Obituary: Professor Yuji Aida

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The Independent Online
Yuji Aida, writer, scholar and journalist: born Kyoto, Japan 1916; Professor of Humanities, Kyoto University 1939-78 (Emeritus); married; died Sakyo-ku, Japan 17 September 1997.

In a land where few people aspire to stand out from the masses, Yuji Aida was an exceptional outsider, an extraordinary Japanese writer and scholar. In a land where "the nail that sticks up" is always smartly hammered down, this professor of the human- ities at Kyoto University went his own idiosyncratic way, outraging his compatriots by his outspokenness, and by a sharp and often bitter critical tongue.

His chief targets were bureaucracy, pretentiousness, and anything that in his opinion displayed a lowering of cultural standards and human values. His favourite expression of contempt was yasumono (cheap stuff). The shallow concepts of "democracy", "humanity" and internationalism" touted by eager Japanese left-wingers in the post-war period came in for scathing attacks that aroused bewilderment, then anger.

"Cheap stuff!" he shouted above the babble of academic, political and social twaddle, and turned his corrosive tongue against educational standardisation, with its consequent lack of imagination, initiative and original creative drive in za yang - the Japanese equivalent of our "yoof".

Aida was a cynic in the true sense of the word (that the Japanese confuse with "egotist"). He was a modern Diogenes whose tub was his devastating eloquence, forthright literary style and absolute contempt for the opinions of others. People hated him. But such extreme attitudes have their benefits. They hold bores, fakes and cheats at bay, and ensure that his few friends, rigorously selected, were steadfast. They were rare, in every sense of that word, but they stayed with him to the very end, when, at his own desire, as expressed in his will, he lay among flowers in the comfort of his own study for a strictly private funeral ceremony attended by his wife Hiroko and son Masahiko and a handful of old friends; and also by thousands of books, including the 18- volume collected edition of his own works.

He had been a passionate devotee of coffee ". . . which makes the politician wise, / And see through all things with his half-shut eyes". The mourners therefore showered his corpse with coffee beans before the closing of the coffin - a gesture both ceremonious and humorous, in keeping with the quirky character of the departed.

Yuji Aida possessed another characteristic unusual in a Japanese. He was a fount of eloquence, both in speech and writing. So he was in demand on radio and television discussion programmes, where he would often reduce the other participants to tongue-tied fury or helpless laughter. He was a well-known journalist, and was on the editorial board of the Sankei Shimbun, to which rather conservative organ he contributed regular articles of dazzling literary and philosophical ingenuity. His expressive oratorical style became known as "Aida-bushi".

Aida was born and bred in the ancient capital of Kyoto, where he attended the prestigious university and graduated from the Department of Literature. He taught for a while as assistant professor at Kobe University, then in 1939 returned to Kyoto University as Professor of Humanities at the Intercultural Studies Centre.

One of his specialities was the history of Renaissance art, and he wrote a resplendent book on Michelangelo. Another of his fields was the History of the Human Intellect. Among his later works in these disciplines we find studies in the popular post-war "Nihonjin ron" (inquiries into the nature of the Japanese) like Nihonjin no ishiki kozo ("The Structure of the Japanese Consciousness") and Yoroppa, Humanisumu no genkai ("Europe: the limits of humanism").

The cynicism and irony displayed in all his work soon made him the man the Japanese loved to hate, but his work was widely read, influential; he became a leading critic of Japan's contemporary failings, known as nikumarekko - suffering from the "bad boy" syndrome. He just said what he thought, without much considering ordinary people's feelings - something unique in Japanese society. He attributed his intellectual ferocity to his ancestry, claiming that his defiant self-assurance stemmed from his origins in the Aizu-han samurai clan. He was proud of his fighting spirit and of the ancient warrior blood flowing in his veins.

In 1940 he was sent to teach in Burma. One of his most hard-hitting books was written about his imprisonment after the war in a Burmese POW camp: Ahlone shu yojo (1962), translated as Prisoner of the British (1966) by Louis Allen, assisted by Hide Ishiguro.

Allen was a distinguished literary scholar who was one of the popular voices on Round Britain Quiz. He became Reader in French at Durham University after the Second World War, where I met him shortly before his death. During the war, he was posted to the School of Oriental Studies at London University for a crash course in Japanese, then was forwarded to the Burma front, serving with the 17th Indian Division at Penwegon.

Aida was confined for two years in the prison camp at Ahlone, so Louis Allen may well have encountered him in liaison work with surviving Japanese army units. But I am sure that Allen could never have been one of the several British army officers whom Aida accuses of "inhuman" conduct, for long after he returned to Britain Allen treasured friendships with many Japanese former POWs.

Aida's book was also very uncomplimentary to the Japanese, especially to those in charge of the conduct of the war, and it created a scandal. He says the English translation did not appeal to the British, presumably because of the understandable hostility it aroused among some ex- prisoners of the Japanese. He attacks "European rationalism" and compares it unfavourably with Japanese feelings of mellow indulgence towards one another in their daily lives.

The book buzzes with several of the other bees he had in his bonnet, and there are some absurd caricatures of British men and women, and of Indians. What impressed Aida most was the total lack of resentment shown by the Burmese to their foreign invaders, both Japanese and British. A recent book by Gunner Patrick G. McEvoy, Ballads of a Black Cat: Burma `43-'45 (1977), bears this out. It also displays a civilised respect for the enemy that is in marked contrast to Aida's fulminations: "The Japanese soldiers I had personal contact with after the end of hostilities were, regardless of rank, both courteous and respectful. As a soldier myself I could only admire their courage and endurance."

One of the officers McEvoy praises was Lt-Gen Masaki Honda, and one whom he paints a black picture of was the infamous Lt-Gen Renya Mutaguchi. In his book Defeat into Victory (1956), Field Marshal Sir William Slim writes: "Whatever one may think of the military wisdom of thus pursuing a hopeless object, there can be no question of the supreme courage and hardihood of the Japanese soldiers who made the attempts. I know of no army that could have equalled them."

As might be expected, Yuji Aida's frankness provoked a number of British letter-writers. In a sequel to Prisoner of the British, entitled Ahlone shuyo-jo saiho ("Ahlone Revisited", 1988 - untranslated), Aida comments on some of these angry letters, which raged at him in terms like "We did not cut off our prisoners' ears or their pricks!" This may have been an unconscious reference to the memorial mound in Kyoto enshrining the thousands of ears of Koreans cut off by the Japanese invaders under the great warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century.

There is another interesting connection between Prisoner of the British and Gunner McEvoy's book. Aida describes how the Japanese prisoners formed a concert party, in which some of the prettier ones dressed up as geisha to entertain their captors and to amuse themselves. McEvoy prints a rare photo of the hand-made "Invitation" and another of the neatly executed "Programme" for this entertainment dated 21 February 1946, with nine comedy and dance numbers, beginning with the famous geisha dance Haru no odori. This is described with some welcome banter by Aida: ". . . while they danced they twined artificial cherry blossom in their hands".

The captives also started a haiku composition society, made mah-jong sets from bamboo, and painted and calligraphed the popular card game known as Hyakunin-isshu ("One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets") - a test of quick wits as well as of knowledge of classical tanka. Such episodes lighten considerably the last chapters of an otherwise rather distressing book, but one that is a tribute to the passionate sincerity of intentions in Aida's whole life and work.