What do Samurai Have To Do With It?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:24 am

FallsofClydeLongViewI saw Margi Preus’s Heart of a Samurai (Amulet, 2010) and the title alone made me cringe: just what the world needs, another kid book touting the putative values of warrior aristocrats! But when I picked it up, I realized immediately that it was something else entirely (or almost entirely): a fictionalized retelling of John Manjiro‘s adventures as a castaway from Japan. Here’s a story that’s worth retelling — though it’s been done a few times already — and which presents a very different light on Japanese history. I borrowed it from my friend1 and discovered that I was right. Both times.

John Manjiro, also known as John Mung and Nakahama Manjiro, spent most of the 1840s on American ships and American soil, finally returning to Japan not long before Perry’s arrival marked the end of Japan’s relative isolation from foreign contact and trade. I haven’t read any of the other books on castaways, though I’ve heard a number of my friend Stephen Kohl’s panels at ASPAC. Manjiro’s tale is more extreme, both in the length of time he was away and the depth of his experiences, not to mention the timing of his return. When he returned he was interrogated thoroughly, then forced to remain in his hometown before being called to service. With his experience, he became a valuable source for policy-makers, starting with his native Tosa domain, passing to Shogunal service, and then as a promoter of Western learning. Manjiro’s journey was well-documented, and highlights some fascinating aspects of mid-19th century global life, including the whaling industry famously chronicled in Moby Dick, early education, and the tensions engendered by Japan’s isolation. Preus’s handling of the chronology and substantive topics is straightforward and sometimes quite good, including the racism Manjiro encountered both at sea and in New England.2

My reservations about this book stem from the samurai lens which is imposed on a commoner’s tale. The title refers to Manjiro, who is described early in the book as having ambitions to become a samurai, fulfilling the romantic and honorable role laid out in the classic tales. (pp. 13-14) Each section of the book has an epigram from Yamamoto’s Hagakure or something called “the Samurai’s Creed”3 and Manjiro’s elevation to sword-wearing Shogunal retainer is treated as the culmination of a long-held dream (as well as being entirely unprecedented). It’s possible that Manjiro really felt this way — I haven’t been able to find any reference to it in the materials I’ve seen — but it certainly seems odd for a tale about a fisherman who became a proponent of egalitarianism and Westernization to have more references to sources on samurai than on village life or Meiji transformations. There was one bit I liked, though: in New England, Manjiro is demonstrating sword fighting to an American friend, but confesses to himself that he has no idea what he’s doing, and that he and his friends in Japan made up their own moves to go along with the styles of fighting they’d heard about but never saw. (p. 133)

There were a few bothersome details — an anachronistic use of bata-kusai and the misuse of the word “sutra” for “prayer” on the same page (p. 31) was particularly troubling and I’d have been happier if Manjiro’s acknowledgement of Japanese whaling came before he expressed shock and horror at Western whaling (p. 45) — but the errors were not fundamentally damaging to the historical context. The fictionalized characters and conflicts (p. 280) seem a bit overdrawn to me, though the issues they raise were real. The length of the book is something of a problem: though it’s almost 300 pages, they are so sparse and there is so much illustration and blank space that the story felt quite rushed. Perhaps the fictionalized material stands out so much because it’s quite detailed, whereas large sections of equally dramatic real life read like paraphrases of the short histories cited above.4

On the whole, not a terrible book, though I think there’s still room for, say, an kid-oriented abridgement of Manjiro’s own testimony, with annotation by actual experts.

