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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 10: A memory of Comet Okabayashi-Honda

   When I was reading the 1986 edition of the Catalogue of Cometary Orbits compiled by Dr.Brian Marsden, I came upon an article about the discovery of Comet Okabayashi-Honda of 1940. According to the book, the comet was discovered during the early morning of October 1, 1940.

    Mr. Shigeki Okabayashi was born in Kobe and worked for Kurashiki Observatory which was then being managed by Mr. Sumiji Hara. Mr. Okabayashi had become interested in comets early in his life and discovered a nova in Sagittarius. He had been actively searching for comets at Kurashiki Observatory.

    Japan was fighting the Sino-Japanese War around that time and engaged in endless battles on the Asia Continent. It appeared that Japan was destined to be thrust into war with the U.S. and Great Britain, the two powerful allies of China. Even in such a precarious world, Mr. Honda and Mr. Okabayashi, two young Japanese, had been passionate for astronomy and devoted their lives to search for comets.

    On October 1st, 1940 Mr. Okabayashi was searching the eastern sky intensely with a 75mm Ottway refractor set up in Kurashiki Observatory's garden covered by flowering cosmos. It was just about 4:30 am. The telescope tube drenched with night dew moved into a faint pale glow from Okayama City over the distant eastern horizon as if being sucked into it. The magnification was 30. At that moment he suddenly caught the image of a hazy object glowing white. He gasped at the sight, then checked its position. It was clearly in the large sickle of Leo. While he was concentrating on sketching the object, he was hardly aware of the intruding twilight, which would make it impossible to check the motion of this comet-like object. In those days it was essential to confirm the motion of a suspected comet to claim a discovery. And the following day it was rainy.

    Mr. Minoru Honda was living in Setomura Village in Hiroshima Prefecture at that time. He was involved in observation of the zodiacal light at Dr. Issei Yamamoto's Zodiacal Light Observatory in the village. He searched for a comet when he was not engaged in observation of the zodiacal light. In those days Setomura apparently had beautiful starry skies. Mr. Honda was using a reflector with a 15cm mirror ground by the renowned mirror maker Mr. Sakamoto. This mirror is in display at Kurashiki Observatory Memorial Hall. While searching with this telescope, Mr. Honda encountered a suspected comet, which showed a very fast movement in the southern sky in mid September of 1940.

    A letter I received from Mr. Honda around 1949 reveals his disposition:
    I envy the winter in Kochi, which is warm and more like spring. It's been quite cold here. But the stars are absolutely beautiful. While observing early in the morning, I often hear the roaring of the day's first train over the mountains. It's heartening to know that I am not the only person working in the world enduring the winter cold.

    Back to Mr. Honda's discovery of this comet in October 1940, it seems that the date of the discovery was around October 3rd. Most probably this was the first time a comet had been discovered by two Japanese comet hunters and named after them , although this was preceded by Mr. Masamitsu Yamasaki's discovery of Crommelin's Comet in 1928 and Japanese-American Mr.Seiji Nagata's 1931 discovery.

    Mr. Okabayashi and Mr. Honda, however, were struck by a terrible fate. In December that year Japan entered war with the U.S.A. and Great Britain. Mr. Honda was conscripted and Mr. Okabayashi was sent to Sumatra for geological surveys.

    It was sometime during my early elementary school years when Comet Okabayashi-Honda was discovered. I remember that the discovery was reported in the Shokokumin Shinbun (the Young People's Newspaper). The Doyo Shinbun Newspaper (the predecessor of the Kochi Shinbun Newspaper) also headlined the discovery.

    It is well known that Mr. Honda observed night skies with Mrs. Honda's heartfelt present, a small 2-inch monocular, when he was stationed near the Russian-Chinese border. He continued to observe eagerly even after his unit was moved to South Asia and eventually discovered a comet in the sky where the Southern Cross was shining.

    I have no idea what Kochi's sky was like in those days, as I was not interested in astronomy. However, I remember one thing about the stars. It was around 1935 or 1936 and I was a little child. I went out into the courtyard after going to the bathroom. My father helped me to open the storm door. As soon as I walked to the courtyard, I was mesmerized by stardust spreading like a sheet of glittering dust. Every nook and cranny around the Japanese-style house was filled with stardust and the whole sky appeared to be emitting mysterious phosphorescent light. The sky over the city with 180,000 residents was not affected by light pollution at all. I believe it was the same with other cities across the country. Under such unpolluted skies observers like Mr. Honda, Mr. Okabayashi, Leslie Peltier of the U.S.A., and William Reid of South Africa were actively searching for comets. How lucky they were!

    In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Mr. Honda, who had returned safely from the battlefields, discovered a comet and brightened the mood of war-torn Japan. However, Mr. Okabayashi was not so lucky. He was on his return trip to Japan, when his hospital ship was attacked by a U.S. submarine at the Taiwan Strait in April 1945, right before the end of the war. His young life was lost deep in the ocean. There is a strange episode not widely-known, associated with this incident. Mr. Shigeki Okabayashi's mother, who had been desperately waiting for his son's return, had an fateful dream one night. Shigeki cried out "Mother!" in the dark sea. Surprised, his mother looked for him from a little boat and found him drowning in the fast moving current. "Quick! Hold on to this!" She untied her sash around her waist and threw it at him. Incredibly, he would not grab it, was pushed further off shore by the current, and disappeared. "Come to think of it, that was Shigeki's last moment," Mr. Okabayashi's mother told Mr. Honda in tears.

    Who controls man's destiny? Is it God or is it Satan? I always recall this story with a deep sympathy and sorrow and cannot help but feel the cruelty of fate painfully.

    In the age of space travel there should be no ghost stories, but it is also a fact that there are mysterious incidents which cannot be explained by science. Personally I have experienced such incidents myself. Unfortunately I cannot write about them here, as they have no relevance to astronomy.

Copyright (C) 2006 Tsutomu Seki.