Odyssey of Japan, odyssey of a woman. An evocative, personal search for meaning in life and history

Samurai and Silk: A Japanese and American Heritage, by Haru Matsukata Reischauer. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 400 pp. Illustrated. $20. On the dedication page of this enchanting book is a wedding photograph of the author's parents. Miyo, her mother, is seated and wears traditional Japanese dress. Shokuma, her father, stands slightly behind her; he wears a dark Western suit and tie. His polished shoes wink out of the shadows.

The silky calm of the photograph is arresting. The ivory perfection of the flesh is doll-like. Nothing betrays the turbulence we confront as we read ``Samurai and Silk.''

Formally, it's a family memoir in the shape of interlocking biographies of the author's grandfathers and their offspring. Both the Matsukata and the Arai families played key roles in the modernization of Japan. As an insider's view of the emergence of modern Japan, ``Samurai and Silk'' is quite valuable.

Once into it, one becomes aware of deeper themes. On this level, ``Samurai and Silk'' is about the role of spiritual discipline in the lives of very active people. It's clear from the tone of the book that this is the result of a quite personal search for meaning in life and history.

The special quality of that search is evident in the fully detailed and warmly evocative biographies that compose the book. In each, Mrs. Reischauer reveals the character of her subject in terms of his actions.

For grandfather Matsukata Masayoshi, who grew up as a farmer-samurai, character was shaped by his training in fencing, calligraphy, and a radical brand of Chinese philosophy that emphasized the importance of intuition and the essential unity of knowledge and action. His crucial role in the emerging representative government of Japan climaxed when ``through a severe program of financial retrenchment, he halted inflation, balanced the budget, reversed the adverse balance of trade, and established a sound monetary policy.''

Reischauer's grandfather on her mother's side, who helped to develop the silk trade with America, was the beneficiary of the financial policies of Matsukata. Ironically, grandfather Arai was influenced by a samurai thinker who eventually opposed Matsukata's economic policies. For Arai, the old Confucian orthodoxy was replaced by the Protestant ethic. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were heroes to him and his young commercial colleagues, who struggled against the unfair tariff system embodied in treaties with Western powers.

But, as Reischauer explains, ``the emphasis on strength of character, uprightness, and public service in the new Christian ethics was not very different from some aspects of the old Confucianism, but it was free from the traditional Sinocentric and Japanese feudal concepts of the past.''

Japan had changed for good. Prime minister and New York businessman both helped replace a feudal, closed society with a modern, industrial, heterogeneous one.

As the author explains in her introduction titled ``My Dual Heritage,'' the traditional concern for character was not lost on the offspring of these remarkable men. Her mother, Miyo, was the daughter of a son of Rioichiro Arai, who had established himself in the silk trade in New York.

When it came time for her to marry, Miyo was sent to Japan to marry a son of Matsukata Masayoshi. Having been brought up as an American, she led a difficult life in an aristocratic household run on principles going back to the samurai.

Most of all, she wanted to raise her children ``to be strong, independent individuals.'' She found a discipline of her own, for, according to the author, when Miyo began to study Christian Science, she ``ultimately found in it the spiritual strength with which to carry out her resolve.''

Contrary to Japanese expectations (though we learn that she had the support of her husband), the author's mother sent her daughters to Principia College, a school for Christian Scientists in Illinois. There the author became interested in the history of the Far East and in international relations.

After graduation, she returned to Japan and spent the war years with her parents in their summer house at Kamakura on the beach some 40 miles south of Tokyo. They grew their own food and collected firewood for cooking and heating. Isolated and desperately unhappy, Haru considered suicide, but adds, with characteristic common sense, ``Suicide is easier to contemplate than to carry out.'' She began to search for another way out. In a style both grave and exquisitely charming, this book is symbol and result of that search.

When the war ended, after being disabused of the notion that the Japanese had won (on Kamakura, they knew nothing about Hiroshima), she and her father visited the burned-out wilderness of Tokyo. They identified their old home by the metal strings and frames of two pianos.

Through her use of family documents and recollection as well as published sources, Reischauer writes as an eyewitness to gradual but irreversible historical change. She skillfully combines personal anecdotes and historical narratives in a text as strong and smooth as the refined silk Rioichiro Arai sold in New York.

The shock of cultural contrasts becomes part of a design remarkable for wit and compassion. Finally, it is the author's awareness of the principles that underlie purposeful change that give ``Samurai and Silk'' the feel of a book that will last.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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