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Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

The popular consensus: What's not to like?


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
FOREIGNERS WHO LOVED JAPAN, by Naito Makoto & Naito Ken. Kodansha International, 2009, 255 pp., ¥1,200 (paper)

Arguably, Donald Richie's "The Honorable Visitors," a series of profiles of foreigners who lived or put in significant time here, is the standard against which most writings on expatriates in Japan are measured. Richie's essayist's concision, the attention to language that differentiates literature from reportage, may be missing from "Foreigners Who Loved Japan," but what we do get is a great deal of fact and often engaging detail on the lives and achievements of the subjects selected for this collection.

Extensive biographies have already been written about some of these subjects. Other figures are hardly known in the West: the self-appointed missionary William Merrell Vories (1880-1964), who was known, when the spirit moved him, to cruise around Lake Biwa on a motorboat, pulling into harbor to spread the Christian message to anyone who would listen; and Wenceslau de Moraes (1854-1929), a Portuguese diplomat with a profound love of Japanese women, good literature and alcohol. Others, like Karl Juchheim (d. 1945), a German who combined a successful confectionery business in Japan with donations to the Nazi party are, perhaps, best forgotten.

It's interesting to learn who among the 20 historic figures here are still familiar to Japanese people, and for what reasons. Many, like the architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920), are far better known in Japan than their country of origin. James Curtis Hepburn (1815-1911), despite being a renowned ophthalmologist and educator, is best known for the Hepburn system of romanization; William Smith Clark, whose sojourn here in 1876-1877 lasted less than a year, is still inexplicably revered in Japan for uttering to his students the parting words, "Boys, be ambitious!" Another figure little known outside Japan is Scotsman Henry Faulds (1843-1930), a Braille specialist who stumbled upon a method for identifying criminals through fingerprinting.

Perhaps the most extraordinary story here concerns the Meiji Era (1868-1912) entertainer Henry James Black. Working under the stage name "Kairakutei," Black became a music hall performer and innovative rakugo storyteller, achieving no small popularity with Japanese audiences for his Kabuki performances in the role of Banzuin Chobei. Black took his art seriously, despite the vocal opposition of his own family, who persistently derided his calling.

Don't look for depth in this book; these are snapshots, but sufficiently well composed to arouse further interest and inquiry. Limited space has necessitated omissions, suggesting that a larger future accounting may be in order. This would include, among others with a strong affection for Japan and a personal agenda for coming here, the pioneering Meiji Era American journalist and lifelong champion of Japanese government policy, Edward H. House, who lived at one time on a houseboat on the Sumida River, and the poet Edmund Blunden, an astute eyewitness to both pre- and postwar Tokyo.

There is only one woman represented in the profiles, the American Clara Whitney, whose diaries document the early years of the Meiji Era. There are many others worthy of consideration, from the Victorian Mary Crawford Fraser, a diplomat's wife and writer who called Japan and southern Italy her "two real homes," to the English novelist and journalist Angela Carter, who lived here in the 1970s.

Curiosity and the prospect of professional advancement only partly explain why many people have remained in Japan beyond their intended stay. Seduction and infatuation were, and are, potent elements in altering people's states of mind. William Adams, said to have been in 1600 the first Englishman to reach Japan, had longed to return to his wife and daughter in London's Limehouse district until the comforts and privileges accorded him here — and a new object of romance in the form of the young Oyuki — produced a change of heart.

One gets a sense that, from the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier to German architect Bruno Taut, people have most often been lured to these shores not by a desire to contribute to the country but for the personal opportunities to be had here, and the culture's power to transform the individual. For many, Japan has been a finishing school.



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