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The man behind the woman

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AN AMERICAN DIARY OF A JAPANESE GIRL, by Yone Noguchi, with an introduction by Laura E. Franey, an afterword by Edward Marx and illustrations by Genjiro Yeto. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007, 202 pp., $23.95 (paper)

Yonejiro Noguchi (1875-1947) adopted the pen name of Yone when he left Japan at the age of 19 to make his fortune in the United States. After he had done so, he returned, a published poet and essayist, later to become a respected professor of English at Keio University. While in America, however, he had also cultivated a persona quite different from that of a man of letters.

He became a winsome but madcap daughter of old Japan. One who, like him, had gone abroad to what she in her impudent manner called “Amerikey.” Here she kept a diary, in English, one which had a degree of popularity when serialized and later (1902) modestly sold. It is this that Temple University Press has now reissued.

Like Sei Shonagon before her, Miss Morning Glory (Noguchi’s name for the heroine he was impersonating) creates a journal that is largely a collection of one-line quips and criticisms. “It is wrong to believe that the beauty of woman is in her face . . . the beauty of Meriken women is in her shape.” “No Oriental man is qualified for civilisation, I declare.” “It is quite a fashion of modern gents, it appears, to spit on the pavements.” “It would be too much of a risk of one’s life to stay in Chicago.” These pronouncements cover page after page. There is no other indication of character, no plot at all.

Nor should there be. This is a work somewhat like “The Persian Letters” (1721) of the Baron de Montesquieu, or the “Chinese” section of “The Citizen of the World” (1761) by Oliver Goldsmith — a foreign traveler as the native narrator of a contemporary social satire.

There are, however, a number of differences. Our Japanese girl is writing in her own idiosyncratic English and the foibles she notes are often just as much those of her native land as those of her adopted country. Here a closer comparison might be the once-popular “A Chambermaid’s Diary” (1900) of Octave Mirbeau. Noguchi may have known this work. Certainly he wrote a sequel that he called “The American Letters of a Japanese Parlor-Maid.”

Another influence was the vogue for confessional female narratives in end-of-the-century America — the more exotic the better. There was “A Japanese Nightingale,” by Onoto Wattana (really, Winnifred Eaton of Chicago), John Luther Long’s already famous tale of poor little Butterfly, and Pierre Loti’s “Madame Chrysantheme” — a book that Miss Morning Glory much disliked. It, she said, absolutely spoiled the word “madame.”

A great difference to these is that Noguchi was impersonating a person of the opposite sex. She is frothy, flippant, frivolous — very much a Japanese man’s idea of what a Japanese girl might be like. Here, too, however, the author has precedent. Ki no Tsurayaki’s “Tosa Diary” (1935) was written by a male author posing as a woman. Noguchi knew this work well and later wrote that the earlier author’s dignity “forced him to apologize by saying that he was a woman writer.”

He himself needed no such excuse. He wanted a heedless little scatterbrain to voice his satirical objections. “Japanese love Nature? They do. But how sad to glance at Japanese garden! It is painful to notice the dwarf trees. Japs never permit one thing to grow naturally. Country of deformity!”

The diary then is a curious wild oat sown on American soil by an otherwise staid Japanese professor. As such it offers insight into other areas as well — for example, what it was like to be Japanese in the America of the early 20th-century. These various themes are brought out and enlarged by the considerable scholarly paraphernalia that accompanies this reprinting of the diary.

A literary curiosity, it offers Noguchi’s insights on Japanese culture and American mores and manners, and through these, the actual conditions under which he lived his expatriate life. Another oat sown (in 1904, with Leonie Gilmour, his editor), resulted in the birth of a son — a child who grew up to become the famous artist and sculptor, Isamu Noguchi.