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The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan by Christopher Benfey

This book should be required reading for all who want to talk about Korea’s constant, deep-seated anxiety regarding the lack of a place in the Western imagination held by South Korea, and many Koreans’ jealousy of the place that Japan and China have in the Western mind, the foolish attempts to “brand” Korea and market the country onto the imaginative map of Westerners, and so on.

What Benfey’s book shows is that Tokyo and Kyoto were not built in a day, and certainly not just in the 20th century. We might remember history as if Americans got interested in Japan after World War II, with the Beat movement, but in reality, it begins much earlier. Japan is not today a heavy hitter in the Western imagination because Japan has proper branding, or is marketed in just the right way… at least, not in the sense we mean when we use those words today. Rather, the strange mutual obsession that Japan and America have felt for one another has historical roots that  go very, very deep, just as many of Jonathan Spence’s books show is true of the Western fascination with China.

This long, deep history of mutual obsession should surprise nobody, of course, but for me, it was fascinating to see it up close, like a painting one has seen prints of, but which looks much more interesting as the original, in the museum, where one can see the physicality of the paint layered onto the canvas.

From Herman Melville to Lafcadio Hearn, from John Manjiro to Kazuko Okakura and his (illegitimate) son Shuzo Kuki, from Isabella Gardner to Mary Fenollosa, from John LaFarge and Roosevelt to Percival Lowell and Mary Loomis Todd, Benfey sketches a fascinating portrait of Bostonians obsessed first with Buddhism, and then with Japan — consuming and collecting her art, her culture, exploring and preserving what they valued of it — as well as a Japanese society in the thick of the Meiji Era, hungry as well and obsessed with America and with the West more generally, as well as seeking to develop its technology and position in the world but also desperately seeking a way of surviving the changed circumstances of nascent globalization within the colonial system.

Art, literature, warfare, politics, philosophy, orientalism, and most especially misfithood: the figures we encounter in this text are, above all, striking misfits, wanderers who traveled across the Pacific to distant shores. Some were driven by scandal, others by grief, or by something still more fascinating: an obsession with the other. For white, Northerner Americans — or at least, for a certain segment of American society in the “Gilded Age” during the 19th century–Benfey demonstrates among the many “others” available, the Japanese held a special place of fascination, whether by contempt, or respect, or a little of both.

I believe Benfey’s book bears out what I have been saying for years: if Koreans (or at least those tasked with raising the nation’s profile on the international stage) want to understand why China and Japan have such a special place in the Western imagination, they need to stop fooling around with  ad hoc theories that better branding (“Korea, Sparkling!”), marketing, or advertising in general will get the job done, fueled by misbegotten hopes that somehow creating a booming trans-Pacific tourist industry is not only possible, but also the way to attract, and gain the approval of, the West. Looking into history, they will realize that part of how this status quo emerged has to do with a kind of zeitgeist on both sides of the Pacific; they will recognize that raising the public profile of a country takes a lot of years, and no little amount of balancing between preserving its past, and embracing a future that keeps that past in  plain sight. (Not a regime bent on tearing down everything remotely traditional-looking or old-fashioned.) They will recognize that it’s a slow, slow process, and that maybe, if  they were thinking of the long game, Korea might be best focusing on engendering a similar kind of mutual zeitgeist between Korea and someplace more likely to be an up-and-comer in the new century, like China or India.

As well, Koreans could learn a few lessons from the arrogance of the Americans, for, frankly, I think Korea would be likelier to adopt the position in the relationship that America occupied in the 19th century, with regard to Japan. The Americans in Benfey’s book explored Japan in part because they (foolishly) believed that Japanese society and culture was on the verge of extinction. This is what motivated the zoologist Edward Morse to collect both seashells and pottery from Japan; this was what drove Ernest Fenollosa to investigate the language and art of the Japanese. Americans reached out because of what they thought they saw in Japan. The Japanese were not waving their arms, sending their equivalent of celebrities to America; when Japanese did come to America and attract Western attention, it was because they were driven not only to understand America, but to help others who were interested to appreciate not only Japan, but Asian culture more generally, in the same way… in other words, they sought a mutual understanding, as the phenomenal figure Kakuzo Okakura, who was as much a transmitter of Buddhist thought and of Chinese literature to the West as he was a popularizer of Japan.

