Ludwig Haber's Grave

Touching history: Uncovering the 122-year-old story of Ludwig Haber in Japan

by Michael Graetzer

Written on October 8, 1996
Revised on October 23, 1996

Somehow, I'm related to him. My relation to Ludwig Haber is too complicated to explain easily, but it's through my father's grandparents, with a few marriages and generation jumps thrown in. This is a trip account that basically started out as part of a long letter to Andreas Freund, and was then edited for general reading.

I flew to Hakodate on the evening of Friday, September 13th, 1996, but luck was with me, not against me. By chance, the day before, I had my friend call the newspaper in Hakodate to get information on Doe Freund's visit to Ludwig Haber's grave in 1966. They were basically unhelpful except for providing the phone number of the Carl Raymond sausage factory, the president of which turned out to be some kind of leader for the Japan-German Society. Bingo. He was very pleased for the call and invited my friend and I to a quarterly meeting he had organized-that Friday night. So we arrive at the airport in Hakodate, hop in a taxi and head straight for the meeting at an elegant banquet room in the Hakodate Kokusai (International) Hotel.

An aside. I have the help of a friend of mine, Koh Shimizu, who lived in the U.S. for 12 years and speaks fluent English. AND, she had two free tickets to anywhere in Japan and had never been to Hokkaido either and so...yes, lucky me. And lucky her too. We had the most wonderful weekend of history and lovely people-an overwhelming and enjoyable experience.

In the taxi from the airport I practiced a formal "thank you for inviting me" speech, and was having a hard time remembering how to say it. Sure enough though, once we entered the buffet room with about 30 Japanese and one German milling about, I was immediately shuffled up on stage. I faked my way through the formal Japanese to very obviously impressed and pleased ears (Thank you, Koh). Then came the hard part-trying to describe my relationship to Ludwig Haber. Even with Koh's precise translation, it's just too complex to make good speech material. Like trying to introduce your second cousin's mother-in-law's grandfather's uncle's once-removed's daughter-in-law. Will Yancey's got a full genealogy chart on computer software if anyone's interested.

Anyway, I saw a smiling woman with the biggest, brightest eyes looking at me up on stage and I almost cried. I still don't know why, but she had a presence that was so moving and even before I mentioned that a relative of mine had been here 30 years ago, I knew she was the "Miss Okara" mentioned in one of Doe's letters about her visit.

I had obtained this letter from one of Doe's daughters, Ulla, a few months earlier and found it to be incredibly well written-like her lucid recollections of forced labor in a Nazi laundry factory that Aunt Marianne (Yancey) had sent me a few years earlier. Needless to say, her letter stimulated my interest and motivation to visit Hakodate, which I hadn't really known enough about before. And the names and details she mentioned were like stepping stones for uncovering the overgrown trail she took 30 years ago.

It turns out that the name Okara is actually Okada (Doe didn't have the advantage of four years of living in Japan), and Miss Okada is now about 70 years old. She retired from the library about 12 years ago but remembers Doe's visit there perfectly. When I asked her if she remembered a visit from a foreigner 30 years ago, her FIRST words were, "From the 2nd to the 4th." (Doe visited Hakodate from August 2-4, 1966.) Wow.

Koh and I spent the entire next day with her, hearing about her life, speculating on history, visiting the graveyard and library and then walking the path that Haber had taken the day he was killed. Never married, practically unheard for her generation in Japan, Okada-san had such warmth and joy and energy it was astounding. You knew you were in the presence of a very special and rare person. In late afternoon, walking the 30-minute course Haber had been killed on, she outpaced both of us 30-something youngsters. How does she do it? I, and especially Koh, found her to be a real inspiration, as a person.

Back to Friday night. The German consul Andreas von Stechow had come up from Tokyo and given a short speech, mostly about business things I believe, before the buffet. Because of his importance and presence, Toshio Fukuda, the president of Carl Raymond who'd invited us, felt obligated to devote attention to him. But clearly, I stole the show.

It turns out that Ludwig Haber had established this very Japan-German Society during his short six months of life in Japan. On August 11, the anniversary of his death, they have a ceremony at the assassination site and had brought pictures from this year's event and gave me a copy.

In her letter Doe mentioned visiting a "cousin Charles" Weidle, referring to him again later in her letter as "Karl," and I'm starting to think he is THE Carl Raymond. Doe wrote that he admired Haber tremendously because "he had been the only one who had come to Japan not to make money like all the others, but to build friendship between nations." We visited the Carl Raymond sausage factory, which has a big statute of Carl out front and old German sausage-making equipment, a deli and a large photo of Carl inside. We were told he used real intestines to contain his sausages. Unfortunately, we were only able to see, not taste, history as we got there just before the early 6:00 p.m. closing time. It seemed kind of famous; you can even buy Carl Raymond sausages at airport shops for easy transport home.

