On The Century of the Black Ships

Recently I was given a history book on a narrow, though interesting, subject — the literature of Japanese/American warfare written between 1900 and 1940 entitled The Century of the Black Ships. It was written by a Japanese scholar, Naoki Inose, and published in Japan in 1993. Viz, a manga publisher, translated the book into English and published it last month.

The literature that’s discussed could be thought of as the technothrillers of its day. One Japanese writer profiled began by writing an account of the Russo-Japanese War and the destruction of the Russian fleet in a naval engagement, and then he turned to postulating a naval confrontation between the United States and Japan. Another writer profiled later in the book worked for the British secret service where he came into contact with both Japanese and American war plans, and from that he wargamed and wrote out his own account of how a naval war between the two powers would unfold. There’s also analysis of War Plan Orange, the United States military’s war plan, developed in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War, for fighting a war against Japan, and despite its origins three decades prior to Pearl Harbor, it’s the blueprint the United States Navy used in taking back the Pacific.

The thesis, as I understand it, is this — popular literature shaped popular opinion, which helped to push Japan and the United States toward conflict. The “century” the title refers to is the century from Commodore Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan in 1854 with his fleet that Japan referred to as “black ships” because of the black smoke that billowed from their steam engines, and this event – the shocking appearance of an American fleet in Japan’s harbors – wrought massive changes and discombobulation in the Japanese psyche, leading to the creation of the Future War literary genre.

It’s an interesting book, though not an easy to read book. The problem I have with the book is that it can be rather stream-of-consciousness in places, and downright repetitive in others. I’m not sure if that’s the fault of Inose, or if it’s the fault of his translators, and because of that I can’t really recommend it. Yet I’m drawn to the concept of the book, because it presents a starkly different view of how the United States and Japan came to blows in the twentieth century. Literature, even pop literature, can reflect the angst and the ennui of a culture better than official records, newspapers, and the like.

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