But allow me to highlight the point folded into the above: Korea ought not to seek to replicate Japan’s position in the Japanese-American relationship explored in this book. Korea’s moment to play that role passed long ago, and the timing was simply not right — the Cold War got in the way, and Korea was, for the West, simply one of many distant places being scrambled over in the madness that followed, singularly the one that unfortunately was timed just right to cull another generation of men not even a decade after World War II. This is unfortunate for Korea, yes, but it is also history, and fact. But anyway, by other history and other facts, Korea is now in a position where it could, if it tried very hard, play that role that America played to Japan. Korea could be a kind of shining beacon of light, the way Singapore bills itself, the way Hong Kong was for a time, to how a place that was far from modern could become modern, organized, peaceable, developed, within a tiny space of time. Korea could be America for some other country, or countries — if it were willing to reach out to such places.

One could argue that we are in more crass times; that small circles of intellectuals and thinkers matter less now; that someone like Shuzo Kuki would not, today, study with Heidegger, would not have been the author of Sartre’s letter of introduction to the German, would not indeed have been even a blip on the radar of the philosophical world. Perhaps… but that would be to think that history has fixed, like fruit in gelatin, and cannot shift again. I do not believe history is fixed and finished; the end of history will not come until the last human being draws its last breath. But I do suspect, sadly, that Korea would rather continue to wave its flags and shout for attention from the developed world — a world of which, in many ways, it is already a part — than to reach out to less developed places still struggling to do what Korea has done, and build those relationships. Korea, it seems, has gotten itself stuck in the mindset of a “dongsaeng” — a little brother — and forgotten that, within the very hierarchy of nations so prominent in its own imagination, it could function as a “hyeong” to many — a wise, helpful older brother who has walked this path before, and knows the pitfalls, and is willing to share some of his accumulated wisdom.

As for my own thoughts on what Korea does have to offer the potential tourist — and I have many on the subject — a book review is not the place to express them. (One of them has made its way into the novella I finished rewriting last night, so I feel like maybe I can post about it now, that idea and the others too, so I will do that soon.) But I will say that this book ought to be translated into Korean, and it deserves to be assigned in classrooms, to be talked about. It ought to provoke a change in course, a shift in thinking… even though I know that people are too attached to the easy answer, the notion that better branding, heavier marketing, or some other simple solution will get the result desired. Therefore I recommend the book highly to anyone who wants to move beyond the prattle to deeper reasons of how and why things got to be  the way they are, in terms of Japan’s status in the Western imagination. (And if you’re looking for a similar book regarding China, I can recommend this one by Jonathan Spence, though I’ve only read parts of it; many of Spence’s books would help in that regard, though.)

But for now, I’ll just note that Benfey is a wonderful writer, well aware of the beauty of a  coincidence, the wonder of surprisingly crossed paths. He is also unreasonably modest: after discussing the difficulties of how to write an epilogue to a book so full of different characters, connected only loosely, he goes on to not only to tie things together as wonderfully as one could, but also to bring Ezra Pound into the mix (after all, Fenollosa is a big figure for Pound, and similar in character, I realized, as I read about Fenollosa in Benfey’s account) but also to show how Camus quite possibly ripped off the scholar son of Kakuzo Okakura… yes, The Myth of Sisyphus echoes something that Shuzo Kuki wrote in comment about the story of Sisyphus, as seen from a Japanese perspective. Ah, the things you wish you’d known twenty years ago…

A bonus: an interview with Benfy.

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