The Perils of Interpreting

The Macartney Mission of 1793 sometimes seems to be one of the most studied diplomatic events in Sino-British history – a failed attempt to open commerce and diplomatic dialogue between George III, who was already mad, and the Qianlong Emperor, who soon would be when he had to deal with British faffing over protocols. Over the years, it has been written up by, among others, its deputy, by its sea captain, by Macartney’s own valet (a fascinating document, recently republished by Frances Wood, and which I hope to review here soon), and, tardily, by Macartney himself, whose own diary of events remained unpublished until 1958, over a century after his death. In recent years, it has also been the subject of a wonderfully detailed approach in diplomatic terms, Eoin McDonnell’s Kowtow, as well as James L. Hevia’s Cherishing Men From Afar, which approaches the whole thing from the point of view of the Chinese.

But all of these are valid and illuminating angles, as is Henrietta Harrison’s The Perils of Interpreting, which retells the story of the Macartney mission from the point of view of the poor men who had to interpret all the wrangles into and out of Chinese. Harrison focusses on Li Zibiao, the Italian-educated Chinese who interpreted for the mission, as well as the twelve-year-old George Thomas Staunton, who accompanied his father on the trip and was driven thereafter into a life of Chinese studies.

Harrison is particularly good at following the money, offering harsh financial explanations for historical phenomena. When it comes to the Macartney mission itself, she provocatively notes that of all the planetariums, muskets and clocks that Macartney tried to impress the Chinese with, he neglected to mention Britain’s most devastating and useful “new technology” – the national debt. It’s this, Harrison argues, that made it possible for the British to construct huge warships in the first place, while the Qing dynasty struggled to pay its bills.

She also places Macartney’s mission firmly in its historical context, noting only the massive amounts of money sloshing around the world in the ever-growing tea trade, but the degree to which Macartney’s own attitude was influenced by his personal experience in the Americas and India. Ousted from his former Caribbean post by the French, he was packed off to run Madras, where he was bogged down in a prolonged conflict with the neighbouring state of Mysore, and only permitted some breathing space when Britain’s acceptance of American independence brought an end to the war with France. India, Harrison writes, was supposed to be the new imperial possession to replace the lost Americas, and Macartney feared that Britain might lose India as it had lost the Thirteen Colonies. He was hence super-keen on establishing trade with China as a means of strengthening India as a British possession.

Occurring a number of times in Macartney’s diary of the mission, “Mr Plumb” the interpreter turns out to actually be Mr Plum (Chinese: Li), or Li Zibiao, a Chinese Christian who had studied at an Italian seminary, and was hence able to render Chinese into Italian or Latin. As the man literally at the ears of the Emperor and Macartney, Li was privy to all sorts of machinations and skulduggery, and indeed added some of his own by trying to work discussion of religious freedom for Chinese Catholics into some of the things he was translating. Harrison provides several chapters about the remarkable life that took Li from the edge of Tibet, to Italy and back to China, noting all the while that the Qing records of the Macartney Mission neglect to even mention that Macartney’s interpreter was Chinese.

Much discussion of the mission tends to revolve instead around the mission’s “other” interpreter, George Staunton, the son and namesake of Macartney’s deputy. The twelve-year-old Staunton picked up enough Chinese on the journey to be able to stutter a few words in response to the Emperor’s attention, and also, in one of the British Empire’s more staggering delegations of responsibility, also put his sophomoric grasp of Chinese writing to use copying out the official diplomatic response to the Emperor. Harrison observes that the bigging up of Staunton in the official record is, at least in part, because it’s his Dad who wrote it, choosing to place his son’s encounter with the Emperor at the centre of the mission report, as one of the few moments of human interest in an otherwise tense and frustrating diplomatic encounter.

