EAST MEETS WEST PACIFIC COSMOPOLITANS: A CULTURAL
HISTORY OF US–JAPAN RELATIONS
country, while Japan had always been in the shadow of China. Both were outside the main axis of power – the European colonising nations – and both soon started to challenge European hegemony. Japan defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905, which made her a major player not just on the regional but on the world stage, and in 1898 the US snapped up a number of Spanish colonies – including Cuba and the Philippines.
By Michael R Auslin (Harvard University Press 315pp £36.95)
It was around this time of aggressive expansion that the first cultural organisations linking the two countries were formed. By the early 1900s Ivy League-educated Japanese were enjoying white-tie dinners with their American counterparts at organisations such as the Nippon Club and the Japan Society of New York, with the underlying aim of improving US–Japan relations by promoting cultural exchange. Early projects included the planting of two thousand cherry trees in Washington DC in 1912
IN 1848 A half-British, half-Chinook Indian called Ranald MacDonald decided he wanted to be the first American to breach the hermit kingdom of Japan. The only Westerners allowed into Japan at the time were Dutch traders. He jumped ship off Hokkaido, the northern main island, set himself adrift and, when a Japanese coastal boat passed, overturned his barque, assuming that the Japanese would rescue him and take him to Japan. Unfortunately they didn’t see him. When he eventually washed up on Japanese soil, he was arrested immediately. He was shipped back to America, dispirited, after seven months in Japanese prisons, and his account of his experiences was only published posthumously, in 1923.
and the creation of the first Japanese garden in the US, in Brooklyn.
From the start, despite MacDonald’s inauspicious exper ience, Japan and America have enjoyed a mutual fascination. In Pacific Cosmopolitans, Michael Auslin, Director of Japan Studies at the Amer i c an Enter pr i s e In s t i t u t e f or Public Policy Research, tells the story of this love–hate relationship.
It was an American, Commodore Matthew Perry, who officially ‘opened’ Japan in 1854 (though, as Auslin points out, Japan was ‘closed’ only in political, not cultural, terms; thanks to regul a r bu l l e t i n s f rom t he Dutch, t he Japanese had a very good idea of what was happening in the West). The first foreign representative there was an American, Townsend Harris; Japan’s first trade treaty with a foreign power was with the US; and the first Japanese embassy abroad went to the United States and paraded down Broadway in samurai splendour in 1860.
But at grass-roots level, opposition to Japan and in particular to Japanese immigration was growing. Although they were somewhat embarrassed by the impoverished peasants who emigrated to California, ran diners and s ent back to Japan for br i des, the grandees who populated the clubs set about lobbying against the proposed anti-Japanese immigration bill. Despite their effor t s i t passed with a huge majority in 1924. It seemed cultural exchange was not enough to ensure good relations.
Portrait of Commodore Perry, c1854
As the Second World War loomed, the cultural bodies stepped up their activities. The baseball legend Babe Ruth toured Japan in 1934 and was photographed sheltering under a dainty Japanese umbrella. The veteran statesman Kaneko Kentaro made a last ditch attempt to negotiate a way out of the crisis on the eve of Pearl Harbor, but failed.
The war marked the nadir of Japan–America relations. But the Allied occupation actually helped cement the relationship. Even after it ended in 1952, US troops remained in Japan and the dominant Western culture there was still American. The 1950s saw a boom in jazz clubs – Louis Armstrong toured three times – and pro-wrestling.
Initially Auslin’s focus on the US–Japan relationship – as opposed to Japan’s relationship with the Western world – seems a little jingoistic. In the early days of Japan’s interaction with the West, Britain and France played a larger role than America did. But these two countries on opposite sides of the Pacific had a great deal in common, despite their apparent differences.
In the mid-nineteenth century the US was a young
The Japanese public aspired to the American good life and by the 1960s most had ‘the three treasures’ – a fridge, a TV and a washing machine. Meanwhile, in the US, Japanese design – pottery, scrolls and painting – became hip. While Chinese food was ubiquitous, Japanese was the expensive cuisine of the elite. GIs who had learnt martial arts in Japan practised them at home
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011