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Adventures of a Postmodern Historian

An excerpt from the new book

Eight years after the end my Fulbright, at the beginning of April 1983, I return to Japan for ten weeks in an effort to connect to the world of the nineteenth century, return in an attempt to share experiences and feelings buried in the past — theirs and my own. How to do it? Rush about the country seeking the places where they lived and worked? Visit sites important to the nation’s history while trying to imagine away the skyscrapers, bullet trains, traffic jams, store windows full of the latest television sets, stereo equipment, transistor radios, the whole terrifying contemporaneity of this country in which gadgetry was in the process of being raised to an art form?

Hints of the past do remain, even in Tokyo. Away from the huge buildings of the business districts — Maranouchi, Ginza, and Shinjuku — the city can seem like a sprawling village, everything scaled down and packed together, alleys too narrow for cars, tiny Shinto shrines tucked between buildings, mysterious black kanji dancing on banners hanging from rooftops, noren (short curtains) spelling out the name of the establishment swaying over sliding doors to noodle shops. It is sakura (cherry blossom) season, and the parks along the moat of the Emperor’s huge compound are filled with office workers, ties loosened, jackets abandoned, sitting on tatami mats beneath dazzling white trees, drinking cold sake, munching on dried squid, seaweed, raw fish from bento boxes, and raising their voices in song, until the rains come and they must seek shelter. It is a season of strikes against the government, where protesters and police dance around each other far more gracefully than in the anti-war demonstrations we held during Vietnam days.

My first research jaunt begins with a half-hour train ride to Yokohama, where all of us, my subjects and I, first set foot on Japanese soil. Created in the 1860s as a special port meant both to welcome and isolate foreigners — merchants, missionaries, and that new species called globe-trotters — the city’s original walls and guard posts aimed to keep strangers from contaminating natives with their outlandish beliefs and weird habits. In 1982 it seems a typical drab modern city, with no especially attractive features. Long gone are the structures of the nineteenth century: the custom house shed where visitors landed, the Western-style banks, the hotels and rooming houses, the offices of trading companies built along a stone waterfront road named the Bund, the three churches — Catholic, Dutch Reform, Methodist — the handsome racetrack built by the British, the walled pleasure quarter of tea houses with their dancing girls and prostitutes. Due to American bombing and the necessary reconstruction of the post-war years, all have been buried beneath the tons of concrete used to construct new streets and buildings. One old section which does remain, Motomachi, a narrow slice of tiny wooden structures originally built along a stream to house laborers who once worked for foreigners, is now lined with high-end stores: Gucci, Armani, Yves St. Laurent. On the Bluff (always capitalized by its residents) above the town, overlooking what American visitors used to call Mississippi Bay, you can still find a few Victorian mansions, along with a single wooden church built by those who made fortunes here. A plaque on its gate reads: Destroyed by bombs in 1945. Rebuilt for God in 1948.

South of Yokohama lies the sacred island of Enoshima, an hour by train from Tokyo (eight hours by rickshaw in Morse’s day), connected to the mainland by a thin sandy spit, as jam-packed with tourists today as it was a century earlier when Morse arrived there. Noisy, festive pilgrims sporting colorful headbands and white jackets struggle up narrow stone streets squeezed between restaurants, ryokan, and souvenir stores. Touts grab at you as they shout the wares and pleasures of their establishments. At the top of the hill you reach the surprisingly small and rather worn (an opinion I share with Morse) sacred statue of Benten, in which the good Victorian anti-religionist showed virtually no interest. Morse’s days in Enoshima were devoted to serious scientific work: dredging in the bay for mollusks and other marine creatures; sorting, studying them through a microscope, and classifying them in a small building he called a marine laboratory. But even with a former student as my translator, I can find nobody here who knows his name, nor anything of his scientific discoveries, nor where the building was located, nor which inn served as his home for three months.

Kyoto, capital of the nation for a thousand years, was (oddly it seems) not of particular importance for any of my subjects. But thanks to art historian Langdon Warner, whose advice to the American Air Force that it was not a military target and should not be bombed was taken seriously, the city has to remain the prime destination for anyone interested in tasting, savoring, and sinking into traditional Japanese culture. The problem for the researcher here is that the city is an embarrassment of riches. No matter how many gardens, temples, shrines, museums, and palaces I visit each and every day, more masterpieces of design and architecture await, and then still more. Two weeks of ferocious touring and, with a certain amount of relief, I manage to escape, overloaded with visions of Old Japan that connect obliquely to my subjects.