Back to the meeting. Since we already had a hotel reservation, the hotel manager Katoh-san, also a member, didn't offer us a free room (I think he would have). We had a very long conversation about his hotel's chocolate mousse, the best I've ever had. Just milling about the buffet, people seemed very pleased I had come and that I could speak some Japanese. The middle-aged women, all dressed very elegantly and wearing their best jewelry, gushed over me and took photos because they thought I looked like Kevin Costner. All those white guys look the same, you know.

Several people invited us to go see the lights of Hakodate at night, the same offer Doe received in 1966. I felt like I was repeating history. This feeling was amplified when we were waiting for the car in the front of the hotel-and they never showed up. Communications got crossed and they thought we were with someone else. Fortunately, several people had their little cellular phones (extremely popular in Japan these days) and two members still remained so we got it sorted out. I was told by cousin Will that Doe got left by mistake during part of her stay and in desperation, walked into a bank and said in a loud voice, "Is there anyone here who speaks English?" My situation was far easier, and soon we were in a cab on our way to the top of the hill with Misako Mitani and a woman who taught tea ceremony and flower arrangement (but whose name I can't remember).

Mitani-san got involved with the Japan-German Society because she imports optical products from Germany. She runs the optometry practice established by her father and is also head of the Hokkaido Opticians Association and director of the Hakodate Japan-Germany Society. It seemed like most of the members of the Japan-German Society were company presidents or held other powerful positions in the community. Not your average citizen as far as we could tell.

The view. It was a clear beautiful night, with about 30 tour busses parked on top of the town's biggest hill to prove it. Our hosts explained that often you have to wait 20 or 30 minutes just to enter the parking lot-so we were lucky. The view truly was gorgeous. Mitani-san told us that the three most beautiful night views in the world were Hong Kong, San Francisco and Hakodate, which is at the end of a short cape. And on this hilltop you get a clear view of everything. Major roads weren't streaked with car lights the way Tokyo would be, due to lower population density? After about 30 minutes of gawking, and then making plans to be picked up at our hotel the next morning, we were sent off in the same cab, which by now had racked up a $55 tab. It was prepaid by one of our hosts. ($30-40 is pretty normal for a 20-minute ride home after the trains stop in Tokyo; the taxi from Hakodate airport to the hotel was around $25.)

The next day, Kawamata-san, a schoolteacher-like both Koh's and my parents!-picked us up promptly at 9:30 a.m. and we were off to the Foreigners' Cemetery, picking up Mitani-san and Okada-san on the way. He had obtained the key from the mayor's office for the occasion and we bought flowers.

The graveyard is small and simple, maybe half the size of a tennis court, and set on a beautiful hillside close to the shore, with an incredible, sweeping view of the ocean. Richly overgrown with grass and decay, it's also part of a tourist "course" that includes historic Western churches and buildings. A Japanese tourist pamphlet said the cemetery "embraces Russians, Chinese and the Protestants." The Protestants? A Japanese Christian once told me that only about 1% of the population here are Christians. Since this was a three-day weekend, tourists were out in force and several stuck their heads and cameras through the iron fence to photograph the graveyard, even before we entered.

Why the interest in this small foreigners' cemetery? Foreigners were, and still are in many ways, an oddity on this island of black-haired, black-eyed, 5-foot-6-inch inhabitants. Especially white foreigners. Japan has historically been a closed, homogenous country and at its core I think this cultural legacy is still firmly entrenched today. It was less than 150 years ago that U.S. Commodore Perry sailed his infamous "black ships" laden with canons and superior weaponry to Shimoda (near Tokyo). That year, 1854, marks a major turning point in Japanese history. Perry basically forced Japan to open to contact with foreigners, ending 200 years of strict isolation imposed by the Tokugawa leadership. This also marked the beginning of the end of Japan's famous Edo Period, the time of Samurai, Shoguns, Geisha and the Ukiyo paintings and prints you often see in books about Japan. Every schoolchild in Japan learns about Perry's "black ships." Shimoda, located at the tip of the Izu Peninsula just west of Tokyo, was the first town on Japan's largest island (Honshu) to accept foreigners; every May they hold an historic "Black Ship" festival.

