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
6 FOREIGN PARTS
and, i n F l ower Power Amer i c a , Zen (which t he Americans transmogrified into a ‘do-it-yourself mélange of meditation, exercise and cultural exploration’) offered an alternative to consumer culture.
This period also saw an explosion in Japanese studies, fuelled by the huge pool of ex-servicemen who had acquired very good Japanese. Cold War America needed to understand its allies and, with Communist China out in the cold, Japan was America’s primary friend in Asia.
But in the 1970s the special relationship took a turn for the worse. Japan was rapidly becoming an economic superpower, threatening to overtake America. Time magazine predicted darkly that the next century would be ‘the Japanese Century’. When Mitsubishi bought the Rockefeller Center in 1989, qualms turned to outrage, with accusations that the Japanese were buying up America. Memories of the war might have gone underground, but they had not disappeared. While American consumers spent money on Japanese radios, TVs, cars and the ubiquitous Walkman, the Japanese were accused of destroying the American automotive industry. A Toshiba radio was smashed on the White House lawn. Harvard Business School assigned its students The Book of Five Rings, by the seventeenthcentury swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, hoping to crack the supposed secret of Japanese business.
Then in the 1990s everything changed again with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the first Iraq War, which started almost immediately afterwards. It was also the end of the Japanese economic miracle; books began to appear with titles such as The Sun Also Sets. Meanwhile, totally outside the remit of the official cultural exchange bodies, a new generation was discovering Japanese culture in the form of anime and manga, which took the US by storm. Officialdom leapt on the bandwagon. The gover nment created the Inter national Manga Award and Japan’s first ‘Anime ambassador’. Japan might have lost its business prowess but not its cool.
Fascinating though Auslin’s canter through US–Japan cultural relations is, the core of his book is the somewhat rarefied story of the diverse organisations created to facilitate and fund them. Readers interested in the o r i g i n s o f t he Ja pan Society, Ja pan Foundation, International House and other official and non-official bodies will be gripped but others may be tempted to skip a few pages. Inevitably in a book of this scope there are omissions and oversights. I could find no reference to Japonisme and was sur pr ised that the Kawakami troupe – the first professional Japanese theatre troupe to tour the US – was dismissed in half a paragraph on the strength of a single rather obscure article. The index is also inadequate. Kaneko Kentaro, for a start, who plays an important role in this story, is noticeably absent. Nevertheless this book fills an important gap. ❑
H I GH T I DE TO LOW EBB
CITY OF FORTUNE: HOW VENICE WON AND LOST A NAVAL EMPIRE
By Roger Crowley (Faber & Faber 405pp £20)
IN THE MARITIME museum in Venice are the few remaining fragments of the Bucintoro, that magnificent galley in which every year on Ascension Day the reigning Doge was rowed out into the lagoon to perform a symbolic wedding with the sea. Anthems were sung, trumpets blared, drums were rattled, fiddlers fiddled, the collective retina was assaulted by the shimmer of silks and brocades (and that was just the senators), the Doge threw a ring into the sea (which once or twice cast it back inside a fish’s belly), and La Serenissima reassured itself of an uncontested dominion over the watery element.
The justification for this mystic union, as Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune demonstrates, was pure geopolitical necessity. In its earliest years, as a huddle of villages on mudbanks in an Adriatic lagoon, Venice needed the sea for subsistence and protection. Maritime trade became the growing city’s raison d’être and the deciding factor in its various alliances. Venice quickly grew notorious among Italy’s merchant republics for its unscrupulousness, hard-nosed self-interest, and complete disdain for traditional allegiances to the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Like Britain in Palmerston’s famous dictum, Venice cultivated interests rather than fr iendships. To accusations of faithlessness and chicanery, its citizens’ disingenuous response was that they acted thus ‘because we cannot live otherwise, and know not how, except by trade’.
The Bucintoro’s brief but always spectacular annual outing perpetuated the moment in AD 1000 when Doge Pietro II Orseolo sealed Venetian destiny with a thumping naval victory over pirates infesting the waters around the Croatian islands of Korcula and Lastovo. Gratifying though it was for Orseolo and his successors to be styled ‘Dux Dalmatiae’, the real prize lay further east, amid the harbours and islands of Byzantine Greece and the jawdropping opulence of imperial Constantinople. Building a massive fleet, ostensibly for the purpose of transporting the warriors of the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land in the spr ing of 1203, Venice clandestinely secured an agreement with the expedition’s leaders whereby the whole enterprise was sent sailing to Byzantium (though emphatically not in a fashion that would have appealed to W B Yeats).
In the name of instating would-be emperor Alexius
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011