The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.

Chapter 11  A Great Man (1954)

Yoshiharu Otsuki (Sendai, Japan) and Yasufumi Otsuki (London)


The definition of a great man

1.The great men described in the moral textbooks of compulsory education

The author is an ordinary engineer who has many inventions including one or two world firsts in a limited field to his credit, but hopefully it is not too impudent for him to comment on the three great men described on Youtube. What makes these men ‘great’ seems to be difficult to define clearly. Wikipedia has a long list of great people, defining them as people who stand out in history because they achieved remarkable results. Many of them are monarchs and their relatives.

However, history tells us that sometimes these kings, queens and princes were quite ordinary and achieved nothing of note and sometimes were clearly incompetent. Therefore, this definition seems wanting. The Youtube part of this essay mentioned the stories of great people that were taught in primary school classes, so the people described in the moral textbooks of compulsory education (published by The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan) were investigated, particularly in reference to the differences between Japan as a militaristic nation (1942~1944) and as pacifistic one (present, 2015).

The number of people listed is less than 40. (The emperor and his relatives were listed many times, so they were omitted from this investigation.) There are only two great men common to the textbooks of both eras, and they are both military men. It’s not surprising that many men from the services were chosen when Japan was a militaristic nation, but even now, the textbooks of a nation supposedly striving for peace contain the examples of one or two astronauts, who surely share a responsibility for at least some developments in the armaments field. This fact alone gives us an indication of what the government’s long-term intentions are.

The textbooks of the militaristic era were written less than a century after the new government had been established, and the selection of people was intended to create an impression of the legitimacy of the emperor and the power of the new government.

On the other hand, textbooks at the present feature people from various fields such as business, art, science, history, sports, entertainment etc., and the emperor isn’t included. Those regarded as ‘especially superior’ were chosen for their popularity, excellence of performance or contributions to public welfare. There are no politicians or soldiers.

Edward Jenner is the only foreigner in the prewar textbook and there are six people in the present one – Jean Henri Fabre, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Pierre de Coubertin, Anne Frank and Mahatma Gandhi.

Accordingly, the selection of “great people” is influenced by government policy, and cannot be regarded as impartial. The influence of these choices can be seen in the fact that recently astronauts are highly regarded by children, and many aspire to become astronauts in the future. As it seems clear that much of the research done in space exploration is tied up with the development of weapons, this really frightens me.

Kinjiro Ninomiya and Hideyo Noguchi were the two people selected for textbooks of both eras. They are described as follows –


2. Kinjiro Ninomiya (1787 – 1856)

He was born into what was originally a relatively rich farming family. However, at the age of five, a large storm and subsequent flooding destroyed their fields and severely damaged their house. Unable to work their land properly, the family became impoverished and the young Ninomiya was forced into doing manual labour on engineering projects and making straw sandals. When he was twelve years old, his father died and he took over the running of the family farm. At sixteen years old, his mother died and they were again hit by devastating floods. The family was broken up and the three children were taken to live with different relatives. This was not done out of sympathy but rather an eagerness to gain an extra pair of hands to help with farm work.

Kinjiro Ninomiya was first taken in by his grandfather’s family, and then moved to other members of his family. He studied hard and earned money with side jobs while working for his relatives. By the time he was twenty years old, he was able to rebuild the family home and restore their fields with the money he had saved. He then let his fields to other farmers and started working as a manservant in a samurai family. Through studying by himself and his experience there, he learnt a lot about the management and running of samurai families, and gradually came to be given jobs with more and more responsibility. Then he was asked to save both his mother’s family and the head of his family from economic difficulties. Performing this work successfully, the head of his family recommended him to the daimyo’s chief retainer for a role in reorganizing his personal finances and paying off considerable debt. In about four years he was able to pay off the whole amount of the debt – about 470 thousand pounds (66 million yen)- and made a profit of 140 thousand pounds. Despite his spectacular success, he never received a penny for his efforts. His indifference to personal gain and his remarkable ability with economic management were applauded by people in his area. This led to him receiving many requests to help out from villages with financial difficulties, as well as from samurai families. He performed these duties successfully and was awarded samurai status by the local government. His good reputation came to the attention of the national government and spread among the daimyos. He took on an endless line of projects connected with financial rescue, the development of farming fields, farming economics etc., and was busy up to his death. The projects he initiated are said to number over 600, and his long stays in area while working on projects led to the town being named after him.

