Reconstructed, re-imagined

Jill Margerison, The Southport School [About | Email]

Volume 12, Issue 2 (Book Review 2 in 2012). First published in ejcjs on 26 October 2012.

Mitchell, David (2010) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, London: Sceptre, Paperback B-format ISBN 978-0-340-92158-6, 560 pages.

It has been estimated that, by the early 17th century, there were around 300,000 Christians in Japan. Yet the missionaries’ intolerance of other religions posed a potentially subversive threat to the political power of Tokugawa Government. The result was the expulsion of the Spanish and Portuguese by 1639. Only the Dutch remained, confined to an artificial island in the harbor of Nagasaki called Dejima.

This secluded trading post (and to date little-examined period in Western fiction) becomes the historical setting for a fascinating linguistic and socio-cultural novel, entitled The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. This is not the first time Mitchell has situated his work in Japan. His first and second books (Mitchell 1999, 2001) also connected with a Japanese setting; however, in this latest piece, Mitchell focuses on the relations between the Dutch and Japanese from 1799 to 1817 to produce his ‘own take’ on historical fiction.

The key protagonist, red-headed accountant Jacob de Zoet, arrives in Dejima in 1799. He is part of a mission sent from Zeeland to root out high-level corruption at this far-flung trading post. The post, however, reveals a social order in which ruthless, scheming characters involved in espionage and trade jostle for influence, power and profit amidst an exotic and enigmatic backdrop of samurai, slaves, concubines, and medicos.

Soon after his arrival, De Zoet falls in love with a Japanese midwife named Orito Aibagawa. Yet even the mere contemplation of such a cross-cultural romance during this period is taboo. To further complicate a potential love story, Orito’s step-mother sells Orito into captivity, to a religious cult controlled by an evil warrior, in order to solve the family’s financial woes. As a result, a slightly fantastical ‘feel’ emerges, demonstrating a blend of historical fiction with magical realism. This development not only draws out tensions from the underlying dualities that run throughout the novel – the real and unreal, Western and Japanese, life and death – but also connects with the intention of many modern Japanese novelists, such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Natsume Sōseki, who experiment with fantastical elements to examine Japan’s identity crisis vis-à-vis the West and modernity (Napier 1995, 452).

The Thousand Autumns is divided into three parts, beginning with 'Part I: 1799', the eleventh year of the Era of Kansei and the complicated delivery of a Magistrate’s child. This first chapter itself reads as a self-contained short story, introducing a distinct cultural setting and a key character: ‘Orito – a midwife – who kneels on a stale and sticky futon’ to assist a Japanese concubine in labour whilst, ‘in the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates’ (page 3). The chapter quickly offers rising action with Japanese medicos debating the use of new foreign innovations, forceps, to help with the birth. Without revealing the events too closely, the climax moves to falling action and a denouement all within the first eight pages, effectively engaging the audience with ‘life’ in Nagasaki, 1799.

The foregrounding of medical knowledge from the outset of this work demonstrates the significant, but invariably complicated, early exchange of ideas between the West and Japan. Mitchell also highlights additional Enlightenment ideas, referring to influential historical figures and events to contextualize the story. Dialogue between Dutch and Japanese scholars involve lines such as ‘Niccolo Machiavelli could teach the Shogun very little, I fancy’ (page 46) and ‘All life is life because possess [sic] force of ki’ (page 86). There is also frequent interlacing of Christian texts and Biblical images with Japanese Buddhism, folk religion and nature worship, which is handled with rich knowledge and literary sophistication.

A fundamental premise throughout this section draws on the unavoidable linguistic challenges that existed between the Dutch and the Japanese during the 1800s. Mitchell describes the foreigners’ arrival through the Sea-Gate, being ushered into the Customs Room, and having their names transcribed from Dutch into Japanese. The protagonist de Zoet is thus re-christened Dazuto (page 21).

