Fifteen Years' War Japan Literature Non-fiction Socialism Translation United Kingdom

Japanese translator heroes: Max Bickerton


William Maxwell Bickerton, September 1924.
Property of the National Library of New Zealand.

At Wednesday’s Tsuda lecture at SOAS, Professor Norma Field, in discussing the Japanese proletarian cultural movement in connection with the Fukushima catastrophe, noted that the first English translator of Kobayashi Takiji was also the first (perhaps only?) Westerner detained and tortured by the secret police. This, though only a passing mention, was like translator-crack to me.

And what is a translator, really, but a nerd with great research skills?

First: in April 1934 we find our subject in Hansard, the parliamentary record — Mr. William Maxwell Bickerton.

Mr. JOHN WILMOT asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is aware that Mr. William Maxwell Bickerton, an English master resident in Tokio and a British subject, was arrested and imprisoned in Tokio on 13th March, was refused permission to communicate with the British Consul until 23rd March, and that, although no charge has been made against him, he still remains in gaol; if he has any information as to the reason for which Mr. Bickerton has been imprisoned; what steps are being taken to see that he is either released or brought to trial and, in the latter event, what arrangements are being made for his defence; and will he state what rights, by treaty or otherwise, as to communication with the British Consul are enjoyed by British subjects in Japan in the event of arrest by the Japanese authorities?

Sir J. Simon, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, replies:

Yes, Sir; I am aware of the circumstances relating to Mr. Bickerton’s arrest. According to the statement of the Japanese authorities, he is suspected of an offence in connection with alleged Communist activities.

Wilmot’s reply makes the unease of the situation clear:

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his reply, may I ask him if he is aware that this gentleman, who has resided in Japan for some years, and is a highly respected English master at the University, has been informed unofficially that his offence is that of harbouring dangerous thoughts; and whether, in the circumstances, the position of British nationals in Japan is not one to which His Majesty’s Government should give serious consideration?

No reply is given.

Let’s turn to this excerpt from Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits, Volume 4, edited by Hugh Cortazzi:

[William Empson] knew a 32-year-old New Zealander, William Maxwell Bickerton, who had been teaching in Tokyo since 1924. Max Bickerton had a reputation as a translator into English of Japanese proletarian novels such as The Cannery Boat, by Kobayashi Takiji. On 13 March 1934, he was taken into police custody — where he was ill-treated or allegedly beaten — and charged with promoting Communist interests. At a preliminary examination held in the Tokyo District Court on 30 April, evidence was given that on four separate occasions since September 1933 he had made financial contributions to the Japan Communist Party; he was charged under the Amendment made by Imperial Ordinance in 1928 to the Law relating to the Preservation of Peace and Order, and remanded for public trial. Mr Bickerton was ‘well aware,’ it was officially written, ‘that the Japanese Communist Party was a secret organization which aimed, as the Japan branch of the Comintern, at the transformation, by revolutionary means, of the national constitution of this country …’ But the British Consul in Tokyo managed to get him released on bail.

And from the Singleton Argus (May 23, 1934):

Tokio, Monday.–The police revealed to-day that since last year 736 persons, including 134 women, have been accused or suspected of Communist activities or sympathies, of which 53 have so far been indicted. All were Japanese, except a New Zealander, Mr Bickerton. The police charge against Mr Bickerton is that he contributed 500 yen to Japanese Communists, and assisted in the interchange of literature between British and Japanese Communists.

Prior to departing in April last year on leave of absence from two Government high schools where he taught, Mr Bickerton offered to contribute 300 yen from his travelling expense money to a Communist friend, who, however, was subsequently arrested. Mr Bickerton proceeded to Moscow, and then had several months in London, where he obtained and sent Japanese Communists 60 copies of various European Communist magazines. He also translated and gave British Communists articles published by the Japanese “Red Flag.”

Returning to Japan in September he paid 100 yen to a Communist named Matsumoto, who secretly interviewed him on the beach near Mr Bickerton’s residence. Thereafter he contributed 100 yen monthly from October to January through various intermediaries. At Matsumoto’s suggestion, Mr Bickerton in October applied for membership to the Japanese Communist Party, but while debating whether they would admit foreigners, the organisation’s leaders were arrested.

Mr Bickerton was himself arrested on March 13 and indicted on April 6. He is still out on bail of 200 yen. The date of his trial has not yet been fixed.

Police state that the Communists are in stringent financial difficulties, and that Mr Bickerton’s contributions assisted them considerably.

