A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    The first English language edition of Kobo Abe’s ‘The Woman in the Dunes’ was illustrated by his wife Machi[UPDATED: 6-17-2024]

    In 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics, Alfred A. Knoff published the first American Edition of Kobo Abe’s (1924-1993) The Women in the Dunes in English, translated by E. Dale Saunders (1919-1995).

    This first edition is beautifully illustrated with multiple drawings, rendered in pen and ink, by the author’s wife Machi who he met while he was at university studying medicine. Many believe his wife, who was an artist and theatre designer, was the inspiration behind his decision to quit the medical profession shortly after he graduated from university and one year after they married in 1947.

    The drawings depict not just the protagonists, but also the insects one of the novel’s protagonists collects while on a break from work at the start of the narrative, a break he finds it impossible to return from.

    One such illustration, for instance, consists of four rows of insects, each with four similar looking insects holding the feelers of the insect next to them, as if they are line dancing on the page.

    The Women in the Dunes, a jarringly dry novel about the futility and repetitiveness of modern Japanese existence, was Abe’s first novel published in English.  It had already won the Yomiuri Prize for Literature in Japan in 1960 and was published in America in English 16 years after Abe had made his debut as a writer in Japan.

    A film adaptation of The Women in the Dunes, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927-2001), with its unusually memorable sound track by Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), also went on general release in the same year as the English edition was published in America in 1964.

    The film subsequently won the special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival the same year, helping launch Abe’s reputation and career outside Japan.

    Abe, son of a medical doctor, was brought up in Mukuden, Manchuria where his father was working at a medical school. And like the protagonist in The Women in the Dunes, Abe was fascinated with and collected insects from a young age. Despite all of this or because of it his own son subsequently decided to continue the family tradition and became a doctor.

    Abe was a fan of Nietzche, Heidegger, Jaspers as well as Kafka, an author that he has often been compared to. In fact, he is often given the moniker ‘The Kafka of Japan’.

    Abe studied medicine like his father, but in 1948 the year he graduated from Tokyo Imperial University, his debut book, The Road Sign at the End of the Road, was published. Three years later he went on to win the prestigious Akutagawa Literary Prize for his novel The Crime of Mr. S. Karuma.

    Abe was a highly creative individual who ran his own avant-garde theatre group and also wrote science fiction. His best-known work of science fiction, Inter Ice Age 4, published at the height of the Cold War in 1959, is thought by many to be one of the best works of science fiction written by a Japanese author.

    Unsurprisingly, Abe and The Woman in the Dunes in particular are still popular today amongst some of Japan’s most creative individuals. People like the up-and-coming film director Yuka Eda, director and screenwriter of the 2018 crowd-funded film Shojo Kaiko, Girls’ Encounter, and the 2019 drama 21st Century Girl.

    Such Japanese artists often cite Abe as being inspirational and hugely influential on their own work, but few recall or seem to be aware of the talents of his wife and her illustrations.

    The 1964 American edition of The Women in the Dunes contains the following text on the page opposite its copyright page: “Without The Threat Of Punishment There Is No Joy In Flight”.

    1964, Japan’s Olympic year, was not only a pivotal year for Abe with the twin milestones of his English language edition and the release of the book’s prize-winning film adaptation. It was also a significant year for Japanese publishing, other creative writers, and for Japan itself.

    The first English language edition of Kobo Abe’s ‘The Woman in the Dunes’ was illustrated by his wife Machi Posted by Richard Nathan
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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: 6-17-2024]

    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
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    ‘The Life of an Amorous Man’ written by a 17th-century Japanese poet spawned the genre now known as ‘Floating World’ publishing[UPDATED: 1-16-2024]

    Even though the term is thought to have been used for the first time after his death in 1710, the Japanese poet Ihawa Saikaku (1642-1693) and his work written in 1682, The Life of an Amorous Man, Koshoku ichidai otoko, are said to have spawned the Japanese publishing genre known as Ukiyo-Zoshi tales of the floating world.

