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A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II Hardcover – January 14, 2014

4 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The Nuremberg Trials have been written about extensively, but there was another post-WWII military tribunal, which has received much less attention. In Tokyo in 1946, 30 former Japanese military leaders, including Tojo Hideki, general of the Japanese army and architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, were put on trial for their lives. Also on trial was a civilian, writer and philosopher Okawa Shumei, whose erratic behavior in the courtroom led to his being assessed by Japanese and American experts to determine whether he was insane, or faking. The American expert was Daniel Jaffe, a U.S. Army psychiatrist (and the author’s grandfather); he determined Okawa was unfit to stand trial, a determination that is still controversial today. This gripping book explores not only the Okawa case but also a hidden part of the author’s grandfather’s life. The author delves into both men’s backgrounds and offers an opportunity to put Okawa’s and Jaffe’s actions at the tribunal in a larger context, to understand, in particular, how Jaffe’s personal history influenced his assessment of Okawa. Highly recommendable to readers of WWII history. --David Pitt


“Absorbing… In the hands of a lesser writer, this construct wouldn’t work, but Mr. Jaffe pulls it off with skill and intelligence. Fascinating… a mini-history of the treatment of the mentally ill in the first half of the 20th century along with public attitudes toward mental illness.” (Wall Street Journal)

“A richly layered exploration of the thin line between wellness and madness and the extent to which our understanding of those states is sometimes a matter of perception. A Curious Madness is much more than a narrow portrait of its protagonists. It is also a wider study of their cultures and the collective spirits of their countries before and during World War II.” (Washington Post)

"Over 250 fascinated pages, A Curious Madness performs a valuable service for history buffs by figuratively exhuming Okawa from obscurity... For readers who believe the 20th century has been squeezed dry of its secrets, this book is a revelation.” (Japan Times)

"Eric Jaffe has given us an extraordinary book, at once intimate (a wrenching tale of family madness) and epic (two nations gathering themselves to fight a devastating war). While never slowing his narrative velocity, the author finds in the convergence of two very different lives an encapsulation of immense issues: When does patriotism become criminal? What does combat do to the human spirit? Can a victorious nation ever mete out just punishment to a vanquished enemy? Here is a work of the greatest significance that is as engrossing as a first-rate detective story—which, in a way, it is as well." (Richard Snow author of A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of WWII)

“Illuminating…in stylish, effortless prose, Jaffe plumbs interesting depths—was Okawa an ‘ideological villain’ or a psychological casualty of war? Is madness contagious?” (Daily Beast)

"In Tokyo, just after World War Two, Eric Jaffe's grandfather played a small but remarkable role in what is sometimes remembered as Japan's Nuremberg Trials. In A Curious Madness, Jaffe tells the story. The book is a brave, meticulously researched and beautifully balanced account of an episode that by its very nature must always remain unaccountable." (Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, 1995 Pulitzer Prize)

“Jaffe’s well-researched, engaging story touches on subjects as diverse as the roots of Okawa’s conservative nationalism and the U.S. Army’s theories and treatments for combat fatigue, but most importantly, it reveals the strange ways war can bring diverse lives together for a brief moment to change not only those individuals, but history.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Gripping.” (Booklist)

“Highly recommendable to readers of WWII history.” (Kirkus)

"Travelling effortlessly between times and places, Eric Jaffe recounts the uneasy meeting of two curious minds. The story of the eccentric Japanese philosopher Okawa Shumei, a suspected war criminal and ideological mastermind behind Japan’s war mobilization in World War II, and Daniel Jaffe, a young American combat psychiatrist and the author’s grandfather who judged Okawa too mad to stand trial, provides a series of illumining, thoughtful, and at times funny insights on how we ourselves deal with our own minds and imaginations. A CURIOUS MADNESS is a powerful proof that true life is stranger, indeed more curious, than fiction." (Eri Hotta, author of Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1St Edition edition (January 14, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451612052
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451612059
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,060,667 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Eric Jaffe is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism. He is a former editor of Smithsonian magazine's. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Science News, and Boston magazine. The King's Best Highway is his first book.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
The book revisits WWII by bring forward the saga of a top Japanese war criminal Shumei Okawa who avoided prosecution by means of insanity. The tale begins with post war trials of the "Class A" Japanese command & government war criminals - 28 in all - Hideki Tojo being the most infamous. Okawa was the only civilian & non-government official among those accused for aggression during WWII. He was a writer and intellectual who was credited with influencing the militaristic government of Japan to lead a mission unifying Asia against the West. Okawa behavior during the war crimes trials was simply bizarre and nutty. Leading to his dismissal from prosecution because of insanity.

