Foreignness and the Other

"What lies there," he wondered aloud, "across the sea?"

"Nothing you want to know about," Denzo said, hurrying to hoist the sail. "Barbarians live there. Demons with hairy faces, big noses, and blue eyes!" (1.1.3-4)

This is our first introduction to what "barbarians" (i.e. white people) are supposed to be like. Scary, huh?

"The law says, 'Any person who leaves the country and later returns will be put to death.'"

They brooded on this in silence.

Finally, Manjiro said, "But why?"

"Because, if we were to encounter any of the foreign devils, we would be poisoned by them." (1.2.40-43)

Goemon and Manjiro are commiserating about how they might not be able to return to Japan. Why? Because Japan in the late 19th century is completely into isolationism, which basically means Japan wants nothing to do with any other country in this book. "Foreign devils" is some pretty strong language, though—it seems personal instead of political.

"Maybe not our bodies, but they will poison our minds with their way of thinking. That's why no fishermen are allowed to go very far from the coast—they say 'contamination lies beyond the reach of the tides.' The barbarians would fill our heads with wrong thoughts!" (1.2.45)

So this is what's wrong with all those "barbarians." But seriously, fear of "wrong thoughts" sounds a lot like an overprotective parent.

When he finally reached one of them, he raised his head and looked up. He could not lift his arm to reach out. His blood turned to ice, and dizzy again, he felt himself sinking. For when he had looked into his rescuer's face, he had gazed into a pair of eyes as blue as the sea. (1.2.98)

Barbarian alert. What's interesting here is Manjiro's reaction. Seeing a white guy's face makes him lose his bodily senses: his "blood turn[s] to ice" and he gets "dizzy." He feels detached from himself enough that he "[feels] himself sinking." His rescuer's face makes him lose himself.

Manjiro wondered why the foreigners didn't just carry their small things in separate pouches, the way it was done in Japan. But once his hands discovered his pockets, he couldn't keep them out. His hands wanted to explore those spaces just like, when he'd lost teeth as a boy, his tongue wanted to explore the empty holes where his teeth had been. (2.3.67)

So maybe the foreign isn't so bad. Another way to think of the way Manjiro explores his new pockets is as a way for him to safely "discover" a new culture.

The strange men were all different colors! Their skins were the colors of weathered wood, or clay, white sand, or dried grasses. One was as black as soot! And all different kinds and colors of hair—like the leaves in fall: yellow, red, brown. The black man's head was crowded with tight knots. The head of one man seemed to be covered all over with bright golden coins! All the men were burned and weather-beaten, their faces creased and stained with grime. And they were big. Very big. (2.3.24)

One thing that's already beating Manjiro's expectations: skin and hair color. Also notice how Manjiro turns human coloring into something both naturally beautiful ("leaves in fall: yellow, red, brown") and completely unusual ("The head of one man seemed to be covered all over with bright golden coins!"). The men are maybe more intriguing to Manjiro's visual senses than they are threatening.

Jolly, whose oar was directly behind Manjiro's, hissed at him. "Yer a heap of trouble, ye filthy, spying Chinaman. … Eating our lobscouse, drinkin' our water. Yer nothing' but an ignorant pagan. … We'll be setting you off on the first desert island we spy." (2.4.47)

Calling the American sailors "barbarians" isn't going to win the Japanese fishermen any racial tolerance awards, but how Jolly acts toward Manjiro seems really bad by comparison. He's aggressive with his hatred of Manjiro, plus he can't even get the difference between the Japanese and the Chinese. It's the worst form of "othering" that can happen to Manjiro.

"I feel it is important for me, as the leader of our group, to watch out for you. Now, listen to me. It is better for you to stay away, so that you don't become tainted by their ways. They are corrupting you. Already you walk with their swagger. You are forgetting your manners and addressing all of us as your equals. You neglect to bow. Just now—you did not acknowledge me. You don't even bow to the captain of this ship!" (2.5.35)

Uh-oh…. Sounds like Denzo already doesn't recognize Manjiro. Although don't you wonder why he can't cut Manjiro a little slack? Is it that Manjiro is really becoming foreign or is it that he's just so busy helping out on the ship that he forgets to bow to Denzo?

Jolly sneered. "Cap'n won't take you back to yer godforsaken country. Savages and beasts that they are, they'd boil us in big pots and skin us, too. They'd do the same to you. That's how you can tell they're no better than animals." Jolly shoved his face up close to Manjiro. "Ye won't be going home again," he said. (2.6.5)

What's funny about Jolly's words (if funny is even the right word) is how similar they are to the words the Japanese guys say about the American sailors. Foreigners: More alike than they seem, if only in their hatred for each other.

As he ogled the fancy cakes in the baker's window, he was startled by his reflection in the glass. How odd he looked, in his Western clothes! A movement, also reflected in the glass, caught his eye, and his gaze shifted behind him to a handful of boys—the same boys he'd seen earlier. He watched quietly as the boys made faces and rude gestures behind his back. One pulled at his eyelids, making his eyes into ugly slits in his face. Another bowed and bobbed. The other boys doubled over laughing.

Is this how he looked to people—strange and grotesque? Did everyone see him this way? (3.15.24-25)

This moment could be seen as the moment when Manjiro first becomes conscious of "race" in the way we know it today: full of (false) stereotypes and unjust treatment. But what does Manjiro really consider "strange and grotesque"? On one hand, it's pretty easy to say that he finds the boys making faces at him disgusting. On the other hand, is he more sensitive to the whole thing because he himself thinks he looks "odd…in his Western clothes"?

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