Nagai Kafu

What happened to Nagai’s maki-e pipe holder

On September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland, on the other side of the globe, in far away Tokyo, Nagai Kafu, a scion of a Japanese feudal family and a great man of letters, wrote in his diary:  “Glory to the land of Chopin and Sienkiewicz!”  On the day Paris fell, he was so depressed, he said, he could not eat nor sit at home.  He went out for a walk, wondering aimlessly through the city.  He returned home to listen to Debussy’s Oratorio of San Sebastian from an old vinyl record.  In the city, public support for the military was visible — “somehow, inexplicably, people like this garbage”, Kafu wrote in his journal.  “What nonsense, though!  In the name of serving the Japanese spirit, women must not perm their hair; and men are to have just one, government-prescribed style of haircut.  Haircuts bother them, but not the piles of garbage in the streets, not the stink of the polluted river!  What kind of brains do these people have?  It is OK for our streets to be littered with garbage because we beat the Chinese again today?”  Like the US government several years earlier, the Japanese government banned private ownership of gold.  All gold in public possession was to be reported and would eventually be bought up by the government at officially set rates.  Nagai took whatever gold he had — among the items his favorite maki-e pipe holder with a gold mouthpiece; and several tobacco pouches woven from gold-thread — “I used to really get into this silly stuff when I was a kid and had quite a few of them made” — wrapped them in paper and pitched them in the river.  “No gold of mine for these bastards”, he wrote.  “They tell us there is this thing called The Japanese Spirit which is so incredibly different from everything else that it is totally different and we must not mix it with anything else.  So why on earth are we mixing ourselves with the Germans and the Italians?”  That night he read in bed Salammbo.

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