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THE LIFE OF SEINOSUKE: Dr. Oishi and the High Treason Incident, by Joseph Cronin. Kyoto: White Tiger Press, 2007, 128 pp., with photographs and drawings, 1,800 yen (paper)

The High Treason Incident (Taigyaku Jiken) was an anarchist plot to assassinate the Meiji emperor, one that led to the 1910 mass arrests of a number of socialist activists and concluded with 26 people being charged. Twelve of these were hanged.

According to historian F.G. Notehelfer, the plan — as outlined by one of the perpetrators — was to bomb an imperial procession, then to start riots, destroy prisons, release prisoners, kill ministers, and attack government offices.

It was the Meiji government and not the Meiji emperor that was the target of the attack.

As explained by Joseph Cronin in this new book on one of the alleged conspirators, “the national education system, based on the Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890, meant that every child could be indoctrinated into the Imperial myth. The frightening thing to the Meiji government about those involved in the High Treason Incident was that they had lost their belief in the Emperor.”

The symbolic importance of the emperor was necessary for the legitimacy of the Meiji government. As Basil Chamberlain would write: “The new Japanese religion consists . . . of worship of the sacrosanct Imperial Person and of his Divine Ancestors.” Though this involved a “palpably fraudulent” chronology, any public expression of contrary opinion would be scandalous, and it was for this reason that the trial was performed in secret and that records as to how it was accomplished are even now, says Cronin, inadequate.

Among the executed was Seinosuke Oishi (1867-1911), a doctor of socialist beliefs. He is often regarded as a marginal figure in the incident in that the degree of his implication remains vague, executed though he was. A fellow-anarchist said he asked the doctor if he knew how to make bombs. The doctor said he did not but that the encyclopedia might.

This conversation, which the authorities considered the beginning of the entire conspiracy — a plot to attempt a violent revolution — in time led to an experiment where it was said that Oishi suggested adding Vaseline to the mixture. Vaseline is sometimes called glycerin and it seems the doctor confused it with nitroglycerin. In any event the result was an unusable and sticky mess.

Though this established the fact that Oishi did not know how to make bombs, it also ascertained that he had actually supplied material which, no matter how uselessly, actually aided further anarchist aims. In addition, his socialist opinions were widely known, as was his habit of treating the poor for free but soaking whatever rich customers he had.

There are few records left of the interrogations and of the trial. Cronin notes that “the Japanese police had, and still have, incredible power over suspects in detention. A major problem is the extent to which the testimony is trustworthy. Detained in tiny uncomfortable cells, questioned for hours at a time, deprived of sleep, verbally and physically threatened by experienced detectives, some of the defendants were no psychological match for their handlers.”

This lack of information inspired the present volume. Having completed a translation of Shingo Kitamura’s “Oishi Seinosuke and the Great Treason Incident,” and familiar with all of Oishi’s own writings, Cronin has here written a completely new account of Oishi’s life. He has uncovered many interesting details, pieces that lead to a fuller and a more accurate understanding.

Ascertaining a degree of “guilt” is not among the aims of the book: There is no doubt that Oishi was involved; the only doubt lies in the degree. To this end the author’s matter-of-fact, one-thing-after-another style serves his chronicle well. There is no attempt to “plot” in the book in any single sense of the word. Rather, it is a successful effort to render the character of a man who became caught up in the case and who was executed.

The trial and its outcome raised considerable concern both abroad and in Japan. Natsume Soseki, Mori Ogai, and Nagai Kafu, some of Japan’s finest thinkers, were rightly concerned that the case marked a shift from the open intellectual environment of early Meiji to one of increased censorship and government control. It is this climate that Cronin describes in his book, copies of which may be obtained by inquiring at cronin2004@yahoo.com

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