Tag Archives: Asia

Review: A Curious Madness by Eric Jaffe

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CuriousMadnessA Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II by Eric Jaffe (Scribner, 2014)

Blurb: In the wake of World War II the Allied forces charged twenty-eight Japanese men with crimes against humanity during the Tokyo war crimes trial. At their conclusion, seven were hanged for their war crimes and almost all the others served lengthy prison sentences. Okawa Shumei, a brilliant ideologue, was the only civilian among the indicted “Class-A” suspects. In the years leading up to World War II, Okawa had outlined a divine mission for Japan to lead Asia, prophesized a great clash with the United States, planned coups d’etat with military rebels, and financed the assassination of a Prime Minister. Beyond “all vestiges of doubt,” concluded a then-classified American report prepared in 1946, “Okawa moved in the best circles of nationalist intrigue.”

On the first day of the trial, Okawa made headlines around the world by slapping star defendant Tojo Hideki on the head. Had Okawa lost his sanity? Or was he faking madness to avoid a grim punishment? A US Army psychiatrist in occupied Japan—the author’s own grandfather—was charged with determining whether Okawa was fit to stand trial. He’d seen madness his whole life, from his home in Brooklyn to the battlefields of Europe, and now his seasoned eye faced the ultimate test. A Curious Madness is the suspenseful tale of each man’s journey to this climactic historical moment.

I’ve included the blurb above because I found it utterly intriguing. Now, having read the book, I realize I overlooked the importance of the final sentence: it’s the story of these two men before the slap, which is much less intriguing, at least for me.

The book describes both men’s lives, Okawa’s and Jaffe’s, by alternating between the two biographies. While I found Okawa’s story to be interesting, Jaffe’s was less so, in large part because the story is being told by his grandson, and the family history isn’t all that relevant to what is posited as the central question of the book: Okawa’s sanity (or lack of it). There’s a lot of discussion of the mental illness of Jaffe’s mother and its effect on the family, but because Jaffe was apparently a very private and taciturn man, the author is unable to shed light on Jaffe’s thoughts and reactions, so he remains a distant figure, and I didn’t feel as though I gained any real insight into him at all. The author also gives some consideration to the history of combat psychiatry, which I did find interesting, but again, because combat was not ever posited as or considered to be the basis of Okawa’s sanity, it wasn’t necessarily relevant to the book’s central question.

Okawa’s history, on the other hand, is relevant, because his actions and his philosophy were what resulted in his being on trial in Tokyo. Understanding exactly what role he played in the decades leading up to World War II helped me understand how he could be the only civilian at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal to be charged with crimes against humanity. I did feel as though I learned a lot about Okawa and his beliefs about the role Japan should play in Asia, although I felt the author glossed over the sheer brutality of the Japanese in China and Korea in his discussion of Japan’s role in the pan-Asian movement (which no doubt was a major consideration in Okawa being charged).

Because of the author’s focus on the two men’s lives before the slapping incident, which was the only thing they had in common, and the lack of any discussion about the two interacting, I never really got a sense of cohesiveness while reading the book. I felt the author’s family history took too great a role, and the title doesn’t really reflect the actual content. The question of Okawa’s sanity is almost an afterthought, and while I agreed with the author’s conclusions, I didn’t feel that it was nearly as much of a mystery as I did before I read the book.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars of 5