Who was this Matsumoto? He and Bickerton are mentioned in An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring by Chalmers A. Johnson:

The troubles of Matsumoto Shin’ichi (1901-1947), Ozaki’s friend from the time they were students together at Ichikô, also occupied Ozaki throughout much of 1939. After leaving college Matsumoto had become an ardent Communist sympathizer; he was first arrested in 1931 for having contributed to the Noulens Defense Committee fund. In 1933 he was working closely with the Japanese Communist Party’s Information Section, and he associated with the well-known Party leaders Noro Eitarô (killed by the police in 1934), Kazahaya Yosoji, and Miyamoto Kenji (both of whom later became members of the JCP’s Central Committee). Matsumoto was arrested a second time for violating the Peace Preservation Law on February 16, 1934, and his arrest led to the unusual prosecution of William Maxwell Bickerton, the first foreigner arrested under the Peace Preservation Law. Matsumoto was in jail for nearly two years, until November 16, 1935[.]

But then we have a remarkable historical document – Bickerton’s own account from the Manchester Guardian, July 1934, of his time in Japanese custody, which I will reproduce in full:

The inhuman treatment in the police cells, while of course not aimed specifically at me, nevertheless is calculated to break the spirit of any prisoner. I was confined in a cell measuring 12 feet by 5 1/2, in which there were never less than nine, and sometimes as many as fourteen, other prisoners. Among my cell mates were three insane persons at different times, all of them raving. During the twenty-four days of my confinement I was never allowed to have a bath. Prisoners must sit with their legs crossed all day. No exercise is allowed. I was given three meals per day, consisting in all cases of bread and jam with cold milk, for which I paid 10 sen. The brutality of the jailers is beyond imagination. I was not beaten by them, but the almost daily sight of other prisoners being stripped and beaten with sticks till their backs were a row of weals or kicked till they could not stand up– and all for very minor infringements of discipline — was hard to bear.

In prison, conditions as I experienced them were very different, and I have no complaints to make, except, of course, to say that the food is not suitable for Europeans. The jailers were all decent to me, and the one especially in charge of me, Io, could not have been more kind.

In the preliminary hearing of my case, Judge Tokuda afforded me every kindness, and I have no complaints to make — except to say that when I told him how the police had beaten me he displayed not the slightest interest.

The police examination was conducted by two plain-clothes police officers named Ogasawara and Suga. It took place at police headquarters.

During the second day’s examination (on March 14) Ogasawara remarked that I had probably heard tales of police torture from my Left-wing friends but that I would see for myself they were untrue as I would never be forced to say anything. The next morning the chief of the Foreign Section of the Police Headquarters came into the room and said, ‘I hear that you want to see the Consul or a lawyer.’ I answered, ‘Yes.’ He then stated that until I had answered all their questions I could not see either the Consul or a lawyer. If there were any points of law I wanted to be made clear, he would always be glad to explain them. In any case, he concluded, he had already spoken about my case to the Consul.

The fourth examination was on Monday, March 19. It began about 11 a.m. At about 6 p.m. Ogasawara said that if I would admit giving the money to Matsumoto, we could then go on to investigate my motive for giving it. He went on talking for about half an hour; I let him talk. Suddenly he said, ‘Now what was your motive?’ I realized the trap and said vehemently, ‘As I never gave the money, how can I have had a motive?’ He exchanged incredulous glances with Suga and said, ‘Half an hour ago you admitted giving it. We both saw you nod your head. How could we be discussing motives otherwise?’

When finally they saw that I maintained my denial, they went on to another point and worked out with me how I spent my monthly salary of 565 yen. After writing down all items, there was still a surplus of about two hundred yen, which I did not know how I spent. Ogasawara wrote down the figures 200 yen on paper, telling me to stare at them until I remembered. For some minutes I stared at the figures in silence in spite of their demands for an answer. Then Suga lost his temper and stamped on my toes. When I winced, he said, ‘Oh! So you are a human being after all; you can feel pain. Then answer.’ My continued silence caused him to start kicking me on the leg, smacking my face and punching me on the ear. finally, turning to Ogasawara, he said, ‘It’s no use being gentle with this beast (chikusho),’ and going out of the room soon returned with a baseball bat. ‘It’s six years since I used this. I’m a bit out of practice,’ he smiled. He made me sit up straight on the chair, asked the question once more, and when I did not answer gave me a crack across both legs above the knee with the bat. The question was repeated again and again, each time with a blow on the legs or thigh. Suga continued to hit me half-heartedly for some time, until finally they finished up the day’s examination at about 8:30 p.m.

