Category Archives: Military

The Commandant’s House in Brooklyn

Last Saturday I was biking around some back streets in Brooklyn down which I had not wandered before and stumbled across what was clearly a very old fashioned mansion of landmark status, but surprisingly labeled as private property rather than a museum or public building, with no descriptive signage whatsoever.


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Poking around on the Google Maps satellite view I was able to locate the mansion (seen above) in the tiny and quaint neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, and a bit of keyword searching led me to discover that, not only is it in fact a registered historical landmark, but was the official residence of Commodore Matthew C. Perry for two years from 1841-1843, when he was first promoted to the rank of Commodore! As I am sure you all know, it was Perry who, a decade later, sailed into Uraga Harbor and began the process of forcing the opening of Japan, ending the Edo Period and leading to the Meiji Restoration.

I found a 2006 New York Times article about the Commondant’s House, formally known as Quarters A of the now defunct Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather worked during World War II.((The Yard was closed in 1964, but after being vacant for some time is now a city owned industrial park for incubating small and medium businesses.)) The article describes the history of the property as follows.

 The land for what was at first called the New York Navy Yard was bought in 1801. It is not clear whether the first officer in charge of the yard, Jonathan Thorne, was there when the house was built, a time frame traditionally given as 1805 to 1806. The archivist of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Daniella Romano, says that Thorne was later scalped and killed by Indians in 1811 while on a campaign in the Pacific near Vancouver.

The building that Thorne (or a successor) occupied is shown in 19th-century photographs as a clapboard house

four bays wide in front and five bays dee

The facade rose to a peaked roof and a rooftop observation deck.

The main doorway, on the right, was in an intricate Federal style with a fanlight. The cornice and roof trim also carried delicate detailing.

Charles Bulfinch, the architect for part of the United States Capitol, is often mentioned as the designer, but Ms. Romano believes that was the wishful invention of a 20th-century writer.

[...]

In fact, the terms of office in the 19th century seemed to run rather short: Perry’s successor, Joshua Sands, was commandant for only a year. The next commandant, Silas Stringham — who fought the slave trade off the African coast and pirates in the West Indies — served from 1844 to 1846.

It was halfway through his occupancy that The Brooklyn Eagle visited Quarters A and wrote that the house, “with its lawns, terraces and teeming gardens, is a conspicuous object.”

An Eagle reporter returned in August 1872 and wrote that, along with its orchard and vegetable garden, Quarters A had “a look that makes one feel that it must be a pleasant thing to be the commandant.” That was during the four-year term of Stephen C. Rowan, a Civil War veteran.


There is a more detailed architectural history of the house in its National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form (Quarters A was eventually granted landmark status on May 30, 1974), which cites Perry’s residency as one key reason for its registration, although I think anyone would agree that it would still qualify without the commander of the infamous Black Ships.

 It is unclear who lives there today. The Times says that the house has been “In private ownership since the Navy Yard closed in 1964”, but the aforementioned Nomination Form, dated July 1969, says that “Quarters A is owned by the Navy, privately occupied, and not open to the public.” It also lists the owner as “Adm. Harry L. Horty, Jr., Vice-chairman, U.S. Delegation U.N. Military Staff Committee”, which I suppose may mean that the house is still owned by the Navy and occupied by an admiral, but sadly the only thing I know for sure is that it remains closed to the public.

“Disunion” in the New York Times: “Noli Me Tangere”

Anyone who follows me on Twitter may know that I have been a huge fan of the New York Times online series “Disunion”, in which a number of historians take turns writing essays about the American Civil War in largely chronological order – laid out on a great interactive timeline that offers links to contemporary articles on one screen, and links to new essays by historians on a parallel screen.

On top of the generally high quality of the writing and the presentation of lesser known but fascinating anecdotes and characters, the real time nature of the project makes it particularly interesting. When reading history it is all too easy to skim over the happenings of months or years with no appreciation that people at the time experienced them with just as much ambiguity and complexity as we experience current events today.

I don’t know how many people are actually reading the whole thing, but I have just been taking a few hours to read through the entire archive and I must say that this would form the basis for an excellent Civil War curriculum in say, a high school AP or undergraduate US History course and I am sure that more than a few teachers will be using it.

While I don’t feel like just listing my favorite posts from the series, I must point out the proposal of New York City mayor Fernando Wood to secede along with the Southern States, but instead form an independent city-state with the peculiar name of “the Free City of Tri-Insula.”

