspicion; both veto any action which they see as violating Syrian sovereignty, with the Russian Foreign Ministry emphasizing the conflict as an internal matter where the international community has no right to interfere.

The most recent development, and a truly worrying one, is the claim by a senior Israeli intelligence official that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian government in Aleppo. Syria is one of very few countries not to have signed an international convention banning chemical weapons and is estimated to hold large stockpiled of mustard gas and sarin. President Obama has declared that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer”, so if it is confirmed military intervention by the US may be on the cards, though I am sceptical about the popular will to intervene in another Middle Eastern quagmire.

In September 2010, I was able to get on a bus from Deraa, in the same square that would see six months later those first protests that set alight the tinderbox, and head over the border into Jordan. Since then, five hundred thousand Syrians have followed in far, far less comfortable conditions, increasing Jordan’s population by around 8% and creating what Jordanian officials have called one of the greatest crises Jordan has faced in recent history. Yet, those Syrians in Jordan, living in refugee camps, carrying their lives in a bag and not wanted by the host country, those are the lucky ones. Those still in Syria, especially those in the cities, face death or injury by doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. The UN High Commissioner for refugees estimates that half of the population, a staggering ten million people, will need humanitarian aid to survive by the end of the year. Unesco estimates that half of those in need will be children. Unfortunately, with the civil war dropping from public view the vast sums of money promised to Unesco and Unicef in a January fundraiser in Kuwait have signally failed to materialize, leaving relief operations desperately underfunded.

I will not pretend to have any solutions to the civil war, and I have no idea how it will end. All I can say is this; I have mentioned Syria’s long history many times already, and I believe it provides a glimmer of hope for the future. Such an ancient country will surely not disintegrate now, having survived every crisis that Earth could throw at it over the past six millennia. I believe, and sincerely hope, that even though the fabric of Syrian society is being ripped from all sides, it will not be torn apart.

I’ll return to the proposition that I began with. The civil war has continued for over two years. It has stopped being a feature of our news, and of our everyday concept of what is happening in the world. However, hundreds of thousands are dying, and millions are denied their basic human right to a life free of violence and fear. The least we can do is declare that we will not forget Syria.

Posted in History, Travel, World politics | Leave a comment

Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part 7

“At the beginning of the Taisho period, on the day of Emperor Meiji’s funeral (September 13th, 1912), General Nogi and his wife closed the door to their second-floor living room and prepared to end their lives. He had removed his uniform and was clad in white undergarments; she wore black funeral attire. They bowed to portraits of Meiji and of their two sons, killed in the Russo-Japanese War. While the funeral bells tolled, they proceeded to commit ritual suicide. Mrs. Nogi acted first; he assisted, plunging a dagger into her neck, and then he disemboweled himself with a sword.”

Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan


The death of Emperor Meiji and subsequent suicide of General Nogi Maresuke was the last turning point in Ogai’s life. Nogi was a hero of the Russo-Japanese war, but something of a tragic one. As well as losing two sons in the war, he had already requested permission twice to commit suicide from the emperor; once in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 when he lost the flag of the imperial army, and once after the battle of Port Arthur in the Russo Japanese war (the same battle in which Ogai had distinguished himself) when he felt his victory had come at the cost of too many Japanese lives. His suicide was hotly debated in the popular press; some felt it was a reaffirmation of Japanese traditions of self sacrifice and ultimate loyalty, while other newspapers railed against it in editorials and columns, saying that it was a return to darker times, an unnecessary relic of a best-forgotten feudal past. On the day of the suicide, Ogai simply recorded in his diary

“I half believe it and half doubt it”

From this point on, Ogai would write only historical novels exploring traditional Japanese themes such as loyalty, self sacrifice and suicide, though certain aspects of his earlier work carry through to this later part of his career; the way he ponders deeply issues of society and history in novels such as Ka no yo ni (As If) can be seen as a precursor to the historical novels written after General Nogi’s suicide. While Ogai did not retreat wholesale into a bygone age, he did begin to write about Japanese culture and history for its own sake, rather than simply as a comparative foil to Western thought. The effect of Nogi’s death can be seen in the speed with which he wrote his first historical novel; he records sending it to the literary magazine Chuo Koron on September 18th, a mere five days after the suicide. It is called Okitsu Yagoemon no isho (The last testament of Okitsu  Yagoemon), and it deals directly with suicide through the story of a retainer who decides to kill himself after murdering a man in an argument and thus bringing shame on his lord. Ogai is sympathetic to Okitsu in this story, but does not portray him as free of blame, and he also implicitly criticises General Nogi for having not obtained permission to commit suicide. Just three months later in Abe Ichizoku (The Abe Clan) he provides a more textured view of ritual suicide and concludes that while junshi (committing suicide after the death of a master) is a tradition with deep historical roots, it can only be considered in certain very specific circumstances, with approval from ones family, and most importantly the lord in whose name one intends to kill oneself. Whereas Okitsu Yagoemon is written as a single person’s testament, Abe Ichizoku is a more layered treatment, with explorations of junshi from several different points of view; as Doris Bergen suggests, “it is almost as if Ogai were taking a “junshi poll” for those Japanese readers still reeling after the suicide of General Nogi.”

While these stories broke new ground for Ogai in terms of subject matter, some of the themes discussed in part 6 can also be seen here; Chojuro Abe in Abe Ichizoku is torn between duty to his lord and a desire to atone for what he has done, and the suicides themselves are implicitly being compared against a Western model; can an old Japanese custom such as junshi have any place in the modern, westernising Japan of the 1910s? Essentially, by creating historical fiction based on the 17th century, he tried to address the debate raging in the 20th.


Following the death of the Meiji Emperor, Ogai gradually reduced his workload as Army Surgeon General. From 1910 Ogai had become embroiled in a fierce argument with the vice-minister for the Armed Forces, Ishimoto Shinroku, about who had the final authority to appoint personnel to the Army medical corps. Ishimoto was also the vice minister who had formally reprimanded Ogai in 1909 after the publication of Vita Sexualis. Tired of incessant politicking and battling with his superiors, he resigned from the post of Surgeon General in  November 1915, though in the end he did manage to keep the right of appointment of army medical personnel in the hands of the Surgeon General after his foe Ishimoto died in 1912. There is also evidence to suggest that Ogai was unhappy about the lower status accorded to him as a medical man in the army rather than a soldier; his eldest daughter Annu recalled in later life that after the Russo-Japanese war she went for an evening walk with her father, who was wearing his military uniform. While they were walking, three boys saw Ogai’s uniform and high rank of lieutenant general, and ran over to him. However when they saw the words ‘Army Medical Corps’ on his uniform, they lost interest, saying ‘Ah, he’s just a doctor, not a real soldier’. Ogai was so upset by this he didn’t say another word throughout the rest of the walk home.


His retirement enabled him to take on other posts related to his resurgence of interest in history and historical fiction; from December 1917 until his death in 1922 he served as head of the Imperial Museum in Tokyo, in 1921 he was appointed the first chief of the Imperial Museum of Art, and between August 1918 and October 1921 he made regular trips to Nara to witness and advise on the opening of the Todai temple archive called Shosoin, to this day one of the largest and most important repositories of Japanese historical documents. 


We should not presume that Ogai’s sudden change of course into historical writing suggest a rejection of the new ideas coming into Japan; he continued to translate foreign works in this period, and the translation from German of Goethe’s “Faust” that he completed in 1912 remains to this day the standard Japanese version of that work. Rather than a rejection, Ogai was using the past as a mirror of the present. The end of Meiji seemed to be the end of the transitional period for Japan that Ogai had expended so much effort thinking and writing about in the previous years, with the suicide of General Nogi the final flickering of a dying candle of the past. To see how Japanese values and traditions could fit into this new, post-Meiji framework, the best method was to study and articulate the virtues of the Japanese past, and consider how they could be used against the limitations and possibilities of the future. It is for this reason that so much of his historical fiction is concerned with modern values.


Ogai’s interest in the concept of junshi did not end after the publication of Okitsu Yagoemon and Abe Ichizoku, but his works did become more general pieces of historical literature rather than focusing on suicide in particular. Okitsu Yagoemon and Abe Ichizoku are both based on the Hosokawa clan, the leading clan in northern Kyushu where Ogai had been exiled between 1899 and 1902, and it seems very likely he had carried out research in this period which allowed him to write in great depth about the Hosokawa clan and the other great feudal families of Kyushu. Rather than the romantic love that was the trademark of Ogai’s earliest work and some of his late Meiji publications too, his historical novels tend to deal with issues he found more profound and fundamental at this stage of life;  fidelity, loyalty, honesty and filial piety among others. The novels often focus on families the generation after or before some important historical event; through this device Ogai can use the event to propel the action, but without describing it directly, allowing him to look more closely into the motivations and values of his characters. Among the most notable works of this time are Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1915), Takasebune (The boat on the Takase River, 1916). Takasebune is about a boat on the Takase river which ferries convicted criminals to their execution, and allowed Ogai to meditate on death, the death penalty and even euthanasia, for which there is no official law in Japan to the present day. Meanwhile Sansho Dayu is an 11th century tale, based on real events, of the kidnapping of the wife and two children of a virtuous governor. The wife and children are then sold into slavery, and the bulk of the story concerns the children’s quest to escape and reunite the family. 


Ogai’s quest in this novel to keep to the historical facts while weaving a tale worthy of publication caused him to think deeply about fidelity to history in his writing, and one month after the publication of Sanshu Dayu he published an essay called Rekishi sono mama to rekishi banare (History as it is and history ignored) which outlined his approach to historical fiction and the historical method. He states that his friends argue about whether his work can really be called fiction given that it is based on historical personages and events. He counters that he looks for what is “natural” in history, and having found it sees no need to alter it. He sees Sansho Dayu as fiction because history is merely used as a point of departure; however he distinguishes himself from similar authors by asserting his aim of objectivity, leading to a rational, considered work. However, it is clear from the essay that he didn’t feel he had achieved this aim in Sansho Dayu. Feeling a need to depart from the story and simply convey the essence of the work, to avoid a simple retranslation of the story into the modern vernacular, he alters the story but in the end finds the finished product distasteful, and vows to stick more closely to historical fact in future. In his own words

“As I disliked changing the reality in history, I became bound by it in spite of myself. I wrote ‘Sanshō Dayū’ using history as a point of departure. When I looked over what I had written, I somehow felt that using history in this fashion was unsatisfactory. This is an honest confession on my part.”


As a result of this conclusion, that history is better told as it is, Ogai started on a series of biographical works, choosing as his subjects quite obscure later Edo period (1603-1868) doctors. He was to finish three of these; accounts of the lives of Shibue Chusai (1805-1858), his teacher Izawa Ranken (1777-1829) and Izawa’s colleague Hokujo Katei (1780-1823). The freedom he gained after his resignation allowed him to spend several months researching each one, and they are consequently Ogai’s longest works; a paperback copy of Shibue Chusai is over 400 pages long, more than three times longer than his longest completed work of fiction. Ogai came to feel a bond of kinship with Shibue, and again the concept of doing one’s duty makes a strong showing in each of the biographies. However, these were not biographies in the traditional sense; they appeared in serialised form, with the three biographies in total taking up 632 instalments. Each instalment has the feeling of a mass of facts rather than a biography as we know it today, and the scholar Marvin Marcus has commented that had they not been published in his own publication, Subaru, they would almost certainly have been stopped for lack of readership. Another unusual aspect of this work is that Ogai is never far from the narrative; the biography is interspersed with Ogai’s own descriptions of the intellectual process of writing a biography. including a sorrow at lost documents, a joy at others rediscovered, and his reasoning about available materials.