But there’s more to it than mere fatherly bragging. Staunton Junior, accepting a gift from the Qianlong emperor, became the centrepiece of the mission’s visual imagery, too. Harrison uses William Alexander’s painting of the Staunton encounter on her cover, noting in passing that it also includes the sole artistic representation of Li Zibiao. However, Harrison also observes that William Alexander didn’t actually accompany the entourage on their trip to meet the Emperor at his summer retreat. Instead, he drew his famous picture based on the description he received from people who actually had been there, and went through several drafts that depicted it in various different ways. Moreover, it seems highly likely that the centring of Staunton, effectively pushing Macartney himself into the background of the sole official depiction of his meeting with the Emperor, cunningly pulls the focus away from Macartney’s own interaction, which had been, and continues to be a matter of diplomatic controversy.

Even before Macartney left for China, there had been speculation about whether he would prostrate himself before the Emperor in the kowtow, (even to the extent of a Gillray cartoon, above, lampooning the idea) and Harrison gets gleefully grubby in the archives pointing out how Chinese and British writings on the fateful meeting offer widely different accounts of it, and that the elder Staunton’s own hand-written journal contains frantic crossings-out as he tries to find the best wording to describe Macartney’s behaviour as diplomatically as possible, none of which survive to the account as printed and published.

That’s not how the Chinese remembered it, and Harrison uncovers a cutting passage of courtly verse that compares the British to “wild deer, untamed and stubborn against the court rituals” and which brags that when push came to shove in the imperial presence, Macartney fell to both his knees.

So not the one knee that Macartney claimed himself, and not the full head-to-the-floor kowtow that the Chinese demanded? Whatever happened, after Macartney’s audience, the relations between the entourages turned increasingly frosty, and the British were bundled out of north China, being told that their time was up, but actually because the patience of the Chinese had run out.

The Macartney Mission was officially a failure, and its leader returned to Britain muttering that China was a rotting hulk, a ship of state doomed to sink or succumb to mutiny. That’s another story, of course. But Harrison stays with the two interpreters, charting their very different fates, as Li ended up as an increasingly unwelcome missionary in Shaanxi, while the younger Staunton nurtured a passionate interest in the Chinese language, and would return to China in his late teens as an employee of the East India Company. There, his years of careful study of Mandarin were confronted by the two-fold menace of Cantonese, as different from Mandarin as English is from Dutch, and by the horrors of Chinese Coastal Pidgin, a trading patois that mangled both Chinese and English into a new creole of its own.

There is more material extant on Staunton than on Li, and Harrison makes the most of her metadata, even including a graph tabulating the increase in his wealth from his bank accounts. Staunton gets to lurk as an interpreter in the corners of several other minor moments in Sino-British history, but suddenly comes to life, quite jaw-droppingly, in an encounter in 1811. With tensions riding high in Canton, the Mongol official Songyun arrives as a trouble-shooter, and demands to know who has written the impeccable Chinese on a British document. It was, of course, Staunton, whom Songyun first encountered a decade earlier, and the two are reacquainted at a banquet that suddenly turns nasty when Songyun, seemingly out of the blue, demands that Staunton drop to his knees and perform the kowtow to him. Staunton refuses so vehemently that a modern reader might even say that he was “triggered”.

Staunton is also on the side-lines in 1811 at a moment that passes without much notice, but which amounts to the culmination of all Macartney’s fears and warnings. Low on silver, and unprepared to listen to Songyun’s pleas for the moral high-ground, the English merchants in Canton voted to accept opium as a security in credit notes. That was sure to help the economy back in British India, but also set the nations on a collision course for the Opium Wars.

Harrison takes her narrative right up to and past the first Opium War, with a melancholy account of the ridicule and indifference with which the British back home treated Staunton’s knowledge of China. She writes of Staunton’s ire at being asked to be a mere interpreter with the later Amherst Embassy, despite the expectations of the Chinese themselves that he would be a leading envoy. Instead, fuming, he is initially asked to be a mere flunky, working for the bastard son of the Earl of Buckinghamshire, appointed to the role because he’s been to India and therefore apparently “knows the East.”

She also quotes from his heartfelt attempts, later in life as a Member of Parliament, to teach braying fellow MPs about the finer nuances of Chinese culture – his futile speech correcting the weasly comments of one MP ring all too true today, in a world in which, in the words of Michael Gove, people had already “had enough of experts” and preferred instead the comforts of ignorance.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Henrietta Harrison’s The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators Between Qing China and the British Empire is published by Princeton University Press.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy…

Well, I’d like to thank the Academy, but it turns out there’s no need, since this year’s best animated feature competition at the Oscars is Encanto, Flee, Luca, The Mitchells vs the Machines and Raya and the Last Dragon.

