Never heard the name Ranald MacDonald? (Not easily forgotten, for sure.) This is about to change, thanks to the book “Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan” by American author Frederik Schodt.
Fred has told the true story of a half-Chinook and half-Scottish adventurer who intentionally marooned himself in feudal Japan in 1848. After being rescued by Ainu and then forced to step on an image of the Virgin Mary in Nagasaki, he helped facilitate Japan’s modernization.
The inscription on Ranald’s tombstone (with rocks from Hokkaido’s Rishiri Island) in Torada, Wash., encapsulates the intriguing nature of the man:
RANALD M ACDONALD 1824 — 1994 SON OF PRINCESS RAVEN AND ARCHIBALD M ACDONALD HIS WAS A LIFE OF ADVENTURE SAILING THE SEVEN SEAS WANDERING IN FAR COUNTRIES BUT RETURNING AT LAST TO REST IN HIS HOMELAND
“SAYONARA” — FAREWELL
Fred first ran across references to Ranald while writing his third book, “America and the Four Japans: Friend, Foe, Model, Mirror,” around 1991-92. “I was astounded that I’d never heard of him. His story really resonated with me. Quite frankly, I became rather obsessed with the idea of learning more about him.”
It took Fred some 12 years to finally articulate in print what he had learned about Ranald. He discovered through the character an entirely new perspective on late 19th century history, in particular as it relates to early U.S.-Japan contacts.
“Ranald helped me see that much of ‘official’ history is an artificial construct,” Fred explains from California, “put together from the perspective of nation-states. Real history is made by ordinary individuals, in ways that are frequently overlooked.”
Ranald MacDonald is a particularly problematic person to study, he continues, because while there is a great deal of primary source information on him, scattered on at least three continents, it has often been misinterpreted. “Also, being of blurred ethnicity and nationality, he has tended to fall through the cracks of national histories. Today, the Canadians, the Americans, the British and at least two Native American tribes can all claim him as one of their own.”
For his own part, Fred was born in Washington, D.C. Because his father worked for the Foreign Service, he spent his formative years in Norway, Australia and Japan. “Living in Australia, my father was told that he was being assigned to France. No sooner was I theoretically enrolled in the American School of Paris than my father was told he was going to Japan instead.”
Attending the American School in Japan, where he was discouraged from learning Japanese (things have changed), it was only in his last year that he developed an interest in Japan. One reason was that his parents had left Japan, leaving Fred to complete his education.
“Boarding in a dormitory for missionary children, where my roommate and others spoke good Japanese, I began to see the benefits of fluency, especially when traveling around Japan by motorcycle during the holidays.”
Deciding eventually to major in Asian studies, Fred returned here in 1970 on the University of California’s Year Abroad Program, and studied Japanese at the International Christian University, in Tokyo. He wound up staying and studying a second year, returning to Santa Barbara in 1972, and graduating.
After spending several years as a hippie, and working as one of the first non-Japanese tour guides/escorts for JALPAK in Los Angeles, he applied to the Ministry of Education for a scholarship and wound up coming back to Japan around 1975-76 to study interpretation and translation, again at ICU. “I began my career as a translator with a then famous firm in Tokyo called Simul.”
Returning to California in 1978, he began working in San Francisco as a freelance translator and interpreter, and has continued to do so ever since. He makes his living primarily as a conference interpreter, but also translates books and manga that appeal to him, and writes books. He returns here once or twice a year, while remaining deeply involved in Japan through his work in San Francisco.
Fred thinks manga comics are wonderful entertainment, offering also “a straight view into the Japanese id, you might say. They are great fun, and also very useful to me in my line of work. Right now, with a friend (Jared Cook) I am translating one of the most famous manga series, Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Hi no Tori’ (‘The Phoenix’).”
Fred and Jared translated the first five volumes almost 30 years ago, but these were published in English only a few years ago, by Viz in San Francisco. “We’ve been commissioned to finish the series (12 volumes all told), so our work has come full circle. I’m also working on a short manga-related book of essays.”
Having dropped in en route to Japan via Hawaii’s Honolulu festival to talk about Ranald MacDonald from March 9 to 13, Fred will be speaking about this amazing character at Good Day Books in Ebisu, Tokyo, on Sunday, March 19, and at the Asiatic Society of Japan the next day.
To gain admission to Fred’s BOOKNOTES event at Good Day Books, beginning at 6:30 p.m., you need only to purchase a copy of “Native American in the Land of the Shogun.” And be assured: Fred is limbering up to inscribe the flyleaf and answer all your questions.