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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 13: About comets

    When it warms up and the gloomy rainy season becomes closer, telling ghost stories becomes a popular pastime. What I am going to tell you here is something about comets, not too serious or scholarly. Readers who don't find it interesting should just skim through.

    When I found that Juza Unno was 13 years old at the time of his encounter with Halleyfs Comet (gJuzahis written as g13h in the Chinese characters), I realized that he happened to be the same age as my father. When he was a young man, my father Kameju joined the Zentsuji 11th division of the army as an artilleryman. It was a relatively peaceful time with a dispatch of troops to Siberia being the only significant event. Juza created Comet Moro in his novel, but never referred to Halley's Comet. However, in his novels he often writes about various events which are thought to be his experience at the time of Halley's comet's close approach to Earth in his youth. For example, in his "Martian Army" he writes about the prevalence of outrageous@merchandise to enable mankind to survive during the confusion caused by the seemingly imminent collision of a comet with the earth. For instance, parachutes which make you land safely after the destruction of the earth or submarines which will be safe even if the world is turned upside down. These are childish ideas, but could have been taken as credible during the Meiji period (1868-1912).

    What interested me was an advertisement for a gholy medicineh Zemu which appeared in Tokyo Asahi Shinbun newspaper dated May 20, 1910. It was an extensive advertisement and advocated to take Zemu to escape from the fear of collision with Halley's Comet. Among many articles in the same paper reporting the tense atmosphere rising from approaching Halley's Comet, there was an illustration which somewhat relieve the tension. It shows that everybody is watching the sky with sooted glass and monoculars from rooftops and various other vantage points in town. Then a stooped elderly woman with a walking stick comes up to one of them and asks, gCan you see something? Has a thing called a ecometf appeared?h As she badly mispronounces the word gcometh, people around her burst into laughter.

    Superstitions also seemed to be rife. There was an article reporting very peculiar event in the same newspaper dated March 2 of the same year titled : gA comet and Botan rice cakesh. According to the article, there was a superstition going around: "In order to escape the carnage, do the following: Look for a shrine with a torii gate facing south. Make a Botan rice cakes using 3.3 go (a unit of measuring rice) of rice and dedicate them to the shrine. Eat all but one, then you can escape the carnage." It was a spectacle that people believing this superstition formed long lines in front of the two south-facing shrines, Chigata and Takagi Shrines in Saitama prefecture. I asked Mr. Takeo Suzuki, a friend of mine and singer living in Saitama prefecture, to check the facts. He told me that both shrines were still there in a good condition. He also said that on the compound of Takagi Shrine there was a small shrine for worshipping visitors called "Hoshino-Miya" (the Shrine of the Stars) standing discretely.

    The person who spread this superstition is said to have been a rice cake maker, of all people. Calamity and business seem to go hand in hand. It is interesting to read in the same article that, while that rice cake maker profited a great deal from a similar superstition around 1896, he lamented this time he could not make money because people made their own rice cakes. I wonder if there was a natural disaster in 1896. There should have been numerous people who fell victim to this sort of absurd superstition in those days. Juza Unno's gThe Martian Armyh tells vividly of anxiety and peculiar behavior of people who lived at those times.

    Here are some more interesting articles appearing in newspapers around that time: gMore than 600 houses lost in a big fire in Yokohamah (dated March 20) and gMartians and Canalsh (March 25), which introduces activities at Lowell Observatory and reports the completion of large scale canals (4000 kilometers long) on Mars with a quote from Percival Lowell to the effect that the existence of advanced life is a certainty". Other articles report: gHalley's Comet observing mission departs: gA team led by Dr. Saotome of Tokyo Observatory leaves for Manchuriah (dated April 11) and gSuperstitions related to Halley's Cometh: The Berlin Telegraph dated May 20 reports: gPeople in Europe were alarmed by the news that the earth begins to be enveloped by the comet's tail at 5:42 am in Germany on May 19; in Italy, rumors fearing the impending end of the world is rampant and people beg the Pope for his help; and in Paris and Cologne on the Rhein the preparation for a carnival for that morning is progressing. The tail of the comet is 60 degrees long now, but Kiel Observatory announces there would be no harm to the earth: After passing the earth, the comet will appear as the evening star and on May 21 it should be visible quite easily.h Many advertisements for astronomical books and planispheres appear in the papers anticipating the approaching comet, but strangely there wasn't a single ad for telescopes.

