Albert and Elsa Einstein in Japan, November-December 1922. Photo: WikiMedia Commons
japan yesterday

When Albert Einstein formulated his Japanese cultural equation

By Patrick Parr

You’d be surprised at the number of famous people in history who’ve visited Japan over the last 150 years — notable figures you might not think had ever been here. In our new monthly history series, Japan Yesterday, we’ll introduce when notable figures visited Japan for the first time and what they thought of the country. You’ll meet people like Ulysses S Grant, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, Ralph Ellison and Babe Ruth among others. In the first article of the series, we start with Albert Einstein.

From Nov 17 to Dec 29, 1922, Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa visited Japan. Their six-week trip, meticulously arranged and paid for by the Kaizosha Publishing House, made international headlines. Japan proved to be the most significant stop in the couple’s  five-and-a-half-month tour that included stays in China, Singapore, Palestine and Spain.

Far more than mere curiosity, Einstein’s trip was orchestrated more as a way of extracting himself from Berlin, where German nationalists had recently assassinated Jewish philosopher and diplomat Walther Rathenau. The brutality of Rathenau's death (killed while seated in his car on the street, then blown up by a hand grenade) "devastated" Einstein. He and his wife knew they were now on "a list" and needed to leave the country.

Kaizosha was very interested in turning a visit by one of the world's most respected scientists into what one German ambassador called a "commercial enterprise." Besides providing translations of his books, Kaizosha agreed to pay Einstein £2,000 (around £110,000 in today’s currency) for what turned out to be 15 lectures, eight "scientific" and six "public," and one memorable "unplanned" talk to students at Kyoto University.

According to "The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein", edited by Cal Tech assistant director Ze'ev Rosenkranz and published just recently (May 2018), the trip was a massive undertaking for Einstein, and his personal thoughts reveal a man attempting to understand a culture very different than the one he was used to. His observations started while aboard the S.S. Kitano Maru, run by a predominantly Japanese crew. At heart a physicist, it's clear from his diaries that Einstein did not have a poet's sensibility when describing people from another culture. On the boat, he sees "Japanese women crawling about [on deck] with children. They look ornate and bewildered, almost as if schematic, stylized. Black-eyed, black-haired, large-headed, scurrying." Einstein also attempted to use deduction toward the nauseating agonies of boat travel: "I now think that seasickness is based on dizziness caused by lack of orientation, not directly on the apparent changes in gravity, according to direction and magnitude."

Just before docking in Kobe, the boat made a stop in Shanghai and Einstein described in his diary his frustration with Asian cuisine: “The food, extremely sophisticated, interminable. One constantly fishes with sticks from common little bowls set out on the table in great numbers. My innards reacted quite temperamentally…”

Once he arrived in Japan, Einstein was given a hero's welcome and at times the fame and obsessive attention overwhelmed him. One day into his tour, Einstein looked out a window just before the sun had risen. Below were thousands of Japanese people holding a vigil from outside his hotel. He could only shake his head and confide his thoughts to Elsa. "No living person deserves this kind of reception," he told her, as described by Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson in his book "Einstein: His Life and Universe" (2007). "I'm afraid we're swindlers. We'll end up in prison yet."

With the exception of spending Christmas in Fukuoka, Einstein stayed on the island of Honshu, stopping in Kobe, Kyoto, Tokyo, Sendai, Nikko, Nagoya, Osaka, Nara and Hiroshima.

The moment he arrived in Tokyo, Einstein felt drowned by the attention: “Arrival at hotel, completely exhausted among gigantic floral wreaths and bouquets. Still to come: visit by Berliners and burial alive.”

His scientific lectures were carried out at the Physics Institute of Todai, or the Tokyo Imperial University. Four hours in length, most of the content proved challenging for many of the aspiring Japanese scientists who attended to comprehend — apparently as did most audiences around the world.

