WHEN COMMODORE MATTHEW PERRY, commander of the United States East-India Fleet, sailed into Japan in the 1850s to complete the decades-long task of forcing the island nation to open its doors to trade, many in that country had no idea what that was to mean in real terms. Japan, then a famously closed society characterized by a complicated social strata and arcane feudalism, was practically the model for xenophobic overreaction. She’d been closed off, effectively, from the outside world for some 200 years. When she allowed the first Americans officially to her shores, she was not unlike a butterfly opening her wings for the pin. That might be hard to imagine in a country that today sports Elvis impersonators, champion competitive hot-dog eaters, and the best-selling automobiles in the world, but this may only serve to illustrate that perhaps in Japan, when things change, they change big.
Treaties between the United States and Japan were signed in 1854, and Japan irrevocably changed. In Richard Wiley’s imaginative, often sensuous novel, we focus on a family in the ruling Shogunate who are thrust into the whirlwind the treaties leave in the wake of their signing. Manjiro, the second son of Lord Okubo of the Great Council, is one of the few Japanese who speak English, and is therefore in demand during the negotiations. His older brother Einosuke, Lord Okubo’s representative in Edo today’s Tokyo is contemplative and not a little bit jealous of the attention the more impulsive Manjiro receives during the difficult negotiations, and elsewhere. And here’s what drives the narrative of this elegant book Einosuke is one of many in the ruling class who feel that having allowed the Americans into the ports is disastrous at least, suicidal at worst. Add to this complicated but ultimately familiar clan: Fumiko, Einosuke’s wife, who is loyal to him but vexed by her recurring attraction to one of the Americans; a semi-retired samurai; a few wise and wise-cracking teenagers; and a distraught Lord Okubo, nearly driven to ritual suicide by what he perceives as the treachery of one of his sons.
Among those deeply distrustful of the Americans is Lord Abe, the leader of the Council. The Americans are smelly, rude, big, and ugly, and so are their eight steamships, which sailed into Edo’s bay in 1853 in clouds of black smoke, armed to the gunwales (Perry was the first commodore of a steamship fleet in the United States, and gaseous emissions seem to follow him throughout his career, and this book). Lord Abe has been backed into a corner by the steamship guns and by Perry himself here presented as a somewhat mystified but jaw-forward, can-do American type.
Perry also brings with him, of all things, a traveling minstrel show, meant to entertain his Japanese hosts and perhaps display a bit of American culture. The show, presented by singers Ned Clark and Ace Bledsoe, in blackface of course, alternately horrifies and enthralls the Japanese hosts. Bledsoe later explains to the uncomprehending Manjiro that the show is an abolitionist act, meant to be taken with irony. Of course, for the unfortunate Ace, who is committed to an antislavery stance, it’s hard to explain that irony to someone from a country where unquestioning servitude is a way of life. Irony, unfortunately, crosses cultures badly.
Yet Richard Wiley makes a good case that cultural dexterity will be vital to the relationships, on any level and ultimately whether they’re good or bad, between the Americans and Japanese. He shows us a Japan of multiple sensibilities, one where a powerful man works out his frustrations by crafting elegant rock gardens, yet who tumbles with his wife in almost violent lovemaking in the same calm garden. This Japan knows gallantry backed by the creed and loyalty of the samurai, yet is the same Japan where roving bands of samurai act as paid assassins, hunting down Americans on the run from a plot to sabotage the treaties. It’s a Japan struggling with intrinsic, if not stated, knowledge that a way of life has come to an abrupt and unsettling end and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
Wiley has an authoritative command of Japan’s history and a clear respect for Japanese culture, evidenced by his earlier PEN/Faulkner Award-winning work Soldiers in Hiding (1986), which highlighted the plight of Japanese-Americans and their loyalties at the onset of World War II. Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show, which serves as a prequel to Soldiers, illustrates his ability to acknowledge culture’s depth and force and still reach inside each character for universals. He’s a global literary traveler indeed, one for whom, it has to be believed, truth can come in many languages, and many faces.
Karl Luntta is the media relations director of the State University of New York at Albany. He is a former newspaper and magazine columnist and has published fiction in International Quarterly, Baltimore Review, North Atlantic Review, Toronto Review, and others. Know it by Heart, his first novel, won the 2004 Maria Thomas Fiction Award.