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Foreign Devils

David McNeill

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell, Sceptre, 480 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0340921562

Japan has often been very badly served in English-language popular culture, an exotic backdrop for lantern-jawed foreigners who occupy the high moral plain over the cryptic, wily locals. Like stale supermarket sushi, that unnutritious staple the fictional encounter between the infatuated or baffled Westerner and the inscrutable Japanese never seems to completely disappear from the shelves, no matter how unappetising.

Sofia Coppola’s mysteriously acclaimed Lost in Translation (2003) served up the usual mix of clichés and warped perspectives – part of a long tradition. Think of Michael Crichton’s bestselling Rising Sun (1992), with its daft, conspiratorial plot about Yakuza gangsters and corporate bosses sneakily waging economic war against an unsuspecting America; or Michael Douglas in the Ridley Scott movie Black Rain (1989), battling to stop more Japanese mobsters from flooding the US with fake dollars in revenge for the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima.

David Mitchell’s book, then, is that rarest of fictional beasts: a Japan-set story that doesn’t patronise its subjects. His Japanese are recognisably real people: complex, nuanced, capable of love and passion as well as treachery and coldness. Even more unusually, Mitchell’s Westerners ‑ Dutch, Irish and English among them – are often greedy, corrupt and violent. No more high ground here. His account of the clash between the two sides in the dying days of Dutch power in Asia has already been dubbed a modern classic and is a work of great originality and vision.

Set in 1799, the novel transports us to Dejima, a walled, man-made island in Nagasaki Bay then the only official conduit into the closed kingdom of Japan. Once a secluded fishing village, Nagasaki was plucked seemingly at random from history’s backwater by an accident of fate after a Portuguese ship came ashore nearby. The country’s military government – or Shogunate – later isolated foreign adventurers on Dejima like a virus, keeping their guns, crucifixes and foreign ideas at arm’s length from the mainland. Portuguese Catholic missionaries and Dutch traders were a particular concern. Having watched the Spanish ruthlessly pillage the Philippines after converting the population to Catholicism, the Shogunate perceived – correctly – that foreigners could destabilise the delicate balance of power inside the country and corrode the foundations of local power.

In an interview this year Mitchell explained why he was attracted by the idea of setting his novel in Nagasaki Harbour. “[They traded] goods [and] materials, but also ideas and knowledge on what was happening in the rest of the world,” he told National Public Radio in the US. “[It was] a little bit like [the way] North Korea is closed off to the world now. ... Much more so, in fact, because there wouldn’t have been any smuggled-out footage for YouTube or anything like that.”

Dejima’s conception and birth was accompanied by extreme violence. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, thousands of Christian converts and missionaries were executed, some crucified. In 1637-8, the government suppressed a rebellion of Catholic Samurai warriors and peasants with great brutality and drove the remaining Christians underground. Suspected converts to the hated foreign contagion were forced to recant or face excruciating death by anazuri ‑ being hung upside down and bled over a pit. Foreigners who arrived thereafter in Japan without permission could expect summary execution; Japanese who left could never return.

Harsh medicine certainly, but effective: by the middle of the eighteenth century, Christianity and most illicit trade had been virtually eliminated. The Shogunate allowed a steady trickle of Dutch books into Japan via Dejima, making the surrounding city a centre of learning as hundreds flocked to learn about European science and culture. Westerners came to buy copper, silk, tea and other commodities. Guests and wary hosts eyed each other suspiciously from this thirteen-thousand-square-metre speck of land for over two hundred years, during what became known as the sakoku era – Japan’s self-imposed isolation.

Irish historian Louis Cullen, in his history of this era, says the society created from the sakoku experiment was largely successful and allowed Japan to incubate a stable system of centralised bureaucratic rule and skilfully negotiate with the encroaching Western powers for much of the nineteenth century. Unlike China, or much of East Asia, the country was also able to successfully stave off the humiliations of full conquest when it could no longer keep the foreigners at bay. But there was a price to pay, which is still being paid today.

The few Westerners who managed to get beyond the narrow bridge to Dejima therefore found a remarkably stable, if repressive society dominated by the Tokugawa dictatorship, which ruled from Edo (present-day Tokyo) over a nationwide patchwork of about 300 feudal families. Below them were the peasants, merchants, artisans and the mostly redundant warrior class – the samurai. An ingenious system of control known as sankin kotai forced the heads of these families, known as daimyo (lords) to live for long stretches in the capital and leave their families behind – effectively as hostages ‑ when they left for their local domains. Dejima was run directly by Edo, via a governor who in turn ran a network of officials, translators, guards, spies and concubines.

Perhaps the best-known Western literary pioneer to venture into this cloistered world is James Clavell, whose 1975 blockbuster Shogun dumped shipwrecked Englishman John Blackthorne on Japan’s feudal shores. Played in the 1980 TV miniseries by handsome, furrow-browed Richard Chamberlain, Blackthorne endures the taint of “foreign barbarian” before earning the respect of his Japanese tormentors with his willingness to commit agonising ritual suicide, or seppuku. In contrast, the eponymous Dutch hero of Mitchell’s book is pale and ginger-haired, a clerk eager to please his bullying father-in-law with a lucrative, dangerous trading trip east. Jacob De Zoet is pious and principled but secretive, living in fear that his carefully concealed Bible will be discovered. And while Clavell takes florid, entertaining detours into the bedroom, Mitchell’s book is essentially chaste: De Zoet never consummates his forbidden love for Orito Aibagawa, a beautiful but scarred midwife.

De Zoet drops anchor at a key period in Japanese history as the country is slowly nudged toward engaging with the world, its isolationism under threat from the burgeoning power of the British, who are supplanting the Dutch in Asia. In the coming decades, warships and whaling boats would be seen skirting Japan’s shores, testing the limits of sakoku. Eventually it will be the Americans who will barge their way in with gunboats in the 1850s, arriving under the guise of free trade and igniting a fuse that will detonate with violent clashes between recidivists and modernisers, the fall of the Shogunate and the inauguration of the Meiji Restoration – effectively the start of Japan’s modern era. Before leaving America, the commander of the infamous US armada (“The Black Ships”) of 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry, studied Tokugawa Japan with a Dejima veteran, the Dutch Japanologist Philipp Franz von Siebold.

All this is in the future. For now there is an uneasy balance of power in this clash of civilisations, held in place by mutual need and greed. Dejima is lubricated by alcohol, corruption and whoring. Pilfering is rife. Men who can barely stand each other live side by side. Resentment runs high on both sides: The Dutch want more than the Japanese can give, particularly copper. Japan needs European trade but not its potentially corrupting influences: De Zoet’s piety becomes a weapon against him when his Bible is discovered and used to blackmail him.

De Zoet is a clerk for the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational company, which had the power to issue stock, wage war, execute criminals and even mint money. Under chief resident Unico Vorstenbosch, his job is to root out corruption among the company’s own sullen employees and compel the Japanese to produce more copper, which is used to buy silk, cotton and other goods from the Chinese and Indians. Dutch copper coins also circulate widely in Java (on present day Indonesia), so without this essential commodity the entire basis of the company’s lucrative trade in Asia is undermined.

Ostensibly a tale of De Zoet’s love for Orito, the novel’s power hums below the narrative. Like the pieces of the Japanese board game Go, the characters are moved by forces beyond their control, which the reader can interpret with the benefit of hindsight. The Dutch bluster and wriggle, caught in a dilemma with no solution: Their copper quota in Japan has been cut, they are losing their grip over the colony of Batavia and John Bull is snapping at their heels.

The more astute Japanese realise that their isolated bubble is only a staging post in the expanding European empires, with all the power and violence that promises. A Royal Navy frigate, the Phoebus, hovers in Nagasaki Bay (a reference to a real-life incursion in 1808) and its captain threatens to give the city “a taste of the coming century”. “Show this pox-blasted pagan port what ruin a British dog of war can inflict on an enemy when its righteous ire is roused,” he spits. As the novel’s villain, Abbot Enomoto, prepares to murder his rival, Uzaemon, he brandishes an illicit, foreign-made pistol: “Any son of a shit-carrier could wield one of these and bring down a mounted samurai. The day is coming – you shan’t see it but I shall – when such firearms transform even our secretive world.” Later, the local magistrate tells De Zoet that the Phoebus is “prophet and teacher”. “Foreign ships visited our waters before,” he says. “Sooner or later, their guns would speak.”

Sixty years later, the vision of men like Enomoto would come to pass when Japan transformed into a modern industrialised nation, and began its own colonial adventures abroad. That period of transition has also been fictionalised – and romanticised – in the 2003 Tom Cruse vehicle The Last Samurai, which pitted sword-wielding samurai on horseback against machineguns, just as Enomoto predicted. The guns of course won, though not before the Japanese set up a Dutch-led military school at Nagasaki in 1855, in a last ditch attempt to keep the foreign barbarians at bay. Later, and with remarkable speed, Western technology and science were embraced, a modern bureaucratic state was built and the country’s armed forces were modernised along Western lines.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Japan was a major military power in its own right, defeating the Chinese and then the Russians in wars that astonished and alarmed Europeans and Americans. Japan was however to meet its “nemesis”, in Cullen’s words, in China and the Pacific, when it lost control of its military and overreached, with tragic consequences for Asia, and for its own people. In one of the horrific ironies of World War II, the Americans chose Japan’s historical gateway to the West, and the city with its largest Christian population, to inaugurate the nuclear era. The “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945 killed 70,000 people, including an estimated 8,500 Catholics, some of them praying inside Urakami cathedral – then the largest church in East Asia. Many were the descendants of families who had endured centuries of oppression in holding onto their faith.

Today Urakami, rebuilt in 1959, is part of the Nagasaki tourist trail, along with the Nagasaki Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum. Dejima is being restored to its pre-Meiji glory, though it is a sanitised theme-park version of the world depicted in Mitchell’s book, which is studded with stomach-churning depictions of seventeenth century life. It detonates with a graphic account of pre-modern childbirth, as Orito saves the lives of both the magistrate’s baby and his concubine. Later Dejima’s resident doctor, the irreverent Dutchman Dr Marinus, removes the kidney stones of ribald deckhand Wybo Gerritszoon in a scene rich in Mitchell’s trademark detail ‑ and scatological humour. After lecturing the drunken patient on the history of the procedure, which involves slicing the perineum with a scalpel and removing the stone with an oiled finger, the doctor coolly recites the unpromising survival rates and watches the reaction of his prone patient: “The rectum of Wybo Gerritszoon releases a hot fart of horror.”

Mitchell, who worked as an English teacher in Hiroshima for eight years (he now lives with his Japanese wife and two children in Clonakilty, Co Cork) knows where the early historical and cultural lines are drawn in this widescreen story. Both sides struggle to decode alien behaviour and language with prototype dictionaries and translators who fumble with Western concepts like “privacy”. Separated by culture, nation and class, the romantic pair at the novel’s heart can never hope to consummate their love, making the lines physical as well as philosophical: Orita can never leave Japan, and the despised outsider De Zoet has no status there. Western rationality and medical superiority is brandished against the superstition of the Japanese, but De Zoet and many others are prisoners of their own religiosity.

At times, Mitchell crosses the lines that divide his characters, with one eye on the present. Called on to identify the body of a young dead sailor near the end of the novel, De Zoet is asked by the bureaucratic Japanese chamberlain, Tomine, if the sailor was “English”. He tells him his best guess: that the father was probably European and the mother a Negro. “But is he English?” presses his Japanese inquisitor. “If I had a son with a Japanese woman, would he be Dutch of Japanese?” asks the Dutch clerk. “Involuntarily, Tomine winces at the tasteless question.” “A half.” The bureaucratic point of the inquiry is eventually made clear: Englishmen, it seems, are thrown into ditches; other nationalities find their last resting place in the foreign cemetery.

But as the real father himself of two “half children” – a term still widely used in Japan – Mitchell’s barb about the dangerous nexus where nationalism and race meet is clear. His book is widely dubbed a historical novel but in passages like this you can see its contemporary relevance, inspired by a country that still keeps foreigners at bay and where politicians still praise its ethnic “purity”.

If the Japanese are easy targets, however, the author also derives much amusement from the feuding Europeans, exploiting their rivalries for maximum comic effect. The British are “the cockroaches of Europe”, intone the Dutch. The Dutch tongue is the “noise of mating pigs”, says an Englishman. Their priorities – self-enrichment, national glory – are barely concealed behind the proselytising and the mask of the white man’s burden in Asia.

Abundantly evident throughout the story are Mitchell’s love of word play and allegory and his lush prose style. He enjoys ventriloquising the book’s multinational cast, inhabiting the minds, and mouths of Japanese, Dutch, English and Irish. The writing soars on almost every page: “Cicadas shriek in ratcheted rounds;” “The fathomless night smoothes itself.” Terrified hearts knock like “bloodied fists”. Jacob’s fear is the size of a new internal organ, “between his heart and his liver”. Men walk at a “gouty hobble”. De Zoet notes in the early stages of the novel how Dejima is pickled like a “specimen jar”. Some sentences seem to sing: “Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting.” De Zoet’s declaration of love for Orito, towards the end of the novel, is rendered in this passage: “Creation never ceased on the sixth evening, it occurs to the young man. Creation unfolds around us, despite us and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we like to call it ‘Love’.”

Mitchell has been called a literary clever-clogs, showy and gimmicky with language but conventional when it comes to structure and form. The New Statesman was one of a handful of reviewers that disliked the book, calling it a formulaic mix of highbrow comedy and mystery thriller beneath its flashy box of tricks. “The basic narrative grammar is treated as a succession of boxes to be ticked, or hoops to be jumped through,” said the reviewer. “Otherwise, the novel palls.”

And in truth, the novel’s serious historical aspirations and binary themes (East vs West, Science vs Superstition, Love vs Duty,) are sometimes almost smothered by the gothic, melodramatic storytelling. Orito is kidnapped by a group of evil monks, led by Enomoto, who use women to breed children as sacrificial offerings. There is a confrontation with the arch-villain and a mountaintop rescue before the British arrive and De Zoet forms an unlikely alliance with the Japanese to confront the new invaders.

Mitchell admits he is a “plot and character” writer. “Themes, structure, style – they’re valid components of a novel and you can’t complete the book without them,” he told NPR. “But I think what propels me as a reader is plot and character. I think we think in terms of stories. I think the story is the most ancient form of human entertainment. I think it’s through stories that we perceive the world. Through stories that we communicate with one another.”

Seldom has the country Mitchell once called home been rendered with such an exquisite and loving eye for detail. He joins a small club of recent British writers – David Peace (Tokyo Year Zero) and Edmund de Waal (The Hare With Amber Eyes) – who have lived and worked in Japan and done much to drag the country out of the dungeons of literary cliche and into the real world where the rest of us live.


David McNeill teaches at Sophia University in Tokyo and writes for The
Irish Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications.
 He has lived in Japan since 2000.

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