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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Great Japanese Aviation Postcard Mystery

I really love solving mysteries. I'm not very good at solving them via books - a credit to the writers, but I'm a curiouser and curiouser kindda guy.

I like to know something about everything and if possible know everything about some things. I'd like to know everything about every thing, but I know that's not possible.

Why else would I create a blog about Japan, one about aviation (I don't fly and have a thing about heights) or about relationships - see Pioneers of Aviation HERE.

Anyhow, this past Saturday my friend Vinnie in Boston was out at a book fair, and was chatting with a dealer who had some interesting postcards. Vinnie happened to mention myself and my blog Pioneers of Aviation, and lo and behold the dealer had actually heard of me and it, and was a reader!


The dealer showed Vinnie the postcard above, which if you note the bottom of the card, is covered in Japanese writing.

Vinnie was able to, with an agreeable dealer, to get me the image, and the reverse, too - below, to ask me if I knew anything about this particular Japanese postcard.   

Damn... Well... Vinnie knows that I love to solve mysteries more than the mystery itself. He figured I would somehow be able to resolve it in about three days, though he didn't tell me that immediately.

Here's how I solved the mystery - well... most of it, anyways. I want to state up front that it's not so much about tooting my own horn, but rather more about the fact that I learned something new and I want to share it with you - that's what I like about solving mysteries... the sharing.

The first thing I looked at were the postmarks, to see if I could figure out a date. I didn't even see the main one upside down on the reverse for about 20 minutes... still, it says: Osaka, Japan, 18, 12 (December) 13 (1913).

The stamps themselves, they are Japanese stamps, the red one for 3 Sen and two 1/2 Sen stamps... sen being an old unit of Japanese currency.

Not having any ability in reading Japanese - at least not 20 years removed from living in Japan - I thought I would contact Takako, the wife of my friend Matthew, but unfortunately, the only e-mail address I had for her was an old one, so I just said, nertz and contacted my good buddy Mike Rogers.

I've never met Mike, an American of 50% Japanese descent now married and living in Japan since his teenaged years... Mike is an ex-punk musician of minor renown, though I have heard his music (I am a fan of the musical stylings) and thought it pretty damn awesome.

Mike now works in Japan as a radio DJ, TV talent, rock and roll show organizer, business guru and father and husband. He also puts out - when he has a chance the very well written Marketing Japan blog, which was my inspiration to write about Japan everyday.

Again, despite never having met the man, I respect him tremendously because like myself, we don't mind writing about ourselves and the past and being honest about it. I know, I know, we should get a room. But I just wanted to get you to go to his blog(s) and give it a read. He can be an opinionated SOB, but so what? That's what blogging is. It's biographical logs - our view with our writing style on whatever the hell we want to talk about. Mike is more dangerous than me, which is why I always read his stuff. Me? I think I'm just trying to create an Internet library that is more correct - factually - than what is generally available to you, the reader... my own Encyclopedia Japonica.

So... Mike, while fluent in English and Japanese could have translated it himself and given me an answer, he instead asked his wife, a former Japanese media broadcaster, for the official translation.

She noted that the Japanese writing was in an old style that made translating it difficult for her, a 21st century Japanese person, to read.

Still, that writing at the base of the card front reads from right to left: "The last 5 minutes of flight by Mr. Takeshi to Fukakusa (in sky over Yahata)."

Mike, like myself, was a stamp collector, and notes that the postcard was posted in Wakayama.... it says it was post marked on Jan. 2, 1914. The Osaka stamp says December 12, 1913.

Mike asked me to dwell on how that could be possible because the lady (? - I suppose they could read the name) who apparently sent the postcard wrote: Jan. 1 1914.

Whew... thanks, Mr & Mrs Rogers! That's a great start, right?!

My initial thoughts on the date fiasco was that perhaps the postcard was initially mailed in December from Osaka, and stamped, and then stamped again as it traveled to a port in Wakayama for its delivery to Kansas City, Missouri in the US of A.

It might make sense - BUT, despite the way too cool and steady handwriting, I think it was written by two different writers. The biggest piece of evidence on that, is the letter "y" on the main address, and the way it is presented in the 'message' on the left side. A looping Y versus a straight non-looping Y. Plus, the left writing appears more slanted than the other.

