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 (Japan – It’s A Wonderful Rife) – which gets about 2,000 hits a day more than this one, one about aviation (I don’t fly and have a thing about heights) or about relationships (under a pseudonym – which was getting over 2,000 hits a day until I closed it out of personal boredom).

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!

Yay!

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.

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).”

At least that’s what I was told.

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. 1914 above her message.

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 post marks on the stamps were written using the Japanese calender, referring to the year of the reign of the then 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 – December 17, 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 US via ship on December 17, 1913.

While the new year’s greeting suggest 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 firmly placed on 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 there!

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 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 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 (from left): 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 attain 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 bi-plane – a pusher aeroplane with the propeller behind the pilot.

The 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 per-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, 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 below.

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 the faith in the late pilot, which truly 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.

Cheers,
Andrew Joseph

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About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. Along with writing for a monthly industrial magazine, he also writes comic books and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. Along with the daily Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife blog, when he feels the hate, will also write another blog entitled: You Know What I Hate? He also works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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7 Responses to The Great Japanese Aviation Postcard Mystery

  1. derekacase says:

    Fantastic!

    Thanks Joseph!

  2. Hello Andrew, What a wonderful blog post and thank you for the mention of my book, Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach! What a find, that postcard.

    There are two dates that have come up regarding the death of Koha Takeishi (as he was referred to in the 1982 oral history of Kiyomi Akiyama): May 2 and May 4. The New York Herald reported from Tokyo on May 2, 1913: “The Japanese aviator Takeishi, who recently returned from the United States, was killed at Osaka this afternoon. He had a successful flight from Osaka to Kyoto and was on his return. His skull was fractured while he was attempting to alight. Takeishi Was Well-Known in Pacific Coast Cities as an Aviator.” I used the newspaper date as a reporting date.

    I have several wonderful photographs of Koha Takeishi after one of his first flights in his new plane, purchased for him by Japanese American farmers in Wintersburg and Smeltzer (now part of Huntington Beach). He is surrounded by the farming community—Caucasian and Japanese—all dressed in their Sunday best. Takeishi had flown from Dominguez airfield in Los Angeles County to a farm field in Wintersburg in March 1913, per the Akiyama oral history and photographic documentation. The photographs were taken by Charles Furuta—the landowner of the historic site now known as Historic Wintersburg—and provided to me by his descendants.

    There is a little about the Smeltzer Flying Company and a smaller snip of the photograph on my blog post, April 6, 2012, at http://historicwintersburg.blogspot.com/2012/04/smeltzer-flying-company-members-of.html I expanded on the story and included the original Furuta photograph of the 1913 Wintersburg gathering with Takeishi in my book. The Japanese Association in Wintersburg used the Smeltzer name, hence the name of their aviation company.

    In June 2014, Historic Wintersburg was named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and we race to save this site and its remarkable stories, http://www.preservationnation.org/who-we-are/press-center/press-releases/national-trust-for-historic-7.html

    Your readers might enjoy reading about another aviation “stunt” in Wintersburg, French aviator Hubert Latham hunting ducks by air over the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in 1910, http://historicwintersburg.blogspot.com/2012/03/part-two-of-our-interview-series-with.html He scared the cattle in the fields and the ducks in the wetlands, and got in trouble with the California Fish & Game Commission. I bet you and your readers know even more about him!

    Again, thank you for writing about Koha Takeishi on your blog. I’m a fan!

    • mreman47 says:

      Hi Mary. You can tell you and I are writers… no such thing as a short message – and trust me, that’s a compliment. At least I mean it to be.
      I found your book to be amazing. It was well written, easy to understand and a terrific help to me in resolving the mystery.
      I am always impressed when someone I mention in one of these blogs responds back (though honestly, very, very few people from this aviation blog respond – considering I am usually writing about people that are long passed!).
      I am going to read the blogs you provided…
      BUT… funny that you mentioned Latham! I was just going to post a tobacco card on him this evening! Kismet!
      Mary – thank you for your kind words and efforts at protecting history in all its forms.
      Feel free to write to me or provide a guest blog anytime!
      Cheers,
      Andrew Joseph

  3. Sarah says:

    Hi Andrew! I was looking for a postcard stamp from Osaka on the internet and came across your website. I was wondering if I could have permission to use part of your postcard image for a graphic design project?
    Thanks!
    Sarah

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