    This genre of popular Japanese fiction spans fiction written between the 1680s and 1770s during Japan’s peaceful but somewhat rigid Edo period (1603-1868) when the nation was run by Shoguns and mostly closed off from the rest of the world.

    It was, however, a time when many Japanese cultural pursuits flourished including the nation’s commercial publishing – an industry that the Shogun-run administrations mostly encouraged. The genre flourished just as commercial publishing, which had initially started in Kyoto in the early 17th century, was gaining significant momentum.

    The term was first used just for amorous erotic fiction but subsequently expanded to encompass a much broader range of works spanning the world of Japanese courtesans and life more generally in Edo Japan, including in its so-called pleasure quarters. It had fixed publishing formats and was known for its extreme realism and cynicism.

    Saikaku, who was one of the most popular authors of the period, the son of an Osaka-based merchant was from a young age a prolific composer of renga, linked verse; an understanding of which alongside other forms of Japanese poetry and short-form writing are (some argue) essential for decoding Japan’s intellectual and cultural DNA. Tales of the floating world, either written by Saikaka or inspired by him, are now undeniably part of Japan’s cultural DNA.

    Saikaku also wrote Five Women Who Loved Love, Koshoku gonin onna as well as The Life of an Amorous Women, Koshoku ichidai onna.

    Another Saikaku work Twenty Cases of Unfilial Children, Honcho niju fuko, published in 1686, a parody of a famous Chinese Confucian text inspired Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) many years later to pen a series of essays titled Lessons in Immorality,Fudotoku Kyoiku Koza, in 1958.

    In later life, Saikaku’s works became increasingly racy. He also wrote, for example, The Great Mirror of Male Love, Nanshoku okagami, published in 1687 a collection of homosexual stories, which are sometimes cited as an important milestone in Japan’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) related publishing.

    More than 300 years after the publication of The Life of an Amorous Man the Japan-born British author and future Nobel Prize in Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguru used the genre’s phrasing in translation in the title of his 1986 seminal novel An Artist of the Floating World.

    And just like Saikaku’s works in Edo period Japan, Ishiguru’s novel set in post-war Japan captured the interests and imaginations of readers but in Ishiguru’s case in at least 40 countries during his lifetime, including Japan where An Artist of the Floating World has been published in Japanese translation.

    Showing again that tales of floating worlds, no matter which age they are set in, can conjure up exceedingly compelling and enduring narratives.


    ‘The Life of an Amorous Man’ written by a 17th-century Japanese poet spawned the genre now known as ‘Floating World’ publishing Posted by Richard Nathan
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    In the 1960s a member of the Japanese Imperial Family started moonlighting as a science fiction author[UPDATED: 8-22-2023]

    Princess Fukuko Asaka (1941-2009) started publishing science fiction and fantasy stories in Japanese magazines in the late 1950s under the pen name Bien Fu, and had stories regularly published throughout the 1960s. 

    One of the Princess’s stories was published in the first issue of Uchujin (1957-2009), an important pioneering science fiction magazine of the period. 

    The Princess was the Emperor’s second cousin and the granddaughter of the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912), who ushered in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), opening up Japan to the West after more than 250 years of self-imposed isolation. This was a period in which Japan and the Imperial family changed beyond all recognition. In fact, all aspects of Japanese society from the way people dressed and wore their hair, to the types of books that were read and written, as well as the food eaten, were to change dramatically. 

    In 1969, while in her late 20s, the Princess invited a group of schoolchildren to a former imperial palace to discuss writing and science fiction. One of those students, Takayuki Tatsumi, went on to become a professor of American Literature at Keio University, a prestigious private university in Tokyo. She was the first science fiction writer Tatsumi had met and by all accounts made a lasting impression. 

    Princess Fukuko Asaka, who lost her official title in 1947 during the post-war occupation of Japan by Allied Forces, published numerous fantasy and science fiction stories throughout the late 1960s and also produced comic strips. 