Ogai’s frequent trips to the Shosoin repository at Nara, and his work as the head of the Imperial Museum gave him ample opportunity to research his biographies. In 1922, he visited to prepare for the visit to Shosoin of none other than the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII of Great Britain. However, he had shown symptoms of kidney problems since the previous autumn, and was not fully fit to make the arduous journey and prepare for the visit. He took to his sickbed a number of times during the trip and in the end had to return early to Tokyo. He was diagnosed in June with atrophy of the kidneys, and weakened by the condition had also begun to develop the symptoms of tuberculosis. There was no cure for either disease available at the time, and it was clear he would not last long. Retiring to his bed, Ogai summoned his lifelong friend Kako Tsuruto to his bedside and dictated his will on July 6th. On July 9th, just after sunrise, Mori Ogai passed away aged sixty. His ashes were first interred at Kofuku Temple in central Tokyo, but in 1927 his grave was moved to Zenrin temple in Mitaka, now a part of the Tokyo sprawl but then an entirely separate city. His bones were divided and half were taken to his birthplace of Tsuwano, and both graves still stand. In accordance with his will, his gravestone is plan and unornamented, reading simply;

“The grave of Mori Rintaro”


So passed one of the most remarkable personalities of that remarkable Meiji era. He was survived by four children; his eldest son Oto, from his first marriage to Akamatsu Toshiko, became a doctor in Taipei Imperial university (Taiwan being a Japanese protectorate between 1895 and 1945), while all his children from his second marriage to Mori Shige became writers. His eldest daughter Mari became a famous novelist in her own right, while Annu and Rui became essayists and commentators. Of Ogai’s grandchildren, more than half either went into the fields of medicine or writing, though none could emulate their famous grandfather by achieving eminence in both. Some of Ogai’s grandchildren are still alive, a valuable link to the past. For example Oto’s youngest son Mori Joji became a poet and scholar of English Literature, and aged 82 is still Emeritus Professor at my own institution, Waseda University. 


It is not just in his descendants that Ogai survives. His works are still read by every high schooler in Japan, and his interpretation of Western culture in the Meiji period still ranks as one of the most important single intellectual contributions to Japanese culture in that turbulent age. He had no disciples to continue his work, preferring the open atmosphere of literary soirees and salons to closed teacher-pupil relationships, but all the great subsequent prewar writers such as Natsume Soseki, Nagai Kafu continued his work, developing the modern Japanese written language and continuing to interpret foreign ideas for the Japanese reading public. 

As well as his written work, his translations introduced the Japanese to authors and playwrights such as Goethe, Heine, Strindberg and Ibsen, and philosophers such as von Hartmann and Vaihinger. His translations of famed European drama helped create the modern Western theatre in Japan, and his poetic work too helped bring a new colloquial, modern language to Japanese prosody. His critical work and essays too are still read and greatly valued to this day. 


We must also not forget that he reached great heights in his medical career too, and while his mistakes on beriberi were grave, his work on improving hygiene, diet and living conditions in the army saved many thousands of lives in the Sino Japanese and Russo Japanese wars of 1894-5 and 1904-5 respectively. Finally, I still find it astonishing that he managed to simultaneously reach the position of Army Surgeon General and become one of the foremost writers and thinkers in modern Japanese history. To have managed either would have made him well known, but to have managed both is surely worthy of celebration, and, might I venture, an appearance on a Japanese banknote one day soon?

One might counter that while Ogai was clearly brilliant, he was not a first-rate human being. He divorced his first wife acrimoniously, was a domineering father and left behind a girl who loved him in Germany. This cannot be denied; however, if we measure Ogai by his own standards, he achieved his goal. He met the demands of his day.

Posted in Biography, History | 2 Comments

Mori Ogai, The Demands of the Day, Part 6

Ogai returned from the Russo-Japanese War in January 1906. As a result of his efforts to improve hygiene and reduce communicable diseases, he was promoted to Surgeon General in October 1907, the highest medical position in the army and the peak of his already impressive career. His failure to correctly deduce how beriberi was transmitted did not hold his military career back, as he was backed up in his mistaken views by the rest of the army hierarchy. Between his return and his promotion, Ogai did not publish any fiction, but spent time both writing and listening to poetry in groups such as the Tokiwa Circle set up by his friend Kako Tsuruto, which was also attended by such luminaries as the future prime minister and field marshal Yamagata Aritomo. Kako had been friends with Ogai at Tokyo Medical University, and is thought to have been instrumental in persuading Ogai to join the army as a physician. Their career paths were remarkably similar; born seven years before Ogai in 1855, Kako graduated as a doctor in 1881, and like Ogai went to Germany to study medicine, completing 2 years of study at Berlin University before returning to Japan in 1890. Kako’s speciality was diseases of the ear, nose and throat, and he set up Japan’s first ENT clinic soon after his return. Like Ogai, he was also a successful literary figure, publishing both dense medical tomes and poetry anthologies in the half century between graduating and his death in 1931. Indirectly, we have already met Kako in this narrative; he was said to be the model for the character of Aizawa Kenkichi in ‘The Dancing Girl’, the protagonist’s friend and confidant. Inspiration for the more forbidding figure of Count Amakata came from Yamagata Aritomo; a photo of Yamagata should suffice to demonstrate this side of his character.


Kako appears in other guises in some of Ogai’s later works too, such as the student Koga in “Vita Sexualis” (1909), and judging by their shared experience as soldier, doctor and writer, and the appearance of Kako in Ogai’s novels throughout his literary career, their friendship was of deep importance to both men.

The same period was a difficult one personally for Ogai, as his son Furitsu was born in August 1907, but was a sickly child destined not to see his first birthday; he died five months later in January 1908 from whooping cough. Then in February Ogai’s younger brother Miki Takeji (real name Mori Tokujiro), a well known scholar of Kabuki, died of tuberculosis aged 40. However, this double tragedy did not prevent Ogai from resuming a workload that would have crushed a less able man. He restarted his lectures at Keio University on Western art and literature, where he also encouraged the novelist and scholar of French literature Nagai Kafu to apply for a professorship. He also served as an advisor on Western art to the newly formed Ministry of Culture, continued to produce translations of operas, philosophical works and fiction, and promoted the work of young writers such as Hiratsuka Raicho and Higuchi Ichiyo (whose likeness now adorns the 5000 yen note, an honour not as yet accorded to Ogai). These concerns were of course in addition to his work as Army Surgeon General. Most importantly, he also embarked on his most productive period of writing to date. The years from 1909 to 1912 were marked by continued literary experimentation from Ogai, as he wrote numerous short stories and novellas which illuminate different aspects of his life and personality, and which show Ogai’s experimentation with various literary devices which he would reuse and refine in his later years. In these stories we can find countless examples of Ogai’s life and experience informing his fiction; his first failed marriage in Hannichi (Half a Day), the death of Furitsu from whooping cough in Konpira and his years of exile from the army in Kokura in Asobi (Play). We also see Ogai himself reflected in many of these stories, often obliquely. Many of these stories were published in the literary journal Subaru (The Pleiades), including his most controversial novel, Vita Sexualis.

Five of these works were published in 1909 alone; Tsuina (Exercising Demons), Hannichi (Half a Day), Hebi (Snake), Konpira and Vita Sexualis. In each we can see one or several characters illuminating an aspect of Ogai himself; in Tsuina, he is thinly disguised as Professor Ono, a professor of Western philosophy. The story itself is more of a philosophical essay than a true short story, but the classic Ogai motifs of the author as bystander remain.

Vita Sexualis, the longest of Ogai’s 1909 works, was published in July 1909 in Subaru. In the strict Japanese social environment of the time, its subject matter of a professor’s sexual awakening and experience caused immediate controversy, and after one month the journal and the story were banned. Ogai earned a formal reprimand from the army for having been censored. Kazuji Ninomiya, the critic and translator of Ogai into English, suggests that Ogai knew he would be censored in the strict moral climate that prevailed in Meiji Japan, but wanted to write the book as a challenge to the naturalist tendency of his peers. Ogai, along with Natsume Soseki , objected to the subordination of reason and intelligence that they saw in naturalism, and Ogai penned Vita Sexualis to explore the role of human agency in the sexual life of a single character. It almost goes without saying that the main character is a university professor whose life is very similar to Ogai’s.

Of the shorter works of 1909, Hannichi and Konpira are the most familiar to us as works of literature. Hannichi is a ruefully humorous account of the difficult marital relations between Dr. Takayama Shunzo and his wife, relations further soured by Takayama’s mother who lives with the couple. Driven to distraction by their poor relationship, both dote on their daughter Tama. An element of autobiography is clearly present, a dark sketch of Ogai’s marital issues with his second wife, but the thread of humour woven into the story prevents a slide into melodrama or despair. Konpira, meanwhile, is more heart-rending, dealing as it does with another university professor, Ono Tasuku, failing to pay respects at the eponymous Konpira shrine in Shikoku when he is visiting the region, and his children subsequently falling ill with whooping cough Indeed, the harrowing descriptions of the professor’s children, Yuri and Hansu, are so painfully detailed that surely only a trained physician like Ogai could have conceived them. The professor is again a bystander, helpless in the face of his childrens’ illness and unable to come to terms with it through the Western philosophy that is his field. Ogai’s philosophical views on the West and modernisation are lightly sketched here in the interplay between the western-oriented professor, and his more traditional wife who reprimands him for having not appeased the gods by visiting the shrine of the title. Ogai concludes the story by saying that while his wife is somewhat proven correct by events in the story, “it would be better if Professor Ono were not to become a devotee of Konpira Shrine too”. 


This issue of east versus west and old versus new would be a central tenet of many later works such as Moso (Daydreams) Ka no yo ni (As If) and Fushinchu (Under Reconstruction) written in 1911 and 1912 respectively. Ogai was certainly not the only author to tackle this issue; Natsume Soseki, who spent three unhappy years in London between 1900 and 1903 and seems not to have been particularly happy anywhere, also wrote and lectured on the clash of civilizations he and his contemporaries lived through. Soseki is often considered the foremost modern Japanese writer, and passes the banknote test with flying colours; his face adorned the 1000 yen note for a full 20 years between 1984 and 2004, though even there he seems to stare mournfully out, as if recalling the passing of a much loved family pet.  While both Ogai and Soseki saw problems with the Western culture coursing through Japan, Soseki was more resigned, seeing it as an unstoppable flood. In a famous speech he gave in 1911 called ‘The opening of Modern Japan’ (gendai nihon no kaika), he stated;
“The adoption of Western culture in Japan must necessarily be superficial. However, it cannot be stopped. It cannot be reversed. It cannot be helped. That is all I have to say.”