The longlist was a different story. There were six Japanese animated features eligible for consideration there, but then again, the longlist is always a bit of a mug’s game, as everybody tries to cram as many titles in there as possible. So, it would have been nice, say, if Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko, which won the Judges’ Award at October’s Scotland Loves Anime, had made it over the penultimate hurdle. Considering Hollywood’s love of self-referentiality, I’m a little surprised there wasn’t a smidgen of love for Pompo the Cinephile, which is a gleeful celebration of movie-making.

And then there’s the giant, speaker-laden blue whale in the room, Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle, which is sending critics worldwide into tailspins of praise, garnering five-star reviews in the mainstream press, and has been resoundingly ignored.

You may be wondering why anyone really cares. The Oscar-voters’ frames of reference are plainly blinkered beyond belief, limited to whatever their kids are watching and a sop to the woke Danes. But as Ichiro Itano once sagely said, there’s no medal for coming fourth. Come third, be an also-ran in the race, and you’re still part of the conversation, you’re part of the news cycle. People see you on the podium and wonder who you are, and maybe they Google you, and maybe they give your movie a try. I’m sure there’s no coincidence that Belle’s UK cinema run was timed to coincide with the shortlist announcement, in the hope that its distributors could slap the words “nominated for an Oscar” on the posters.

If you read this magazine, then you presumably have an interest in Japanese cartoons, and can probably name one or two that might have deserved an Oscar in the twenty years since Spirited Away took one home. The Oscars might be conservative and parochial, but so is much of the world’s movie-going audience, and that’s why we keep coming back with our fingers crossed, hoping that senpai will notice us.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #218, 2022.

Eurovision Shouty I-Spy 2022

“Veni, Vidi EUROVICCI!” We’re back for the game of the year, the Eurovision Song Contest hosted this time by Italy, whose entry last year was a breath of rocking fresh air, but sadly inspired a lot of the lesser countries to send a bunch of crappy garage bands.

We’ve already had to say goodbye to a bunch of those, as well as Latvia’s over-enthusiastic vegans and Albania’s… well, she was a lot. And I was sorry to see Georgia go, as they even brought their own puppets. But there are still plenty of mentalists remaining, in a year sure to be over-shadowed by Ukraine getting invaded again.

Ukraine’s entry, in fact, is the favourite to win, even though it wasn’t actually good enough to even win a Song for Ukraine, and only made it through after Alina Pash was disqualified! Our things to look for this year take that into account, as well as the Eurovision loophole that politics are supposedly banned from the venue, but there’s nothing wrong with waving a Ukrainian flag to support their entry… or painting a Ukrainian flag on your hand, or wearing a costume in Ukrainian colours.

Step One: you will probably need to be quite drunk. Step Two: The following sights and sounds will occur during this Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest. Can you spot them first? Remember to shout it out. As ever, there is more than one key change, and plenty of orbital cleavage. Keep your eyes (or ears) open for any of the following. And when you notice it, SHOUT IT OUT! Points can be scored all through the contest, on and off stage, including during the voting and in the greenroom.

In no particular order, in Saturday’s final you should be ready for:

  • KEY CHANGE! (every time you hear one)
  • Someone dares to actually say: “Veni, Vidi, Eurovicci”)
  • “What is the secret of a healthy body?”
  • Kite made of lasers.
  • Accordion!
  • Yellow balloon
  • LYRICS: “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!”
  • One White Leg
  • It’s the pound-shop Liza Minnelli!
  • Face furniture
  • French women walk up some steps
  • French women walk down some steps
  • Wrestler’s belt.
  • LYRICS: “Shlabadabbadabba”
  • Black Goop
  • Broken heart made of lasers! On his face!
  • Hand-washing onstage
  • Man in a crop top
  • Pointing
  • LYRICS: “I really like your teeth”
  • Plays guitar with a bow
  • Hands make a heart
  • FLAME ON! (every time there’s pyrotechnics)
  • WINKING
  • COSTUME CHANGE
  • Bimbling*
  • ORBITAL CLEAVAGE**
  • Buddha Jazz Hands***

Our optional bonus categories are:

COVID BINGO – which entry will be suddenly withdrawn from live competition owing to a plague scare?

