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THE GREAT WAVE: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan, by Christopher Benfey. New York: Random House, 2003, 534 pp., with monochrome plates, $25,95 (paper).

In the middle of the century before last, Japan was — as the West termed it — finally opened up. The mysterious closed land now lay exposed. Having, as the Americans said, fallen asleep in the reign of Elizabeth I, it was shaken awake in the reign of Queen Victoria.

Among the many results was a consequent modernism. Japan, unable to lick the West, would join it. The restoration of the Emperor Meiji and the resulting decades named after him (1868-1912) were filled with the often piquant spectacle of Japan catching up.

At the same time that Meiji was modernizing, however, a very different Japan was being seen by at least some Americans. These were, in main, those easterners who were already sick of what Mark Twain had called the “Gilded Age” — that carpet-bagging period that succeeded the American Civil War, one which assessed worth by wealth.

These people, largely New Englanders, saw in what they knew of the tradition of old Japan something finer — aesthetic cultivation, an austere religion, a social order of aristocracy. The stern devotion of the samurai seemed something close to the equally stern ethos of their own Puritan forebears. Zen austerity more than answered Victorian ostentation. Consequently a number of such-minded folk began pilgrimages to Japan.

This cultural opening, says the author of this sumptuous account, is the subject of his book. “The burden of the narrative will be to get the meaning and shading of those journeys right.” And to remain constantly aware of the greater irony. “Just as the Bostonians were falling in love with old Japan, Japan was reinventing herself as a modern state.”

Those who came were varied but some things were shared. Most came from the land of the Boston Brahmins; they were all dissatisfied, and they all, more or less, knew each other. Henry Adams came with John La Farge, they met Edward Morse, and then stayed with Ernest and Mary Fenollosa. William Sturgis Bigelow was an acquaintance, as was Percival Lowell.

Then there were friends of friends. Amy Lowell (Percival’s sister) was a friend of Ezra Pound, who ended up with the Fenollosa manuscripts. Bigelow knew Teddy Roosevelt (and introduced judo into the White House). The Baron Ryuichi Kuki who, along with Fenollosa’s main guide, Kakuzo Okakura, had connections with Frank Lloyd Wright. Okakura was close (very, it would seem) to Isabella Stewart Gardner, who founded her own museum and had (along with Lowell) attended and been inspired by the lectures of Edward Morse.

That most of this large cast of characters were at least acquainted with each other gives their enterprise a unity that it perhaps might otherwise not have had. Fenollosa disdained all post-16th-century Japanese art and scorned the woodblock prints that Adams avidly collected. But at least both were actively concerned in Japan’s past and, in their separate ways, were trying to preserve it.

Their closeness also creates the structure of this account. We are often shown these people in pairs. This suits not only the circumstances of their lives in Japan but also reinforces the duality of their experience — and that of their countries.

The use of pairs is stressed from the beginning when the author asks us to “imagine the following scenario. Two fatherless boys on opposite sides of the earth take to the sea within days of each other, in search of adventure and a livelihood.” The fatherless youths are Herman Melville and “John” Mung aka Manjiro.

A parallel is drawn between the two and what at first seems merely fortuitous is forced to reveal the proofs of a very odd similarity. Likewise, the others in this panorama are also paralleled so that the facets of one illuminate the shapes of the others. Thus, a part of the sheer readability of this literate, informed, balanced and extraordinary book is the the way it is put together and the care of the author to let us know just what he is doing.

The result is a rare kind of social history, one in which the author reveals an important pattern and gets, as he intended, the meaning and shading of those journeys right.

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