The first part of the next examination was plain sailing, being a statement of family circumstances, ideas, growth of interest in the Japanese revolutionary movement, the publication of a volume of my translations of Japanese proletarian stories by Martin Lawrence, and so forth. At about 5 p.m. the assistant chief gave instructions to carry right on till he came back from dinner.

About 9 p.m., Suga discovered, among papers seized from my house, a translation, from Sekki (the Red Flag), in my handwriting, of the confession of an agent-provocateur. ‘Is this tsushin?’ asked Ogasawara. Not realizing for the moment how strong the word ‘tsushin‘ (a report, especially one sent by a correspondent) was, I answered, ‘Yes.’ He wrote that down, and then followed a storm of questions. ‘Whom did I send these reports to?’ … ‘What papers were they published in?’ … ‘Did I get paid for the work?’ … ‘How many times had I sent these reports since September… twenty, fifteen, ten nine, eight, seven, six?’ I was so tired and weak I could hardly speak. I begged them to stop the examination for that night, but they repeated their threats of keeping me all night… of giving me some ‘massage’… of calling in stronger men.

At last I answered at random, ‘Six times,’ and he gave me a pencil to write down details of each ‘report’. I said I could not remember the details, so Suga kicked me, smacked my face, punched me many times to help my memory, so he said. When the beating left me only more sullen, Ogasawara said he would promise to stop the examination for the night if I would just give the address of the person I sent the reports to in England. I gave an address, which he wrote down, and then I stood up to go home. ‘Oh, no, not yet. I only said I would not press that point any more to-night. Now we go on to another point.’ This was the only time during the whole examination that I felt absolutely desperate.

Then they began pressing me as to who had given me Sekki. About this time the assistant chief, in kimono, came back. They reported satisfactory progress. He gave them permission to finish up for the night when I had answered who had given me the paper. He said to me, ‘Come on, don’t waste time, anything will do as long as it’s an answer. Where did you get Sekki from? Man, woman, boy, girl, dog, cat; picked up in the street?’ Like a hypnotized person I answered, ‘Man.’ … ‘A Japanese man?’ … ‘Yes.’ … ‘His name?’ … ‘I can’t tell.’ … ‘All right, write that down; that will do for to-night.’

He then came over to me and half affectionately, half-threateningly, curled his arm around my neck saying, ‘You are a decent chap in many ways. I wonder when you’ll say the name. It was Matsumoto, wasn’t it?’ I did not answer, and he continued, ‘I’m afraid these methods alone won’t get it out of you. We’ll have to get someone to give you some of this,’ and playfully he pretended to throttle me, uttering a strange sound of ‘Gurr, gurr’ each time he jerked his arm. Then he took some paper from his kimono sleeve and kindly wiped my greasy face, as he said to the others, ‘We’ll have to get that other fellow (aitsu) to string him up from the roof and give him something, and then perhaps he’ll talk.’

The next day there was no examination, but on Thursday, March 22, when I was brought to headquarters, I told Ogasawara that I wanted to retract what I had said at the last examination, as my brain had been so confused that I had let myself be persuaded into saying anything. He answered that I could not do that. A proof that my brain was not confused, he said, was that on that night I still denied the important things. However, he allowed me to retract certain statements.

On Friday, March 23, after the British consul had seen me, Suga looked extremely uncomfortable. He said I was the most selfish person he had ever known, always considering myself, never considering them and talking a lot of rubbish to the Consul. But the atmosphere was noticeably changed. About 3 p.m. the assistant chief sent in three dishes of mitsumame (beans and jelly) for us, and before 5 p.m. he said we could stop the examination for that day.