The author Eric Jaffe did a brilliant job putting this true story together as it related to military Psychiatry, Okawa influence on 1930's Japan & lead up to war, and the question of tolerance for excusing the War Criminal Okawa. It turns out the lead Psychiatrist was Jaffe's grandfather. The author structured the story very well leading to an interesting twist near its end. Therefore, I don't wish to reveal too much of the story.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Just finished this book and I'm sad that I'm done with it. I agree with all of the prior reviews submitted before mine. Some might say that World War II has been over-done in both movies and books, but this book vividly captures a part of World War II that most people do not know about. You do not have to be a history buff to enjoy this book - it's just plain good. Enjoy!
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Format: Hardcover
What I love best about this book is how it brings WWII down to the level of individual people. Both men at the center of the narrative led fascinating lives, and Jaffe succeeds brilliantly at rendering those lives on the page. His crisp, lyrical prose pull the reader into and through one of the most pivotal chapters in American history.
It's warm and funny in some places, and heartbreaking in others. But the author's charm (and his love for his grandfather) definitely shows throughout. And for all that has been written and otherwise documented about WWII, Jaffe has managed to find an entirely unexplored sliver to bring to our attention.
Having recently read the WSJ long-form piece about the use of lobotomy to treat WWII veterans suffering from PTSD, I also really enjoyed learning more about the history of lobotomy (and of PTSD) in this book. Jaffe's grandfather was a student of Walter Freeman, the man who invented the procedure, and Jaffe does a great job of showing how the now-infamous doctor was viewed in his own day, as opposed to ours. The end result is a deeply engrossing read, worthy of our time and attention.
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Format: Hardcover
A recently published work, "The Nazi and the Psychiatrist," by Jack El-Hai, recounts the experiences of an army psychiatrist, Douglas E. Kelley, who spent a great deal of time with Hermann Göering while the former Reichsmarschall was in Nuremberg prison. Kelley was fascinated by Göering and hoped to draw some useful conclusions about the nature of evil. Why do human beings act inhumanely, Kelley wondered? Interestingly, Eric Jaffe, in "A Curious Madness," addresses the Japanese side of the equation. Eric Jaffe's grandfather, Major Daniel S. Jaffe, was a United States Army psychiatrist who, among his other duties, was ordered to assess the mental state of fifty-nine year old Okawa Shumei, an intellectual, prolific author, and one of the key architects of Japan's philosophy that war against the Western powers was necessary and inevitable.

After the bloody conflict in the Pacific ended, the American occupying forces tried Okawa and his fellow defendants in what was known as "The International Military Tribunal for the Far East" or the "Tokyo Trial." Sitting in the courtroom in front of Okawa was the infamous former general and Prime Minister of Japan, Tojo Hideki. Although Okawa was the lone civilian among the twenty-eight prisoners, some allied officials "considered him the stitching that held together the entire pattern of Japanese imperialism...." In short, he was "the mind that directed the country's might." Around 3:30 in the afternoon on May 3, 1946, Okawa "extended his long arm forward with an open palm and slapped the top of Tojo Hideki's bald head." After a short recess, Okawa hit Tojo on the head once again.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Short version: In the WWII Japanese War Crimes Tribunal (aka Tokyo Trials) Okawa Shumei was the only one of the accused not a member of the government or military. He was also the only one to go totally free without trial. This happened because he was judged insane based upon his antics at the opening sessions and an examination by an Army doctor named Major Daniel Jaffe (a neurologist). Since his "insanity" began with the trail and ended shortly after his acquittal a number of people since have questioned whether it was real. As the grandson of Dr. Jaffe, author Eric Jaffe purports to "solve" this mystery except that he never actually does. First of all, it develops that his grandfather was notably reticent about most things including his role in the examination of Okawa Shumei. Secondly, all the research, including interviews with survivors on both sides, comes to nothing much - some think he really was insane, others think he was faking it. So we end up back at Dr. Jaffe's original statement that Okawa suffered from tertiary syphillis and because of that it was believable that he was was mentally incompetent. So do we have any new and/or definitive evidence? Only that Dr. Jaffe's own mental health was questionable at the time which only adds more doubt. Interesting but not helpful.
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