SLAVA UKRAINI – shout it out every time you see a Ukrainian flag, wherever it may be, and whenever someone gives douze pity-points to that terrible song.

HOLA OLA! Surprise sighting of former supervisor Jon-Ola Sand. Can he really stay away?

Greece awards 12 points to Cyprus / Cyprus awards 12 points to Greece / Former Yugoslavian Republic awards 12 points to Former Yugoslavian Republic.

(*swaying one’s head from side to side in a snakey fashion)
(**ostentatious cleavage sufficient to see from a satellite in orbit, which, according to Eurovision bra consultant Tom Clancy, requires a minimum of C-cup)

(***the dancers all pile behind the singer in a line and then fling their arms out, creating a multi-limbed oriental deity-look)

“I will call you Keith.”

The Divine Sky Warriors

In January 1942 Japan deployed paratroopers in battle for the first time during the Battle of Manado. Horiuchi Toyoaki, a flamboyant, bearded officer nicknamed “The Octopus” for his love of and promotion of gymnastics in the Navy, led a strike force of 507 parachutists, dropping behind enemy lines to seize the Dutch forces’ airfield and seaplane base. In a tactic that would have surely attracted more notice had it not been overshadowed by the parachute achievement, a sea-plane on an inland lake, allowing an anti-tank unit to penetrate deep into enemy territory.

The idea of soldiers bodily hurling themselves out of a flying machine into the middle of enemy territory had an electric effect on the Japanese public. The Yomiuri Shinbun dubbed them the “Divine Sky Warriors” (Sora no Shinpei), prompting a journalist at the rival Mainichi Shinbun to write a poem about the romance of their achievement. Before long, “Divine Sky Warriors” had been set to music, broadcast on the radio and released as a gramophone record, becoming a nationwide hit.

In the great sky, bluer than blue

It is as if, suddenly a hundred thousand white roses bloom

Behold! Parachutes descend from the sky.

Behold! Parachutes conquering the sky.

The parachute is the most glorious flower in the world.

On its purest white, our soldiers regret not the spilling of red blood.

The divine soldiers, so young that they still look like children, are repeatedly likened to blossoms fluttering in the sky, descending from the heavens, to magically reclaim territory held in enemy hands.

In something of a low blow, the Army fought back by rushing out a propaganda movie, Divine Sky Warriors (1942, Sora no Shinpei) a documentary about the training of an Army paratrooper unit that not only presented close-up imagery of technology and procedures that the Navy still proclaimed to be classified, but blatantly used “Divine Sky Warriors” as its theme tune, as if to imply that the achievement on Manado had been an Army operation. The Ministry of Education, keen to distract the population from increasing Japanese losses in the war at sea, gave the film a cultural award, and decreed that it should be compulsorily screened in every cinema in the country.

In response to the insult, the Navy retaliated with cartoons – Momotarō’s Sea Eagles (1943, Momotarō no Umiwashi), celebrating the contribution of Navy pilots to the victory at Pearl Harbor, and Japan’s first ever feature-length animation, Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945, Momotarō, Umi no Shinpei), a.k.a. Momotarō, Sacred Sailors.

An extract from Japan at War in the Pacific: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire in Asia (1868-1945) by Jonathan Clements.

Military Consequences of Women’s Fashion

Much of Japan’s economy was bolstered by sales of a single commodity – silk. From the 1890s, when the US overtook France as the main export market, a huge proportion of Japan’s foreign currency earnings derived from the export of raw silk and related products to the United States. Fully 10% of Japan’s arable land was taken up with mulberry orchards to feed silk worms, while by 1929, the United States accounted for 95% of Japan’s silk trade, and the silk trade accounted for up to 54% of all Japan’s exports. The introduction of Coco Chanel’s “Little Black Dress” in 1926 was not merely a revolution in fashion, but in international commerce, delivering a sharp blow to Japan’s export prospects, which had previously relied on intricate and bulky gowns. So, too, was the widening availability of rayon, an artificial fibre perfected in 1924 and soon undercutting silk on the market. The onset of a global depression, which impacted the United States in 1929, had a predictable effect on the sales of luxury items, including silk clothing, causing Japan’s silk exports to the US to plummet during the 1930s to a mere eighth of their former level. Only the rise of the silk stocking, a mass-production item after the invention of all-in-one knitting machine, offered any respite to Japan’s troubled export market.