    Her work features cyborgs and immortal imperial consorts, and she reportedly empathised with Native Americans, whose position in their country, like her own in Japan, had changed after the arrival of people from afar. She was a vocal champion of their rights and the rights of  others threatened with extinction. 

    According to literary critics and academics, this disinherited noblewoman was a pioneer of both Postmodernism and Science Fiction in Japan, and managed to reinvented herself as an author while also helping to lay the ground for others, especially women writers, and writers of new genres like Japanese Cyberpunk that has subsequently flourished in Japan.

    In the 1960s a member of the Japanese Imperial Family started moonlighting as a science fiction author Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Writing about the plight of women in Japan is not a new trend. In the 1870s visitors to Japan were already pontificating on the topic in print[UPDATED: 8-4-2023]

    Like many who preceded her, travel writer Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904) shares her thoughts and observations about Japanese women, following her first visit to Japan in 1878. She writes the following in her book 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:

    “She looked intelligent, restless, and unhappy, and, I thought, chafed under the restraints of custom, as she said that no Japanese women could start for foreign countries alone, and she envied foreigners their greater liberty”.

    Bird goes on:

    “A very pretty girl, with singular grade and charm of manner, came on and sat down besides her, equally well dressed in silk, but not a legal wife. The senior wife obtains great credit for her kind and sisterly treatment of her, which according to Japanese notions, is the path to true wisdom. There was an attendant in the shape of a detestable “Chin,” something like a King Charles’s spaniel with a broken nose: an artificially dwarfed creature, with glassy, prominent eye, very cross and delicate, and dressed in a warm coat. These objectionable lap-dogs are “ladies’ pets” all over Japan.

    “My impression is, that, according to our notions, the Japanese wife is happier in the poorer than in the richer classes. She works hard, but it is rather as a partner than the drudge of her husband. Nor, in the same class, are the unmarried girls secluded, but, within certain limits, they posses complete freedom. Women undoubtedly enjoy a more favourable position than in most other heathen countries, and wives are presumably virtuous. Infanticide is rare. The birth of a daughter is far from being an occasion of mourning, and girls receive the same affection and attention as boys, and for their sphere are equally carefully educated.

    “The women of the upper classes are much secluded, and always go out with attendants. In the middle ranks it is not proper for a wife to be seen abroad in her husband’s absence, and, to be above suspicion, many, under these circumstances, take an old women to keep them company.

    “There are many painful and evil customs to which I cannot refer, and which are not likely to be overthrown except by the reception of a true Christianity, some of them arising out of morbidly exaggerated notions of filial piety; but even in the past times women have not been “downtrodden,” but have occupied a high place in history. To say nothing of the fact that the greatest of national divinities is a goddess, nine empresses have ruled Japan by “divine right,” and in literature, especially poetry, women divide the foremost places with men.

    “Japanese women, who even at the worst, enjoy an amount of liberty, considerate care, and respect, which I am altogether surprised to find in a heathen country. It is even to be hoped that things may not go too far, and that the fear of the Meiroku Zasshi, that “ the power of women will grow gradually, and eventually become so overwhelming that it will be impossible to control it,” many not be realised!”

    Another British author, Sherard Vines (1890-1974), who spent longer in Japan and taught for five years at Keio University, a private university in Tokyo, has a very different spin on Japanese women writing in 1931, 50 years later, in his book Yofuku or Japan in Trousers:

    “Ugly Japanese women, like ugly French women, are generally able to cultivate some attraction of manner, whereas the English are inclined to submit to any physical shortcomings, and to take refuge in defiance, educational activities, or the writing of popular fiction.”

    He also writes: “The few “emancipated: and modernised Japanese women I have had the privilege of meeting were entirely devoid of the aggressiveness and self-conscious masculinity that, in the corresponding Nordic type, is sometimes so trying; and they where wholly delightful”.

    In between the publication of these two books, and even today, much is written, recorded, broadcast and published about Japanese women, some of it well researched that, in a similar manner to Bird, alludes to the fact that the reality is often far more complex than generally imagined and different across different sections of society. 

