Japan As They Saw It


    I find it difficult, in attempting to convey our first impressions of Japan, to avoid presenting a too highly coloured picture to the mind of the reader. The contrast with China was so striking, the evidences of a high state of civilisation so unexpected, the circumstances of our visit were so full of novelty and interest, that we abandoned ourselves to the excitement and enthusiasm they produced. There exists not a single disagreeable association to cloud our reminiscences of that delightful country. Each day gave us fresh proofs of the amiable and generous character of the people amongst whom we were. Each moment of the day furnished us with some new fact worthy of notice. Our powers of observation were kept constantly on the stretch, but one felt they were overtaxed; the time was too short; sights and impressions crowded on each other with a painful rapidity and variety. It was like being compelled to eat a whole paté de fois gras at a sitting; the dish was too rich and highly charged with truffles for one’s mental digestion.

Laurence Oliphant, Narrative of the Earl of Elgin's Mission to China, 1859

    At present, little is known of the policy of the [Japanese] empire, or the workings of its different parts; and all communications pretending to explain these should be received with greatest suspicion. The information derived from the government officials is not to be depended on at all. M. Gaskewitch, than whom no one is better acquainted with the language, literature, and institutions of Japan, has confessed his ignorance on many points, which writers have since endeavoured to explain; and he had, perhaps, greater facilities of learning the truth than any one, for he was intimate with a learned Japanese, who left his country some years ago, and who accompanied him to St. Petersburg, where he still resides.

Henry Arthur Tilley, Japan, the Amoor, and the Pacific, 1861

    Knowing as little as do foreigners of the social life and manner of thinking of the Japanese, it is impossible to give a just description of their character. The opinion of each traveller is generally based on the strongly-impressed incidents of his experience. On his first excursion he hears the universal salutation, “Ohaio!” good morning! which he receives from children, and enters in his journal that the Japanese are an exceedingly hospitable people. Soon he finds that the exclamation is quite as often, “bacca! bacca!” fool; or “tojin! tojin!” Chinaman; and when the novelty of their appearance has worn off, he becomes vexed at the immense crowds of men, women, and children, which, attracted by the novelty of his appearance, follow him through the streets, and nearly crowd him out of his quarters at the inn, in their anxiety to see him eat, drink, sit, and stand, even waiting for him to undress to see whether the barbarian is made like themselves. If he lacks patience, the virtue above all others necessary to the traveller, he is likely to resent this treatment by violence, and to get a pelting with mud or stones for his reward. Such treatment causes a change in his estimate of the people, and the world is informed that the Japanese hate foreigners.
    He sees the “social evil” at the tea-houses, and visiting the public baths finds both sexes bathing in common, without the refinements adopted at Newport or Brighton, and the world learns that modesty, and consequently all other virtues, are unknown to the Japanese—that they are sunk to the lowest depths of vice to which even a beathen people can sink.
    But the thoughtful traveller learns in the first stages of his wanderings, that the more distant the relationship between two races, the more difficult is it to measure them by the same standard. To describe a people we must first know their inner life.

Raphael Pumpelly, Across America and Asia, 1870

    The three full days which we pass in Yedo are occupied from morning to night in seeing what we can of its great extent and its many interesting features. But who can attempt to give anything like an accurate or exhaustive account of a great capital in which he has only spent half a week, and of the language of whose inhabitants he knows scarcely a dozen words? A Japanese gentleman, landed at Dover, and taken up to London for three or four days could hardly be considered to know the metropolis after his short sojourn, even though he spent it all in a diligent round of Westminster Abbey, the Tower, the Kensington Museum, and other recognised sights. But, at all events, when he returned to Japan he could impart some information about the British Yedo to his countrymen who had never been there at all, and while confessing the superficial character of his narrative, might still hope to interest his hearers.