While the battles of Kalkhin Gol were still raging in 1939, a far quieter, but arguably even more destructive blow was struck against Japan in New York, where the new wonder-fiber nylon was unveiled at the World’s Fair. Nylon would soon be offering a cheap alternative to silk stockings, which, in the decades since women’s dresses began to use less material and ruffles, had become the main use for Japanese silk. The arrival of nylon spelled disaster for Japan’s own industrial calculations, suggesting that the silk-stocking industry, Japan’s last big source of export revenue, was about to take a tumble. Without the $100 million per year that Japan earned from silk exports to the United States, the nation would have to rely solely on its dwindling gold reserves, and whatever revenue it could scrape from the drugs levies of Manchukuo.

How much longer could Japan afford to fight its China war? US analysts believed that Japan might still have enough gold reserves to push on for another two years. After that, it was confidently predicted, Japan would be out of money, and out of time… sometime in the autumn of 1941.

But the US was also heavily reliant on the Japanese for certain commodities – silk, for example, was not simply a luxury item, but also a crucial component in the manufacture of American parachutes. With China in a state of crisis, the best sources for it were Japan and Manchukuo! Fortunately for the US, there was enough raw silk stockpiled in the US already to adequately equip 200,000 parachutists, although there were still concerns that the US might run short of the coarse spun silk required in munitions’ igniter cloth and lacing for artillery. Already in 1940, the supply of waste silk from Japan had become suspiciously thin – it was believed that the Japanese were stockpiling their own silk. The most crucial of the US needs for silk was for use in naval cartridge cloth – the material used in powder bags for large-calibre ships’ guns. This need was met by massive purchases from China, often of the off-cuts from Japanese-owned mills.

An extract from Japan at War in the Pacific: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire in Asia (1868-1945) by Jonathan Clements.

Sariras in the Mist

The mist has descended again, which means I can’t actually see Ox-Head Mountain, even as we’re driving up it. The pagoda swirls into existence out of the fog, next to a vast lotus-shaped dome that looks like a planetarium crossed with an airport. This is the resting place of a holy relic, a fragment of Buddha’s skull, embedded with gem-like sarira crystals. It was found inside the Porcelain Tower, but has been moved here, an hour outside Nanjing, for political reasons that nobody can really explain.

The Skull Relic Palace is not a temple. The guides keep telling us this, and the guy from Propaganda keeps telling us this, along with exhortations not to talk about Buddhism or film any Buddhists. Buddhists, however, are difficult to spot, because all the staff wear robes designed to evoke the Buddhist priesthood, many of them are glum tour guides who march sulkily with their hands clasped together, as if they would rather be doing jazz hands. Our liaison pouts all the way through lunch because we choose the Buddhist (vegetarian) canteen rather than the place where she can have nuggets. She gets me the Arhat noodles, having decided on very little evidence that I am a Buddhist who disapproves of eating in the meat-eaters’ canteen. I’m not, of course, it’s just that when visiting a Buddhist temple, I tend to go for the vegetarian option because I am curious what they do with tofu and mushrooms.

Ox-Head Mountain is a “Tourist Park” where people can experience Buddhist culture, architecture and iconography, although the visitors seem oddly divided between clueless, racist pig farmers in a coach party (“It’s Thursday so it must be Buddhist relics”) and super-devout, actual Buddhists. This, of course, is not my first Buddhist rodeo, so I know how to flash gang-signs to passing monks, and not to get in the way of pilgrim processions.