His method was based on thrift and the efficient management of farming, which samurai living in rural districts relied on financially. This was achieved by such means as increasing the area under cultivation by reclaiming land, and selecting crops based on local climate and other regional factors. In my opinion, he was successful because he had both the knowledge and practical ability to carry out reforms in farming management, the need for which had arisen because of the limitations of the feudal system. Within the system, there were four levels of hierarchy – one ruling class (samurai) and three ruled classes (farmer, craftsman and merchant). (In addition to those classes, there were a special upper class consisting of the emperor and the nobility, and a bottom class of people that included criminals and people not on any family register). The samurai depended financially on the tax they received from various industrial activities. As Mr. Ninomiya lived in a rural district, the local government and samurai families depended mostly on the tax of crops. Agricultural practice at the time enabled farmers to make a comfortable living in usual years, but its inadequacies led to bankruptcy and farm closures in times of natural disaster.

The samurai class, being the administrators of their land, should have taken measures against the possible occurrence of such crises but they spent their income irresponsibly and had nothing saved in reserve. Consequently, neither the samurai or the farmers had any plans for response to natural disasters, so there were frequent nationwide famines.

Mr. Ninomiya learned farming techniques and management from working with the farmers, and, as a result of his unfortunate experiences when he was younger, knew deeply the importance of putting aside money to cope with the effects of natural disasters. Furthermore, he had also mastered financial management while working for samurai families. His unique talent, therefore, came from his experience bridging divisions within the class system. His know-how was especially valuable to the samurai class, who up to that time had never governed with any understanding of farming. Moreover, he reformed unhelpful farming systems, not just politically but often also by leading the physical labor needed to implement the changes.

Now many Japanese companies have a management concept of ‘on-the-spot decision-making’ or ‘hands-on approach’, which means managers should take the initiative with there-and-then decisions. This may have come about because of Ninomiya’s ideas.

School textbooks tend to emphasize his selfless attitude and how he strived, in the midst of poverty, to overcome hardship and improve the life of people in the community by eliminating waste and more prudent use of funds. However, many of his successful farming methods are applicable to other areas of management, and this may be why he is considered to be a great person.


3. Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928)

Hideyo Noguchi, bacteriologist, is familiar to all Japanese. He became a medical doctor in Japan, worked in the U.S. at the University of Pennsylvania, and then became a research fellow of Rockefeller University. He had great strides in his studies on yellow fever, snake poison etc., and died in Ghana while further studying yellow fever. He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize, which had never been given to a Japanese at that time. (The first Japanese Noble Prize winner was Hideki Yukawa, being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1949.)

Hideyo Noguchi was born into a farming family in the Tohoku district (the northeastern part of Japan). He lost the use of his left hand after burning it badly in the fireplace at home when he was one year old. This disability led to him being bullied at school. However, his teacher recognized his ability and paid for him to have surgery. The operation was successful and because of it, the young Noguchi came to understand the importance of medicine. He applied himself to his studies and became a medical doctor and bacteriologist.

When the author of this essay learned about Dr. Noguchi as a child, he felt a deep kinship with him, as he was also badly burnt in his infancy and bullied at school as a consequence. However, he could not help feeling that many things had been left out from the simplified version of the story that appeared in the textbook. The operation and relief from bullying that followed was surely the starting point of ‘an initiation process’ in his success story. Neither the teacher or the textbook mentioned any of the essential episodes of this process, for example – how chances arose for him and how he took them, how he strove to realize his ability, and, unlike the story about

Ninomiya, there were no details about his private life. These omissions left the author feeling deeply unsatisfied with the account.

