The Amazing Dr. Jaffe A history of psychiatry merges with Japan's imperial ambitions

A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II

Eric Jaffe (Scribner, 2014), 321 pages including index and endnotes

It is natural that a man would want to sit down and write a book, first, about a family member, and particularly one (secondly) who led a substantial public life which included (third) a dramatic and vital encounter with a major historical figure. Said writer seems instinctively chatty, and his desire to acquaint the world with his grandfather and to recount that life and that encounter only exacerbates the impulse. Eric Jaffe frequently succumbs to this temptation in recounting not only grandpa’s unrelated battlefield work, but his own global pilgrimage to ferret out that man’s career. (Adding to the challenge was grandfather Daniel’s personal reticence.) Nothing on these many journeys seems too minute to report, as he tracks down friends, siblings and offspring of friends and siblings, who might know something about the man’s upbringing, professional life, and wartime duties and responsibilities. What saves the enterprise is that Eric is a superlative writer with a gift for bringing his many reported scenes—and characters vividly alive.

A Curious Madness has multiple goals and speaks to a wide spectrum of readers. It is, on its most informal level, a family reunion. Eric gets reacquainted with his grandfather and even assembles an appropriate photo album of his life and associates. But the reason to grant this book an attentive reading is that his grand-dad was a man of real consequence: one of the first practicing psychiatrists assigned to military duty in World War II. So the book provides intimate glimpses of that war in both its European and Japanese theaters. Dr. Jaffe served in both. And for one shining hour, he became a man of international importance. His psychological evaluation  Okawa Shumei, the only non-military Japanese figure on trial in 1946, was literally a matter of life and death. (Needless to say, Eric recounts several trips to Japan to record Okawa’s surviving family or friends’ remembrances.)

The book smoothly alternates biographical episodes of his grandfather with the life story of Mr. Shumei. The method quickly makes one thing abundantly clear: it is the theme of madness that unites this globe-spanning story’s disparate strands, strands that stretch far back in time. We learn that Daniel’s parents had immigrated from Minsk, in Belarus, in the late 1800s, where they suffered from the recurring anti-Semitic Russian pogroms that plagued that era and that people. That poisonous atmosphere may well have played a role in Esther Jaffe’s early and lasting mental illness. (We are shocked to learn that she dropped her three-year-old son to his death from a third floor window, and that thereafter she was periodically committed to a range of institutions.) Her great-grandson (who shares her initials) hypothesizes that it may well have been his family’s life-long care for her recurring bouts of schizophrenia that persuaded her son Daniel to go into psychiatry in the first place.

Jaffe reminds us of the hard-headed and cold-hearted resistance to adopting psychiatry as a remedy.

Once identified, Jaffe does a workmanlike job of tracing psychiatry’s 20th-century rise and its concomitant determined efforts to earn respectability. Jaffe, a conscientious researcher, provides a substantial if necessarily cursory review of the growing influences of science, reason and experimentation guiding humanity’s persistent efforts to improve the human condition, even in the inhumane mayhem of two global wars. Indeed, to my mind, our species in the first half of the last century, more than measured up to Philip Larkin’s sour analysis: “Man hands misery on to man; / It deepens like the coastal shelf.” We are shown the evolving treatment of that recurrent battle-field phenomenon that the Great War had first unveiled in spades—“shell-shock.” Jaffe captures the American military’s memory of those effects and does credit its attempt to learn from those horrific Great War experiences. He recounts the steps taken by the army early in WWII to examine and indeed weed out unlikely wartime prospects.

In his professional role, Daniel Jaffe met and was responsible for sending reports to the emerging science’s more enlightened pioneers, especially William Menninger. Eric also shows the unfortunate resistance such fresh thinkers encounter. One report, initiated by General Marshall early in the War, found “that most commanding officers failed to see mental illness as a genuine medical problem.” They felt that “all patients were hindering the war effort.” Jaffe reminds us of the hard-headed and cold-hearted resistance to adopting psychiatry as a remedy in his account of General George Patton’s infamous public slapping of a soldier, accusing him of cowardice. People who are good at soldiering are not always saints of tolerance nor deep, receptive thinkers. So a side virtue of A Curious Madness, particularly for us Common Readers who try to assess history through a more thoughtful lens, is its demonstration of the slowness at which social and cultural change take place and the stiffness of resistance to new and more humane approaches. We might be grateful for a true hero from that same war, the naval aviator and eventual president George H. W. Bush, who ultimately emerged from his combat experiences with a commitment to a “kinder and gentler” nation. Humane progress is slow and, at best, sporadic.

