A hundred years ago Americans did not need to imagine aliens coming from outer space; the Japanese were enough. They already were on our planet and still emerging from a capsule in which they had enclosed themselves for almost 250 years. After Commodore Perry’s initial gunboat entry into Japan in 1853, the subsequent American “encounter” with the Japanese was largely shaped by two underlying questions--the same ones raised today by any likelihood of meeting extra-terrestrials: Are they rational? And are they dangerous?
The question about rationality had already arisen during the prior European contact with Japan in the 16th Century. No one had posed it more unflinchingly than he who probably did so first, an Italian Jesuit, Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606). Summing up his years in Japan, he wrote of his surprise in seeing “how everything is the reverse of Europe, despite the fact that their ceremonies and customs are so cultured and founded on reason.” How could something that turned Europe inside-out be so eminently rational? So humane? So smooth in the way it worked as a society? Without sentimentality Valignano faced facts and implications.
The detailed, often savvy observations of the earlier Europeans in Japan--as found, for instance, in the documents of Michael Cooper’s “They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640" (University of California Press)--should really be read before Robert A. Rosenstone’s “Mirror in the Shrine.” The contrasts between the two books are sharp, both for what they tell about Westerners in Japan during two different epochs and for what they might tell about what has lately been happening to the writing of history.
Rosenstone is an Americanist who just stepped out of a 10-year immersion in the tub of Japanese culture. Signs of self-consciousness about standing culturally naked are present but are complicated by the author’s great eagerness to interject his own “experience of Japan” into his narrative. On the surface, the book is about three American men--missionary William Elliot Griffis, biologist Edward S. Morse and writer Lafcadio Hearn--who went to Japan in the late 19th Century and rapidly became Japanophiles. On the very first page, however, Rosenstone tells us that he can’t decide whether to begin his narrative with his subjects’ arrivals in Meiji Japan or his own in 1974.
From his seat in the Japanese bath Rosenstone seems to wave to his reader on nearly every page. Our arms are weary from waving back at him when on the penultimate page he tells us, as if it were news, that the whole thing has been “a journey of self-exploration” and that “all three men are really a part of me.” As for the title, it derives from the fact that some Japanese shrines have mirrors on their central altars; what you see there is your own self. It’s that kind of book.
Griffis, Morse, and Hearn, each in his own way, quickly realized that Japanese civilization was either the equal of the West’s or maybe superior to it. More surprising than their discovery of this in the 1880s, however, is Rosenstone’s assumption that some similar discovery is news for the 1980s. Surely, few today have real doubts about Japanese rationality or that as a civilization Japan works very well. A trim, highly literate, debt-free, almost drug-clean, street-safe, fairly egalitarian, healthy, graffiti-free, rich, long-lived, sleek and “postmodern” Japan tells its own story. The average American who has never been to Japan (and now despairs of ever having the funds to do so) recognizes as much. For such a person, the old question about Japan’s rationality is no longer at issue but that still leaves--and maybe even exacerbates!--the other old question, the one about danger from such a source.
By deliberately fusing his subjects and himself--as well as the past and the present--on almost every page, Rosenstone writes “history” that jumps off the rails. By merging his experience with that of Griffis, Morse and Hearn, he wipes out the intervening hundred years--and the vastly different configuration in Japanese-American relations we now have. As historiography of a type now in vogue, a type ready “to highlight its own constructed nature,” this book not only takes it as given that Clio, the goddess of history, is dead but dances on her grave.
Rosenstone’s method, named as such after a hundred pages, is “montage.” His re-creations nicely depict the scenes, and especially the daily-life minutiae, that Griffis, Morse and Hearn may have seen in Japan. Rosenstone’s forte lies in pouring out the Meiji era cornucopia of material culture--as if the reader were opening the packing crates of items brought for exhibition at “Meiji mura, " the new historical theme-park at Nagoya: “tabi, rope, brushes, rice cakes, sugarplums, candies, wigs, combs, and umbrellas.” Into this are fitted words, phrases, and sentences (identified by italics) from the three men’s journals. It makes for a smooth, easy read.
Unfortunately, it fails to do what its publisher says it does; namely, “to suggest that the lessons that can be learned from Japan are the same today as they were over a century ago.” In fact, on the final pages Rosenstone backs away from that very possibility. “Somehow, I still want more from my (three) subjects. I still want them to articulate openly that Japanese criticism of Western culture that has remained buried and implicit in their stories.” But then, he concludes, “to make such demands of the dead . . . is surely to seek disappointment.” The author loses courage--and with it the potential for the tough critique, ideally a reciprocal one, that at this point in their history our two cultures could and should provide for each other.