Fukui, where Griffis taught chemistry every weekday and preached the gospel surreptitiously in his home on Sundays, is my next destination. The journey from Kyoto in April 1982 takes half a day on a rather rickety and uncomfortable local train. Following a similar route, it took Griffis, surrounded by an honor guard of twelve samurai, a week to cover the same ground on horseback in March 1871. His entourage stopped at the wooden barrier gates that marked the borders between different fiefdoms, and each time officials in formal kimono bustled forth to make welcoming speeches while crowds of commoners touched their heads to the ground. At Fukui, the governor and his aides rode out to meet the new teacher and accompanied him back to the huge traditional mansion in which he would live until a suitable Western house could be built.

My own arrival is much more modest. At an aged railroad station I am greeted by a gray-suited Professor Yamashita, the local Griffis expert, who, after a suitable amount of bowing on the platform, rushes me off to the city museum. From the cab, I can see that the beautiful wooden mansions along Asawagaya river that Griffis describes in loving detail have been replaced by the featureless concrete buildings of the typical Japanese city. The museum itself is largely devoted to what by now I call the usual suspects: collections of samurai armor, swords, and pikes; screen paintings; carved wooden sculptures of angry-faced temple guardians; colorful prints of actors and geisha; maps that are impossible to decipher; and the ironwork kettles and various items of pottery meant for tea ceremony. The displays devoted to Griffis — blow-ups of photos, letters in glass cases, scraps of clothing, utensils of American origin — tell me little I don’t already know. What brings me closest to the past are two three-foot tall wooden dissection models, male and female, made in France and already in the Fukui school when the young American arrived in 1871. These he used to illustrate human anatomy while teaching informal classes in physiology to his ever-curious students. When, after checking around to make sure no guards are watching, I put my hand out to touch each one, it is as if I am having momentary contact with the man himself.

Griffis was a sensible Victorian who liked to take long walks — good for the health! — along the river. I ask Yamashita to join me in a similar stroll, but the idea makes him nervous. I understand why. In pre-modern times, Japanese did not take walks for pleasure, and, as I learned in Fukuoka, modernity has not altered that attitude. Well-marked hiking courses may be laid out in country parks and along the seashore, but strolling in a city without a specific destination is an alien concept. When Yamashita hesitates, I explain the action in terms of research. Let’s see if we can feel like we are Griffis. With obvious reluctance, he agrees, but once we begin to stroll along the stone embankment, he keeps looking around anxiously, as if we are engaged in some sort of forbidden act. After two hundred yards he asks if we haven’t already gone far enough. Another two hundred and he comes to a full stop. Walking okay, he says, don’t you think? We feel like Griffis now. Maybe we go for coffee, okay?

* * *

The breakthrough comes when I am sitting at my desk in the East–West Center in Honolulu where I am on a fellowship for the year, comes while I am staring out the window at a hillside covered with thick tropical underbrush punctuated by palms and guava trees, comes as I reread notes taken from Griffis’ diaries and publications, comes as I try to picture what it was like for this young American to ride through a wintry landscape, guarded by a dozen samurai, comes as I realize that all the images that dance in my mind—the snow-covered hills and leafless trees, the unpainted wooden wayside shrines with their statues of Jizo, guardian of children, the steaming bodies of the horses, the muffled figures of the riders, the expressionless faces, the two swords worn by the samurai—have been created by directors like Kurosawa in films set during the feudal period. To suggest that today we see the past in the form of moving images on a screen, I begin the chapter with the words Like a motion picture, then go on to describe the young man’s six-day cavalcade from Osaka to Fukui in terms of details which might be captured by a camera.

