Japanese Fandom Through the Ages: Book Review – The Great Wave

Continuing on with my attempt to compare the current anime fandom with that of the Meiji era, here’s my thoughts on one of the texts I used to draw comparisons between the two periods. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how exactly I want to structure my reviews in order to best integrate my biases to how I read them (AKA in the contexts of trying to relate them back to anime and co.) as well as the source material itself. And of course, how best to format them to fit a blog. The formula I think I’ll start off with will break down my reviews into three categories: Overview, Purpose, and Reviews.

The Overview section will just be copies of the title, author (plus affiliation), and the synopsis. This will essentially just be stripped off of the book itself, or some affiliated site, unless I feel the descriptions are incorrect/misleading (at which case it will be noted).

The Purpose section will be a brief paragraph describing my motivations for reading the book, what I wanted out of it, and how I tried to read and/or process its argument(s). This is so you guys know where I’m coming from when I start to talk about the book itself in the reviews, and what criteria I’m basing my ratings on.

The Reviews section will be divided into several sub-categories for ratings, which will go from 1 to 10 and associated with terms in that order (e.g. if I say “from good to bad” that corresponds to 1 being “good” and 10 being “bad”). First it will be reviewed on its Accessibility from “general” to “academic”. This will note how much background knowledge you need in order to — in my opinion of course — effectively grasp the majority of the arguments, and by extension what its target audience is. Next is Readability, which will be judged from “easy” to “difficult”. While this is often correlated with accessibility, the two do not go hand in hand. This should hopefully give you an idea of how interesting/dry a book is, and how it is structured. I will then try and review the book’s Content from “widely applicable” to “niche”. Content of these books (the ones that I’ll be reviewing anyways) can vary wildly from simply trying to study anime as a medium to interpreting media, and so the areas to which they are meant to be or can easily be applied should be taken into consideration. Finally comes the Argument, in terms of “effective” to “ineffective”, which is mostly self-explanatory. This all gets lumped into an Overall rating — which I will say right now will be completely arbitrary relative to the individual scores — which hopefully should provide a rough guide as to how “good” the book was overall. This will be on a scale of “useful” to “useless”, which will be judged relative to the “Purpose” section.

These subsections hopefully should give you an idea as to whether you might ever want to get around to reading these books, or if they’d probably not be of interest to you. My reviews are meant to be structured both in terms of being useful “reviews” (as in helping you see whether or not you’d like to pick up one of these books) as well as pieces of my thought centering both on anime itself and the things that surround it. This description is included on my new Book Reviews page, which now should actually include content (by hyperlinking to this post)! And now onto the book review…

The Great Wave


The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan

Christopher Benfey (Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College)

When the United States entered the Gilded Age after the Civil War, argues cultural historian Christopher Benfey, the nation lost its philosophical moorings and looked eastward to “Old Japan,” with its seemingly untouched indigenous culture, for balance and perspective. Japan, meanwhile, was trying to reinvent itself as a more cosmopolitan, modern state, ultimately transforming itself, in the course of twenty-five years, from a feudal backwater to an international power. This great wave of historical and cultural reciprocity between the two young nations, which intensified during the late 1800s, brought with it some larger-than-life personalities, as the lure of unknown foreign cultures prompted pilgrimages back and forth across the Pacific.

In The Great Wave, Benfey tells the story of the tightly knit group of nineteenth-century travelers—connoisseurs, collectors, and scientists—who dedicated themselves to exploring and preserving Old Japan. As Benfey writes, “A sense of urgency impelled them, for they were convinced—Darwinians that they were—that their quarry was on the verge of extinction.”

These travelers include Herman Melville, whose Pequod is “shadowed by hostile and mysterious Japan”; the historian Henry Adams and the artist John La Farge, who go to Japan on an art-collecting trip and find exotic adventures; Lafcadio Hearn, who marries a samurai’s daughter and becomes Japan’s preeminent spokesman in the West; Mabel Loomis Todd, the first woman to climb Mt. Fuji; Edward Sylvester Morse, who becomes the world’s leading expert on both Japanese marine life and Japanese architecture; the astronomer Percival Lowell, who spends ten years in the East and writes seminal works on Japanese culture before turning his restless attention to life on Mars; and President (and judo enthusiast) Theodore Roosevelt. As well, we learn of famous Easterners come West, including Kakuzo Okakura, whose The Book of Tea became a cult favorite, and Shuzo Kuki, a leading philosopher of his time, who studied with Heidegger and tutored Sartre.

