How Friends Introduced Japan to America in Mid-19th Century

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

How Friends Introduced Japan to America in Mid-19th Century


Byline: Tom Carter, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

We've all had the experience of meeting someone, only to discover what a small world it is. They dated your cousin, or you have friends in common, or you are connected by some other uncanny coincidence. It's not six degrees of separation, often its just one or two.

With even a passing familiarity with things Japanese, that's what it is like reading "The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese eccentrics and the Opening of Old Japan" by Christopher Benfey.

On nearly every page Mr. Benfey introduces an American intellectual, writer or artist, or fact, or Japanese artifact, or incident, that makes the reader smile in wonder at the web of connection.

Mr. Benfey looks at how a wealthy circle of New England friends and relatives introduced Japan to the United States. Aptly named for the Hokusai print, evoking the tsunami - the social and cultural tidal wave that crashed across the United States and over Old Japan - Mr. Benfey has put together a cultural puzzle, linking Herman Melville, John Manjiro, Isabella Gardner, Henry Adams, John LeFarge, Lafcadio Hearn, Kakuzuo Okakura, Frank Lloyd Wright, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roosevelt and a dozen others, mostly friends, relatives, lovers and schoolmates, who made it happen.

The book opens with one such coincidence.

Herman Melville boarded the whaling ship Acushnet, in Fairhaven, Mass. Jan. 3, 1841, bound for Japan. Two days later, on the other side of the world, a 14-year-old boy named Manjiro, set out on a day-trip from a fishing village on Shikoku, Japan, only to be caught in a storm, washed out to sea and rescued by an American whaling ship, which eventually took him to Fairhaven.

Coming from opposite sides of the world, they were befriended by the same missionary in Honolulu, missing each the other by a couple of months. Each was destined to be a player in the introducing of East to West, and West to East, Melville with his books, and Manjiro, once back in Japan, as a translator and diplomat.

It would be 13 more years before Commodore Perry sailed into Yokohama harbor to "open" Japan. But from the time Manjiro and Melville passed each other on ships in the night, a handful of individuals, mostly from wealthy New England families, and small group of Japanese diplomats, artists, and writers, were to meet, marry, have affairs, travel, write, collect, catalogue and create art with one another, in an unprecedented intermingling and crosspollination of talent and energy, centered on Japan.

In each chapter of the book, Mr. Benfey picks two individuals and tells their intertwing stories. For example, one chapter is dedicated to Melville and Manjiro. Another to Okakura and Gardner. One of the most fascinating, to my mind, details the lives of Percival Lowell, a Washington astronomer, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who wrote what many consider to be the most erotic diary of the Victorian era. …

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