Another Disappointment

I always get a little nervous when a world history textbook cites details about Japanese history which I’ve never heard of before. I’m still mostly enjoying teaching with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s The World: A Global History, but I’m also still having some trouble with the Asian material.1 Imagine my surprise when I turned to the chapter on “Global Politics in the Twentieth Century” and it opened with this anecdote:

In the Manchuria of the 1920s and 1930s, the brothels in the city of Harbin were not merely, or even primarily, places of vice, but resembled clubs, where the regular clients became friends and met each other. The Russian journalist Aleksandr Pernikoff frequented Tayama’s, which was Japanese owned and flew the Japanese flag. At the time, Manchuria was part of the sovereign territory of China, but Tayama’s displayed signs of the gradually increasing level of Japanese infiltration. The Chinese government—run by the nationalist, republican party known as the Guomindang (gwoh-meen-dohng)— rightly suspected Japan of plotting to seize Manchuria, detach it from China, and turn it into part of the Japanese Empire.

Ron Loftus has an essay at his website which supports the brothel/secret agent contentions.2 I’m not terribly familiar with the literature on the secret societies and espionage, I admit, but my impression has been that the secret societies were a sideshow, more a symptom of the expansive nationalism of the early 20th century than a driving force.3 The text continues:

On September 19, 1931, Pernikoff arrived at Tayama’s as usual, crossing the seven-foot high fence of rough boards that screened the windows of the brothel from the street. The door was opened not by the regular attendant but by a cleanshaven, scholarly looking Japanese man with gold-rimmed glasses. As he shook hands with his friends, Pernikoff became aware of the tension in the atmosphere:

“What’s all this about?” Pernikoff asked in a whisper.
“Didn’t you hear?” replied one of the men. During the night, he explained, the Japanese had invaded, seized the Manchurian capital of Shenyang, and “exterminated the Guomindang vermin,” on the alleged grounds that the Chinese “tried to blow up a Japanese train near Shenyang.”
“Did they blow it up?” asked Pernikoff.
“No,” answered the man, with a crooked half-smile. “The mine went off after the train had passed. But the Japanese troops were ready and waiting—they occupied the town within thirty minutes after the explosion.”
“How did they know it was going to happen?”
“You’re a fool! The mine was set wrong. . .. The Japanese expected it to wreck the train and create a proper turmoil. That’s why there wasn’t a single Jap on the train. Clean work,” he added with admiration.

Louise Young, the only Manchuria work I have at home, cites the Osaka Asahi

in an act of outrageous violence, Chinese soldiers blew up a section of Mantetsu track lockated to the northwest of Beitaying and attacked our railway guards. Our guards immeditely returned fire and mobilized artillery to shell Beitaying.4

Every other account I’ve ever read was consistent with this, though international reports were more critical, but it’s conceivable that Japanese in Manchuria might well have known that the attack was a sham. Then things get really weird:

A Japanese member of the brothel’s clientele, who—Pernikoff now realized for the first time—was really a secret agent, gathering intelligence on his fellow clients, rose to read out the official Japanese report of the incident. “Chinese bandits” had tried to blow up the train. Fortunately, a Japanese officer, who happened to be nearby, “being a samurai, knelt in the direction of Japan and humbly invoked the help of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, the divine ancestress of all Japanese.” Miraculously, “by divine intervention,” although thrust “up into the air” with the force of the explosion, the train descended back onto the rails, resumed its journey, and reached its destination without loss. “All of us in the room, wrote Pernikoff, “felt uneasy at hearing this childish account”
“What will happen now?” he asked.

Fernandez-Armesto then goes on to claim that the invasion of Manchuria “was a preemptive strike, before China became too strong and outclassed all rivals.” (954)5 Oddly — or perhaps not so oddly — aside from the source for this anecdote, no other Japan or Asia focused sources are cited or listed in the chapter bibliography.