About noon on March 24 the examination was resumed by Ogasawara and Suga. The former said to me, ‘To-day is Saturday, so we shall just clear up one point, and then you can have a shave and go back to your Kojimachi home’ (the police station). The point to be cleared up was who had given me Sekki. I said I could never tell because that would be betraying a friend. At 3:30 p.m. we were still at the same point, but the examination was transferred to the chief’s spacious room, as he had gone home. They said they were both tired and wanted to get home to their families, but it was obvious that the assistant chief had told them they must get an answer first. I could think of no more arguments to justify my refusal, so the atmosphere soon became tense. Suga went out of the room and came back with a bamboo fencing stick (shinai). Ogasawara locked the door and pulled down the blinds. Suga started whacking me with the stick across both legs above the knees. ‘From whom did you get them?’ The question was repeated without any variations by both of them so many times that I thought something would snap in my mind. When Suga spoke they made me turn my head to the right to face him when I answered, and when Ogasawara spoke I had to face him. Each time they asked the question Suga beat me. He raised the stick above his head and brought it down with force. He always brought the stick down in the same place, and I could not help wincing. During one lull I said to Ogasawara, ‘You said in front of the Consul yesterday that you never hit me, but what are you doing now?’ But he gave no answer. As the blows were renewed my voice gave out, and I just sat silent. Finally at 5:15 p.m. by the clock in the room, Suga sat down almost in a state of collapse. He shouted almost incoherently, ‘It’s no good, it’s no good. I can’t get anything out of this brute.’ At 5:30 p.m. supper came. They ate theirs in a separate room from me. Then apparently they rang up the assistant chief and got permission to go home, and I arrived back at the Kojimachi police station about 7 p.m. The next day both my legs were sore and bruised.

On Tuesday, March 27, I was brought face to face with a witness named Toshi Otsu. She said she knew me, but I denied knowing her. As the assistant chief led her out of the room, he gave me two ringing smacks across the face. I do not wish to exaggerate, but, really, a little later when I was left alone with Ogasawara and Suga, they were both almost in a frenzy of rage. All the old threats and abuse were hurled at me again. Suga almost danced on my toes. He got his baseball bat and just hammered me on the right leg and thigh. He got me by the hair and banged my head again and again against a cupboard. They shouted again and again, ‘You do know her; you do know her,’ as Suga beat me. The pain in the leg was intense as he kept hitting in the same place as he had hit me on the Saturday, but I remained silent. Finally he threw himself on a chair exhausted and said, ‘He’s too much for me, the beast.’

A message came that the chief wanted to see me. He put before me two alternatives: if I admitted everything, probably I could get off with deportation; if I admitted nothing, I should have to be indicted and spend at least a year in prison awaiting trial, during which time I would not be permitted to communicate with anyone. I asked for the day to consider my decision.

Next morning I determined to make a special effort to see the Consul. The right leg was swollen, but I tried not to limp, so that they would not suspect how bad it was. Ogasawara said the chief was waiting for my answer. I parried by saying that I wanted to see the Consul first as my answer might vary after I had consulted him. This was not allowed, so I answered that I admitted nothing.

Shortly afterwards the chief came into the room and said that he was not refusing to let me see the Consul but that he wanted first to know my reason for wanting to see him. I put forward various ones, all of which were deemed inadequate. I realized that they were not going to let me see him in my present state, so when he said, ‘Is there no other reason?’ I answered, ‘Yes, there is. I wanted to ask him also whether according to Japanese law the police have the right to use force in their examination.’ The assistant chief, Ogasawara, and Suga were all present. Their faces wore the same expression of indignation as when I brought up the same subject in front of the Consul. They all wanted to speak at once.

The chief said that he could answer my question without my asking the Consul. He explained that force (boryoku) should not be used but that men were not gods and police officers were men. When the prisoner was extremely obstinate and refused to admit obvious known facts, the detectives naturally became tired and might on occasion lose their tempers. If such things had happened to me, I was partly responsible.

Several times during the chief’s explanation of the law Ogasawara interrupted with the caution: ‘Remember, the chief is not admitting you were beaten; he is only giving a hypothetical case.’ ‘I quite realize that,’ I answered.

When I finally met the Consul at the court, it was exactly two weeks after the last beating, and the bruises had gone.

Again, let’s turn back to Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits, Volume 4, for the rest of the story:

Empson became involved, working to smuggle Bickerton out of the country. According to Ronald Bottrall, he took away Bickerton’s clothes and provided him with an entirely different outfit, complete with dark glasses and a false moustache. Then he booked a passage for Bickerton, obviously in an assumed name, on a foreign freighter. As the pair approached the gangway, a member of the Secret Police appeared — only to present Bickerton with all of his old clothes cleaned and pressed. That final detail might not be so farcical if the Tokyo authorities simply preferred to turn a blind eye rather than risk an international incident. In any event, Bickerton certainly jumped bail and left Japan on the Empress of India on 8 June, bound for Victoria and Vancouver. There is no suggestion that Empson alone arranged for Bickerton to get out of the country by subterfuge. In fact, we cannot even know if he was placed under suspicion for aiding and abetting the escape, or even questioned about it. But there is evidence to indicate that he certainly knew they had an eye on him by then.

