Benfey in The New York Times on Cruise, Dylan, and Perry

Monday, December 8, 2003 - 12:00

This opinion piece ran in the New York Times on Saturday, December 6, 2003.

AMHERST, Mass. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Commodore Matthew Perry's fabled "opening" of Japan. If you said, "Commodore who?" you wouldn't be alone. Commodore Perry — Matthew Calbraith Perry, to be exact — has faded from American memory, even though every Japanese school child knows his name.

In 1853, Perry brought a fleet of four heavily armed "Black Ships" into Edo Bay, near present-day Tokyo, and demanded, in the name of President Millard Fillmore, that Japan open its ports to American ships. Japan, which had been closed to foreigners for more than two centuries, complied, and Perry steamed home expecting a hero's welcome.

He was disappointed, for Washington had more pressing concerns than a tiny archipelago across the Pacific: namely, the extension of slavery into the West and the threatening noises about secession from Southern senators. Perry decided he needed public relations help. He asked Nathaniel Hawthorne, then United States consul in Liverpool, England, if he might consider writing a book about the opening of Japan, with Perry as hero.

Hawthorne was tempted. As he wrote in his journal on Dec. 28, 1854, "It would be a very desirable labor for a young literary man, or for that matter, an old one; for the world can scarcely have in reserve a less hackneyed theme than Japan." But Hawthorne had other books on his mind, and suggested that Perry approach Herman Melville, who knew something about the Pacific. Perry, stupidly, decided to write the book himself, a wooden performance that did nothing to enhance his reputation.

Today, Perry's image still needs burnishing in his own country. He has what you might call a Columbus problem: he is seen as more an invader than an explorer. This is unfair. Perry came in search of treaties, not territory. However imperious his manner, his aims — at least with regard to Japan — were not imperialist. Backed by his guns, he opened Japanese ports to foreign goods and ideas; but he also opened the way for Western understanding of Japan.

It's worth remembering that the United States did not occupy Japan. Instead, Japan took one look at Perry's steamships and cannons and decided to modernize the country — and quick. In the span of 50 years, Japan turned itself into an industrial power, learning watch-making from the Swiss and war-making from the Prussians, and won a place among the world powers in the ghastly battles of the Russo-Japanese War.

Yet some Japanese questioned whether this was progress. In "The Book of Tea," published in 1906, Kakuzo Okakura observed that the average Westerner was accustomed "to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilized since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields."

The truth is, though, that Perry didn't really open Japan. He did the easy part: showing off American firepower to the gaping samurai on shore, and forcing a trade agreement on the emperor. But there was a second, slower, more significant opening, which required actual understanding — of Buddhism, for example, and the traditional arts of judo and the tea ceremony.

This cultural opening was the result of patient effort by dedicated men and women who saw more in Japan than good harbors and coal for whaling ships. They were people like Edward Sylvester Morse, who traveled to Japan in 1877 to teach Darwin's theory of evolution to the Japanese and ended up as the world's authority on Japanese ceramics, or his younger contemporary, Ernest Fenollosa, who taught Emerson and Hegel at Tokyo Imperial University before falling in love with Buddhist painting and sculpture.

This sort of opening is as much an internal process as an external one. People talk about the Japanese influence on America; you might call this the "particle theory" of cultural exchange. But what we see in the 150 years of Japanese-American interaction is something more complicated and harder to name. Maybe we need a "wave theory" of cultural exchange, to explain the constant oscillation between East and West.

That oscillation continues today, in movies like "Lost in Translation" and "The Last Samurai." Both movies take as their heroes broken-down Americans, hired by the Japanese, who find unexpected regeneration in opening themselves to Japan. In "The Last Samurai," Nathan Algren, the hollowed-out Civil War veteran played by Tom Cruise, comes to Japan to modernize its army. He is typical of those oscillating 19th-century Americans who found that Old Japan had more to teach them than they could offer in return. Like his samurai sword, inscribed "I belong to the warrior in whom the old ways have joined the new," Algren forges himself into an alloy of East and West.

Not long ago we learned that Bob Dylan, in his album "Love and Theft," had taken some lines from a Japanese book called "Confessions of a Yakuza," by Junichi Saga. These similarities gave rise to some understandable hand-wringing about plagiarism and cultural appropriation. But Bob Dylan is just another example of the great wave of Japanese-American cultural oscillation. This is Bob Dylan, for crying out loud, the guy who was born Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota, adopted as his last name the first name of a Welsh poet, and modeled himself on Woody Guthrie.

Could it be that his saga, not to mention the flurry of movies about Japan and self-discovery, are signs that finally, 150 years after Perry cracked open the door to Japan and sailed away, the real opening has taken place?

Christopher Benfey, professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is author of "The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan."