What do Samurai Have To Do With It?

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?  

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