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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #48 (November 23, 2004), page 15.

How the East was won

Native American in the Land of the Shogun:

Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan

By Frederik L. Schodt

Stone Bridge Press, 2003

Paperback, 418 pages, $19.95

By Douglas Spangle

As the history of Japanese-American relations is full of side passages, underwater shoals, and hidden channels, so the story of the man who initiated them is complex and revealing.

Ranald MacDonald’s father was a manager for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Astoria, and his mother was Princess Raven, daughter of Comocomly, a notable chief of the Chinooks; Ranald later referred to himself as a "Columbian." At his birth in 1824 the Pacific Northwest (and the northern part of the continent as far east as Ontario) was administered and operated by the HBC for Britain; Ranald went to school first at Forts Vancouver and Colville, and then at Red River, near present-day Winnipeg.

Shortly after he went east to school, his father was called on to deal with some Japanese fishermen who had been stranded on the coast. Ranald never met them, though he undoubtedly heard about them. The fishermen were never allowed to return to Japan.

The Japanese shogunate had been for some time intensely xenophobic, to the point of never even allowing shipwrecked sailors back home. As for foreigners, only a small group of Dutch was allowed to reside in Nagasaki. These Dutch were the only point of contact for any dealings with the outside world. The inconvenience of such a bottleneck can be imagined — yet the islands remained closed.

These locked-up islands contrasted to the Hudson’s-Bay-operated Pacific Northwest of Ranald’s upbringing. Soon after the first English contact, the trading posts already echoed with perhaps a dozen or more languages — and even before the coming of the English, the Columbia River had been a pretty cosmopolitan place.

Ranald made, after his schooling, a brief attempt at a clerk’s humdrum life in Ontario, but he seems to have lost interest and wound up on the Eastern seaboard, in Sag Harbor, where he signed on a whaling ship, his experience at small-craft navigation no doubt a plus. In 1847 he was in Honolulu, and he embarked from there on the good ship Plymouth for the whaling grounds in the Sea of Japan.

He had obviously had a plan in mind, perhaps for years, collecting what books he could find on Japan; Honolulu was rife with stories of the enigmatic land. Ranald had certainly shown curiosity and a taste for adventure in his life, and, in later years, declared that he considered the Japanese to be like the American Indians. He traded his wages to the Plymouth’s captain for a small boat and provisions, and as the ship stood off northern Hokkaido, he set off for the islands.

He came ashore and capsized his boat on a small island off the coast, populated by Ainu. He was taken into custody and finally transported to Matsumae and thence south to Nagasaki, but not before he had carved a pen from a crow’s quill and started a notebook. He was keen to learn the language and gestures, and this willingness to learn Japanese ways, along with his amiability and non-Caucasian looks, went a long ways in favorably impressing his captors.

Fortuitously, MacDonald had arrived as the lack of English translators was becoming critical. Many crewmen, both British and American, arrived via shipwreck, and the only real go-between was Levyssohn, the Dutch Factor at Nagasaki, though a few Japanese were endeavoring to learn what they could from visitors and castaways. MacDonald, who had been keeping a journal and a Japanese word-list, was set to work teaching English to fourteen local would-be translators. He turned out to be a talented teacher — his prize pupil Einosuke Moriyama later was one of the chief interpreters when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay and officially opened Japanese- American relations.

But Ranald MacDonald was already gone by then. He had been allowed to leave with an American Navy ship in 1849. He was off to adventures in the Australian goldfields, the capitals of Europe, to Canada again, and then finally back to Colville and retirement. He died in 1894, allegedly uttering the words, "Sayonara, my dear, Sayonara," to his niece.

For a time, MacDonald fell through the cracks of history. He was literate and a charming stylist, but he never wrote an actual autobiography. He collaborated with Malcolm McLeod on a manuscript published years after his death, but McLeod wrote atrociously and produced an unreadable, meandering mess. Other biographical writings exist, including an insulting article by Elizabeth Custer, widow of General Custer, and a biography by Portland writer Eva Emery Dye — better written, but still romanticized and full of inaccuracies. But little by little, more reliable information about MacDonald’s life has leaked out.

On the other side of the Pacific, the Japanese, too, have rediscovered Ranald MacDonald, erecting monuments in Nagasaki and Rishiri Island, and with the publication of a novel about him he has become an addition to popular culture. A Friends of Ranald MacDonald Society has sprung up on both sides of the ocean.

In Native American in the Land of the Shogun, Frederik Schodt has composed a thorough and readable book about MacDonald. Though he relates information on many topics — Japanese foreign relations, the history of the Pacific Northwest, the sociology of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and much else, zigzagging back and forth — the narrative of MacDonald’s adventures drives on, pulling the book together with unfailing interest. The fascinating Mr. MacDonald has long deserved an adequate account of his life, and this is it.


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