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The Great Wave
reviewed by William P. Meyers

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The Great Wave
Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan

by Christopher Benfey
Random House
year of publication: 2003
reviewed July 21, 2008
hardcover 332 pages

For Americans Japan was once a land of mystery. By the time the United States separated from Great Britain, Japan had been closed to the outside world for more than a century (since 1637). The U.S. attack upon Japan by Commander Perry in 1854 started an episodic war that ended with the occupation of Japan in 1945 [See my work in progress, The United States War Against Asia].

Christopher Benfey's The Great Wave is only marginally about war and politics. It is a series of portraits of Americans who traveled to Japan after its "opening," and of Japanese who traveled to the United States. Art, culture, and philosophy are what interested these travelers. The lived during the Meiji Era, but their interest was in the culture prior to that era, that of Old Japan.

The first chapter excited my imagination. It tells of Herman Melville, the New England writer of Moby Dick, who sets the epic battle of man and whale off the shores of Japan. Even more interesting is the story of John Manjiro, a fisher boy who was blown out to sea and rescued by an American whaling ship. He was adopted into a New England family, educated as a westerner, and then eventually returned to Japan to play an important role in its rapid post-Perry development.

Many of Benfey's characters are art collectors; most were famous enough in their day and are now mostly forgotten: Edward Morse, Isabella Gardner, Henry Adams and John La Farge among others. The Boston social elite, bored with Christianity, were fascinated with Buddhism even as scientific materialism began to its steady cultural march in Japan. We learn the story of how a book about the Japanese Tea Ceremony came to be so influential in the U.S.

Generally Benfey weaves his stories skillfully, though I was bored with much of the Henry Adams material. The best part of the book is the Epilogue. Here the relationship of Existentialism to Japanese aesthetics is told not in the abstract, but in specific contacts between Japanese figures, American fans of Japanese culture, and such European luminaries as Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Henri Matisse, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. I would love to see the ideas and events of the Epilogue developed into a full-length book.

I read The Great Wave slowly, in bits and pieces, and it cast a great deal of illumination on small things about me. The esthetic of the house I live in, for instance: it was the residence of Haiku Jane, a Mendocino poet who was once given a prize by the Emperor of Japan for her poetry. There is a Bishop Pine log in my garden that is in the last stages of decay, a shell of its former self, riddled with insect tunnels. Some times it strikes me as the most beautiful thing in my garden. And that makes me appreciate the chapter on Lafcadio Hearn, who loved the soft decaying remains of pre-U.S. New Orleans, and who also was a seeker after Old Japan.