The Tiger Cage
The following is an excerpt from Heaven’s Wind.
In Osaka, there’s a fellow I call ‘the tiger man.’ His real name is Kaneko, and he joined the Tempūkai in 1955. I would guess he’s about sixty years old. He’s now the president of a real estate company. The day I met him, Kaneko told me he had been searching for me for over twenty-five years.
It seems that, years ago, he was visiting a friend in Ashiya. The friend had a framed photograph in his sitting room of a man, neatly dressed and wearing haori and hakama, standing in a cage with three tigers. The man in the photo has a big smile on his face.
“Who’s this?” Kaneko asked him. “From the way he is dressed, he’s obviously no animal trainer.”
“I know,” the friend answered. “That is why I put it up, because it’s so novel. I don’t know anything about the man in the photograph, but a relative of mine who is a photographer at Jiji News took the picture. He sent me a copy because he thought I’d be intrigued by it.”
“Is the man in the photo still alive.”
“As far as I know.”
“What is his name?”
“What’s he doing inside the cage?”
“That I can’t tell you. All I know is that, according to the article, the animals are part of an Italian animal trainer’s travelling show, and that the tigers were not tamed, but that this man went into the cage anyway.”
“What an amazing story! And there’s even a photograph to back it up. From all I can see, it looks real. I have to meet this Nakamura Tempū.”
That’s how it began. Kaneko says he kept his eyes and ears open for any mention of a Nakamura Tempū For the next twenty-five years. If he’d asked at the Home Ministry, they would have told him where to find me right away. But he didn’t. And he says he was a policeman before he went into real estate! But no, he just watched the newspaper. And since I don’t advertise, he never saw anything about the Tempūkai.
Twenty-five years. How about it, ladies? Would you spend twenty-five years looking for a guy, just because you saw his picture in the newspaper and thought he was handsome? Say you were twenty-five at the time: that would make you fifty! And if you age, the guy in the photograph is going to have aged too; he’s not going to be the same handsome boy he was twenty-five years ago. Today’s women don’t have that kind of loyal persistence. I’d give a woman three to five days at most; after that she’ll be shopping for someone new. Almost like shopping for a new house!
But Kaneko obviously wasn’t interested in me for my looks. He was just curious about the photograph. He wanted to know, was it for real, or was it a fake? What was the story behind it? What induced the man in the photo to go into a cage with tigers?
So when he finally meets me, he says to me, “Sensei, I have been looking for you for twenty-five years!”
“That’s a long time! Sorry to put you to so much trouble.” Even though I’ve never asked anyone to look for me.
“You see,” he says, “this friend of mine in Ashiya had a photograph in his living room of a man, formally dressed in haori and hakama, standing in a tiger cage. It was such an extraordinary picture. And it was you! You were much younger, of course, but it was obviously you!”
“I’d almost forgotten about that,” I told him. That’s why I call him the tiger man: because he reminded me of the tigers. I really had forgotten. It wasn’t any great feat; it’s just that I knew I could do it. I had complete confidence in myself. If you had that kind of confidence, you could do it too. But from your faces, I see that’s not the case, so I don’t recommend it. Not unless you want to be eaten alive.[i]
The year was 1918; the month was February. An Italian animal trainer[ii] had brought his show to Tokyo and was performing at the Yūraku Hall in Yūrakuchō. From someone, the animal trainer had heard about a true samurai, the only one left in all Japan, named Tōyama Mitsuru, and asked to meet him. The Italian Embassy forwarded his inquiry to Tōyama by way of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affaires, and a time and place for the meeting is arranged.
Nakamura accompanies Tōyama to this venue, together with Uchida Ryōhei and Tōyama’s nephew, a man named Matsushita.
Uchida Ryōhei is Nakamura’s Meidōkan sempai introduced in chapter one; he, like Nakamura, is now a veteran of many battles: During the years just prior to the Russo-Japan War, and in accordance with the martial precept ‘know thy enemy,’ Uchida learned Russian and lived in Vladivostok and Saint Petersburg. Then, in 1901, he founded a political and paramilitary organization called the Kokuryūkai, known in English as the Black Dragon Society. Despite its sinister connotations, the name has nothing to do with either blackness or dragons but is derived from the characters used to write Heilongjiang, the Chinese name for the Amur River that separates Manchuria, on its northern boundary, from Siberia and the Russian Far East; Uchida and his organization are advocates, in the interest of national security, of Japanese intervention in Manchuria. The Kokuryūkai masterminded and successfully carried out a number of espionage and sabotage activities in Manchuria during the Russo-Japan War, and they were instrumental, as noted earlier in chapter four, in the creation of the Manshū Gigun.
