Monday, March 09, 2009

Gai-jin

Just finished reading Gai-jin, the James Clavell novel for the first time. Interesting, but I think I prefer Shogun. I had no clue, however, that the premise was based on the British-Satsuma War; in the late 19th century, two British officers were riding just outside of Tokyo (called Edo at the time) and failed to pay proper respects to the daimyo of Satsuma (modern Kagoshima Prefecture). The results of this encounter left the officers slain by loyal samurai guards, and the British to forthwith bombard Kagoshima City with their fleet, essentially leveling it – though Satsuma did process some cannon at the time, which can still be viewed along the road to Cape Sata on the Osumi Penninsula.

The book is based on everything that happened in between, dealing with the Japanese who are part of the Shogunate government, the bafuku, the spies and assassins who seek to restore power to the Emperor, the shishi, and the mix of British, French, Russian, and Chinese inhabitants of Yokohama and Kangawa – the dangerous outsiders, gai-jin.

Clavell definitely offers every conceivable viewpoint by Japanese at the prospect of modernizing the nation: expelling all foreigners and returning Nippon to its isolated island status; using foreigners for the knowledge of cannon, guns, and ships only to later lay siege to the world when Japan becomes a world power; keeping the foreigners on Dejima (near Nagasaki), as it was allowed before the Shogunate.

No matter how you play out the situation, Japan lost. Saigo Takamori’s rebellion supporting the samurai caste and traditional values was crushed by Imperial troops, Japan did build up an impressive force of naval, air, and land power, only to overextend themselves and their ideals in WWII, and the gai-jin, already having a foothold in Japan, would refuse to withdraw again to Dejima.

What I find most impressive in Gai-jin is way Clavell writes the inner monologue of the characters of various nationalities: the Chinese who, already subjugated by the British, still hold illusions of bringing Europe and Japan to its knees, refusing to even consider the possibility that foreigners can understand them or their ways. Similarly, the Japanese, believing themselves to live in the land of gods who will not fail them, that the gai-jin are uncivilized, uncouth, and smelly (comparing Japanese and European standards of hygiene at this time, however, they were probably right); there’s so much hate for the foreigners, even among Japanese who deal with them directly. Although the British see themselves as superior, given their small insurgence in Japan, I would say they accord the people a little more respect than those at your average outpost – the Aborigines in Australia, or the Maori in New Zealand, for example. In both cases, the Japanese and European ways of thinking elude the other side.

“…please be patient with me, but we believe we can have all that the gai-jin have. As you know, in Nippon rice is a currency, rice merchants are bankers, they lend money to farmers against future crops, to buy seeds and so on, without the money most years there would be no crops therefore no taxes to collect; they lend to samurai and daimyos for their living against future pay, future koku, future taxes; without this money there is usually no living until there are crops to tax. Money makes any way of life possible. Money, in the form of gold, silver, rice or silk or even manure, money is the wheel of life, profit the grease of the wheel an-“

“Come to the point. The secret.”

“Oh so sorry, the point is that somehow, incredibly, gai-jin moneylenders, bankers – in their world it is an honorable profession – have found a way to finance all their industries, machines, ships, cannon, buildings, armies, anything and everything, profitably, without using real gold. There cannot be that amount of real gold in all the world. Somehow they can make vast loans using the promise of real gold, or pretend gold, and that alone makes them strong, and seemingly, they do it without debasing their currency, as daimyos do.”

“Pretend gold? What are you talking about…”



If this seed really was planted in the Japanese mind one hundred and fifty years ago, they did an extraordinary job setting up a modern economy to challenge the world in just over a hundred years. It’s a shame about 1990, though.

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