Two early Japanese modernizers

As I said in concluding my review of The Salamander and Other Stories, Ibuse Masuji (1898-1993) mostly arranged materials (most famously, accounts by survivors of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing for Black Rain) rather than inventing. The two cases in Castaways (1987) of what might be called “premature modernizers” or “premature westernizers,” are similarly novels hewing closely to historical records.


The English pairing has them in historical order of subject matter, which is not the order in which Ibuse wrote them. Oshima, a fictional geisha remembers being very impressed by Takashima Shûhan (1798–1866), who was a dashing 21-year-old visiting (Edo, now Tokyo) from Nagasaki. He attempted to learn about European (Dutch) artillery (the only Europeans allowed to stay in Japan were Dutchmen confined to an artificial island in the Nagasaki harbor), concerned about defending Japan from European colonization, but the xenophobic, neophobic Tokugawa government suspected that improving armaments in Nagasaki must be a cover for planned rebellion, and Takashima was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest in Okabe 45 miles northwest of Edo.


(1840s painting of Takashima Shûhan)

Oshima understood and relates the complex political dynamics of the reactionary police chief Torii Yôzô and the jealousy of the official artillery theorists. “A Geisha Remembers” dates from 1950, during the US Occupation with its anti-feudalist agenda.


More remarkable is the date of “John Manjirô: A Castaway’s Chroncicle: 1937, before Japan and the US were in a shooting war, but well into the militarism that in mid-1937 expanded conflicts between Japanese encroachment and China into full-fledged war. That is, a celebration of comity between the US and Japan was quite outside the zeitgeist. The 14-year-old Manjirô Nakahama was one of four survivors of an 1841 fishing boat shipwreck. They were rescued by an American whaling ship, commanded by William Whitfield, and deposited in (then-independent) Hawai’i. Nakahama, nicknamed “John” by the American sailors, prevailed upon Captain Whitfield to take him to mainland America, where he studied navigation and English.

Going to a foreign country was a crime punishable by death in Japan. After returning to Honolulu, Manjirō bought a boat and returned to Japan (Okinawa) with two of his earlier shipmates. They were arrested, but Tosa daimyo Yôdô Yamauchi thought Manjirô’s knowledge of English and of American lifeways might prove valuable. After Commodore Perry’s kuromaru (black gunboats) forced the opening of Japan in 1853, Manjirō was summoned to the capital and made a direct retainer of the Shogun (and promoted to samurai rank).

Manjirō was sent as translator for a Japanese delegation to the US, and became de facto captain of the ship, being the only one on board with experience of sailing across open ocean. The delegation was well received in San Francisco (with invidious comparison to the Chinese already there) and Washington. Later, Manjirō was sent to observe the 1870 French-Prussia war and was able to visit Capt. Whitfield in Massachusetts.

Ibuse tells the interesting story of Manjirō, but does not imagine his private life (he was married three times and sired seven children) or attribute much in the way of emotions about the very unexpected turns the life of an illiterate Shikoku fisherman took (he became a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University and an advisor to the imperial navy).


(Statue of Manjirô Nakahama at Cape Ashizuri photographed by Muramasa, in Wikimedia Commons)

Though translators Anthony Liman and David Aylward provide introductions on the historical context of the historical figures and copious endnotes (not keyed in the texts), along with lists of his historical fiction and of previous translations of Ibuse fiction into English, they report nothing about why Ibuse wrote about these historical figures when he did. In his very long life, he must have said something about his choice of these subjects (and perhaps also of choosing to view Takashima Shûhan from the perspective of an admiring geisha).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray




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