Ogai was more pragmatic. He realised that indiscriminate adoption of Western culture would result in Japanese culture being overwhelmed my a mere slavish imitation of occidental thought and ways. For Ogai, the best option was for the minds of the people to act as a kind of gatekeeper to Western culture, adopting that which could be of use, particularly in fields of science and technology, while maintaining the cultural traditions of Japan as far as possible in any program of reform. In Fushinchu, the protagonist Watanabe meets a German ex-lover in a restaurant that is under reconstruction; he then later alludes to this by saying;

“Japan is still backward…it’s under reconstruction, you see”.

For Ogai, Japan essentially had to be remade in a form which incorporated those useful aspects of Western culture and learning. This is more specifically described in Moso, where the narrator, again a reflection of Ogai himself, is living in Germany. While he longs to return to Japan, he regrets that he will have to live in a country that was

“not yet equipped for the kinds of serious scientific research I had to undertake or for the opening up of new fields within that discipline”.  


However, he believes that Japan can adopt this aspect of learning

“I still venture to say ‘not yet’. I refuse to believe the Japanese are a race of such hopeless incompetents. I have always felt, ever since those earliest days, that the time will come when the fruits of scientific research carried out in Japan will be exported to Europe.”

Ogai then comments on those areas in which Japan should steer its own path, away from Western ideas. With regard to architecture and the possible introduction of skyscrapers into Japan, he states

“I argued that the more people live in a confined space such as a city the higher the death rate, especially among children. Rather than taking all those dwellings that were now built side by side and piling them on top of each other, it would make far more sense to improve the water supply and the sewerage, I said.”


With this emphasis on water supply as a public health issue, we can clearly see the influence of his time in Germany spent studying under Pettenkofer that we looked at in part 2.


With regard to diet, also, the narrator rejects the westernizing tendencies of his Japanese friends;

“There was also a debate about improving the Japanese diet. They wanted to stop people eating rice and make them eat lots of meat instead. I advised them that it would be better to leave the Japanese diet as it has always been, because rice and fish were so easy to digest”

I find these arguments appealing because of Ogai’s pragmaticism, perhaps the result of his scientific background. He does not reject the Western approach because of a reactionary conservatism and belief that the Japanese way is innately superior, but because the western idea suggested is not practical. It is this kind of ‘gatekeeping’ that he believed could be used in order to reconstruct Japan, making it stronger and able to keep pace with the West. He saw himself as the kind of intellectual figure required to perform such a duty, using his literature as a medium.


This concept of ‘duty’ is another that permeates Ogai’s work from his earliest published fiction. Fumizukai (1890), mentioned in part four of this study, is the story of Ida’s conflict between duty and self-interest in terms of her marriage. Over twenty years later, in this period of productivity in the years either side of 1910, Ogai is still exploring the concept of one’s duty, to oneself or to a larger group. In Seinen (Youth), Ogai’s full length novel serialised in Subaru between 1910 and 1911, the protagonist Koizumi Junichi comes to realise his duty of conscious determination; through this realisation he is able to break off a doomed love affair, and emerges as a mature man. Koizumi’s duty is self-understanding. In Ka no yo ni (As If), the protagonist Hidemaro is a writer of history, whose duty is to untangle history from myth in order to place his historical writing on firm foundations, which he manages through an intense mental effort. As Hidemaro states in the story;

“Man should act as if duty existed. I intend to act that way.”

In Ogai’s best known work Gan (The Wild Geese) also, duty imposes itself on the narrative almost from the start. The novella follows a student, Okada, and his interactions with a young woman kept as a mistress by a despised moneylender, Suezo. The mistress is kept by Suezo but pines for Okada despite them only meeting directly twice in the course of the novel. Her conflict is between her duty to stay with Suezo, who supports her and allows her in turn to support her ageing father. Ogai symbolises this duty with the device of two caged birds which Suezo gives his mistress to entertain her; the title of the work refers to her longing to break free of her cage and fly free like the wild geese she sees from her window. Throughout there are also subtle references to the changes taking place in Japan too; the narrator lovingly describes Okada’s walks around Tokyo University on which he encounters the mistress, but also notes the changes, the destruction and rebuilding taking place in the early Meiji period when the novel is set.

This suggests Ogai was well aware that one’s duty was not an easy thing to carry out, but required careful thought and tireless action. The substance of one’s duty for Ogai is also the title of this study; the demands of the day. These words come from Ogai’s favourite quotation;

How may one come to know oneself?
Never by contemplation, but only by action
Seek to do your duty, and you will know how
it is with you. And what is your duty?

The demands of the day.


The quotation comes from Goethe, the great German writer for whom Ogai maintained a lifelong admiration, in ‘Maxims and Reflections’. It is quoted in Moso, where Ogai proclaims his belief that fulfilling one’s duty in this manner is the surest way to self knowledge. His duty being, as we have seen, to act as a cultural gatekeeper for Western ideas, he believed passionately that any intelligent action needed to be based on patient understanding and rational enquiry. This aspect of Ogai’s work was thrown into sharp relief by the increasingly strict moral climate that came about in the later Meiji period, when Ogai’s belief in rational enquiry was shaken by the late Meiji government’s increasing authoritarianism and insularism. As he states towards the end of Chinmoku no to (The Tower of Silence) with regard to banning subversive Western books;

“In every country and every age, crowds of reactionaries lurk behind those who walk new paths awaiting an unguarded moment. And when the opportunity arises they inflict persecution. Only the pretext changes, depending upon the country and the times.”


It is clear that Ogai saw himself as one of those walking a new path. In the same story, he states

“Knowledge advances by breaking down convention. Knowledge will die if it is constrained by the customs in any particular era or country.”

He was also brave enough to directly challenge governmental repression, despite being a central figure in the establishment. In an essay of April 1911 in the magazine Bungei no shugi (The doctrine of literature), one of the last things he wrote before the death of the Meiji emperor, he wrote

“We must be very wary of the government persecuting artistic freedoms by attaching the vague label of ‘individualism’ to anarchism and socialism. Any nation which holds back the free development of art and learning has no hope of prosperity.”

Through his characters, Ogai tells us that we must all do our duty, as he will do his by breaking down conventions, enhancing knowledge and acting as midwife to a syncretic Japanese culture and thought. At times Ogai’s work seems to suggest his resolve faltering in this regard. In Ka no yo ni Hidemaro at times seems overcome with the difficulty of absorbing the mass of Western thought, seeing all philosophy of Nietzsche and Ibsen as necessarily diminished and warped in the Japanese interpretation. In Fushinchu and Moso, the Japanese protagonists worry about whether Japanese culture can survive the western onslaught at all and shades of Soseki’s pessimism seem to enter the narrative. Finally, Chinmoku no to, Ka no yo ni throw into relief the anti-intellctual chauvinism that emerged in reaction to these problems of assimilation. However, to fight these obstacles were his demands of the day. In the words of Ogai scholars Sanford Goldstein and Kingo Ochiai, 

“He saw the chaos in Japan, the chaos of the old and new in collision everywhere, and he attempted, through science and literature, to give his country the harmony, the order, it needed.”

At the same time as exploring these manifold ideas, he also found time to experiment with other forms. He wrote a stage play, perhaps inspired by the dramas of Ibsen, Strindberg, Wedekind and others that he had earlier translated into Japanese. The play, Kamen (Masks), is about death and human resolution; the reactions, both philosophical and personal, of a family to the death of their patriarch Sakichi. Again, Ogai uses his medical knowledge to great effect when describing the symptoms and diagnosis of tuberculosis. He also wrote two surrealist short sketches, Sakazuki (Cups) and Sanbashi (The Pier), the latter of which is notable for being the first of Ogai’s works to be translated into English, in a 1918 anthology called Paulownia. Another experiment was Kinka (The Gold Coin), a humorous tale about an old rogue, Hachi, who has no money, a difficult wife, and simply wants to get enough cash together to be able to buy a drink. Ogai’s skill as a writer lies in getting us to sympathise with Hachi even when he breaks into a house in order to get enough money together for his much needed wine, and it is perhaps the work which conforms best of all to the idea of a complete, enclosed short story. One longer experiment was the unfinished novel Kaijin (The Ashes of Destruction), the beginnings of a deep psychological study of the protagonist, who is of course a disguised version of himself (though not, in this case, a university professor). The reason for the work remaining unfinished lies not in Ogai’s death, but in the death of the emperor Meiji in 1912, which sent him in an entirely different literary direction that we will explore next time, when we take Ogai to the end of his life in 1922.

Posted in Biography, History, Literature | Leave a comment

Murder on Dogenzaka by Edogawa Rampo: A Translation

This is a translation of a short murder mystery by Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), the Japanese mystery and thriller writer. Hope you enjoy it!

Murder on Dogenzaka (1924)

Part 1: The Facts

It was a hot, humid evening in early September. I was sipping an iced coffee in the White Plum Cafe halfway up Dogenzaka. At the time I had just left school and didn’t have anything you might call a profession, so I passed the time reading at my lodgings. When I grew tired of my books, I’d go for a stroll around town and make a circuit of some inexpensive cafes. The White Plum was just down from my lodgings so I’d pass it each time I went for a walk, so it was the cafe I most often found myself in. I would generally stay for a while, and nurse one or two cheap cups of coffee as I never had either the money or appetite for a meal. I would usually stay for a couple of hours, though I never became friendly with any of the waitresses. The cafe just provided a brighter, nicer place to sit than my lodgings.
That humid evening was the same as any other. I had settled in to my usual seat facing onto the street and had been sipping on my iced coffee for about ten minutes while looking languidly through the window. These days Dogenzaka is a big, bustling street, but at the time it had just been widened, and many of the shops which had been there previously had either closed down or moved to another part of town, so there was a lot of vacant land on both sides of the road which made it feel somewhat desolate. Directly across the road from the White Plum Cafe was a shabby old second hand bookshop, which had been the object of my somewhat vacant gaze these last ten minutes. In the normal course of things I wouldn’t have given it a second glance, but I had recently found out that the wife of the bookshop’s owner was a childhood friend of Akechi Kogoro, a recent acquaintance who had left something of an impression on me. He was quite a character, with a fierce intellect and a passion for detective novels.
As I remember from the two or three times I had gone into the bookshop, the owner’s wife was a beautiful lady, and while it was hard to pinpoint exactly what made her so appealing, she had a sensual charm that drew men towards her. She always minded the bookshop in the evening, so she was sure to be there now as well, and I had been watching to see if she might come out to the front of the shop. However, for these ten minutes she hadn’t ventured out to where I might see her, and nor had any customers gone in or out, so I gave up and was just casting my gaze over to the watch shop next door.
Suddenly, in the bookshop, I saw the hole in the door connecting the back room of the shop and the front slam shut from the inside. You might be asking what kind of door has a hole in the middle; well, it was the type of door that a carpenter would call a ‘double slat’ door, where the large central part of the door that would normally have paper pasted across it is replaced by a double layered lattice of wooden struts. Each strut is about 5 centimetres wide, and the two layers of the lattice can either be made to line up, allowing the owner of the shop to keep an eye on the shop between the gaps in the lattice, or made to overlap, creating a wooden screen which can’t be seen through. As this had just been shut whoever was in the back office wouldn’t be able to check on the shop through the door, which was very strange. As well as being an invitation to shoplifters, it would also have prevented air flowing through the shop, making for an uncomfortably stuffy back office. The more I thought about it, the odder it seemed, and I found I was unable to look away from the bookshop. I felt something odd must be going on in there.
Thinking of the woman in the bookshop, I recalled some of the rumours that circulated about her among the waitresses at the White Plum. They said that when they bumped into her at the bathhouse, they all noticed that her body was covered in bruises as though she had been hit repeatedly, though outwardly there seemed to be no discord between her and her husband, so it seemed hard to believe he was responsible. Another of the waitresses had seen that the wife of the noodle shop owner two doors down from the bookshop was also covered in the same kind of marks. I presumed that if the rumours were true it just showed the cruelty of their husbands, and didn’t dwell on it further. Alas, readers, I was very wrong about that; as you shall see, those bruises held the key to all that followed.

