When Negative Memories Remain as Records: From Shu Kambara’s recollections about his “stinky weapon” Yoshimi Takuwa


Reflections on the previous essays and radio program

  In my previous essay, I began to think about rita (altruism) in terms of "keeping" objects and documents. To my surprise, in response to the subject of "Rita (altruism) arising from 'things'," not only I but also Asa Ito and Hugh de Ferranti used objects that confront "negative memories" related to World War II as subjects for their essays. Specifically, the ammeter I introduced, which tells of the development of the balloon bomb; the House of Nuchi-du-takara, which appeals to the Battle of Okinawa in the exhibition space, introduced by Ito; and the mandolin played by a Nikkei Australian as he suffered in wartime internment, introduced by Hugh. What these subjects had in common was the "weight" of objects that cannot be easily accepted. When the words of recollection are connected to the physical presence of objects, as well as their colors and shapes, they remain in the mind of those who look at them. What was left as an originally "painful memory" was entrusted as a recollection connected to an object. Those who receive it go beyond the recollection through the object, and can imagine the unspoken memory and the pain that led to the expression of the memory itself. That is precisely because objects have a margin of imagination that makes them feel "heavier" than their actual weight. I thought about this concept after reflecting on the discussion with members in the latest radio program [1].

  In this essay, I will consider the time it takes for "negative memories" to become verbalized and recorded. As a case study, I will present some recollections of war experiences by Tokyo Tech faculty members, which I omitted in my previous essay.

Shu Kambara's recollections about his stinky weapon

  Shu Kambara (1906-1999) was a polymer chemist who worked at Tokyo Institute of Technology for 40 years (1930-1970). Kambara is known for the story of his research development of Cashmilon, the first domestically produced acrylic fiber (named Shin-sen when it was developed in 1941), which is on display at the Tokyo Tech Museum, and for his appearance surrounded by his pupils happily singing the "Synthetic Rubber Song" in a film commemorating the 100th anniversary of the institute's founding, which is held in the Tokyo Tech Library [2]. From the information available at the museum and library, it may appear that Kambara was a man who was active mainly in consumer technology and had no "negative memories".

Figure 1. Exhibits about Shu Kambara at the Tokyo Tech Museum [3]

  It was by chance that I came across Kambara's "negative memories". While I was preparing a lecture on the history of science, I searched for primary source material left behind by synthetic fiber researchers. At that time, I became aware of the existence of Kambara's memoirs, Fresh and Moderate Life (1987), which were showcased at the Tokyo Tech Museum. Since the booklet was not publicly available, I later visited the Tokyo Tech Archives in order to view its contents. In the memoirs, Kambara described unexpected events, such as the facts that he created a foul-smelling liquid at the Japanese Army Noborito Laboratory, and that he seldom returned home during his research. To quote from Kambara's recollections:

  This [research on hard rubber] was not so bad, but I was assigned to do much worse research. The task was to create the world's worst-smelling substance. It was not necessarily meant to be a poisonous gas, but, when it was sprinkled as a thin solution, it would have to soak into human skin and hair and leave a terrible stench that would not come off no matter how hard one washed it. […] On the train ride home from Noborito, everyone in my carriage started complaining loudly, saying, "It stinks, it stinks, what is it, what is it?". For a while, I had been shut away in the laboratory and could not go out. [...]

  This stinky substance was made into a thin solution and transported to the battle lines in China, where it was said to be useful in the guerrilla war in Yan'an [4].

Noborito Laboratory is a laboratory whose existence was kept secret because it was developing secret warfare weapons, as mentioned in the previous essay. Kambara was called up by the military research institute, which had been erased from history, to create chemical weapons used in actual warfare. Kambara recalls his activities at the Noborito Laboratory as follows:

  Immediately after the war, quite a number of technical officers who had worked together on these secret research projects committed suicide. Some of them had treated me as unpatriotic and slapped me around for my insufficiently cooperative attitude, while others were respectable, very smart people from Tokyo University who often had defended me. Many of them committed suicide one after another. The Laboratory in Noborito was also dissolved after a lot of its materials were destroyed by fire. I was prepared to be brought up for trial at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and shot as a war criminal. Fortunately, I was able to survive because I did nothing more than work as a low-ranking thug and my name never came to light [5].

