California Literary Review

Einstein in Japan


June 9th, 2008 at 8:21 am

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Albert Einstein being served by a geisha.

In December 1922, upon the invitation of Kaizosha, a new and ambitious publishing house in Tokyo, the world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein stepped off a ship in the port of Yokohama. Kaizosha had recently invited two other notable figures from the West: the English philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1921 and the American feminist Margaret Sanger in early 1922. While these two visits were utter commercial failures, Einstein’s was not. Far from it: people were thrilled to see the newly crowned Nobel laureate and his wife. The excitement surrounding Einstein’s visit also launched a few new science magazines, including those that later became two leading interwar science journals, Kagaku chishiki (Scientific Knowledge), inaugurated in 1921, and Kagaku gaho (Science Illustrated), founded in 1923. These magazines offered writers, including Kozakai Fuboku and Unno Juza, the opportunity to showcase their knowledge of science by contributing essays and stories.

With his unassuming appearance and general friendliness, the world’s best physicist captivated Japanese audiences. Most important, Einstein inadvertently promulgated not the nitty-gritty of his theory of relativity but the image of scientists as “lovable” and at times even “holy” or above reality. Various nonscientist intellectuals observed Einstein and felt an imaginary sense of affinity: the children’s writer Ogawa Mimei (1882-1961) described him as a “tender poet one would remember with nostalgia” (yasashii, natsukashii shijin) who bore some resemblance to Lafcadio Hearn. Even the last skeptics against scientists as noble beings were won over by Einstein’s fabulous career and disarming looks. Miyake Yasuko, a journalist married to a scientist, described Einstein’s appearance as follows: “I used to think that all scientists were narrow-minded and restless with the shifty gazes of thieves, but Professor Einstein’s eyes of grandeur and sublimity completely changed my view.”

Einstein’s charm spurred many Japanese audiences to try to comprehend his theory. The Osaka Gakko Eiga Kyokai (Osaka Association for Education through Film) imported a German movie based on his theory of relativity (Der Einstein-film), while some former students of Ishiwara Jun, a leading Japanese physicist, wrote and serialized the play Sotaisei riron geki (Piece on the Theory of Relativity) in the magazine Shinshosetsu (New Novel) in 1923. The eagerness of the common people for anything about Einstein was so strong that at times it shocked the man himself, who with characteristic humility reportedly professed that “meaningless respect is like a loveless relationship.” The admiration for the person of Einstein and the eagerness of specialists to feed such frenzy indeed yielded little progress in terms of deepening the understanding of his theory, physics, or science in general. Einstein’s scholarship was so erudite that even his fellow physicists could not understand parts of his lectures. However, newspaper reports of the current king of science enjoying his stay in Japan—including a backstage visit at a Kabuki theater and a party with geisha—distracted people’s attention from the glaring intellectual gap.

The cult of Einstein reached the point where university officials in Fukuoka preserved the blackboard on which Einstein had scribbled during a lecture and forgot to erase. Although people in the provinces were clearly in awe, intellectuals in the capital were not immune to the aura of the Nobel Prize winner. Shikanogi Masanobu, a professor in the humanities who sat in on Einstein’s lectures for six days, recalled: “I heard the quiet, serene sounds of his spirit. His thinking progresses steadily, quietly, like the melting of spring snow, without running, while sprinkling the meadow of knowledge with his jewels of mathematical equations.” Those who professed ignorance of Einstein’s scholarship, including Shikanogi, may have been playing dumb in the presence of the genius, but their worship of the world-renowned scientist appears willing and genuine—and not much different from the adoration showered upon the scientist by the general public. Einstein’s visit also enhanced the popular ideas that science, though it remains beyond the common realm of understanding, is a positive force; that the agents of science, though they may appear unusual, are intellectually and even morally superior people; and that the ordinary standards of judgment do not apply to them. This creates a potentially dangerous situation: science is something for the masses not to understand but to believe.

In the shadow of this “Einstein boom,” there were those who exploited this myth. The enthusiasm for anything scientific bubbled up into overconfidence in scientists and their methods and caused some real-life scandals surrounding ethical medical practice. In 1924, two years after Einstein’s visit to Japan, Sakaki Yasuzaburo (1870-1929), a professor of psychiatry at Kyushu Imperial University, announced that he had found the ingredients for a sort of elixir vitae. Sakaki claimed that by stimulating a patient’s thyroid gland, he could rejuvenate him: he claimed that in clinical trials he was able to make the patient’s gray hair turn black, eliminate his wrinkles, and give his skin a healthy glow. The newspapers sensationalized this discovery, and the general public went crazy about the prospect of eternal youth and immortality. While other, more sober scholars questioned the validity of Sakaki’s assertions, the professor continued his experiments undeterred—including one in which he supposedly proved that tying the seminal ducts could prevent aging in men. Although many of his claims were dubious at best, Sakaki was no quack: he was respected as the head of the psychology department at the university and was married to the sister of the emperor’s personal physician. His training included a medical degree from the University of Tokyo and a three-year stint in Germany as a government-funded student, during which he befriended Einstein. For music lovers, he is romantically known as the professor who founded the first Western-style philharmonic orchestra in Japan.

In his obsession for finding the nectar of youth, however, Sakaki hardly appears to be the elite doctor he actually was. He aspired to obtain government funding to establish the National Research Institute for the Prevention of Aging (Kokuritsu rosui yobo kenkyujo), but the strange case of the Taisho elixir vitae ended when he and two of his colleagues were arrested for illegally selling their services in an unofficial capacity. The three were acquitted, but the investigation into this case revealed a considerable number of medical professionals willing to offer similarly questionable services to anyone willing to pay for them. The outrageousness and popularity of Sakaki’s exorbitant claims illustrate not only the faith of contemporary society in the omnipotence of science, but also the unscrupulousness of certain scientists who were eager to exploit such confidence. The elixir vitae scandal brought to the fore the problem of popular ignorance about science and the danger of scientific advancement unchecked by ethics—a problem the Meiji government, in its pursuit of rapid modernization, had neglected to tackle decades earlier.

From “Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction & Japanese Culture” Copyright 2008 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

Murder Most Modern by Sari Kawana
Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture
by Sari Kawana
Univ Of Minnesota Press, 288 pp.

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