    An interesting example that highlights these complexities penned by a Japanese author, Toshiaki Tachibanaki, is The New Paradox for Japanese Women: Greater Choice, Greater Inequality, for instance, which looks at how contemporary women have been polarised into elite and non-elite in the name of diversity and freedom of choice, and the impact that employment and marriage status can also play on modern gender roles. But much is still flippant, superficial and headline grabbing.

    That said, Bird’s book, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, written when she was 47 and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons New York in 1881, as well as the story of her travels in Japan in 1878, was launched as a Japanese manga in 2015, Isabella Bird in Wonderland: Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Fushigi no Kuni no Bādo, creating a new type of legacy for her and her observations of more than a century ago. A bilingual Japanese-English edition also exists.

    Writing about the plight of women in Japan is not a new trend. In the 1870s visitors to Japan were already pontificating on the topic in print Posted by Richard Nathan
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    New international standards for measuring time, weights and measures encouraged some to call for Japan to adopt a Westernised writing system abandoning traditional alphabets[UPDATED: 7-7-2023]

    At the height of Japan’s period of rapid modernisation and opening up to the West, known as the Meiji era (1868-1912), it wasn’t just Japan that was undergoing seismic change. Many countries were in fact being forced to embrace change as well.

    New international standards, for example, were emerging for time, the length of a day, weights and measures and much more in the wake of an internationalising world and rapidly emerging new technologies. 

    New technologies and communication tools such as the railways, which required standard time tables, had a huge impact on many countries including Japan.

    Phonetic transparency was also required for sending messages by telegraph, which these new railway lines facilitated the rapid spread of. It was thought that standardisation would bring efficiencies, reduce the cost, and increase the speed and internationalisation of trade.

    The first telegraph line was set up in Japan on the same route as Japan’s first railway line between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1869, much later than some other countries. Nevertheless, the number of messages sent by telegraph internally in Japan, and then internationally to and from Japan, increased exponentially.

    The introduction of railways had a very broad and deep impact on Japan, not only on how Japanese people sent messages, but on its cities and literature and much more besides.  Unification and harmonisation of standards became increasingly important.

    In 1875, Japan alongside 17 other nations attended the Paris Conference on the Metric System of Weights and Measures, and in 1884, at the Prime Meridian Conference in Washington seven resolutions were agreed, several that the French delegation refused to accept, on how to standardise time and the definition of a day. 

    Time within Japan was subsequently standardised across the nation in 1886 giving birth to Toki no machi, Town of Time, in Akashi in Hyogo where Japan Standard Time (JST) is set, just over a decade after Japan had formally adopted the seven-day week system, which it did in 1873.

    Before this, time in one town could be noticeably different from another and in some nations horological experts argue that it wasn’t simply train times that forced counties to settle on a single time, but in Britain, for example, Victorian licensing laws introduced to regulate the opening hours of pubs.

    New technologies often force societies to consider their regulations; their priorities; the values they attribute to different groups, business sectors and segments and even how they weigh, measure and regulate society’s ills and benefits.

    Today officialdom and commentators obsession is with algorithms, AI, targets and data analytics as opposed to the introduction of more basic standards and measurements for time, weights and measure.

    That said, just like text messaging and emails today, these new forms of communication had a major impact on language, and generated significant debate that even encompassed for instance the future of written form Japanese.

    As is the case today, all this change spurred some very prominent Japanese individuals to call for wholesale change. 

    In 1885, a Japanese physicist, Aikitsu Tanakadate (1856-1952), invented a new alphabet for Japanese people to use called Nippon-Shiki Romaji. Romaji, is the Japanese word for the Latin alphabet, while Nippon-Shiki means Japanese style, and Romaji is now one of the four syllabaries (sets of written characters) used in written Japanese. 

    His intention was for his new easy to use alphabet to replace, not just complement or be a lexical stand-in, the alphabets and scripts already used in Japan to write and communicate in Japanese. 

