- Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan
The emergence of transnational history in recent years has begun to inspire a renewed interest in the intercultural relationship between Japan and the United States. One of the most recent works that follows this trend is Longfellow's Tattoos: Tourism, Collecting, and Japan by Christine M.E.Guth (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004). [End Page 239] In this book, Guth examines the encounters of Charles Longfellow (son of the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) with a rapidly modernizing Japan during the early Meiji period by situating his love of Japanese art in the general ideological undercurrents of nineteenth-century tourism and collecting, particularly in the context of Victorian America. Schodt's biographical study of Ranald MacDonald (of Chinook Indian and Scottish origin) would also be best understood within the context of this particular scholarly trend.
This book introduces a fascinating and long-forgotten history of a man who went to isolationist Japan in 1848 despite the risk of execution and imprisonment. Born at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1824, MacDonald was one of the many children born to Native American women and the men employed by Hudson's Bay Company who were stationed there to facilitate fur trade with Europe and East Asia. Schodt presents the story of the unique social, cultural, and economic conditions of the Northwest, depicting the multiracial and multiethnic milieu in which MacDonald was raised. His discussion of the status of Native Americans in the region, their relationships with European workers and immigrants, and the impact of the Civil War on their livelihood rightly places MacDonald in a much broader context of nineteenth-century American history. His readable and well-rounded account of this early part of MacDonald's life exemplifies one of the many strengths of this book. Indeed, Schodt's descriptions of places (United States, Canada, Japan, and Hawai'i) MacDonald visited or lived are full of rich information that illustrates the social and cultural circumstances of MacDonald's adventure.
However, despite its readability and thoroughness in its use of primary and secondary sources, Schodt's study falls short of the scholarly standard attained by Guth's book owing to its lack of a critical approach to nineteenth-century history. Such an approach is particularly important given MacDonald's social, cultural, and political background as a "hybrid." First, readers may become lost in the forest of information because the book suffers from a lack of sharp focus. Although the title indicates that this book focuses on an effort to resuscitate the forgotten story of MacDonald's role in the modernization of Japan, only two relatively short chapters—11 and 12—discuss issues pertaining to this topic. The other chapters cover a wide variety of topics that are not necessarily related to the central theme of the book. As a result, MacDonald's work often reads like a general introduction to Japan's evolving diplomatic relationships with the Western powers. While the book provides rich information for those who have no [End Page 240] knowledge of Japan's isolation policy during Tokugawa times or its rapidly changing international environments in the early and mid nineteenth century, it possesses a fundamental problem as a scholarly work because it constantly diverges from the main theme.
This flaw relates to the second problem resulting from Schodt's uncritical approach. In his introduction, he ambiguously explains the importance of this work as follows: "Why write another book on someone who has failed to generate sustained interest? The simple and selfish answer is that I think MacDonald should be much better known. The more complex answer is that new information on his life is now available, and it is possible to view his life and his adventure in a broader context" (p. xii). But one cannot help asking the following questions: Why is it then important for MacDonald to be better known? Why is it...