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”.