In this extraordinary collection of writings, covering the period from 1878 to 1989, a wide range of Japanese visitors to the United States offer their vivid, and sometimes surprising perspectives on Americans and American society. Peter Duus and Kenji Hasegawa have selected essays and articles by Japanese from many walks of life: writers and academics, bureaucrats and priests, politicians and journalists, businessmen, philanthropists, artists. Their views often reflect power relations between America and Japan, particularly during the wartime and postwar periods, but all of them dealt with common themes—America’s origins, its ethnic diversity, its social conformity, its peculiar gender relations, its vast wealth, and its cultural arrogance—making clear that while Japanese observers often regarded the U.S. as a mentor, they rarely saw it as a role model.
Rediscovering America Japanese Perspectives on the American Century
The pandemic has created major supply chain challenges for publishers, manufacturers, warehousing facilities and shipping companies. Please allow for a minimum of 15 business days to receive your order. If you need your order sooner, consider purchasing from one of our retail partner links in the buying options. Thank you!
Illusion and Disillusion
Of all the foreign powers the Japanese encountered in the nineteenth century, the United States seemed the most different from the rest. It was a country to be admired, not feared. American gunboats under Commodore Matthew Perry had persuaded the Tokugawa shogunate to establish diplomatic relations with Western countries, but the threat of French and British gunboats is what ultimately convinced them to open their ports to foreign trade and foreign residents. And during the final struggles that led to the overthrow of the shogunate, the Americans remained benignly neutral while the French and the British, competing for influence, backed opposing sides. "Americans, because they are from a new country, are gentle," wrote a young official on the first Japanese diplomatic mission to Washington in 1860. "High officials do not arbitrarily despise commoners, nor do they abuse their power. The nation is rich and the people are peaceful, finding themselves in a position of perfect security." By contrast, the Europeans, especially the British, seemed not only arrogant and high-handed but also duplicitous and disdainful of the Japanese.
Even before educated Japanese had any direct contact with Americans, they idealized the United States as a political and moral utopia. Young Japanese samurai determined to replace the shogun's regime with a more virtuous, and therefore stronger (in their minds), government avidly read a history of the United States written in Chinese by an American missionary, E.C. Bridgman, and translated into Japanese in 1854. These would-be nation builders found the history of the American Revolution and the creation of the new nation a gripping and inspiring tale. George Washington, the virtuous general who selflessly refused to be crowned king after his victories, became a cultural hero. He reminded Confucian-educated readers of the legendary founders of the Chinese state, Yao and Shun, who also stood aside when their work was done, rather than founding dynasties. "In recent times," wrote Yokoi Sh?nan, an advocate of radical reform, "only Washington of America has acted in the spirit of righteousness based on Heavenly rule." Unacquainted with how the Americans were actually governed, Yokoi idealized America as a republic of virtue.
Only in the late 1860s and 1870s did Japanese intellectuals begin to grasp the nature of American politics. They were impressed that all the people participated in their own governance, that laws were determined by "public discussion," and that in America "liberty" (for which a new word had to be invented in Japanese) was the highest civic virtue. "The government keeps its word," wrote Fukuzawa Yukichi, one of the most influential thinkers of the Meiji era (1868-1912). "Since there is no tyrannical king, the land belongs entirely to the people." Even before the Meiji Restoration, future government leaders such as It? Hirobumi and Kido K?in queried Joseph Iteco, a former castaway who had lived in the United States, about the American Constitution, and in its early days the Meiji government established a rudimentary representative assembly. But as they looked around the world, the Meiji leaders found more congenial political models in two powerful monarchical European states, Great Britain and the imperial Germany, whose historical experience and traditions seemed closer to Japan's than America's did.
The model of America as the "sacred land of liberty" remained strong among government opponents who called for the expansion of "liberty and popular rights." Indeed, a handful of radical critics of the Meiji government fled to San Francisco in the late 1880s to continue their struggle there. Disillusion with the American model, however, was common among Japanese visitors confronted by the gap between political ideals and political practice in the republic of virtue. The first Japanese recipient of a Harvard law degree concluded that the great strength of the republic was that every citizen was interested in what the government was doing, but he also understood its defects as well: debate on public affairs entailed partisan conflict and confrontation; constant turnover of officials created instability; cunning demagogues took advantage of a credulous public; politicians pursued private interest rather than public good; and legislators accepted bribes in return for favors. A republic, he wrote, was like an "inexperienced youth [whose] strength is not yet as fully developed as that of her elder sister, monarchy." It was easy to conclude that the American-style republican democracy provided no model for Japan as it tried to develop its own national strength.
