In Polish, there are two ways of saying that someone, or something, has died. One form is for human beings; the other is for animals. When Stalin died, Christopher Szpilman was just shy of two years old. He was going around saying that Stalin had died — using the form for animals. He must have heard it from some adult. His grandmother hit him and shut him up — because those words could have been dangerous for the family.
Szpilman has had a remarkable journey since then: bouncing from Poland to Britain to America to Japan, with various points in between. He is a scholar of Japan, teaching here. I’ve met him in a Tokyo café, to talk over his life and some issues concerning this country.
He was born in Warsaw on May 4, 1951. His mother, Halina, was, and is, a physician. Her father was a well-known politician — Jozef Grzecznarowski. He had an eventful life. During World War II, he was a prisoner of the Germans, beaten regularly. Years earlier, as a young man, he had been a prisoner of the Russians, kept in chains. Till the end of his days — he died in 1976 at 92 — he bore chain marks around his wrists.
The maternal side of Chris’s family was Catholic. Chris himself went to church as a child. And his father? Something curious happened when Chris was about twelve. In the family attic, he happened upon a memoir, written by his father. Chris ran to his grandmother and said, “I’m Jewish.” “Oh, no,” she replied, “don’t worry. Your father is Jewish, maybe. Perhaps. But not you.”
His father, Wladyslaw Szpilman, was a famous pianist and composer in Poland. He had survived the Holocaust in miraculous ways. The rest of his family was murdered at Treblinka. Wladyslaw put his story in a memoir, published in 1946. Chris had no idea of any of this — until that day, in the early ’60s, up in the attic. His father never talked about it. Never. “I just figured my father was a neurotic old man who had nightmares,” says Chris. (Wladyslaw Szpilman was 39 when Chris was born, making him an old father for the time.)
In 1998, more than 50 years after it was originally published, Szpilman’s memoir was translated into German. The next year, it was translated into English — and became a worldwide sensation. In 2002, it was made into a movie, The Pianist. This was another sensation. (In the meantime, Wladyslaw Szpilman had died, in 2000, at the age of 88.) The movie won a slew of awards, including three Oscars and the Palme d’Or.
Let us return to Poland, this time in the late 1960s. Like most people, Christopher Szpilman hated Communism, and longed to leave the country. He did, at 18. He went to London, where he worked for about a year, doing odd jobs. Then he enrolled at the University of Leeds. He studied Russian and philosophy. He was an indifferent student, he tells me, caring mostly about judo.
After earning his degree, he worked in London for a couple more years, saving up enough money to go to Japan. He did, in 1976. He thought he would work on his judo. Instead, he fell in love with the Japanese language. Returning to London, he enrolled in SOAS, the estimable School of Oriental and African Studies. He dedicated himself to Japanese. This time around, he was anything but an indifferent student.
People catch a language bug, or national bug, for various reasons. I have a friend who loved anime — Japanese cartoons — as a child. He went on to study Japanese in college. Chris Szpilman loved judo, true. But there were other factors. When he was a kid, Polish television showed Rashomon, the Kurosawa film of 1950. Chris was fascinated by the sword fighting and exotic dress. Then, in 1964, his father went on a concert tour of Japan and brought home souvenirs. You never know what will plant a seed and affect the course of a life.
After SOAS, Szpilman went to Bangkok, volunteering for a refugee organization. Then he went to America — to Yale University, where he earned further degrees. This culminated in a Ph.D. in history. Szpilman is a historian of modern Japan, specializing in militarism, fascism — the radical Right. He taught at a couple of American universities and has taught in Japan since the mid 1990s. He is married to a historian, Sato Chitose — a historian of the U.S., as it happens.
Bernard Lewis, the late scholar of the Middle East, once quoted Samuel Johnson. He did this when the very idea of studying foreign cultures was under attack (as it continues to be). Johnson said, “A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more certainly than an eminent degree of curiosity; nor is that curiosity ever more agreeably or usefully employed than in examining the laws and customs of foreign nations.”
To varying degrees, Christopher Szpilman speaks a slew of languages — about ten — including a near-native Japanese. Because he is a white Westerner, people here sometimes speak to him in English, understandably. Occasionally, he has a little fun with them. “We should really speak Japanese,” he might say (in Japanese). “After all, we’re in Japan — land of the emperors!” You can imagine the looks he gets.
I might pause to say that he pronounces his name in an English way: “Spillman.”
There are big issues in Japan, including the very nature of the country. For decades, Japan has seen itself as a peace country, governed by a peace constitution — a constitution imposed by the United States after the war, of course. That document essentially forbids the Japanese to defend themselves. The U.S. has provided their security for all these years. No one thinks this arrangement can continue indefinitely.
In Japan, peace became a religion, says Szpilman (which is a better religion than war and conquest, to be sure). He then makes a striking analogy: “Peace is like health. You can maintain it, but you cannot prevent disease by being healthy. War is like disease. It’s no good saying, ‘We believe in health, so doctors are warmongers.’” The world is full of bad actors, and Japan’s neighborhood has a few: China, for one, and North Korea, for another. Both of those nations are nuclear-armed.
Nukes have long been taboo in Japan (home to Hiroshima and Nagasaki). But those who lived through the horrors of the war are dying out. If you were an 18-year-old conscript in the last year of the war, Szpilman notes, you are now 90. The taboo on nuclear weapons — the revulsion that people feel — will fade in coming years.
Speaking of fading: Japan has a demography problem. Numerous are the old and few are the young. Japan is way below the replacement rate. Where the elderly are concerned, Japan reached a milestone this year. For the first time, people over 75 are more numerous than people between 65 and 74. Who will sustain this population? To be blunt, who will provide for their care, whether with money or personal attention, with ever fewer children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews?
Some in the government have told Szpilman that immigration is the answer, an inevitability, with all the problems it may bring, as well as benefits. (Interestingly, an Italian intellectual was telling me the exact same thing about his own country earlier this year.) And where would the immigrants to Japan come from? China, the Koreas, the Philippines, the Subcontinent . . .
I ask Szpilman about racism — for Japan has a reputation for racism throughout the world, a racism directed against Koreans, for example. In his answer, Szpilman speaks in part from personal experience. He has been a newcomer to, an outsider in, several countries: Britain, America, and Japan. You could even argue that he was an outsider in his native Poland. He does not see Japan as particularly racist or unwelcoming. On the contrary, it is an accessible society, especially if you know the language, and especially when you’re young (and seeking to make friends and open to new experiences).
Given his profession, Szpilman needs to conduct research in this country, and people bend over backward to help you, he says. Before he and I met at our café, he was at the library of the National Diet, the Japanese legislature. There is far less red tape in Japan — even for a nosy foreigner — than elsewhere, says Szpilman.
He has been studying Japan for more than 40 years and living here for almost 25 — and teaching Japan’s history to Japan’s children. He has written more in Japanese than in English. Has familiarity with Japan made the heart grow fonder? “I really can’t tell,” says Szpilman. “The more you know a country, the more it becomes like your own: hard to be objective about. The things a stranger might notice, you now take for granted.”
Be that as it may, Christopher Szpilman is a razor-sharp student of Japan, and indeed of broad swathes of the world. He has led a bold and useful life, one that Dr. Johnson, among others, would appreciate.