    An earlier similar approach existed called the Hebon-Shiki Romaji developed in 1859 by James Hepburn (1815-1911), an American physician and lay Christian missionary. Hepburn wasn’t Japanese and his system was aimed at a non-Japanese audience.  

    His approach, known in English as the Hepburn romanization system for transliteration of the Japanese language into the Latin alphabet, became popular through a Japanese–English dictionary he created. It is still used today. 

    Tanakadate and others, however, thought that their approach designed with a Japanese audience in mind would speed up the adoption of new technologies and research, creating a new Japanese ‘cultural and communication algorithm’, allowing Japan to compete more effectively with Western countries, which all used similar scripts. 

    Others held similar views. Arinori Mori (1847-1889) for instance, a statesman who founded Japan’s modern education system and was also a former Japanese Ambassador to the United States. He argued for the adoption of a simplified written form of English as the new national script. Others argued for English to replace Japanese as the nation’s language. 

    Anyone living in Japan today, or who has visited recently, might consider this aspiration fanciful and unrealistic, but other countries have adopted national language strategies to help position their nations better in a modernising world.

    Such countries as Singapore with its Mandarin Chinese and English language, Bilingual Policy and Rwanda’s policy to replace French with English as its national language.

    And Kanji, one of Japan’s four syllabaries, is after all a Chinese import that arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun in the 5th century AD.

    That said, during Meiji period Japan, magazines and publications designed to encouraged and amplify change were launched in Japan. Such publications as The Romaji Journal in 1885, The New Romaji Journal, as well as books promoting so-called Romaji Bungaku and Romaji Literature. During this period, Romaji Clubs were also founded.

    Romaji is widely used in Japan today, especially in advertising and for product branding in particular, but it is generally used to complement the traditional ways of writing Japanese, kanji, hiragana and katakana generating a soup like mix of different alphabets or scripts in any given text or passage.

    New international standards for measuring time, weights and measures encouraged some to call for Japan to adopt a Westernised writing system abandoning traditional alphabets Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan experts, Japanologists, commentators, as well as visitors to Japan, have been deriding each other’s ‘Knowledge’ of the nation for over a century[UPDATED: 5-10-2023]

    It is common knowledge that some commentators on Japan and Japan experts like to show off their superior knowledge at any opportunity. Some write about how it was better in the good old days before all the international visitors, some promptly challenge a commentator’s credibility if they have limited Japanese language ability, while others just criticise for the pure fun of it. This human trait is by no means a new phenomenon.

    Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) wrote in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that ‘the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people… The Japanese people are… simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art.’

    This triggered the following response from Rudyard Kipling’s (1865-1936), who was just 23 and still unknown, on his arrival in Nagasaki in 1889, ‘Mister Oscar Wilde of The Nineteenth Century is a long toothed liar!’ Kipling went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, with the prize committee citing his writings on Japan as one of the reasons he won.

    But whose views should we trust?

    “A contemporary writer on Japan warns the reading public against two kinds of chroniclers – those who have lived in the Orient too long, and those who have been there as mere fleeting tourists, too short a time,” according to the Preface of Hamilton Wright Mabie’s (1846-1916) book, Japan Today and Tomorrow, published in 1914.

    The preface continues:

    “The former class, he would have, are quite certain to become disillusioned with the passing of first delights and novel discoveries, and so will, consciously or unconsciously, express this aversion in their writing; while the latter class become so enrapt and overwhelmed by the “things Japanese” seen for the first time that they vision and write their impressions through glasses highly rose-coloured, throwing their power of discrimination to the four winds, chatting about cherry blossoms and geisha and tea houses, while they rush pell-mell along well-travelled tourist paths from Tokyo to the shrines of Nikko, and from viewing the Dai Buttsu of Kamakura, and over the ancient Tokaido to Kyoto , and on to Kobe to embank for Shanghai!”

    Perhaps the early visitors to Japan?