The inner sanctum is amazing, and the closest thing I have ever seen to a Buddhist cathedral, a “Thousand-Buddha Hall” chased in gold, with apsara nymphs curling through the heavens while various boddhisatvas sit on lotuses and do whatever it is that boddhisatvas do.

The director tells me to do a piece to camera, and I immediately observe that I find it ironic that, in Nanjing, the very city where Bodhidharma began to argue that material attachments were all bollocks, and that there were no scriptures, and no Buddhas, the very beginnings of what we now call Zen, that something so material, and so worldly should have been created.

This is not, she scolds, the place to start talking about Zen. I argue that it was literally the place to start talking about Zen, but some tourist board has snatched Buddha’s skull from the Porcelain Tower, driven it to a theme park in the middle of the mountains, and is now charging God knows how much to make visitors walk around it in circles before leaving through the gift shop. Where, incidentally, I found nothing worth buying, even though I am well aware of the ready market back home for scarves with swastikas on them, little Buddhist statues, big Buddhist statues, and other such paraphernalia.

Instead, I have to walk a delicate line between ridiculing the place for selling the chance to almost see a bit of bone, and ridiculing the builders for missing the point of Buddhism by a mile, but it was ever thus. Instead i focus on something that both Party and devout can agree on — the immense, game-changing influence that Buddhist culture has had on Chinese history for two thousand years. Denying it would be historical madness.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E06 (2019).

The Lord of Mice in the Year 2600

On 2nd February 1940, a frail old man rose to his feet in the Japanese Diet and commenced a ninety-minute speech. Saitō Takao was seventy-one years old, an obscure politician who only occasionally spoke out on controversial issues, leading to one cartoonist to call him “the Lord of the Mice.” But today, he could reasonably be said to have had enough. Saitō was no pacifist – he was a conservative, broadly supportive of Japan’s expansion into Korea and Manchuria. The problem was, he began, that the stated aim of securing Japan’s resources and materials had been accomplished. He simply couldn’t see the point of the latest adventures in China, which were a costly and endless money pit.

Saitō’s problem was with a revolving-door of governments that seemed to think that their responsibilities were discharged by resigning at the first sign of trouble. A million Japanese men had been sent overseas; a million more faced the same fate. A hundred thousand Japanese had died, and all for what? Saitō took apart the government’s directives and policies, pointing out that they were riddled with contradictions. How could they claim to support China, while also trying to undermine it with rival regimes? Were they going to save China by destroying it? Is this what they meant by the “New Order in Asia,” some misguided rip-off of what Hitler was doing to Europe? How could the Prime Minister embark on a costly war in Asia, while also promising that he would demand no indemnity from the Chinese if they surrendered – who was going to pay for all this?

“If we ignore this reality, or camouflage it with the words ‘holy war,'” he said, “pointlessly neglecting the people’s sacrifices for an array of elusive pretexts such as ‘international justice’ or a ‘moral foreign policy,’ or ‘co-existence and co-prosperity’ or ‘world peace,’ and thereby lose a rare opportunity and thereby end up ruining the great state plan of the century… today’s politicians will commit a crime that we cannot compensate for with our deaths.”

Saitō had witnessed the Army coming to his own district near Kobe, and ripping up the local railway tracks, taking them away for some unspecified industrial venture in South-East Asia. How was this helping the Japanese? In what possible situation could the Japanese be compensated for the sacrifices they had already been called upon to make?

He conceded that there were exceptions: not all Japanese were being crushed by austerity. There were “boom firms” that were making a killing supplying the war effort, gobbling up military contracts.

“I do not understand the cause of this war,” he said. “I do not understand why we are at war. I do not know. Do you gentlemen know? If you have it figured out, then explain it to me.”

Saitō was heckled throughout by his fellow politicians, and much of the latter part of his speech was cut from the official record at the instigation of the Army’s observer in the council chamber. Politicians and the press derided him as a blasphemer against Japan’s “holy war,” and he received death threats and hate mail. He resigned from his party and was ejected from the Diet – his speech marked the moment when any further criticism of Japanese militarism was purged from the government.

