Celebrity samurai – research focus

31st March 2020

News

How did a seventeen-year-old samurai became a national sensation and romantic figure in the United States in 1860?

  • Dr Natalia Doan

    Dr Natalia Doan

Dr Natalia Doan is Wadham’s Okinaga Junior Research Fellow in Japanese Studies. Here she gives an insight into her fascinating research, discovering the revelations of nineteenth-century Japanese travellers.

“I’m working on two projects during my three-year fellowship at Wadham. The first explores how a seventeen-year-old samurai in 1860 became a national sensation and romantic figure in the United States. Women sought out the samurai members of the 1860 Japanese Embassy to the United States in public and private. Women, men, and children across the country wrote letters to this one young samurai, who reportedly received a foot-high stack of mail a day during his seven weeks on the East Coast. My work-in-progress explores how and why this samurai celebrity and his fellow embassy members inspired a variety of reactions among the American people,” said Natalia.

In her recent article, ‘The 1860 Japanese Embassy and the Antebellum African American Press,’ Dr Doan discusses how the antebellum (pre US Civil War) excitement for this embassy inspired perceptions of solidarity within the African American press. In a time when African American people were denied basic human rights, the samurai and their popularity with American women proved further to African American writers and editors the unsubstantiated nature of racial prejudice, and that men of all colours had the right to participate in world affairs. By uncovering the activity and engagement of samurai outside Japan, her work contributes to a remapping of the overseas influence of Japanese people in the nineteenth century.

Dr Doan’s second project examines the writings and transnational connections of other nineteenth-century Japanese travellers. Her work requires knowledge and translation of multiple languages—English, Modern Japanese, Classical Japanese, and kuzushiji, the cursive style of Japanese writing often seen on woodblock prints. Here, Dr Doan is pictured with shipwreck survivor and castaway Nakahama Manjirō’s Hyōson kiryaku [A brief account of drifting toward the southeast] (1852). She is especially interested in the influence of transnational encounters on the later intellectual history of northern Japan.

“It is my hope that my research on the writings and interactions of Japanese people across the world will inspire curiosity in the power of connection and compassion across seemingly formidable borders of distance, language, and culture. Wadham’s vibrant community of diverse thinkers and commitment to inclusivity make Wadham an inspiring and ideal place to conduct this research,” concludes Natalia.

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