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
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
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