I watched the shop like this for around half an hour. I felt in my bones that something strange was happening over the street, and that i’d miss something if I looked away for even a moment. Then by chance Akechi Kogoro, who I mentioned briefly earlier, passed by outside the window. He was wearing his customary summer kimono, with wide vertical stripes, and walking in his odd way, with both shoulders shaking as if he was coughing violently. When he noticed me, he bowed lightly and came inside the shop, ordered an iced coffee and sat down beside me. As soon as he noticed I was watching something intently, he followed my gaze over to the bookshop and settled his eyes on it too. He didn’t seem to need an explanation, and simply joined me in staring across the road. While watching we kept up a conversation of sorts, and while I can’t remember everything we spoke about, it certainly had to do with Akechi’s favourite topics, crime and detective work.

“Do you think it’s possible to commit the perfect crime? One that you are certain to get away with? I think it probably is possible. Take the murder in ‘The Lion’s Mane’ by Conan Doyle. If someone committed a crime like that, he would never be found out. After all, there are no detectives like Sherlock Holmes in real life!”
said Akechi, asking and answering his own question in the same breath.
“I’m not so sure”, I replied. “If a criminal can conceive and carry out a crime, it stands to reason that a detective would also be able to conceive it, and if he can conceive it, he can find the culprit.”
We discussed it a little further, but soon enough we both became silent, somehow engrossed by the bookshop across the street.
“You’ve noticed it too, I take it”, I asked.
“The people stealing books from the shelves at the front of the shop?” answered Akechi immediately. “Of course, I noticed it when I came in. That’s the fourth person to steal one since I arrived. I wonder what’s happened to the woman minding the place?”
“It’s the fourth person since you came thirty minutes ago, but I’ve been here over an hour now, and no-one has come out from the back office. Can you see that shutter in the middle of the door at the back? About an hour ago, that was slammed shut from inside.”
“Maybe the person minding the shop went out for something?”
“No, it can’t be that. Since the shutter was closed, nobody has gone in to the back office, nobody’s come out, and the shutter hasn’t been opened once. I suppose someone could have gone out through the back door, but even then it would be very strange to leave the shop unattended for so long. Perhaps we should go over and check that everything is all right?”
“Yes, even if there’s nothing wrong, we should check and at least let them know people are helping themselves to the books.”
As I left the cafe, I was morbidly excited at the thought of going to what might be a crime scene of some sort, and I could see that Akechi was experiencing a similar emotion.

The bookshop was of the kind you often see, with shelves up to the ceiling running along the walls left and right, as well as at the back of the shop, and a rectangular ‘island’ of shelving in the centre of the shop that came up to around chest height. At the back on the right was a gap around one metre wide in the shelving where the till sat, and behind that the double slat door leading to the back office, with shutter still firmly closed in the central panel. In this small gap was a chair where the owner or his wife would sit to operate the till and watch the shop. Akechi and I went over to the till area, and shouted towards the back office to see if anyone was there, but no reply came. Could the owner really have been so negligent as to leave the place unattended? I pushed open the sliding door to the back office a little and peeped through the gap. The light was off and it was very dark, but I could make out a vague outline of something on the far side of the room.
“We should go in and check”, said Akechi from behind me.
The two of us crowded into the small back room, and Akechi found the light switch next to the light and flicked it on. At that moment, we both let out an involuntary, stifled shout as we noticed the dead body of a woman sprawled in the corner of the room.
“It’s the owner’s wife”, Akechi gasped. “It looks like she’s been strangled”, he added, approaching the body. “We need to tell the police. I’ll go to the phonebox and call them. You stay here and keep watch. We shouldn’t tell the neighbours, or they’ll all tramp in here and disturb the crime scene.”
With that, he ran off to the public telephone, which was about half a block away.
I had read many detective novels since my youth, and felt familiar with the theories of crime, murder and detective work, but now I was faced with the reality of a crime scene, and a murder at that, I had no idea what to do, so I just looked around the room thoroughly as I awaited Akechi’s return.
It was a smallish room, about two and a half by three and a half metres, and to the right was a tiny enclosed garden and an outdoor toilet. As it was summer, the doors to the garden were wide open allowing me a view of the whole place. Through an open door to the left was a small bathroom, and next to this the back door was firmly closed. On the other side of the bathroom door was a narrow staircase and a cupboard. It was the kind of small, cheap row house that are ten a penny in this part of town even today. The woman’s body was by the wall on the left side of the room, with the head facing towards the front of the building. I didn’t want to interfere with the crime scene in any way, and moreover I had no wish to approach a corpse, so I stayed by the door where we had entered. But as it was such a small room, even if I tried not to look at the body it would somehow enter my field of vision. She had on a chrysanthemum-patterned indigo blue summer kimono, and had fallen on her back. Oddly, the hem of the kimono had been rolled upwards leaving her legs exposed up to the thigh. There were no signs that she had resisted either on her body or nearby. Around her neck was a livid purple mark where she had evidently been strangled.

The bustle of the street outside. The sounds of people chatting in high voices, the clatter of wooden geta slippers on the pavement, a drunken voice singing tunelessly, all unaware that behind a single sliding door lay the body of a woman, murdered in cold blood. It is a cruel world indeed, I thought as I listened to the sounds outside.
“The police are on their way” said Akechi, out of breath from running to the phone.
“I see” I replied. Just saying those two words was suddenly a great effort, and the two of us looked at each other, saying nothing more.
Soon enough the police arrived. Two men came in, one officer in uniform and one man wearing a suit, who judging from his possessions and general bearing was a doctor of some kind. I later discovered that the uniformed man was an inspector from Kagura police station, and the man in the suit was the police doctor from the same station. I explained to the inspector the evening’s events up to that point. He asked me to explain about the closed shutter in more detail, so I recalled events as clearly as I could.
“Akechi here joined me in the cafe at half past eight exactly – I remember as I looked at the clock in the cafe when he came in. So, it must have been near enough eight o’clock when the shutter was closed from inside. At that time, the light was on. So, at eight o’clock someone must have been in here moving around.”
While the inspector listened to me and took down notes, the police doctor examined the body. When I finished speaking, he said
‘She was strangled. The murderer used his hands; we can tell from the bruising around the neck where pressure was exerted with the fingers. There’s also a small amount of bleeding which was caused by the killer’s fingernails lacerating the skin as he strangled her. Given that there is the mark of a thumb on the left side of the neck, we can say that the murderer strangled her with one hand, and is right handed. Time of death is just over one hour ago. Obviously, there is no chance she is still alive.”
“Strangled from above, it looks like”, added the Inspector. “But, given that there are no signs of resistance, she must have been attacked suddenly and with overwhelming strength.”
The inspector then asked us about the whereabouts of the bookshop owner. Of course, we had no way of knowing what had happened to him, but Akechi suggested asking the owner of the watch shop next to the bookshop if he knew where he might be. The conversation between the inspector and the watch shop owner was as follows;
“Do you know where the owner of this place went?”
“Well, as I understand he runs a temporary night stall selling books, so he’s out at the market because of that. He only gets home from that after midnight, if my memory serves me right”.
“Where is this stall?”
“He often goes to the market at Hirokoji, over towards Ueno, but whether he’s gone there tonight, that I couldn’t tell you I’m afraid”
“About an hour ago, did you hear anything unusual from this shop?”
“Something unusual?”
“You know, a shout, a commotion, something like that. Anything to suggest a woman being murdered next door!” said the inspector, displaying a trace of emotion for the first time.
“Oh, no, I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.”
Meanwhile, the news had spread around the local area about the murder, and a crowd of passersby had crowded into the bookshop. Then the woman who owned the tabi sock shop on the other side of the bookshop came in and supported the watch shop owner’s assertion, saying she too had heard nothing unusual all evening.
There was the noise of a car stopping in front of the shop, and several people bustled into the shop. They were from the public prosecutor’s office, and by coincidence they had arrived at the same time as the chief of the Kagura station, and the famed detective Kobayashi. The inspector who had arrived earlier proceeded to relay the details of the crime to the new arrivals, and Akechi and I were called upon to tell our stories once again.
“Let’s shut the front door, for a start”, said the detective Kobayashi suddenly. He was dressed in a black woollen suit jacket with white trousers, and looked a little like a low ranking company worker trying too hard to look smart. He pushed the onlookers outside and started his investigations. While he was investigating, he seemed to forget the presence of everyone else in the room, as if they were excluded from his line of sight. From start to finish, he worked alone, and it seemed as if the inspector, the police chief and the rest of us were merely there to observe and admire Kobayashi’s actions and methods.
First, he went to look at the corpse. He took particular time looking at the neck of the victim, but in the end he declared to the assembled policeman;
“The marks left by the finger are perfectly normal and display no unusual characteristics.The murderer was a normal man who strangled the victim with his right hand. The body yields no other clues.”
After that, Kobayashi said he wanted to remove the clothes from the victim to search for more clues, and Akechi and I were obliged to leave the room. We waited in the front of the shop, and while I don’t know exactly what their findings were, I overheard them mention that the woman’s body was covered in bruises. I commented quietly to Akechi that the rumours circulating among the waitresses at the White Plum must be true.
After this examination had finished, we refrained from going back into the back room, instead looking in from the till area in the front of the shop. Luckily for us, as the discoverers of the crime scene, and because we needed to provide our fingerprints to the police, we weren’t asked to leave the shop entirely. Well, perhaps it would be more correct to say we were being held there as suspects by the police, but it allowed us to observe the investigation. Kobayashi’s activities weren’t limited to just the back room, and he checked all rooms inside and the outside of the shop while we waited by the till for any developments that might involve us. As the inspector and public prosecutors had set up shop in the back room, and Kobayashi had to keep returning to inform them of his progress, we managed to overhear all the results of his investigation. As he did this, the public prosecutors scribbled down Kobayashi’s findings in their notebooks.
In the room where the body lay, despite his best efforts Kobayashi failed to turn up any footprints or any other trace of the culprit save for one thing.
“There are fingerprints from when the light was turned off”, said Kobayashi as he sprinkled a white powder on the ebony switch. “The light must have been turned off by the culprit. By the way, which of you two turned on the light when you came in?” he asked, turning to Akechi and I. Akechi responded that it was him.
“In that case, we’ll need your fingerprints too. Lets remove the light switch so we can take it for testing. But don’t touch the switch!” Kobayashi instructed the inspector.
Then Kobayashi went upstairs to the first floor. He checked there for some time, and no sooner had he come down as he announced that he was going to check the passage at the back of the shop. This took around fifteen minutes, and when he came back still clutching a torch in one hand he was accompanied by someone. It was a man of around forty dressed in a grubby black crepe shirt and khaki trousers that were no cleaner.
“There’s no chance of finding any footprints from the back alley. Perhaps because it doesn’t get any sunlight it’s very muddy, and while I can make out the vague marks left by a pair of geta slippers, it’s impossible to tell even whether they were left by a man or a woman”, stated Kobayashi flatly. “Anyway, this man”, he continued gesturing to the person who had accompanied him in, “owns an ice cream shop just opposite the entrance to the alleyway. As there’s only one way in to the alley, if the criminal left by the back entrance, this man must have seen him come out on to the street. So, let me ask you”, Kobayashi turned to address the ice cream shop owner, “Did you see anyone go in or out of this alleyway at around 8 o’clock this evening?”
“No, not a soul. Not even a cat or a dog”, replied the ice cream shop owner confidently.
“I’ve had my shop here for some years now, and I’ve noticed that generally no-one uses that alleyway after it gets dark. It’s so muddy, if you can’t see where to put your feet you’re likely to fall, or at least get your shoes dirty.”
“And none of your customers went into the alley?”
“No, nobody. Everyone who came tonight ate their ice-cream in the street in front of the shop then went back along the main road. I’m positive of that.”

