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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Liberated gentleman out of time and place

FREETHINKER: The Autobiography of Nishimura Isaku. Translated by Joseph Cronin. White Tiger Press, 2010, 301 pp., ¥3,000. (First published in Japanese in 1960.)

This meandering tale of an interesting man's life spanning the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras helps readers understand the ferment of the times while serving up some gems of social history.

Isaku Nishimura is remembered for the homes he designed and built, mostly during the Taisho Era (1912-25), and as the founder of Bunka Gakuin in 1921, a coeducational experiment in liberal education. He grew up in Wakayama and was raised in a wealthy family with extensive forest holdings in Nara and was able to live very well off his legacy.

His comments on family life are especially revealing about changing norms during his lifetime. Nishimura's biological parents, who were Christian, died when he was 7 when the church they built collapsed on them during an earthquake. His vivid reminiscences of being an orphan, shifting from household to household within the extended family, provide an interesting window on rural life and family relations at the end of the 19th century.

He writes about his mother's arranged wedding and the winding procession through surrounding villages in the mid-19th century and the community- based customs that were already fading when he was young.

The story of his adoption into the Nishimura family is fascinating and a turn of fortune that transformed his life from desperate circumstances to privileged heir.

Nishimura's uncle, a doctor trained in the United States, embraced socialism in the final years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) — when the government was aggressively vigilant about potential threats to political stability. He was executed for treason in 1911, but Nishimura does not dwell on what must have been a devastating loss. Subsequently, he also fell afoul of authorities for his liberal views such as when he taught students that "We have the right to love whomsoever we wish, from kougou-heika (the wife of the Emperor) to a beggar girl." The police were not amused and he spent 100 days in detention.

Regarding the impulse to war he writes: "We can find political and economic reasons, but most important is that people must want to fight, a kind of spiritual disease. At heart the war with China was fought on account of psychology."

But war was not for Nishimura and he recalls evading the draft in 1904 when he was 20, escaping to Singapore for the duration where he unsuccessfully tried to make a living off painting.

In 1907 he married. He relates the extensive family consultations involved in selecting a proper spouse that had little to do with romance.

Here we confront some of the contradictions of a "freethinker" when it comes to marriage. He barely spoke to his wife before their wedding and congratulates himself for educating her in cooking, weaving and other domestic chores.

His nine children suggest he gave little thought to contraception, but we find him a devoted father eager to impart his ideals and spending freely on their education and travels abroad. He also warmly welcomed foreign husbands into the family.

Nishimura recalls the massive 1923 earthquake, commenting that the devastation was less than that caused by the American firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. He also condemns the mistreatment of Koreans in the aftermath, writing that "the people of Tokyo did terrible things to Koreans and many were murdered."

It could not have been easy being a prominent liberal in the 1930s, but he confines himself to desultory comments about the rising tide of militarism and the expanding war in China.

In the 1940s, Nishimura began to pay a price for his iconoclastic views. Censorship of his writings inevitably led to his forced resignation as principal. His school was closed in 1943 and he was finally sent to prison.

Ever the connoisseur of architecture, Nishimura describes the Sugamo prison as modern and "almost too luxurious given the standard of living then enjoyed by the average Japanese." All in all, "It was a very quiet, relaxing, peaceful place."

The aerial bombing of Tokyo also entertained Nishimura despite the devastation of his homes. He further confides, "When I saw a Japanese plane falling from the skies over Japan, I knew the pilot was probably happy to die this heroic death and I didn't especially pity him, but when it was an American, I thought he probably didn't want to fight and felt sorry for him."

Regarding the Showa Emperor's surrender speech: "Nobody criticized ending the war. Nearly everybody in their heart of hearts wanted an end to the war but they couldn't say this. The tennou had said this in the place of everyone."

Despite hardships during the U.S. Occupation, Nishimura concludes that, "spiritually things are now much better than in the feudal period or in the time of Japanese militarism."

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asia Studies, Temple University, Japan

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