“Pompo is an unapologetic cheerleader for B-movies, cranking out Asylum-level nonsense with scream-queens and scary monsters. But she has a mindset that is vital in producers (and in critics, and indeed on festival juries) – she loves each of her films for what it is. She assesses her films on the basis of how they can be the best type of that film that they could be, and it soon becomes obvious that she has a similar attitude towards people.”
Often quoted but rarely understood, the thoughts of Confucius has shaped 2,500 years of history.
Author Jonathan Clements outlines the life and times of China’s greatest philosopher, concentrating on sides rarely seen – the younger years of Confucius, his interaction with his pupils, his feuds with his enemies and even his sarcastic wit.
He also examines the fluctuating fortunes of the sage after his death: how his work was almost lost entirely to posterity, before becoming the centre of centuries of Chinese government, and subject yet again to purges in the troubled 20th century.
Jonathan Clements is the author of many books on East Asia, including Confucius: A Biography, The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals, and an acclaimed translation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. For the National Geographic channel, he has presented the documentary Shandong: Land of Confucius, as well as three seasons of Route Awakening, a TV series on Chinese cultural icons.
At the time of its release, Runon kuningas ja muutolintu was the longest-gestating film in Finnish history. Playwright Elsa Soini was commissioned to write the script in 1937, principal photography by Yrjö Norta commenced in 1938, but was delayed by the onset of the Winter War, with the premiere of the film not coming until October 1940 – compare to similar delays besetting The Heir of Tottisalmi and In the Kitchen.
The story spans a crucial decade from 1837 to 1848, beginning with poet J.L. Runeberg’s acceptance of a post teaching Latin literature at a Porvoo college. This inevitably drags him away from the hustle and bustle of life in That Fancy Helsinki, and his wife Frederika (Anni Hämäläinen) frets that his creative genius will wither in the provinces.
A few years later, the young Emilie Björkstén (Ansa Ikonen) moves to Porvoo and soon attracts the wagging tongues of the town gossips, who regard her as trouble because she is a beautiful woman without a squire – “the right jar of syrup to catch flies.” A fan of Runeberg’s poetry, she is drawn to him, and he to her, in a series of will-they-won’t-they, did-they-do-they encounters. Runeberg (Eino Kaipainen) protests that he is a man, not merely a poet, seemingly warning her that her fangirling over him might be misinterpreted by his hindbrain as sexual advances.
Eventually, the two end up snogging, and Emilie’s landlord, the local bishop (Ossi Elstelä) accuses her of “tarnishing the poet’s crown.” Brow-beaten into staying away from him Emilie puts on a brave face, and tells him at their next meeting that she is expecting to be betrothed to her beau Robert (Unto Salminen). But instead of taking this for what it is – a gentle acknowledgement that their love is not to be – Runeberg calls her a temptress and a flirt for stringing him along.
Leo Schulgin in the Helsingin Sanomat thought it was “the best Finnish film yet made”, while the hard-to-impress Paula Talaskivi in Ilta-Sanomat deemed it to be “a pleasant surprise,” praising not only for its choice of subject matter, for its attention to detail and the fact that it was shot in extremely adverse circumstances. These two leading reviewers were echoed by much of the rest of the press, with Uusi Suomi remarking on the loving evocation of mid-19th-century Porvoo. Posterity has been less kind, with more cynical modern commentators regarding it as an entirely unbelievable version of the past, accorded way too much slack by the audiences of the 1940s.
But Runon kuningas ja muutolintu was dogged by controversy from the moment it commenced production, based on Bert Edelfelt’s book Some Old Pages from a Diary (1922, Ur en gammal dagbok). There is a whirlpool of tensions beneath the surface of this film, in which a resolutely Finnish production team celebrates the Swedish-speaking poet who would write Finland’s national anthem, but also reveals that he was a human being with human foibles. On announcing that the film was in production, director Toivo Särkkä was mobbed by a delegation of university lecturers, pleading with him not to besmirch the character of Finland’s national poet. Runeberg was an untouchable demigod of Finnish culture, and to suggest that he might have his head turned by some girl was regarded as sacrilege. I am also tempted to point out that leading man Eino Kaipainen had founded his entire movie career to date on being a Finnish heart-throb that no red-blooded woman could possibly resist, which rather places an unfair pressure on any character obliged to remain immune to his charms.
Our own era has been even more critical of the film, noting that it sets up Runeberg as some pious, dutiful patriot, and his lover as a flighty “migratory bird”, breezing into his life to cause chaos like that uncaring strumpet in The Women of Niskavuori. This, modern critics have argued, is only Runeberg’s film because of what his written work has become to Finns – pity the poor woman whose poetry doesn’t get sung at public occasions decades after she has died in obscurity. But that is precisely what Elsa Soini’s script is driving at through much of the film – the fact that gender and customs and assumptions of the mid-19th-century have doomed posterity to assume that Emilie is a talentless flirt, and Runeberg a tormented poet, when in fact, allowed to interact as equals, they prove to be able and creative collaborators. Runeberg’s own wife dismisses his flirtation with a shrug, Emilie thanks God for helping her “resist temptation”, but buried deep down in all this is an artful consideration of noble sacrifice.