(Empson himself was expelled from Japan in 1934 for his homosexuality; the rest of the entry on him is very interesting indeed, and actually, all of the book looks fascinating – mainly tales of English teachers carousing, but at a far enough remove that it seems charming…)

The detail about the member of the Secret Police giving him back his old clothes isn’t one I’ve found in contemporary accounts, which have their own charming details, such as this one from the Western Argus (Kalgoorlie, WA) from July 17, 1934:

London, July 7.–Mr. Bickerton to-day described his escape while on bail. He said that only one non-Japanese ship fortnightly went direct from Japanese waters. He considered stealing aboard the Empress of Japan the night before her departure and hiding in a lifeboat, but he actually walked openly up the first-class gangway wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a suit in which the police had not previously seen him. Mr Bickerton held a stray paper streamer, waved to imaginary farewellers among the crowd on the wharf and then pretended to doze on a deck chair until outside the territorial limit, when he informed the purser that he was a stowaway with sufficient money to pay his fare.

In 1935, another, quite rousing account from Bickerton on his time in custody appeared as part of a larger, very interesting article about the Communist movement in Japan as he experienced it:

Up to the time of my own arrest I had little or no knowledge of the morale of the Japanese communists. Imprisonment among them gave me an inside knowledge of their calibre which would otherwise have been unattainable. Therefore I count my imprisonment as one of the most important experiences of my life. In the police cells, where I was detained, about forty per cent of the prisoners were communists. These political prisoners were mixed indiscriminately with petty thieves, dope pedlers, confidence men, and rogues and vagabonds generally. I observed that always the communist prisoners had great personal prestige, and no matter how young they were the ordinary prisoners did not dare to bully them, but rather hung on their lips anxious to hear something of this new philosophy which kept its holders cheerful even in surroundings of filth and degradation. The invisible but none the less strong discipline existing among the communists I was soon to experience. On the second morning at wash-time, feeling disgusted with the lack of soap, toothbrush, etc., I gave myself only a perfunctory toilet, and went back to mope in the cell. One communist, aged twenty-one, in the same cell came over to me disapprovingly, and said: ‘You’ll never last out if you behave like that. You should wet your towel like we do, and then come back to the cell, and have a thorough rub-down all over; and while the jailer is busy supervising the others you get the chance to do a few physical exercises as well.’ I took the hint, and certainly found that this procedure enabled me to endure prison conditions much better. The communists are the only ones who thus discipline themselves.

Again when ordinary prisoners are beaten by the jailers for alleged infringements of discipline, they grovel and whine, begging for mercy. The communists on the other hand endure all such punishment with contempt. It so happened that most of the communists in our group of cells had already finished their police examination, and were therefore having a respite from torture and third degree methods. ‘The first month is the worst: if you stick that you are all right,’ they impressed on me. Thus every morning when I was called out for examination the communists in the different cells (including seven women) would creep up to the bars and whisper as I passed: ‘Doshi, gambare!’ (‘Comrade, carry on,’ is perhaps the nearest translation; but this Japanese nil desperandum has become a flaming inspiration, the watchword of the Communist Party in Japan). As I returned at night from the ordeal, I felt the eyes of all the communists were upon me; and even if I was very late those in my cell would still be awake and awaiting my report. …

At the beginning of my examination I was amazed to find that the police were trying to convert me–a foreigner. In a way I can take it as a compliment that they thought me worth saving. Had I been a business man they would have simply deported me forthwith. But my position in the oldest and best of Government high schools, and the popularity (if I may be pardoned for saying so) which I enjoyed with the five thousand students who had been under my tuition during my ten years’ service, made me specially worth converting. Already the Japanese have a team of American and English ‘propagandists’. But as in the Salvation Army, the greater sinner you have been, the better saint you become. Therefore, from the start it was made clear to me that I could have anything I wanted if I would cross over. But the snag is that they judge the sincerity of one’s conversion by one test–the betrayal of others.

Bickerton appears again in Hansard in February 1935. It is important, I feel, to note here that John Simon, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from November 1931 to June 1935, was a controversial figure who is most remembered today as one of the “Guilty Men” called out for their appeasement policies toward Germany, Italy and Japan. Indeed, Simon in particular was criticized repeatedly for his appeasement of Japan through his failure to condemn the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (for which he was, apparently, congratulated by the Japanese emissary). Simon’s pre-war behavior was seen as so toxic that Clement Attlee bluntly refused to appoint him to the British delegation at Nuremburg.

