Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan.
In 1848, five years before Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo harbour, twenty-four year old Ranald MacDonald, a half-Chinook, half-Scot adventurer purposely disembarked from the whaling ship he was working on and set sail for the islands of Japan. That MacDonald entered Japan of his own volition, at a time when the nation's sakoku (closed country) policies placed severe restrictions on people entering of leaving the country is what makes MacDonald's exploit so fascinating and is what inspired Frederik L. Schodt to research and write this book.
Early in the seventeenth century the Japanese "closed" their country to outsiders, and Japanese citizens were forbidden, on pain of death, from leaving Japan. Only a few Chinese, Korean, and Dutch were permitted to trade with Japan and restrictions were placed on where they could live and conduct business. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a number of Western whalers shipwrecked onto the shores of Japan, and there were diplomatic efforts, particularly by the British, Russians, and Americans to open Japan to outsiders. It was into this setting that Ranald MacDonald deliberately marooned himself on the shores of Japan for the sheer adventure of it.
While the title gives the impression that the work is about a Native American in the land of the shogun, very little of the book is actually focused on what Ranald MacDonald did while in Japan. Instead Schodt recreates the social and cultural milieus that surrounded MacDonald at various stages of his life. Schodt wants to recreate the world that surrounded MacDonald in an attempt to understand why MacDonald did what he did. By the end of the book, however, the reader is still left scratching his head as to why MacDonald went on this adventure.
MacDonald was the son of Archibald MacDonald, a powerful Hudson Bay Company chief factor, and the daughter of Oregonian Chinook Chief Comcomly. The first third of the book focuses on the social and cultural milieu of the Hudson Bay Company, encompassing an area from St. Thomas, Canada to the Pacific Northwest. Schodt's examination of race relations is particularly good and informative. Several chapters focus on whaling, and throughout the book he recounts tales of shipwrecked Americans who landed in Japan and shipwrecked Japanese who landed in America. Many of these tales provide excellent insight into early US-Japan relations and the events leading up to Perry.
The last part of the book deals with Ranald MacDonald's efforts to get his autobiography published and how lawyer friend Malcolm McLeod really did him a disservice by changing so much of MacDonald's story.
In an effort to recreate MacDonald's world, Schodt often drifts off into long tangents on people and places that are historically insignificant, particularly when discussing MacDonald's life in Oregon and Canada. Minor historical figures and issues are often described in incredible depth, while major figures and issues are glossed over. Schodt spends three pages describing Lawrence Ermatinger, another "mixed-blood" whose life went down the wrong path. Though Lawrence serves as an example of what might have happened to Macdonald, he is historically insignificant. On the other hand, John Manjiro, a shipwrecked Japanese sailor who spent several years in America, learned English, and returned to Japan, where he served as a translator during some of the first American-Japanese negotiations, is glossed over in about a page.
Schodt is not a professional historian, he is a professional Japanese-English interpreter. Though he traveled the world to research the book, I was surprised how much he focused on MacDonald's life in the English-speaking world and how little on his life in Japan. The work has a very colloquial tone, and Schodt puts himself into the story throughout as he recounts what the Friends of MacDonald society, a group of people united in their interest of MacDonald, have done in various places throughout the world to honor their hero. Re-organizing some of the material would strengthen the narrative. The key issue to understanding why MacDonald's adventure is so incredible is the fact that he entered Japan when the Japanese government was practicing sakoku. Throughout the work, Schodt declares that sakoku was a "cruel policy," yet the policy and the reasons for it are not explained until page 262. Sakoku should be discussed much earlier and in far more depth.
Schodt wrote this book in an effort to bring attention to Ranald MacDonald and his adventure. This he has done. For those readers solely interested in Japanese history, the book is wanting. For those interested in Native American, Pacific Northwest, and Canadian history, however, the book is rich in information. It also adds a new and valuable window onto early nineteenth-century relations between Japan and North America.
Jeffrey A. Dym
California State University, Sacramento
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|Author:||Dym, Jeffrey A.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2004|
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