The religiosity of the Americans also impressed Japanese observers at first. Christianity "enters their blood with their mother's milk," noted the report of the Iwakura Mission. In every town and village, no matter how small, a Christian "temple" was to be found; Christian priests were learned men who taught believers to follow the good; and no matter how bizarre the Bible's teachings might seem to the Japanese, Americans earnestly embraced their faith with a passion far deeper than the perfunctory devotions of Buddhist and Shinto believers in Japan. It seemed clear that the firm moral code of American Protestantism provided the country's spiritual backbone and that it contributed to the enormous progress the country had made since its founding. American missionaries and even American advisers carried a similar message, preaching the gospel of civilization along with the gospel of Christianity. William S. Clark, an American educator hired to start an agricultural school in Hokkaido, mixed lessons on Christian ethics with his science lectures, and by the end of his brief stay all his students had asked to be baptized.
Indeed, it was American missionaries and teachers, rather than American merchants, who had the greatest impact on the first generation of Japan's new intelligentsia. Ambitious young men, often with few personal or social resources, flocked to the treaty ports and to newly founded mission schools to master English, the language that provided the opportunity to "rise in the world." With the collapse of traditional moral and social certainties, many also turned to Christianity for the moral guidance that Confucian education or the samurai ethical code had once provided. In sheer numerical terms Protestantism did not make much headway in Japan. By 1889 there were only thirty-one thousand converts in a population of forty million. But many Christians belonged to the new intellectual elite, especially in the fields of science, education, and journalism.
By the end of the nineteenth century, admiration for American Christianity had faded. For one thing, many Japanese Christians no longer felt the need for the ministrations of foreign missionaries, who often wielded financial support from American churches and missionary societies to dominate the local Christian communities. After a long dispute with his American benefactors, Niishima J?, who founded an English-language school (the late Doshisha University) in Kyoto to "nurture those who might serve as conscience to the state," decided to refuse their further help. And during the 1890s many Japanese Protestant sects tried to become less dependent on their American counterparts.
Equally significant was the disillusion experienced by eager young Japanese converts who discovered American society to be quite different from what they had anticipated. Uchimura Kanz?, one of William S. Clark's students, arrived in California in 1884 expecting to find "templed hills, and rocks that rang with hymns and praises" but instead encountered pickpockets and profanity on the rude streets of San Francisco. His admiration for America as "the hope of civilized nations" dwindled, and eventually he decided to create a purer "Japanese Christianity" that offered its own model to the world.
Inevitably many Japanese found that America betrayed their great expectations, but the Americans' penchant to preach about their own virtues probably magnified the disappointment of the Japanese. It smacked of hypocrisy. Beyond this disillusion lay a deeper psychological trend: a reaction against the head-over-heels Westernization of the country during the 1870s and 1880s. Something had been lost in that process, it was feared, and the time had come to reassert Japan's own particular identity. The recovery of cultural self-confidence was confirmed by the country's success in building national wealth and power. After a handy victory over China in 1895 the Japanese elite no longer viewed Japan as a weak and vulnerable country, prey to foreign pressure and exploitation; they could now see a future in which Japan would take its place among the world's important military and diplomatic powers. It no longer needed either foreign advisers or foreign missionaries.
Interestingly, many Americans came to the same conclusion. They saw the Japanese as a progressive, hard-working, and go-getting people very different from their sluggish and backward-looking Asian neighbors. As one popular book title put it, the Japanese were the "Yankees of the Pacific." When Japan went to war with China, the American press was generally sympathetic to Japan, and so was American diplomatic policy. "Americans can not but wish them success," said a Philadelphia newspaper. "Nippon is indeed the day-star of the East." Conversely no matter how disillusioned Japanese intellectuals were with American culture and American democracy, the United States retained its reputation as a benign and friendly power. Only as the world entered the American Century did disillusion give way to increasing friction and distrust.
Sugiyama Shigeru, "On Relations among Nations" (1878)
This article, which appeared in the H?chi shinbun, one of the leading newspapers during the Meiji period, offers a relatively benign image of the United States. It emphasizes the differences between America and the other Western powers but ends on a note of ambiguity.