On that note, consider the following exchange:

MR. WILMOT asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he can now make a statement regarding the compensation to be paid to Mr. William Maxwell Bickerton in respect to his ill-treatment by the Japanese Government; and whether any assurances have been given that British subjects will not be so treated in Japan in future?

I have considered the reply by the Japanese Government to the representations made by His Majesty’s Ambassador at Tokyo. The reply contains satisfactory assurances regarding the future treatment of British subjects arrested in Japan. There is, unfortunately, a conflict of fact between the Japanese Government and Mr. Bickerton as to the latter’s allegation of ill-treatment and I do not consider that in the circumstances a claim for compensation could be usefully made.

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his reply and for the trouble which he has taken in this matter, may I ask him whether he feels that nothing more can be done, having regard to the fact that this British subject was arrested, thrown into prison for no other crime than that of harbouring dangerous thoughts, and that there is little doubt that he suffered much indignity and some ill-treatment?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is well advised in putting these matters of detail, but, if he puts them, of course, I must answer them. In the first place, to be quite fair to everybody, it is not the case that this gentleman was merely arrested on the ground suggested. He was arrested on a charge of a breach of the Japanese law. Whether it was right or wrong, I have not the least idea, but no one can complain because he was arrested. As regards his treatment, that, of course, is a different matter. Unfortunately, as I have said, there is a difference as to the facts, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will see what a difficult thing it would be, therefore, to carry the claim for compensation further.

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that this British subject was arrested, detained, and, after a long period, released—

This matter cannot be discussed at Question Time.

If one’s sincerity is to be judged by one’s betrayal of others, Imperial Japan had a very good friend indeed in John Simon. And the Communist Party of Japan suddenly found itself with a very good PR man in the west. These accounts of the torture practiced by the secret police were likely among the first in English and are, as far as I’m aware, the only ones written by a Westerner who experienced it first hand. His courage as a translator and as a human being are worthy of remembrance.

Update (3/16/2013): I’ve added a few more accounts above and I’ve applied to the National Archives to receive a digitized copy of Bickerton’s file.

Update 2 (3/16/2013): Now I’m very eager to see Bickerton’s file. I’ve managed to dig more up — he appears briefly in a biography of Margaret Mead as a “homosexual friend” in Paris in 1926.

Then he appears, suddenly, three times in Barbara Anslow’s diary. Anslow was an internee at Stanley Prison, Hong Kong, as was, it appears, Bickerton:

4 Mar 1945: Very disappointing news – early this a.m. the Japs woke us up calling for Max Bickerton, and men went off re parcels.

27 July 1945: Outside roll call, followed by a general address outside Block 2, where Married Q. people and Blocks A1, A2 and A3 assembled. … Lieut. Kadowaki, looking like a member of the foreign legion with khaki flaps attached to his little cap with 1 star on, Mr Max Bickerton (our interpreter) and Mr Gimson stood on tables – Kadowaki had a table to himself. Kadowaki gave some explosive words in Japanese which Bickerton translated in a low voice to Mr Gimson, who relayed message to us.

17 Sep 1945: Couldn’t eat much (not feeling well). F. Gimson, B. Bickford, Mrs. Hardie, Mr & Mrs R. Minnitt, Max Bickerton & others left by plane for UK. Tony Cole and Jim Johnson sailed on ‘Vindex’ to Australia. Hope it’s our turn next. Went to Bank to draw $200 – so glad it was there (and had been all during internment).

In 1946, he was back in China, in Shanghai. From Friend of China – The Myth of Rewi Alley by Anne-Marie Brady:

Former CIC [Chinese Industrial Cooperatives] worker Max Bickerton, who took up a job teaching English at Peking University, was asked to leave China because of his homosexual activities. Yet a few other foreign gay men were allowed to stay on, perhaps because they were more discreet than Bickerton. But all this was yet to come. In 1949, in remote Gansu, no one could be certain how the Communist policies would affect their lives. None the less, just before liberation, Alley called a meeting of men who were gay at Shandan, mostly Europeans, and told them to be a  little more circumspect because, he said, the Red Army was very puritanical about sex. (p. 45)

Alley’s sexual preferences were known by many of those who worked with him in the co-operatives, though it was seldom discussed openly. Max Bickerton, a fellow New Zealander working in CIC’s Shanghai office, who was himself a homosexual of ‘the more outrageous sort,’ joked to Courtney Archer in 1946: “Think of Rewi Alley out there in the Gobi Desert with 300 boys!” (p. 49)

A little bit more about his life in Shanghai and Beijing from Foreigners and Foreign Institutions in Republican China, edited by Anne-Marie Brady and Douglas Brown:

Max Bickerton, who had worked for the CIC and in 1949 took up a job teaching English at Peking University, was asked to leave China because of his homosexual activities. Yet a few other foreign gay men were allowed to stay on, perhaps because they were more discreet than Bickerton. According to Peter Townsend, who worked with him in the 1940s, Bickerton was very blatant about his sexual preferences; he would go out in the evenings dressed up in lipstick and makeup. Bickerton boasted to his co-worker Mavis Yan about his sexual exploits: “I had a wonderful night last night with a laundry man.”

