The Great Wave

Rosie Reviews

Christopher Benfey’s THE GREAT WAVE

Reviewed by Rosemary de Frémery

(Spring 2004 Issue of the JETAA NY Newsletter)

2004:  Has this year witnessed increased American interest in traditional Japanese culture and values?  At a first glance, it would appear so with the success of The Last Samurai and the Academy Award nomination of Twilight Samurai for Best Foreign Language Film.  As most readers of this newsletter probably know, 2004 marks the 150th anniversary of U.S.-Japan relations.  It has been a long, complicated journey from the initial arrival of what author Ian Buruma calls “the universal Yankee nation” to our own more recent arrivals as JETs in Japan.  While observing this anniversary, it’s worth reflecting on the importance of U.S.-Japan engagement from the Meiji era to the present as well as the ways in which Americans and Japanese continue to build upon this existing relationship and draw inspiration from one another’s cultures.

New Western commentary has emerged to provide varying assessments of where we are today in this regard.  Mount Holyoke College professor Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave offers a fresh and insightful commentary on the continuing American fascination for Japan and vice versa.  He focuses on what types of Americans and Japanese have, finding no suitable outlets for their personal sensibilities in the countries of their birth, discovered cultural and spiritual homes abroad.

Ian Buruma, whose insightful writings on Japan have graced the pages of The New York Times and Salon, has also recently produced a concise guide to the rise of Modern Japan with Inventing Japan:  1853-1964.  Much of the details presented for our consideration in Inventing Japan will be familiar to even casual students of Japanese history.  This account spans the period between Commodore Perry’s dramatic 1853 arrival in Japan to the civil unrest of the 1960s, even escorting us into the new millennium with a short epilogue documenting the rise and continued dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party.

This roughly parallels the time period that was covered in the Japanese history courses I took in college and, as a result, helped me to recall names and dates I’d long forgotten.  That being said, upon finishing Inventing Japan I realized that what I really wanted was an analysis of these events, not simply a linear recounting of them.  Given the wealth of experience in cultural and political transactions that has been recorded up until this point, it is time to dedicate some attention to another tier of US-Japan relations.  Assuming that more Americans are absorbing Japanese concepts and viewpoints at a deeper level than was possible during their initial encounters with the Pacific nation in the nineteenth century, we would benefit from a look beyond economic and political developments into more subjective and ambiguous realms where Americans and Japanese make contact with and influence one another.

For an example of the type of analysis to which I’m referring, here is an excerpt from a December 2003 op-ed piece Christopher Benfey contributed to the New York Times to accompany the release of The Last Samurai:

The truth is, though, that Perry didn’t really open Japan. He did the easy part: showing off American firepower to the gaping samurai on shore, and forcing a trade agreement on the emperor. But there was a second, slower, more significant opening, which required actual understanding — of Buddhism, for example, and the traditional arts of judo and the tea ceremony … This sort of opening is as much an internal process as an external one. People talk about the Japanese influence on America; you might call this the “particle theory” of cultural exchange. But what we see in the 150 years of Japanese-American interaction is something more complicated and harder to name. Maybe we need a “wave theory” of cultural exchange, to explain the constant oscillation between East and West.

JET alumni know well how encounters with Japanese culture can continue to impact their lives in ways both subtle and obvious for years after the official close of their tenures as ALTs or CIRs.  What happens below the radar, as it were, is often more meaningful yet confoundingly difficult to accurately describe or to name, as Benfey says.  Challenging though it may be to express in words the process of cultural grafting which occurs when an American spends a considerable amount of time living in a Japanese context – to
the point at which on some level certain aspects of Japanese culture may even begin to feel inherently compatible or natural to a degree never anticipated – should be of particular interest to those who have experienced and continue to experience such a deeply personal phenomenon.

Compared to Benfey, Buruma shares few observations on these interactions in Inventing Japan.  He follows a more traditional route instead, tracking with facts Japan’s metamorphosis from a feudal state into the world power it is today.  Indeed, Buruma’s editorializing is scant except for the deliberately ironic use of the word sincere in describing fanatical right-wing assassins and for the occasional mention of the regrettable instances in which genuine pro-democracy forces were neutralized by self-described nationalist elements within Japan.  Buruma glosses over even this important aspect of Japanese politics more than one might like.
Fortunately, more in-depth histories of the Japanese Left and other movements are available including a study of the Japanese women’s movement, Reflections on The Way to The Gallows, which covers almost the same time period as Inventing Japan.  That book may not appear in Buruma’s bibliography, but those titles that are mentioned form a solid reading list for anyone desiring to more carefully examine the history of Japan and the United States.

One must be fair here:  Benfey allows himself a generous 332 pages to wax poetic on the shifting tides of US-Japan relations while Buruma rations himself to a lean 177 pages, which inevitably leads to the bare-bones treatment the reader finds in Inventing Japan.  For that reason I would consider Inventing Japan a fine introduction to modern Japanese history for people, including perhaps some 2004 JET Programme participants, who wish to familiarize themselves with the subject without having to wade through long-winded, overly dense tomes of facts and dates.  For those inclined to foray into the deeper meaning of what has transpired between our two countries within the past 150 years, however, The Great Wave will more likely satisfy their intellectual curiosity even as it raises new and intriguing questions for them to ponder.

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