Western analyses of twentieth century Japanese history have been quick to malign Uchida for his militancy. But while, yes, Uchida was unapologetically militant in both his ideals and his methods, that militancy was not the unmitigated Japanese militarism of the 1920s and 1930s but a patriotic response to existential threats on his fledgling nation’s borders. Japan’s 1932 virtual annexation of Manchuria through the creation of Manchukuo, for example, was a perversion of the Kokuryūkai agenda and occurred without its support. Likewise, Uchida was neither a proponent of the Japanese invasion of China nor of the Pacific War (he died four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor), and his other affiliations included the Ōmoto-kyō and the Red Swastika Society: Ōmoto-kyō was the charismatic Deguchi Onisaburō’s Shinto-based religious sect of decidedly pacifist persuasion. Tōyama was also a Deguchi admirer, and while neither Tōyama nor Uchida ever became Ōmoto-kyō members, they openly supported many of Deguchi’s initiatives. Deguchi was later jailed and his religion, all but eradicated because his universalist message was thought to threaten the imperial regime. The Red Swastika Society was the philanthropic arm of a Chinese Daoist organization that, among other noble public works, took on the thankless task of burying bodies after the infamous 1937 Nanjing Massacre perpetrated by the invading Japanese army.
Uchida and Tōyama were not always in political agreement, but Uchida nevertheless looked upon Tōyama with much the same respect as did Nakamura and consulted him frequently; they appear together often in period photographs. Nakamura is sparing in his remarks regarding Uchida, and I surmise that, while mutually respectful, their interactions were at arm’s length.
This, then, is the lineup of characters when the animal trainer with his Japanese interpreter enters the hotel sitting room where the meeting takes place. The Jiji News Service, the same paper for which Nakamura had worked for a short time after his return from abroad, has gotten wind of the development and has a reporter-photographer—the cousin to the friend of Kaneko described in Tempū’s preamble to this story recorded at the beginning of the chapter—on hand.
The trainer quickly acknowledges each of the men in the room and they all take seats; whereupon, he turns toward Tōyama. “Just as I thought,” he remarks through the interpreter. “This fellow would be safe inside the cage. The cats would not bother him.”
The ability to determine who is fit and who is unfit to go into a cage with wild animals comes with the territory of the man’s profession. “I can tell by looking at his eyes,” he explains.
Nakamura, who had been massaging his mentor’s shoulders up until the trainer had entered the room, is sitting just behind Tōyama. The man notices him. “Ah! This fellow too,” he adds.
Uchida, not to be outdone, is quick to ask, “What about me?”
“Not you. They would tear you to pieces!”
“And me?” Matsushita chimes in.
“No. You don’t have it either.”
Tōyama is delighted. “This man knows what it’s like to walk the line between life and death,” he says. “That is why he can see it in others.”
After belated introductions and light conversation, the man—whose actual performances are not to begin until three days later—offers to show the men his lions, tigers, leopards, and elephants, and the party walks the several bocks separating them from the hall in Yūrakuchō.
“I must first warn you,” the trainer says before they enter by the backstage door. “I have three Bengal tigers, a mother and her grown cubs, that are not broken in yet. They are likely to make a lot of noise when we approach. But you needn’t worry; they’re safely behind bars.”
Sure enough, as they enter the dimly lit room, they are greeted with a ferocious snarl from the mother tiger.
“That’s her,” he says. “It’ll be another six months before she settles down and I can use her in my shows, but I bring her on the road with me to get her used to it.”
“She is indeed a feisty one,” Tōyama comments as they stop in front of the cage. The mother cat, her two cubs by her side, has all fangs bared and glares at them between snarls.
“What about it, Nakamura?” Tōyama asks. “Will you go in?”
Nakamura can tell that the words are not spoken in jest. He is also secretively flattered, for he understands that this mentor would never put him at more risk than he would his own son; the suggestion comes as an unqualified statement of his confidence in Nakamura’s ability to win over the cats. “If you say so,” he answers.
The two of them look at the Italian trainer, who, in turn, does not so much as bat an eye. “Come this way,” he says. The man who knows these cats best, Nakamura reflects, is likewise urging him on; the trainer, as a visiting foreigner, could hardly expect to receive sympathy from the Japanese courts should one of his guests be eaten alive.
