Emily Hahn As Source (2): Tanaka Transcends The War

Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, writing of the period after the Christmas Day 1941 surrender of Hong Kong, tells us of the first indication he had that not all Japanese officers were obstructive:

One of my first encounters with helpfulness from a Japanese officer concerned the reserve of four-gallon tins of biscuits, made of soya bean and wheaten flour with the addition of thiamine hydrochloride powder (against beri beri) which I had had baked in the leading department-store of Lane Crawford against the anticipated siege. By good fortune the Japanese had put Lane Crawford’s in charge of a certain Lieutenant Tanaka, who allowed me to remove all the tins for distribution to the P. O. W. and civilian camps and to those Chinese hospitals which had not been closed by the Japanese forces.[1]

Emily Hahn’s story ‘Silicon Dioxide’ describes a dinner hosted by Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, arranged for the purpose of persuading a Japanese officer, Captain Yamaguchi, to release a store of biscuits from Lane, Crawford – he’s been put in charge of the company’s entire stock of food.[2] As part of her unremitting campaign to denigrate Hilda, Hahn claims that she considered these delicious and nutrition-packed pieces of confectionery, baked by my father at the bakery in Stubbs Road,[3] to taste no better than ‘dog biscuits’![4] That’s a joke, but the campaign was real enough, and I’ll discuss it in a future post (while keeping an open  mind as to Hilda’s opinion of the biscuits).

Captain Yamaguchi is undoubtedly based in some sense on Tanaka – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one of the factors in the creation of this character was Hahn’s encounter with this real-life officer. We have a detailed first-hand account of Captain Tanaka in Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Hong Kong Memoir.[5]A comparison between the Memoir and the story will throw light on Hahn’s intentions and on the nature of Hong Kong Holiday as a historical source.[6]

Hahn’s been forewarned that Yamaguchi’s one of the more helpful Japanese officers, yet at first she sees him as a set of stereotypes:

The captain stood in the doorway, clicked his heels, and bowed smartly, just like a German. He was stocky and spectacled and could have been a model for a wartime cartoonist; there were the teeth and the simian grin and the bandy, booted legs. Unlike most of his brother officers, Captain Yamaguchi had not shaved his head, instead he affected a Prussian haircut, half an inch long and bristling like a brush.[7]

 Such a description would be rightly seen as offensive if it came from a writer today – even though, as we shall see, it’s going to be overturned. The representation of the Japanese in terms of monkeys was not uncommon in the 1930s and 1940s, and this, and similar racist denigration,  contributed to the brutality of the Japanese occupation – although it’s worth pointing out that the British and even more so the Americans were on the whole treated better than other nationalities by the Hong Kong Japanese, so an emphasis on ‘white’ racism is very limited in its explanatory power. But what I want to draw attention to here is that Hahn first perceives Yamaguchi in terms that combine negative stereotypes of  both the Germans and the Japanese. It seems that the link with the Teutonic is not just present in the eye of the beholder: Yamaguchi says he spent a year studying in Germany and that, ‘My English too bad’,[8] while, as we shall see, his German’s  a lot better.

Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Memoir also introduces Tanaka in a way that makes the reader think he’s going to turn out to be a typical Japanese officer– it’s Boxing Day 1941, and he’s come to take over Lane, Crawford’s Exchange Building:

The Jap Captain speaks fairly good English, his name is Tanaka, he is a communications officer and all his men are technicians. He has come to take over the Telephone Exchange and spends a lot of time with the staff on the top floor.

Meanwhile he tells Brown ((the Lane, Crawford manager)) to make out a list of names of all the people in the Building. As we look out the windows on to the street we see Jap sentries at every corner, no one is allowed to move about other than Japs….I go and see Brown and he explains to Capt. Tanaka that Hammond and I are also Military and wish to go to Murray Barracks. Tanaka orders us to stay where we are. There are two sentries on the front door, and the side doors are locked, no one is allowed to enter or leave the building.[9]

