If you were to muse on the contribution of Japan to world literature in the 20th century, a host of authors' names — from Soseki to Tanizaki, from Endo to Murakami, from Akutagawa to Kawabata — might come rushing to mind. Yet you might not realize that one of the most revolutionary moments in modern world literature occurred in Japan, but involved not a Japanese, but the most celebrated of all modern Chinese authors.

The scene: a biology class at Sendai Medical College in January 1906. The lecture finished, some lantern slides of photographs from the recent Russo-Japanese War that had raged in northeastern China were shown to medical students.

In one of the slides, Chinese bystanders apathetically surrounded a Chinese prisoner about to be executed as a traitor for providing information to the Russians. The Japanese classmates shouted and whooped "banzai" in approbation but, seated among them, a solitary Chinese student secretly burned with shame at the sight of his countryman humiliated in this way. What particularly appalled him was the attitude of the Chinese onlookers in the image who, though physically fit, seemed spiritually diseased.