Xizhou, where we have been living in splendour and opulence for the last three days, was once a trading town on the Tea Horse Route. In 1941, it was the site of a forward radio station for the Flying Tigers and the transport aircraft bringing supplies over The Hump from Burma. Which explains an awful lot about the attitude of the Bai people here. When they ask me if I am an American, it is not out of ignorance but out of admiration, even now, for the pilots and soldiers who were stationed here to fight the Japanese.
What shock and awe there must have been, when one of these little valleys, glowing quietly in the afternoon sun, a pagoda on the hills, farmers in the fields, the clanging of cowbells and the calls of the birds, suddenly had its tranquillity shattered by the roar of shark-toothed American planes, screaming out of the sky in pursuit of Japanese fighters.
The breakfast room at our hotel is festooned with Flying Tigers memorabilia, wartime maps of China, the sunburst symbol of the Republican Chinese, pictures of Clare Chennault and his flyers, adverts for the (terrible) John Wayne film, and wartime bonds posters, exhorting “CHINA, THE FIRST TO FIGHT!” and “HELP HIM SAVE CHINA.” I try to explain the story to the crew, but I get quite tearful whenever I have to talk about it.
Our hotel is owned by Brian Linden, an American of Swedish extraction, who came to Xizhou eight years ago and has been fighting to persuade the Chinese to value their heritage instead of bulldozing it. He’s responsible for several sites in Xizhou, and appears to have been quite influential in the preservation of the surrounding area, which is clean but quaint and authentic, riddled with little shops and tea houses. He is in the process of restoring the radio station, too, which he intends to turn into another Flying Tigers museum, complete with a Boeing flight simulator that will allow visitors to relive the terror of navigating across the Himalayas.
Brian first came to China on a scholarship to study Mandarin. He met his future wife at Nanjing University, and was soon talent-spotted to play the lead in the Chinese movie He Came From Across The Ocean (1984), a dismal weepie about an American student who comes to China to study, but contracts fatal Encephalitis B. He spends much of the latter part of the film moping about the fact that his looming demise does not permit him to help China more. Brian reveals that there was no actual script, and since he was going to be dubbed anyway, he was told to simply talk nonsense for minutes at a time, while the crew made sad faces or happy faces behind him as a rough guide to his motivation.
“At first,” he says, “I tried to say what was going on in the scene, but then my shots stretched to five minutes, to seven minutes, so I just started repeating song lyrics. In the movie, my character is saying: ‘I am here to help the Chinese’, but if you can lip-read, I’m actually saying: ‘On a dark desert highway / cool wind in my hair….”
Brian is my easiest interview yet, since it is the first I have been allowed to conduct in my native language. We have lots to talk about. We are both the sons of antique dealers (he still has a shop selling Chinese antiquities somewhere in the mid-West), and since he was also once a cameraman, he takes an enthusiastic interest in the equipment we are using. He has never seen LED lighting before, and is amazed by the power and adjustability.
He is also something of a hippy turned businessman, and I have to steer him away from pat responses about how nice the Chinese government is, and rehearsed speeches about passion and travel. But we are soon commiserating with each other about the frustrations of having to obey Chinese laws when the Chinese can’t be bothered themselves.
“My fire prevention codes in this building cost me $120,000 for all the gear and alarms,” he sighs. “The guy next door has an illegal hotel, and all he needs is a bucket of water.”
He is also determined to encourage among his visitors the concept of heritage (an historical appreciation) as opposed to their fractured sense of tradition (which should mean a sense of how things are done, but tends with the Chinese to mean a sense of how things are done last week).
He explains that he faces constant frustration with the “hotelisation” of Chinese tourism, which values nothing but selfie sticks and gimmickry. His hotel provides a traditional experience, but the Chinese guests complain that they don’t have TVs in their rooms.
“They build a hotel somewhere with a 60-inch TV in every room, and then some guy builds one next to you with 65-inch TVs, so the Chinese want to stay there because it is ‘better’. Why are you people watching TV, you’re in Yunnan!?” he wails. “They go on vacation and you ask them what they did, and all they tell you is how great it was that their bathroom had a television in it.”
I think the director is becoming slightly exasperated that I am just having a conversation with Brian rather than pursuing a particular National Geographic agenda. But I get him back on to track by asking him about the merchants who built the house we are staying in.
“They didn’t just build things for their families,” he says. “They contributed to the local community. They built libraries, they built schools. They had a sense of obligation to their neighbours, and you don’t see that any more. Now they just take their money and run away to America. I am trying to show them, they can spend it here. They can live here. They can love it, here. I don’t want to see Mediterranean houses and California-imitation houses by the side of the lake. I want to see houses like this.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
LYRICS: “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!”
One White Leg
It’s the pound-shop Liza Minnelli!
French women walk up some steps
French women walk down some steps
Broken heart made of lasers! On his face!
Man in a crop top
LYRICS: “I really like your teeth”
Plays guitar with a bow
Hands make a heart
FLAME ON! (every time there’s pyrotechnics)
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)
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.
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.