And in 1949 he turns up in Beijing in this account of the life of his friend Empson, William Empson, Volume II : Against the Christians by John Haffenden:

Max Bickerton, the New Zealand Communist whom Empson had last seen in Tokyo in 1933, turned up in Peking at this time and jumped at the offer of a teaching post at Peita. (The homosexual Bickerton grew very close to Hetta over the months in Peking, and, in a sort of way, he came to love her, though he was rather given to nagging her. Three years later, when the Communists threw him out of his job at the university and out of his room on the campus, only Hetta among the foreign community stepped in to house and feed him. Later, in England, he became her tenant in London and would remain in the house until his death.)

And a little more on this corner of England where he ended his days:

Studio House in Hampstead… was a dishevelled and disheartening place to come home to. The house was still being used as a camping ground by a variety of lodgers including A.G. (Dinah) Stock, the author and anarchist, and John Wright (who had established in Studio House, under the auspices of the Hampstead Artists’ Council, a workshop and studio for the puppet theatre that would become world-famous when it was removed in 1961 to the Little Angel Theatre in Islington), as well as others including Pat Miles, Barry Carmen, and Max Bickerton (who had started a private English language school drawing pupils from among the families of foreign embassies).

Update 3 (6/14/2013):

Bickerton’s places of employment in Tokyo prior to his arrest, according to Haffenden: “Tokyo University of Commerce, First High School, and Furitsu (Prefectural) High School.” Tokyo University of Commerce is present day Hitotsubashi University. The other two are a bit useless, though it could mean Hibiya High School?

Bertram, James M. Beneath the Shadow: A New Zealander in the Far East, 1939-46. John Day Company, New York: 1947. Appears pg 71,72. 106.

Bertram, James M. Capes of China Slide Away: A Memoir of Peace and War, 1910-1980. Auckland University Press, 1993. Appears pg 156, 159, 206.

Stericker, John. A Tear for the Dragon. Arthur Barker Ltd, London: 1958. Appears pg 209.

Strahan, A. The Contemporary Review,  vol 158. 1940. Appears pg 280.

From the Japan Society of London Bulletin, #51, February 1967 (courtesy of the Japan Society): Bickerton’s obituary (.pdf)


1901 – 1966

“Max” Bickerton, who died at Hampstead on November 20th, 1966, represented by his life and work pretty well everything for which our Japan Society stands, plus a scrupulous personal integrity which was all his own.

His connection with Japan began earlier than that of most of us, at the age of 23. Born at Christchurch, New Zealand, he attended, like David Low, the famous cartoonist, the Boys’ High School in that city and, thereafter, Victoria College, Wellington, of the University of New Zealand, from which he graduated in 1923. He went straight into teaching after graduation and it was following a year’s experience in a high school in Maori territories that he came to Japan, where he was appointed to the staff of the Tokyo University of Commerce at Hitotsubashi.

He spent four years (1924-28) at Shodai, and then six at the First High School (1928-34). I was his colleague at the former during his last year there and was a fairly close friend for the rest of his life. I came, then, to know him well both academically and otherwise.

From the outset, he plunged almost completely into Japanese life. He started serious study of the Japanese language on arrival and kept it up until his departure, acquiring a knowledge which was to serve him and others in good stead when, captured in Hong Kong in 1941, he acted as interpreter at the Stanley Internment Camp. Meanwhile, it gave him an intimate understanding of Japanese life and lore. He got out of Japan, then, in knowledge as much as he put into it by straightforward, competent teaching of English. He did not, however, put out as much about it as he might have done, although his study of “Issa’s Life and Poetry” and his translations of the stories of Higuchi Ichiyo and also of some of the proletarian writers of the late twenties are of permanent value.