Perry established two foreign access points: Shimoda and Hakodate. Haber may have been the first diplomat from Germany to be stationed at Hakodate, on the southern tip of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. Two of Perry's sailors died of disease in Hakodate and were buried in the Foreigners' Cemetery (maybe the reason it was established?), along with a dozen or so other 19th-century foreigners. Hakodate's tourist appeal might be on about the same level as Civil War monuments in the U.S., which are from about the same era. But it's hard to compare, because Japan has a much longer history.

Ludwig Haber has one of the largest tombstones in the cemetery (another story I won't relay now) and it was rather silent and moving to be there. Everything was weathered, and in some places overgrown with green. Since I have no real connection to this man's life, all I know is what I've heard and learned, but still, I could feel something. The Japanese were thinking this was a more somber occasion than I, and they seemed to give me more space to have my own time. So I took it, and got a great feel for the graveyard and the era. All the tombstones I remember were from the 1800s, some quite weathered and worn. At Haber's grave, all I could think to do was squat down and place my hand on the earth in front of the tombstone and feel for his presence, and see if he's doing all right. I did feel some kind of bridge and connection across time, and almost felt like a I got a reply, to the sense that he was happy for my visit. I reassured him there was another of us living here now, carrying on the connection to Japan and hoped he was doing well, wherever he was. Again the feeling I got was that he was happy for the visit, and had found a sense of peace, or resolution, or something. That he was resting okay now. These could all be projections of my own. But, then again...

Our next stop was the actual murder site. To get there we had to weave our car through throngs of tourists here for the weekend to see the century-old Western-style buildings that still remain from Haber's era. The small, stone monument is located on the edge of the same public park Haber had been walking through just before he was killed. A tourist plaque explaining who he was and that he had been killed by a Samurai who didn't like foreigners was posted beside it. We were told the monument used to be across the street at the actual murder site, which was on private land. A newish yellowish-brick apartment building now stands there. In her letter, Doe mentioned a visit from a man in Tokyo whose father owned that land, and that he had made her a sketch of how and where the murder took place. And that as a small boy he had been invited in 1924 for the 50-year anniversary event and heard the speech by Fritz Haber, Ludwig's nephew, and even received a photo of him (lost during WWII).

I walked the path and ran up the hill, just the way Haber must have (just like I once did at Civil War monuments, re-enacting described battles). How did I know the path he took? According to 120-year-old police reports we later saw at the library and the memoirs of a seaman named Captain John Baxter Will, Haber had just had lunch with friends at a nearby teahouse district and was settling a dispute over which way home was faster. He took one path, and his friend took another. When they split, the Samurai followed Haber because he appeared to be weaker. (Haber was still recovering from malaria he'd picked up in South America and this was the first time he'd been out of the house for some time.)

According to the extensive police interviews, the Samurai had come to Hakodate specifically because of a dream where he had been told he must "kill a foreigner who is gaining power." There were no foreigners in his region so he came to Hakodate and stalked any foreigner he thought he could kill, including the American consul's son. When his chance to kill Haber came, he first poked him with an ordinary umbrella to force him to turn around and make sure he was a foreigner. Then he hacked him to pieces with a long sword, took Haber's watch and hat and turned himself in to the police, proudly explaining the entire reason and method of killing this foreigner. Because the German government magnanimously viewed the incident as it was, a single man acting alone, and only demanded the assassin's death as atonement, the Japanese government returned the good will by building a monument to Haber (at least I think that's how the story goes).

Haber's coroner was actually a Westerner and made a detailed autopsy which survives in full. An old photo shows him with his Japanese medical students, one of whom is survived by a grandson named Dr. Fugaze, whom Doe met during her visit. We were told he is still alive but in poor health. The autopsy contains 22 detailed entries describing the wounds, five of which were rated as "rapidly fatal from hemorrhage" and one as "instantly fatal."

A sampling of entries from the "remarks" column of the autopsy:

Cultural backdrop: Haber's murder is usually referred to as a "tragedy," in Japanese. I think this is because Japanese culture extols vagueness, and avoids pinning blame, or accepting it-witness the outrage that still flares up in the rest of Asia every time some idiot politician over here denies Japan played an aggressive role in WWII. In my experience, most Japanese know little about WWII and seem to view it as if it were some kind of natural disaster, rather than being caused by real people. This is not true for Koh, and others as well, I am sure.

Much of the detail of the event survives, thanks to Captain Will, one of the few if not the only Westerner to record observations on Japan at that time. Not only was he present in Hakodate, he lived with Haber and was the first Westerner to see the body. They lived in a large house on the waterfront owned by a Mr. Blackiston, who operated a western shipping line plying between Hokkaido and Honshu.

