A Curious Madness

The Political and Spiritual Struggles of an Imperial Intellect

Avery Morrow, St. John’s College [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 2 (Book review 3 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 29 July 2014.

Jaffe, Eric (2014) A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II, New York: Scribner, hardback, ISBN-13: 978-1451612059, 321 pages.

In October 1957, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made an unusual request during a brief visit to Japan. He was hoping to meet a man who had hidden Indian independence activists in his home in the 1920s, and who had been indicted as a Class-A War Criminal during the trials of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Trials), only to be afflicted by a surprising bout of temporary insanity in the courtroom. This man was Ōkawa Shūmei, an ideological mastermind of Japan’s interwar empire, and his unlikely rise and fall in the Japanese political scene provides the basis for Eric Jaffe’s A Curious Madness.

Jaffe has made an engaging sketch of Ōkawa’s life, from his early years as the son of a country physician to his entanglement in the Tokyo Trials. Lending a sympathetic ear to Ōkawa’s own statements and tracking the evolution of his ideas over the decades, Jaffe illuminates the character of a sometimes hotheaded, sometimes conflicted man with a contradictory legacy of imperialist jingoism and anti-establishment support for independence movements. Yet this book is only a brief introduction to the full breadth of Ōkawa’s writing, which invites much deeper analysis.

The challenge for Jaffe is that Ōkawa exercised influence in every aspect of the imperial Japanese worldview. While maintaining an intellect capable of authoritative treatises on comparative religion and early modern European colonialism, Ōkawa was simultaneously leading a turbulent political life that alternated between appeals to the popular conscience and to the fascist instincts of the military elite. He reached as many minds in his personal life as he did with his writings. Consequently, in their attempt to cover all aspects of his life, recent Japanese biographies of Ōkawa—such as Sekioka Hideyuki’s (2007) Ōkawa Shūmei no Dai-Ajia-shugi and Usuki Akira’s (2010) Ōkawa Shūmei—Islam to Tennō no hazama de—are remarkably dense and interwoven with threads of Indian nationalism, European geopolitics, and philosophy.

Like these books, A Curious Madness is the product of careful research. Employing Army archives, Tokyo Trials transcripts, and a selection of Japanese sources, it is rich with biographical details and telling anecdotes. Since Ōkawa was primarily a writer and speaker, Jaffe could probably have afforded to quote him at greater length, using the apparently extensive translations that were made during the book’s research phase. We learn that Various Problems of Asia in Renewal (Ōkawa 1922) was considered a “handbook of the Japanese nationalists” at the Tokyo Trials and “fanned the flames” of Pan-Asianist extremism (page 65). However, we do not learn that it really does discuss over a century of East-West relations at exhausting length, references many of its assertions by citing Western academic publications, and closes not with a stirring call to arms but with a reference to the British occupation of the Iraqi city of Basra. A few more relevant quotes could have added to the depth of this biography.

In the interest of a coherent narrative, some parts of Ōkawa’s biography have been left out. For example, Ōkawa’s spiritual side is only occasionally referenced in the text, and yet this was inextricably linked with his political views. He never left behind his youthful interest in Indian philosophy and Islam. In 1924, as his political career blossomed, he translated a religious book by a like-minded expatriate entitled Perennial Wisdom (Richard 1924), and in 1941, as his intellectual talents were in demand to defend Japan’s wars of aggression, he instead took time out to write biographies of Asian leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi with an extensive overview of Indian philosophy (Ōkawa 1941; Ramesh 2012). One of Ōkawa’s Asianist manifestoes concludes with a paean for Sri Aurobindo as an exemplar of the Asian spirit, and among his unpublished papers were a biography of Muhammad and an incomplete theory of religion. It is clear that he saw salvation for the nations of Asia not only in Japanese military supremacy but also in Eastern philosophies and their ancient and modern proponents. Deeper investigation of this lifelong interest could be helpful in achieving a greater understanding of Ōkawa’s writing.

For the most part, though, the book excels in showing how Ōkawa’s logical-sounding, expansionist imperialism appealed to Japanese citizens and elites lost in the muddle of interwar politics and seeking a political theology. To make his portrait well-rounded, Jaffe interviews a variety of sources from Ōkawa’s living relatives to professional historians. One specialist on Pan-Asianism, Christopher Szpilman, describes Ōkawa’s life to Jaffe as full of “idiotic inconsistencies” (page 74), accusing him of being pleasure-seeking and self-serving. But in a more academic study, Szpilman (2001, 71) acknowledges that Ōkawa saw Woodrow Wilson’s attempts at anti-colonialism as “hypocritical ‘slogans’ made up by Anglo-Saxon imperialists to gain Asian support during the war.” Ōkawa saw just as much, if not more, inconsistency in the Western political climate of his day as Szpilman does in Ōkawa.

