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Post-World War II Japan is known for automobiles and bullet trains, cameras and consumer electronics, filmmakers and baseball players. None of these products or professions are indigenous to Japan—which suggests that the once-cloistered country has become Westernized. Yet contemporary visitors to Japan are usually struck by the same quality that impressed the first Europeans who reached the archipelago more than 450 years ago: how Japanese it is.

As is well-known, Japan was virtually closed to the West from 1637 to 1853, when four American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo (now Tokyo) Bay. Yet Perry wasn’t really the man who “opened” Japan, and neither was 17th-century English navigator William Adams, despite the subtitle of Giles Milton’s Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan. As Ian Buruma notes in his Inventing Japan, 1853-1964, Japanese scholars—especially physicians—studied Western knowledge throughout their country’s period of seclusion, and the shogun relaxed the ban on Western books more than a century before Perry arrived. Indeed, Buruma argues that the Japanese have been all too eager to borrow Western ideas, but have interpreted them in light of “overconfidence, fanaticism, a shrill sense of inferiority, and a sometimes obsessive preoccupation with national status.”

If that sounds harsh, be assured that Buruma loves Japan and has worked hard to understand it. That’s more than can be said of Milton, whose book sees the country principally as an exotic backdrop for European intrigues. In three volumes published in a mere three years, the British writer went where his countrymen boldly went hundreds of years before—to the Spice Islands for Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, to uncharted Virginia for Big Chief Elizabeth, and into the mystery for The Riddle and the Knight, which largely failed to find the truth behind John Mandeville’s at least partly fictitious memoir of his journeys. Milton’s new book is more of the same: popular history that’s fluid, entertaining, and shallow.

Milton’s is not the first book about Adams, whose adventures in Japan inspired James Clavell’s Shogun. It’s a compelling story: A poor English seaman joins a Dutch expedition to the Far East, barely survives a voyage that kills most of his colleagues and destroys four of the party’s five ships, and finally lands on Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost major island, in 1600. Although initially imprisoned, Adams is soon accepted by the shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, who recognizes the value of the stranger’s knowledge of navigation and shipbuilding. Rewarded with a title and a large estate, Adams adopts Japanese garb, marries a local woman—despite having a wife and child in London—and lives prosperously until his death 20 years later.

Although Adams was by all reports the first Englishman in Japan, and his few surviving colleagues the first Dutchmen, they were not the first Europeans. The Portuguese had arrived in 1544, and by the time Adams and his fellow Protestants joined them, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries had converted much of the population of Kyushu to Catholicism and destroyed many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the Nagasaki region. The coming of English and Dutch “heretics” to Japan was a problem for the missionaries, who had informed their Japanese converts that all Christians were united under the pope. The Jesuits denounced the newcomers as pirates, urging that they be executed. This didn’t happen, but the Portuguese in Japan continued to feud with the Dutch (and later, the English) until almost all Europeans were finally banished, leaving only a tiny Dutch trading community restricted to an island in Nagasaki Bay.

Because Adams had learned to speak Japanese and was trusted by the shogun, he became the court representative for the Dutch, successfully negotiating mercantile rights for them. When an English “factory”—the 17th-century term for a trading post—was established near its Dutch predecessor, Adams was enlisted to represent his countrymen as well. Later, when competition between the two countries turned to outright war, Adams’ position was precarious. Yet Milton has found no evidence that Samurai William was ever less than honorable in his dealings; he was a distinguished exception to the other Europeans who visited Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries.

But the author seems bored by his protagonist’s exemplary behavior. As the tale progresses and more Dutch and British ships reach Japan, Adams is crowded out of his own story by a succession of rogues and incompetents whose antics amuse their chronicler. Less than a biography, Samurai William is really an account of European traders in Japan during the period that Adams lived there. (Conveniently, the English factory outlasted Adams by only three years.) This emphasis results in part from Milton’s heavy reliance on letters, diaries, and journals written by Englishmen who voyaged to the Far East in the period. The author quotes from these copiously, and sometimes distractingly. Milton can’t resist the salacious aside, no matter how dubious its relevance, so the book also includes references

to the large penises of Africans,

genital-augmentation practices in Thailand, and Japanese fertility rites involving a “greate tool.”