    “The knowledge of the average European about Japan was limited to the fact that in some remote corner of the Eastern seas there lived a mysterious nation of cunning craftsmen, skilled in the making of pottery and lacquer, deft workers in bronze and other metals, carvers of wood and ivory, whose masterpieces were eagerly sought after by lovers of art. We heard the wildest tales – stories made in Holland – about a spiritual Emperor and a temporal Emperor, and a form of government in which spying had been brought to a fine art. So crass was our ignorance that even educated men were for the most part under the impression that the Japanese language was identical with, or at any rate a dialect of, the Chinese,” writes Lord Redesdale (1837-1916) in Old and New Japan, 1871.

    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 crytsallise some particles of truth as a set-off to against all this Dolmetscherei – interpreter’s fribble,” writes Lord Redesdale (1837-1916) in Tragedy in Stone and other Papers in 1913.

    And as for criticism and scorn, it was ever thus:

    Here are some examples of comments this time about Lord Redesdale, a British diplomat and writer, as well as the paternal grandfather to the famous Mitford Sisters, who is reported to have fathered two children in Japan with a geisha, published in the Eastern World from 1892-1907.

    “Lord Redesdale, better known as the former Mr. A.B. Mitford, and as the author of Tales of Old Japan, has accomplished the almost incredible feat of compiling a whole 6 shilling book on “The Garter Mission to Japan.” Lord Redesdale is 70 years of age, That perhaps explains such a cataract of words on an empty ceremony. In a year or less the book will be listed in Smith & Son’s new remainders at sixpence.”

    “As regards “naivete” finally, we are of the opinion that it has all been on Lord R.’s side. What the geisha does not know about the catching of men and the belongings of men is not worth knowing.”

    “If Lord Redesdale will read some of the authors mentioned, or re-peruse the late ones which he may have read and forgotten again, he will know more about the geisha of Japan and her kind than he did before. Perhaps he has at one time or other heard the Japanese proverb kao wa tennin, kokoro oniwa, hey? But old wood ever made the best of tinder.”

    ““Hello, hello!” we hear some of readers exclaim,“ whence all this suspicious, unholy knowledge? “Well, confession is a good for the soul. Let us confess therefore. We have been present at a great number of geisha entertainments in Tokyo…”

    And finally, is antagonism between reporters working for local and international publications that challenge the quality of sources, knowledge and re-cycled reporting of the other a new phenomenon?

    “The “Japan Mail” Returns to its Vomit, October 20th 1906.  On the 21st July last the Japan Mail threw out some lying and slanderous imitations against the ‘local press’ referring to tales of corruption which “ had been current in many months” etc. The Mail itself told those tales, if the obscure insinuations it throws out from time to time can be called “tales,” and then, after some months, it said those same tales had been current in many months. That trick is as old as hired journalism, but we presume that it must still serve some object, which the conductors the reptile press understood”.

    Japan experts, Japanologists, commentators, as well as visitors to Japan, have been deriding each other’s ‘Knowledge’ of the nation for over a century Posted by Richard Nathan
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    By 1905 Japanese people were already buying the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ on subscription and their prompt payment was used to highlight the trustworthiness of the nation[UPDATED: 4-3-2023]

    In response to a claim that the Japanese are not ‘honest in trade’ made in a letter published in the Times, the Manager of the Publications Department of the newspaper wrote a letter that was also published in the Times, on 7 October 1905, countering this allegation made by a bishop. 

    Encyclopedia sales to Japan, by the newspaper’s Publications Department were cited as proof of the honesty of the Japanese. 

    The letter, which reflects the period and the Russia-Japanese War (1904-1905), also highlights the dilemmas publishers and booksellers face when deciding on a sales strategy to penetrate the Japanese market and the ‘mysteries of the Japanese import book system’ –  something that would probably resonate with many publishers even today. 

