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Writing about ‘The Lost” or “Old and New” or Japan ‘Off-The-Beaten-Track’ in English is an enduring publishing trend that goes back to at least 1878

[UPDATED: 5-10-2024]

Writing and publishing books about Japan is not a new phenomenon and some of the themes, such as the alleged paradox of and contradictions within Japanese society are not new either.

Many such themes have endured for over one hundred years, or more. Authors have continued to attempt to decode Japan, with wit, insight and elegant prose, for readers for years, comparing the present to the past, and searching out new unique things in Japan never written about before in English or pockets of rural Japan never ‘explored’ before.

The British explorer and travel writer Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), for example, wrote Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of Travels on Horseback in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikko and Ise in 1881 after she visited Japan in 1878, with the aim of introducing new aspects of Japan to Western readers.

She writes about visits to bookshops, colleges, missionaries, Japanese women and the moral codes they are bound by, a glimpse of domestic life, and even includes descriptions, that would not be publishable today, of Ainu people comparing some to The Missing Link.

Another early example is Percival Lowell (1855-1916), an American intellectual and businessman, who lived in Japan for a few months and visited the country many times, who wrote a travelogue in 1891 titled: Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan, as well as others books on Japan and the Orient.

In 1913, Lord Redesdale (1837-1916), a British diplomat who was based in Japan in the 1870s, comments in the introduction of A Tragedy in Stone and other Papers on this publishing trend:

“Many books are being written about Japan old and new: every tourist writes his impressions or those of his native guide, mostly illiterate and uninformed; and so I felt the less hesitation in endeavouring to crystallise some particles of truth as a set-off to against all this Dolmetscherei – interpreter’s fribble”.

“Even a trip among the fairy-haunted mountains of Hakone, in days when there were no railroads, no telegraphs, no hotels, and when we travelled with an armed escort – for there were not a few ronin about, desperadoes whose blades were a thirst to drink the blood of the hated foreigner – may be of some amusement to the myriad journeyers who now have at their command all the comforts and something more than the security of the West”.

“But for these I must say that they pay a price in the sacrifice of much that was original, much that was picturesque, and the old-world, and unforeseen.”

Many authors today, as in the past, are aware of the challenges of writing an original book about Japan, but still feel compelled to pick up the gauntlet by putting their thoughts and impression to paper.

In fact so many books had been written about Japan by 1900 that one US-based Japanese journalist saw this in itself as a publishing opportunity and wrote a book titled Japan and the Japanese in 1904, summarising them.

Harold and Alice Foght, two America educators, who despite all this and being fully aware of the risks, like so many others today, decided to take up the challenge and wrote in the preface of their book Unfathomed Japan, published in 1928:

“We are fully cognizant of the fact that of books on Japan there is no end – many that are truly scholarly, the result of painstaking research. But alas! Also many that are mere impressionistic nonsense, or else wholly biased and prejudiced, either describing the Japanese as new race of supermen or making of them a nation of knaves – dishonest, crafty, and untrustworthy.”

Their book includes chapters and headings on: Purveyors of Untruths, Low Degree of Adult Illiteracy, A Visit to an Ainu Village, The Geisha Suicide Rock, An Education Institution After My Own Heart, Helen Redell’s Leper Hospital, and Children Do Cry in Japan.

Despite his views on books about Japan, Lord Redesdale was happy to share his own impressions and memories:

“Already the Japanese themselves talk of the days previous to 1878 as mukashi, “the olden time,” and they speak dubiously of what took place then, much as we might talk of the events of the period of Heptarchy. It was strange indeed, when I returned to Japan six years ago with Prince Arthur’s Garter Mission, to be more than once cross-examined as to what did or did not take place mukashi. When the Mayor of Tokyo got up a representation of one of the old Daimyo processions for the Prince’s benefit, one of the Princesses turned around to me, a foreigner, and said: “You must often have seen such sights mukashi; is this all correct?” Many books are being written about Japan old and new….

“When I left her in 1870 she was busy working out the problems of her own political salvation. I went back in 1873 – she was then learning and toiling, training herself assiduously for the great part she was to play in the world’s history. In 1909 I found a great and heroic nation emerging from a war in which she had shown not only those great qualities which gave success to her arms, but also the magnanimity and self-restraint in victory which are the greatest triumph of the conqueror.

“In forty years Japan, from being an unknown country, a negligible quantity in the councils of the nations, has raised herself to the rank of a first-rate Power, and from this time forth it is impossible to conceive any Congress, meeting to settle the affairs of the world, at which she should not be represented, and which her statesmen should not have a powerful voice.

“The Old Japan is dead, but its soul survives in a spirit of patriotism and chivalry as loft as the world has seen. Daimyos and Kuges have disappeared.  The feuds of the clans, the turbulent frettings of the Wave-men, have faded into the past. In the place of these elements of unrest we see the new birth of a novel people bound together by one great and glorious aspiration, following the guidance of an auspicious star leading them to the heights of which their fathers never dreamt”.

Writing about ‘The Lost” or “Old and New” or Japan ‘Off-The-Beaten-Track’ in English is an enduring publishing trend that goes back to at least 1878 Posted by Richard Nathan