Milton appears overly entertained by such anecdotes, along with 17th-century English’s capricious spelling. More troublingly, he relates with little skepticism the yarns of provincial European sailors in a strange land. And, though he does emphasize the unexpected sophistication of “enchanted but deeply melancholic” Japan, he also describes instances of extreme brutality that just sound like more lurid gossip. Milton cites few sources that aren’t in English, and little work by Japanese authors. Perhaps no useful Japanese study of Adams exists, but the lack of a Japanese viewpoint is a major shortcoming when writing about an Englishman who managed the rare feat of going native in a country where foreignness and foreigners are usually ostracized.

In fact, the issue of native and foreign identity in Japan is more complicated than is usually acknowledged. In Inventing Japan, Buruma argues that it was from Westerners that the Japanese learned how to consider themselves culturally unique. When Shintoism became the state religion in the 19th century, its role in creating national unity was modeled on European Christianity’s. Toshiaki Honda, “the Japanese Benjamin Franklin,” made the case for Japan’s becoming a colonial power after studying the British Empire. A government that mixed aristocratic, military, and bureaucratic control was derived from Prussia’s—even today, most Japanese boys wear Prussian-style uniforms to school—and Germany also provided the concept of a national race and racial war. The Japanese even picked up anti-Semitism from Russian officers captured during the 1904 Russo-Japanese War.

Part of Modern Library’s Chronicles series, Inventing Japan is a brief, smart social history of a crucial period in Japanese history: from Perry’s arrival to the 1964 Olympics, when a rebuilt Tokyo was displayed to the world. Students of Japan will be familiar with the basic narrative, although they may encounter some fresh details. What distinguishes Buruma’s book is its analysis of how Japan’s post-feudal society was engineered, based on “eternal” Japanese principles that may in fact be no more ancient than the postwar American occupation.

Although Japan claims a 2,000-year history, it did not become a united country until Ieyasu Tokugawa won the battle of Sekigahara, which occurred just six months after Adams arrived in Kyushu. Far from repelling Western ideas, the Japanese in large numbers accepted Christianity; the religion was driven from the country only after both Japanese and foreign Christians allied with Hideori, Tokugawa’s rival, and were soundly defeated at Osaka in 1615. Even after the country was closed to outsiders, their wisdom was studied and assimilated, under the formula known as “Western science, Japanese essence.”

In the heady period between the 1868 fall of the shogunate and the rise of the military government that annexed Manchuria in 1931, educated Japanese urbanites studied Nietzsche and Marx, and enjoyed German beer halls, Parisian-style chorus lines, and the films of “Frank” Tokunaga, a Hollywood-trained Japanese director who spoke only English on the set. It wasn’t until 1932 that European pop and American jazz were supplanted by such official propaganda tunes as “Ah, Our Manchuria.” And after World War II, Western entertainments returned, conflating political liberty with the freedom to have a good time. One late-’40s girlie mag was called Neo-Riberal.

A strange alliance of Americans—New Deal-veteran reformers and anti-Communist hard-liners—joined an equally diverse lot of Japanese rightists and leftists to forge a new country. As has been noted more than once, the results were both spectacularly successful and something of a failure. Japan became a world financial power in short order, but with a culture of collusion that eventually hobbled the country’s economy. In an epilogue, Buruma notes that the traditional Japanese promise of lifetime employment is now being broken. But that venerable principle dates just to 1960, when cabinet minister Hayato Ikeda published his “Plan to Double Individual Income.”

Buruma is critical of Japan, but protective, too. Sometimes he can’t seem to make up his mind. At one point, he admits that the 1937 Japanese massacre in Nanking was akin “to what the Nazis did to Jews.” Yet three pages earlier, he writes that comparing Nanking “to the Nazi Holocaust, as some do, is not very helpful.” Such passages recall the careers of such late-19th-century figures as Ryoma Sakamoto, who simultaneously embraced reactionary and reformist creeds.

Finally, Buruma appreciates the distinctiveness of Japanese culture without accepting its more grandiose notions of singularity. He contemplates the low opinion of the Japanese expressed by the Rev. Samuel Williams, Perry’s official interpreter, only to sling it back at the West: “Perhaps Williams’s view of the Japanese as ‘partially enlightened’ was not so wrong after all. The same applies to all the people in the world.” CP