That moment helps to make the rest of Mirror in the Shrine possible. In a way it is fitting: the experience of the author inflected by that of his characters, and vice versa. Each had a rupture with the past in Japan, a moment, or a series of them, which changed the direction of their lives and careers. Or so I write their stories, conscious of the fact that turning points are as much my invention as their experience, for the incidents, events, and moments that lead up to change are buried behind the words they used to describe their days. For the straight-laced Griffis it was the moment in Fukui when the temptation posed by the young serving girl in his house caused him either to lose, or to fear losing, his Christian morality; for the practical, no-nonsense Morse it was when he turned from studying marine creatures to collecting traditional stoneware pottery; for Hearn it was when he decided to give up his restless, lifelong search for adventure and turn his initially temporary marriage to a local woman into a permanent one. And for me it was the decision, perhaps foreshadowed in the structure of Romantic Revolutionary, to break with the current practices of historical writing, with what you might call the internalized superego of academia, and write in a way suited to the contemporary — or at least, my contemporary — taste and sensibility.

The moving camera for Griffis’ journey to Fukui was only the first of my innovations. The others could not be hurried, but arrived in their own sweet time over the next few years of struggle with the manuscript, which ultimately took me more than a decade to produce. A most important one had to do with structure. Rather than taking the traditional road of telling three biographies in sequence, I found that there was a kind of synergy to be gained by ignoring chronology in favor of setting the three stories side by side in terms of what I called the stages of the Japan experience: Landing (first weeks), Searching (life before Japan), Loving (falling under the spell of the culture), Learning (coming to grips with its contradictions), Remembering (lives after the initial years). And if I didn’t quite realize it then, it seems clear now that these were also the stages of my own year in Japan, projected into the past, the final one being the struggle I was having to write the book.

To increase the immediacy of the historical experience, I decided to use the present, not the past tense, and the work included a touch of the self-reflexive, having the biographer appear from time to time as a kind of minor character who assesses and complains about the shortcomings of the evidence with which he has to work and shares the problems of constructing the narrative while he is in the process of constructing it. A few passages speak in the second person, with the ambiguous effect that the book, or its author, is directly addressing the characters, or the audience, or both. Several times I dare to use the (dreaded by historians) word, as one of the historical characters speaks or paraphrases words he wrote in a letter or diary entry.

These innovations let me imagine I was involved in creating new possibilities for writing history. They were unusual and provocative enough to ensure that my current editor at Knopf would shoot off a letter declining to exercise the publisher’s option on the work on the grounds that This is not the proper way to write history. Several other trade presses also had negative responses, though with rejections that were more standard and oblique: Unusual and interesting as we find this manuscript, it is really not suitable for our list.

It took an editor with an open mind and a great imagination at Harvard University Press, Aida Donald, a historian herself, to see that one could play with the form of narrative and still be writing history. The first outside reader, Edwin O. Reischauer, Harvard professor, former ambassador to Japan, and dean of Japan studies in the US, found the manuscript to be absolutely delightful for its portrait of nineteenth-century Japan seen through the eyes of three remarkable but very different Americans, and then for the marvelous reconstruction of how Japan worked on their minds, radically changing their perception of the country and the whole relationship of East and West … The book is a tour de force. The History Book Club chose Mirror in the Shrine as a monthly selection and the reviews in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals were generally positive, even in specialized publications dealing with Japanese or Asian history. One reviewer in a literary quarterly gushed over it as our first piece of postmodern history. This was pleasing enough even though it must be admitted that in 1988, the year the book appeared, I had no idea what the word postmodern meant.

In a way, that review was a wakeup call. During the thirteen years between my return from teaching in Kyushu and the publication of Mirror in the Shrine, the world at home and abroad had undergone enormous changes, but my focus on the problem of how to write about nineteenth-century Japan — along with the time-consuming, normal academic business of classes, meetings, and conferences — let me to a large extent ignore them. Of course I knew that Ronald Reagan’s presidency, with its trickle-down economics, Star Wars, and the Iran-Contra affair were all signs of a shift to the right in the body politic. But to a large extent I was still living in the mental realm of the sixties, one in which play, experimentation, and innovation were highly valued. The unfamiliar word suggested that the issues with which I struggled in order to create a new sort of historical narrative were not mine alone. Radical political and social movements might be dead, but something odd was happening in the social, artistic, and intellectual world into which I had inadvertently stumbled, and the current word for this — though nobody could clearly define it — was Postmodernism.

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Robert Rosenstone

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