  1. who had bought it as a donation to a youth library based on recommendations from other children []
  2. A really excellent summary of Manjiro’s tale can be found here: Nakahama Manjirō’s Hyōsen Kiryaku: A Companion Book : Produced for the Exhibition “Drifting, Nakahama Manjirōs Tale of Discovery” : an Illustrated Manuscript Recounting Ten Years of Adventure at Sea. Aside from the great pictures and introduction, the book claims that Manjiro was used as a kind of spy, eavesdropping on American negotiators (21) []
  3. that’s before part one. In the bibliography, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure is cited twice, both the 1979 and 2008 translations, his name is cited backwards, and once misspelled []
  4. and the helpful material at the end really is fairly clearly paraphrased material. I understand not footnoting the story, but clear references in reference material seems reasonable, no? []


The Japanese to the Rescue

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 7:25 pm

From 1902 until 1923 the British and Japanese were military allies, bound to support each other in the case of a war with more than a single power and a promise of neutrality otherwise. At its signing, this was primarily seen as a way to counterbalance Russia. Japan would eventually fight on the side of the Entente powers in World War I and engage with Germans in Shandong province, China and in its island possessions in the Pacific. It did not ever play any major role in the action on the European mainland.

At least one fictional pre-war novel, however, appears to have imagined circumstances under which Britain’s Japanese ally would come to its aid in the case of a German invasion. The work is Robert William Cole’s The Death Trap (1907) which came to my attention when brought up in Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War.1

I haven’t found a copy of the original2, but there appears to be more on and an extract from this work in Ignatius Frederick Clarke’s The Great War with Germany, 1890-1914: Fictions and Fantasies of the War-to-Come. The brief summary of the conclusion of the novel goes as follows:

Despite the initial German successes and the enemy occupation of London, there is a national uprising directed by Lord Eagleton, the Military Dictator; and then help comes with the arrival of a Japanese fleet—a comvenient [sic], fictional activation of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1905. Tens of thousands of Japanese troops land in Liverpool and hasten south to assist the British insurgents…3

  1. On page 2 of the work, it is listed among many other works of fiction imagining a German invasion of the British Isles. []
  2. It doesn’t seem to be in the Harvard library but I put in a request for it through inter-library loan []
  3. Ignatius Frederick Clarke The Great War with Germany, 1890-1914: Fictions and Fantasies of the War-to-Come, p178. []


Ueda Akinari translation

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:09 am

PMJS has published William Clarke and Wendy Cobcroft’s annotated translation of Ueda Akinari’s Tandai Shoshinroku, available as a free PDF and also as a book-on-demand from Lulu (and eventually Amazon). I leave the commentary on the value of scholarly networks, non-profit online publishing, and the finally-growing body Early Modern translations as an exercise for our readers, who don’t need me to tell them what they already know.


The Teahouse Fire: Painstaking

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:46 pm

I don’t often get unsolicited books with handwritten notes from the authors, unless I worked with them in some way. What was even more surprising is that the book came to my new office before I was even done unpacking! That’s pretty spiffy service. The book had blurbs from Maxine Hong Kingston and Liza Dalby, which was promising. The book was about The World of Tea, and centered on an orphaned American taken in by a prominent Japanese family; not so promising. The author, Ellis Avery is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia in Creative Writing, and a five year veteran, we’re told in her bio, of tea ceremony training. Well, most of my fun books were in boxes, so I did read The Teahouse Fire, and since it is about the bakumatsu-Meiji era, I feel I should say something about it.

The Teahouse Fire is a historical fiction, which shares most of the flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. Though the story does less damage to the historical narrative than usual for this kind of work, it is still an excellent example of why I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and why I rarely read it (especially in my own field!). [SPOILERS ahead]1


  1. I’m an historian, so knowing how it comes out doesn’t bother me. []


Upcoming Events at the Donald Keene Center

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 3:37 am

If you are in New York city in the next few months, you might want to check out the spring schedule for the Donald Keene Center for Japanese culture at Columbia University.

Upcoming Events at the Donald Keene Center — Spring 2008

1. Thursday, 2.7 On the Trail of the Urban Nomad in the Tokyo of the 1980s
2. Wednesday, 2.13 Woman on the Other Shore: An Evening with Mitsuyo Kakuta
3. Friday, 2.22 A Memorial for Edward Seidensticker
4. Thursday, 3.27 Householders: The Reizei Family in Japanese History
5. Monday, 4.7 Japanese Style Shifts and Social Identities: The Case of JFL Learners and their Host Families
6. Wednesday, 4.16 Wartime Diaries by Japanese Writers
7. Friday, 4.18 Translation Prize Ceremony
8. Thursday, 5.1 Reading and Writing Sino-Japanese


Diasporic Remnants

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:22 am

I’m always interested in interesting tales and connections regarding the Japanese diaspora. Here’s a couple that I’ve run across: New research on Japanese settlers in Korea; Jorge Luis Borges, the great surrealist, married a Nikkei Argentinian woman late in life; Japanese post-WWII settlers in the Dominican Republic abandoned by both governments. I love being part — a small part, but nonetheless — of the diaspora studies movement. We’re complicating the history of the world, chronicling the wonderful diversity of seemingly simple things. [continued...]