Tanaka seems here to be the kind of Japanese officer we’ve met in innumerable other accounts; he’s authoritarian and it looks like he’s going to keep the assorted crowd that’s ended up in the Exchange Building on a tight leash. But what are we to make of the contrasting assessments of Tanaka’s English-language skills, Yamaguchi’s ‘too bad’ versus ‘fairly good’? Perhaps Staff-Sergeant Sheridan was exaggerating: Tanaka had an interpreter assigned to him in the early days of the occupation: the admirable and courageous Kaneko Bush, the Japanese wife of a Hong Kong Naval officer.[10] But this arrangement didn’t last long because Mrs. Bush was arrested by the Kempeitai on January 2, 1942[11] and it’s possible that he only needed an interpreter in the first days because he was then discussing technical matters with English-speaking professionals in his capacity as Communications Officer. But, as we shall see, whatever the truth of this, Hahn’s association of the Captain with Germany and the fact that she’s made him competent in German but not English is not an accident.

Hahn’s own presentation of Yamaguchi as a not untypical Japanese officer continues. He says he’s living in the Matsabura (Gloucester) Hotel and is looking for a house; Hilda suggests their place on the Peak, but Selwyn points out that Colonel Eguchi – the Medical Officer and the man mainly responsible for allowing Selwyn-Clarke to continue his work – has already taken it. Then, Hahn tells us, Yamaguchi looks around the flat as if he’s considering and rejecting it for himself[12]– just the kind of predatory interest we might expect!

His ‘too bad’ English means that when he tries to ask questions after dinner – during which he eats a lot of chicken – he keeps slipping into German, so he ends up writing questions on paper, in Germanic script, and giving them to Selwyn-Clarke, who passes them to Hahn.[13] Yamaguchi has previously told Selwyn-Clarke he wants an evening of scientific conversation and music[14] so it’s less of a surprise that one of these questions turns out to be ‘What are chemical composition of glass?’[15] Hahn’s answer gives the story its title, but discussion of this aspect is outside the scope of the current post. Yamaguchi, for all his friendliness, remains firmly in charge of the evening; after an hour or so of science, he announces, ‘We will now have the music’.[16] The music turns out to be the Kreutzer Sonata – Yamaguchi nods and hums, while the others sit motionless in the shadows, looking at him and thinking.[17]

Hahn would have the reader believe that Yamaguchi’s decision to hand over the bulk of the ‘siege biscuits’ – he’s already given Selwyn-Clarke a few cases– hangs on the success of the evening. This is an obviously useful literary device to provide both narrative thrust and tension, and it might or might not have some grounding in reality; but Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Tanaka only needs to be asked to do something helpful and it’s done:

There are thousands of loaves of bread in the main store in the basement going stale. Brown makes a suggestion to Tanaka that it be distributed to the Hospitals before it becomes unfit for consumption. Tanaka agrees and provides a lorry and armed escort.[18]

Sometimes he doesn’t even need to be asked:

About 7th February 1942 we are informed by Tanaka that we must leave the Exchange Building next day. Hammond, Edgar, Peacock and myself are to move to the French Hospital in Causeway Bay to join Dr Selwyn-Clarke’s team….Tanaka orders us to make out a list for each man for a week’s supply of tinned goods, which he issues from the store the night before we go.[19]

I’ll leave out several examples of Captain Tanaka’s generosity to all those under his control. Clearly he had developed a personal relationship with the bakers:

We thank him for his kindness and later he comes up to our room.[20]

I can testify that the only time my father talked about the war without showing clear signs of suppressed fury and horror was when he mentioned one or the other kindness of Captain Tanaka.

By the time Staff-Sergeant Sheridan comes to describe Tanaka’s appearance and character he’s come to realise that he’s ‘an exception’ to the general run of Japanese officer in the way he treats the British:

So far he has treated everyone very humanely, we have received reasonably good food and fair treatment.

Tanaka is not a regular Army Officer, but a civil Telecommunications engineer in uniform. He speaks reasonably good English and has travelled quite a bit in England.

At a guess he would be about 45 to 50 years old, but it is not easy to tell the ages of Asiatics. He wears large horn rimmed spectacles, but appears to be a fit man.[21]

There is no trace of stereotyping here; Tanaka is a human being, albeit of a group that is harder in one (neutral) way for Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s group to ‘read’. And I see no reason to doubt Sheridan’s statement about Tanaka’s time in England. Hahn has deliberately transposed his European experience for the purposes of her story.