So, if we are to believe the ice cream shop owner’s testimony, if the criminal did leave by the back door of the bookshop, he didn’t leave from the only entrance the alley afforded. I know he didn’t leave through the front of the shop because I had been watching so intently from the White Plum. Where in the world could he have escaped from? Kobayashi had two theories. Firstly, he might still be hiding in one of the other buildings in the row which backed on to the same alleyway. Secondly, he might have fled from the first floor somehow. However, while there was a way of getting from the first floor onto the roof, and from there onto the rooves of adjoining houses, the window at the front of the house had a fixed shutter which showed no sign of having been tampered with and certainly not removed, and as for the back window, in this heat almost all the houses around had their back windows open, and many were hanging out their washing on the balcony or going out with a chair to enjoy the evening breeze, making it very difficult to flee from there without being seen.
At this point the assembled policemen gathered together briefly to discuss their next course of action. They decided to visit all the houses which backed on to the alleyway to ask if the owners had seen or heard anything. There were only eleven houses facing the alley, so it wouldn’t be too time consuming. Meanwhile a smaller group stayed behind to check the bookshop thoroughly once more, to see that nothing had been missed.
Unfortunately the result of these labours was not just that the investigation didn’t progress, if anything it provided information which made the case even more difficult to fathom. The sweet shop owner two doors up from the bookshop had been relaxing that evening by playing the bamboo flute on his balcony at the back of his shop, and he had been there from sunset until just now when the police had come round. He was in a perfect place to see if anything had happened at the first floor back window of the bookshop, but had seen nothing untoward all evening.
Well, readers, the case has reached an interesting point, hasn’t it? Where did the criminal enter the shop, and how did he leave? Not from the back door. Not from the back window either, and certainly not through the front of the shop. Is he even real? Or did he disappear in a puff of smoke?
The mystery of the case doesn’t end there, either. Two students from the local engineering school who were renting a room nearby had been passing the shop at around eight o’clock, and while they both seemed very honest, their witness statements served only to confuse the investigators more. This is what they said to the inspector,
“At about eight, I was standing in front of the bookshop, reading a magazine from that shelf. Then, there was a noise of some sort from the back of the shop, so I looked in that direction. While the door itself was shut, the shutters in the middle of the door were open and through the gaps I could see a man standing there. However, at the same time as I looked up to see his face, he closed the shutter, so I can’t tell you anything more about him. But, from the way he tied his kimono he was certainly a man.”
“Do you remember anything else about him? His height, the pattern of his kimono, anything like that?”
“I only saw his lower half, so I’ve no idea how tall he might have been, but his kimono was black. I suppose it could have had thin stripes or some other pattern, but it looked black to me.
“I was with my friend at the front of the bookshop reading” said the other student when asked for his statement. “I also heard a noise, looked up and saw the shutter being closed from the inside. But, he was wearing a white kimono. No stripes, no pattern, just a plain white kimono.
“Isn’t that impossible? One of you must be mistaken”, said the inspector with a troubled face.
“I’m certainly not mistaken”, said the first student
“Well, I wouldn’t lie in a case like this”, came his friend’s rejoinder.
What can the two student’s testimonies mean? The sharper readers might have thought of something already, and I picked up on the same thing at the time, but it seems the police and the public prosecutors didn’t dwell very deeply on it at the time.

At this time, the bookshop owner, having been found and notified of the terrible incident, came into the room. He was a delicate looking man who somehow didn’t seem like a secondhand bookshop owner. When he saw his wife’s body, he began to cry, and was unable to speak for some time. Kobayashi waited until he had regained some composure, then began asking questions. However, to his disappointment, the bookshop owner had absolutely no idea who might have killed his wife.
“She was never the kind of person to anger anyone, she had no secrets”, he said through his tears. He also checked the safe and the money in the till, and confirmed that nothing had been stolen from the shop at all. Kobayashi asked about their family history, perhaps hoping to dredge up some long forgotten feud, but there was nothing out of the ordinary.
The questioning continued fruitlessly for some time, until finally Kobayashi asked about the bruises that had been found on the wife’s body. The bookshop owner hesitated for a long time, but eventually admitted that he was responsible. Kobayashi asked why he had done it, but despite repeated questioning, nothing would induce the bookshop owner to explain himself, and he was eventually led away in floods of tears. After all, he had been at his night stall all evening, so even if he was guilty of domestic violence, he had a strong alibi for her murder, and his grief had seemed all too real. He was not for the moment a suspect in the case.
At this point, the investigation finished for the evening. Akechi and I gave our full names and addresses, agreed to make ourselves available for future questioning, and were sent on our way home. It was already past one o’clock in the morning.
If the testimony of all the witnesses is true, and the police haven’t missed anything in their investigation, this really seems like an insoluble crime. As I found out later, the next day Kobayashi continued his investigations, but could progress no further than on the first evening. All the witnesses seemed reliable, and none had any reason to lie. Nor could any information be dredged up from the eleven neighbours who had been questioned. Kobayashi even went back to the victim’s hometown to see if he could uncover any long simmering resentments there, but found nothing. Finally, he also checked thoroughly the only thing that constituted ‘evidence’ from the crime scene; the light switch. However, the only fingerprints on it were Akechi’s, from when we had first entered the back office and he had turned the light on. It seemed that Akechi had been overexcited when he went to switch on the light, and had touched it so many times that the criminal’s fingerprints had been erased.
When a famed detective like Kobayashi puts his heart and soul into an investigation like this, and still can uncover no clue, not even the faintest of leads, as to the murderer’s identity, perhaps you can say it’s the perfect crime?
Readers, perhaps while you were considering this case, some famous detective stories from the past came into your mind? Poe’s ‘Murders In the Rue Morgue’ perhaps, or maybe Conan Doyle’s ‘Speckled Band’? Perhaps you were thinking that, as in these cases, the murderer wasn’t a person, but a wild animal of some sort; and orangutan or poisonous snake from India perhaps? The thought did briefly cross my mind too. But, this too must be impossible. After all, I’m sure there’s no such animal around this part of Tokyo, and as well as a witness seeing a man at the scene of the crime, there was no evidence to suggest the presence of an animal, and no witnesses to one either. Recall also that the marks on the victim’s neck were made by a man’s right hand. No, the perpetrator of this crime was certainly as human as you and I.
As Akechi and I returned home that evening, we spoke excitedly all the way. He said
“You know the murder of Rose Delacourt, the one that became the inspiration for Poe’s “Rue Morgue” and also Leroux’s “The Mystery of the Yellow Room”? Even though that was more than a century ago, still nobody knows who the culprit was. That sprang to my mind this evening. The way that the killer seems to have disappeared without leaving a trace of himself, it’s very similar in that respect, don’t you think?”
“I suppose you’re right. It’s certainly very strange, this murder straight out of a Western detective novel happening right here in Tokyo! I’ve no idea whether I can do it or not, but I’ve half a mind to look into the murder myself, and see if I can come up with any answers”,
I replied.
At this point, our paths diverged, and as Akechi turned off down a narrow lane, I watched him, shoulders shaking as he walked, and his thick striped summer kimono seemed to be thrown into sharp relief by the darkness. For some reason, the image left a strong impression on me.