Seidensticker’s Passing

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:35 am

I’m not one of those Japan scholars who came to the field as a Japanophile1 , and my preferred literary reading tends to speculative fiction, humorous verse and historical adventures. I’m almost certainly the wrong person to comment on Edward Seidensticker’s passing, but I’ll do until someone better comes along.

If you’ve studied Japanese history, literature, culture or society, the odds are extremely good that you’ve read something translated by Seidensticker. I’ve assigned his works before, particularly Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain and the abridged Tale of Genji. I’ve read a lot of the other Kawabata and Tanizaki he translated, and it always seemed to me that he was a sympathetic and faithful translator, but a final judgement would have to come from people who know the original works and the process of literary translation more intimately than myself.

I have to admit that I’ve never read Seidensticker’s memoir, so I can’t tell you much more about his life, etc. I can say, though, that his work is one of the great foundation stones of my own career. Not that I drew on his scholarship or ever met the man, but his accessible translations were fodder for hundreds of thousands of students, and the interest they raised sustained the growth of Japanese Studies.2

  1. nor as a Japanophobe. Just curious, really. []
  2. There’s an interesting argument to be had, perhaps, over whether cultural or economic factors are more important in area studies. I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other except to note that they promote very different kinds of scholarship and that we have usually had in Japanese studies a reasonably good balance. []


Akutagawa the Pacifist

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:00 pm

Japan Focus has expanded its mission one more time, this time to include new literary translations! They’ve published a Jay Rubin translation of an Akutagawa Ryonosuke story, The Story of a Head That Fell Off (“Kubi ga ochita hanashi”), which they describe as an “anti-war satire” and put in the context of a large body of untranslated Akutagawa anti-war satires

“Shogun” (The General, 1924), a well-known portrait of a victorious general resembling Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912), the “hero” of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, is a bitter satire of a man responsible for the death of thousands. “The Story of a Head That Fell Off,” set against the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, is an intense cry against the absurdity of war that unfortunately remains as relevant in our barbaric twenty-first century as it was in Akutagawa’s day.

In one brief, startling piece on the political misuse of history, “Kin-shogun” (General Kim, 1922), he incorporated Korean legend into a tale concerning Hideyoshi’s 1598 invasion of Korea.

I admit that most of the Japanese literature I’ve read was translated; I only delve into untranslated literary texts very rarely, but I do try to pay attention to what’s said about literature in other contexts. I’m more than a little surprised that Akutagawa’s anti-war stance never came to my attention before, but perhaps the fact that Akutagawa died in 1927 kept him from becoming a victim of the changing political situation post-1931 and therefore kept his politics a bit under the radar. Also, satire, particularly historical satire, can be very tricky to translate, especially for a general readership which is unfamiliar with the issues, context or style. And literary studies often specifically exclude political history, focusing on aesthetic and “cultural” elements, textual things that avoid the questions of audience and less subtle intentions.

It’s also a bit disconcerting, because Akutagawa is one of the few early 20c authors with which our students have the slightest chance of being familiar, through the famous movie version — and linguistic appropriation of the title to mean a situation of varying accounts — of “Rashomon” (and “In a Grove”, which is actually the story with the varying perspectives).1 It would be nice to have been better informed, and I wonder if my ignorance was common among my colleagues and readers, or if I just missed something obvious along the way.

The story’s pretty good, I’d say. It does have some of that familiar Akutagawa grotesquerie, which allows the characters to go a bit beyond normal polite conversation.

