Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun

by Rhoda Blumberg
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415

Blumberg crafts this story of Japan’s opening and Perry’s bravado as a narrative, using setting, character development, foreshadowing and suspense, and an episodic structure as a novelist might. The book begins, for example, in a moment of panic as four black ships enter the harbor and barbarians seem poised to...

(The entire section contains 415 words.)

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Blumberg crafts this story of Japan’s opening and Perry’s bravado as a narrative, using setting, character development, foreshadowing and suspense, and an episodic structure as a novelist might. The book begins, for example, in a moment of panic as four black ships enter the harbor and barbarians seem poised to invade Japan, setting temple bells ringing and messengers racing inland and families locking their doors. Such a gripping opening is the stuff of a novel. This technique gives Blumberg several advantages, the most important of which is the avoidance of the encyclopedic tone and the submergence of the reader into the perspectives and mindsets of opposing personages and cultures. This method also allows the author to hold information in abeyance, to generate suspense and to hold interest. Her narrative voice suggests the enormous importance of the opening of Japan, but it also maintains an impartial stance: Both sides maneuver and bluff, both sides deceive, both sides threaten force, and both sides experience gains and losses.

Yet, Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun is not a novel, and Blumberg wishes to show more than an isolated episode; she wants to depict an entire culture and its stern reluctance to change. She does this by interspersing the episodic narrative with historical explanations for why personages responded as they did. For example, she interrupts the narrative between the July and February visits by Perry to explore the various castes in Japan and how they might be affected by changes in the culture. These explanations are interwoven into the narrative as well to explain the intricate hierarchy of authority that Perry had to understand before he could approach the true governmental power structure.

Blumberg’s principal success in this work is to explore the tension generated in Japan by contact with another, alien world and, by implication, to suggest what might happen when any two cultures collide. Perry forces the contact out of perceived American needs; his cannons ensure the contact. For Japan, however, there are gains and losses as it deals with a world that it had sought to avoid. The contact brings about a breakdown in the unjust and harsh feudalism of the country and a lessening of the autocratic rules of the Shogun. Yet, the contact also means harm for the purity and integrity of the culture; when the emperor adopts Western clothing, something has been lost. The history, then, takes on longer dimensions in exploring the complicated costs of intercultural communication.

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