The cited source, as noted in the excerpt, is a Russian journalist’s account published in 1943, called Bushido: the Anatomy of Terror. I’d never heard of this “official statement” nor of Pernikoff6 , so I started doing some digging. JSTOR got me a couple of reviews of the book. Stuart Portner, in Military Affairs7, called it “a truly weird recital of of Japanese brutality … This book purports to be a narration of events during the first days of Japanese control in Manchuria in 1931-32. Pernikoff … relates in gruesome detail evidence of the reign of terror in Harbin and other cities….” That’s not a strong recommendation, particularly coming in the midst of WWII. You’d expect a book published in 1943 that depicted the Japanese as inhuman brutes would get pretty solid reviews, no matter how weird or unbelievable. But no.

Richard T. Lapiere8 went even further, writing (emphasis added)

Pernikoff, on the other hand, sets out in “Bushido” to make the Japanese incomprehensible and inhuman and, unencumbered by a high regard for facts, succeeds in fitting them into the standard dramatic stereotype of the beast in human form. His medium is the autobiographical story of a young Russian who lived in Harbin at the time of the Japanese occupation and who was ultimately inducted into the Japanese inner circle. Action centers around the methods by which the Japanese train their candidates for the inner circle, a brutal dehumanizing procedure that leaves survivors with a split personality, the major part of which is utterly and mechanically loyal to Japanese leadership. All this is intended to prove that no Japanese of importance can ever be trusted to behave in terms of those sentiments and values which we consider the essence of being human. The book is written in the best horror-story style, and as such has few superiors. As propaganda it seems too convincing a story to be effective. The reader is likely to classify the book as a shocker, and enjoy it as such, rather than as a factual account that would lead to the stereotyping of the Japanese as subhuman beasts.

For a book to be too lurid and one-sided to be acceptable in the depths of WWII strikes me as extraordinary. It’s not necessarily evidence of anything: some of what went on during WWII was incomprehensibly vile, hard to believe even with incontrovertible evidence. And, if the secret societies were involved, there is some evidence that they had pretty extreme beliefs. But it seems very, very unlikely that anything like samurai prayer levitation would make it into “the official Japanese report of the incident.” It’s possible that the person reading the report lied about it’s provenance, or Pernikoff was mistaken. It seems more likely that it is evidence of Pernikoff’s desire to portray the Japanese as brainwashed, primitive and cunning, and a writing style “unencumbered by a high regard for facts.”

This raises serious issues for me as a teacher. It’s not an obscure factoid that students will miss: it’s the chapter opening, and it’s the only really exciting writing in the chapter.9 It’s memorable, but attempting to put it in context and qualify my concerns appropriately will take a lot of time — and this is a World History course, where time is very much at a premium — and runs the risk, ironically, of reinforcing the anecdote in my students’ minds. This is compounded, I’m afraid, by the fact that the next chapter — “The Pursuit of Utopia” starting with genocides and other atrocities — starts with the Rape of Nanjing as witnessed by John Rabe. I have until Monday to come up with something. Any thoughts?

  1. I’m also not entirely happy with the “one topic over the whole world for a century” structure in the 20th century. It worked OK in the earlier segments, but the 19th century was a gallop and the 20th is pedal-to-the-metal. Yikes.  

  2. The authorship of the essay is actually a bit unclear, and there is a bibliography, but no citations. The sources listed range from the fairly authoritative (Yuki Tanaka) to the very unfamiliar but with somewhat lurid titles.  

  3. In fairness, as a social historian, I’m naturally deeply suspicious of conspiracy theories, and prefer to look at long-term structural causes.  

  4. Japan’s Total Empire, p. 58  

  5. This itself would be worth a serious critical look, were it not overshadowed by the preface.  

  6. Whose name is spelled correctly, “Pernikoff” (953-4), as well as incorrectly — “Pennikoff” (991) and “Persikoff” (989).  

  7. Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1943), p. 113  

  8. American Sociological Review, Vol. 8, No. 6 (Dec., 1943), p. 733. He is cited as being at Stanford.  

  9. The chapter is interesting reading, especially for its innovative approach, but students won’t really understand that.  

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.