From The Asian Reporter, V13, #20 (May 13-19, 2003),
Great Wave of "Old Japan" is more about Old
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
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
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