So... two writers on a postcard? Perhaps. It's pretty nice handwriting for someone who is Japanese and for whom English is not a first language... so perhaps the address was written by one person, and a translated message of New Year's greetings by another person.

Now... what about the postmark on the stamp? I had wondered if the postmarks on the stamps were written using the Japanese calender, referring to the year of the reign of the current Emperor.

In 1913, it was Year 2 of Emperor Taisho. The Year 2 is on the left of the post mark on the stamps. In fact, reading Japanese style from right to left, we can read the postmark as 17*12*2 - 17th of December (12), year Taisho 2... or December 17, 1913.

That makes sense now... the postcard was sent from Osaka on December 12, 1913, it traveled to Wakayama for transport to the U.S. via ship on December 17, 1913.

While the New Year's greeting suggests it was written on January 1, 1914, it is in fact a greeting FOR January 1, 1914, and was written on or prior to December 12, 1913.

That is a fact, my dear Watson.

Now, with my deerstalker hat placed firmly upon my head, I thought I'd do the easy job, which would be to find out more about Mister Takeshi, the pilot of the plane on the front, which would help me determine the type of plane being flown and when.

There is no reference for a Mister Takeshi in any Japanese historical reference - at least not as a pre-WWI pilot... and trust me... if he was important enough to warrant a postcard image in pre-1914 Japan, then there should be some mention of him in Japanese historical archives, right?

Frustrated for 10 minutes of fruitless searching, I looked for spelling variations of Takeshi's name.

Wouldn't you know it! Meet Takeishi Koha (surname first). There's an "I" in the name!

Takeishi Koha - a handsome devil. Photo via the National Diet Library, Japan.
I was able to determine that Takeishi Koha was born in Ibaraki-ken on October 20,1884, and died on May 4, 1913.

Back in 1912, while attending the preparatory course at the Utah State University in the U.S., he became interested in aircraft, entered an aviation school and learned to pilot a plane.

That aviation school was run by the very famous Glenn Curtiss, who not only taught students how to fly HIS plane, but would sell them HIS plane(s) as well.

Here's the 1912 class of fliers below, with Takeishi on the far right. You can see the guy standing beside and behind him has his arm on his shoulder in a gesture of camaraderie and friendship. You'll note Ms. Julia Clark - a woman - in the photo... only important because of the era and thus her gender!
Curtiss Flying School, Class of 1912 at North Island, San Diego (L-R): 1. Floyd E. Barlow; 2. John G. Kaminski; 3. Floyd Smith; 4. W.A. (or W.B) Davis; 5. Roy B. Russell; 6. Mohan M. Singh; 7. John Lansing (Lanny) Callan; 8. Julia Clark;
9. George Milton Dunlap; 10. Kono Takeshi. Photo from the Callan (see #7) Collection of the Curtiss Museum.
Of the group at the flying school, we have Mohan Singh, known as the only Hindu aviator from India; Julia Clark, the "Bird Girl" was third woman to receive her pilot's license; John Kaminski, who called himself the world's youngest pilot; Milt Dunlap helped with the design of the OX engine, an early V-8 American liquid-cooled aircraft engine built by Curtiss.

By the way, Bird Girl Julia Clark died one month after graduating while flying her plane.

A book source (Glenn H. Curtiss, Aviation Pioneer - by Charles R. Mitchell, Kirk W. House) says that our boy Takeishi was a Lieutenant... and that he was posted INTO the flying school by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

A classmate of Takeishi, one Lt. Nakajima Chikuhei (中島 知久平) - surname first, was the founder of Japan's first airplane factory, the Nakajima Aircraft Company (中島飛行機株式会社 - Nakajima Hikōki Kabushiki Gaisha) in 1917.

Airplanes manufactured by Nakajima were used to battle aircraft manufactured by Curtiss during WWII.

Everything relating to Takeishi being a Japanese Navy shill - I'm not sure about. It is possible that he was sent over to study at university by the Japanese Navy, however.

So... let's look at the life and death of young Takeishi.

First off, I should note that Takeishi was the third Japanese person to earn a pilot's license... and while a big deal for Japan, it was also a great source of pride for the Japanese folks living and working in the U.S.

According to another book source (Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach - by Mary Adams Urashima), Takeishi, in order to earn some extra cash as a student at Utah State University, would travel down to California to work at the nearby celery farms at Wintersberg and Smeltzer, both part of present day Huntington Beach, California.