Part 2: The deduction

Around ten days after the murder, I went over to visit Akechi at his lodgings. What had we done, what had we found, what conclusions had we reached over those ten days? Perhaps, reader, you can already guess what kind of conversation Akechi and I had that evening?
Until that point I had only ever bumped into Akechi at the cafe or around town, so it was the first time I had visited him at home. He rented a room above a tobacconist, which I found without much trouble, so I went in and asked the woman there whether Akechi Kogoro was at this address.
“Yes, he lives here. Please wait a moment, I’ll call him now”
She went to the stairs in the back corner of the shop and shouted up the stairs for him. Akechi came down the creaky staircase, and looked a little surprised to see that it was me, but quickly recovered his composure and invited me upstairs to his room.
When we got upstairs to the room, it was my turn to be surprised. I had hardly taken a step inside, when I let out a gasp – it really was the oddest room I had ever seen. I knew he was something of an eccentric, but this space was truly astounding. It was around two and a half by two and a half metres, and aside from a small space in the centre of the room where the tatami mats were visible, every inch of floor space was covered with books, here in neat piles, there in disorganised mountains. There was no furniture at all as far as I could tell, and I had no idea how he could sleep here. Also, there was nowhere that the two of us could sit down. If I moved at all, I was worried I would disturb the whole precarious edifice and bring a wall of books crashing down on us.
“Sorry about the mess. I don’t really have any chairs or floor cushions, but please find a soft-looking pile of books and sit down” said Akechi, somewhat sheepishly.
After some searching I managed to find such a stack, and sat down at last, but I was so amazed by the room that I was unable to speak for several seconds, instead just looking around me in wonder.
I feel at this point I should explain a little about this Akechi Kogoro, who has been so central to the story so far. But he was a fairly recent acquaintance of mine, and I had no idea about his background, how he managed to get enough money to eat and live, what his purpose in life was, or anything like that, but I know he didn’t seem to have any particular occupation, and seemed to be quite the man of leisure. If you were forced to label him as something, perhaps you’d call him a scholar? Though if he was a scholar, it was a strange sort of study for sure! I remember he had once said;
“I am a student of the human condition”,
but at the time I had no idea what he meant by that. One thing I was sure of, though, was that his passion and knowledge of crime and detection was enormous.
He was around the same age as me, so probably no older than 25. He was on the thin side, and as I mentioned previously, had the odd habit of shaking his shoulders while he walked. In fact, it’s an odd comparison, but his walk, his face and voice were all very similar to the old author and storyteller Kanda Hakuryu. Reader, if you can’t picture Kanda Hakuryu, just imagine the most personable and intelligent face that you can, put long, unkempt hair on it and you’ll be close enough. Talking of his hair, Akechi also had the habit of curling a lock of it around his finger while he was talking to people. He didn’t seem to worry much about his clothes, and always wore the same simple cotton kimono with vertical stripes, simply tied at the waist.
“I’m impressed that you found this place, it’s not easy” said Akechi, playing with a lock of hair and looking at me intently. “Anyway, about that murder on Dogenzaka, have the police made any progress? Caught anyone?”
“Actually, that’s what I came here to talk to you about”, I replied
Not really sure how to broach the subject I had come to talk about, I spoke hesitantly;
“I’ve been thinking about the case for the last ten days, to be honest. Not just thinking, actually. I did some detective work as well, at the crime scene and around. In the end, I came to a conclusion. I thought I’d come to share it with you.
“Oh, really. Impressive work! Tell me all about it.”
It didn’t escape my notice that as he said this his face took on a knowing look, followed by a relaxed, possibly even scornful appearance. This helped me to put my reservation to one side, and I continued more confidently.
“A friend of mine is a newspaper reporter, and he’s a good friend of the detective, Kobayashi, who is investigating the murder. Through that friend, I’ve been able to keep up with the progress of the case in some detail, but the police are floundering. They don’t know how to continue. Of course, they keep working on it, but they’ve found no decisive clue or piece of evidence. Take that light switch, for one. They’ve checked it several times, but only your fingerprints are on it. They seem to think that your prints have obscured or erased the criminal’s prints. When I heard that the police had run into this problem, I decided to try and check it for myself. What do you think my findings were? I wanted to tell you before going to the police.”
Since the day of the incident, I’ve been puzzled by something. Perhaps you remember it too? The two students who saw a man in the back room of the bookshop, their statements were the same, apart from the colour of the man’s kimono. One said it was black, one said it was white, and they were both adamant they were telling the truth. No matter how fleeting the glance, or how poor one’s eyesight, to mistake black for white is surely impossible? I’m not sure how the police interpreted it, but I think both the students were correct. Do you see? The criminal was wearing a black and white striped kimono, one of the ones that you often borrow when you stay at an inn in the countryside. So, how did one student see black, and one white? Well, you remember that they saw the criminal through the latticed shutter in the middle of the door. So, as they were in different places in the bookshop, it’s possible that one student looked through the shutter and saw only the white stripes, and understandably presumed that the whole kimono was white, whereas the other student looked from a different place and saw only the black stripes, with the struts of the shutter hiding the white from his view, and again presumed the whole kimono was black. It’s certainly a coincidence that they were standing in exactly the right place for this to happen, but as it was just for a moment it’s certainly possible, and as far as I can tell there’s no other explanation for it.”
So, we’ve discovered that the criminal’s kimono must have been in a black and white striped kimono, which narrows down the investigation considerably, but is not enough on its own to nail down a culprit. The second piece of evidence I considered is the light switch. My reporter friend told me that Kobayashi hadn’t been able to find anything, so I tried a little experiment, and my hunch paid off. By the way, do you have an inkstone somewhere? Could I use it for a second?”
Akechi passed me an inkstone, and it still had some ink in the well. I put my right thumb lightly into the ink, took a piece of paper from the pocket of my kimono, and pressed down on the paper with my thumb, leaving a thumbprint. Then I let the ink dry for a few seconds, and once again pressed the same thumb into the ink, and carefully added another print over the first one, in a different direction. When I did this, you could clearly see two overlapping thumbprints on the paper
“The police seem to think that when you turned on the light, you covered the criminal’s prints and erased them, but as I’ve just shown you with the ink, this is impossible. Even if you put one print on top of the other, you can still make out the original fingerprint between the lines of the second. It doesn’t matter how hard you press, you can’t erase the original.
So, if we accept that it was the criminal who turned out the light, his fingerprints must be on that switch. I wondered if the police had missed another set of fingerprints between the lines of yours, but according to my reporter friend, they checked that too but still only found your prints. So, you are the only person who touched the switch all evening – before the murder, after the murder, only you put your fingers on that switch. Why the prints of the bookshop owner weren’t there I’m not sure, but I imagine it’s because the light had never been switched off before that.”1
So, what does this tell you, Akechi? This is what I think. A man wearing a striped kimono – perhaps a childhood sweetheart of the victim, who later broke his heart and drove him to murder – knew the bookshop owner was going to be at his night stall, and attacked the woman while he was away. She didn’t resist so she must have known her assailant. After he had killed her, to delay the discovery of the body he turned off the light and went to flee, but as he did he noticed the shutter in the door was open, so went over to shut it before running. By chance the two students had just come into the shop and saw this. Then the killer fled out from the back, but realised that his fingerprints would be all over the light switch, and he needed to somehow erase them. With the students in the shop, though, he could hardly risk venturing back into the room where he had committed the murder, and it was then that he hit on a brilliant idea. He would become the discoverer of the crime. If he did that, he would naturally be able to turn on the light without arousing any suspicion, and later he wouldn’t be suspected when his fingerprints were found on the light switch. On top of that, as the discoverer of the crime, he’d be less likely to be a suspect, so it would really be a case of killing two birds with one stone. Then he could watch the police at work, and even be bold enough to give a witness statement. What’s more, his scheme has gone entirely to plan! Ten days later and the police haven’t got the faintest idea how to proceed.”
Akechi listened to me carefully. I had expected him to interrupt me as I was speaking, or at least to change his expression, but to my surprise his face remained impassive. He simply listened in silence, playing with a lock of hair as usual. I was amazed at his calm, and for want of any response I continued with my explanation.
“You’re probably going to ask how the criminal could have got into and out of the room unseen. Of course, if I can’t explain that then the rest of my explanation falls apart. Well, I investigated that as well. As we saw that evening, there was no clue as to how the criminal either entered or left the room. But, he did commit a murder in there, so he must have got in and out somehow. So, we must conclude that the police missed something in their investigation. It will pain them to learn this, but it seems their detective skills are not up to mine.”
It’s actually quite simple. What I think happened is this. The police checked the bookshop and the back room very thoroughly, and we have no reason to doubt the eleven neighbours who saw nothing on the night of the crime. So, we have to conclude that rather than escaping in the traditional sense, the criminal actually hid in plain sight; somewhere that he could be seen, but where no-one would suspect him of the crime. As I considered how he could do this, I thought of the noodle shop, Asahiya, two doors down from the bookshop. You’ll recall that on the right of the bookshop was a watch shop and then a sweet shop, while on the left is a tabi sock shop and then a noodle shop. Anyway, I went into the noodle shop and asked if anyone had come in just to use the toilet at around 8 o’clock that evening. You know that place – there’s a single straight corridor from the entrance all the way to the back door, and the toilet is just outside the back door. The criminal went in, pretended that he wanted to just use the toilet, went out of the back door, into the back door of the bookshop, committed the crime, and then came back through the back door of the noodle shop as if he had come back from the toilet. This way he could get into the alley without using the entrance where the ice cream shop owner was. For the noodle shop owner, someone going in to use the loo would be an everyday thing and wouldn’t draw his attention. In fact, when I mentioned this to my reporter friend, he said that Kobayashi had spoken to the noodle shop owner, but hadn’t got any information from him about it; someone using the toilet was so unexceptional he didn’t even mention it to the police. But, when I asked the owner directly if he could remember someone coming in around eight to use the toilet, he said there had been, but luckily for the criminal that evening his wife hadn’t been around to help so he had been busier than usual, and couldn’t remember the face, dress or build of the man who had come in. I must say, Akechi, That really was a clever idea of yours.”

I paused for a moment, to give Akechi a chance to say something. I was sure he couldn’t remain silent given what I had just said. But, he remained as silent as a stone, and there was no sound aside from the faint rustle of his hair as he continued to twist it round his finger. There was nothing for it. Out of respect for him I had spoken indirectly up to now, but the time had come to stop beating around the bush.

“Akechi, you must know what I’m saying. All the evidence points to you. I didn’t want to doubt you, I don’t want to accuse you, but all my investigations have led to you, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I tried to find anything to exonerate you – I checked whether any of the eleven neighbours owned a striped kimono like yours, but none of them do. Unfortunately for you that kind of summer kimono is quite unusual to see around here. The trick with the light switch, and using the toilet in the noodle shop, too, they were both very clever tricks, and only an expert in crime and detection like you would have been able to think of them. Finally, the thing that really gave you away was your relationship to the victim. You told me once that you knew her when you were a child. But, when you gave your statement, and when detective Kobayashi questioned you, you didn’t mention it once.
So, I wanted to ask you for your alibi. Anything to point the finger of guilt in another direction. But there’s no chance of that either, is there? That evening, when you saw me in the White Plum and came in for a coffee, I asked you where you had been. You told me you had just been strolling round the neighbourhood for about an hour. Even if someone had seen you on your walk, it wouldn’t necessarily help you, because you could still have popped into the noodle shop on the way to pretend to use the toilet. If only you had been somewhere else, visiting an aunt across town, anything! Tell me, Akechi, am I mistaken. Please, if you can, defend yourself.”
Well, readers, what do you imagine Akechi Kogoro’s response to have been? Do you think he slumped back in defeat? No, he did not. Instead, he punctured my ego immediately by letting out a loud, slow, long laugh. Then, seeing my injured expression he pulled himself up.
“Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh, but you’re so serious!” he said by way of excuse. 
“Your explanation is very interesting. I’m happy to have found a friend like you. But unfortunately your explanation is just too superficial, too material. Take my relationship with the victim. As you say, we knew each other as children, but did you take any time to check what kind of relationship we had, to consider the deeper psychological aspect of the case? Whether we were ever in love with each other? If we were, whether I was still upset and seeking revenge over it? I don’t think you considered anything of the sort. The reason why I didn’t mention my relationship with her to the police is simple. Even though I knew her, I knew nothing about her that could possibly have any relevance to the case. We were only friends for a few years, long ago before we even entered school, and I hadn’t seen her since.”
“In that case, how do you explain the fingerprints on the light switch?”
“Do you think I’ve been completely idle since that day? No, I’ve been quite active too you know. I went over to Dogenzaka every day, especially to the bookshop. I spoke to the owner, and asked him quite a lot. I told him that I once knew his wife, which seemed to help him open up to me, so I got quite a lot of information from him – much the same information, it seems, as you got from your journalist friend. I heard about the fingerprints too, and it piqued my curiosity so I also checked what could have happened. Well, I couldn’t help but laugh – it turns out that the filament in the bulb had just broken, so the light went out. No-one turned it off. We presumed that it was the killer, but actually no-one knew what time it went off, and it could have been several minutes after he left the room that it went. When I turned the light switch, I didn’t actually turn on the light – I just moved the bulb and reconnected the filament, so it came back on.2 So, of course there were no-one’s fingerprints but mine on the switch. You said that you saw the light on through the shutter from the cafe, which means that it must have disconnected after that. These old light bulbs often go of their own accord, even while they’re on.”
As for the issue of the kimono colour, your explanation is…” his words tailed off as he rummaged in a pile of books and pulled out a tattered old volume from somewhere near the bottom.
“Have you read this book? ‘On the Witness Stand’, by Hugo Munsterberg. Published in 1908, I think. Try reading the chapter ‘Illusions’, the first ten lines or so.”
As Akechi put forward his defence, I gradually realised my own failures in investigating the crime. I took the book and read the start of the chapter as I had been told. It read something like this

“Last year, a case came to light in which a car had been stolen. In court, several witnesses were called to the stand and swore under oath to tell the truth. The first witness said that the road in question had been dry and dusty when the incident happened, whereas the second said it had been slick with rain after a recent shower. The first person said the car had been travelling quite slowly; the second testified that he had never seen a car driven so quickly. The first person said there were two or three other people on the road at the time, whereas the second stated there had been men, women and families all down the road. Neither witness had reason to lie, and they were both gentlemen of good standing in the community.”