The story of Dr. Noguchi left the boy (the author in his childhood) feeling tormented by his bottled-up feelings about his situation. The burn scars he had on his face that resulted in the bullying were not physically restricting, and so didn’t require surgery, and even if the scar tissue had been removed, all the attention it would have caused would have surely increased the bullying. This led him to feel that he had missed out on a similar opportunity to start a process that might have helped him to overcome his problems. In the end, the anguish he felt about this spoiled his admiration for Dr. Noguchi.

Leaving aside his personal feelings, the success story of Dr. Noguchi was further investigated, but only the following was found.

Simon Flexner (1863-1946), the famous USA bacteriologist, came to Japan when Dr. Noguchi was in university. At that time, medical organizations in Japan were completely dependent on German medicine, and it was very rare for them to have an English-speaking doctor. Dr. Noguchi could speak English, so acted as his guide. He tried to persuade Professor Flexner to offer him a job in the USA but without success. Then, under his own initiative and without the professor’s consent, Dr. Noguchi went to the USA. Professor Flexner reluctantly employed him as a private researcher to study snake venom. From that time, he worked diligently under the professor and achieved excellent results with that research. He also obtained noteworthy results with his research into the causes of yellow fever, eventually dying in Ghana while continuing his studies. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times on account of his work.

It appears that there are people who are not happy with the way his success story is related in textbooks – indeed, there is quite a lot of criticism of Dr. Noguchi and his work. However, even if this criticism were valid, it ought not to diminish his achievements. It might be the case that there are simply not many private stories that demonstrate an ‘ initiation process’, and this could be the reason why descriptions of his personal life are limited to his childhood.

In conclusion, it can be said that the main reasons that Ninomiya and Noguchi are considered ‘great’ are, of course, their remarkable accomplishments and the hard work they achieved them with.

During Noguchi’s lifetime, there were several medical scientists in Japan whose achievements were equally or even more impressive than his, and several scientists had already accomplished advanced results in other fields as well – remarkable when you think that it was only half a century since western science had been introduced to Japan. However, they were not considered for the Nobel Prize due to a lack of nominators in Japan. On the other hand, Dr. Noguchi was in the USA, which might have led to him being nominated 3 times.


The end


<<< Showing again the story presented in Youtube >>>


A Great Man (1954)

1. Albert Schweitzer

 The Japanese archipelago is a string of more than 3,000 islands in the east of Asia extending 1,300 miles between the Sea of Japan and the western Pacific Ocean. It’s climate changes gradually from the south to the north according to the shifting seasons. The rainy season is in June and July, and this promotes the growth of rice, the main crop, throughout the country. The Japanese plum also ripens at this time, and accordingly the kanji characters used to write ‘rainy season’ are the ones for plum and rain. The boy lived in the northern part of the mainland, which usually had its rainy season from the end of June to the middle of July.

In that year, the rainy season ended unusually early and the sun beat down hard every day even in early July. The sunlight did not pour directly into the classroom due to the high position of the sun, but it heated up the school and made the pupils sweat. Sometimes there was a breeze and it dried their sweat, so it wasn’t so bad. That day, the boy was sitting on a chair next to the window, looking outside with a blank look on his face. The cicadas started chirping energetically and the leaves rustled in a strong wind. It was noisy outdoors. No, that’s not quite true –actually the teacher’s voice was louder but the boy’s thoughts were flying somewhere outside the classroom.

Suddenly the teacher’s voice seemed to get louder. Well, it would be more accurate to say that the boy became interested in what the teacher was saying.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer was a great person with a kind heart, loving his childhood friends dearly. One day, his rich parents bought Albert a very nice hat, but he did not wear it because he wanted to wear an ordinary one like his poor friends. This shows that even as a child he thought of others, an example of the philanthropy he would become famous for as an adult.”