Back in the days when we kept our country closed, turned foreigners away, and stayed to ourselves, our world was free of constraints or anxieties.... But when we ended the closed-country policy by opening our ports and allowing foreigners to come into the country, our dealings with the outside world changed completely. All our national affairs have become entangled with those of foreign countries. The ambit of our anxieties has expanded dramatically, and we can no longer shut our eyes to the storms that roil the vast sea of human affairs. We cannot stay the rising and falling winds and waves of the age by dint of our own efforts.... Alas, as a result of opening the ports, our people have become burdened by numberless anxieties, unable to move either hand or foot freely.
Even when intercourse among nations is peaceful and tranquil, the possibility that one country might gobble up another never fades. Although some countries talk about concluding treaties, carrying on cordial relations, and living in peaceful harmony, the ambitions of wild beasts unfortunately remain deep in their hearts. As international intercourse changes, the way countries build their wealth and power differs greatly from ancient times. A country like ours, protected from international relations [gaik?] by its geography, cannot fully comprehend the changes that have taken place among the Powers. But we should be aware that since ancient times they have built themselves up even as they shared borders with other countries. Look at what has happened in ancient history. There has been only one way to build national wealth and power: chewing and swallowing up neighboring enemies and annexing their territories. [There follows a list of famous conquerors: Pyrrhus and Darius of Persia; Alexander the Great of Macedonia; Julius Caesar; Charlemagne; Tamerlane; Genghis Khan; Ferdinand and Isabella; Louis XIV; Charles XII; Frederick Barbarossa; Napoleon I.] ...
All the Powers harbor ambitions to swallow up other people's lands in order to build their own wealth and power. That is always at the root of war fever. Look at the recent destruction of Poland! Look at the present fighting in Russia! Whatever reason a country may give for going to war is merely a veil to hide its violent and feral intentions. Ah, thrust as we are into the midst of this pack of wolves and tigers, I pray that we can escape harm. How difficult that will be! Among all the countries involved in international intercourse, only the American republic takes friendship with other countries as its goal, declines to beat down the small and weak with threats of force, and builds its wealth and power while respecting the rights of other countries.
If you listen to what the American people are proud of, this is what they tell us:
"The principal goals of our country are peace and friendship. We venture to say that we do not go to war over land. Nor do we injure the rights of other countries. We establish mutually friendly relations with other countries in order to pursue trade. We do not make secret agreements for political reasons. And when we desire another country's territory, we pay a proper price for it. We do not send our soldiers to invade it.
"Moreover, once we have paid for territory, we do not override the rights of the people who occupy it. This is an unchanging principle of our government. The territory we have acquired is eight times the size of the original thirteen colonies of the federal republic. In 1803 we bought land between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Coast from France for $25,000,000. We called the territory Louisiana. By buying it we avoided war with Napoleon. This was the first time that we annexed land by a purchase agreement.
"In 1811 [in fact, 1819] we bought Florida from Spain for $5,000,000. In 1845 we annexed Texas in accordance with the desire of its government, and we incurred a public debt of $10,000,000 to do so. The result was a war with Mexico. We occupied the territory after military victory, and the war ended in 1848. Mexico agreed to a treaty that ceded to us Texas, the cause of the war, and in addition gave us the territories that have now become California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and the Colorado Territory. Under the treaty our government paid Mexico $15,000,000 and made $3,000,000 in loans. Never before in recorded history have territorial rights already won by military force been bought for a proper price. Moreover, in 1854 [1853, in fact] we bought land near Messhira [sic] and the Arizona region from Mexico for $10,000,000. And in 1868 [1867, in fact] we bought the territory of Alaska from Russia.
"We sent settlers into all these territories and expanded our national borders to a degree undreamed of. Sometimes this led to hostilities with England, but these were unavoidable conflicts, not acts of aggression planned in advance. If we had used force deliberately to take over territory, it would have been simple to bring the indigenous savages living there under control and take over their land. But our sole principle in acquiring territory is to buy land for an adequate sum without resorting to military force. This is the reason that our government spends several hundred thousand dollars year after year to deal with the Indian problem. Our government's principle of expanding our territory without relying on military force is based on Washington's farewell warning to our people. That is the foreign policy of our republic, no more, no less."
We believe what the Americans tell us. The only country in the world that has remained aloof from the world's conflicts and has developed its domain in isolation is the federal republic [of America]. We respect the fact that the Americans dislike war, that they insist on peace, and that they do not rely on military force except to fight in self-defense. However, even the America that we so respect has not hesitated to use threat backed by military force in their intercourse with other countries. Do we not remember the threats that the American commodore Perry made to the Tokugawa government as he negotiated during the Ansei period? Can we really say that was in accord with proper moral principles? Certainly his actions did not spring from affection.
