After his parents’ deaths, an American boy goes to live with his grandfather in postwar Japan and attends an elite boarding school in Mather’s debut novel.
Jonathan is only 6 years old in 1948 when political violence in Boston kills his father and blinds his mother, destroying her emotionally. After her death, he’s sent to Japan to live with his grandfather, an ambassador and judge in Japan’s war-crimes trials, who’s married to a Japanese woman with connections to the royal family. He arranges for the boy to be sent to the Dai Kan, a school “only for the sons of our Imperial Family, our top army and navy officers, and our most respected families,” as a family retainer explains. Although it isn’t made explicit in the novel, all military and martial arts schools were banned in the immediate postwar period; the Dai Kan is allowed to continue “through your grandfather’s direct intervention alone,” says the school’s head. “It was his wish that you become the first non-Japanese to study here…to build a better understanding between our two nations.” As the only gaijin, or foreigner, Jonathan makes some enemies, but he studies hard to learn his academic subjects. He also excels at traditional Japanese martial arts, going on to the even more elite Kami Kan school, where he learns modern techniques and weapons handling. When yakuza gang members stage a daring kidnapping of two young members of the imperial family, Jonathan’s skills are put to the test. Overall, his orphan status, his difference from other students, his affection for his few friends and his earnest desire to succeed make him a sympathetic character. The story might have more clearly indicated the passage of time, however; readers may find themselves guessing at Jonathan’s age from chapter to chapter. Mather, who holds the highest possible karate title of hanshi, uses his knowledge of martial arts and Japanese culture well, providing many fascinating details of instruction, beliefs and practices. The fight scenes, whether during practice or for real, are consistently exciting, and the author makes unfamiliar techniques and complicated maneuvers easy to follow.
An exciting tale with an engaging young hero, grounded in a well-informed understanding of Japanese culture.