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Undergoing the third degree in prewar Japan

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In the 1930s, a translator of Japanese literature from New Zealand was jailed and tortured by the Japanese police. His name was Max Bickerton or, more fully, William Maxwell Bickerton.

I had wondered about this translator for a long time — for an esoteric reason. I translate haiku in one line, and Bickerton is one of the very few people who have done the same, as I found in “The Classical Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology” (Dover, 1996), which Faubion Bowers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s personal interpreter and “the savior of kabuki,” compiled and gave to me. The book lists some well-known and not so well-known haiku in translation by a variety of hands.

In it, Bickerton’s source is given as “Issa’s Life and Poetry,” Asiatic Society of Japan (Dec. 1932). Issa is Kobayashi Issa (1763-1824), who described daily life in haiku in a readily understandable way.

When I first wanted to learn more about Max Bickerton some years ago, I didn’t find much on the Internet. But when I did the search recently, I found a wealth of information about him, including an obituary by Sir Herbert Vere Redman in the bulletin of the Japan Society of London for February 1967.

Equally important, there was an article by Bickerton himself, titled “Third Degree in Japan.” It originally appeared in the Manchester Guardian, then was reprinted in the September 1934 issue of The Living Age, a magazine published in Boston.

William Maxwell Bickerton was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1901. After graduating from Victoria College (now Victoria University), he taught at high school for one year in Maori territories and, at age 24, went to Japan. There he “plunged almost completely into Japanese life” and “started serious study of the Japanese language on arrival.”

To make a living, he taught English for four years at the Tokyo University of Commerce at Hitotsubashi (now simply Hitotsubashi University), where Vere Redman was his colleague. Bickerton followed this with six years at the First High School.

He must have had an innate linguistic talent. In short order, he translated Issa and the brilliant but short-lived female writer Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896). But what put him in trouble with the police was his translation of “some of the proletarian writers of the late ’20s,” as Vere Redman put it in the obit, though he didn’t mention the wringer he had to go through as a result.

“The inhuman treatment in the police cells,” Bickerton began his account, “is calculated to break the spirit of any prisoner.” He was “confined in a cell measuring 12 feet by 5.5, in which there were never less than nine, and sometimes as many as 14, other prisoners.” He was made to stay there for 24 days, during which he was “never allowed to have a bath.”

“The brutality of the jailers is beyond imagination,” the New Zealander added. The “almost daily sight of other prisoners being stripped and beaten with sticks till their backs were a row of welts or kicked till they could not stand up — and all for very minor infringements of discipline — was hard to bear.”

Bickerton wasn’t beaten by jailers like them, probably because he was a British subject. Instead, he was beaten, more insidiously, by “two plainclothes police officers named Ogasawara and Suga” in police headquarters. At the outset, Ogasawara said to him that he had probably heard “tales of torture from your left-wing friends” but they are “untrue.” Then the two officers proceeded to make him taste “the third degree” Japanese-style.

They stomped on his toes, kicked him in the leg, smacked his face, punched him on the ear, banged his head against a cupboard.

They made him sit up straight in a chair and gave him “a crack across both legs above the knee” with a baseball bat each time he refused to answer a question. They switched the baseball bat with “a bamboo fencing stick (shinai)” and whacked him with it across both legs above the knees countless times.

They raised the shinai above his head and struck it with force, in the same place, each time they did it.

What were the police after? They demanded to know exactly how Bickerton spent his monthly salary from school. They pressed him on who had given him a copy of the banned Communist Party’s periodical Sekki (now Akahata) from which he had translated “the confession of an agent-provocateur.” They wanted to know if he knew a woman named Toshi Otsu, who said she knew him.

But all these beatings stopped two weeks before he was handed over to the British Consul. By then all “the bruises had gone.”

That was in spring 1934. Just before Bickerton met his ordeals, the Marxist economist Eitaro Noro, sickly but often jailed and tortured, had died after he was carried to a hospital from Shinagawa Police Station. A year earlier, the writer Takiji Kobayashi had been killed by torture. He had published a novel describing harsh labor conditions on a crab cannery ship and other stories. Bickerton had translated and published them, though anonymously, in England.

No, Max Bickerton wasn’t tortured for translating haiku, let alone doing so in one line. But only six years later, in 1940, a total of 15 haiku poets were arrested, jailed, interrogated and, at times, subjected to the third degree. What was their crime?

These poets had moved away from the traditional haiku, rejecting, among others, the requirement of the inclusion of seasonal words (kigo). Conservatives charged that the disregard of kigo was “liberal” and even led to the denial of the emperor system. The army (war) minister stated in the Diet, “liberalism is the hotbed of communism.”

Were the Japanese police particularly bad? In reprinting Bickerton’s account from the Manchester Guardian, the editor of The Living Age prefaced it with this note: “A young New Zealander, imprisoned by the Japanese for radical activities, tells of his adventures in a jail that sounds worthy of these United States.”

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.