On May 3, 1946, the indictments were read at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Among the defendants was a gangly, bespectacled, 59-year-old civilian named Shumei Okawa, who happened to be seated directly behind the former prime minister, army Gen. Hideki Tojo.

A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II, by Eric Jaffe.
Scribner, Non-Fiction.
Rating: ★★★★

As the clerk read the indictments, Okawa began squirming in his seat and chirping gibberish.

In his book “A Curious Madness,” author Eric Jaffe describes what happened next: “… as the clerk reached count 22 of the indictment, Okawa rose halfway in his seat. Wearing what some reporters later called a ‘cunning grin,’ he extended his long arm forward with an open palm and slapped the top of Tojo Hideki’s bald head. The startled general … turned back to see [U.S. Army Col. Aubrey] Kenworthy restraining Okawa by his gangly shoulder.”

After Okawa slapped Tojo’s head a second time, the court decided the defendant needed a psychiatric assessment to determine his competence to stand trial, and Dr. Daniel Jaffe, a U.S. Army major assigned to the 97th Infantry Division, was summoned. Based on a neurological examination and a Wasserman-Kahn blood test, Jaffe diagnosed Okawa as having advanced syphilis (paresis).

In August, under heavy sedation, Okawa was committed to Matsuzawa Hospital for the Insane in what is now Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. Although suspicions were raised that he might be malingering, he evaded prosecution. Through a treatment called “malaria therapy,” he recuperated and lived quietly for another decade, during which time he completed the first translation of the Quran into Japanese.

While Dr. Jaffe only spent a few hours examining Okawa, his grandson has done a masterful job of researching the war criminal suspect. Over 250 fascinating pages, “A Curious Madness” performs a valuable service for history buffs by figuratively exhuming Okawa from obscurity. In so doing, the book re-assembles the life and times of a brilliant scholar and prolific writer, who devoted most of his adult life to shaking up his part of the world, and leaving a good part of it in shambles.

As one of the ringleaders crusading for a “Showa Restoration,” Okawa was involved in plotting and instigating the May 15, 1932, uprising that culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. (British actor Charlie Chaplin, who was visiting Japan at the time, was also targeted by the assassins.)

As the lone Japanese civilian defendant at the Tokyo tribunal, Okawa was viewed as “the brain trust of Japanese militarism,” and described by a prosecuting attorney as “the sparkplug that kept the whole conspiracy alive and going over the whole period covered in the indictment.”

An excerpt from the prosecution’s 22-page dossier on him read, “Long before Tojo and his gang of international outlaws appeared on the scene, Dr. Okawa was busy night and day with his bloody coups and his evil determination for Japan to fulfill its Messianic Mission against an unwilling world.”

“If Okawa had remained on trial,” Jaffe speculates, “he would have been convicted with the others, and very well might have been hanged.”

While Okawa’s brand of ultranationalism never advocated genocide based on race as the Nazis did in Europe, he did make race a central tenet of his ideology; the Pan-Asianism he unflaggingly espoused was used as one justification for Japan’s military expansionism and harnessed as a rationale for oppressing people in the countries Japan occupied.

The international tribunal would probably not have had to consider indicting Okawa at all, if he had not got off so lightly for his involvement in the 1932 coup attempt. Flooded with appeals for clemency, the judges at the time first sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment, which was reduced to seven years on appeal. Influential friends then pulled strings and he was released after only 16 months. As a testimony to his influence and popularity with Japan’s movers and shakers, just nine months after his release from prison he opened a boarding school, the Okawa Juku, to indoctrinate students with his political philosophy. Incredibly, his academy received generous funding and a stipend from the War and Foreign Affairs ministries. Three months before the war’s end, a U.S. air raid reduced the campus to rubble and, by the following spring, Okawa found himself in Sugamo prison, facing indictment as a war criminal — and then came the famous slap.

After successful treatment for his syphilis, Okawa was discharged from the hospital and all but faded into obscurity. Disinclined to reflect on the sufferings and loss of life to which he contributed, however, he obstinately adhered to his discredited philosophy, as do some of his compatriots even today.

Jaffe alternates biographical details of Okawa with the story of his physician grandfather, while including some fascinating nuggets about how U.S. Army physicians developed ways to treat “shell shock” (now referred to as post traumatic stress disorder) and other psychological disorders. For readers who believe the 20th century has been squeezed dry of its secrets, this book is a revelation.

Okawa’s slap and Tojo’s reaction were captured on film and can be viewed at www.britishpathe.com/video/tojo-on-trial/ (the slapping incident can be seen about 30 seconds in).

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