Entries such as this profile of William Webb, a slave man and underground political activist, or this one on the slaves’ view of Abraham Lincoln are also a necessarily supplement to the admittedly excellent posts on the all-white statesmen and mostly-white soldiers.

As a photography enthusiast I also very much enjoyed this post on photography in the Civil War, in particular its very first photographer – George S. Cook – who took portraits of Major Robert Anderson and his men at Fort Sumter shortly before they were attacked. Cook’s two photos below, of Union ironclads firing on Fort Moultrie in South Carolina on September 8, 1863 are believed to be the world’s first photographs of combat. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the pair of images seem to have been intended for viewing in 3D, with a stereopticon!   (There is also a slideshow of his work.)

But the single detail that jumped out at me the most is, oddly, the obverse of the banner for the “Wilcox True Blues,” a company in the Confederate military from Alabama.

Above you can see the front of the banner, which looks like it depicted some sort of giant, similar to the not-yet existent Statue of Liberty.

And here on the back you can see a snake curled amidst a flowering bush, and the slogan “Noli Mi Tangere.”

This appears to have been a variant on, and reference to, a proposed design for a Republic of Alabama flag during the brief period between the decision to secede and the formal creation of the Confederacy.

Students of European art history may be familiar with this phrase as the title of a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Correggio. Those same art historians, or well-studied Catholics, may be familiar with the original source of the phrase, below as explained in Wikipedia.

Noli me tangere, meaning “don’t touch me” / “touch me not”, is the Latin version of words spoken, according to John 20:17, by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognizes him after his resurrection.

The original phrase, Μή μου ἅπτου (mê mou haptou), in the Gospel of John, which was written in Greek, is better represented in translation as “cease holding on to me” or “stop clinging to me”.


Doing a quick search through books published before the Civil War shows that Noli me tangere was also the name of both a kind of skin disease sometimes associated with either lupus or cancer and a type of flowering plant. In 1719 it probably seemed common sense to name a skin disease “touch me not” and according to our 1802 botanical guide: “The elastic valves of the capsule, when ripe, curl up, and fly asunder on the slightest touch, whence the common name Touch me not.”

Before considering exactly why the slogan noli mi tangere was used on the battle standard of an Alabama military unit, a glance at the books cited above and the many dozens of other search results shows that the phrase was commonly known at the time as a phrase of Biblical origin, with the literal meaning of “touch me not” as well  as a number of metaphorical secondary meanings, such as for the names of diseases or plants.

Although the phrase was apparently common at the time, I would hazard a guess that it is very little known except among people familiar with the reference that made it so noteworthy to me. That is, as the title of the first of two novels by Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, whose publishing activities  – especially his two novels of social protest – helped inspire the 1890s revolution against Spanish colonial rule. Originally written in the Spanish language and published in Europe with the  Latin phrase Noli Me Tangere as its title, the 1887 novel came some time after the US Civil War and has no direct connection to it, but part of the symbolism of the title – “touch me not” – as an expression of defiance rings similar to its use on the Alabama flag.

Since “noli me tangere” or the English translation of “touch me not” refers to a number of plants that do grow wild in the American South I had wondered if the plant featured on the banner’s obverse might be one of them, but it is easy to verify that it is in fact a cotton plant. This is hardly a surprise, as slavery – and therefore the cotton economy – was the central reason for secession, a pillar of the state’s economy, and a cotton plant is still featured on the Standard of the Governor of Alabama (not the state flag).

The heritage of the snake, specifically a coiled rattlesnake,  is probably also obvious to most Americans. This is of course a reference to the Gadsen Flag, not well known by name (I must admit I was not familiar with this name) , but well known as a symbol of the 1776 American Revolution.

“The Gadsden Flag, 1776 – The uniquely American rattlesnake became a popular symbol in the American colonies and later for the young republic. When the American Revolution began, the rattlesnake appeared on money, uniforms and various military and naval flags. To provide a striking standard for the flagship of the first commodore of the American Navy, Christopher Gadsden, an American general and statesman from South Carolina, chose the rattlesnake for
his design.”

Perhaps even better known than the coiled rattlesnake image on the Gadsen Flag  is the segmented snake of Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join or Die” cartoon, which the Gadsen was itself referencing. But it is the coiled rattlesnake motif that the Alabama secession flag employs, and “Noli me Tangere” or “touch me not” – is obviously a reference to “Don’t Tread On Me.”

