A Sort of Japanese History Lesson + An Update on Your Name

black-ships

I regret to inform you all that my “highly anticipated” video on why Your Name Would Work Better as a TV Series will have to be delayed a little longer. Script writing is more challenging than I had realized, and the weather has been quite awful lately–not allowing for me to go out and film some footage on location that I would like to add to the video.  This feature is gearing up to be the biggest thing I’ve ever done on this blog, and so I want to take my best step forward as I finish and release this project. I greatly appreciate your patience. For now, I’d like to share with you a piece I wrote for a Japanese historical fiction class. I thought this may perhaps be of interest to some of you, as I did receive some nice responses the last time I posted about something not anime-related (Tokyo Story: The True Essence of Japanese Domesticity). This piece is about a short story called Date’s Black Ship; part of a collection titled Drunk as a Lord, written by Ryoutarou Shiba. Finding a translated copy (at least through legal means) seems to be a pain in the ass, so I wouldn’t blame you if you never read it yourself. Just know that it takes place around Japan’s Meiji restoration period, and is about a man tasked with replicating American technology the likes of which the previously self-isolated nation had never seen before. It was one of the most interesting times in all of Japanese history, and I found myself deeply fascinated in the different perspectives that could be found in this great turning point of Japan. Perhaps you may find yourself fascinated as well. Now I’m going to get back to working on my Your Name and Anime of the Year 2018 posts. See you tomorrow, and thanks for reading.

“The secret to any trade is personal charm” (161). This line is written early in the tale of Date’s Black Ship, seemingly meant to add to the already condemning description of Kazo’s lowly status and existence. While Kazo’s failure in the marketplace is indeed due to his lack of “personal charm”, this simple line takes on an even deeper meaning when perceived with the context of the entire story and the historical events it centered around.

America’s presence in Date’s Black Ship is far more important than the writing might initially have you believe. Ryotaro Shiba notes several times of America’s lack of physical presence in the story, but in the very same breathes, reminds us of the idea—and ideal—of America, in and how it fuels the main characters. Date’s whole project is born from the mere conversation around the Black Ships. Kazo has even less to go off of, never once seeing these ships, but is still tasked with pursuing and surpassing the so-called American technological marvel. Neither of these characters come into contact with America, yet the idea of it alone exists in both of their minds throughout the story.

Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan in 1853 with hopes to open their borders through a display of sheer might. His goal was unequivocally achieved, and in the wake of such an achievement, Japan was washed over in a wave of not only fear, but excitement—and perhaps even admiration. When applying the “secret to any trade…” to America, it’s hard to deny their personal charm—at least if we consider strength and gusto as attractive aspects of a nation. But strength comes in many forms, and America’s strength comes from not only their technological power, but also their system that allowed such an escalation to exist. So, in trying to replicate and improve upon the American’s designs, the Japanese had to confront their own system that was holding them back. The fruits of American labor appeal particularly to Date, as his love of novelty far surpasses any sort of fear one might have of foreign machines with the capability to blow entire coastal cities to smithereens.

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Interestingly enough, there are no instances of fear being attributed to the Japanese people in face of the American Nightmare Armada within Date’s Black Ship. The story gives the sense that Japanese society is perhaps more impressed than they are afraid, and their only true moments of fear are brought on by the traditions of their own society. When the samurai working on Kazo’s ship witness the failure of their project, they start “hollering [at him] as if they had gone mad, ‘Harakiri! It’s harakiri for us, thanks to you!’” (192). Obviously, their desperate, pointedly sarcastic remarks come from humanity’s natural inclination to survive, or reluctance to die. Even more than that, it hints at a discontentment with their society, starting to solidify. Kazo pierces their societal beliefs with a razor-sharp criticism. “If you commit hara-kiri, will that help us to make a boiler?” (192). His simple observation has devastating effect, as it causes the samurai to lower themselves for a moment, to a man who was deemed the lowest of the low.

The hierarchy is being turned around, and by the end of the story, it seems to be a more promising concept than a frightening one. There are now seeds of doubt implanted, doubt in their feudal system. When coupled with the American hope on the horizon, one starts to see where the fall of the Shogunate had truly begun. Date’s Black Ship is a smaller, more realistic interpretation of the feelings that slowly grew into the Meiji Restoration. Kazo’s story does not end with a dramatic victory and/or a far more deserved reward. Instead, Kazo reaches only the lowest rank of samurai, proving that there is still a ceiling of which he cannot rise above. Though the fact that he was able to rise in class at all is seen as remarkable, and is a glimmer of hope looking forward, toward the changing world ahead.

If we look at “the secret to any trade…” one last time and consider America to be the “charming dealer”, there is still the matter of “what it is they are selling” that needs to be addressed. The idea behind “the secret to any trade…” is the timeless description of a popular and effective sales tactic: A good salesmen doesn’t sell you on a product. A good salesman sells you on himself. America—though perhaps inadvertently—plays the role of the good salesman, and so in the instance of Date’s Black Ship, the aspect of itself that America is selling would have to be meritocracy.

Aristocracy wishes to withhold the status quo, whereas meritocracy aims to allow movement between classes and reward those according to the value they bring into the world. While the subjective nature of value opens up room for even more debate, when weighing these two political philosophies against each other, it should be easy to justify that, in regard to fairness, the scale leans toward meritocracy. The image of the wise lords atop the ship whilst the lowly Kazo operates it beneath them illustrates a clear, inequitable picture of the aristocracy.

At its core, the story of Date’s Black Ship is a perspective on the Meiji Restoration and the sentiments that birthed it. Not only that, it could almost be read as a tale of aristocracy versus meritocracy. A battle between feudal Japan and modern America. Almost. But “versus” and “battle” aren’t quite the correct words to describe it. It’s important to remember, once again, that there was not a single confrontation with America in this tale. Those descriptions are just a tad too violent for what is, rather, a story of American ideals nudging Japanese society into what seemed to be a more promising direction.

2 thoughts on “A Sort of Japanese History Lesson + An Update on Your Name

  1. I don’t have any problem with non-anime content… Deeper understanding of Japanese culture leads to deeper understanding of anime itself.

    For example, the “burnt fields” metaphor I posted about yesterday… I knew that one because I’d encountered that term while studying haiku.

    Liked by 1 person

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