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

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

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by Eric Jaffe

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From an “illuminating and entertaining” (The New York Times) young writer, the story that explores the fateful intersection of two men at the Tokyo war crimes trial that followed World War II: a Japanese nationalist charged with war crimes and the American doctor assigned to determine his sanity—and thus his


From an “illuminating and entertaining” (The New York Times) young writer, the story that explores the fateful intersection of two men at the Tokyo war crimes trial that followed World War II: a Japanese nationalist charged with war crimes and the American doctor assigned to determine his sanity—and thus his fate.

From an “illuminating and entertaining” (The New York Times) historian comes the World War II story of two men whose remarkable lives improbably converged at the Tokyo war crimes trials of 1946.

In the wake of World War II, the Allied forces charged twenty-eight Japanese men with crimes against humanity. Correspondents at the Tokyo trial thought the evidence fell most heavily on ten of the accused. In December 1948, five of these defendants were hanged while four received sentences of life in prison. The tenth was a brilliant philosopher-patriot named Okawa Shumei. His story proved strangest of all.

Among all the political and military leaders on trial, Okawa was the lone civilian. In the years leading up to World War II, he had outlined a divine mission for Japan to lead Asia against the West, prophesized a great clash with the United States, planned coups d’etat with military rebels, and financed the assassination of Japan’s prime minister. Beyond “all vestiges of doubt,” concluded a classified American intelligence report, “Okawa moved in the best circles of nationalist intrigue.”

Okawa’s guilt as a conspirator appeared straightforward. But on the first day of the Tokyo trial, he made headlines around the world by slapping star defendant and wartime prime minister Tojo Hideki on the head. Had Okawa lost his sanity? Or was he faking madness to avoid a grim punishment? A U.S. Army psychiatrist stationed in occupied Japan, Major Daniel Jaffe—the author’s grandfather—was assigned to determine Okawa’s ability to stand trial, and thus his fate.

Jaffe was no stranger to madness. He had seen it his whole life: in his mother, as a boy in Brooklyn; in soldiers, on the battlefields of Europe. Now his seasoned eye faced the ultimate test. If Jaffe deemed Okawa sane, the war crimes suspect might be hanged. But if Jaffe found Okawa insane, the philosopher patriot might escape justice for his role in promoting Japan’s wartime aggression.

Meticulously researched, A Curious Madness is both expansive in scope and vivid in detail. As the story pushes both Jaffe and Okawa toward their postwar confrontation, it explores such diverse topics as the roots of belligerent Japanese nationalism, the development of combat psychiatry during World War II, and the complex nature of postwar justice. Eric Jaffe is at his best in this suspenseful and engrossing historical narrative of the fateful intertwining of two men on different sides of the war and the world and the question of insanity.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Atlantic Cities contributor Jaffe (The King's Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route that Made America, 2010) provides a dual biography of a Japanese nationalist ideologue and the American psychiatrist who examined him at the Tokyo war trial after World War II. The rise of Japan on a mission of pan-Asian supremacy, culminating in its ruthless militarism during the war, was largely the idea of a "philosopher-patriot" who was never prosecuted at the war trials due to his presumed insanity. The psychiatrist who examined Okawa Shumei in 1946 was the medical officer Daniel Jaffe, the grandfather of the author of this probing work of research. With his familial insight into his grandfather's own troubled childhood and adolescence with an often hospitalized mother and his cachet that invited the Japanese to speak freely about Okawa with him, Jaffe had access to dark secrets long hidden. Jaffe's grandfather was a brilliant, taciturn doctor who did not elaborate about his report on Okawa's condition at the trial, when he caused a spectacle by slapping Gen. Tojo Hideki's bald head and otherwise acting up; the author hoped to find some confirmation of his grandfather's diagnosis that Okawa was "unable to distinguish right from wrong" at the time of the trial. Jaffe delves into Okawa's early association with the Asianist movement, prophesying to Japanese youth about another world war as a means of shaking off the shackles of the West. Okawa gave public talks about the need for resolving the "Manchurian problem" two years before Japan annexed the Chinese provinces in 1931, thus embarking on its militaristic track to world war. While Okawa served as the Japanese military's "brain trust," Daniel Jaffe cut his teeth as a combat psychiatrist, tending to shellshocked young soldiers. His experience as a neuropsychiatrist allowed him to recognize Okawa's symptoms as "tertiary syphilis." War criminal or hero? Jaffe reads carefully between the lines to get at the truth.
From the Publisher
"A Curious Madness is a powerful proof that true life is stranger, indeed more curious, than fiction." ---Eri Hotta, author of Japan 1941
Wall Street Journal
“Absorbing… In the hands of a lesser writer, this construct wouldn’t work, but Mr. Jaffe pulls it off with skill and intelligence. Fascinating… a mini-history of the treatment of the mentally ill in the first half of the 20th century along with public attitudes toward mental illness.”
Washington Post
“A richly layered exploration of the thin line between wellness and madness and the extent to which our understanding of those states is sometimes a matter of perception. A Curious Madness is much more than a narrow portrait of its protagonists. It is also a wider study of their cultures and the collective spirits of their countries before and during World War II.”
Daily Beast
“Illuminating…in stylish, effortless prose, Jaffe plumbs interesting depths—was Okawa an ‘ideological villain’ or a psychological casualty of war? Is madness contagious?”
Japan Times
"Over 250 fascinated pages, A Curious Madness performs a valuable service for history buffs by figuratively exhuming Okawa from obscurity... For readers who believe the 20th century has been squeezed dry of its secrets, this book is a revelation.”
author of A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of WWII - Richard Snow
"Eric Jaffe has given us an extraordinary book, at once intimate (a wrenching tale of family madness) and epic (two nations gathering themselves to fight a devastating war). While never slowing his narrative velocity, the author finds in the convergence of two very different lives an encapsulation of immense issues: When does patriotism become criminal? What does combat do to the human spirit? Can a victorious nation ever mete out just punishment to a vanquished enemy? Here is a work of the greatest significance that is as engrossing as a first-rate detective story—which, in a way, it is as well."
Eri Hotta
"Travelling effortlessly between times and places, Eric Jaffe recounts the uneasy meeting of two curious minds. The story of the eccentric Japanese philosopher Okawa Shumei, a suspected war criminal and ideological mastermind behind Japan’s war mobilization in World War II, and Daniel Jaffe, a young American combat psychiatrist and the author’s grandfather who judged Okawa too mad to stand trial, provides a series of illumining, thoughtful, and at times funny insights on how we ourselves deal with our own minds and imaginations. A CURIOUS MADNESS is a powerful proof that true life is stranger, indeed more curious, than fiction."
Jonathan Weiner
"In Tokyo, just after World War Two, Eric Jaffe's grandfather played a small but remarkable role in what is sometimes remembered as Japan's Nuremberg Trials. In A Curious Madness, Jaffe tells the story. The book is a brave, meticulously researched and beautifully balanced account of an episode that by its very nature must always remain unaccountable."
Library Journal
Jaffe (former web editor, Smithsonian magazine) tells the story of two men whose lives converged at the Tokyo war crimes trial following World War II. One was Shumei Okawa, a Japanese civilian considered by many as the intellectual leader of Japanese militarism; the other was Maj. Daniel Jaffe, the U.S. Army psychiatrist assigned to determine the accused's sanity (and the author's grandfather). This book explores not only the mystery surrounding Okawa's mental state but also that of the quiet, war-fatigued psychiatrist. The only civilian on trial, Okawa slapped former Prime Minister Tojo's head the first day in court; Major Jaffe's assessment of Okawa helped him be removed from the proceedings. A considerable part of the book is devoted to the author's grandfather's story: his mentally ill Jewish immigrant mother, his education and training, and his work with shell-shocked soldiers in combat. This book is equally as compelling as Jack El-Hai's The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, above. VERDICT Recommended for those interested in the Tokyo war crimes trials, the nature of mental illness, or the treatment of combat exhaustion.—Leslie Lewis, Duquesne Univ. Lib., Pittsburgh