So America is no different from other strong countries. It goes without saying that all of them exercise some kind of power in their intercourse with other nations. As Woolsey put it in his book on international law, the [Perry expedition] is a fine example of the use of force to establish amity. "It is difficult to find better proof that an enlightened people can force relations on an unenlightened people than the case of the Americans in Japan," he wrote. Alas, it is not only statesmen, but also those who see themselves as learned scholars, who attempt to deceive posterity by spouting such wild theories. In truth, can it be denied that wars are difficult to prevent, that treaties are not reliable, and that relations with foreign countries bring trouble? I believe that the greatest source of future difficulties for our country today will be matters related to intercourse with foreign countries.
Shiba Shir?, "Strange Encounters with Beautiful Women" (1885-1887)
Shiba Shir? (1852-1922), author of the political novel Strange Encounters with Beautiful Women [Kajin no Kig?], came from a domain that fought against the imperial army during the Meiji Restoration. Despite that handicap he pursued a highly successful political career. After graduating from a government academy that trained talented young men for government service, he went to America, where he attended a commercial school in San Francisco, then studied business economics in Philadelphia. After his return to Japan, he served briefly in the army that crushed the Satsuma Rebellion, then became a government civil official. In 1891 Shiba won a seat in the new national legislative assembly, to which he was reelected eight times. Under the pen name T?kai Sanshi (Oriental Wanderer), he wrote several political novels, a genre inspired by Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, who had authored several fictional works. In Japan the genre served as a medium for expressing an author's political views. Often set in foreign countries or ancient times, with an exotic cast of romantic or heroic characters, and written in a melodramatic and bombastic style, political novels were popular among the young. The following selection reflects the earliest images of America as a revolutionary republic that could serve as a model for other nations in the world, including those in Asia.
One day T?kai Sanshi climbed Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Looking up, he could see the cracked Liberty Bell; looking down, he could read the Declaration of Independence. He reminisced about the noble character of the American people at the time when, raising the banner of righteousness, they had rid themselves of the tyrannical rule of the British king and eventually succeeded in becoming a people of independence and self-determination. Looking up, looking down, he was overcome with emotion. With a deep sigh, he leaned against a window and gazed outside. It happened that just then two young women appeared coming up the spiral staircase.
Veils of light green covered their faces, and their hats, with white feathers on top, conveyed a faint fragrance. Wearing short light silk blouses and graceful long skirts, they glowed with elegant beauty that was truly breathtaking.
Pointing at Carpenter Hall, they were heard saying to each other, "That is the place where, in 1774, statesmen from the thirteen states met for the first time and deliberated on the future of the country."
At the time, the tyrannical British king ignored the Constitution and imposed unbearably heavy taxes on the American people, whose freedom was denied. The American people wanted to speak of their misery, but there was no one who would listen to them; they wished to appeal, but there was nowhere to turn. The minds of the people were therefore upset, and an armed conflict was on the verge of erupting. Gravely concerned about the situation, well-known statesmen from the thirteen states met in this hall to find ways to spare the people this misery and to eliminate the cause for the imminent disaster. It is here that the indignant Patrick Henry delivered his powerful and stirring speech declaring: "The king of Britain must be executed, and a republic must be established." Carpenter Hall still stands today with no changes in its old appearance and, along with Independence Hall, is a historical attraction in Philadelphia.
Then, pointing at the faraway hills and rivers, the two women continued: "That hill is called Valley Forge, and that river is called the Delaware River. Oh-yes-Bunker Hill."
Bunker Hill is located about two and a half miles northeast of Boston. Of truly strategic importance, it faces Boston Bay [sic] to its left and joins a row of hills on its right. One day in 1775, patriotic American soldiers secretly occupied Bunker Hill to stop the advance of the British army. The next morning, the enemy launched a fierce attack from both land and sea. The American soldiers responded vigorously and repeatedly repulsed the enemy's attacks. However, as the battle continued, the tide turned against the Americans. The enemy received as many as three groups of reinforcements, but the American soldiers fighting on Bunker Hill ran out of ammunition and did not receive any reinforcements. Eventually, when General Joseph Warren was killed, the American resistance collapsed, and Bunker Hill fell to the enemy. Later generations built a monument on Bunker Hill in honor of the heroes who gave their lives in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Sanshi visited Bunker Hill in the late spring of 1881. While reminiscing about the heroic battles fought in the American Revolution, Sanshi could not help but think about world affairs today. While doing so, he found emotions burning in himself, the emotions felt by Lu You, a patriotic poet of the Southern Song dynasty of China. Then he composed a kanshi reflecting his feelings:
A lonely traveler up on top of Bunker Hill,
How many springs and autumns have you seen, the monument in honor of the heroes
The heroes who fought to eliminate the tyranny under the banner of righteousness
And who swore to kill the wolves in revenge for the country?
When horses were pastured on the southern slope of Mount Huashan,
Triumphant songs reverberated throughout the thirteen states,
Public opinion is highly respected here by the government,
The ways of protecting national interests dictate its policies.
Freedom is not valued in Eastern Seas,
And patriots worry in vain about the motherland....
Thinking of Japan from a foreign land,
The falling flowers only intensify my loneliness....
After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence was drafted in this hall, and the fundamental principles of freedom were proclaimed to the entire world. At the time, the Americans, including those from far corners of the land, left their plows and gathered together. They took up arms and decided to fight for independence. Seamstresses cut their cloth to make banners; white-haired fathers brought food and drink for the soldiers; loving mothers, while shedding tears, sent their sons to the battle; chaste wives urged their husbands to report to their units lest they might be late. The Americans would not yield even when they were stabbed by shining bayonets or blown up by cannon fire. They would have no regrets even if they were wounded or died on the battlefields. Swearing they would rather die for the sake of freedom, the Continental army fought for seven years the British army of a million wolves and tigers. During these seven years, Boston was first to be lost to the enemy; then New York fell, and finally Philadelphia, the capital, also was occupied by the enemy. It was then that General George Washington, leading his weary soldiers, decided to retreat to Valley Forge and have his troops set up camp there. This was during a cold winter. Snow covered the ground for a thousand miles around, and ice blocked all the roads. With no reinforcements coming or food or supplies, the soldiers were pale and emaciated, and their morale was low. The generals talked over the matter and concluded: "Unless we start a battle to boost our morale, this righteous and loyal army of ours is bound to dissolve or disperse."
That night, unbeknownst to the British, the American troops left Valley Forge and crossed the Delaware River. They then launched a surprise attack on the arrogant British army and won a marvelous victory. Thereafter, the morale of the army of freedom rose once again. In this battle, however, the officers and soldiers of the American army were poorly equipped. They had no shoes to wear on their feet and no clothes to protect their bodies from the fury of winter. They marched in the snow barefoot. Their broken shins and feet were dripping with blood, turning red the miles and miles of snow on the ground. Many in the Continental army died of cold. Oh, as human beings, who would prefer death to life? But inspired by their patriotic enthusiasm, the American people were concerned only about the difficulties of their country and, in serving their country, put aside considerations for themselves.
It is only fitting that after turning the tide in their favor and singing songs of triumph, the Americans raised horses on the southern slope of Mount Huashan and cows in the Peach Tree Forest and started to build their own nation. Outside their borders, Americans resisted European expansionism against their neighbors by adhering to the common principle of confronting powerful aggressors and protecting the weak and the bullied. Within their country, they built schools, replaced swords with farm tools, promoted industry and trade, imposed taxes on agriculture and sericulture, and in this way built this country. It is a country that is rich and strong, a country where people can enjoy freedom and peace. As the saying goes, a song of triumph can change the color of the clouds, and the morale of soldiers can turn into the light of the sun and the moon.
At the end of their talk, the two women released a long sigh: "When can we see days of such peace and prosperity in our own countries?"
When Sanshi heard this, he could not help but feel perplexed. He wondered, "Why should fair ladies such as they are, living in the land of freedom and bathed in the radiant virtue of civilization, be so sorrowful? In ancient China, when the emperor of the Jin dynasty was forced to move to the south and established the East Jin dynasty, its Prime Minister Wang Dao once met some friends of his at Xinting Pavilion near the new capital of Nanjing. These friends, gazing at the unfamiliar landscape of the south, all shed tears of homesickness for their country in the north-these ladies sound just like them."
By then it was turning late. Weary birds had returned to the forests, and all the sightseers at Independence Hall had left. T?kai Sanshi, too, walked out of the city gate and went home to west Philadelphia.