‘Onoto Watanna’ was the pseudonym of Winnifred Eaton, a Canadian author of English-Chinese ancestry. I hadn’t heard of her before, but her work was very popular. Her pretence of being Japanese would be considered cultural appropriation now, but there was a fashion for everything Japanese at the time and I don’t suppose anyone minded that much.
This book, first published in 1906 and illustrated by L W Ziegler, is set in Japan during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). I had to read a little about the war for some context, as I knew nothing about it.
The story is about the Kurukawa family. The father brings his white American wife and her children over to Japan, where they integrate with the family of his first wife. The teenage son is angry about this and goes to join the war. Later on, the father, who has samurai ancestors, feels he must do his duty to the Emperor too. We don’t hear or see much about the war, however, with the focus on the domestic side. To some extent the theme is the cultural differences between Americans and Japanese people, somewhat patronising and stereotypical, but not particularly racist in outlook. The book also engages with the roles of men and women, concluding that women should be the angelic housekeeping maternal type and that men should be brave and honourable. It keeps neutral about the Russians, which was a wise decision.
I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. It was memorable, with some evocative writing. The only thing I didn’t like was the sentimental ending, which was no doubt expected for that kind of novel.
This was my fourth random read from Project Gutenberg this year.