Togo in America (1911)

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From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements. Out on the Kindle now in the UK and in the US.

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The Americans were even more overwhelming in their reaction, leaving Togo taken aback at their enthusiasm and their energy. The pushy welcome began on the night that the Lusitania docked, when Togo found a midnight reception committee determined to whisk him onto land before dawn. Soon after, he faced a gesticulating, yelling wall of journalists and photographers, from whom his American minders selected a lucky foursome to take his picture. Togo stood to attention and stared grumpily into the cameras, only to discover that the paparazzi wanted him in a multiplicity of poses and aspects. He seemed particularly galled by the constant strobing of camera flashes. One single image, it seemed was not enough, and Togo suffered an excruciating fifteen minutes of man-handling and exhortations, until Chandler Hale, the Third Assistant Secretary of State, came to his rescue.

‘I have been beaten by the zeal of those cameramen,’ quipped Togo. ‘It is rather easier to fight the world squadrons than meeting those men.’

Faced with his customary silence, the American press filled in the blanks for themselves, with ruminations on the loneliness of command in the mysterious East, or patronising conjecture about what Togo might have said, had he been in a position to utter more than a few phrases. He was taken on a train to Washington, by a welcoming committee that plainly assumed he had never seen a train before, and whose excited fishing for compliments on American railways he found rudely obtuse.

The New York World concentrated on Togo’s encounter with local telephone exchange workers, whose place of work he visited on his way to the railway station. Dismissed as ‘Hello Girls’ in the early 20th century, switchboard operators were subject of contemporary gossip – a woman on the other end of a phone line, ready, in a certain sense, to do one’s bidding, and hence something of an erotic frisson. They were also habitually condescended to as bimbos, hence the World’s scoffing at the New York switchboard operators’ failure to remember to greet Togo with the correct cheer, which, the reporter assured his readers, was Banzai: ‘Ten Thousand Years’.

Other American crowds were soon educated by their press as to the expected form of address, and Togo was greeted with wild cries of Banzai everywhere he went. This verbal assault did not even escape him when riding in a government limousine, since on one occasion he found himself in an impromptu race with a car full of hysterical (and possibly drunken) flappers, who yelled Banzai at him and waved their handkerchiefs while the Admiral looked on in surprised amusement. At no point did Togo risk shaming his hosts by pointing out the unwelcome truth, which was that Banzai at the time was a military salute more appropriate to the gruff, tough army, whereas the more cultured Navy tended to salute with calls of Hoga: ‘Respectful Congratulations’.

The attention was clearly getting to Togo, as was the press’s constant demand that he say something, no matter how ill-informed or unfelt.

‘I have been frequently asked what I thought of America,’ he said with a rare scolding tone. ‘But isn’t it asking me too much? I have landed here only this morning, and I have nothing to tell.”

Johnny Chinaman: Admiral Togo and the British

Free lecture at the Japan Foundation, Russell Square House, 10-12 Russell Square, London

7th July 2010, from 6.30pm

Launching his new biography with an illustrated talk, author Jonathan Clements will examine the turbulent relationship between a Japanese war hero and the people of Britain. Feted as the ‘Nelson of the East’ after his victory over the Russian fleet in the battle of Tsushima, Admiral T?g? Heihachir? (1848-1934) returned in triumph to the UK, where he had studied as a youth at a Kent maritime college.

The young T?g?’s English schoolmates had taunted him with the nickname Johnny Chinaman. He later lived in Greenwich, and worked in an Isle of Dogs shipyard on the next generation of Japanese warships. He also stayed with a family in Cambridge, where he was once mistaken for a juggler. Returning to the Far East, he became infamous in the letters page of the Times, when he controversially sank a British-registered transport. All this, however, was forgotten when he sank the Tsar’s navy at Tsushima 1905: the high point of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, followed by his celebrated world tour, which brought him back to the UK 99 years ago this month.

This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To reserve a place, please e-mail your name to eliza (at) hauspublishing.com.

Togo to Go

Haus Publishing have put the first thirty pages of my biography of Admiral Togo online for free. Check it out!

Togo Heihachiro (1848-1934) was born into a feudal society that had lived in seclusion for 250 years. As a teenage samurai, he witnessed the destruction wrought upon his native land by British warships. As the legendary ‘Silent Admiral’, he was at the forefront of innovations in warfare, pioneering the Japanese use of modern gunnery and wireless communication. He is best known as ‘the Nelson of the East’ for his resounding victory over the Tsar’s navy in the Russo-Japanese War, but he also lived a remarkable life – studying at a British maritime college, witnessing the Sino-French War, the Hawaiian Revolution, and the Boxer Uprising. After his retirement, he was appointed to oversee the education of the Emperor, Hirohito. This new biography spans Japan’s sudden, violent leap out of its self-imposed isolation and into the 20th century. Delving beyond Togo’s finest hour at the Battle of Tsushima, it portrays the life of a diffident Japanese sailor in Victorian Britain, his reluctant celebrity in America (where he was laid low by Boston cooking and welcomed by his biggest fan, Theodore Roosevelt) forgotten wars over the short-lived republics of Ezo and Formosa, and the accumulation of peacetime experience that forged a wartime hero.

About the Author

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai, and biographies of many prominent figures in Asian history, including Coxinga, Prince Saionji and the First Emperor of China.

Mostly Harmless?

Just stopped off for a week in Hawaii finalising materials for my forthcoming book on Admiral Togo, who spent a tense time there during the Hawaiian Revolution, and accidentally inherited an escaped murderer who claimed asylum aboard his battleship. I am sure I will write more about it here next spring.

In the meantime, on to San Francisco, spiritual home of anime and manga in the United States, where I have been staying with Frederik L. Schodt and poking around the alleyways of Chinatown. Friday was the official release date of the Astro Boy movie, so we were unable to resist the temptation to grab tickets and sneak unnoticed among the evening punters.

The audience in downtown San Francisco seemed split evenly between anime fans and families. Many of the children did not seem to have the faintest clue who Astro Boy was, which is the ideal way to approach this modern upgrade. The kids seemed to like it, apart from one little girl who started yelling “MOMMY I’M SCARED!” when Donald Sutherland started acting crazy… this is not an unknown reaction, even among adults.

There were a few tips of the hats to fans — a cameo for Tezuka himself, and occasional walk-ons for some of his other cast members — but the Astro Boy movie was largely and resolutely a reboot, toning down the death of Professor Tenma’s son Toby, but otherwise staying remarkably true to the spirit of the original. It was, in short, exactly what I would have expected a Hollywoodised Astro Boy remake to be, redolent in many places of Wall-E, although considering Tezuka’s influence on the world of cartooning, that might well be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

I sat there counting the number of Japanese names in the crew, and didn’t have to stretch my fingers too far. Astro Boy’s real influence, and its real future success, will not rest on the contribution of Hollywood — the likes of writer/director David Bowers and composer John Ottman already have resumes they can call on. It rests on Hong Kong, and on the many hundreds of Cantonese names that dominate the crew. Astro Boy might have a Japanese origin and an American sheen, but perhaps this film is better regarded as a work of Chinese animation. In American terms, it appears mostly harmless — a kiddie friendly, Saturday afternoon cartoon that is unlikely to make Pixar worry. But in Chinese terms, it could be seen to represent an incredible leap in talent and technique, lifting the capabilities of Chinese animators so high that they could now be positioned to give American cartoons, and indeed anime itself, a serious run for their money. And if money is the key, then this release is sure to be regarded in China as a “local” production, evading import quotas and heading out into the world’s largest market.

Astro Boy famously speaks more than 60 languages, but the only one he may really need is Mandarin.