So why is Yamaguchi constantly associated with Germany? Everything from his haircut to his taste in music is German, and even the content of the evening – science and music – matches common Anglo-American perceptions of the Teutonic. Early reviewer Frances Stover writes:

The description of the Japanese captain who wanted an evening of ‘scientific conversation and music’ is typical of the Axis in each hemisphere.[22]

Yes, indeed: but that’s only the half of it. Hahn’s story was first published in The New Yorker on October 14, 1944.[23] By this time it was clear that the defeat of both Germany and Japan was inevitable. At one point in the evening, Hahn thinks she’s understood Yamaguchi’s rather strange social behaviour:

I began to understand the little man. He was trying to transcend the war. He was trying hard to spend an evening of civilized intercourse as Westerners would do it.[24]

If that dinner party really happened – and I think it probably did – it must have been in January or February 1942, close to the start of the occupation. As it’s described in the story, Hahn goes through a process of growing awareness: she first sees Tanaka as a bearer of stereotypical characteristics of both of America’s main enemies, but she comes to understand that he’s not a cartoonist’s model of any kind but a human being (with a wife but ‘unfortunately no baby’[25]). He’s been fighting for six years but has remained human; his desire to ‘transcend the war’, comic although it at first seems enables Hahn to do the same and to stop seeing the enemy in terms of stereotypes. And it acts as a recommendation for the USA, soon to be in Tanaka’s position of dominance, to find the forms of transcendence appropriate to a victor nation and not to hang on to the insulting cartoon versions of the enemy, either Japanese or German. Let’s think, Hahn is implying, of Germany as the nation of Beethoven and scientific achievement, and picture the Japanese not as predatory simians but as people capable of appreciating the best that European culture has to offer.

Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Memoir strikes me as an unusually good historical source:  the author makes no attempt to exaggerate his own role in events or to get back at those whose behaviour he didn’t approve of but draws on an excellent memory to describe the events he was part of in a remarkably objective way. Of course, no work is an uncomplicated chronicle of ‘what really happened’ – as I pointed out earlier, Tanaka is introduced in a way that makes the reader think he’s no different from any other Japanese officer so that we can share the author’s gradual awareness of his humanitarian generosity. The Memoir is principal a historical record, but, like all such, it uses art and technique to get its stories across in an effective way.

‘Silicon Dioxide’, on the other hand, should not be read primarily as a piece of history; an earlier reviewer called it ‘very nearly a perfect short story’.[26] I discussed the ways in which another of the stories of Hong Kong Holiday has been so read in the previous post,[27] and it would be easier if the volume bore no relation to the real history of occupied Hong Kong at all! It’s based firmly on Hahn’s own experiences there and it’s hard to resist the temptation to use it – and there’s no need to if this is done with care and with awareness of what a story like ‘Silicon Dioxide’ above all is: a piece of literary art that takes real events and people and shapes them so as to make a point (a number of points in fact, although I’ve focused on only one). And personally this delights me: Captain Tanaka, so kind to my father, and to many others, is made into a symbol of transcendence, a signal to a soon-to-be victorious America to quickly shed the coarsening of perceptions brought about by war.


[1] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 74.

[2] Emily Hahn, Hong Kong Holiday, 1946, 123.

[3] https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/thomass-work-5-the-siege-biscuits/

[4] Hahn, 1946, 124.

[5] Kindly made available to me by Helen Dodd and her sisters.

[6] https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/12/25/emily-hahn-as-source-1-walking-with-frankie-zung/

[7] Hahn, 1946, 126.

[8] Hahn, 1956, 127.

[9] Patrick Sheridan, Hong Kong Memoir, 82.

[10] Lewis Bush, The Road To Inamura, 1972 (1961), 144-145.

[11] China Mail, January 1, 1947, page 2.

[12] Hahn, 1946, 127-128.

[13] Hahn, 1946, 129.

[14] Hahn, 1946, 123.

[15] Hahn, 1946, 129.

[16] Hahn, 1946, 130.

[17] Hahn, 1946, 130.

[18] Memoir, 82.

[19] Memoir, 91.

[20] Memoir, 91.

[21] Memoir, 86.

[24] Hahn, 1946, 130.

[25] Hahn, 1946, 128.

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