In a single short book as elegant as it is wise, Ian Buruma makes sense of the most fateful span of Japan's history, the period that saw as dramatic a transformation as any country has ever known. In the course of little more than a hundred years from the day Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in his black ships, this insular, preindustrial realm mutated into an expansive military dictatorship that essentially supplanted the British, French, Dutch, and American empires in Asia before plunging to utter ruin, eventually emerging under American tutelage as a pseudo-Western-style democracy and economic dynamo.
What explains the seismic changes that thrust this small island nation so violently onto the world stage? In part, Ian Buruma argues, the story is one of a newly united nation that felt it must play catch-up to the established Western powers, just as Germany and Italy did, a process that involved, in addition to outward colonial expansion, internal cultural consolidation and the manufacturing of a shared heritage. But Japan has always been both particularly open to the importation of good ideas and particularly prickly about keeping their influence quarantined, a bipolar disorder that would have dramatic consequences and that continues to this day. If one book is to be read in order to understand why the Japanese seem so impossibly strange to many Americans, Inventing Japan is surely it.
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February 04, 2003
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Excerpt from Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma
1 The Black Ships When Commodore Matthew (“Old Matt”) Calbraith Perry sailed into Edo Bay on July 8, 1853, with four heavily armed ships, on a mission to open up Japanese ports to American ships, he could be forgiven for thinking the Japanese were an ignorant people. Japan had been cut off from most other countries for roughly two hundred years. Japanese rulers, fearful of foreign aggression and worried that Christianity, promoted by European missionaries, would make their subjects unruly, had outlawed the Christian religion, expelled most foreigners and all priests, and forbidden Japanese to go abroad. Anyone bold enough to defy these rules faced execution, usually of a most gruesome kind. Few were so bold. Trade with China and Korea still went on, but since the 1630s, the Western presence in Japan had been limited to a handful of bored Dutch merchants confined to a tiny man-made island off the city of Nagasaki. It was one of the most extraordinary confrontations in modern history. There was Perry with his four “black ships of evil,” thundering an ominous salute at the Japanese coast by firing his cannon. And there were the Japanese, lined up on the shore, armed with swords and old-fashioned muskets. Commodore Perry insisted on dealing only with the highest representatives of the Japanese government, without really knowing who they were. The distinction in his mind between the emperor, a grand but still powerless figure, and the shogun was fuzzy. The emperor, living in Kyoto, the old imperial capital, was the symbol of Japanese cultural continuity. His duties were ceremonial and spiritual, while the shogun ruled, as the samurai generalissimo, from his seat in Edo, today’s Tokyo. From 1603, the shoguns all belonged to the Tokugawa clan, hence the name of their government, Tokugawa bakufu (shogunate), also known as Edo bakufu. Perry, however, unaware of all this, kept on insisting that his letter from President Millard Fillmore of the United States of America, demanding the right to put up and trade at Japanese ports, be taken straight to the emperor, who, even if such a letter had ever reached him, would not have known what to do with it. Communications with the Japanese were laborious, since the only European language known to their interpreters was Dutch. After Portuguese missionaries were banned from Japan in the seventeenth century, Dutch merchants, who were more interested in money than spreading the faith, were the only Europeans allowed to stay. The Japanese officials, though curious about American armaments and content to drink brandy and sugar on board Perry’s flagship, were under instruction to tell the “flowery-flagged devils” to go away. They insisted that the only place to conduct business with foreigners was Nagasaki. But Perry, confident in the power of his guns, refused to budge. The Reverend Samuel Wells Williams, the official American interpreter, whose grasp of Japanese was tenuous, wrote in his journal that “the universal Yankee nation” had come “to disturb [Japan’s] apathy and long ignorance.” When, after long deliberations, during which the Japanese countered Perry’s imperious behavior with polite vagueness and other stalling tactics, Perry was finally allowed to go ashore, the two sides set out to impress each other with as much pomp as they could muster. The commodore strode forth, flanked by his two tallest black bodyguards. The Japanese were dressed in their finest silks. Presents were exchanged: rich brocades, porcelain bowls, lacquer boxes, fans, and other finely worked treasures for the Americans; a telegraph and a miniature train for the Japanese. The Japanese brought on some sumo wrestlers, whose stomachs Perry was invited to punch. Many toasts were drunk, and one of the Japanese officials, after consuming larg