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Recollections of an intrepid Meiji traveler

by David Cozy

NEW CHRONICLES OF YANAGIBASHI AND DIARY OF A JOURNEY TO THE WEST, by Ryuhoku Narushima. Translated and with a critical introduction and afterword by Matthew Fraleigh. Cornell University East Asia Program, 2010, 392 pp., $49 (paper)

The most interesting thing about Ryuhoku Narushima (1837-1884), author of the “New Chronicles of Yanagibashi” and “Diary of a Journey to the West” is how much this scholar, journalist, traveler and writer got up to.

The two books collected in this volume hint at his breadth. The first, “New Chronicles of Yanagibashi,” deals with life in the “flower and willow world” of Meiji, Tokyo.

The second is a record of a trip Narushima made to Europe and North America in the early 1870s, and is illuminating on what it was like to be one of the few Japanese abroad then who was not part of a government-sponsored mission.

In 1859, when Narushima began writing the first volume of the “Chronicles,” Yanagibashi (located near the confluence of the Kanda and Sumida Rivers) was, translator Matthew Fraleigh tells us, beginning to rival the old licensed quarter of Yoshiwara as an entertainment district, especially among “true geisha connoisseurs.” That is, those patronizing Yanagibashi were likely looking for something other than — or in addition to — the sexual services that were more readily available elsewhere.

Though there probably still are a few benighted souls out there who believe that “geisha” is synonymous with “prostitute,” one is grateful to Fraleigh for reminding us that it is difficult to deny any overlap between the two. “To imply,” he writes “that any association of the historical geisha with sexual labor springs solely from Western biases or misunderstandings, is simply untenable.”

Reading Narushima makes it clear how right Fraleigh is. “When a customer . . . causes [a geisha] to sell the body she does not dare sell,” Narushima explains, “it is called ‘rolling’ her.”

He then goes on to detail over several pages, replete with quoted poetry and scholarly allusions, the ramifications for both geisha and customer of the practice. One understands — though there won’t be many modern Western readers who laugh out loud — that this use of a scholarly register and erudite references, augmented with bushels of pedantic detail, to discuss commercial sex and seduction is intended to be humorous.

That Narushima wrote in kanshibun, the literary Chinese that Japanese scholars generally used when communicating about more elevated topics, must have added to the hilarity, though the joke will be lost on most of us. Still, whether we get the joke, or simply take Fraleigh’s word for it, we will certainly learn much here about life among Meiji era geisha.

We will learn little about the West from “Diary of a Journey to the West,” but we will get a good sense of what it was like to be a Japanese abroad during the 1870s.

One surprise is how many Japanese were abroad then. Whether Narushima is in Paris, London, or elsewhere, hardly a day passes without a notation in his diary such as: “I dropped in to visit Mr. Mitsukuri Shuhei,” or “Shimaji Mokurai, Umegami Koen, and Sakata Kan’ichi also came over today.”

There seem to have been enough Japanese about that a Japanese abroad need never miss his countrymen, but few enough that Japanese travelers made a point of seeking each other out.

Just as the humor of the “Chronicles of Yanagibashi” will be difficult for most readers of Fraleigh’s translation to grasp, so it will be difficult for readers to get as excited as Narushima about the sights he describes: “Gas streetlamps illuminated the night making it hardly any different from broad daylight. This is truly paradise.”

Still, it’s nice to read a positive account of foreign places instead of the grousing so common in contemporary travel writing.