The use of the phrase Noli Me Tangere by both Jose Rizal and the State of Alabama were in the service of protest, and a move towards revolution and self governance (although Rizal was not exactly a revolutionary he did help to inspire them.) But Rizal, whose anti-colonial novel was inspired by the anti-slavery propaganda novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and preached universal freedom. Alabamans, by contrast, used the phrase to propagandize for their own freedom, but in favor of slavery – an irony that would certainly have disgusted Rizal. One imagines that had he seen this flag, rather than interpreting the snake among the cotton as a symbol of the free agrarian Confederacy, but as the Satan of slavery lurking below King Cotton’s promise. And he might have even chosen a different title for his novel.

I conclude this post with the following two minute animation, an artistic illustration of the “right” for which the Confederacy fought.

[Update: I originally neglected to point out that the banner reads “noli mi tangere” rather than “noli me tangere,” which is simply a spelling error and of no significance that I can determine.]

Regarding Sovereignty of the Spratleys, and the threatening neighbor

I have already considered, and rejected, doing some sort of detailed post on this subject (at least for the time being) as there is no shortage of such reporting already, but I did just stumble on one citation that is too good not to post.

From the September, 1941 issue of Pacific Affairs, an article entitled Third Conquest of the Philippines?, begins with a summation of the Japanese threat at that moment, which perhaps sounds a bit hysterical until one recalls that Japan was in fact, at that time, working quite hard to conquer the entire Pacific, and that they would very soon after attack both Hawaii and Manila.

There is a shadow of Japan everywhere you turn your eyes in the Philippines. Stories of Japanese fishing depradations, for instance, are almost a daily routine in the papers. When you hear Philippines independence discussed, Japan and her imperial conquests are mentioned in the same breath. The fact is that Japan’s adventures in Manchuria and China have sent chills down the spines of nationalist Filipinos.[...]

For it is being made apparent in the most realistic fashion that such a political freedom-soon to be realized- may yet expose the Philippines as ripe for spoilation by a powerful militaristic neighbor. This is no chimera or idle preoccupation; it is born of facts which are tell-tale evidence of a Japanese plan of conquest of the entire Asiatic Continent including all the rich island tributaries along the coastline. Japan has methodically followed a very logical course of action. The seizure of Hainan Island at the gateway to French Indo-China gave Japan tactical control of the French and British sea-lane to the East Indies.


And after that introduction, we get to what was to the author of this piece (S.P. Vak, Jr. – a name that could almost be out of Star Wars) probably considered to be an idle aside, but in light of current events I found to be the most fascinating lines.
The seizure of the Spratley Islands has tactically brought Japan near to a complete encirclement of the Philippines. The Spratley Islands are barely 200 miles west of the Palawan group. (It is of interest to cite in this connection a farseeing move on the part of Hon. Elpidio Quirino, who as Secretary of the Interior of the Philippine Government memorialized the State Department at Washington in 1937 for a formal declaration of claims to the Spratleys for national defense purposes. Unhappily, the State Department did not see fit to act ion the question. The islands apparently had no official owners, though geographically the Philippines should have been their rightful claimant.)

While we know from both looking at a map and from the current controversy that “geographically,” claims on the islands by Okinawa or Taiwan (which were both Japanese territory at the time), and China via a more convoluted legal route, also seem quite feasible, but it is interesting to see that this author did not even so much as consider those options.

Let us also take a moment to remember that Japan was also considered somewhat of a trade threat at the time, although hardly on the scale that it was in the 80s, or China is now.

Japanese industrialists employ every possible device to flood the market [note: the Philippine market] with cheap imitations of popular American articles. In 1937, for instance, Japan sold 32 million pesos’ worth of commodities in spite of the high tariff barrier, reaching as high as 65 per cent ad valorem on some articles.

[...]

Japan, fighting tooth and nail for markets, has resorted to all sorts of weapons. She has unscrupulously copied patents and designs which are purportedly American in Origin. Peculiarly Filipino textiles of the Ilocos and Visaya regions, copied on Japanese looms, sell for less than the originals because of the advantages obtained in organization, technology and cheaper cost of labor.