A. D. Carlisle, Round the World in 1870, 1872

    Another difficulty opposed itself to the author of this work. The cities, the towns, the battle-fields, the temples, the shrines, the castles, and the other memorable places visited, all were memorable because of persons, events, and incidents, which, if the author might judge of others by himself, were almost entirely unknown to English readers. What significance or interest, for example, would be conveyed to an English reader unacquainted with Japan and with its history by the mention of the personal names of Nintoku, Kobodaishi, Yoritomo, Nobunaga, or the Taiko; or of the names of such places as Nara, Yamada, Uji, Kamakura, or even Nikko; or of such events as the battles of Dan-no-ura or of Sekigahara, the revolts of Taka-Uji, or the siege of Odawara? Even if all the existing books upon Japan ever published in England had been read, many such names would still have remained meaningless to the reader; but as it is, although so many books have been written upon Japan and upon Japanese affairs, the author knew of none which would have conveyed to English readers even a general idea of the early history of the country; certainly of none with which the public had become familiar. Hence he inferred that some account of the history of Japan was essential to the understanding of the records of his travels.

Edward J. Reed, Japan: Its History, Traditions, and Religions, with the Narrative of a Visit in 1879, 1880

    Among this people there is nothing which so strikes and so wins a stranger as [their] geniality. Coupled with the no less remarkable politeness, it gives such a winsomeness to the plainest face, and makes the people generally so attractive, that the only danger is that the foreign visitor is induced prematurely to form an inordinately high opinion of the Japanese character. The result may be either, in the event of a short visit, the retention of this coleur du rose view, or, in the event of a more permanent residence, a revulsion, on discovering that the Japanese are not quite faultless, into an opinion as unduly unfavourable as the other was the reverse. The writer is glad that he never experienced this revulsion, and he hopes that any excessiveness in his first impressions has been duly modified.

William Gray Dixon, The Land of the Morning: An Account of Japan and Its People, Based on a Four Years’ Residence in That Country, Including Travels into the Remotest Parts of the Interior, 1882

    We have been sitting on the hurricane deck [of a paddle-wheel steamer travelling from Yokohama to Kobe], near the great ‘walking-beam engines.’ An English traveller on board considers the Japanese ‘the most despicable race he has ever met.’ So there are two opinions as to the merits of ‘young Japan.’ Perhaps this young Englishman has not seen much of humanity, and may be as little able to judge of the comparative worth of the Japanese as an American lady the other day at luncheon of the merits of American scenery, which, she declared, ‘in her opinion could not be equalled by that of any other country.’ I saw our host (who, himself an American, could not bear any ‘swagger’) glare at her fiercely, and, after a few minutes, ask if she ‘had ever been out of the States before?’ The lady confessed that she had not.

F. D. Bridges, Journal of a Lady’s Travels Round the World, 1883

    A few years ago young Miss Japan, after a brilliant début, with her dance card full of conquests, announced her engagement to Mr. John Bull. She now belongs to our family circle, therefore, and it is only natural that we should take an interest in her personal character. We want to know, not so much if her smile is attractive, as if her temper is good. Her taste in dress may be very important, but the mood in which she comes to breakfast is still more so.
    Of course she is not likely to tell us herself if she feels irritable in the morning. What she will dwell on are her social graces and her company manners. Her other qualities, not quite so decorative, we will have to find out for ourselves.
    One way is to read what travellers have to say about her. But unfortunately, as a general rule, the travellers bring back two kinds of impressions—both very extreme. There are the wild-eyed enthusiasts of the beaten track, poets and artists, who cannot see anything about her that is not beautiful and picturesque and charming because they only stay long enough to see the stylish and dainty outside; and there are the incurable pessimists who stay too long and end by seeing nothing but the curl papers.
    As far as I know, the only satisfactory way to form any real impression, not only of the young lady herself but of her relations of the older generation, is to avoid looking at the obvious things but to look behind the Shoji instead. It is inside the house, not outside in the street, that people are most natural.

Evelyn Adam, Behind the Screens: An English Woman’s Impressions of Japan, 1910

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