No, that’s rubbish!’ The boy almost said aloud, ‘That’s definitely not true. There is another more selfish reason that he did not want to wear the nice hat.’

In the boy’s village, children were always on the lookout for somebody to bully. This person was chosen on the slightest difference from others, irrespective of wealth and ability. His family lived on his mother’s earnings as a teacher, while almost all other families were farmers. Such a tiny difference was a good enough reason to single somebody out for bullying. On top of that, he had a burn scar on his face, which often made him a target.

One day, his mother bought a cloth hat for him but he never wore it. All the village boys wore a tatty straw one, so he knew that if he wore the new cloth hat when he was with them, that would definitely be another reason for the boys to bully him. Of course, he kept the fact that he was getting bullied secret from his mother as he did not want to make her sad. (Being so wrapped up with her work might have been why she failed to notice the hard time her boy was having.) Teachers at that time certainly didn’t pay enough attention to bullying, which still seems to be the case today. She did not know why he continually refused to wear it and finally tried to compel him to do so.

He wore it only one time when he went to a big city far from the village. He didn’t have any problems and the experience taught him that the people around him in his village were narrow-minded and unaccepting of differences in other people. Therefore, this biased view made him conclude that Dr. Schweitzer must have been afraid of bullying too. Of course, the village boys didn’t think the story of Dr. Schweitzer was true – it was just a story in their textbook. Later, he studied Dr. Schweitzer’s achievements, and was embarrassed to think how he had regarded him at that time. However, whenever he heard anything about the lives of great men, he could not stop himself doubting the truth about it. Anyway, he has since tended not to read such stories.


2. Johann Carl Friedrich Gauß

 It was the beginning of autumn and the boy had been gazing blankly out of the classroom through the window as usual. This area had another, shorter rainy season in September, and it was raining on that day. Puddles could be seen here and there in the schoolyard, and the branches of a big willow were shaking in the strong wind and rain. The view from the window sometimes became unclear in the intermittent heavy rain, and it reminded him of a rainy scene depicted in some Chinese painting. He made plans for what he would do after school – these didn’t include studying, of course. The thick cloud would be good for fishing, but the heavy rain would make it difficult to see the fish biting, and it was a little bit too early to pick chestnuts. He finally decided that it would be better to stay inside and read. Maybe he would look at the copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales his mother had bought, or a children’s novel, or his elder sister’s textbooks with all their pictures and maps of the world. He had looked at the chapter about Slovenia containing a picture of a pretty girl many times. His mother never bought him comic books, saying that reading things like that would make him stupid. (The comic books were drawn by great cartoonists such as Osamu Tezuka, who is much respected nowadays.)

He suddenly remembered he was now in his mathematics class – a subject that he was not good at. Pupils had to write their answers on the blackboard more often than in other classes. Unfortunately, the boy always became nervous when he had to speak or do anything in front of people, so he came to his dislike the subject, and that surely resulted in the poor assessment given to him by the teacher. That day, as a short break from the lesson, the teacher related to them a story of a great mathematician.

Gauss, the great mathematician, was born in Germany, and exhibited his splendid talent from his childhood. Here is my question for you all.

What is the sum of integers from one to ten?”

The boy instantly came up with the answer of fifty-five.

The teacher continued, “Does anybody know the answer? Raise your hand.”

He, however, did not lift his hand.

The teacher said, “You clearly can’t come up with the answer so easily, but little Gauss had the same question in his school, and he was able to give the answer as fifty-five in no time – a mathematical genius can calculate that fast.”

The boy was unimpressed. He did not think that such a simple calculation test was a convincing example of genius. How did he calculate it, then?

The image of the number array from one to ten sprang in his mind. He connected one to nine, two to eight, three to seven, and four to six with an arrow, and then added ten and five to make fifty-five. This instantly led to the answer. He felt anybody should be able to do that without any help from a teacher.

