Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Diplomat in Japan

I just finished reading Sir Ernest Satow's A Diplomat in Japan. It is not a breathtaking piece of literature, but a highly informative, if slightly skewed, window into the fall of the bakufu in Japan. His is certainly an exceptional story, coming to Japan in 1862 as a student translator with the British legation. He ended up mastering the language and being present at the most critical moment in the making of modern Japan.

Satow's view of the world is certainly as a man of privilege and power. He isn't insufferable but could surely be termed a man of his times. However, he isn't a blathering racist or an uptight pawn of the empire. He is a member of the elite, interacting with other elites in fairly extraordinary circumstances. The book was a good companion piece to the insanely popular NHK historical drama Ryoma Den, which I have been watching, pretty much, of my own free will. Although Satow only mentions Ryoma once, and that by his hilarious pseudonym, Saidani Umetaro, characters from the drama suck as Kido and Saigo show up frequently and as actual humans.

My real interest in the book was twofold. First, seeing the area that I live in and indeed the Japan of that time through Satow's eyes was incredible. The moment he crossed the mountains from Uji to Fushimi and caught sight of the Kyoto that he was forbidden to enter certainly made me ache for a time machine. One of my favorite things about the area that I live in is it isn't too hard to picture what he saw. I could probably set out this weekend and find the hill.

But at last we reached the summit, and gained a magnificent view of the great plain below, in the centre of which lies the mysterious and jealously guarded Kioto, like a Japanese Mecca, in which it was death for the heathen foreigner to set his foot. pg. 266

Second, wait, Let me pause before going into this reasoning to say that I am very skeptical of picking out little things in history, connecting them to the present and declaring that they are representative of any national character. Nevertheless there are chords that stretch through a culture and things in the past that have made or present will still be able to be seen in our future in a way that tomes like Gunfighter Nation illuminate for us. These kind of anecdotes dot the narrative laid down and one can only picture Satow coming on these scenes anew and not being able to see them manifest in our present.

For the idea then entertained by every Japanese was that the ford of the stream was too great for a boat to live in it, and that a bridge was impossible. As it has since been successfully bridged, the probability is that this belief was purposely inculcated. pg. 234

For anyone who has lost hours in modern Japan having explained to them how something completely feasible is utterly impossible, I think this will ring true.

It seemed curious...that the common people should be ready to obey him, but the Japanese...had a great appetite for being governed, and were ready to submit to anyone who claimed authority over them. pg 357.

Controversial. Possibly racialist. Up for debate? I should point out that he is referring to the "lower classes" here, not the samurai who, as befits the origin of their name, would submit to being governed, but would also kill to not be governed. Marinate on it.

A wretched being, who had been to the Untied States and had picked up a few words of low English was put... to wait on me, as if I was so ignorant of Japanese as to need an interpreter. It was explained that he was the only one of the clan who understood European manners. pg. 277

There is a lot going on here. I rather enjoy Satow's arrogance in this respect. He began his training in classical Chinese and was charged with translating documents from the Mikado and the Shogun. So, some samurai's throw a guy in front of him who speaks some sailors English in an attempt to communicate. I won't pin this one on the Japanese, this happens to me frequently in America when older gentleman who used to serve in the Navy gleefully give me their repertoire of Japanese. Classical it ain't. This passage also illustrates a trend I saw a good deal of as an exchange student and then as a friend of exchange students in the US. Often, new speakers of a language pick up the speaking habits of their cohort. And why wouldn't they? My Japanese is certainly shaped by playing football and spending a lot of time in fighting gyms. The only issue I have is when people aren't cognizant of this phenomenon and assume that a limited understanding on their part shapes the whole on the other. This is a bit of a stretch in the discussion, but the teacher next to me just asked, "Foreign people who come to Japan really like Japanese food don't they?" My completely non-entertaining response was that people who chose to visit Japan had an inherit bias to liking Japanese food, being willing to try new foods, and saying nice things as they were in another country. Swinging back to the original point, often, especially in my line of work, a person who has some foreign contact, whatever that might mean, is put in charge of handling you as you are foreign and can't interact on the same level with Japanese people. It doesn't matter if you are a professional in a world of professionals and the person placed in charge of you was a hard drinking working holiday visa college drop-out.

What the Kaga people feared was that this would lead to its being taken away from them by the Tycoon's government... But they did not venture to say this openly, and alleged therefore various other excuses, such as the inhabitants were not accustomed to see foreigners... pg. 248

Do I need to elaborate on this one? If you have ever tried to rent an apartment, or get a credit card or change your car title or buy an iPhone in Japan you will get a taste of this. You definitely will if you work in the bureaucracy. I have said before that Japan is the biggest nation of excuse makers I can think of. But, to some extent, they have had to be as responsibility is a hot potato time bomb that one has to distribute quickly and then back slowly away from until it is safe to start running.

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attempting to silence the voices in my head.