An Eighty-Five Year-Old Case of Plagiarism

Posted by Amy Obermeyer, doctoral student in Comparative Literature at NYU

My time in the archives at the Biblioteca Nacional de Perú , like most archival work was filled with its shares of disappointment big and small—of missing materials and dead-end leads, of bad ideas and boring ones—alongside the daily monotony of combing through ancient periodicals and government documents, finding largely the useful, but expected and the unsurprising.

Yet there was also the occasional serendipitous encounter. I’d like to make use of this, my last dispatch from Lima, to describe one such event.

It first occurred that I happened across and editorial I found rather absurd. In an article in La Cronica, dated 2 November 1930, titled “Apuntes Curiosos sobre el Japón,” the author extrapolates from the Japanese national anthem

May your reign
Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations,
Until the pebbles
Grow into boulders
Lush with moss

to suggest a Japanese plan for world domination. The article concluded as follows

La operación es sencillísima. El Japón tiene 670.278 kilómetros cuadrados de superficie. Doblándolos únicamente hasta nueve veces, resultan mas de 170 millones de kilómetros cuadrados; superficie mayor que la de Tierra, pues alcanza a 135 millones. De manera de dentro de 9.000 años, o sea, 1.800 generaciones, el Japón tendrá un superficie mayor que la de nuestro planeta. Mas claro: la Tierra seria todo del Japón. Continuando la multiplicación hasta 40 veces, se llega al resultado de mas de 292 mil billones de kilómetros encuadrados.
Y como la tierra solo tiene alrededor de 136 millones de kilómetros cuadrados, para satisfacer la separación de las “ocho mil generaciones” del himno japones, seria menester soldar mas de ¡mil seiscientos millones! de globos terrestres iguales al que habitamos, cada uno de un diámetro aproximado de ocho mil millas, superpuestas en fila y los cuales pasarían mas allá del sol, mas allá de la concepción humana. ¡Ese es el himno japones, tan lacónico, tan sencillo! (La Crónica, 2 November 1930, 14)

It caught my attention for not only the absurdity, but for the connections of positivism and empire, which figures into my dissertation project. At the time, however, for the time being, I merely transcribed the article for later reference, and moved on.

Fast-forward to my last day in the Biblioteca Nacional. I am researching the Colonia Japonesa’s presentation of a statue of Manco Capac to Lima, on the occasion of Peru’s centennial of independence in 1926. A number of community members, diplomats, and state officials, both Peruvian and Japanese, spoke at the dedication, including then-President Augusto Leguia, and the transcripts of the speeches were later compiled in a book published locally by the colonia.

The statue of Manco Capac, donated by the Colonia Japonesa to the people of Lima on the occasion of the centennial of independence.

After finishing the transcripts from the main event, which included those of Leguia, as well as the Japanese foreign minister, I expected very little from the speeches given at the subsequent banquet. Yet my ears perked up as I read the speech of the Minister of Development and Public Works, Pedro José Rada y Gamio, which began with an analysis of the “lacónico y sencillo” Japanese national anthem.

Reading further in the speech, I found the “Humboldt nos dirían que hay piedras que duplican en volumen en 10 mil años.” Immediately I refer back to the article I’d found in the archives weeks prior, which suggested “Partiendo a esta base científica, las piedras, en 400.000 anos, se duplicaran 40 veces.” The further I read, the more similarities I’d found, including sentences lifted nearly verbatim from one to the other, despite the two pieces coming to nearly opposite conclusions.

On my last day in the archives, I’d found an eighty-five year old case of plagiarism.

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