Knoxville native Alan Gratz hits it out of the park with Samurai Shortstop
by Jonathan Frey
"When the pocket watches and the streetcars and the steam engines came to attack our noble way of life… we should have taken up our swords and fought like samurai. Instead, we packed away our katana and embraced America and the other countries of the West, lapping up anything ‘modern’ like starving men who will eat rotting meat. Under bushido, a warrior knew when to sacrifice himself for a noble cause.… What do we believe? Where are we going? Bushido once offered answers to these questions, but now we toss about on the rapids of change like paper boats, soon to be drowned. The last of the true samurai die the only honorable way they now can—by the sword—and the way of the warrior dies with them. If we do not join them, what honor can we find in this new life? In short, if we are not samurai, who are we?’ Toyo looked around at the salarymen in suits and the women in their dresses, at the streetcars and the bicycles and the pocket watches. Was this new, modern Japan so terrible?”
Quoted from Knoxville native and first-time novelist Alan Gratz’s young adult novel Samurai Shortstop (Dial, $18), this passage encapsulates the turmoil experienced by late-19th century Japanese and the essential backdrop of the novel.
On a Saturday in July approximately 150 years ago, Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s “black ships” entered Japan’s Tokyo Bay for reasons that sound eerily familiar: to protect and advance U.S. trade and oil interests. Perry’s persistent refusal to be turned away—he had the gall to include with his letter of introduction white flags of surrender for Japanese use—rocked Japan’s socially constricted and insular culture. Once so introverted it refused even to assist distressed foreign whalers (the oil from which U.S. homes depended on for lighting), Japan’s resulting foreign affairs crisis brought into high relief the nation’s grave political and technological challenges. Fifteen years later the Tokugawa shogunate would fall, ending seven centuries of warrior rule. Soon thereafter, an unprecedented two-year fact-finding tour of the technologies and politics of 12 countries, conducted by 50 of Japan’s ruling elite, would result in the rapid and controversial adoption of many foreign ways. The fallout from this upheaval shapes the critical conflict at the center of Samurai Shortstop.
Set in 1890 at Ichiko, the First Higher School of Tokyo, Shortstop tells the story of teenaged Toyo Shimada, caught between the warrior class rituals of his rebellious uncle and father, a former samurai turned newspaper editorialist (quoted above), and the rapid changes that result from Japan’s new espousal of Western ways. Central to the narrative is the game of baseball ( besoboru ), a sport introduced by Americans in the 1870s, not long after the sport’s invention, and enthusiastically embraced in Japan. In the novel, baseball provides the essential story line, as Toyo auditions for shortstop when he first enters Ichiko and ultimately rises to become the team’s de facto leader. Baseball also comes to symbolize foreign and specifically American influences, the modernization of Japan, and the Japanese capacity to absorb outside elements into long held traditions.
Shortstop opens just before Toyo turns 16, the day before he begins attendance at Ichiko, and with Toyo assisting at the ritual suicide of his uncle, sentenced to death for opposing the recent changes. “For my part in the samurai uprising at Ueno Park… I, Koji Shimada, have been sentenced to die. The emperor, in his divine graciousness, has granted me the honor of committing seppuku rather than die at the hands of his executioner. I beg those present here today to bear witness to my death.’” What follows is an accurate and hence necessarily graphic, yet non-sensational, description of seppuku. While opening in this way certainly sets a tone of sober gravity, the novel contains many lighter moments, including teenage antics, ribaldry, and humor as well as many passages about baseball as played in 19th century Japan.
A distinct pleasure of Samurai Shortstop is the clarity of its prose and the accuracy of its setting. Gratz has done his homework, capturing the political and social concerns of the times, depicting Japanese samurai warrior conduct ( bushido ), and describing the harsh realities of Japanese boarding school life of the period. Moreover, Gratz incorporates occasional historical events and figures into the narrative, thereby lending the story further verisimilitude. The resulting bildungsroman , while on occasion perforce too tidy for its subject’s complexity and significance, presents an admirable portrayal of a youth learning to negotiate and ultimately co-opt a cultural invasion.