“The Tattoo Murder Case”

It is 1947 in post-war Tokyo and the police are confronted by a locked room murder in Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tatoo Murder Case.  The book was one of several Japanese mysteries I got for Christmas from my husband.  If the others are as interesting, he and David, the owner of Mystery on Main in Brattleboro, choose well.

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi was born in 1920.  According to both Wikipedia and eNotes, he studied metallurgy, but became a mystery writer when a fortune teller told him that was where his future lay.  He was a prolific writer up to the 1990’s; he died in 1995.  Only three of his books, including Tattoo, have been translated into English.

As with all good books, one learns a great deal.  Post-war Japan and the destruction in Tokyo are prominent.  At one point, we visit a house untouched by the war while the house next door is destroyed.  And I learned a lot about the art of tattooing.  Did you know that people with full-body tattoos have a shorter life span because the tattoo interferes with circulation?   Picking up facts like that is one reason I love good mysteries.

In the shadowy depths of Mount Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, there lived three powerful, wicked sorcerers who were masters of the black arts of magic and enchantment.  These mysterious magicians were known as Tsunedahime, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru, and their legendary exploits have been the subjects of folk tales, Kabuki plays, woodblock prints, and some of the most spectacular Japanese art tattoos ever created.

This is the tragic story of three of those tattoos.

I’m not certain if that preface was written by Takagi or not, but assume that it was.  The folklore behind the tattoos plays as big a part in the story as the art of tattooing itself.  At the time of the mystery, tattooing is illegal in Japan, but there is a flourishing underground.  Tattooing is an art to the Japanese who are contemptuous of the random tattoos sported by the occupying Americans.  Their tattoos are referred to as sushi after a kind of rice featuring vegetables and other things scattered at random in flavored rice.  (Sushi refers to the rice and comes in many forms, not just rolled in seaweed or topped with fish.)  A good tattoo should be an entire picture and tell a story, not just be random names of girlfriends, flags, and anchors!

cover

The Tattoo Murder Case provides a glimpse into a different culture and time as well as a fascinating mystery.

Photograph of Takagi from Wikipedia.

Photograph of book cover from Amazon.

The book was translated by Deborah Boehm.

 

History and war

I have to admit that my knowledge of the Second World War in Europe is limited to what I know from high school history class, some novels and movies.  I can name some of the famous battles and tell you that the all Japanese American 442nd fought in Italy, but my ignorance is pretty shocking.  So I have started reading the Rick Atkinson Liberation Trilogy starting with “An Army at Dawn” about North Africa.

But it seems that I am not the only one with a need to know some history.  Sunday’s New York Times had a long story about young Japanese students going to Guadalcanal to look for remains and learn history.

Using a trowel to dig into the shadowy floor of the rain forest, pausing only to wipe away sweat and malaria-carrying mosquitoes, Atsushi Maeda holds up what he has traveled so far, to this South Pacific island, to find: a human bone, turned orange-brown with age.

Mr. Maeda, 21, was looking for the remains of missing Japanese soldiers at the site of one of World War II’s most ferocious battles. Others have done this work before him, mostly aging veterans or bereaved relatives. But he was with a group of mostly university students and young professionals, nearly all of them under 40 and without a direct connection to the soldiers killed here.

A Japanese vessel was partly submerged off Guadalcanal in 1942 after being hit by American forces. The battle helped turn the Pacific war in favor of the United States and its allies. Some 7,000 Japanese were reported missing on Guadalcanal

A Japanese vessel was partly submerged off Guadalcanal in 1942 after being hit by American forces. The battle helped turn the Pacific war in favor of the United States and its allies. Some 7,000 Japanese were reported missing on Guadalcanal

As I understand it, the Japanese talk even less about WWII than Americans.  I had two uncles who were in Japan with the American occupying forces but it wasn’t until a few years before they both died that I knew anything about what they actually did. Ostensibly translators, they worked in support roles for the American army – mostly in supply.  My uncles didn’t talk much about the war because, like many vets, they were raised to accept the experience and move on.  In Japan, however, it has been almost national policy not to talk about the war they lost.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there has been a surge in interest among young Japanese about the disastrous war that their nation has long tried to forget.

It is a phenomenon that crosses political lines, encompassing progressives who preach the futility of war as well as conservatives who question the historical record of Japan’s wartime atrocities. What these young people have in common is an urgent sense that they learned too little about the war, both from school, where classes focus on earlier Japanese history, and from tight-lipped family members, who prefer not to revisit a painful time remains strong in Japan.