    Some extracts from this letter are below: 

    “I quite admit that Englishmen in Japan who have long resided in Japan did not believe that it would be prudent for the Times to adopt in Japan the installment system of selling books, previously unknown there. When the representative of the Times arrived in Japan to sell the Encyclopedia, he naturally asked English residents there what they thought of the project. With one exception the answer was: ‘You cannot sell the Encyclopedia Britannica here because English and American residents have already obtained a copy from England, and, of course, the Japanese will not buy – fortunately for you, because if they did they would not pay. 

    “The only English resident who did not say this said: ‘Of course you can sell any number of Encyclopedias to the Japanese, but you will never be able to collect the payments when they have once got the books. No Japanese will pay for the Encyclopedias when he finds he can get it without payment. 

    “In the face of this advice, “the installment plan of sale was adopted”… and Japanese customers who purchased sets on installment plans “proved much more punctilious” than English customers in paying. 

    “Ninety-five per cent, of the encyclopedia sold in Japan were sold to Japanese, not to foreign residents, and the statements I am about to make refer exclusively to purchases made by the Japanese themselves. 

    “In Great Britain less than half of the payments arrived in the day promised. In Japan less than 1 per cent, of the payments were made the day before they were due, because the Japanese did not like to run the risk of any accidental delay that might make them even one day late. The cost of collecting the instalment payments in Japan is less than half as much as in England, simply because the Japanese are so punctilious that clerical labour and postage are not expended in reminding them that their payments are overdue. They seem to look upon debt as a debt of honour, which must not be forgotten even for a day. 

    “I may add that the Japanese bought five times as many Encyclopedia as were sold in France and Germany combined, fifty times as many as in Russia, more than any other country except India, Australia, and the United States. 

    “When I see a bishop of the Church of England, who has lived in Japan since 1898, write with so little appreciation of the Japanese, I wonder whether some of our countrymen are not as blind as the Russian statesman who, in the early days of the war, described the Japanese as ‘yellow monkeys,’ and as blind as the Ambassador of the Tsar who made the statement in Tokyo, before the war, that mobilisation of one army corps in Russia would frighten the Japanese into immediate submission. 

    “No one in the Times office, at any rate, can doubt that the standard of integrity among the Japanese is so high that when young men, who have bought the Encyclopedia, abandoned their employment to go to the front, their families promptly paid the installments due, under circumstances of the utmost difficulty.” 

    This letter was cited by the Cambridge University educated Japanese aristocrat, Baron Suyematsu (1855-1920), in his book Fantasy of Far Japan. Written in English the same year as the letter was published in the Times, it is an early form of Japan-related ‘myth-busting’ and ‘fake news’ management designed to improve the reputation of Japan, Japanese business people in Europe, and how the story of Japan was being told internationally. 

    This extract from an essay by a British diplomat Lord Redescale (1837-1916) helps explain why Japan wanted to present a multi-dimensional picture of the Land of the Rising Sun, and why this was seen as being so important at that time: 

    “It was in the year 1870 that Japan made her first appearance as a borrower in the London money market… I had just come home from the Far East, and there did not happen to be any one else in London at the time who had any special knowledge of the then very new Japan. I could not imagine why so many gentlemen with names absolutely unknown to me – many of them German – were so anxious to make my acquaintance. They drew the Foreign Office for me, they hunted my lodgings; at length one gentleman, Mr. Julius Beer, ran me to earth in my club. 

    “The secret then came out. Was it safe to lend Japan money? Was she solvent? 

    “Well, I was able to reassure my cross-examiner upon that point, and a loan was successfully brought out by Messrs. Erlanger and Beer. But under what conditions? It was but a small sum that was asked for – a million if I remember right – and for this pitiful accommodation Japan was to pledge the right of making railways and to pay the promoters twelve per cent., of which nine per cent , went to the public. Thirty thousand a year for a term of years was a fine plum out of which to pay the expenses of city gentlemen…”

    By 1905 Japanese people were already buying the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ on subscription and their prompt payment was used to highlight the trustworthiness of the nation Posted by Richard Nathan