Sake Socialism

Tokyo Ginzagood foodexcellent sakeprofound conversation

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If you are fortunate, as I am, to have a friend and former scientific colleague willing to show you the sights in Tokyo, I suggest allotting equal time to some quiet, far-from-Ginza sashimi bar as to the glitz itself. Perhaps it was the sake more than the fish that facilitated our joint retrospections into the just-so stories of how we came to the laboratory bench. My tale was routed through Madison, Wisconsin, which provided both a cover in the form of an academic deferment from the draft and a stage for anti-war boisterousness. The University thrived on the former while squelching the latter.

Tamie’s tale was more interesting. It was routed through Moscow, where, uniquely for students outside of the Eastern Bloc, Japanese students were courted in a Soviet effort to win hearts and minds. Reaction to MacArthur-styled occupation and the persistence of Japanese denial of guilt had spawned a post-war generation of Japanese youth that viewed socialism as the path out of that morass. So the young chemistry student dropped out of Tokyo U in favor of Moscow State. During the next five years he learned Russian and earned a degree in physical chemistry. The contingent of Japanese students — I believe is was only forty some — had brought their political commitment with them. As the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong grew ever more brutal, they did what red-blooded idealists were doing in all parts of the world: they organized a protest demonstration at the American Embassy.

In Madison, the University’s tactic was to summon city police, bloody a few heads as examples, and drag the rest off the streets to city jail, only to drop charges when the demonstration was thus defused — you can’t have a demonstration without people. In Moscow, the University’s tactic was to threaten expulsion and deportation — you can’t have a demonstration without people. The very idea of people-power was just as threatening in the one capital as in the other.

But the Japanese students were at least as savvy at politics as at chemistry. The Russian students, they realized, had long since been drained of their spunk, but not so the other foreign student contingents, especially the Cubans. Three times the Japanese students organized demonstrations along side the Cubans and Africans. Three times they were threatened with expulsion and deportation. But thanks to student solidarity, the little bastards had the Dean by the short hairs — Japanese were expendable, but no way could he get away with ejecting the Cubans and Africans.

With another glass of sake the irony turned from amusing to bitter. That was not socialism, but feudalism – or something to that effect is the summary I remember. Tamie returned to Tokyo, Russian degree in hand, pursued a doctoral degree in molecular biology, and eventually emigrated to the U.S. Still a keen and able scientist, even in retirement, I glimpsed a former keeness in that very Japanese bar, far from Ginza, far from present realities.

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