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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #20 (May 13-19, 2003), page 11.

Great Wave of "Old Japan" is more about Old America

The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan

By Christopher Benfey

Random House, May, 2003

Hardcover, 334 pages, $25.95

By Oscar Johnson

Special to The Asian Reporter

As the subtitle suggests, The Great Wave promises a fresh look at the roughly quarter-century cultural tsunami surrounding the 1854 "opening of Old Japan," and the tide of American fascination which ensued. In part, it delivers.

Benfey gleans from an array of historical texts, correspondences, and public records to offer a hint at cultural "misfits" and "eccentrics" from east coast America and Japan who by their fates or fortunes rode the crest of this wave.

While it cannot be said that the book has something for everyone, it does offer history connoisseurs ensconced in the nationalistic sands of either shore food for thought about such characters. It has little to say, however, of the wave itself.

Benfey’s mosaic of historical notes is drab compared to the likes of Eiji Yoshikawa’s fact-and-fiction masterpieces on history. But The Great Wave does offer promising sketches of a few — very few — Japanese persons who played pivotal roles during this period.

One was "John" Manjiro, a fisher who upon spending years in the U.S. after a shipwreck returned home to suffer imprisonment and interrogation before becoming the ideal envoy for new Japanese-American relations. This defacto father of Japan’s navy and harbinger of the English language to a nation determined to beat its new antagonist ally at its own game is a book unto himself.

Similarly, Kakuzo Okakura’s work and English books on Japanese aesthetics and philosophy published in the U.S. did much to counter American ethnocentrisms. Benfey’s portrayal of the probable psychology of these and other turn-of-the-century Japanese as well as American figures borders on riveting, at times. Yet, for the most part, his wave washes only one shore.

Benfey’s idea of "Old Japan" is based almost entirely on the starry-eyed assumptions of East American cultural elitists looking for greener grass beyond the roots of their puritanical pastures. Their assumptions are understandable. His are not. While noting that America’s "Gilded Age" is too shallow to obtain the depth of anything like "golden," he seems unable to extricate himself from the limits of that gold-plated perspective.

This book is not so much about cross-cultural pollination as it is about those American eccentrics and cultural misfits whose fortuitous and idle lives afforded them the privilege to savor and, most often, "collect" tidbits of "exotic" Asian culture.

Elites such as Sturgis Bigelow, John La Farge, Isabella Stewart Gardener, and Percival Lowell sample Japanese art, culture, and religion seemingly in an attempt to offset their own bored, depraved, or meaningless lives.

It’s a fair topic for discussion but makes for a real sleeper when applied to nearly 300 pages.

The narrative moves from observations and experiences that prompt the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to fancy that the whaling industry of his day would force open "that double-bolted land, Japan," to Theodore Roosevelt’s phallic fascination with martial arts from a country he is said to have found far too "effeminate" — to say nothing of Henry Adams’ incessant American-tourist-like whining in letters to friends over Japan’s lack of familiar comforts.

A Japanese perspective rarely counters such blatant ethnocentricities. But sometimes, perhaps more intriguingly with regard to the author’s context, we get a glimpse of the likes of Lafcadio Hearn and Edward S. Moore. According, maybe unwittingly, to Benfey, such figures exhibited an interest in learning — not just appropriating — from Japan.

In all, The Great Wave offers a somewhat stale look, not so much at "the opening of Old Japan," but at the close-mindedness of Old America. Perhaps herein lies the book’s true value. Those of us living in the new America — or Japan — can only hope that the author would agree.

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