In one of the oddest moments of the 1946 Tokyo trials, Okawa Shumei, the Japanese philosopher, slapped the former Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki on the head before the courtroom, audience and cameras. The incident is now a bit of tragicomic World War II arcana. But for Eric Jaffe, the author of A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II, and his family, Okawa and his court antics have always loomed large. Jaffe’s grandfather, Daniel Jaffe, was the U.S. Army psychiatrist who, after the famous slap, declared Okawa mentally unfit to continue as a defendant in the trial.
The slapping incident was certainly mysterious enough to stimulate any good journalist’s inquisitive sense. In the days leading up to the trial, Okawa, the man whom American prosecutors for the Tokyo trials considered an architect of the Japanese collective mindset that led to its aggressive militarism during World War II, had started acting strangely, talking to himself and furiously scribbling notes in foreign languages in his jail cell. When he slapped Tojo, his face was perfectly calm, like he knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it; at the same time, the move was so unexpected and inappropriate that it almost had to be the work of either a mad or madly desperate man. Any person even remotely curious about the trials would wonder: Was Okawa crazy?
But Jaffe was first intrigued not by the unresolved questions involved in the incident itself but the fact that his grandfather, who never spoke about the war, broke his silence only to defend his psychiatric opinion about Okawa against scholars who had called it into question in a memoir he wrote shortly before his death in 2007. “I started looking at [the memoir] and decided that I would try to vindicate his analysis and try to learn everything I could about that particular historical moment,” Jaffe says. “But I realized you had to give Okawa’s side at least as much consideration. Not because it might have been correct, but because you had to understand both people to understand that moment.” Jaffe embarked on a markedly different research path for each of his subjects. On the one hand, the author knew almost nothing about Okawa or his cultural context; on the other, he was very emotionally attached to his grandfather Daniel, even though he knew very little about his life during the war.
“I was starting from scratch,” Jaffe says about his research into Okawa’s rise to becoming a major political force in Japan, and the Pan-Asianist political thought he’s known for helping develop. “I’m sure some people learn about how Japan became involved in World War II in their studies, but I wasn’t really one of those people.” Jaffe scoured the National Archives for documents about Shumei that were collected and translated into English during the Allied occupation of Japan after the war and consulted the relevant Tokyo trials documents. But he realized that he was only getting a rendering of his subject shaped by American wartime and post-war perceptions. He secured a fellowship that would allow him to travel to Japan for two months to round out his research.
While in Japan, he talked to Okawa’s descendents and scholars of Pan-Asianism, and began to see the complications involved in portraying both Okawa’s thinking and the role he played in the lead-up to the war. “When you put yourself as close as you can in the position of someone like him in early 20th century Japan, you can really understand a lot of his actions,” Jaffe explains. “It’s when you step out of that shell, it’s hard to excuse them. But he believed so strongly that American imperialism was eliminating Japan’s options for growth and existence, and if you accept that mindset, what other options do you have?”
As complex a man as Okawa turned out to be, Daniel was even harder to tackle as a subject for Jaffe. He succeeded in digging up details about his grandfather’s youth in Brooklyn—growing up largely without his mother, who was in and out of mental institutions—and his time spent as a psychiatrist caring for soldiers on the European battlefields of World War II. But he struggled to draw out the emotional connections among the events of Daniel’s life. Part of this, he explains, is due to his grandfather’s tight-lipped nature and the fact that he had all his war letters burned before his death. “I know things about his parents, his mother, his training,” he explains. “But I never really know what he felt about those things; I’m forced at times to speculate and get other people’s perspectives.”
At first glance, A Curious Madness, with its chronological structure of parallel biographies, doesn’t appear to be an especially ambitious book; its true complexity reveals itself slowly. Deep into these two men’s stories you find the perennial dilemmas of war and cataclysm— of trauma and its psychological effects, culpability and acknowledging limits of experience and memory in post-hoc discussions. They present themselves at both the personal and political levels. “We often deal with World War II at the scope of nations or armies, and that’s important, but sometimes it can come at the expense of the individuals who were involved,” Jaffe says. “I liked narrowing the window of the war onto two people.”
Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly. She has contributed to Oxford American, The New Yorker, and Los Angeles Review of Books.