The well known, true story of Manjiro, a young Japanese sailor lost at sea, rescued by American sailors, and brought to the US, where he learned English and later worked as an interpreter, is the framework for this study of the opening of Japan to trade. The fictional Hikotaro, who became Hikozo, and later Joseph Heco, is thirteen in 1850, when he is rescued by an American ship from a rudderless and drifting Japanese fishing boat. Hiko's observations about this strange ship, the Americans who have rescued him, and the cities of San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Macao, to which they travel, establish the cultural differences and the contrast between the Americans' overwhelming desire for trade and the Japanese resistance to it. Hiko knows that he will not be allowed to return his own country because he is considered a criminal, his "crime" being his exposure to the outside world and to Christianity.
Though he never stops wanting to return to Japan, Hiko does the only things he can do--he makes friends among Americans, learns the language, keeps his mind open to new ideas, and travels the world on American ships. Eventually he meets senators, President Buchanan, and even President Lincoln during the Civil War, before finally returning to Japan as an American interpreter when the shogunate opens the country to trade in the 1860s. "Faction samurai" are as opposed to this as many Americans are to the Emancipation Proclamation, and bloodshed and fires directed at foreigners make life for Hiko and the American consular officers for whom he works very dangerous.
For someone interested in the opening of Japan, the novel provides interesting historical insights. As a novel, however, the book is a challenge. The plot has no real dramatic tension or focus, simply following Hiko around for many years. Inexplicably, the narrative also splits several times, following the lives of other Japanese castaways whom Hiko meets as they, too, try to return to Japan. Though this gives additional historical information, it further fragments the reader's already weak identification with Hiko, since he is not present in these side narratives. Episodic and lacking in urgency, the novel feels more like an historical record than a plot which the author has directed. With undeveloped characters, no love story, and no humor to change the tone or mood, this is a novel more geared to the historian than the lover of literature. Mary Whipple