The text conveys that his actions during the war were so serious for him that he was prepared to be shot as a war criminal. As stated, "I was able to survive because my name never came to light," Kambara's name was not on the list of commissioned researchers of the Noborito Laboratory, of which only a few exist [6]. Therefore, the above recollection is rare evidence that Shu Kambara, a leading polymer chemist at Tokyo Institute of Technology, was involved in the development of secret warfare weapons [7].

  In Fresh and Moderate Life, Kambara also wrote about the state of Tokyo Tech immediately after the war. Kambara's family housed burned-out students and staff in their home. They had a hard time securing food, so they caught a dog that was on the grounds of Tokyo Tech and ate it as sukiyaki. Resumption of his research was accompanied by additional difficulties. To quote from his recollections about his research at the university:

  At that time, the practice of synthesizing saccharin and dulcin and selling them on the black market to make a little money was prevalent at Tokyo Tech, and some even went as far as synthesizing philopon [methamphetamine]. I was able to get by without getting involved with those activities. I am proud to this day that I did not leave a stain on my life.

  I was in difficulty because I did not have all the chemicals I wanted to do proper experiments, and the equipment was still broken. However, I happened to hear that hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine, which had been used to make balloon bombs at a munitions factory during the war, were still in Hodogaya Chemical Company's warehouses. I was told that I could take as many as I wanted if I had any use for them [8].

Immediately after the war, Tokyo Tech had become a black market factory, synthesizing not only artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and zultine, but also methamphetamines such as heropon, and selling them to drug dealers [9]. Kambara said that he "happened to" received the raw materials for the balloon bombs and brought them to the university. Since the balloon bomb was one of the secret warfare weapons being developed at the Noborito Laboratory, he may have obtained it through his contacts at the Laboratory. As in the case of Kiyoshi Morita (1901-2005) and his students who brought back to Tokyo Tech equipment from the evacuated site of the Noborito Laboratory, which was recounted in the previous essay, the development of secret warfare weapons during the war and Tokyo Tech's research after the war were connected in ways that are not recorded on the "surface" of the documentary record.

When "Negative Memories" are recorded

  Why did Shu Kambara decide to leave a note about his above-mentioned "negative memory"? As he wrote in his recollection, " I was able to survive because my name never came to light," it must have been a memory that he originally wanted to keep secret. In the case of Kambara, he published a book in 1946, the year after the war ended, with the intention of "vomiting and excreting the numerous wastes that had piled up inside me. In the section titled "The Military and Science and Technology," he harshly criticized the military's secrecy, the flood of technical officers resulting from the mass recruitment of graduates, and the exclusive possession of results obtained through the cooperation of commissioned researchers. However, the book does not specifically explain why Kambara knew the inner workings of the military or what research was commissioned by the military [10]. At the time, he was probably not yet in a position to talk about his deeds during the war. Forty-two years after the war ended, Kambara finally decided to tell his specific war experience in a booklet that he presented to his students who had gathered to celebrate his 81st birthday. The title of the book, Fresh and Moderate Life, expresses Kambara's wish to live out the remainder of his life in good health and to die quietly.

  It takes time for "negative memories" that we do not want to talk about to be transmitted as words. In the case of Kambara, it took 42 years, and in the case of Kunihiro Suetake (1920-2017), a disciple of Kiyoshi Morita, whom I introduced in my previous essay, it took 50 years. Elsewhere, in the case of Toshio Hata (1913-2009), a Tokyo Institute of Technology faculty member who wrote down his recollections of the development of the balloon bomb, it took 32 years [11]. It takes time on the scale of decades for such a heavy memory to be accepted within oneself, sublimated, and put into a form that can be transmitted. The place where the words are transmitted is also unique. When people reach the end of their lives, they often speak to their disciples and juniors, for at the time of departure, they finally reveal to those who come after them the roots of their research, which until then had been partially concealed.

