Writer Tachibana Takashi: a true intellectual giant

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Tachibana Takashi, Japan’s most influential post-war journalist, died in April. He was the pioneer of investigative journalism in Japan, known for overthrowing the government of Tanaka Kakuei in the 1970s. He also played an important role in interpreting the work of leading scholars in a wide range of scientific fields. for the general public.

An unforgettable start

Tachibana Takashi died on April 30, 2021 at the age of 80. He was the author of over 100 books on a wide range of subjects, from science to the arts, and the journalist whose investigations into Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei led to his resignation in 1974. Tachibana faced the depravity of the monetary policy and conducted a vigorous investigation of cutting-edge intellectual issues. Described by former Bungei chairman Shunjū Hirao Takahiro as “Japan’s greatest post-war journalist”, he passed away peacefully in hospital, unable to receive visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tachibana first rose to prominence with an article in the November 1974 issue of Bungei Shunjū on Tanaka Kakuei’s financial and personal relationships, which led to the resignation of the entire Tanaka cabinet the following month. He defeated politics with the power of the pen – this was a momentous event 28 years after the promulgation of the post-war Japanese Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of the press.

It was only the first of several impressive writings. He wrote a series of articles for Gekkan Gendai on internal conflicts in the new left movement as well as a study by the Japanese Communist Party for Bungei Shunjū and a survey of the country’s powerful agricultural cooperatives to Shūkan Asahi. His beginnings as a freelance journalist who resisted the powerful in Japan made an indelible impression.

Tachibana did not follow any existing model in Japanese journalism. He led his team of assistants to collect huge amounts of material which he explored in the preparation of his manuscripts. Frequently, he asked for additional material. This marked the beginning of investigative journalism in Japan. His editors admired the breadth of his documentary research and his superhuman ability to absorb his reading and analyze the structure of problems from the mass of material.

A timely coincidence

Tachibana Takashi, born in Nagasaki in 1940, was the second son of Tachibana Tsuneo and Ryūko. When he was two years old, his father took a teaching job in Beijing, and the family moved with him. World War II ended when he was five and the family was repatriated to Ibaraki Prefecture, where he entered school. Later, when his family moved to Chiba Prefecture, he attended Ueno High School in Tokyo. Her parents were both Christians and their home was full of books. Tachibana was an avid reader from an early age. He majored in French literature at the University of Tokyo, joining publisher Bungei Shunjū, where he was appointed to the editorial team of the news weekly. Shūkan Bunshun.

But he resigned from his post after only two and a half years, saying he was too busy and “wanted to know more,” returning to the University of Tokyo to study in the philosophy department. However, the escalation of student protests made it almost impossible to attend classes. For four years, he wrote articles for a women’s magazine and a monthly news magazine to make ends meet, before setting down to open a bar in the Golden Gai district of Shinjuku.

Next, Tachibana received the news of a writing job for the Israeli government through his former employer Bungei Shunjū, and sold his bar just six months after it opened to travel to Israel. After this posting, he drifted to Europe and the Middle East. During these trips, on May 30, 1972, the Lod Airport massacre took place in Israel, carried out by three members of an extremist group, the Japanese Red Army. Tachibana managed to secure an interview with the only surviving attacker, Okamoto Kōzō, which was published in Shūkan Bunshun in July 1972.

Tachibana became widely recognized for his pioneering work during the 1970s. In 1981, he published a series of articles titled “Return from Space” in the monthly Japanese literary magazine, Chūō Kōron, based on interviews with returning American astronauts. He later turned resolutely to science, publishing “People Who Learn From Apes” in the Japanese magazine of natural history. Anima. I first met Tachibana in 1988, when he was hired to write a new series of articles for the monthly science magazine, Kagaku Asahi. For a little over six years, until I transferred from the editorial division, I accompanied him on interviews at scientific research centers across Japan.