Finally, as Benfey writes, his meditation on cultural identity “seeks to capture a shared mood in both the Gilded Age and the Meiji Era, amid superficial promise and prosperity, of an overmastering sense of precariousness and impending peril.” (Credit: Amazon.com).


Now my purpose for reading The Great Wave was exactly what is advertised throughout these series of posts: I wanted to attempt to compare the “fandom” of Benfey’s characters to modern anime fandom today. As such, I focused a lot on the characters and their underlying motivations, the culture they were participating in, their demographics, etc., in order to get a sense of the response to the Japanese culture at the time, the community that emerged around it, and the features that characterized it. Now, while these things all are present in Benfey’s book, I don’t think they were meant to be his main focus. Since this is a little bit at odds with what the book is trying to do, it significantly affects some portions of my review.


[General] 1–2(3)–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Academic]
The book requires little background knowledge and is easily accessible to most educated general audiences. You don’t need much else besides a cursory knowledge of some Japanese history and world history centering around the era of Imperialism, as well as a very basic knowledge of some aspects/impressions of Japanese culture. To even a casual watcher of anime, this should pose no problem, and indeed should not pose any significant challenge to the lay reader.

[Easy] 1–2–(3)–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Difficult]
Benfey’s style turns an argument into a narrative — several of them in fact — which are much more engaging than a usual academic argument. The way he makes the book a series of intertwining stories, and successfully does so, keeps the reader engaged throughout. His writing style is also colloquial enough that “non-literary” readers should have no problem following the stories he crafts. My only critique is that the material can get a quite dense at times, which slows down the story and causes the reader to disengage from the narrative to process information, but for me these moments were few and far between (but non-negligible).

[Widely applicable] 1–(2)–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Niche]
Benfey’s core argument is not really all that applicable except for a historical perspective. He wants to show that change in Japan went both ways, trying to overturn the common perception of the Meiji erea as one of Japan simply importing Western ways in order to modernize, and the content of his book is all surrounding material that disproves this. This is an incredibly niche argument on its own, interesting only to people interested in Japanese history (and already documented in the arts as the Japonisme movement). However, many of the concepts surrounding his core argument are widely applicable. His book touches on features of globalization, consumerism, fan culture, soft power, postmodernism, and more as it goes about its narrative, and the way that these interact in the Meiji era – the period he focuses on – are widely applicable today. Doubly so if we’re trying to talk about anime today.

[Effective] 1–2–3–4–5–6–(7)–8–9–10 [Ineffective]
Benfey’s greatest success is also his greatest flaw — turning his argument into a connected series of narratives. Doing so renders the book extremely engaging and accessible; however, it also means his idea loses its generality and thus most of its force. Yes, he shows (very thoroughly) that for a small group of rich elites that his argument holds, but he barely (if ever) discusses generalities because it would derail the narratives. Even if he only took a break from his stories for a few pages, such generalizing statements would have enormously strengthened his argument. While some additional research indicates that his thesis does seem to hold more generally (and so is true), the fact that it isn’t apparent from just the book itself means that the argument is not the most effective, although it is quite compelling regardless. Another caveat is that Benfey’s characters make up a very specific demographic (and are all American), and can be seen as a more “elitist” group of a more general “craze for things Japanese” trend going on at the time. But this too feature too is ignored.

[Useful] 1–2–(3)–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Useless]
The Great Wave is an accessible, engaging read that provides not only good historical information but also much insight concerning some of the cultural dynamics at play in the world today. While it’s narrative style ultimately hampers the effectiveness of the argument (in isolation), the book is still well worth the read if you’re interested in any of the above.


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