  The case of the Tokyo Tech faculty members' war experiences tells us about the difficulty of retaining objects and records that convey "negative memories." "Negative memories" do not easily appear unless they are present at the right time or place and meet certain conditions. That is why they are sometimes overlooked, whether intentionally or otherwise. Objects and records which make up historical materials can be said to be altruistic (rita-teki) in that they leave room for interpretation, "margins" which stimulate the imagination of the recipient. And when in these margins there appears a retrospective explanation as to the reason why "it was hard to preserve an object" or "it took a long time to reveal this story", this stimulates the imagination even more. In the future activities of the Future of Humanity Research Center, I would like to continue to consider the role of museums and archives that collect, preserve, study, and exhibit objects and records.



[1] The essays and radio program are available on the website of the Future of Humanity Research Center. Yoshimi Takuwa, "The Negative History of Tokyo Tech Described by an Ammeter" (Published on July 1st 2022). Rita Radio 007 "Rita arising with and from things vol.1" (Released on July 1st 2022).
[2] The 100th anniversary commemorative film "Exploring the Principle and Elaborating Techniques: One Hundred Years of the Tokyo Institute of Technology" is a 95-minute film produced by Masahiro Mori (1927- ), known as the founder of Robocon [robotics contest]. The Tokyo Tech Library owns a DVD of the film.
[3] In recent years, the only exhibit on Shu Kambara was Cashmilon cotton, but the exhibit of his memoirs has now been restored after the author featured it in this article. The exhibition description is available on the Tokyo Tech Museum's website. Exhibition description "Development of Synthetic Rubber and Synthetic Fibers: Shu Kambara" (Published on May 19th 2021).
[4] Shu Kambara, Fresh and Moderate Life, (Kagaku Shinbun-sha, 1987) pp. 43-44. These memoirs were first published as a series of articles in the journal Kagaku Shinbun in the previous year of 1986.
[5] Kambara, Fresh and Moderate Life, pp. 45-45.
[6] Although Kambara's name does not appear in the existing list of the Noborito Laboratory (9th Army Technical Research Laboratory), he is listed in the 8th Army Technical Research Laboratory for the fiscal year 1945 as a commissioned researcher in charge of the "research on military rubber". Seiya Matsuno, "Introduction to Historical Materials: "External Researches Chart of the fiscal year 1945" by the Army Weapons Administrative Headquarters," Journal of the History of Science, Japan, Vol. 56, No. 282 (2017), pp. 117-127.
[7] In his late years, Kambara mentions the Noborito Laboratory again: "I was appointed as a wartime special researcher by Hideki Tojo, and was sent to a secret research institute located in the outskirts of Noborito. The order was to "make coal oil from water". Shu Kambara, "50 years as a member of the Society of Synthetic Organic Chemistry," Journal of the Society of Synthetic Organic Chemistry, Japan, Vol. 50, No. 12 (1992), p. 1065.
[8] Kambara, Fresh and Moderate Life, p. 48.
[9] Immediately after the end of the war, "some of the students became black market dealers, saccharin makers, and brokers."  Such bad habits for making easy money are mentioned in the recollections of students of the affiliated technical college included in the Centennial History. Tokyo Institute of Technology (ed.), The Centennial History of Tokyo Institute of Technology: A General History, published by Tokyo Institute of Technology, 1985, p. 634.
[10] Shu Kambara, For New Science and Technology, Kawade Shobo, 1946, pp. 80-93.
[11] Toshio Hata contributed to an article entitled "Flying Konjac" published in the Jomo Shimbun and authored an article entitled "Konjac and Balloon Bombs", published in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun around 1977, when he was working as the president of Gunma University, after retiring from Tokyo Tech. Toshio Hata, A President's Digression: A Chronicle of a Romantic University President, (Asao-sha, 1982) pp. 64-66, 104-108.