THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: K.T. Takahashi: Transnational Japanese American writer

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bioline_Greg RobinsonDuring the last years of the 19th century, Kazutomo (aka Kadzu Tomo) Takahashi settled in Montreal, Quebec, where he operated a book and magazine store. Although Takahashi’s career in Montreal spanned barely a decade, during that time he managed to establish himself as a pathbreaking Japanese American writer and publicist. He published in mainstream publications in both Canada and the United States on diverse subjects, both Japanese-related and otherwise, and went on lecture tours around North America. He won praise both for his English fluency and his powerful arguments.

Yet Takahashi was more than simply a columnist or essayist — he was also a creative writer. Unique within his output was his 1892 short story “Love in Nippon,” which stands as the very first work of English-language fiction published by an ethnic Japanese in North America. Aside from its place in history, what is most fascinating about the story is its queer and gender-bending nature, and the attitudes the author expresses.

Takahashi was born in Kawagoe, Japan in 1862. He traveled to the United States in the early 1880s and attended University of Michigan, where he graduated with a bachelor of laws in 1885. In 1886, he moved to Montreal. During this time, he married a Japanese woman, Ute, with whom he raised a son named Masao. (A second son, Kanzo, died in infancy). The Takahashis were the city’s first-ever Japanese residents.

After arriving in Montreal, Takahashi was named manager of a branch of the Drysdale bookstores chain. Eventually he opened his own bookstore in Old Montreal. The “Montreal Handy Directory” for 1894-95 lists K.T. Takahashi as offering “The largest assortment of books and periodicals in Canada.” He was also a stamp dealer, selling used stamps to philatelists. The magazine Bookseller and Stationer later reported, “As a newsdealer Takahashi was well known to all in Montreal, and many a prominent man was to be seen at his counter.”

In November 1889, Takahashi contributed an article, “A Japanese Wedding,” to the Montreal Star newspaper. The essay was an examination of marriage customs in Japan. “(Marriage) is eminently successful in Japan, although divorce is perhaps as easy in Japan as in Chicago. But with us this is in consequence of the original conception of what marriage is, open and honorable, and unlike the shameless maneuverings of lawmongers! Nor have we that legal fiction called a graduated divorce system.” After running in the Star, the article was picked up by numerous American journals, including the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph; The Florida Agriculturist, the Austin Statesman and the Dubuque Times. It gave Takahashi his first real exposure in the United States.

Next, Takahashi’s “Love in Nippon” appeared in the September 1892 issue of the popular American magazine Short Stories. The story is set in “Hosokawa Mansion” on the Sumida River, where a group of a dozen Europeans, Americans and Japanese come together to tell love stories. The last to speak is a middle-aged man of samurai class, who relates his tale. As a young man at the close of the Tokugawa period, he wooed a maiden, Miyo, but because he was affiliated with modernizers who sought to Westernize Japan, her conservative family would not accept him. Miyo begged him to flee Japan for his own safety and sent along her teenaged brother Taro as his companion. The narrator went together with Taro to the United States, and in the process fell in love:

We worked hard and suffered much. When we had mastered English fairly well, we set out on a lecture tour. It was a novelty — novelty always succeeds in America — and we saved enough to enable us to enter a college. Five years sped by as in a dream. All that time Taro and I were like one; we always lived together. When I was ill, he nursed me by day and by night — sweet and gentle, an angel of love to me! When he was sick, I in my turn did for him what brotherly care and tenderness could do, for he grew to be as dear to me as my own life, and more.

After five years, they finally got the green light to return home. Takahashi sets the story’s climactic scene on the boat to Japan. Taro, with an air of great sadness, asks his lover if he can ever forgive someone who has deceived him, even for good cause.

When he says he could, Taro seems delighted, but the narrator cannot guess why. “Taro gave me no reply; instead, to my puzzle, he laughed out merrily and said, ‘Do you still love my sister?’ ‘Well — a — yes; but she must be married by this time!’ I heaved a deep sigh. ‘Oh! no,’ returned Taro, pleasantly, and continued, ‘But do you love me still?’ ‘You silly boy, what does all this mean?’ I demanded. Taro only smiled and looked at me fondly.”