    Halley's Comet of 1910 left the earth without doing any harm to the human beings. Comet Moro in Unno's novel has to be prevented from colliding with the earth based on our experience with Halley's Comet. Unno, to our surprise, used the perturbation by the moon to resolve the crisis. The interaction between two bodies inevitably results in collision, but by the use of a third body he attempted to solve the problem. There remains some doubt about the assumption that the Moon's gravity can change the comet's orbit, but for a fiction it is a marvelous creative idea only a scientist can come up with. My father, who was the same age as Unno, saw Halley's Comet. He told me that when he went out one day in mid-May he found several people dancing around madly saying gEarth is passing through Halley's Comet's tail!h At night, he said, a long beam penetrated the sky and some people claimed it was a search light from the Navy's battleship anchored off Tosa. Only 5 years after the victory of the Russo-Japanese War, a combined fleet of the Japanese Navy was demonstrating its power sailing off the Japanese coasts.

    My father lived to 91 and was destined to witness Halley's Comet twice. However, he was not able to see the comet at its 1986 apparition because he had been long bed-ridden. He told me a lot about the stars, though.

    My father was born in a village called Yoneda on the western outskirts of Kochi city. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), a pair of robbers broke into the house of a wealthy farmer next to his village and cruelly murdered seven of the eight members of the family. It was a muggy night in May reminiscent of early summer and a comet was hanging in the sky trailing an eerie tail . After the murder, one of the robbers escaped to a neighboring village over the mountains. He stopped at a teahouse on his way there to eat rice cakes. There was a boy (intellectually disabled but very friendly) at the teahouse. Suddenly, the boy walked up to the robber and said menacingly: gYou killed folks last night, didn't you?h Somehow he must have gotten the hunch that the man was a murderer. The robber was startled and his face turned pale. He tried to run away but was grabbed by a nearby sumo wrestler. A blood-stained towel found in his kimono's inside pocket made him look more suspicious and they took him to a nearby police box where the police learned of the crime for the first time. In those days there was no radio or phone. How did the boy know the man was a killer? Is it what is a so called gpremonitionh?

    A child was the only survivor of this murderous incident. He escaped death in spite of a serious wound on his arm. The Meiji period came to an end to usher in the Showa period. The second son of this surviving child began to visit us. We got to know each other by our common interest in guitar. He was gifted in literature and a poet. In the 1950s we held a guitar concert together. He was also interested in the stars. He became interested in comets, which I often told him about, and wrote a poem like this for me:
Comets are things that travel a moment of eternity.
They swam into the blue ocean, where all is blue,
leaving behind broken seashells on the beach.
    This poem seems to image comets and meteors. I sense the solitude of things eternal and helplessness of life. @@@@@@@@

    My grandfather (my mother's father) loved telling stories. When I visited him after dinner time, he would tell me various old tales as eloquently as a professional story teller. Many of his stories were about Samurai warriors' revenge and heroic deeds, but some included tragic tales. He told me these stories adding sound effects striking a traditional hibachi hand-warmer with hands and a pair of chopsticks like a professional story teller.

    He told us scary tales of ghitodamah (ignis fatuus or will-'o-the wisp) or gkitusnebih (foxfire), which had occurred not far from us. There were also stories about intriguing natural phenomena such as rainbow-colored clouds seen at night over the Shikoku Mountains in the north (aurora?) and a mirage witnessed in the afternoon western sky over Kochi city. They saw upside-down cavalrymen galloping at a place looking like a military training ground in the mirage. In fact there was a training ground for the 44th infantry regiment to the west of Kochi. In the 1950s this phenomenon was seen at various places across Kochi prefecture and became very popular. Mirage appearing near Kochi Airport became so popular that even tour guides on bus tours told the tourists about it. However, we haven't heard about it at all in recent years. When I was a 3rd or 4th grader, the accounts of gshiranui" or mysterious lights on the sea was often reported in Sho-kokumin Shinbun (The Young Citizens Newspaper) and even novels were written about it. I wonder what has become of that phenomenon since. There are many other mysterious stories my grandfather told me, but they will be lost forever after my generation.

    Some readers may disapprove my excessive digression from astronomy-related topics. In spite of the possibility of it being discarded as irrelevant, I told you these stories as the stories told by the elderly would be too precious to keep to myself. I shall return to the "astronomical pathh in the next episode and talk about gmemorable Comet Cunningham.h

Copyright (C) 2018 Tsutomu Seki.