Hiroshima bombing anniversary

Today, August 6, 2010, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, significant for being the first visited by a delegation from the US, as well as by the UN Secretary General himself. There is no shortage of commentary out there, such as this short essay by Nobel-novelist Oe Kenzaburo, or the statement issued by the mayor of Hiroshima, but there are a couple of specific items I want to highlight.

Despite being one of the most famous incidents in all of human history, there is still a surprising amount of speculation, doubt, and conspiracy theorizing regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Foremost among these is Truman’s real motivation for ordering the bombing; did he really believe that it was the only way to end the war without hundreds of thousands, or millions more deaths, or did he believe that Japan was ready to surrender, but could not give up the chance to show off the awesome destructive power of the atom to the Soviets? I could of course investigate that question all day, but instead I want to briefly look at two other issues related to the morality of the bombing.

First of these is a fascinating, some might say disturbing, questionnaire given to over 250 Manhattan Project scientists in July, 1945, which was first published as “A Poll of Scientists at Chicago, July 1945,” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1948, 44, p63. (Link thanks to i09.com)

The single question poll has been posted online as an interactive web-poll, but since it isn’t working properly for me I will post the actual text here.

Which of the following five procedures comes closest to your choice as to the way in which any new weapons that may develop should be used in the Japanese war:

  1. Use them in the manner that is from the military point of view most effective in bringing about prompt Japanese surrender at minimum human cost to our armed forces.

  2. Give a military demonstration in Japan to be followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.

  3. Give an experimental demonstration in this country, with representatives of Japan present; followed by a new opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.

  4. Withhold military use of the weapons, but make public experimental demonstration of their effectiveness.

  5. Maintain as secret as possible all developments of our new weapons and refrain from using them in this war.


Please read the full post at Ptak Science Books for far more details, including the results of the original poll, the online poll, and links to their long series of posts on the history of atomic weaponry.

Next we have the following article from the Asahi, one month ago.

Nara honors its Chinese scholar savior

A Chinese intellectual credited with saving historic Nara from annihilation in World War II is to be immortalized in bronze in the ancient Japanese capital.

Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), a renowned Chinese architectural historian who was born and spent his early childhood in Japan, is believed to have interceded with the U.S. military to protect the historic former capitals of Nara and Kyoto from the air raids that flattened many of Japan’s urban centers.

The statue was unveiled in Beijing in mid-June in the presence of representatives from Japan and China and is expected to be installed at the Nara Prefectural Cultural Hall by late October.

Liang was known for his efforts to protect China’s cultural treasures in areas occupied by Japan during the Japan-China war, producing a map, at the request of the U.S. authorities, of key sites in the country.

But he is also believed to have used his connections with U.S. officers to plead on behalf of Japan’s ancient capitals.

“He strived to protect cultural properties from war damage, not just those of his own country but those of an enemy,” said Luo Zhewen, a former senior official of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics.

Luo, 86, who worked with Liang on the China map, is an adviser to the China Social-Cultural Development Foundation, which has helped promote the statue idea.

He said the statue would have “great significance for China and Japan’s friendship.”

There are no written records to confirm Liang’s role in preventing the bombing of Kyoto and Nara. The story of his contribution appears to have originated with Su Bai, 87, a professor of archaeology at Peking University.

In 1947 or 1948, Su attended a lecture by Liang, who told him during a break about the map of cultural properties in China and his request to the U.S. forces to refrain from bombing Nara and Kyoto.

Su mentioned Liang’s comment to a Japanese researcher in the 1980s and the story began to spread.

Liang was born in Japan and lived there until age 11. His father was Liang Qichao, a well-known reformer during the late Qing Dynasty. After graduating from what is now Tsinghua University, Liang studied architectural history in the United States from 1924 to 1928.

He worked for wartime culture protection under the Chinese Nationalist government.

Lin Zhu, Liang’s second wife, said he told her about his request to the U.S. forces during the Cultural Revolution, when he became a target of student criticism.

“He loved Japan, where he spent his early childhood. He was so troubled by Japan’s invasion of China,” said Lin, 82.

Lin said her husband had kept his appeal on behalf of Nara and Kyoto secret because he feared his help for the wartime enemy might make him a target of criticism.

There are competing accounts of why the old capitals were avoided by U.S. bombers. Langdon Warner (1881-1955), an art historian at Harvard University and a mentor to Liang while he was at Harvard, is also credited with calling for the cities’ protection. The decision has been attributed by some to U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson.

