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From Meiji gentleman to ‘Japanese Yankee’

by Donald Richie

This curiosity (a first-person account of the writer’s gradual transformation from Meiji gentleman to self-proclaimed “Japanese Yankee”) was first published in 1898 (by the Congregational Church) and never again seen until now.

A JAPANESE ROBINSON CRUSOE by Jenichiro Oyabe, edited by Greg Robinson and Yujin Yaguchi. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009, 185 pp., $28 (paper)

Since then our few insights into the state of expatriation have deepened (a little) and this simple-hearted, simple-minded text is now republished by a prolific university press and fitted out with all the scholarly impedimenta appropriate to a college text.

It is the autobiography of one Jenichiro Oyama (1867-1941) who departed for North America in 1885 and (perhaps more like Rip Wan Winkle than Robinson Crusoe) resided there for a number of years.

In 1898, mission accomplished, he returned to his neglected homeland. “Almost fourteen years ago I wandered away from my father’s house as a poor heathen, yet with a strong desire to go to America and secure a Christian education.”

Unsympathetic to “the Hindu bowing before his idol, the Turk praying toward Mecca,” he averred that not one of them “reached the Truth”: namely, that “Jesus of Nazareth is the only divinely appointed Redeemer and Saviour of the world.”

Though reduced to polishing shoes in the initially unfriendly cities of the new world, Oyabe consoled himself by asking whether “it is a part of practical Christian education to imitate the Master in washing one another’s feet?”

The answer was yes and so once again fervent faith proved a way to get a leg up and proceed upon one’s educational bildungsroman. Oyabe was, we would now say (and the editors do), reinventing himself. His sole ambition was to belong and to become. He was consequently soon charitably taken into the fold, where “all my associations were Christian, and even the dogs and cats in the school grounds seemed to have some idea of religion.”

All of this artlessly expressed and with the deepest sincerity rings true for a time. Certainly, the editors imply, all of his account was written by the Japanese Yankee himself. He had read “Robinson Crusoe” before he left (it was translated as early as 1850 into Japanese from the Dutch), but the main literary influence on the author’s style seems both the King James English version of the Bible and the more flowery language of the Victorian novels.

“And though I was a brave and adventurous youth,” he writes, “at the last sight of the vessel sailing homeward, many tears rolled from my eyes!” And, with some help from a popular collection of homilies (“Self Help”) he coins: “Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth and a foot out of joint”

Oyabe’s desire to be a proper Christian Yankee leads him (and here the editors speak) to identify with dominant white groups and his disdain for other minorities; particularly the blacks and the “red” Indians pointed the way to prejudice. He so differentiates himself that he can look at his Chinese laundryman and observe “the almond-eyed fellow taking things easy after the manner of his American customer.”

Faith is indeed a great assistance in defining oneself, but sometimes faith falters. So it did in the case of the fervent Oyabe. Religion segued into nationalism.

Once he had left Yankee land and returned to the country of his forefathers, the author was writing an account “proving” that Genghis Khan was really the escaped Yoshitsune Minamoto, that the Japanese sport of sumo “sprang from the great ancestor Israel who wrestled with the Angel,” and in 1929 he wrote the suspicious “Origin of Japan and Japanese,” where the country and its people were discovered to be one of the lost Jewish tribes. At the same time the editors affirm that the author “moved from Christianity to advocacy of a Christian-Shinto syncretism” more appropriate for the times.

Definitions of self are, even for the pious, mostly hand hewn, and so the recounting of any such attempt is educational. The urge to belong, the need to be a part of something should be watched. So should the consequences.