Essentially, he was a good learner just as he was a good teacher but not given to exploitation of what he learned. And so, until his death, he just went on learning and teaching side by side. After the war, he taught English privately in London for a time and then went to China, where he taught, mostly in Peking schools, until the advent of the communist regime. For the last ten years of his life, he was Lecturer in English at the Holborn College of Commerce of the University of London and during the whole of that time he was following university courses in Japanese and Chinese.

We see, then, a man serving in an unspectacular way the purposes to which our Society is dedicated, the study of Japanese culture including its intimate Chinese associations and the promotion of Anglo-Japanese cultural exchanges. But his service was always subject to the limitations imposed by his scrupulously critical assessment of his capacities and his horror of any form of exploitation, this last the product to some extent of Marxian idealism under the influence of which he came during his stay in Japan. Few scholars are disposed to exploit their fellow men in the accepted economic sense of the word. Max Bickerton went further than that; he was always consciously anxious not to exploit his learning. He felt–mistakenly, I believe–that he had no important contribution to make to oriental studies and that led him to avoid what he regarded as “facile exposition of the second-rate”. His was an exacting academic conscience. But it bears the hallmark of an integrity almost frightening to many of us.


Update 4 (7/3/2013):

The files from the National Archives have arrived. And it was worth the wait, I think.

HS 9_146_10_0002 HS 9_146_10_0003 HS 9_146_10_0004HS 9_146_10_0005

Bickerton, William Maxwell. 2800.

P.T.C.: 17.6.41
M.I.5.: see below
C.R.: see below
Nationality: British
Born: 7.2.1901, Christchurch, N.Z.
Occupation: Teacher and Professor.

17.6.41.     P.T.C. for possible employment in the Far East. Educated Victoria College, Wellington (M.A. 1922). Professor Tokyo University 1924, later at First High School. Taken into Custody 13.3.1934 at Tokyo on suspicion of Communist activities, but the F.O. have no objection to his employment on this account. Escaped from Japan on 8.6.34. by “Emperor of Japan” sailing for Vancouver. Visited England 1926 and 1933. U.S.A. 1930.

24.6.41.    M.I.5. advised that they strongly recommend that 2800 should not be employed.

26.6.41.    C.R. advised that 2800 was arrested in Japan on 13.3.34 during the round up of Communists which followed the death of a police spy. C.R. subsequently received information from a highly delicate source that between 2800’s release from arrest and his escape from Japan, he was definitely taken on by the Comintern at a monthly stipend for secret work. No details as to the nature of the work are available. When 2800 arrived in the U.K. on 28.4.1933 he was accompanied by a Japanese subject, and it was noticed that this man’s passport bore a Russian Visa. 2800 on this occasion was found to be carrying a number of books dealing with the Russian Five Year Plan and also works by Karl Marx.

22.7.41.    O. advised that in view of C.R. and M.I.5’s remarks, 2800 would not be employed.


William Maxwell BICKERTON was, as you probably know, arrested in Japan on March 13th, 1934 during the round up of Communists which followed the death of a police spy.

We subsequently received information from a highly delicate source that between BICKERTON’s release from arrest and his escape from Japan, he was definitely taken on by the Comintern at a monthly stipend for secret work. No details as to the nature of this work are available.

BICKERTON had previously arrived in the U.K. on the 28th of April, 1933 accompanied by a Japanese subject named Minoru MURAKAMI. It was noticed that MURAKAMI’s passport bore a Russian visa. BICKERTON on this occasion was found to be carrying a number of books dealing with the Russian Five Year Plan and also works by Karl MARX. He stated that he had been a teacher in Japan for the previous 12 years. MURAKAMI, an inspection of whose baggage disclosed nothing of interest, stated he was travelling with BICKERTON as his private secretary.


So this is the totality of his file, really raising more questions than it answers. Was he really on the Comintern’s payroll? Who is Minoru Murakami? But I think this is about as far down the rabbit hole as I’m willing to go – for now.


4 replies on “Japanese translator heroes: Max Bickerton”

Not that I can see, and the trail kind of drops off after 1935. It’s unclear to me whether he settled in England after his escape or not. I’ve requested a copy of his records from the National Archives, though. If anything interesting pops up in there I’ll be sure to let everyone know…

Reo on the photo is Reo Fortune, Margaret Mead’s NZ husband. Max was the son of a very famous mathematics professor in NZ. Anne-Marie

Thank you for this very interesting and well-researched article. Max Bickerton was in Hong Kong by September 1939, and in November 1940 he gave a talk as Organising Secretary of the Foreign Auxiliary to the National Red Cross Society of China – ‘First Visit into China’

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