Liang’s grandson, Liang Jian, 56, says, “I believe my grandfather wanted to protect cultural assets regardless of national borders. It is, however, a fact that no written records exist.”


As far as I’m concerned, that last line is the most important one. While I am willing to believe that Liang “wanted to preserve cultural assets” there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that he did, or that Doctor Langdon Warner – who is popularly, and falsely credited for having saved Kyoto despite his own denials – did so, rather than military and political considerations. The fact is that there is no real evidence to suggest that cultural asset preservation was a factor in the decision over where to drop the atom bombs, which is a topic that I plan to make a detailed post on some time in the future.

Really, at it’s core the myth that Kyoto, and perhaps Nara and other historical cities, were saved from the atom bomb due to a strong desire to preserve ancient relics is nothing but a feel-good story for both side. Now, it might sound crazy to some that any aspect of the bombings is a “feel-good story,” but I propose that it actually serves such a purpose for both the Americans and the Japanese. By believing the myth that our government and military was persuaded to significantly alter the bombing plan, we can believe that, even in the midst of a bloody and inhuman war, an appeal by a humble art historian led us to transcend immediate concerns of war between nations for the sake of the historical legacy of humanity as a whole. We can pretend that while on the one hand we possess such godlike power, we also have the humility to use it wisely, and by remembering how we spared history for the sake of a greater good, we can conveniently draw attention away from the decisions to kill hundreds of thousands.

Conversely, for the Japanese side to believe in this myth is to somewhat allay the wounds of defeat by appealing to national pride. After all, for an enemy so terrified and desperate to win that they would unleash the power of the sun itself to, in that very instant of apocalyptic destruction, to deliberately avoid incinerating Japan’s largest concentrations of sacred and historically significant sites can be nothing but a reflection of how truly significant those sites, that culture and history, must be. To believe so strongly in the power of Japanese culture to affect the enemy’s actions in such a moment creates a kind of victory in the face of defeat, much as the common (although, I stress, not universal) portrayal of the bombings as an event of passive victimhood similar to a natural disaster, with neither reason nor aggressor, creates a narrative in which all moral complexity is stripped away, the virtuous suffering, martyrdom, and survival of the victims are the only salient facts, allowing for a sort of moral victory in the face of defeat. The perpetuation of this historical myth may seem innocent to some, but it enables the avoidance of the grave moral and strategic issues that actually were in play, issues of both Japan’s war responsibility and American reasons for the use the atomic bomb (as raised in the survey above), and does a disservice to those who suffered and died.

And finally I leave you, without comment, the official North Korean statement on the anniversary of Hiroshima and its special mix of factual record and – let’s say – colorful political commentary, courtesy of their always entertaining KCNA news site.

Korean A-bomb Victims Have Bitter Grudge against US-Japan

Pyongyang, August 5 (KCNA)—Sixty-five years has elapsed since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent people dead. The death toll is about 159,000 in Hiroshima and 73,000 in Nagasaki.

Among the victims of the nuclear holocaust, the first of its kind in human history, were foreigners and many of them were Koreans.

According to a non-governmental organization of south Korea, the total number of the Korean victims is about 70,000 and the death toll about 40,000. A civic organization of Japan made public that the Korean victims in Nagasaki alone total 21,384, 10,278 of them dead.

The figures show that the Koreans account for more than ten percent of all the victims.

Many Korean people, forcibly brought to Japan for slave labor, lost their lives due to the atomic bombs. Even survivors died later or are still suffering from their aftermath.

Some of the survivors have come back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

They have been harassed by mental sufferings as they have adversely affected their descendants in the second and third generations from the genetic point of view. They are closing their days with a deep-rooted rancor against the United States and Japan.

Nevertheless, Japan has refused to make any apology and compensation or render humanitarian assistance to them allegedly because it has no diplomatic ties with the DPRK. On the contrary, it is seeking nuclear armament with the backing of the United States.

Meanwhile, the United States, far from feeling guilty of having inflicted the unheard-of nuclear holocaust on humans, has stepped up nuclear war preparations near the Korean peninsula and in other regions of the world.

The Korean army and people are determined to decisively smash the nuclear war preparations of the U.S. imperialists, their sworn enemy, and foil the nuclear ambition of the Japanese reactionaries, who are going for reinvasion of Korea, servile with the United States.


I also have another blog post related to the Hiroshima bombing I plan to put up later, whereupon I will replace this note at the bottom with a link.