He momentarily thought that if that test was truly an indication of mathematical ability, even if he were not exceptional like Professor Gauss, he might be able to become professor of the mathematics someday. However, he couldn’t overcome his feeling that he wasn’t good at this subject, and subsequently never had much interest in mathematics. Later in life he came across the episode about Professor Gauss again and found that the teacher had in fact asked for the sum of the integers from 1 to 100, and the young Gauss had replied correctly immediately. As he couldn’t even get an image of the necessary number array in his small brain, he felt somewhat more convinced by this account.

Why had the textbook used the ‘one to ten’ example? (At the moment of writing this essay, the author doesn’t know whether the story about Professor Gauss was written in a textbook or a teaching manual.) Possibly the author of the Japanese version had considered that the ‘one to ten’ story would be easier for the pupils to understand the genius of Professor Gauss – the ‘one to a hundred’ version being way beyond their comprehension. But hadn’t he felt that by doing so he didn’t do justice to the great mathematician? On the other hand, that being able to add up the integers from one to ten is not a proper way to assess mathematical talent is surely proved by the unremarkable life of the author of this essay!

Great people earned their fame by their fantastic achievements, and relating these achievements precisely would never have led to the misunderstandings just described. However, the textbook made the mistake of trying to convey their greatness with trivial incidents, greatly underestimating the instinctive ability of children to understand without the need for oversimplification.

Consequently, the boy learned in that class that textbooks are not always right. This understanding has been useful to his various studies since, and even contributed to a certain innovation in some cases.


3. George Washington 

 Children living in an agricultural mountain village had a busy time doing farming work and taking care of their siblings every day after school. As his family didn’t earn their living from farming, the boy had to only draw up water from the well and carry it about a hundred meters in a bucket to a water container a couple of times a day. Then he could play as much as he liked every afternoon. (Of course, he did no inclination to study.)

Sometimes children were temporarily released from their duties and played with him. In the evening, they left him alone and went back home in twos and threes and resumed their chores, which included such things as tidying farming equipment up, heating the bath, preparing the dinner etc. He enjoyed playing together with the other children so much and he hated it when they left. Probably because of that, he continued to dislike evenings for a long time after.

Now, he was sitting on one of the branches of a persimmon tree on a farmer’s land next to his house. While he was gazing absent-mindedly at the view around him in the lingering evening light, he heard a familiar step. He could hardly believe his ears because his mother usually came home after dark – she never came back at that time. When the sound of her footsteps got closer, and then stopped under his persimmon tree, he held on to another branch and leaned out of the tree to see her.

What are you doing up there?” she said.

Ah, it’s you, mom – I thought so.” At that moment, there was a loud crack as the branch broke and he fell to the ground heavily. As the same thing had happened to him many times before, he was instinctively able to break his fall and avoid serious injury. He did feel some pain but not wanting to worry her, he stood up straight and didn’t show it.

She shouted at him, “What were you doing up there? Now you’ve broken the branch and it’s not our tree.

You must go and apologize to them.”

Why should I apologize?” He muttered to himself. It was true that the persimmon tree was on their neighbor’s property, but they never tended to it and always left the fruit on the tree every year. To the boy it was just like a wild tree and besides that, it was so big that breaking one smallish branch didn’t seem important.

Why should I apologize to them?”

She replied sternly, “If you damage somebody’s property, of course you should apologize to the owner. Go and apologize – now!” He knew that if he continued to argue, he wouldn’t be allowed inside their house and he would have to go without dinner, so he reluctantly went to apologize to the farmer’s family.

The head of the family said to him kindly, “That tree is nothing special to us – it just happens to be there on our land – there’s no need to apologize.”

That’s just what I thought,” the boy said to himself.

A few years later, he learned the story about George Washington damaging a tree and could understand his mother’s intention at last. Consequently, the reason he was never able to hold a very high position, even in a small company, might be put down to his lack of the kindness that Washington had displayed. The one thing he learned from the episode was that the persimmon tree is more easily damaged than most trees.


The end