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Number 1 Shimbun

Tales from the Round Tables: The Disappearing Officer

 

by the Shimbun Alley Whisperers

 

Knowing scholarly raconteurs like Geoff Tudor gives history an immediacy that links us all to the continuum of life in Japan.

“One of Tudor’s many tales regards his his late friend and mentor – the ‘very grand’ Major-General L. Rowley Hill, who first built cordial relations during a posting here in late Meiji, when Japan was busy building a world-class navy on the British model. He returned in 1925 as the British Embassy’s Military Attache.

How the tide had turned. When the Taisho Emperor passed away the next year, Hill received orders to attend the funeral, paying due regard to the Emperor’s honorary status as a Field Marshal of the British Army. Custom meant that Hill, as the top ranking officer in Japan, should follow immediately after the Emperor’s cortege. The Imperial organizers, however, thought a place at the head of the foreign military contingent over a kilometer to the rear was more than good enough. After intense diplomatic negotiations, British tradition prevailed.

 

The Imperial officials had the ‘last laugh,’

making Hill the only dignitary entirely

erased from the official

Japanese history of the funeral.

 

But that was not the end of the matter. On the day of the event, a number of ‘bemedaled and beribboned’ Japanese military officers appeared determined to deny Hill his agreed-upon place. Then the great Admiral Togo, hero of the Russo-Japanese War that had catapulted Japan onto the international stage, and who had spent some time in Britain, entered and warmly shook Hill’s hand, announcing, ‘You will march with me.’

“The official newsreel shown later in theatres across the country carefully followed every detail of the spectacle. The camera panned the somber countenances of each mourner in the procession – but somehow skipped the British officer following just behind Togo. The Imperial officials had the ‘last laugh,’ making Hill the only dignitary entirely erased from the official Japanese history of the funeral.

The very hilarity of such crude censorship, of course, is precisely what still makes Major-General Hill an enduring hero in the annals of Tokyo gaijin life.

“A latter legend who frequented One Shimbun Alley, on the other hand, would not be denied his official history – simply because he wrote most of it. He was the inimitable John Roderick, whose AP career spanned over 50 years. He first shot to prominence, in fact, in the 1940s while living in a cave with Mao Zedong and the communist guerillas.

Jim Lagier, who had previously been in Japan in the late 1950s with the U.S. military and knew a thing or two about regional history, arrived in 1993 as the new AP Tokyo bureau chief, and called Roderick at his beautifully restored farmhouse in Kamakura.

“‘Is this the legendary John Roderick?’ enquired Jim of his great sempai.

Without hesitation came the reply: ‘Yes, it is!’

Though Roderick was to continue to write for many years, there came a time when Jim thought it necessary to broach a delicate subject. ‘John,’ he said, ‘you look great, and we want you to live 100 more years. But you are so famous that I would be reprimanded if we did not have a preparedness on you.’

“‘A preparedness?’ came the bemused response.

You mean an obituary?’

Of course, that was exactly what Jim meant, and he assigned the young Joe Coleman, himself a future Tokyo bureau chief for AP, to do the interview.

The piece, describing the most illustrious of careers covering Asia, clearly found favor. Thanks largely to Jim’s enduring storytelling legacy in Shimbun Alley, it is still affectionately remembered to this day as something Roderick himself thought ‘almost worth dying for.’”

The Shimbun Alley Whisperers

 

Published in: January 2015

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