As with most themes running through the book, however, there is a destabilizing as well as philosophical intent. Orito suggests to Dazuto that words in foreign languages such as Dutch ‘do not have same … power, smell, blood’ (page 75). Does a foreign language resonate with the same ‘power, smell and blood’? Mitchell regularly experiments with the power of words and concepts. He takes a Japanese metaphoric reference to the word ‘air-head’, translates it to the English and assumes that the reader will make the same figurative connections. ‘One can only wonder what my green-pepper head of a daughter-in-law was whimpering about’ (page 329). Perhaps, thanks to Mitchell’s translation and literary usage, this idiom might catch on in English as a result.

Aside from the attention to minute cross-cultural linguistic details, however, there is a plethora of prose with rich sensory images. One such example is the description of an earthquake:

Joists groan; plaster patters like grapeshot; a window casement flies from its mount and the lurching room is lit apricot; the mosquito net enwraps Jacob’s face and the unappeasable violence is magnified threefold, fivefold, tenfold, and the bed drags itself across the room like a wounded beast. (page 80)

Mitchell’s use of vocabulary to re-create this historical world is extensive and inspiring. He writes ‘a proposal of marriage returned like a risen golem’ and also reports, ‘Good God … it’s a Portuguese harquebus’ (page 46). The stuiver, picul and koku, along with words such as parvenu, dithyrambic and febrifuges, are just a few of the historical descriptors that establish a feeling of authenticity for the period.

In Part II, however, there is a shift of scene from Dejima and its focus on cross-cultural exchanges and the power of interpreting foreign words and concepts. This section follows instead the fate of Orito when she is sold as a slave into a mysterious religious order. It is here that the novel takes a dark gothic turn. It is also where Mitchell makes mention of the eta people: ‘One New Year’s Day I climbed over the wall closing the eta village and ran away to Osaka but the tanner sent two men to fetch me back’ (page 209). This is an author who is not only highly talented with language and in possession of a vibrant imagination, but who has also developed a deep working knowledge of Japanese socio-historical culture. But will Mitchell’s incredible attention to such cultural nuance always be noticed by (or appeal to) the general reader?

Part III returns to Dejima in 1800 where Mitchell works his ‘version’ of history alongside more factual accounts. A British frigate attacks Dejima in order to oust the Dutch and secure a new foreign power monopoly on trade with the Japanese.

Particularly notable in this section is its emphasis on an underlying theme of the book—that of identity. Mitchell does this by highlighting the importance of a name, the family register and the subject of adoption. He finally develops dialogue, via one of the slaves, that resolves an ongoing deliberation about a person’s name: ‘My true name I tell nobody, so nobody can steal my name …. My true name is a thing I own’ (page 368). It can be argued that in this respect there are strong inter-textual connections with Hayao Miyazaki’s film script, Spirited Away (2001), a Japanese animation drama in which the name of the main character, Chihiro, is stolen by a witch called Yubaba. Miyazaki’s objective in this script, like Mitchell’s, is to highlight the power of words and language over a person’s identity.

Mitchell’s ability to juggle key literary components whilst weaving together meticulously researched historical work presents a compelling read. Mitchell is a skilled writer and puts his vast imagination to good use. The book is well researched in terms of its socio-historical aspects, providing an almost seamless connection between the re-constructed and re-imagined. The language is sometimes challenging, due to the frequent use of historical terms and foreign words, including Latin, Dutch names, medical jargon and Japanese (written both in kanji and romaji). There are also perhaps too many ‘gaps’ for readers to fill as they journey down this charming literary pathway. Nonetheless, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is well worth reading, not just once, but again and again. It is a contemporary classic that re-constructs and re-imagines a profoundly important period in Western-Japanese international relations.


Jansen, Marius, B. (2002) The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mitchell, David (1999) Ghostwritten: A Novel in Nine Parts, London: Sceptre.

———(2001) Number9dream, London: Sceptre.

Napier, Susan J. (1995) ‘The Magic of Identity: Magic Realism in Modern Japanese Fiction’, in Lois Parkinson Zamora, Wendy B. Faris (eds) Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Durham: Duke University Press, 451–476.

About the Author

Jill Margerison was a Monbusho student at Keio University and later received her PhD from the University of Queensland, as well as a Masters of International Relations and Global Governance from Bond University. Her areas of interest include Japanese literature, history and foreign policy. She can currently be contacted at The Southport School.

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