A man who loved to study

Tachibana was a humble investigator and a man of few words. Although people often called him Sensei, he was always quick to reject such praise. Watching him work closely, I admired the way he presented himself as a journalist.

After a year and a half of writing about the latest scientific research, his interest turned to supercomputers, and later, to cutting edge brain research.

The first time I accompanied him on a mission was to the Nobeyama Radio Observatory in Nagano Prefecture, which at the time was the largest radio telescope in the world. I organized a two day tour, which I thought was sufficient for our talks, but upon leaving I was stunned when he announced that we still needed more information. This led to a return visit.

When we went to Super-Kamiokande, a neutrino observatory in Kamioka, Gifu Prefecture, known for its Nobel Prize-winning physicist Koshiba Masatoshi, Tachibana insisted on traveling by night train. His excuse for preferring rail to air was his “persistent urge to travel”.

The researchers he interviewed would compliment his vast knowledge, but he simply replied that he “enjoys studying,” which certainly created a sense of empathy with his subjects.

Desire to interview primates

As he continued his research, he once remarked “I wasted 10 years with Kakuei”. I guess fighting wrongdoing wasn’t his real passion, and he was frustrated that he hadn’t had the opportunity to pursue his real interests.

Another frustrated wish was his desire to learn sign language. He heard about chimpanzees in the United States who had learned American Sign Language, so he also wanted to learn it to interview them directly. I was shocked at his journalistic dedication.

When I casually asked him if he would like to be young again, he was adamant, “Yes, I would.” I wondered how you could be successful as a journalist while harboring a desire to do things over again, but Tachibana said he wanted to study more languages, including Greek.

Tachibana frequently referred to Paul Gauguin’s painting Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?, as he wondered the same thing. This is why he wanted to know the current cutting edge science: astronomy, physics, biology, medicine or any other field. I’m sure he wanted to learn everything.

Tachibana Takashi (left) with the author on a night train in 1989. Photo by Hayasaka Motooki of Asahi Shimbun.

But he tended to avoid socially controversial scientific issues, such as nuclear energy. I’ve heard he pointedly refuses to write about nuclear power, despite fan mail asking him to cover it. He probably didn’t want to waste time debating the pros and cons, as happened during his reporting on Tanaka Kakuei.

Contribution to the brain death debate

However, he entered the debate on the subject of brain death. At a time when society questioned whether brain death was real death, when he agreed that it was, he strongly contested that the standards for assessing brain death should be higher. Tachibana has shown exceptional interest and has written about near-death experiences, even producing a TV show on the subject. Despite his immense faith in science, he did not categorically reject occult-type subjects as unscientific, instead he actively studied them.

His engagement in the debate was undoubtedly based on his desire to push in Japan a cautious approach vis-à-vis transplants from brain-dead patients. Yet in 1999, at age 58, he publicly announced that he had signed the authorization for donating his own organs when he died of brain death. His take on evaluation standards has not changed, but he explained that he would have no qualms under the current criteria.

He went on to write major works into his sixties, such as a story about the Emperor and the University of Tokyo. He conducted a lengthy interview with innovative composer Takemitsu Tōru on his creative journey. He also published a book on artist Kazuki Yasuo, known for his paintings depicting his experiences as a Soviet prisoner of war in Siberia. Tachibana’s enormous personal library is said to contain over 30,000 books, and with the incredible scope of his work, it is fitting that he is remembered as an intellectual giant. In addition to his writing, he also taught at the University of Tokyo and Rikkyō University, inspiring young students to research and write. He also taught mature students how to write their own life story.

He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2007, but has continued to research and write about life and death. His main message to readers during these years was that they should not fear death.

He also suffered from diabetes, heart disease and other ailments, and was often hospitalized in his later years. Towards the end of 2020, I got a call from him on my cell phone. In a weak voice, he said to me, “I am in the hospital. I’m not doing very well. ”This was the last time I heard his voice.

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo courtesy of Bungei Shunjū.)


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