After this exchange, the narrator remains in a state of confusion until the pair land in Yokohama: “Taro, now grown to be a tall, robust fellow, in his full, hearty voice, greeted us, just outside the custom-house of Yokohama — not the Taro (who was) my romantic companion of the five eventful years, but Taro the brother of my beloved Miyo. For my Taro was my Miyo in disguise, whom I had loved as her brother.” The narrator concludes that he and Miyo were married, and that their story shows that pure love is possible in Japan.

Takahashi’s tale was well-received. A reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle called it “An extremely quaint and interesting story by a Japanese author.” One reader wrote to the magazine Current Literature to praise the work for its individuality and delicacy. That magazine reported that Takahashi was living in Japan. This was swiftly debunked by a Montreal reader, W.D. Lighthall, who stated that Takahashi, who was a friend of his, managed a Montreal bookstore. Lighthall described his friend as “an omnivorous reader of good literature, an original thinker upon social and religious problems, and possessed of a rare degree of that artistic taste for which his race are noted.” After praising Takahashi’s story, Lighthall added, “The love-sketch referred to is, without question, not the last that will be heard of Mr. Kadzu Tomo Takahashi.”

While in fact it was not the last of Takahashi, it was his last published piece of creative fiction. In the years that followed, Takahashi turned to the task of bridging Japan and Canada. After the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 broke out, and journalists such as Frederick Villiers denounced Japanese atrocities in China, Takahashi organized his own illustrated lectures in defense of Japan’s foreign policy, and toured North America. He published articles in periodicals such as The Week, the Canadian Magazine and The Arena, as well as the New York Herald.

Meanwhile, Takahashi took Canadian citizenship and campaigned for civil rights for Japanese Canadians. His most celebrated contribution was “The Anti-Japanese Petition: Appeal From a Threatened Persecution,” a pamphlet he produced with the Montreal Gazette press in 1897. Identifying himself as “K.T. Takahashi, a Japanese Canadian,” he protested the denial of naturalization rights to Japanese, and refuted all the familiar racist arguments about Japanese depressing wages or refusing assimilation. Turning nativist arguments on their heads, he urged Canadians to employ Japanese immigrants, since they intended to stay and build Canadian society, rather than hiring American workers who would take their earnings and return south!

Takahashi returned to Japan in mid-1897. Due to his unique fluency in English, he was recruited by editor Motosada Zumoto as a staff writer for a new English-language newspaper, Japan Times. Soon after Takahashi’s arrival, Zumoto left the newspaper and Takahashi took his place as editor and chief editorial writer. He would remain in that position for nearly two decades, until the newspaper was taken over by J. Russell Kennedy, publisher of the rival Japan Mail. Takahashi continued to write occasional features for Japan Times in later years, but instead concentrated his attention elsewhere. He lectured at Keio University for 34 years, as well as other universities. He translated such works as Natsume Soseki’s novel “Kusamakura” into English.

Takahashi died in Japan in 1931.

So what can we say about “Love in Nippon”? Is it fair to read it as a queer Japanese American story? To be sure, tales of women passing for men and attracting romantic complications are at least as old as Shakespeare and Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio.” Yet, such works feature these false “men” loving actual men who have no interest in same-sex affairs, even as they are themselves pursued by women who desire them in their male guise. The plot of a man taking a teenaged male as his “romantic companion” and expressing unapologetic love for him (even platonically, we assume, as he does not discover his lover’s true sex) seems unprecedented. However, by making the narrator a samurai and setting the story 35 years in the past, Takahashi evokes the male love among samurai (nanshoku) described most famously by Ihara Saikaku. His conscious archaism is underlined in a headnote by the editors: “(Takahashi’s) sketch is full of interest, the effect of which is not a little enhanced by the writer’s picturesque handling of our language in his description of customs, many of which have already passed away, in his native land.”

Thus disguised, his story, with its radical messages about gender, higher education for women, and the value and purity of same-sex love, could appear in a mainstream forum.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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