  1. Yeah, I took a look at the Wikipedia article on Akutagawa. It focuses quite exclusively on his more literary endeavors and views, and mentions none of the stories discussed in this article. []


Laughter and Tears on the Charles

A book I’ve been waiting for for a long time is finally almost out [PDF]. Adam Kern, an old friend from graduate school, has been working on Edo-period humor, especially kibyoshi visual humor:

Curious, he brought some of the books to his literature professor, who offered no comment because, he said, kibyoshi were really art. So Kern brought the books to his art professor, who also offered no comment because, he said, kibyoshi were really literature.

This is one of those cases, obviously, where the old disciplinary boundaries have created gaps in our knowledge that didn’t need to exist. No more. There have been books on the history of Japanese humor before, but I’ve never felt that they captured any of the actual fun being had by the authors of haikai, senryu, satirical enga or kyogen. It’s a cliche that the best way to kill humor is to analyze it, and I don’t think it’s entirely true, but that’s certainly been the model to date. Adam, however, is a genuinely funny, and very smart, guy and I look forward to seeing the results.

At the other end of the Charles (I say that, but of course neither MIT nor Harvard is anywhere near an “end” of the Charles, except in the solopsistic Cantabridgian sense), Prof. Peter Perdue has offered another review of the MIT Visualizing Cultures controversy. Most interesting is his differentiation between the censorial rage of “Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student group comprised of graduate students from the People’s Republic of China,” and the “Chinese alumni of MIT [CAMIT]“:

If some future social scientist used this correspondence as “data” for a research project, she might conclude: “A content analysis was done of the opinions contained in the complete database of e-mail correspondence, arranging them on the following ordinal scale from 1 to 5: 1. Dower and Miyagawa were completely justified in their project; the students’ actions were ridiculous and embarrassing; 2. The Website contained some unintentionally offensive portions, indicating the need for some clarification, but it should be restored as soon as possible with warnings about the need to view its content carefully; 3. The site was unbalanced, because it leaned too much toward the Japanese perspective; it needed to include Chinese materials and be substantially revised; 4. The Website indicated such bias against the Chinese people and in favor of Japanese militarism that the Website should be suppressed, MIT should apologize, and Profs. Dower and Miyagawa should be fired; 5. Even more violent threats…

“A frequency distribution of the responses would find them arrayed in a normal distribution with its median at about 3.0, with the median response from members of CAMIT lying one or more standard intervals to the left (< =2.5), and the median response from members of CSSA lying one or more standard intervals to the right (>=3.5). There is most likely a significant statistical difference between the two populations, but this subject requires further research.”

This tongue-in-cheek chi-test comes from his own correspondence after he published his first defense of Dower and Miyagawa: the CSSA, though it’s been defended vigorously, if not entirely honestly, on H-Asia, was quite unrestrained in its attacks (the image of a student presenting Iris Chang’s unbalanced book to War Without Mercy author John Dower to “educate him” pretty much says it all) and demands. The MIT alumni were considerably more balanced and nuanced in their approach, and made it possible to find a solution, as Perdue says, pretty much in line with position 2, though he himself is working with Miyagawa and Dower to implement some more Chinese content to supplement.


The Other Apprentice

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:53 am

Lewis Libby, The Apprentice, Graywolf Press, St. Paul Minnesota, 1996.

Libby’s novel has gotten more attention since his indictment, most of it bad. However, I have yet to see a review of this historical fiction by an historian or Japanese expert of any sort. Quite the contrary, one of the blurbs on the dust jacket — ironically, the only one that addresses the historical setting — comes from Francis “The End of History” Fukuyama. But the historical and cultural setting — rural northern Japan, 1903 — is integral to the story and to the writing. A novel by an American author set in Meiji Japan including entirely Japanese characters is a rare thing, and so my interest was piqued. Naturally, there’s a distinction to be made: this is a work of fiction, a novel intended to excite and entertain, rather than a reference work or scholarly product. But writers of fiction do not stumble onto locales or times: they choose them and they use them to serve their narrative and aesthetic ends. [spoiler alert]


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