Then too, Nakamura is no stranger to wild cats. During his long hours of sitting beside the waterfall in the Himalayan foothills, he became an object of curiosity to a large, itinerant leopard. The cat gradually took to him, venturing ever nearer, until, on one occasion, it came right up to him. Nakamura, with no cause to feel threatened, exhibited not the slightest reaction of fear; extending a hand, he patted the cat lightly on its face.
“Wild animals,” Tempu explains as part of his story, “prey on fear. They sense fear immediately, and they react instinctively to a threat. But animals are also predictable: as long as you neither project fear nor threaten them, they will cause you no harm.”
Many of the people who knew Nakamura Tempū have spoken or written about the magnetic effect he seemed to have had on animals of all kinds. He was a great dog lover, and violently tempered strays were quickly domesticated under his care. Birds also took to him, and a remarkable photograph from the 1950s shows him walking on the Gokoji temple grounds holding a book in front of him, while his head, shoulders, arm, and even the book are laden with pigeons. Tempū, engrossed in his book, is paying the birds no mind, nor is he carrying any food. (I have walked these same temple grounds and can attest that the pigeons there are no more or less tame than pigeons anywhere.)
That magnetism manifested itself in other ways as well. Sasaki Masando Sensei once told me that, when a bird somehow found its way into the lecture hall where Tempu was speaking, causing a commotion as it flew around looking for a way out, Tempu raised his hand and pointed at it with his finger. The bird fell out of the air like a stone and lay still on the floor. Tempu gently picked it up, carried it to a window, opened the window and released it; the bird flew away. This event was witnessed by somewhere between sixty and one hundred people, and others besides Sasaki have also talked or written about the same or similar incidents.
Then there were the geese that his wife and her maid brought home one day from the market. These were the days when vendors brought their geese alive to the marketplace and wrung their necks for the customer upon purchase; Nakamura, who was sitting under the eaves in the sunlight when the ladies returned home, asked to see the geese before they plucked them.
“This one is too far gone,” he said, putting the first of the two geese aside. The second one, however, he held on to and began stoking its neck. The women, used to his eccentricities, continued into the house and went about their chores. But when they checked about twenty minutes later, they could see that the goose was showing signs of life. And after ten more minutes, the goose was on its feet and squawking as if nothing had happened. This goose, however, had apparently also bonded with Nakamura, for it proceeded to follow him in and around the house, squawking all the while, until the women had had enough and banished both Nakamura and is new companion to the yard.
The cage consists of a double barrier. This allows the caretakers to bring food through the outer barrier and to throw it in to the cats through the second, inner door with no risk of the cats’ escape. It also prevents the cats from reaching passersby with their paws. The trainer opens the door to the outer cage for Nakamura and hands him a key; Nakamura opens the inner door on his own and slips inside.
The tigers are quiet. They look him over with curiosity, and one of the cubs brushes his leg. Nakamura is sporting a broad smile as all three cats then sidle up to him, the two younger ones curling up at his feet while the mother tiger calmly stands guard from behind him.
At that moment, the flashbulb on the reporter’s camera goes off with a pop. The mother leaps forward at the cage bars with a ferocious growl, fangs bared.
Tōyama laughs. “Yes indeed! She has plenty of spunk,” he remarks.
Nakamura, still smiling broadly, nods in agreement. He strokes the mother tiger lightly on the head until she comes away from the bars and takes a seat on the floor. Then, when he has had enough of tigers, he quietly lets himself out of the cage and returns to the party on the other side of the bars.
The reporter’s photograph—the same photograph that Kaneko later sees in the reporter’s cousin’s living room—appears in the Jiji News the following day.
Twenty-five years later, Kaneko spots a paragraph-long editorial in the Mainichi Newspapers mentioning the Tempūkai; this piece, he later learns, was inserted by a member of the Mainichi reporting staff who is also a Tempūkai member.
To Kaneko, the name Tempū means only one thing: The man in the tiger cage! He contacts the newspaper and learns that the Tempūkai is meeting in Tennoji. Kaneko drops all other obligations and joins the Osaka Tempūkai summer training session then underway.
[i] Excerpt from transcript of talk delivered October 12, 1965 and published in Seidai na Jinsei.
[ii] The animal trainer’s name is recorded phonetically as Kōn; this could be Cohen or Cone or something else phonetically similar. I have been unsuccessful in identifying a famous animal trainer from this period with a name to match.