1905: An unknown spy in the Russo-Japanese War

Add comment March 18th, 2014 Headsman

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Russia’s imperial ambitions in the east drew it inexorably towards conflict with Japan. This was the period when Russia began constructing the continent-spanning Trans-Siberian Railway linking Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

Russian troops came right along with the rails.

On the pretext of protecting its construction gangs, Russian troops occupied Manchuria — and the weakened Chinese Qing dynasy couldn’t do much about it.

But the Japanese could.

Manchuria and Korea (which Russia’s presence also threatened) Tokyo conceived as her sphere of influence. The rising hegemon in East Asia would serve notice in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War that it had now to be reckoned among the world’s great powers.

The decisive land battle in this conflict was the Battle of Mukden, February 20 through March 10, 1905 — a gigantic engagement involving more than 600,000 troops.

In it, Japan cleaned the Russian clock.

The defeat sent a shattered Russian army on a disordered retreat north, to the city of Tieling. The Japanese followed in hot pursuit, so defensive regrouping became impossible and within a couple of days the Russians abandoned Tieling, too.

We are everywhere driving the Russians before us to Kaiyuan,” gloated an official Japanese telegram of Thursday, March 16.

The underwhelming Russian general Aleksey Kuropatkin was there just long enough to get word that Moscow had relieved him of command. By Saturday, March 18, Kaiyuan too was in Japanese hands.*

So it was likely on or about this date in 1905 that a handful of those Japanese forces harrying the Russian flight paused on the outskirts of Kaiyuan to behead an alleged spy.

If this individual’s name is known, I have not been able to locate it — but small wonder. In the charnel house of Russia’s catastrophic defeat, the dead were too numerous to bury.

After Mukden, there would not be many more. It was the last major land battle, and after Japan followed it up with a crushing naval victory that May, hostilities came to a close.


“On the Hills of Manchuria”, a mournful 1906 waltz by Ilya Shatrov.

* The pursuit didn’t last much longer; Japanese forces were themselves too battered and exhausted from the Battle of Mukden.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Japan,Known But To God,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1771: Green Tea Hag, the beginning of Dutch Learning

7 comments March 4th, 2010 dogboy

The typical turning-point execution features an illustrious protagonist upon the scaffold: a royal dethroned, a politician overthrown, a revolutionary laid low.

On this day in 1771, an obscure woman executed for everyday crimes launched a new era in Japan.

The Kyoto resident, nicknamed “Aochababa” — roughly translated as the Green Tea Hag — sparked a scientific revolution that would span decades, push Japan into its own Age of Reason called Dutch Learning, and keep an island nation astride goings-on from thousands of miles away in spite of isolationist practices.

The Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s through the mid-1800s, was widely regarded as anti-Western for closing down trade with several European nations.

Concerned with what it saw as colonial aspirations in the Americas, the Shogunate clamped down on Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal. Starting in the 1630s, the island nation officially enacted the Seclusion Laws, which effectively allowed trade only with China, Korea, and the Netherlands; contact with the last was only legitimated through the Dutch trading outpost in Dejima, an isolated island with strictly controlled access.* Because of these limitations, Japan became a repository of non-Christian Dutch paraphernalia.**

The execution of Aochababa itself is practically forgotten: she was hanged in Kyoto’s Kozukappara (the present day Arakawa ward) in Meiwa 8, the second year of a 15-year drought gripping Japan. Her crime is unknown, and her execution would have been as un-noteworthy as dozens of others that year had her body not been secured for science.

However, under the reign of (though little due to) Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu, Dutch influence was increasing dramatically in Japan.

As a result, Aochababa’s corpse was brought to a medical facility, where Sugita Genpaku, Maeno Ryotaku, Nakagawa Jun’an, Toyo Yamawaki, and others performed and viewed an autopsy. Their medical training was Chinese; their medical texts were a mixture of Chinese and Dutch; as Genpaku reports in his later book Rangaku Kotohajime:†

Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs.

Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions.

After the dissection was over, we were tempted to examine the forms of the bones too, and picked up some of the sun bleached bones scattered around the ground. We found that they were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.

In short, their medical results matched those of the Dutch and flew in the face of a millennium of Chinese anatomical teachings.

Genpaku was intrigued. As he tells it (40-some years after the fact), Ryotaku, Jun’an, and he immediately laid down a plan to translate the Dutch text into Japanese.

The process was a slog. Lacking a dictionary or translator for anatomical studies, the team — bolstered by the Shogun physician Katsuragawa Hoshu — was forced to reverse-engineer the Dutch language using a short phrase book, occasional contacts with the Dutch themselves, and a host of educated guesses based on the anatomical features they were attempting to describe. In addition to the problems of simple translations — turning a language with definite and indefinite articles into one with no such concept — many anatomical features had never been named in Japanese before; Genpaku and his collaborators invented dozens of words just to get by. A brief history is given here.

Finally, in 1774, Kaitai ShinshoThe New Book of Anatomy — based mostly on the Dutch book Ontleedkundige Tafelen (itself a translation from German), was published, the first translation of a Western text into Japanese. The book was four volumes (three of text, one of illustrations) and scribed in a Chinese-based writing style known as Kanbun.‡


An image (more can be seen here) from the 1774 Japanese anatomy treatise.