No doubt, Griffis, Morse and Hearn are all interesting individuals and different in important ways. For the mixed-blood, half-blind, emotionally dislocated Lafcadio Hearn, Japanophilia seemed almost foreordained--especially in the arms of the woman who loved and married him there. For Morse, the biologist, Japanophilia also came relatively easy; as a convinced evolutionist with a personal letter from Darwin in hand, he was pleased to find that the Japanese, unlike his Christian countrymen, took readily to the new evolutionary theory. Morse went to Japan to collect brachiopods and stayed to collect teabowls. For Griffis, however, the journal into Japanophilia was more troubled and torturous; being the missionary of the three, he, naturally, felt more of a burden to uphold the superiority of the West as civilization and as religion. His, accordingly, is the most interesting tale.
Rosenstone’s montage of these three, however, rarely offers telling juxtapositions among them. For instance, when Griffis has trouble handling his own admiration for Japan, he discovers the utility of racial theories (good 19th-Century man that he is) and decides to believe that the Japanese may be more Aryan than Mongolian. That way he can also hold that they are shouldering some of the Anglo-Saxon peoples’ “civilizing” mission when the Japanese military whip the Chinese in 1896 and the Russians a decade later. Rosenstone lets that one slide past without a wince--or even a revealing juxtaposition. This book wants to be polite to all. Thus a promised potential here for hard critique tends to limit itself to asides about high civilization, good manners and the value of curbs on individualism.
Relations between Japan and the United States are in a different and graver condition than Rosenstone’s gently offered book might suggest. Many have noted that an at-home Japanese politeness does not always travel well abroad. Americans increasingly speak of finding something obdurate or even “aggressive” in Japanese behavior. Perhaps that is because briefcases full of cold hard yen, at least to some eyes, seem to open foreign ports with little more delicacy than Perry’s gunboats in 1853. Telling expressions of racism have also shown up again and again. The point is that there are lots of tough questions that are not being probed to any significant depth--on either side of the Pacific. Politeness tends to shade off into pussy-footing. The real roots of cultural difference go unstudied.
Unlike Americans, most Japanese now see their own society as needing only some minor fine-tuning. All real problems are elsewhere. In some large Tokyo bookstores one can find whole book bins full of new volumes classified under the rubric “ Amerika no mondai " or “the problems of America.” Some are yellow journalism; others are racist. Many are highly critical--explicitly or implicitly so. The very formation of such a category and its ready readership, however, is significant, since it displays and analyzes our society solely as a problem-plagued one. This filters down into public attitudes; when asked if they wish to visit our shores, many Japanese at home now respond with one word: “kowai” --"I’m too afraid.”
In this context, our ignorance of Japanese thought--as distinct from the sensual or impressionistic “experience” of Japan--is lamentable. It is true that, for nearly 2,000 years, the Japanese approach in intellectual matters has tended to resemble the wise dictum of William Carlos Williams: “no ideas but in things.” Unfortunately, Westerners often scramble that so badly that, when approaching Japan, they assume it means “no ideas, only things.” Rosenstone’s book, although occasionally and briefly in pursuit of the ideas in things, too often slips into that exaggeration.
Japanalia instead of Japan--it’s been with us for a long time. Even Griffis, Morse and, to some extent, Hearn showed the marked Western preference for arranging Japan on paper as a collectivity of discrete, dissociated items. The classic of the catalogue genre is Basil Hill Chamberlain’s “Things Japanese” of 1905, but the approach is still with us. Even James Clavell’s “Shogun,” although spun out as a swashbuckling tale, is mostly an assembly of Japanalia. And “Mirror in the Shrine,” in spite of its triple narratives, is a collection too. What’s still missing in these, of course, is any attempt at understanding the culture as a system and any grasp of how ideas and things are interwoven. We seldom treat Europe, the Soviet Union, or the Middle East that way.
The information gap grows larger day by day; the Japanese not only know Western languages much better than we know theirs but also take in, discuss, and analyze our ideas and trends--systematically and with alacrity. In Tokyo bookstores, alongside “Amerika no mondai, " I find important books translated from Western languages into Japanese about four years earlier than, for instance, from French into English or vice versa. The translation into our languages of what Japanese intellectuals are thinking and writing is, by comparison, laughably minuscule. The Japanese are busy, in other words, looking through American and other Western windows and analyzing what they see. At such a time, it is difficult to applaud so protracted an American gaze into a Japanese mirror.
“Montage. That’s what is needed. The image of pages on a desk calendar turning while incidents fade into one another, overlap, the long and the short reduced to the same size frame. . . . Images of home life. Griffis plants a garden: cantaloupe, eggplant, tomatoes, corn; a storm roars through Fukui, destroying most of his crops. Half a dozen young students arrive from far-off Higo, in Kyushu. Willie takes them into his house, along with some local students, until eight young men sleep in a back room, live on rice and pickles, gather after dinner for English conversation and informal lectures. On summer afternoons they troop down to the river to splash and swim together, a large family at play. Vacation. Griffis floats down the river on a boat, spends the weekend in Mikuni, where he watches women dive nude for pearls. . . . And the pages turn slowly into autumn."From “Mirror in the Shrine”