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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Conversation with Hal Gold from 1997

A Conversation with Hal Gold from 1997.
Writer, historian, critic, and long-time Kyoto resident, Hal Gold (July 24, 1929 - March 25, 2009) lived in Kyoto for over 30 years, and was a well-known writer on Japan-related subjects.

He passed away in Kyoto at the beginning of the 21st century. This interview took place in 1997.

His published works include a series of essays on Japan (Japan in a Sake Cup), a few books in Japanese, a book which focused on Japan as a right-brain society, as well as a number of articles on turn-of-the-century Kyoto development. His most recently published work, Unit 731 Testimony (Charles E. Tuttle Co., Ltd.), deals with the war crimes of the Japanese army connected with medical experiments conducted on live prisoners in Manchuria between 1932 and 1945.

What is it about Kyoto that interests you?

Gold: My own interest in Kyoto lies in the post-Meiji Restoration period, which, in my opinion, has received far too little attention. I am especially interested in the technological lead Kyoto took in Japan after the restoration. In those days, Kyoto had the reputation of doing everything first in Japan's educational reform, electricity, physics, chemistry. For centuries, the economy of the city had been built on the imperial court and surrounding structures. Then, all of a sudden, the whole economic basis of the city collapsed when the emperor and the entire court apparatus moved to Tokyo. Kyoto was in shock and lethargy. Those who remained, and the many ambitious people who came in from outside the city, realized that the only way to replace the lost imperial-based economy was to pursue technology. This incredible historical discontinuity, if you will, makes this period very interesting.

In terms of infrastructure, how did Kyoto become so advanced, who was involved?

Gold: After the Restoration, when the whole country was reorganized from fiefdoms into prefectures, Kyoto Prefecture became a political entity. Kyoto City was only set up 22 years later. In the early days, Kyoto Prefecture set up the seimikyoku, an organization aimed at implementing Western advances in physics and chemistry. Using the new sciences to develop new products, a number of different study centers were set up. At one time there was even a big Dutch-type windmill where City Hall stands today, which was being used for agricultural research and experimental irrigation methods.

Can you illustrate a good example of this turn-of-the-century promotion in terms of modern-day technology?

Gold: Look inside almost any electronic appliance and there's liable to be a component supplied by a Kyoto company. Kyoto has numerous small to medium companies in highly specialized areas of technology, usually related to the production processes of other products. Kyotoites sometimes remark that the city's high-tech ceramics are rooted in the traditional Kiyomizu pottery industry. However, it's a long way from tea cups to semi-conductors. There had to be something that happened in between there. It took me a long time to find out what the missing link was, which is the subject of several articles I have written, and hopefully will be part of a book I'm planning right now.

Kyoto has been your home for the past 30 years, have you had any difficulties living here?

Gold: It is a well-known complaint amongst the Japanese that Kyoto people are most difficult in all of Japan. It might be true, but it's no accident. In a way, it's their right. For hundreds of years Kyoto was invaded by one army after the other, and because of this Kyoto citizens learned to put on a face that was the same to friend and foe alike. A great portion of Kyoto society was made up of kuge (lower class nobility) households. The kuge had social rank but no real authority. This meant that when a farmer came to a kuge household and asked, "May I leave my wagon in that empty lot over there?" the kuge didn't have the authority to say yes or no. However, the kuge had to maintain his position, and so they became very adept at using language that didn't mean anything but which maintained their image of position and rank. This kind of language and interaction has remained very much part of the Kyoto manner of communication today. It irritates a lot of Japanese, and some non-Japanese people also, but that's history, and there's really no one to blame.

What would you say is great about Japan, something that you can't find in American life?

Gold: Well, I’m from New York. In New York, of course, one's living environment can be quite hostile. One of the beautiful things about living in Japan is that you don't have think about those kinds of things at all. This frees up a lot of energy. For a city of its size, life in Kyoto is about as safe and serene as it gets. All the same, I often wish for some of that Meiji era ambition and foresight on the part of the local government.

What are your favorite places in Kyoto?

Gold: I often jog up Daimonji mountain, and I am very interested in its history. Daimonji is owned by 50 some odd families who are my neighbors, people who have been there for years, I mean generations. One almost unknown theory is that the fire on the mountain in the shape of the ideograph dai (大; great) which is lit every August was originally a star shape. Kobo Daishi probably absorbed this knowledge from the Far East in the 8th century. According to some sources, the mon was created to symbolize a star because Kobo Daishi wanted to spread the belief that stars contained human destiny. Kobo Daishi brought all sorts of philosophies and dogmas from different religions to Japan. He started the Mikkyo Shingon sect, which has a star festival. No other Buddhist sect believes in the stars. Shingon also is unique for its practice of fire worship, which is part of what Bon fire rituals are all about. I also like to jog along Tetsugaku-no-michi. I especially love the little waterfall near the shrine at the southern end of Tetsugaku-no-michi. A while ago, my wife and I went to Argentina and saw the huge Iguazu falls. Liquid awe! After we came back to Kyoto, I took my first jog and went to see the tiny waterfall. It looked great, and I understood the meaning of the old adage, itteki taikai, literally, a drop of water is an ocean.

Your latest book is about a very controversial subject. Any comments?

Gold: Unit 731 is not just about Japanese history; it's also about American history. Very few people are aware of the fact that the American military made a deal with the Unit 731 leaders. We promised not to prosecute them in return for the medical knowledge they obtained from their horrible experiments. Now that the leaders are nearly all dead, the crimes are starting to come into the limelight. Early last December, the US Justice Department came out and said that 16 people formerly connected to 731 would not be admitted to the US. The big question is why then. Some people claim that it was because the Hiroshima Dome was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which America opposed. Whatever the reasons, the testimonies I have collected and translated in this book reveal a lot Japan's human experimentation program, the American secret data-for-freedom swap, and the continuing effects of Unit-731 morality in Japanese medicine and industry today, including the outbreak of AIDS through tainted blood products.

Courtesy of Your Japan Private Tours (YJPT). Ian Ropke, founder and owner of YJPT (since 1992), is a Japan destination expert for travel and tourism. He specializes in private travel (customized day trips with guides / private guided tours) and digital guidance solutions (about 25% of our business and growing!). Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com or call us on +1-415-230-0579.

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