NEW YORK — Selcuk Esenbel was in town. For many years now a professor of history at Bogazici University, Istanbul, Selcuk was, when I met her more than 30 years ago, studying Japanese history at Columbia University. The fruit of that study is her 1998 tome, which she gave me during her previous visit to New York five years ago: “Even the Gods Rebel: The Peasants of Takaino and the 1871 Nakano Uprising in Japan.”
If the subject of her book, a peasant rebellion (hyakusho ikki) in the fourth year of Meiji Era (1868-1912), confuses most Japanese — if only because “peasant uprisings” are indelibly associated with the feudal Edo Period (1600-1868) but not with the “enlightened” Meiji — the subject of the monograph she gave me this time will dumbfound them. It deals with what she calls “a forgotten political legacy”: Japan’s extensive efforts to cultivate and maintain relations with Muslims until the country was defeated in World War II.
Few or, I might even say, no standard textbooks on the history of modern Japan set aside space for these efforts and the results. The article, “Japan’s Global Claim to Asia and the World of Islam: Transnational Nationalism and World Power, 1900-1945,” was published in The American Historical Review (October 2004).
Selcuk’s giving me her latest work as soon as we met was fortuitous. When we picked a restaurant for dinner, I knew one question I’d ask would be the correct Roman spelling of a Turkish name that, from a Japanese transliteration, comes out as “Abdul Hannan Safa.” I had just read “Roy and Kyoko” by Atsuko Yuasa (1984), which describes the author’s life with Roy — Roy James — whose real name, Yuasa tells us, was that. As soon as I brought up the spelling question, Selcuk pointed to the last footnote of her article she’d just given me. It read:
“Roy James, who was a popular media figure in 1960s Japan, most likely would not have received such acclaim if it were known that his given name was Ramadan, the holiest of months in the Islamic calendar. James (who spoke stilted English but had the physical appearance of a Westerner) was the son of a religious cleric serving the Tokyo mosque who was a member of the emigre community from Russia.”
James is a figure I had remembered from the decade before I left Japan, and I, like most others, thought he was Turkish, but Yuasa certainly tells a story I hadn’t imagined.
Abdul Hannan Safa’s father was a lieutenant of the Turkish army that fought the Soviets in Siberia and was defeated — perhaps in what Selcuk refers to as “the Basmaci uprising of the Turkic populations in Central Asia in 1922.” He had come to Japan via Korea, and along the way married a compatriot. Their son was born in Keio University Hospital, in 1929. Called “Hannan Boy,” he grew up as the darling of the neighborhood mothers in Shitamachi, an enclave for the poor, as opposed to Yamanote, an enclave for the upper class, where Yuasa, who married him in 1957, grew up. Every day the Japanese women took him to a public bathhouse — to the women’s section, of course, and that’s why he liked women, Abdul Hannan would tell Yuasa. One day, while his custodians weren’t watching, the boy almost drowned. His real mother was upset and wouldn’t let him go to a bathhouse again.
Toward the end of World War II, as Turkey severed relations with Germany and declared war against it, Abdul Hannan, like other Turks living in Japan, became an enemy alien, was rounded up for hard labor, and almost died. In the confusion of the last phase of the war, not many Japanese knew, as Yuasa in her wealthy, pampered life certainly did not, that Turkey had become an enemy country.
Turkey, of course, became one of the victorious nations when Japan was defeated. But its changed status did not vastly improve Abdul Hannan’s life, even though in the postwar chaos his — to the Japanese — unmistakably “Western” appearance of blond hair and blue eyes helped. With the stage name of “Roy James,” and with cabarets and such becoming all the rage after the war, he started getting occasional jobs as a performer, eventually becoming a highly successful MC, ranked as the most popular TV MC for 16 consecutive years. His wit and vast and exact memory also made him popular among those holding corporate meetings. Unhappily, in his prime he was struck down with an extremely rare disease that causes the jaw bone to grow uncontrollably. After several years of struggle he died in 1982.
So, why did Abdul Hannan’s father head for Japan, of all places? As Selcuk explains, the impetus was Japan’s defeat of the Russian Empire in 1905. Muslim newspapers celebrated it as “the victory of the downtrodden Eastern peoples over the invincible West.” Not just Muslims. I sometimes come across a taxi driver from Africa who thinks Japan is special because of the victory. Just the other day I was reading an account of Nobusuke Kishi as prime minister (1957-60) that noted that during his first extended Asian trip in that capacity, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reminded him of that victory.
Selcuk adds: “a Turkish nationalist feminist, Halide Edip, like many other women, named her son Togo.” Adm. Heihachiro Togo annihilated Russia’s Baltic Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima. Selcuk’s own grandfather, then a young naval officer, saluted the admiral when he made a port call in Turkey. Or so I remember her telling me in the days we were romping about town more than three decades ago.
Japan was quick to seize the idea of incorporating what Selcuk describes as “global enthusiasm” into its geopolitical strategy as a world power. Many Japanese earnestly studied Muslim, some converted to Islam. Among the converts, Hadji Muhammad Saleh Suzuki Tsuyoshi organized the Hezbollah in Indonesia.
Selcuk’s account solved one puzzle I’d nursed since reading one of Laurens van der Post’s stories based on his own experience: Muslim waiters, bellboys, servants and such in Malaysia suddenly shedding their subservience to Europeans as they sensed their imminent retreat — even before Japan’s assault in the region in 1941.
You may wonder where “Kyoko” in Yuasa’s “Roy and Kyoko” comes from. In the novel “Kyoko’s House,” by Yukio Mishima (1925-70), Kyoko, to whose “salon” the four main characters are drawn, was modeled on Yuasa. Mishima was a member of her salon, and Yuasa arranged his marriage to Yoko Sugiyama in 1958. James was the MC at the wedding.
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