After I finished reading, Akechi directed me to another chapter in the book, called “The Memory of the Witness”
“The last example was a real criminal case, but this is an experiment that Munsterberg carried out to see what people remembered of sudden events. It has a connection to the colour of the kimono that we’ve been wondering about it, so have a read.”
I started to read about the experiment.

“The year before last, I carried out an experiment in Gottingen. I held a party for various academics; lawyers, psychologists, physicists and others. In other words, all people whose professions depended on close observation of phenomena. At the time, there was a carnival happening in the city. During the party, the doors opened suddenly and a carnival performer in bright, gaudy clothing came rushing in, as if possessed by madness. He was chased in by a man brandishing a pistol. In the middle of the hall the intruders faced each other and yelled insults. Then the performer lay down on the floor, and the man with the pistol stood on him, pointed the pistol downwards, and shot. Both of them then ran out of the room. The whole commotion lasted less than twenty seconds. Aside from the host, nobody knew or had any reason to suspect that it was all set up for an experiment. The host then brought everyone together, and asked them all to write down a truthful account of what they had seen, as it would be helpful for the police when he called them. As you might have guessed, the witnesses testimonies differed hugely in their accounts of the same event. Of the forty people in the room, four said that the man with the pistol wasn’t wearing a hat. Of the other thirty six, around half said he was wearing a silk hat, around half said he was wearing a trilby. As for his clothes, some said he was wearing red, some dark brown, some light brown, and some went for striped. They all remembered a different set of clothes to the ones they had actually seen – in fact, the man wielding the pistol had been wearing white trousers with a black overcoat, and a large read necktie, with no hat. We must conclude that memory, when all things are equal, is easily fallible, because it is affected by the associations, judgments, suggestions, penetrate into every one of our observations and taint out memory and our recollection of events.”

“Munsterberg’s prose might be a bit of a slog, but he’s exactly right”, said Akechi as I finished reading. “People’s observation and memory is not something you can truly rely on.
As in this case, the witnesses to the event were all scholars, intelligent people, and they couldn’t even agree on the colour of the intruders’ clothes. I think it’s the same case for those two students. Both believe they saw what they said they saw, but one of them or perhaps even both of them are mistaken. They might well have seen something, but I’m sure it was not a man with a black and white striped summer kimono. It certainly wasn’t me! Your theory about the stripes being seen from different angles through the shutter is an interesting one, but when you think about it doesn’t it seem a little unlikely? Too perfect, if you see what I mean. Rather than your coincidence, couldn’t you believe that I’m innocent of the crime?”
Finally, we’ve got the issue of the man who used the noodle shop’s lavatory. In this instance, I agree with you. The criminal must have hidden in plain sight, as you put it, and the only way he could have got to the bookshop and out again is through the noodle shop. Unfortunately, I went to the noodle shop and checked for myself, and the conclusion I reached is exactly the opposite to yours. In fact, nobody went in to use the toilet at eight o’clock. There was no such person.”

Reader, as you have seen, Akechi thus demolished my arguments about the witness statement, the fingerprints of the criminal, and how the criminal had got in and out of the bookshop without being seen, and so made the case for his innocence. But denying that someone had gone in to use the toilet in the noodle shop – was he denying that a crime had been committed altogether? I had no idea what he was thinking, so I asked him outright.
“Do you know who committed the murder?”
“Yes, I do”, he said as he continued to play with his hair. “My methods are different to yours. Looking at the physical evidence is only going to get you so far in detective work. The best way to solve the case is to get into the mind of people, to look into the depth of their heart and understand their motives. But, this depends on the skill of the investigator. In any case, I looked at this case from the opposite angle to you; the psychological angle.
The first thing that caught my attention was the fresh bruises all over the victim’s body. Soon after that I heard that the wife of the noodle shop owner had similar marks all over her body. I think you know that already. But, neither of them seem to have violent husbands. Both the noodle shop owner and the bookshop owner seem to be quietly intelligent men going about their business. I couldn’t help think that beneath the ordinary exterior lay a secret of some kind. So, first I tried to find out what it was from the bookshop owner. As I said, by saying I was an old friend of his wife I was able to get to know him very quickly, so I felt able to broach such a delicate matter as his wife’s injuries. By contrast, I got quite the opposite impression from the noodle shop owner, who seemed guarded and distant. Also, I didn’t have a way in like I did with the bookshop owner, so it was very tough to come to any conclusion about him. But, using a certain psychological method, I was able to find out what I needed in the end.”
Are you aware of the ‘association’ method of psychological diagnosis? Did you know it’s also used in the investigation of crime? You give a number of simple stimulus words, and time the suspect’s association of ideas to the words. But, unlike what the psychologists say, I don’t think the stimulus words have to be limited to simple ones like ‘dog’, ‘house’ or ‘river’, and you don’t necessarily need a stopwatch to time the responses. To someone who has the knack of the associative method, it doesn’t have to be so rigid and formulaic. When you think about it, the famous detectives of the past were developing this method unknowingly, using just their own intuition, long before psychology began as a discipline. Somebody like Ooka Echizen3 would be a perfect example. Alternatively, in literature you can look at the detective Dupin in Poe’s “Rue Morgue”, when he explains what his friend is thinking simply from the movement of his body. Holmes also uses the same methods in Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Resident Patient”. They’re all examples of the same technique, but the psychologist insist on complicating matters with machines and mechanical methods because they don’t have the same insight into the human condition, and then claiming the method as their own!
Anyway, I’ve digressed a little, but I tried this method when I was talking to the noodle shop owner. I just talked about very everyday things, and noted his unconscious reactions and verbal responses to my words. But, this is a very delicate procedure; if the subject is in the least suspicious, the experiment becomes flawed and its conclusions unreliable. Anyway, I don’t want to bore you with the methods as it was quite complex, but the results were clear. I had found the murderer.”
But, I don’t have a shred of physical evidence for this, so there’s no way I can go to the police with it. Even if I told them I don’t think they’d act on my suspicions. More than that though, there’s another reason that I’m not trying to act on knowing the identity of the murderer. I don’t think he had any evil intent. I know it seems like a ridiculous thing to say, but in this case I think the victim and the killer were cooperating with each other. You might even argue that the victim persuaded her assailant to kill her.”
I tried looking at this idea from several different angles, but I couldn’t for the life of me work out Akechi’s line of thinking. By now I had forgotten my shame at having accused him after what I now realised was such a shallow investigation, and simply wanted to hear him explain himself.
“Anyway, let me elaborate. The murderer was the owner of the Asahiya noodle shop. He could easily have gone out of the back door of his shop, round to the bookshop to commit the crime, and back again without his customers noticing anything unusual. To impede the investigation, he made up the man going to the toilet at eight o’clock. But that wasn’t in his plans from the beginning, you know. It’s our fault, in a way. Whichever one of us it was, we asked him if someone had gone into the toilet at about eight, and he simply took the idea and used it. In a way, we’re almost his accomplices! He probably took us for policemen. Returning to his motives for the murder, though, this case for me really illustrates how dark, grotesque secrets can be hidden behind the facade of the outwardly normal everyday lives we all lead. It’s the kind of behaviour that we can only really discover in the world of nightmares.”
The owner of the noodle shop followed in the footsteps of the Marquis de Sade. He was a sexual sadist, and by cruel coincidence, the woman in the bookshop two doors down was his Sacher-Masoch, his willing victim. With the cunning of two people who share a perversion, they began an affair. Now perhaps you understand what I meant when I said this crime was cooperative. Within their own marriages, they could barely indulge their twisted desires at all, which were not shared to anything like the same by their spouses, though the fresh bruises on both the bookshop owner’s wife and the noodle shop owner’s wife show that they both tried. But, they could not satisfy their urges like this. So, when they found each other, a partner with the same desires, not more than ten yards away, it is easy to imagine how they could have immediately developed a deep understanding. However, the results of this chance meeting, this twist of fate, were tragic. Through the synthesis of their passive and active roles, their depravity gradually multiplied until that fateful evening ten days ago, in an outcome that surely neither of them expected or wished for when they first met. She persuaded him to kill her. An awful tragedy.”
I shuddered involuntarily as Akechi reached his conclusion. What a bizarre case!
Then the woman from the tobacco shop brought the evening paper up to Akechi’s room. Akechi took the paper, opened it at the local news section, and let out a deep sigh.
“Ah, in the end it seems he couldn’t live with himself. What a coincidence, just as we were talking about it ourselves, the proof comes in the newspaper”, he said, passing me the paper. I read the section he was pointing at, a short article not ten lines long on an inside page. The headline read;

“Local noodle shop owner found hanged; police suspect suicide”


Posted in Fiction, Translations from Japanese | Tagged | 5 Comments

Economics 101 with Abe Shinzo

Today we’ll be looking at the economic policies that Abe Shinzo has stated he will follow since becoming Prime Minister of Japan on December 16th. I’m going to talk about 3 things:

1. A brief introduction to Abe Shinzo
2. His proposed economic policy
3. The possible economic and political consequences of such a policy

Abe Shinzo: the basics

•Abe Shinzo became Prime Minister on December 16th. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a majority of seats in the lower house, and with its coalition partner the New Komeito (the political arm of Buddhist organisation Soga Gakkai), won more than two thirds of all seats in parliament – this allows it to overrule the upper house to force through bills should it want to.

•However, this does not mean Abe has a mandate to govern. His party won 3 million fewer party votes (the electoral system is such that citizens vote for either a party or a certain candidate) than it did in 2009, when it was thrashed by the now-in-opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). However voter turnout was so low that this was enough for a convincing victory. This represents a rejection of the DPJ, not a mandate for the LDP

•In addition, Abe’s credibility is damaged because he made such a poor stab of this job last time. Between September 2006 and September 2007, he served as Prime Minister; a year that was marked by gaffes, scandal, and a series of ministerial resignations. He resigned in some disgrace and the public do not generally remember him fondly. Thus, the bounce that a new government’s popularity generally enjoys is likely to be quite small this time round.
What does Abe plan to do about the economy now he’s in power?

To combat the deflating economy, he will;

•Raise the inflation target to 3%, even though the current 1% looks out of Japan’s reach. To do this, he will ask the BOJ to underwrite construction bonds (bonds whose expenditure does not have to be written off during the same fiscal year, not necessarily on construction).

•Drive interest rates below zero (inflation and interest rates are inversely proportional – as interest rates drop, people borrow more, then spend more, creating inflation)

•This easy money would weaken the yen, making Japanese exports competitive again, give a bounce to the stock market and return Japan to levels of inflation commensurate with other major developed markets.

This all sounds great. Are there any economic problems with this strategy?

