MODERN JAPANESE DIARIES by Donald Keene

MODERN JAPANESE DIARIES

The Japanese at Home and Abroad as Revealed Through Their Diaries
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Westerners have long complained about the enigmas of Japanese culture. Now comes proof that the puzzlement cuts both ways. Noted Japanologist Keene (On Familiar Terms, 1993, etc.) here interprets 30 Japanese diaries dating from 1860 to 1920, around the time of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when for the first time in over two centuries the West affected Japanese society on a large scale. At that time, he writes, ``it was as natural for those people to keep diaries as it is for Japanese today to take group photographs as souvenirs of an occasion,'' and from these rich accounts Keene shows that Japanese attitudes toward Western culture ranged from intense curiosity and excitement to complete disdain. Some early travelers found foreign lands to be utterly perplexing, even inscrutable. Complaining of his English hosts' constant attempts to convert him to Christianity, Natsume Sseki writes: ``I wonder who could have invented such a straitlaced society.'' (Keene notes that the Japanese who were most successful abroad were those who had already converted or who did so later.) Provincial governor Muragaki Norimasa, traveling aboard the American warship Powhattan on a goodwill tour of the United States, confesses his hatred for sea chanties and is appalled at the sight of plebeian-looking President James Buchanan: ``He wears no decoration whatsoever...not even a sword.'' Other Japanese found that they hardly recognized their own country after the Meiji Restoration. Keene excavates the plaintive diary of a bedridden young man named Masaoka Shiki, who yearns to see wonderful things that he has only read about in the newspapers: ``lions and ostriches in the zoo'' and ``automatic telephones and red postboxes.'' The diary of Higuchi Ichiy, a learned woman, reveals sadness that in the face of such changes, the women of the upper class still expect her ``to pretend to rejoice over things that do not please me.'' These are the luminous details--not curiosities, thanks to Keene's careful analysis, but real finds--of which the best histories are made.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-8050-2055-1
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1995




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