SAMURAI AND SILK: A Japanese and American Heritage by Haru Matsukata Reischauer

SAMURAI AND SILK: A Japanese and American Heritage

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A dual biography of her remarkable grandfathers, by the Japanese-born wife of America's former Ambassador to Japan. Both men were born into a feudal, insular society; and both were instrumental in its transformation into a modern industrial nation with far-flung trading ties. Reischauer's paternal grandfather, Prince Matsukata Masayoshi, was born in 1835 into a goshi (rural samurai) family. Although his origins were relatively humble, he so distinguished himself as a member of the feudal warrior class that he was selected to marry into one of the most illustrious of the local samurai families. Some years after Admiral Perry forced Japan to trade with the west, Matsukata became the then-new central government's finance minister. His reforms in the monetary and banking system smoothed the transition from feudalism to a centralized economy. His policies also turned Japan from a debtor nation to one with an increasingly favorable balance of trade. He was twice prime minister but, like other leaders of the time, fell afoul of the Diet, Japan's young and headstrong parliament. Reischauer's father, Shokuma, was the son of one of Matsukata's three concubines. (In his 89 years, the Prince sired 18 children. His wife reared the eight who were born to the concubines as lovingly as though they were her own.) Reischauer's mother, Miyo, was the American-born daughter of one of Japan's foremost international merchant traders, Arai Riochira. He came to New York in 1876, at age 20, as a sales representative for a group of Japanese silk mills. He eventually was one of four founders of Morimuro Arai Company, which became the largest US-based importer of Japanese raw silk. As a prominent member of the Japanese-American community, he entertained many visitors from his homeland, among them Matsukata Shokuma, then attending Yale. In 1912, this led to the arranged marriage of daughter Miyo into the Matsukata family. Her husband and in-laws were tolerant of her non-Japanese ways, even when she enrolled her daughters in Tokyo's American School and later sent them to US colleges. Unfortunately, the author has bitten off more than she--or the reader--can chew. Samurai plots and counterplots cram the book's early pages; later ones are a thicket of detail on the economic, political and social ramifications of Japan's transformation into a politically centralized, industrial nation. A century of Japanese notables parade through the pages, most trailing their life stories and genealogies and as two dimensional as shadow-play figures. This, unfortunately, is also true for Reischauer's depiction of her two grandfathers--who never quite come to life on her pages. In sum: often fascinating, frequently illuminating, but the details, in the end, prove overwhelming.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1986
ISBN: 067478801X
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press