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  • Plucking Chrysanthemums: Narushima Ryūhoku and Sinitic Literary Traditions in Modern Japan by Matthew Fraleigh
  • David J. Gundry (bio)
Plucking Chrysanthemums: Narushima Ryūhoku and Sinitic Literary Traditions in Modern Japan. By Matthew Fraleigh. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge MA, 2016. xii, 486 pages. $65.00.

Matthew Fraleigh's wide-ranging literary and political biography of the Tokugawa court Confucian scholar, poet, essayist, military man, educator, journalist, and newspaper publisher Narushima Ryūhoku (1837–84), whose career spanned the tumultuous era extending from bakumatsu well into the second decade of the Meiji period, will be of great interest to scholars of both the literature and the history of Japan. By providing close readings of poetry and prose works throughout the career of a major public intellectual who was educated in the Confucian classics, wrote primarily in literary Sinitic, and continued to adduce models drawn from Chinese antiquity even as he advocated liberal parliamentary democracy, Fraleigh's book also represents a major contribution to the emerging field of Sinosphere studies and helps explain the persistence of Sinitic elements in modern Japanese [End Page 231] language in the face of nativism, Western models of modernity, and the influx of European loanwords.

Adopted into a family that had long provided okujusha ("interior Confucian scholar[s]") to the Tokugawa shoguns, Ryūhoku came of age and acceded to this position in a Japan rocked by the recent arrival of Matthew Perry's black ships. Through analysis of poems written by Ryūhoku in the decade after Perry's expedition, which are provided in both the original literary Sinitic and English translation, Fraleigh demonstrates how Ryūhoku's thinking shifted from initial hostility toward Western interlopers and all they brought with them to what Fraleigh describes as an "enthusiastic interest in learning about the West" (p. 159). This enthusiasm was accompanied by an about-face in terms of policy positions as well, for by the time he was dismissed from his official post in 1863, Fraleigh writes, Ryūhoku had become one of a group of officials who "vehemently rejected" calls to expel Westerners and to close the treaty ports (p. 170). Although the immediate cause of his dismissal is unclear, Fraleigh writes that the influence on Ryūhoku of scholars of Western studies with whom he became friends "became a central factor" in the loss of his position (p. 173).

After his dismissal Ryūhoku entered a period of more than two years of seclusion at home, only the first 50 days of which seem to have been due to an official house arrest. The remainder of this time of withdrawal, Fraleigh writes, appears to have been chosen as a means to assume the persona of a secluded man of letters, modeled on Chinese figures of old for whom he had expressed admiration, and to devote himself to writing, to the study of Dutch, English, and French, and to wide-ranging reading in the scholarship, geography, history, and culture of the West (pp. 173–74, 182). In 1865 the shogunate decided to make use of the knowledge and language Ryūhoku had thus acquired, hiring him to help out in its efforts to reorganize its military along European lines, under the guidance of French advisors. Ryūhoku resigned his military post in January 1868, shortly before the collapse of the shogunate. Soon after the Meiji Restoration he began producing a handwritten "newspaper" entitled Tōkyō chinbun (Strange news of Tokyo), a harbinger of the journalistic career that would take up most of the rest of his life. The early years of Meiji were also a time of extensive travel for Ryūhoku, both in Japan and abroad, which featured in his writing. His travels included a trip around the world in 1872–73 as part of a fact-finding delegation sent by the Jōdo Shinshū head temple Higashi Honganji, two focuses of which were learning about Western criticisms of Christianity and the study of Buddhism's Indian origins. (Fraleigh writes that in contrast to his traveling companions, "Ryūhoku saw Christianity in a benign light" [p. 262].) The trip also yielded Ryūhoku's Kōsei nichijō (Diary of a journey...