Unfortunately the old maxim is true – a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially where Shinzo Abe and economics are concerned. The economic problems of the strategy are manifold;

•The current BOJ head is strongly opposed to the idea. Masaaki Shirakawa called the idea foolish – however the election for the post of BOJ governor is up for re-election in March, and Abe no doubt hopes to get someone more amenable to his plan in the job – Kazumasa Iwata possibly, with fellow supporter Yasuhisa Shiozaki for the Ministry of Finance portfolio? However, even with his two thirds majority in the Lower House of the Japanese parliament, Abe cannot force through the appointment of his favoured candidate – the upper house will still need to approve whoever he puts forward.

•Under current law the plan is illegal. The BOJ cannot currently directly underwrite bonds issued by government; they can only purchase them on the secondary market. No major developed economy allows its central bank to do so. Abe has gone as far as suggesting restricting the independence of the BOJ, which it won in 1998, to push through such a change

•Japan has the largest public debt in the industrialised world at more than twice GDP. As inflation increases so must bond yields, but Japan depends on its sub 1% yields to carry out the normal economic functions of government. Increasing inflation to 3% would push JGB yields unacceptably high, and borrowing would become much more difficult for the government. It should be noted that even at the height of the bubble in the late 1980’s, Japan’s inflation never rose above 3%.

•As Governor Shirakawa has pointed out more forcefully than he points out most things, negative interest rates would be disastrous for the smooth functioning of the money market and render the BOJ impotent in providing liquidity. In an unusually forthright retort to the Abe plan, he said ‘There is no case of a central bank in an advanced country undertaking a negative rate policy.’

•While the yen would weaken under these circumstances helping exporters, Abe should remember that a strong yen is not all bad – it certainly helps Japan pay for all the oil and LNG (liquefied natural gas) it needs to import just to keep the lights on.

•Abe does not understand the genie he is letting out of the bottle. Such excessive monetary easing would lead to speculation in currency and money markets which he would be powerless to control.

•Deflation is a symptom, not a cause of a poor economy. Japan needs much wider fiscal reform to increase demand from all sides – less insularity and more flexible labour markets might be a good place to start.

Oh dear…what about political issues?

Slightly less of them, but by no means are they insignificant

•Abe’s policy recalls the ‘bad old days’ of the LDP, when pork barrel spending from central government kept rural MPs in power, but left Japan with costly white elephants like the Yanba Dam, Joetsu Shinkansen and Ibaraki Airport (which currently has a grand total of two scheduled daily flights – for comparison, Heathrow has over 1300)

•These policies provide easy pickings for political opponents, and when he is elected you can be sure the DPJ will not stay silent – they will oppose him at every turn, making it very hard to continue the work of government.

•The US is also unlikely to approve, mostly because it will make it much harder to be firm with China about currency manipulation when its closest security partner in Asia is doing much the same thing.

•Abe has also stated on record that he will take a firmer line with China and will resume visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead – this is likely to ratchet up tensions with China that have caused Japanese exports to China to fall and trade flows between the two nations to shrink.


In conclusion, Abe’s plans for the central bank are undemocratic, imprudent and likely to lead Japan back over the recessionary cliff rather than pull it away. As the saying goes, to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Abe’s hammer is monetary easing, and he seems to think that it can cure all problems. For Japan’s sake, I hope he picks up an Economics 101 textbook soon and realises that hijacking his central bank is not a good idea. While it seems likely that his proposals will be watered down by the strength of opinion against them, the LDP manifesto for this election is still likely to pledge an inflation target of at least 2%.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Mori Ogai, The Demands of the Day, Part 5

Ogai went to war in April of 1904. The Russo-Japanese war has been called ‘the first great war of the twentieth century’, and its pattern of rival empires failing to come to a peaceful resolution over territory which both saw as within their sphere of influence would become depressingly familiar over the following decades. In the Russo-Japanese war, the territory first argued and then fought over was Manchuria. Russia had been a major player in the region since leasing Port Arthur (modern Lushun) from Qing dynasty China. The port was of great strategic importance to Russia as their only warm water port on the Pacific, and they followed up on this development of infrastructure by building a railway from Port Arthur to Mukden, Harbin and on to join the newly built Trans-Siberian railway. After the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, as part of the eight member international delegation to relieve the imperiled foreign troops trapped in Beijing, Russia sent troops into the imperial capital. At the same time they stationed 177,000 troops in Manchuria, ostensibly as a temporary measure to protect their railroad to Lushun, though as this would have given them an excessive one soldier for every 5 metres of railroad track, it was clearly an invading army disguised as the world’s largest transport police. As expected Russian plans for evacuation of their troops from Manchuria were delayed and postponed until they dropped any pretence and announced their intention to stay in 1903. Japan`s prime minister, Ito Hirobumi, tried to negotiate with the Russians, but the Russian government did not believe that the Japanese would go to war against a power so much larger than itself. Japan, meanwhile, felt strengthened by an alliance with Britain that would bring Britain into the war on Japan`s side if any other power allied with Russia. Diplomacy had failed. Japan attacked Port Arthur on the 8th February 1904, three hours before formally declaring war on Russia. The war was fought on land and sea, with Japanese supremacy at sea in the battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima (largely due to weaponry with a marginally greater range than the Russian naval guns, allowing them to bombard the Russian fleet while staying just out of harm`s way) backing up victories on land in the Battle of Mukden and the Siege of Port Arthur. The Japanese victory, and place at the top table of world powers was enshrined at the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905.

But, we must return to the role of Mori Ogai before he disappears into the mass of humanity that fought in the conflict. He was the chief medical officer in the second division of the Japanese army, sent to the Liaodong peninsula in April 1904. The great controversy of Ogai`s conduct in the war revolves around his handling of beriberi, which was rife among the troops in the army. Ogai is strongly criticized for sticking to his theory that beriberi was a bacterial infection, rather than a deficiency of vitamin B12, or thiamine, leading to the deaths of thousands of soldiers in the Russo-Japanese war when a simple change in diet could have saved the majority. I will not attempt to revive Ogai’s reputation here, as science has proved him to be entirely mistaken. However, I would like to put Ogai`s actions in some context; he was not a lone voice arguing for the bacterial cause of beriberi while the rest of the scientific community had come to their senses and realized its true nature. As late as the 1920s, professors such as Hayashi Haruo at Tokyo University, one of the highest centres of learning in the land, were still performing experiments to try and show that diet and beriberi were not causally related.

However, the link between beriberi and diet had been postulated as early as the 1880s by Takaki Kanehiro, a naval doctor. In 1880 he began to search for reasons behind the high incidence of beriberi in the navy. He had just returned from five years of medical training in St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, and had been schooled in British traditions of social medicine. He began to look for the cause of the disease in diet, housing, bedding, and conditions on board ship. He noticed that officers, with a varied diet of meat and vegetables, rarely developed beriberi whereas the common sailors, with a diet primarily consisting of white rice, were much more susceptible. He concluded that a protein deficiency was a possible cause, and stipulated a more western-style diet of bread, meat and vegetables. However the sailors were not impressed by what they say as a forced adoption of western ways, and there were many cases of sailors hurling their rations overboard en masse. So Takaki used a technique known to parents of fussy children everywhere; he kept the white rice favoured by the sailors, but secretly added barley to it to increase its protein content. This was by no means a novel treatment; adzuki beans and barley in place of white rice had been prescribed as a remedy for beriberi by Chinese herbalists of the Sui dynasty in the 6th century. Indeed, it was the very age of the technique which caused doctors like Ogai and his contemporaries to reject it.
Takaki recorded incidence of beriberi in the navy before and after his diet was introduced. In 1878, 1485 out of 4528 navy personnel contracted beriberi, with 32 dying from it. Just six years later, the figures were 3 beriberi cases among 8472 personnel, and not a single death. All this was more than a decade before Christian Eijkman made a similar proposal in the Dutch East Indies, though he would get a Nobel Prize for his work. Takaki got no such recognition, though he does have an Antarctic peninsula named after him, which is more than most of us can claim.

You may well wonder how it was that fully 20 years after the conclusion of Takaki`s experiment, Mori Ogai was still fiercely resisting the theory that beriberi was a dietary disease even as the army`s soldiers were falling down around his ears. There are a number of reasons, but all revolve around various rivalries within Japanese medical circles. Firstly, his work was criticized roundly by army doctors, rivalry between army and navy being as old as armies and navies themselves. Ishiguro Tadanori, surgeon-general of the Japanese Imperial Army, rounded on Takaki, saying that his statistics were unreliable and that beriberi was a contagious disease which flourished in damp and insanitary conditions. Four weeks after Takaki`s results were published, Dr Masanori Ogata of Tokyo Imperial University released a paper in which he claimed to have found the bacillus which caused beriberi, and his research was much more widely promulgated in the popular press than Takaki`s.

There was also rivalry between the British and German schools of medical thought. German medicine emphasized the importance of laboratory work in proving scientific theories. British medicine was more social in outlook, and relied more heavily on epidemiology and statistical research, perhaps as a result of Florence Nightingale`s pioneering work in using statistics and data to show the role hygiene played in army health in the Crimean war. Thus Takaki saw his statistics on beriberi and diet in the navy as proof of the causal relationship. The German-trained Ogai, along with his superior Ishiguro and many others, strongly disagreed, commenting in print that `Experimental knowledge, using microscope and microtome, is the highest art for producing scientific knowledge`. Statistical data did not constitute scientific fact for these men, and Takaki`s tables would not convince them otherwise.

There was a third rivalry in play, which split the medical authorities along similar lines to the second but was nevertheless separate; between those who believed that traditional medicine was a relic of the past, and those who believed it still had something to offer alongside newer Western techniques. For those in the former camp, the idea of using barley to treat beriberi was old fashioned, dangerous, and based on nothing more than superstition and guesswork from a prior age. For those in the latter, western and traditional medicine were more like two approaches to the same problem, which could complement each other in certain cases.
Finally, there was a social factor at work. White rice, highly polished to remove the entirety of the husk from the grain, is much more expensive than barley or brown rice, and thus was seen as a reward to the armed forces for their sacrifice and struggle. The family of an ordinary soldier back in the civilian world would most certainly not have been able to afford such a luxury. It was thought by many in the armed forces that any attempt to replace white rice with other foods would merely be seen as a cost-cutting exercise by the troops, leading to dissatisfaction at best and full scale revolt at worst.

While this puts into context Ogai`s refusal to countenance barley as a remedy for beriberi, it cannot excuse it. The Russo-Japanese war was the first overseas war Japan fought in where more soldiers were lost to enemy action than disease. This was in no small part due to Ogai’s work on improving army medicine and hygiene. However we must stand against this the 27000 deaths from beriberi in the army, compared to well under 1000 in the navy.

In 1905, one of the most celebrated Meiji era chroniclers of Japan, the writer Basil Hall Chamberlain, wrote `Things Japanese`, a kind of encyclopedia of Japan for the curious Western world. In the section on beriberi, he states that recent scientific advances have proven the disease to be dietary. He notes the example of “the peasantry, who often cannot afford either rice or fish, and have to eat barley or millet instead, suffer much less than the people” A foreign scholar with no medical training had realized the true nature of the disease while Ogai still stuck to his outdated theories; the final proof, if any were needed, that Ogai made the biggest mistake of his career with regard to the transmission of beriberi, one that caused hundreds if not thousands of preventable deaths.

Next time, we will look at Ogai as he furthered his writing career with a burst of creativity in the last years of the first decade of the 20th century.

Posted in Biography, History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment