Book Reviews

Native American in the Land of the Shogun, by Frederik L. Schodt

This article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in July 2003

Native American in the Land of the Shogun:
Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan
By Frederik L. Schodt
Stone Bridge Press, 2003. 448 pp.

Reviewed by Eve Kushner

In “Native American in the Land of the Shogun,” San Francisco author Frederik Schodt rescues a fascinating character from the dustbins of history. Deviating from his usual focus on manga (Japanese comics) and responding to a personal obsession, Schodt spent 12 years researching Ranald MacDonald, who bears no connection to the fast-food clown.

Few people today know about the half-Chinook, half-Scottish MacDonald (1824–1894), who grew up in the fur-trading culture of the Pacific Northwest, then made a 1848 solo journey to Japan. But according to Schodt, this trip changed the course of Japanese history and its relations with the West.

House in Miyajima, Japan.
House in Miyajima, Japan.

To appreciate MacDonald’s feat, one needs background information, especially regarding Japan’s Seclusion Edicts. Starting in the 16th century, European missionaries in Japan converted many Japanese to Christianity. Alarmed, the Shogunate shut out the world from 1635 to 1853, banning trade and communication with all Western nations except Holland. Japanese couldn’t leave the country. And Japanese coastal batteries automatically fired on any approaching foreign ships.

By 1848, when MacDonald intentionally separated from an American whaling ship in a small craft and arrived in Japan, the attack order no longer stood. Neverthelesss, his stunt remained illegal and dangerous.

MacDonald felt determined to find out about this mysterious nation. Perhaps because he grew up in a polyglot environment, routinely hearing English, French, Cree, Hawaiian, Iroquois and Gaelic, the astounding linguistic barriers didn’t faze him. He didn’t know Japanese, and in 1848, no Japanese could truly speak English. Yet from the moment MacDonald landed, he communicated beautifully, using sign language and drawing on paper.

Imprisoned for virtually all 10 months of his stay, MacDonald befriended several Japanese and taught them rudimentary English. His information-starved students soaked up news about the world, particularly about technological advances, geography and European governments and armies.

When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in 1853, forcing Japan to open, U.S.-Japanese negotiations took place in Dutch and Chinese. But MacDonald’s former pupils spoke enough English to “impress the visitors and establish friendships” (322). Schodt writes, “Without the skills of these interpreters it would have been difficult for Japan to preserve her independence…. Japan might have been colonized or carved up by Europeans or Americans…” ( 281). If this asssessment of MacDonald’s contribution seems exaggerated, it detracts little from the book, because his trip remains remarkable, and Schodt amply makes this case.

Garden at Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto, Japan.
Garden at Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto, Japan.

Unfortunately, he spends relatively little time discussing the stay in Japan. There’s more context setting than story telling, particularly in the early, slower chapters. Chapter 8′s subtitle “The Adventure Begins” holds promise–at last, MacDonald will get to Japan! But the chapter prologue includes the distressing sentence, “It had taken MacDonald a long time to get into position for his adventure” (188). Back we go into the past.

During such retrogressions, Schodt sometimes retreats even further in time, then fast-forwards several centuries to show some significance. This creates a herky-jerky ride. Worse yet, Schodt often revisits topics, making slightly different points with each pass. Tracing a crazy, gyroscopic path, the narrative can drive readers to distraction.

Schodt’s unbelievable thoroughness is also irksome, though awe-inspiring. He leaves no piece of evidence unexamined, no possibility unconsidered. In this footnoted work of great scholarly integrity, he deftly dismantles the falsehoods perpetuated by previous researchers, then proposes sounder interpretations.

Amid innumerable digressions and details, however, he loses sight of the bigger picture, and the narrative energy fizzles. He spends whole chapters discussing memorial inscriptions, letters exchanged and articles written about MacDonald. Schodt also supplies the back story for every minor character and site, including the history of the area in which MacDonald went to boarding school, the biography of his teachers and developments in the headmaster’s life after MacDonald left school. Our hero is onstage for only about 15 percent of the text.

But the other 85 percent gives us a terrifically broad perspective on 19th-century concerns and world history. We learn how the fur and whaling industries, wars, missionaries, gold rushes and territory divisions affected relations between the United States, Canada, the kingdom of Hawaii, Holland, France, Britain, Russia and Batavia (now part of Indonesia). It’s exhilarating to see Schodt fit all the pieces together.

He has a penchant for fascinating facts (which almost makes his digressions forgivable). For instance, he says that in the 1840s, it took longer for letters to travel by land than by sea; a missive sent from Canton, China, to New York would arrive before one traversing North America. And what letters they were! Schodt writes, “Using the cross-hatched writing technique favored by fur trade men to save paper and precious space in canoes and packs, (MacDonald’s father) filled one side of the page with tiny handwriting and turned it ninety degrees. Then he wrote again on top of the existing text” (112).

Schodt’s work isn’t a whole lot easier to read, but ultimately the struggle proves worthwhile.

Eve Kushner lives in Berkeley and frequently writes about Japan.