Sea-girt Japan and sea-girt Britain responded differently to the sea’s challenge. The sea that drew Britain outward hemmed Japan in. The Japanese, by and large, are an inward people. Exceptions only prove the rule. Two major ones, centuries apart, are priests and pirates. Eighth-century Japan was an infant civilization. Its prehistory had been long. Awakened at last, Japan drank eagerly from the source: China, then at its creative peak. Its capital, Chang’an, was to the East what Jerusalem was to the Christian West — the center of the world.
The 800 kilometers of stormy sea separating Japan from China barred rather than opened the way. The Japanese were neither seafarers nor shipbuilders. But Buddhist priests and scholars needed texts; they needed instruction. The books to be studied, the masters to study under, were in China. Between 607 and 838 Japan dispatched 19 missions to China — in boats that were “a mere assembly of planks and poles,” as historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba (1923-96) put it. A third of those who set out never returned.
Those who did — sometimes after 30 years of study and religious austerities — returned laden with books, knowledge and administrative skills. To them, Japan owes the main outlines of its early civilization.
Abruptly in 838 the missions broke off. Japan had matured. It could now stand on its own, and was determined to. It became a “closed country” long before its more famous withdrawal in the 17th century.
In between, we find Japan known abroad mainly for its pirates. “During the 15th century,” writes historian George Bailey Sansom (1883-1965), “the Japanese were known and feared as corsairs along all the shores of eastern Asia. … Thus when Europeans first entered the Pacific, the Japanese had already emerged from a seclusion which geography rather than temperament had imposed upon them.”
But geography shapes temperament, at least to some degree, and the 220-year seclusion that ended with an incursion by the American navy in the 1850s was not generally felt as a prison, though it was one — leaving the country and entering it were capital offenses. Only toward the end, as the system broke down, did the cage seem confining. Otherwise, culture flourished, commerce thrived, and the “great peace” that characterized the Edo Period (1603-1868) was by any standards a remarkable achievement.
A revolution — the Meiji Restoration of 1868 — brought a modernizing government to power, and slowly the prison walls came down. Emigration was legalized in 1885 and was in fact officially encouraged; Japan had too many mouths to feed.
Hawaii was the first major destination. The sugar plantations there needed laborers. So did California fruit farms. A commonplace of world civilization at last penetrated Japan: migration.
Migrants en masse competing with native laborers for wages are rarely popular. By 1900 there were some 100,000 Japanese in the U.S., 24,000 of them in California. Rising tensions came to be known on the American side as the “yellow peril.” Jingoists ranted; cooler heads prevailed. An informal binational Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907 obliged Japan to voluntarily suspend emigration to the U.S. The U.S., in return, quashed a San Francisco school board plan to force Japanese and other Asian children into segregated schools.
In 1903 a young Japanese writer named Kafu Nagai (Sokichi Nagai, 1879-1959) arrived in Seattle. He was neither farmer nor laborer. His father was a bureaucrat-turned-businessman, a Confucian scholar of the old school who intended his son to follow in his footsteps. Kafu wanted to write novels. America would knock that nonsense out of him, thought his father. It didn’t, and the novels and stories Kafu went on to write, over a long and distinguished career, remain literary landmarks to this day.
“Amerika Monogatari” (“American Stories”) was published on his return to Japan in 1908. It was enthusiastically received. Here was America served raw — a young, feverish, enterprising, lusty country, a mirror image, in a sense, of Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japan, minus the anchor and fetters of an ancient past.
Kafu roamed restlessly, studying English here, bank-clerking there, dabbling in Christianity, reading, writing, observing — always observing. Some of his stories feature Japanese migrants. The reader gets the idea: The “better life” aspired to is sometimes attained, but more often is not. Either way, the price is high.
In one story, Kafu and a friend, cycling around Tacoma, Washington, pass an insane asylum. There are Japanese patients there, says the friend. Tell me about them, says Kafu. I’ll tell you about one of them, says the friend — and the story unfolds, of a farmer from Hiroshima Prefecture, seduced by tales of boundless riches across the ocean: “Three years’ hard work, 10 years’ wealth and happiness.” He and his wife make the crossing. Landing in Seattle, they are set upon by lodging touts, labor brokers, who knows who — thieving riffraff preying on helpless newcomers, demanding outrageous commissions. The woman gets a job in a laundry; the man is taken to a lumber camp deep in the mountains to join three Japanese loggers.
The loggers are friendly and helpful. They know what the newcomer is going through. They’ve been through it themselves. “What? You left your wife alone in Seattle?” Greenhorn! Innocent! They’ll rape her, sell her into white slavery, you’ll never see her again. What to do? Bring her here, she’ll cook for all of us, and you can have your wife by your side where she belongs.
No sooner said than done. All goes well for a time, until, late one rainy night, someone says, “I want to borrow your old woman for the night.” The husband laughs, thinking the man is joking. He is not. The others chime in. Aren’t they all brothers? One woman among four men — is only one man to enjoy her?
The husband, having fallen into a faint, “regained consciousness,” the narrator tells Kafu, “but he had lost his mind and was never the same person again. So he ended up being taken to the insane asylum.”
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”