And yet, there were still glimmerings of hope. Among the letters calling for him to do Japan a favor and kill himself, accusing him of being anti-war or anti-military, or even of being a British or American stooge, there were letters of support, thanking him for standing up for the common Japanese people. Despite a smear campaign in the media, he would later win re-election as an independent, although the Diet he re-entered was little more than an echo chamber for propaganda by that point.

At one point in his speech, Saitō referred to his belief that the China Incident was the largest war that Japan had fought with China in 2,600 years. His choice of numbering was quite deliberate, since the year 1940 in the Christian calendar had been determined by the Japanese government to mark a momentous occasion – the 2,600th anniversary of the legendary coronation of Japan’s first-ever ruler, the Emperor Jinmu. Jinmu’s very existence was a matter of unsubstantiated myth, while the dating of his enthronement to 660 BCE was the vague pronunciation of a medieval chronicle, but ever since 1873, his achievements had been celebrated in National Foundation Day, which fell on 11th February. This, in turn, might sound at first like harmless legend, except it had already been used as a further argument for the superiority of the Japanese race. Ōkawa Shūmei (1886–1957), a former South Manchuria Railway employee, now a university professor, only released in 1939 after serving time in prison for his involvement in some of the attempted coups of the 1930s, had written a much-reprinted book arguing that since Japan was the oldest state in the world, it was its destiny to rule it.

1940 was hence a year of grand ceremonial importance to Japan’s state Shintō religion. On New Year’s Day, the people not only of Japan, but also of Japan’s empire overseas, had been ordered to bow, at precisely 9am, in the direction of the imperial palace in Tokyo, and to shout: “Long Live His Majesty the Emperor.” There was no possible way that anyone could claim not to know their duty – the directive was printed in newspapers and broadcast on the radio. It was also written into neighbourhood round-robin newsletters, which could not be passed on between households until the head of each family had affixed his seal. This was merely the first of a dozen timed mass rituals that would unite the Japanese in 1940, including moments of silence to mark Army Day, Navy Day and the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, and the twice-annual days when the Emperor conducted ceremonies for the war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine.

The state broadcasting corporation, NHK, held a competition to come up with a “national song” to mark the occasion. Masuda Yoshio beat 18,000 contenders with his stirring lyrics for “The Year 2600” (Kigen Nisen Roppyaku-nen), which were set to music by Mori Yoshihachirō, and began with a reference to the Golden Kite of Japanese legend, which blinded the enemies of the Japanese, and settled on the bow of the legendary Emperor Jinmu.

Our bodies receive the divine light of the glory of Japan

Shining from the Golden Kite

We pray at the dawn of the Year 2600

A hundred million breasts swell with pride.

Standing firm on the jubilant earth

We await the imperial decree in the Year 2600

The clouds clear after the founding of our nation

Growing up in a fractious world Our gratitude burns with a clean flame, in the Year 2600.

The conflict in China, however, had been limping along for almost a decade, leading several satirists to come up with parody versions. Some of the most enduring refashioned Masuda’s lyrics so that instead of declaring the divine providence of the Japanese Empire, they complained about the rising prices of cigarettes – not the free Onshino packs handed out to military men, but the everyday brands on sale to the general public. These included the super-cheap Golden Bat (Kinshi) brand produced by Mitsui, renamed Golden Kite in 1940 to reflect rising patriotic fervor. At the former price of 4 sen a packet, smokers had previously been able to buy 500 cigarettes for just one yen.

[A pack of] Golden Kites is 15 sen

It’s 30 for a pack of Glorys.

These days, prices are going up

In the year 2600

100 million people weep.

An extract from Japan at War in the Pacific: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire in Asia (1868-1945) by Jonathan Clements.

New Book

A surprise Fedex delivery tonight — the book that is likely to ruffle a lot of feathers, a history of Japan for the era of Brexit and Trump.

‘I was drawn to see different parallels, not only to the sight of a nation readily destroying itself while moderates looked on aghast, of robber barons making a killing while the weak suffered, of oligarchs and billionaires rushing through new laws while hoping to remain beyond their reach, and of political opportunists ready to use extremist violence to either assert or combat “the will of the people,” but also of a movement that sought to reclaim the agency and power of an entire race from its oppressors.’