Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Japanese history, pre-WWII

The history of Japan is so fascinating. I absolutely loved the book Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun for a great overview of, plus tons of interesting details about, Japan's isolation and then re-opening to the Western world. It's a longer book, so I just read parts of it to the children, but I really liked the whole thing and recommended it to Abe (age 12) too.

I think the 200-year peaceful isolation that is this book's subject is one of the things that makes Japan such an interesting country. Their culture had time to change and develop in all these cool ways, independent of the rest of the world—but then, it put them so far behind the rest of the world in other ways. It makes for such a cool mixture of old and new that, from what we learned, still persists in Japan today. And the story of how the Americans persuaded Japan to end its isolation is full of amazing surprises. The way the leaders of both sides misrepresented their identities—the strange mix of polite and threatening communication—the blustering and posturing—the ineffectiveness of the shogun and his sudden death—the samurai hidden under the floorboards of the treaty house—it just makes for really great reading.

One interesting detail my children liked was that the Americans brought a working miniature steam railway to show the Japanese. They brought lots of other funny and interesting gifts too (and received some in return from their hosts) but the idea of these distinguished Japanese gentleman excitedly riding on the tiny train, their robes flapping out behind them, just caught our imaginations. Here is a picture of that event (and you can find other pictures of the meeting here).

After I read Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun, I realized that I DID know some of the incidents described therein. Stephen Sondheim's musical "Pacific Overtures" tells the same story! I've loved the music to Pacific Overtures for years, but I've never seen it performed, and even after reading about the musical on Wikipedia, I only had a vague idea of the history behind the songs. But now, it all became clear—and I liked the musical even more.

I also finally understood why "Someone in a Tree" is supposedly Sondheim's favorite of the songs he has written. It's a song about how hard it is to know the realities of history. Even when we read firsthand accounts, they are always incomplete or biased in some way, and no matter how good the source, we can never know exactly what happened in the past. I think that's a good thing to take into account when discussing any historical event!

Anyway, my kids like some of the music from the musical too, and I told them how the songs fit into the history. It's pretty hard to find video recordings of the musical, but there is one video on YouTube here: Pacific Overtures. If you want to hear "Someone in a tree" it starts around 1:14:40.

I also like this recording
and this one.

And on the off-chance that anyone else likes Sondheim as much as I do and is interested: my other favorite songs are "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" (good description of the fuedal system in Japan during its isolation), "Chrysanthemum Tea" (the indecisive shogun is slowly poisoned by his mother), "Poems" (an exchange of Japanese verse between two characters), and "Bowler Hat" (tells about the rapid changes that came to Japan after Western visitors were admitted).

Also: incidentally, during this unit, I was reading a book by Laurie R. King called Dreaming Spies. It's part of a series about a woman who marries Sherlock Holmes later in his life, and in addition to helping him with his cases, she is an exceptional detective in her own right. I really like the whole series, and this particular book is all about Japan. It was really fun to be reading about ninja and Japanese bathhouses and so forth while we were learning about those things in school as well! I recommend it as a great way to keep your mind full of Japan-y things, if you want to. :)

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