The Japanese do appeal to me… better than all the peoples I’ve met up to now: quiet, modest, intelligent, appreciative of art, and considerate, nothing is for the sake of appearances, but rather everything is for the sake of substance. —Albert Einstein, letter to his sons, Dec 17, 1922

Since his journals were never intended for publication, the reader is given an unvarnished, naked look into Einstein’s thought process through Rosenkranz’s compilation of the "The Travel Diaries." Several media outlets have already reported Einstein’s racist comments, the strongest being directed at the “herd-like” Chinese. Although he was far kinder to the Japanese, there is a sour wave of intellectual superiority throughout his diary. While visiting Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, Einstein had time to reflect on Japanese behavior, stating that “they are similar to Italians in temperament, but even more refined, still entirely soaked in their artistic tradition, not nervous, full of humor. Along the way, conversations about Buddhist religion. Educated Japanese flirt with primitive Christianity. Additionally, conversation about Japanese worldview prior to contact with Europe… intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones — one’s natural disposition?”

Photo from Albert Einstein's 1922 visit to Tohoku University. From the left: Kotaro Honda, Albert Einstein, Keiichi Aichi, Sirouta Kusukabe. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

The diary is a revelation into Einstein’s mind. Warts and all, the reader is able to absorb a humanized version of the man and understand the way he thought outside of physics. His gallows humor is evident, as well. On Christmas day in Fukuoka, Einstein used Hakata station to travel to a Moji YMCA in what is now Kitakyushu. At this point, he’d been photographed “10,000” times and felt lifeless. “I was dead, and my corpse rode back to Moji where it was dragged to a children’s Christmas and had to play violin.” Einstein’s corpse played “Ave Maria” before collapsing at 10 p.m.

There was one stop, however, that seems haunting in hindsight.

On Dec 19, Albert Einstein, near the end of his visit, arrived by train in Hiroshima. The previous day he’d been sightseeing in Nara and had taken a 6 p.m. train. Twelve hours later, he took a bath and before collapsing onto a bed, sleeping “until 10.”

After recovering, Einstein went on an “enthralling walk along the coast” of Miyajima and viewed the Itsukushima Shrine. In the afternoon, and in the company of a guide, Einstein, as he noted in his travel diary, hiked “to the peak of the mountain lending the island its main form.” Describing the top of Mt Misen, Einstein must have taken several hours to reach the top, viewing the “subtlest of colors.” During his hike, he viewed “countless small temples, dedicated to natural deities. Stone figures often delightful. The entire path of steps hewn into granite rocks (height around 700 m). Memorial to Japanese love of nature and all sorts of endearing superstitions.”

Depending on the forestry and angle of his view, Einstein could have glimpsed downtown Hiroshima and the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall — now known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or the Genbaku (Atomic Bomb) Dome — built seven years earlier by architect Jan Letzel. Over 23 years later, on Aug 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb used in history detonated above Hiroshima’s city center, the blast ripples would have been strong enough to break windows on the island he was then standing on.

Einstein’s E=mc2 formula had led scientists to breakthroughs in creating a uranium chain reaction, and although it was never his intention to create an atomic bomb, he without question felt partly responsible for their existence. He spoke three words the moment he heard the tragic news: “Woe is me.” One must wonder if Einstein had thought back to that December day, standing at the peak of Mt. Misen and remembering being surrounded by “pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country.”

In next month’s article, we’ll document that time Charlie Chaplin almost started the Pacific War nine years before Pearl Harbor...

Patrick Parr is the author of "The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age." His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Politico and The Boston Globe, among others.

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1 ( +1 / -0 )

His rationale for arguing for the creation of the A bomb by the US was his fear that Nazis would develop it first, and use the bomb to enslave the world. In his letter to FDR, he never mentioned Japan as a reason for making the bomb.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

He must have been cracking some good jokes in the main picture, judging by the pile of zabuton he has accumulated!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Very cool!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If you go to Nara Hotel, where he stayed, you can see the piano he played in the lobby. Check it out!

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Einstein’s E=mc2 formula had led scientists to breakthroughs in creating a uranium chain reaction

I always find that a tenuous connection. I think many scientists were aware of the potential energy of atoms even without that equation. If anyone can be classed as having triggered the search for an atomic weapon, it would be Enrico Fermi. Einstein's contribution was in writing a letter (or passing on someone else's letter) to the US government. I think his regrets were about that letter, not about his scientific theories.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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