THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Oyabe’s Adventures

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Jenichiro Oyabe (1867-1941) was among the first people of Japanese ancestry to write about his life in the United States. His memoir “A Japanese Robinson Crusoe,” first published in 1898, offers a picturesque account of the author’s experiences. It is also a fascinating example of the dark side of “Americanization” — how immigrants seeking liberty and enlightenment can absorb conventional social views and imitate elite snobbery.

Oyabe opens the narrative of “A Japanese Robinson Crusoe” with a description of his boyhood in Meiji-era Japan. His mother dies early in his life. Abandoned by his father, who joins the new imperial civil service, Oyabe is raised by various relatives. After attending different schools, he rejoins his father, who has become a judge on the northern island of Hokkaido, then largely frontier territory inhabited by Ainu (Japanese aborigines). Oyabe soon breaks with his father and decides to devote himself to missionary work among the Ainu. He travels to an Ainu region, is adopted by a chief’s family and takes on Ainu dress and speech. After several months, he resolves to seek education to uplift the Ainu (whom he calls a good-natured but “stupid” people).

Inspired by American missionaries, Oyabe expresses interest in Christianity and decides to travel to America for enlightenment. After several detours, he arrives in New York in 1888. He explains that he initially believed that all Americans were as enlightened and Christian as those he had met, including ship captains he had met in Asia, who had paid his fare to America. He is thus dismayed by the various forms of immorality and criminality he observes in New York — his pocket is picked, he sees young boys smoking and having to earn a living shining shoes, he goes to the theatre and sees scantily-clad women, and he visits an opium den in Chinatown where white women mingle with their Chinese boyfriends.

Oyabe’s negative impression of America climaxes a few weeks after his arrival, when he goes to get his haircut and is insulted: “‘Aee, John, git out from here. Oi don’t cut a China man’s hair!’ I was scorned by the old barber. I told him that I was not such a man, but a Japanese. ‘Ou, ye Javanese, a country of lots coffee! All right, sit dan, my good fellar.’” Oyabe is charged 25 cents, pays a dollar, and gets his change. However, he quickly discovers that the 50-cent piece the barber has given him is counterfeit. When he returns to the barbershop to challenge the barber, the man denies the charge and says that his business is as honest as the Bible.

The lesson Oyabe takes from this, however, is not that there is racism in America but that racists are not truly American: the barber is a new immigrant and low class, and thus not to be considered as representative. Conversely, Oyabe immediately jumps back with an endorsement of American democracy and the melting pot — something that attracts even such curious people as African Americans and Jews:

“Once I heard a speech from a curly-headed black man at the anniversary of Washington’s death-day. ‘Gent’men! We are born ’merican citizen, de chi’dren ov George Washin’ton.’ The name American citizen was a matter of pride even to that black man. I knew a young Jew in New York, whose father had lived in that city about fifteen or sixteen years, who was forbidden to eat pork or anything that was cooked with lard, and who had no knowledge of English. Still, he did a large business in the city, and called himself an American citizen.” (p. 121)

While Oyabe is in New York, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, president of Hampton Institute, recruited him to study there. He enrols as Armstrong’s special student and protégé. After spending two years at Hampton, he transfers to Howard University. There he becomes president Jeremiah Rankin’s protégé and companion. Oyabe carefully conceals in his memoirs that both these institutions are historically black colleges.

After receiving a degree in divinity from Howard in 1893, the author enrols at Yale University. (In a fascinating passage, Oyabe describes his joy in playing basketball, then newly invented, during his student years; he is pleased to hear a fellow student say, “That Jap plays like a tiger.”) Shortly before graduating, Oyabe reads in an article in a California newspaper on the “threat” posed by the large Japanese plantation worker population in Hawai‘i (then an independent republic) who were bringing “their idols and heathen customs to this country.” Unfamiliar with endemic anti-Asian prejudice on the West Coast, he does not realize that the journalist is actually targeting all Japanese Americans. Instead, Oyabe resolves to go and defend Christianity in the islands, and he travels cross-country to take up the assignment (while in Utah, he visits native villages and is congratulated by a pro-Japanese American Indian on Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese war). However, once his boat arrives in Hawai‘i he is chagrined to discover that Christianity is widespread on the islands. Oyabe takes up a pulpit in Maui, and spends two years preaching to Japanese laborers. He ultimately finds life in the islands too easy and comfortable, and his missionary instinct bids him leave for further training. The work ends with Oyabe at Yale, taking sociology courses on American Indians, and expressing uncertainty about his future path. Although he expresses zeal about doing missionary work with native peoples in Japan, he shares white paternalist views of their capacity:

“In my future, besides my pastoral work among my own race, I desire to establish a manual training institution for aborigines in the Orient, like the Hampton and Carlisle institutions in America…Let it produce many trained native workers, who know something about manual labor to support themselves, and scatter them everywhere among their own people.”

Shortly after publishing “A Japanese Robinson Crusoe,” Oyabe returned to Japan and built a model Ainu school, which he operated for 10 years. He later became well known in Japan as a nationalist scholar and historian. In 1924, he brought out a book arguing that the Mongol chieftain and conqueror Genghis Khan was actually Japanese — Minamoto Yoshitsune, younger brother of the first Minamoto Shogun. His nationalistic tone was also evident in his 1929 book “Nihon oyobi Nihon kokumin no kigen” (“Origin of Japan and Japanese”), in which he explored the influence of the ancient Hebrews on the development of Japanese civilization.

Jenichiro Oyabe apparently never returned to the United States and died in 1941. When he was invited back to Howard University for commencement in 1933 by President Mordecai Johnson, he declined but expressed his pleasure. Ironically, his son Masayoshi “Joe” Oyabe came to the United States in 1920, married, produced three children, and remained in America until his death in 1989.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Université du Québec a Montréal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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