History: Blackiston later came under fire from the Japanese government for printing his own currency, which he used to do business. This was an era where, for the first time in over two centuries, Japan was receiving enterprising Westerners. Sapporo, also the name of the other major city in Hokkaido, imported German beer-making apparatus and made their first beer in 1876-two years after Haber was killed.

I was amazed at how much first-hand information exists about Haber's murder. Okada-san spent the entire rest of the morning answering questions and gathering an immense pile of documents and information at her library, just a few minutes walk from the murder site. Her passion for information has been appreciated by various editors and book researchers and she showed us where her name was mentioned in the forward of several books, including the published memoirs of Captain Will. His original diary is still at the library, complete with a handwritten translation into Japanese done by a very meticulous translator who drew maps and illustrations for clarification.

My favorite and most haunting piece of history was the photo of Ludwig Haber. In poorer condition than the reproductions I'd seen in books, the original has faded to show slight retouching that had been used to bring out the highlights around his hair. 1870s photography. But it still shows his eyes. Soft and gentle, they look at you with a hidden warmth, that makes you feel like he was a truly good man. I couldn't stop looking at it and neither could Koh, and I still remember his gaze even now as I write this three weeks later. He died at the age of 32, after only six months in Japan.

After several hours, exhausted and spent, we pleaded for lunch and were taken to a curry house owned by one of the German-Japan Society members we'd met the night before. There was a queue, but we were seated almost immediately. We were told this was a famous restaurant and the same one they took Doe to in 1966. Photos inside show the Emperor of Japan's luncheon there a few years ago, and the curry WAS good.

After lunch he headed back to the library and Okada-san spent the entire rest of the afternoon digging out more reams of information, including an August 11, 1966 Mainichi newspaper article headlined, "Mrs. Freund finds grand-uncle's 1874 murder site." On the front page that day, the newspaper ran a photo of terrified peasants pleading to U.S. soldiers for protection. It also announced the beginning of "phase three" of North Vietnam's war tactics-a full-scale invasion crossing demilitarized borders into the south.

Okada-san also showed us sketches of the last battle against the Meiji restoration in 1868, which took place in Hakodate. Captain Will was an eye witness. She also explained that Haber's assassination was politically more sensitive than normal because it followed on the heels of an international incident several decades earlier that no one had quite forgotten-a Russian in Hokkaido had been seriously wounded by a Japanese.

She also showed us original ink drawings of Perry's ships and men, kept in a notebook by someone in the 1850s. Incredibly colorful and beautiful, it was amazing to discover the interest and detail in the clothes they wore-until you realized that all the Japanese would have been wearing Kimonos back then, and never even knew an alternative existed. The artist even picked up on the prejudice, titling a drawing of a black sailor with a slightly derogatory name in Japanese. It was like going through a museum, except you could touch everything and have unlimited discussions with its 70-year-old, sharp-as-nails retired "curator."

Why such extensive access to information, in Japan? The library was actually established by Okada-san's father. A one-time candle maker, he had become frustrated he couldn't find anywhere to get good information on how to make candles, which he had wanted to make from local products rather than imported ones. His frustration turned into a passion to create a public library, which became his life's work. The library's atmosphere is about as casual and relaxed as the Friday night banquet was elegant and formal.

Finally, saturated with more history than I was ever prepared for, the three of us decided to walk the path Haber had taken. We first went to the old teahouse district, but there are no teahouses there anymore. A natural hot spring was discovered there in the 1950s and a large multistory public bath is about the only interesting thing that exists now. The rest is just houses. We walked past a present-day baseball field to the murder site and then over the hill toward Blackiston house, where Haber had lived. On the way we passed by Carl Raymond sausage factory and the curry house we'd eaten at. In dimming light we arrived at the docks, now looking a lot like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. A bustling tourist complex with lots of souvenir shops and restaurants, we opted to take the street car to a local Thai restaurant we'd heard about and digest the day. We bid farewell to Okada-san, with many warm feelings and words of appreciation and set off in the light rain.

It had been a long and overwhelming day and a half, much more than either of us had bargained for in terms of richness, depth, or the generosity and warmth of people we'd met. Which, like Doe perhaps, I will remember as much as this extraordinary tale in family history.

Interesting information from numerous references and background materials I picked up were not included in this letter because it was getting too long already. I'm thinking of getting some of them translated someday and also making a list of existing reference materials in English.

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