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Meet the Author

Eric Jaffe is the author of The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America, which won the U.S. Postal Service’s 2012 Moroney Award for Scholarship in Postal History. He’s a former web editor of Smithsonian magazine and now writes for The Atlantic Cities, a site devoted to urban life run by The Atlantic magazine.

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A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book has more twists and turns it makes your head spin. I highly recommend it for anyone interested psychiatric devastation of war and its aftermath. Also a great read is Hector's Juice.
pandabearCM More than 1 year ago
For people interested in World II, Imperial Japan, and combat psychology, I highly recommend this book. The book has much fascinating information about the rise of the imperialist Japan and combat psychiatry. In addition the book is very easy to read. After World War II, there were a series of trials that were similar to the Nuremberg trials that were held in Germany. The book is about the author's grandfather, Daniel S. Jaffe, who declared a major Japanese defendant, Okawa Shumei, in the Japanese war crimes incapable of standing trial because of the defendant was insane. After the war trials were over, Okawa appeared to regain his sanity and lived a fairly comfortable life while his codefendants were either hanged or spent life in prison. The question  had risen whether Okawa was able to fake his insanity to get out of being tried by the United States for war crimes. However, what makes the book compelling is not the unsolved mystery on whether Okawa was really insane. What makes the book  so highly informative are the biographies of Dr. Jaffe and Okawa before these two people meet. The book describes Dr. Jaffe's early years and his training in psychiatry and about the practices of psychiatry in the 1930s and 1940s. What I found most interesting was the history of combat psychiatry the role combat psychiatry plays in wars(it stills seems to be an  issue of how to manage soldiers in the military so they don't become totally psychology scarred from war). I had no idea that there  were treatments that started in World War I, that could take what then was called a "shell shocked" solider, treat at the front and send them back to battle with a high rate of success. The book also describes how low the morale in the armed services could be  during WWII. The book also describes the rise of imperil Japan and Okama Shumei’s role this process. Until I read this book, I had no idea  that rise of military Japan was so similar to the rise of Nazism and Fascism. Like its counterparts in the West, the rise of  Japanese militarism involved a popular movement combined with staged events, coups and assignations.  The mystery of whether Okama really was insane is a little bit anti-climatic . It involved using the conventional psychiatry of the times; I thought there might have been a lot of cross cultural issues. The one criticism of the book that I have is that it made Okawa Shumei seem more sympathetic then he deserved.  Eric Jaffe writes about how Okawa wanted to lead a Pan Asian nationalist movement against the West with Japan being its leader . However, Japan was brutal to the Asian countries it invaded. I doubt many Asians from the countries that Japan invaded saw Japan  as a kindly country fighting Western expansion. Jaffe does acknowledge that the results of Okawa’s philosophy were violent  but not strongly enough. Okawa did play a key role in starting brutal wars. When I was reading the book, I was furious with Okawa and I believe sane or insane he had a lot of blood on his hands. Received ARC from Netgalley