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Pacific Pioneers: Japanese Journeys to America and Hawaii, 1850-80 (Asian American Experience) Hardcover – April 19, 2000
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Although Japanese immigrants did not start arriving in substantial numbers in the West until after 1880, in the previous thirty years a handful of key encounters helped shape relations between Japan and the United States. John E. Van Sant explores the motivations and accomplishments of these resourceful, sometimes visionary individuals who made important inroads into a culture quite different from their own and paved the way for the Issei and Nisei
Pacific Pioneers presents detailed biographical sketches of Japanese such as Joseph Heco, Niijima Jo, and the converts to the Brotherhood of the New Life and introduces the American benefactors, such as William Griffis, David Murray, and Thomas Lake Harris, who built relationships with their foreign visitors. Van Sant also examines the uneasy relations between japanese laborers and sugar cane plantation magnates in Hawaii during this period and the short-lived Wakamatsu colony of Japanese tea and silk producers in California.
A valuable addition to the literature, Pacific Pioneers brings to life a cast of colorful, long-forgotten characters while forging a critical link between Asian and Asian American studies.
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In clear economic prose, thankfully free of academic jargon, Van Sant explores each of these expatriate communities in some depth. (Oddly enough, the author makes no mention whatsoever of the troupes of Japanese entertainers criss-crossing the country during this same period. Even Mark Twain complained bitterly in 1867 about having to compete with a company of Japanese acrobats for an audience.) He also does the historical record a considerable service by freeing some of these pioneers--the "mysterious" Wakamatsu Colony of Gold Hill, California being a prime example--from an encrustation of myth. If I have any quibble at all with Pacific Pioneers, it is that it is too short. Highly recommended!
John Van Sant, professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi at the time this book was written, estimates the total of Japanese sojourners between 1850 and 1880 at no more than 900. They were divided about equally between students come to learn western ways, diplomats and merchants on business trips.
One of the very first, however, was a teen-age fisherman, whose boat was blown into the Pacific, where the crew was rescued by an American ship.
The boy, who eventually became an American citizen and used the name Joseph Heco, was adopted by kindly Americans in San Francisco, who saw to his education in the older states. (Missionaries had a large part as intermediaries in the first contacts between Americans and Japanese, and the missionaries also had connections with Rutgers, which explains why that New Jersey school attracted so many early Japanese students.)
Heco, an attractive personality and evidently a bright boy, eventually returned to Japan. It was still against the law to be a Christian, so he kept his conversion quiet.
Van Sant, using letters and Heco's two memoirs, shows how the boy adopted a wide range of American ideas and habits, from business practices to the racial opinions of his age.
While many Japanese sojourners either felt an obligation to help introduce the two cultures to each other, or saw personal advantages in doing so, Heco seems to have been more or less indifferent to the big picture.Read more ›
For the student of Asian-American History or Early Modern Asian Japanese History, Pacific Pioneers, is an invaluable reference that bridges the gap between the broad view of early Japan-U.S. interaction and the Japanese political reaction to it. Many of the popular books that deal with this area of history are concerned with its larger events such as the Perry and Iwakura Missions.
Van Sant's book is about individuals who came to a foreign land, and were instrumental in defining how the Western world viewed a recently opened island nation. Van Sant's scholarship is through and compiles a great deal of information that is often lost in the larger events of the period. Even those who aren't interested in Asian or Asian-American History can appreciate the people Van Sant has researched for their sense of wonder and discovery as some of the first to leave their homeland, which was closed off to nearly all foreign intercourse for over 200 years.
I find the book especially engaging because it examines how Americans reacted to their foreign visitors during a time when man of today's stereotypes about the Japanese culture had not been developed. Also, by examining the way in which the New World was viewed by the Japanese visitors, the reader can see how foreigners reacted to the Western world and found their culture to be exotic, captivating, and at times, frightening. The book is a revealing and honest look at how different cultures are viewed by people that were truly foreign to them.
A book I recommend for anyone who is interested in history on a very personal and revealing level.