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 Halleyfs Comet (gJuzahis written as g13h 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 medicineh
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 ecometf appeared?h As she badly
mispronounces the word gcometh, 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 cakesh. 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 Armyh 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 Yokohamah
(dated March 20) and gMartians and Canalsh (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 Manchuriah (dated April
11) and gSuperstitions related to Halley's Cometh: 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,
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 gpremonitionh?
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
He told us scary tales of ghitodamah (ignis fatuus or will-'o-the
wisp) or gkitusnebih (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
pathh in the next episode and talk about gmemorable Comet Cunningham.h