Skymark vs. the SDF

The new airport in Ibaraki Prefecture just lost its only domestic route, though it will still have a flight to Korea.

There were reasons to expect this. The airport is far from Tokyo, even farther than Narita, and it has no rail service. It is only particularly convenient for people in Mito, Tsukuba and other cities in the immediate surroundings. (More on this at CNNGo and Yen for Living.)

But economics didn’t kill Skymark Airlines’ Ibaraki-Kobe route: instead, the neighbors killed it. Ibaraki Airport was originally built as an Air Self-Defense Force base, and it still houses units of fighter defense jets and military civil defense transport planes. This is not really a unique situation to Ibaraki: Itami, Komaki and New Chitose Airports all have SDF units on-site, and Misawa Airport shares its runways with the U.S. Air Force. These airports manage to keep a balance between civilian and defense traffic, but the officials in Ibaraki were apparently less cooperative.

Yomiuri (English):

It’s possible the ASDF could ask us to suspend our flights when they are holding a troop inspection ceremony. We are therefore unable to conduct this service on a regular basis,” a Skymark spokesperson said.

The cancellation has shocked local officials. “I am very surprised. I will ask the officials concerned to fine-tune any differences as soon as possible, and give top priority to passenger convenience,” Ibaraki Gov. Masaru Hashimoto said late Thursday.

Toyo Keizai (Japanese):

Skymark management explained the cause of the service cancellation: “There is a need for consideration for the Air Self-Defense Forces in excess of what was expected, and this harms our ability to provide steady service.” They have also indicated that there is a possibility of resuming service if the situation improves, but the relationship with the SDF was expected at the time the service began, and some related parties are calling [Skymark] irresponsible.

Load factors on Skymark’s Ibaraki-Kobe route are high, exceeding 75%, but the route is running in the red when maintenance and other operating costs are included. Skymark aimed to make the route profitable by providing service three or more times per day in the future, instead of the current single daily round trip, but apparently determined that such a schedule would be difficult to arrange because of the SDF relationship.

Asiana Airlines are maintaining daily flights between Ibaraki and Seoul, so the airport is not totally a ghost town. Assuming passengers can get there, it’s actually great for ultra-cheap flying because of its low construction budget and lack of frills. The terminal is extremely compact (it doesn’t even have jet bridges to the planes) and on-site parking is free.

Mapping the US forces in Japan

With all the recent hubbub about the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, it seems like an opportune time to unveil a little project I’ve been working on: a Google map of all the US military facilities in Japan. Okinawa is, of course, the most dramatically colonized region by a long shot.


View US military facilities in Japan in a larger map

But equally interesting is the Tokyo area, which contains a number of huge and not-so-huge American outposts.


View US military facilities in Japan in a larger map

This is still a work in progress, as facility names, locations and borders can be occasionally hard to pinpoint without being on the ground or on the inside, so comments are welcome.

Japanese Names, White Faces

Marmot has a post titled “Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Mr. Fujita…” that looks at the case of Scott Fujita, a 6′5″ 250 pound white football player with a Japanese name who plays for the New Orleans Saints. He’s not ethnically Japanese, or even Asian, but was adopted by a family with a Japanese-American father born in the World War II detainment camps. He reportedly feels Japanese in his heart and is a fan of mochi ice cream and Pocky.

Reading the post and the comments reminded me of my meeting with Sailor Nathan Nakano, resident on the USS Kitty Hawk, when I visited as a guest of the Tiger Cruise in Yokosuka in 2006, seeing US military hardware and life on board an aircraft carrier, courtesy ComingAnarchy reader Eddie.


Curzon and Nakano, September 2006

I remember asking Nakano: That’s a Japanese name! What gives? And if I recall correctly, his father’s father was either Japanese or half-Japanese, making him one-fourth or one-eighth Japanese. You can read a news story that quotes Nathan here.

I wonder how many Westerners there are with Japanese names in the world? Marmot’s commenters have a few stories relaying similar stories about white kids with Japanese names due to adoption or stepfather relationships. There’s also a (sorta) opposite case, Haruki Nakamura, the current United States Chess Champion—he was born in Japan to a Japanese father and American mother, but his parents divorced, his mother remarried a Sri Lankan, and his stepfather, FIDE Master and chess author Sunil Weeramantry, taught him chess. So he’s got a Japanese name, but has only non-Japanese parents.

