Japan isolated themselves from most of the world under the policy of sakoku, limiting its contact with foreign nations to preserve the Japanese way of life – until Americans forced the opening of Japanese ports with “gunboat diplomacy”
But the Japan of Toru the Wayfarer is different – this is a Japan where Toru, a traveller, returned to Japan from the west with a warning – and guides to technology that may save Japan and keep her independent: able to say no to the inevitable arrival of foreigners
While this book was advertised as a steam punk, I think it is much better termed an alternate history since, beyond a few dirigibles and dubious submarines, there’s little steampunk element
This book looks at what would have happened if Japan had managed to industrialise and arm itself with modern weaponry before Commodore Perry forced the opening of Japan to trade and the end of the Sakoku isolationist policy that Japan
The book contains a lot of historical references and research drawing on actual events of the time as well as actual daimyos who were present and involved in Japan at the time. It includes a lot of history of Sakoku and policies around it.
We follow the story of how Toru, returning to Japan after visiting America – back when it was illegal to do so and returning from abroad carries the death penalty under the isolationist policy. He brings with him lots of information from the west including a whole lot of guidance on technology and weapons – and the warning that the Americans are coming. There is a lot of references to the Unequal Treaties and stark warnings using China as an example of how a mighty, ancient and great nation in the world can be utterly abused by predatory treaties forced on them by gunboat diplomacy.
While Toru is certainly bringing in western technology and knowledge to help “save” Japan, there is a definite emphasis on the Japanese working together, working to keep themselves independent and free from brutal unequal treaties. This is not a white saviour narrative, every character in this book – except the late arriving western threat – are all Japanese and there’s even an attempt to at least make the names of the technology they’re adopting to fit Japanese pronunciation and word structure. There’s also a major point that the technology would be adapted to Japanese ways – for example, introducing sewing machines doesn’t mean that they’re going to produce western clothing – they will make yukata and hakama. To quote:
“Technology serves a culture but need not define it.”
In addition to Toru we have his two very good friends who do a lot to help him: Jiro, a peasant Blacksmith who had to overcome classism to be able to meaningful be involved and truly help and contribute to the movement. His skills were utterly essential to the overall success. The same applies to Lord Aya’s daughter Masuyo whose skills are just as essential to the movement succeeding who faces the full stifling pressure of the rigid gender roles expected of her. It’s good to see both of these representing different oppressions to overcome to add their essential skills to the movement