Jaffe intersperses Ōkawa’s biography with a biography of Jaffe’s own quiet grandfather, the psychologist who pronounced judgement on Ōkawa’s mental health, and an overview of the role played by Army psychologists in the Second World War. Jaffe’s juxtaposition of the Japanese philosopher with the American psychologist may seem to create two separate narratives throughout most of the book, but this alternation of research with personal narrative has been seen in other recent non-fiction works such as Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008). A close reading will find that, although Jaffe’s grandfather does not meet Ōkawa until the end of the narrative, these more personal sections are also well-researched.

The diagnosis Jaffe’s grandfather renders on Ōkawa’s temporary insanity does not come until the end of the book. The specifics of the diagnosis have been public knowledge on both sides of the Pacific for some decades, so it is not new information, but over the course of the book Jaffe documents a surprisingly wide number of modern analyses of Ōkawa’s fit of madness, from a cowardly attempt to avoid trial, through a release of subconscious “contradiction” (page 165), to an American conspiracy to prevent the renowned author from defending Japan’s actions at the Tokyo Trials. Ōkawa himself seemed disappointed that he was unable to defend himself and Japan on that stage, and eager to blame the Allies for denying him that chance at martyrdom—so much so that he never once admitted that he had been diagnosed with tertiary syphilis.

What is admirable about A Curious Madness is that it outlines both the problems and the successes of Ōkawa’s career, allowing us to see that his work does not resemble Mein Kampf—to which it was uncharitably compared by the Tokyo Trials prosecution—as much as Martin Heidegger’s inexplicable Nazi-era writings. Ōkawa is remarkable in that, unlike Heidegger, he spent his final years full of introspection about his political career and Japan’s future. In one postwar essay (Ōkawa 2010, 15), he wrote:

When a thought hardens into an ideology, it spreads over the world like a virus. Ideology is a viewpoint made adequate for unifying all spheres of human life. Life is ceaselessly moving, and does not know holding its breath. Therefore the viewpoint appropriate for systemic unity must also change corresponding to the occasion of the times. In eventful times, militarism; in uneventful times, pacifism; in times of hunger, commercialism; in times of luxury, culturism… When just one out of all these viewpoints is claimed to be the one eternal truth and all other viewpoints are rejected, this happens because the brain’s workings have become machinelike, or one has become obstinate. Accordingly, a profession of ideology is always a kind of defiance.


Chang, Leslie (2008) Factory girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Ōkawa Shūmei (1922) Fukkō Ajia no shomondai, Tokyo: Daitōkaku.

Ōkawa Shūmei (1941) Ajia kensetsusha, Tokyo: Daiichi Shobō.

Ōkawa Shūmei (2010) “Tenshō-kaibyaku no Michi,” Haisengo, Tokyo: Shoshi Shinsui. 14-36.

Ramesh, Barve Tejaswini (2012) “Bhagvad Gita and the Idea of One God: Aurobindo Ghosh and Shumei Okawa,” Isshinkyō Sekai, 3: 31–54.

Richard, Paul (1924) Eien no chie. Ōkawa Shūmei, trans. Tokyo: Keiseisha.

Sekioka, Hideyuki (2007) Ōkawa Shūmei no Dai-Ajia-shugi, Tokyo: Kōdansha.

Szpilman, Christopher W. A. (2011) “Ōkawa Shūmei: ‘Various Problems of Asia in Revival,’ 1922,” in Christopher W. A. Szpilman and Sven Saaler (eds) Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History, Volume 2: 1902–Present, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 69–74.

Usuki, Akira (2010) Ōkawa Shūmei—Islam to Tennō no hazama de, Tokyo: Seidosha.

About the Author

Avery Morrow completed his bachelor’s degree at Carleton College, concentrating on invented traditions in Japan. He is currently a graduate student in the Eastern Classics program at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His research into various aspects of Japanese traditionalism has been published in the Wittenberg University East Asian Studies Journal and Innovative Research in Japanese Studies. His book-length study The Sacred Science of Ancient Japan was published in 2014.

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