Along with being a student, Takeishi worked at the Rokki Jiho (Rocky Mountains Times), a Utah-based Japanese-language newspaper.

So... Flying School. The class was a then $500 for weeks of training, but Curtiss did allow his students to apply that tuition against the cost of a purchase of one of his aeroplanes... which I have determined to be a Curtiss D pusher bi-plane - the propeller is mounted behind the pilot to push the plane rather than 'pull' it.

The flying class would use a Curtiss trainer plane known as a Lizzy, and then a bi-plane. The passing grade was provided when the student performed five consecutive figure eights around two pylons set 1,000 feet apart and then to land accurately within 50-feet of a pre-determined mark.

Once graduated, how the hell did a poor Japanese university kid making a few bucks at a celery farm earn enough money to purchase a Curtiss aeroplane, which would cost about $4,000 in 1912... or about $90,000 in today's money?

How indeed. As a pilot, Takeishi was a hero to the Japanese laborers in America, who had worked with him on the farm(s).

To propel that hero worship, the Japanese in the area got together and invested $25 each - which must have been an enormous sum to produce workers back then - in an aviation company to be called the Smeltzer Flying Company.

Not motivated by profit, it was a chance for everyone to get together and help out Takeishi by purchasing an aeroplane for him - maintaining that hero worship for the Japanese-Americans!

So... a plane was purchased... and I can only assume it is the same one in the image on the postcard.

Which plane is that? Well... it has to be a Curtiss (and not a Wright Brothers plane), because Takeishi was getting a deal on the whole tuition thing, so a quick perusal of Curtiss aeroplanes from before 1914 - and presto! We have the Curtiss D biplane.

At least that's what it looks like. Though this photo above has the header, while the image in the postcard lacks it.

Anyhow, because Takeishi was the THIRD Japanese pilot, and was making name for himself doing some exhibition flying in the U.S., plans were made in Japan to host its first-ever aviation show in 1913 in the city of Osaka.

Transport of Takeishi and his plane was again taken up by the Japanese-American workers - and by May of 1913, Takeishi was back in Japan.

Depending on whom you want to believe - the Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach author quoting the NY Times (could have been an error) or the Japanese Diet website, but Takeishi died on May 2 (NY Times) or May 4 (Diet), 1913.

This is where the postcard's writing may take over - maybe:

"The last 5 minutes of flight by Mr. Takeshi to Fukakusa (in sky over Yahata)."

Yahata is now part of Kitakyushu (since 1963). Fukakusa is the Fukakusa Parade Grounds in Kyoto.

Takeishi had already performed a flight in a new plane - a white monoplane (single-wing like what we have nowadays - called the Shira-Hato (White Dove) flying from Osaka to Kyoto, and was returning.

Apparently while trying to land, the plane crashed and he fractured his skull, dying.

Since he loved flying so much, his coffin, according to the November 1913 Popular Mechanics issue, was adorned with pieces of the plane's broken propeller, carried by 12 pall-bearers and Takeishi's brother Dr. Takeishi Joyu (surname first). It is said that he later sent money back to the workers who had invested in his brother, to pay them for they faith in the late pilot, which smacks with wonderful honor.

Takeishi is supposed to be the first civilian aviation death in Japan, but I am unsure if that is correct or not.

And so... the postcard appears to be a memorial card of Takeishi's last flight... a Japanese aviation pioneer, sure, but a pioneer of aviation plain and simple.

While this article will also be cross-published in my Pioneers of Aviation blog, I invite you all to please visit that blog, where I play detective quite often to try and bring the most honest facts on a fascinating hosts of aviation-related topics.

Whew... I need something easy for the next blog.

Andrew Joseph


  1. Nice to see the Nakajima connection. The A6M2-N is one of my favourite airplanes. I may, when I am driving alone in my Subaru, whisper dakka-dakka-dakka as the jerk who just cut me off drifts across my gun sight....

    1. Hi Pat! It may interest you to note that I have, and I bet you can, too, a dashboard device that has four different sound effects on it: machine gun, laser, rocket launcher, and I think a single shot rifle. Really. Loads of fun, and always fun to explain to the police that it's NOT a radar/laser detector and is instead a killing machine toy.