Topical historical literature, recommendation via Reddit.

The translation was the first in a long line of texts that the Japanese would eventually use to quietly capture the technology of the West.§

Genpaku was at the forefront of Dutch Learning, and his second masterwork, Rangaku Kotohajime (“Beginnings of Dutch Learning”), published in 1815, provides a thorough description of the events which led to these advances in science and medicine in Japan.

It would be 80 years before the United States Navy forced its way into Japanese harbors and used gunship diplomacy to end Japan’s seclusion. During that time, the Japanese reproduced everything from telescopes to automata to steam engines using borrowed texts and dissection of imported goods. Dutch Learning kept Japan abreast scientific advancements even while it maintained its isolation.

The enduring legacy of Dutch Learning was the late-19th century Meiji Restoration, wherein a Japan now officially opened swiftly modernized efficiently enough to trounce Russia in the Russo-Japanese War at the end of the century.

A fairly complete description of the evolution of Japan under Dutch Learning is given in Wakabayashi’s Modern Japanese Thought and De Bray et al‘s Sources of Japanese Tradition (Vol 2).

Today, many of the Dutch words imported to describe new objects, anatomical and otherwise, remain in the Japanese language as a testament to Dutch Learning. Sugita Genpaku is also the namesake of a modern-day attempt to translate texts to Japanese. And Toyo Yamawaki, through his help with dissections of the era, prompted an interesting ritual of memorializing cadaver donors in medical schools. For physical specimens, a museum with sections devoted to Dutch Learning can also be visited at Nakatsu.

* The Dutch were allowed to stay because they weren’t Catholic. The Shogun also enacted laws forbidding missionaries and Christian prosteletyzing, as well as officially outlawing the practice of Christianity; however, an underground group of Christians remained in the country.

** Initially, all foreign texts were outlawed. However, beginning with Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, Dutch texts were allowed into the country, generating a new wave of books that were, for several decades, largely illegible to their owners. To go with the anti-Christian theme, however, the Japanese authorities continued to blot out all Christian references.

† Translation by Ryozo Matsumoto, available here.

Kanbun is a mapping of Chinese ideograms and writing style into Japanese-comprehensible language using classic symbolic meanings (a standardized shape to represent a tree) and sound equivalents (using the same standard shape to represent the the sound of the word “tree” rather than its meaning), as well as sentence structure and purpose markings. Using this style, direct Chinese-to-Japense translation is possible, but the onus is on the author to properly annotate the text.

§ Strangely, there is as yet no Dutch-Japanese dictionary in print.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Japan,Known But To God,Language,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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1925: Sidney Reilly

9 comments November 5th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1925, legendary British spy — and subsequent James Bond inspiration — Sidney Reilly was shot in a forest outside Moscow for his efforts to overthrow the Soviet government.

Fact blends insensibly into fiction in Reilly‘s biography; much of what is known or believed about him is conjectural or colored by his posthumous valorization, such the 1967 book Reilly: Ace of Spies written by [the son of] his onetime cloak-and-dagger collaborator Robin Bruce Lockhart — who was himself a close friend of Bond author Ian Fleming.

However, even at the word of less sensational biographers — such as Andrew Cook — Reilly lived a life almost too extraordinary for belief.

A Jewish child of tsarist Russia born in what is now the Ukraine, Reilly claimed to have escaped Odessa by faking his death and hopping a ship bound for Brazil. Like much of Reilly’s life, the story is unverifiable, but by hook or by crook — and possibly by way of a murder in France — he arrived in London in 1895, hitched himself to a wealthy woman a few months after the suspicious death of her husband (discarding the inconvenient surname Rosenblum in the process), and became entangled with British intelligence.

In the first decade of the 20th century, he apparently spied promiscuously on England’s imperial rivals Germany and Russia, though the particulars are disputed. He arrived in Port Arthur, Russia, shortly before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War and may have provided the Japanese fleet intelligence enabling it to navigate the mined harbor — in addition to a copious side business in war profiteering. He may also have had a hand in capturing British oil concessions in Persia and reconnoitering behind German lines during World War I.

Like his fictional heir 007, he gambled often and left a string of lovers and mistresses in his wake. His true allegiances, and the extent to which his exploits were inflated or outright fabricated, are debated to this day.

The adventures that brought both death and fame were his machinations to overthrow the Bolshevik government in the fraught early months after Lenin took power. A planned coup d’etat in September 1918 came to grief and Reilly fled Russia steps ahead of the authorities, who subsequently condemned him to death in absentia.

Notwithstanding the sentence, which had been ruthlessly visited on his less-fortunate conspirators, Reilly was lured back to the USSR in 1925 by the Soviet counterintelligence project Operation Trust. Intending to meet anti-Bolshevik agitators, he was instead arrested at the border and tortured at the infamous Lubyanka Prison, where he kept notes on cigarette papers about enemy interrogation techniques for the eventuality of an escape or release that never came.

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Jews,Popular Culture,Power,Russia,Shot,Spies,Torture,USSR

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