I found it interesting that most of the Japanese students are several generations younger than I am but that we are both driven by the need to know more.  200 pages into Atkinson’s story of North Africa, I keep reading about familiar names:  Tunis, Casablanca,  Marrakesh, Algeria – names of places that have been romanticized but where hundreds died.  North Africa is where there is an on-going struggle for democracy complicated by terrorism and tribalism.  (Think Benghazi)  We American invaders during WWII didn’t understand the local population or make a lot of effort to do so.  A mistake we still make today.

Kankoh Sakitsu, 42, the head priest of a Buddhist temple in Tokyo who organizes expeditions to Guadalcanal, has seen interest among young people grow after his first trip here in 2008. Since then, he has arranged three other journeys for groups of Japanese, including this one in September.

Mr. Sakitsu originally went to Guadalcanal to pray at the battle sites out of a sense of contrition because he feels Japanese Buddhism failed to oppose the war in the 1930s and 1940s, and so shares responsibility for it.

The story ends with a note of caution from a Japanese Guadalcanal veteran.

Mr. Sakitsu, the leader, said the September group was special because it was joined for the first time by one of the last surviving Japanese veterans from the battle, Junshiro Kanaizumi. Mr. Kanaizumi, 95, was an army engineer who helped build roads in the jungle. Now bent and frail with age, shuffling to the edge of the jungle with the help of a walking stick, Mr. Kanaizumi wore the same khaki jumpsuit with a Japanese flag on one shoulder as the other members.

Peering into one of the leaf-wrapped bundles, Mr. Kanaizumi said it was possible he once knew the man now reduced to a pile of crumbling bones.

“I hope they learn the miserable reality of war,” he said. “Once I am gone, who will be around to tell them that the only lesson from war is to never do it again?”

I think when I finish reading about Europe, I’ll have to move to the Pacific theater.

Photograph:   US Navy/Getty Images

Virginia Sweet and Henry Allingham

Today, forty years ago, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  In the last few days two pioneering pilots, one from World War I and the other from World War II have died.

VIRGINIA SWEET

Virginia Sweet’s obituary as published in the Boston Globe is short so here it is in its entirty.

Inspired by a story she read as a young girl about Amelia Earhart’s trans-Atlantic flight, Virginia Sweet became a pioneering female aviator in her own right.

She was a pilot with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, ferrying every imaginable type of military aircraft from factories to air bases during World War II to free male pilots for combat overseas.

Sometimes Ms. Sweet was assigned to fly shot-up, barely functional aircraft in for repair. Thirty-eight of her fellow female fliers were killed during duty.

After the war, when these Rosie the Riveters of the skies no longer were needed, the nation essentially turned its back on Ms. Sweet and hundreds of Women’s Airforce Service Pilots like her.

The longtime Schenectady resident died July 12 at 88, two weeks after President Obama signed a law that offered recognition and Congressional Gold Medals, the highest award Congress can give to a civilian, to the WASP fliers.

Ms. Sweet prided herself on a five-decade flying record without an accident

Henry Allingham was one of the few veterans of World War I still alive when he died at aged 113.  The New York Times obituary tells his story.

An iconic figure to many in Britain, Mr. Allingham did wartime service including stints on land, in the air and at sea. In 1915, he flew as an observer and gunner in the Royal Naval Air Service, hunting zeppelins over the North Sea. He was aboard one of the Royal Navy ships that fought in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, in which Britain lost 14 ships and 6,000 seamen.

Mr. Allingham was born in London in 1896. He lost his father to tuberculosis the next year. After his mother also died, he was raised by a grandmother. He became a trainee maker of surgical instruments before moving into the motor trade, training as a mechanic. After his wartime service, he worked until retirement for the Ford Motor Company. Judged to be too old to serve in combat in World War II, he was assigned to a project that sought to neutralize German magnetic mines.

The Associated Press  news account of Mr. Allingham’s death has this wonderful account

He spent the war’s first months refitting trucks for military use, but when his mother died in June 1915, he decided to join after seeing a plane circling a reservoir in Essex.

Only a dozen years after the Wright brothers first put up their plane, Allingham and other airmen set out from England on motorized kites made with wood, linen, and wire. They piled on clothes and smeared their faces in Vaseline, whale oil, or engine grease to block the cold.

“To be honest, all the planes were so flimsy and unpredictable – as well as incapable of carrying large fuel loads – at the start of the war that both British and German pilots would immediately turn back rather than face each other in the skies if they did not enjoy height supremacy,’’ Allingham would later write.

As a mechanic, Allingham’s job was to maintain the rickety craft. He also flew as an observer on a biplane. At first, his weaponry consisted of a standard issue Lee Enfield .303 rifle – sometimes two. Parachutes weren’t issued. He fought in the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I. He served on the Western Front.

We owe Virginia Sweet and Henry Allingham not only for their service during war, but for their part in advancing aviation.  As anyone who plays Sid Meir’s Civilization knows:  you have to have flight before you can get rocketry.