Madness (which proves on suspiciously frequent occasions to become a viable synonym for national policy) also propels Jaffe into a summary of 20th century international politics particularly as they shaped Okawa Shumei’s life and thinking. He proved to be the primary “brain trust” of Japan’s long-nursed desire to lead Asia’s resurgence after decades of Western economic and imperial dominance. It might promote more sympathy from Western readers to consider that Okawa’s notion of an “East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” is little different in goal or vision from our own self-assured claims to “Manifest Destiny” a century before. (Theodore Roosevelt and Kaiser Wilhelm were not the only readers of Admiral Mahan’s 1890 classic The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. At the 1930 London Naval Conference, Japan’s delegates demanded—unsuccessfully—a naval force of seventy percent of America’s strength.) Just as 19th-century America annexed huge swathes of Spain’s New World territories, including the independent nation of Texas, 20th-century Japan sought to intervene in Manchuria and even China. Okawa spoke out publically and often for those imperial dreams—a common mission felt throughout the Far East and felt especially strongly by Japan. She considered herself the leader of the east’s revitalization, after a century or more of oppressive Western plundering and racial dominance. Jaffe makes a significant point of mentioning the refusal at the League of Nations’ 1920 charter meeting to include a “racial equality” clause. Several signatories considered such a clause “an open invitation for Japanese immigration.” Jaffe adds ominously that Emperor Hirohito “later called this a significant turning point on the path toward the Second World War.” It was Okawa’s public promotion of his optimistic imperial vision that landed him in the shadows of the gallows at that war’s end. The victors get to set the rules, define the crimes and select the criminals.

Besides his support of those movements in Manchuria and China, Okawa voiced encouragement for a putsch against the sitting Japanese government on May 15, 1932 which, though it ultimately failed, resulted in the murder of the Prime Minister. Okawa was eventually convicted of encouragement and sentenced to fifteen years. In a new trial his lawyers “emphasized his books, his scholarly achievements, his philosophies about the east.” Above all, they requested that “any punishment he did receive should not disturb his sublime and noble soul.’” The success in securing a more lenient sentence was a sign that his nationalistic oratory was rapidly becoming middle of the road thinking. In the end, he served only sixteen months.

Okawa’s prison episode can, I think, be profitably compared to the fate of another roughly contemporaneous twentieth century “convict,” V. I. Lenin. Their respective career paths reflect for me a significant difference between Japan’s and the West’s cultural and intellectual heritage. England had several centuries’ head start on us colonials and thus could pass on to us that particularly sacred tradition which James Madison and company enshrined in our Constitution: free thought and speech. J. S. Mill, who is a particular secular saint of mine, spoke eloquently for the cause. His encouragement in “On Liberty” of an unblinking tolerance for all points of view, however hateful, created the atmosphere that welcomed on principle even a dangerous political exile like Lenin. Driven from Russia for his criminal conspiracies, he was left free to consult the resources of the British Museum in formulating his thoughts into an intellectually credible political system. For Okawa, prison served a similar purpose and actually proved a godsend:

He found he could read any book he wanted… He spent his time exercising the genius his lawyers had fought to preserve. He expanded his doctoral study of colonialism back to the days of Columbus, da Gamba and Magellan… He argued that the lessons of Western colonialism were particularly instructive for Japan.

Prison thus sharpened Okawa’s thinking, just as the British Museum did for Lenin.

Well, whether liberated by iron bars or dusty shelves, both men emerged stronger, more resilient, and more determined. Yes, I know, the price of the world-wide Communist conspiracy which Lenin inspired may seem a steep one to pay for that national commitment to the full and free circulation of ideas. (And yes, true as well, that imperial system proved so enduring that President Putin is still striving manfully to recapture it. The dream, shorn of its Marxist underpinnings, lives on.) Still I’d argue the price is worth it, when we place in the balance the West’s enlightened, second-nature dedication to civil liberties.

Once released, and inspired by his newly articulated vision which his prison stay allowed him to form, Okawa established his own school “as a grooming ground for the future ambassadors of Asian unity.” He compiled a book of his morning lectures at the school into a book celebrating fellow Asian revolutionary leaders—a remarkable list that included revered giants like Atatürk, Ibn Saud, Reza Shah Pahlavi, and both Gandhi and Nehru. One can surely understand Okawa’s commitment, though we may rightly condemn the harsh military men who sought to put that dream into action.

In any event, Okawa lived a charmed life. Just as he eluded prison for several years after the May 15 uprising, he ultimately avoided a death sentence, and Daniel Jaffe was instrumental. The court hearing his case was split on his mental state (yet again, this book’s central theme of madness raises its head) and so it came to Daniel Jaffe to assess the prisoner. They spent only an hour together but his close attention not just to Okawa’s conversation but his physical reflexes confirmed an obvious diagnosis: “syphilis of the brain.” Whether his extraordinary behavior one day in court, when he leaned forwarded and slapped the bare head of Tojo Hideki, the wartime Prime Minister, was intentional or mad, by the time Jaffe diagnosed him, “the patient is unable to distinguish right from wrong, and he is incapable of testifying in his own defense.”

Incidentally, through the magic of film and YouTube, that slap is available to any interested reader or viewer. It lasts barely a second in a 1 minute and 14 second Pathé Film excerpt from the trial’s proceedings. Wonderful that his grandson could generate so many informative pages from such a brief encounter!