A Japanese Robinson Crusoe

First published in 1898 and long out of print, A Japanese Robinson Crusoe, by Jenichiro Oyabe, (1867–1941) is a pioneering work of Asian American literature. It recounts Oyabe’s early life in Japan, his journey west, and his education at two historically Black colleges, detailing in the process his gradual transformation from Meiji gentleman to self-proclaimed “Japanese Yankee.” Like a Victorian novelist, Oyabe spins a tale that mixes faith and exoticism, social analysis and humor. His story fuses classic American narratives of self-creation and the self-made man (and, in some cases, the tall tale) with themes of immigrant belonging and “whiteness.” Although he compares himself with the castaway Robinson Crusoe, Oyabe might best be described as a combination of Crusoe and his faithful servant Friday, the Christianized man of color who hungers to be enlightened by Western ways.

“This is a fascinating memoir by a young Japanese who spent thirteen years (1885–1898) traveling to all parts of the world: the Kurile islands, China, Okinawa, Hawaii, the United States, Britain, Portugal, etc., before returning to his native country as a teacher and a Christian minister. Few in the world, least of all Japanese, would have seen so much of the world on their own. What he saw—and, even more revealing, how he described what he saw—adds to our understanding not only of late nineteenth-century Japan’s encounter with distant lands, in particular the United States, but also of the history of international travels, a history that constitutes an essential part of the phenomenon of globalization.” —Akira Iriye, Harvard University

Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies
January 2009 / ISBN 978-0-8248-3247-6 / $28.00 (PAPER)