Isabella Bird's letters from Japan

by Fiona Webster

UNBEATEN TRACKS IN JAPAN: An Account of Travels in the Interior Including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikko, by Isabella L. Bird. New York: ICG Muse, 2000, 1,700 yen, 342 pp. (paper)

“Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” documents the journeys of Isabella Bird, an extraordinary woman for her time, who at various stages of her life visited America, Hawaii, Japan, Malay, Tibet, Korea, China, Turkey and Morocco. In 1878, at the age of 47, she set out from her native England to explore Japan — a country only recently opened up to the outside world — and did so with apparent confidence and ease. Moreover, she did not set out to visit just the well-known cities of Japan or other easily accessible areas; she deliberately embarked, as the title of her book suggests, off the beaten track — to the northeastern district and Hokkaido.

By the time Bird arrived in Japan, she was already well known as an adventurous woman and a seasoned traveler. It is nevertheless remarkable that she chose to travel independently of other Europeans (with only one Japanese companion to translate and assist) to places previously unexplored by even the most adventurous of Western men.

The book takes the form of a series of letters that Bird wrote to her sister, Henrietta, in the course of her travels. It is therefore not, and was not intended to be, an academically rigorous historical study of late 19th-century Japan. However, because of the confidences Bird shares with her sister, the resulting travelogue contains apparently unconstrained observations of the landscape and people of Japan, and herein lies much of its value as a historical document.

Bird begins her travels in Yokohama, and the contemporary reader will no doubt, in good humor, recognize in some of her observations aspects of Japanese towns and people that remain unchanged. “Almost as soon as I arrived,” she writes, “I was obliged to go in search of Mr. Fraser’s office in the settlement; I say search, for there are no names on the streets; where there are numbers they have no sequence, and I met no Europeans on foot to help me in my difficulty.” Although the number of “Europeans” may well have changed, the difficulty of finding a place according to its address most definitely has not. Neither has change taken place in people’s tendency to complain about the weather — in particular, the summer heat. ” ‘Surely it will change soon,’ ” Bird tells us people say, “and they have said the same thing now for three months.”

Bird is refreshingly frank in her observations of the urban sprawl she witnesses in Yokohama and Tokyo. “Yokohama,” she writes to her sister, “does not improve on further acquaintance. It has a dead-alive look.” “(In Tokyo) the houses were mean, poor, shabby, often even squalid, the smells were bad and the people looked ugly, shabby, and poor . . .”

Bird is not always so critical. Indeed, she is struck by the beauty of the landscape she travels through on her way to Nikko, and she frequently refers to the hospitality and generosity of the Japanese people. I’m sure most readers who have traveled in Japan would agree that these features and characteristics remain intact.

In making note of these aspects of Japan, Bird does not pretend to provide an objective account of the country. She tells us that she “writes the truth as (she) sees it,” and where she provides unpleasant details, she reminds us of the subjective nature of her observations and her desire to be “faithful” to the people and country she encounters. In this respect, we could easily dwell on the possible and probable inaccuracies of the picture she paints of Japan. To do so, however, would be to lose sight of the value of her account precisely as a subjective and individual historical record.

For example, although they are once again Bird’s subjective interpretations, her observations of the Ainu people in northern Japan are particularly valuable. She describes them as “complete savages,” although she does not appear to mean this in a negative way. Indeed, if anything, she holds far greater respect for them and their customs than her Japanese interpreter and traveling companion. He refers to the Ainu as “dogs” and is constantly bewildered by Bird’s interest in them.

Bird not only provides us with extensive details of the physical features and habits of the Ainu, but also spends a considerable amount of time investigating their culture and customs. Ultimately, she finds their social customs and spiritual beliefs surprisingly “simple.” For instance, in inquiring of them about their thoughts regarding the possibility of life after death, she is surprised to learn that they appear to have no definite ideas on the subject. Indeed, in response to her questions one man remarks to her, “How can we know? No one ever came back to us!” In an effort perhaps to attribute more complexity to their thoughts on this matter than they present directly to her, Bird says “(Although) the future . . . does not occupy any place in their thoughts, and they can hardly be said to believe in the immortality of the soul, . . . their fear of ghosts shows that they recognize a distinction between body and spirit.”

Not surprisingly, Bird frequently compares the people she encounters with Europeans, and it is clear that she considers Europe to represent “civilized” society. Indeed, she notes that where she records negative details about peasant life in Japan, it is because she is concerned that these details “serve to illustrate some of the difficulties which the (Japanese) Government has to encounter in its endeavor to raise masses of people as deficient as these are in some of the first requirements of civilization.” Where she does consider peasant communities to be running smoothly and efficiently, she is surprised that they manage to do so without appearing to “borrow” anything from Europe.

Aside from the obvious problem of subjectivity, one serious weakness of the travelogue as a whole is that it is frustratingly short on analysis or self-reflection. Although Bird does, for example, make some attempt to deduce a clear set of objectives in the spiritual life of the Ainu people and to compare the communities she visits with those in her own society, there is little else in the book to put her observations in some sort of historical and cultural context. We are left to make our own assessments not only of how accurate her observations might be, but also what they might mean in the context of a country undergoing massive change and upheaval. This is, perhaps, a task she deliberately leaves for her readers.