Equal Alliance? Sure! A US perspective on the Japan-US relationship imbalance

For years we’ve heard opposition Japanese politicians vaguely bemoan the unequal alliance between the US and Japan. Japan should speak up! many have said. Now that the DPJ has won the government and Yukio Hatoyama is the PM, this assertion has been repeated by the government, without explaining what this means. Richard Halloran agrees, and recently laid out ten ways how Japan could achieve an equal alliance with US with some honesty that I expect would make most Japanese policymakers nauseous. Summarized, these ten ways are:

1. Japan should take full responsibility for its own defense and abolish Article 9.

2. Emphasize naval forces to project power into the ocean and defend vital shipping routes, which are largely defended by the US navy.

3. Revise the Japan-US security treaty to oblige Japan to come to the defense of the US just as the US is obliged to help defend Japan.

4. Quadruple defense spending to $200 billion a year from its present $50 billion a year, to bring it up from 1% to 4% of GNP, the ratio in the US.

5. Enlarge the Self-Defense Force to 880,000 men and women from the present 240,000, commensurate with the US’s population-to-soldier ratio. Perhaps resort to conscription to achieve this.

6. Expel most, if not all, US forces from Japan, including Okinawa, and convert the bases to SDF use.

7. Remove the US nuclear umbrella, or extended deterrence, from Japan, and follow what one Hatoyama advisor calls for, relying on a world without nuclear weapons.

8. Take over development of missile defense from the US.

9. Establish a department like the CIA or MI-6 to collect and analyze political, economic and military intelligence.

10. Take the initiative in international negotiations.

The Tortured Japanese Decision Making Process, Part 1: Dubai and Futenma

UPDATE: When I read the blog on my Etisalat-serviced Blackberry over the weekend, I was horrified to see that the text of this post was substantially abridged to just three paragraphs and slightly edited for flow to remove all references to Dubai (excluding the title). When I finally got to a computer today, I see that it appears unedited, even on my Dubai computer. I remain perplexed as to what would be deemed critical of the UAE in this post that could have been material subject to censorship. -Curzon, 13 December.

I haven’t yet publicly explained to MF readers, but I recently relocated my permanent residence from Tokyo to Dubai. I’ve since been publishing most of my thoughts on my new life in the region at ComingAnarchy.com, a more appropriate forum for the material, and you can read dispatches from the region in recent posts that appeared here, here, here and here. However, I am still remain closely involved in Japan, and will continue to blog here on topics that relate to Japan and Asia. I am also on a flexibly but ultimately fixed term assignment in the Middle East and plan to return to Japan afterwards.

A move between civilizations such as this clearly reveals contrasts between cultures. From the mere provision of services, to the exotic types of food, to the very manner in which human beings interract, many things are different. I could list dozens of example, but it’s primarily the quirky differences that stick in my mind. For example, did you know that the number of bathrooms in apartments and houses in the Middle East is the number of bedrooms, plus one? Apparently Arabs are loathe to share bathrooms, even with family members, so every 2LDK has three bathrooms (the additional bathroom is for guests) and one 3LDK with a maid’s room I saw during my house hunt had five bathrooms! There are also similarities between the two cultures when viewed from the Western perspective—Arabs, like the Japanese, are polite and formal when first meeting, prefer their commercial transactions to be relationship-oriented, and don’t allow their women equal social participation.

One stark contrast with regards to culture that sticks in my mind is the decision-making process. I’ve become accustomed to the concensus-based approach to making decisions in Japan, to the extent that Japan’s norms are natural to me—take time to hear all opinions, discuss pros and cons, think some more, and then eventually wander towards a decision. This works fine in Japan, but it’s completely different in most of the rest of the world, and in the Middle East, I’ve seen some important decisions made at the drop of a hat. What’s more, when I need to decide things that involve other people, I see the Japanese decision-making process reflected in myself, and I would observe that it has the power to drive people crazy. “Make a decision already! Or get back to me when you’re finished!” That’s something I’ve heard several times in both the personal and commercial context over the past few weeks.

The Japanese decision-making process works great in Japan, and is an important part of the culture, but it simply doesn’t work overseas, where decisions are, by comparison, streamlined. This is something that the Japanese must understand if they engage non-Japanese parties in discussions or negotiations, and many major trading companies with global operations and bureaucratic institutions of government have carefully internalized their decision making procedures so as not to send mixed messages. It still takes them a long time to come to a decision, but at least it helps to prevent them appearing indecisive, weak, or send out mixed messages.

I have been thinking about this for the past few days and just this morning read that Obama is avoiding a private chat on the Futenma Base relocation with Hatoyama at the Copenhagan environmental summit. (Regular readers know that I was very critical of the DPJ scattershot approach to foreign policy before they took power, and specifically addressed the absurd and painful procedure used to review the Futenma Base relocation in previous blog posts.) When queried on this, the White House press secretary answered that the two leader met two months ago and nothing has changed since. Therefore…

Therefore what? The Japanese logic concludes that, therefore, all levels of America’s foreign policy and defense apparatus should continue to join in with the decision-making process. The Western logic is just the reverse—the natural conclusion is that there is nothing further to discuss, as what needs to happen now is for Japan to come to a decision and then tell America their decision.

Or as I’ve heard a few times since coming to Dubai: “Make a decision already! Or get back to me when you’re finished!” That Hatoyama is trying to involve Obama in the nemawashi process in the Futenma Base relocation is yet another example of how the DPJ are rank amateurs. During the LDP years, administrations were at least good at holding off American officials while the internal decision making process went forward, and thus avoided public disagreements, sending mixed messages, or appear not to have a clue. The DPJ needs to realize that the consensus-based decision making process is unique to Japan and does not work internationally. Taking such a long time to come to a conclusion is painful enough for most non-Japanese to tolerate, and becoming pulled into the decision making process is bound to end badly. When will Hatoyama realize this, and what damage will be done to the US-Japan alliance in the interim?

Did Japan test an atomic bomb in Korea in 1945?

Robert Kneff of the Marmot’s Hole blog has a neat article in the Korea Times re-telling the little known allegation that Japan tested a nuclear bomb in what is now North Korea shortly before the end of WW2. To be fair, I’ll excerpt the same portion as the Marmot’s Hole did.

It is common knowledge that on October 9, 2006 North Korea tested a small nuclear bomb. But there is debate as to whether or not this was the first atomic bomb test done in Korea. Ever since the end of World War II there have been rumors that Japan, just days before its surrender, tested a small atomic bomb off the coast of modern Hamheung.

I came across this story while doing research on one of my Western gold miners in northern Korea.  This gold miner used to take his gold to the smelter at Konan – in the Hamheung area – and the story eventually encompassed other Westerners working at the this Japanese industrial center including one who, after he returned to the United States, was arrested by the FBI following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  This scientist was deemed so valuable that he was allowed to continue to work in a top secret plant and was eventually one of the scientists sent to Korea to investigate the possibility of Japan building and testing an atomic bomb in Korea.

This story always starts the same way – regardless of who publishes it – so why should I be any different?

Allegedly, on the evening of August 11, 1945, a number of ancient ships, junks and fishing boats were anchored near a small inlet by the Japanese. Just before dawn on August 12, a remote controlled launch carrying the atomic bomb known as “genzai bakudan” (greatest fighter), slowly made its way through the assembled fleet and beached itself.

Nearly twenty miles away, observers wearing welders’ glasses were blinded by the bomb’s terrific blast. “The ball of fire was estimated to be 1,000 yards in diameter. A multicolored cloud of vapors boiled towards the heavens then mushroomed in the stratosphere. The churn of water and vapor obscured the vessels directly under the burst. Ships and junks on the fringe burned fiercely at anchor. When the atmosphere cleared slightly the observers could detect several vessels had vanished.”


While this is a good story, there isn’t really any reason to believe it, and no serious evidence aside from this single interview with an anonymous source, which itself may very well have been fabricated in the first place. One detail that jumps out to me as peculiar is the alleged name of the bomb, genzai bakudan, which according to the article means “greatest fighter.” Except of course that translation is total nonsense. In no possible way that I can think of does either genzai or bakudan mean either “greatest” or “fighter.” Bakudan in fact means bomb, which while reasonable as part of a name for a-well- bomb, is completely different from what was claimed. And genzai means either “present time” or “original sin”, neither of which really makes much sense at all.

On another note, this has reminded me that I need to finish the post I started writing on the book “Let’s drop an atomic bomb on Kyoto”, about why Kyoto was not nuked in the war, that I picked up at a used bookshop near Waseda several months ago.