MUSASHINO IN TUSCANY: Japanese Overseas Travel Literature, 1860-1912, by Susanna Fessler. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2004, 297 pp., + xii pp., 29 b/w illustrations, 2004, $65.00 (cloth).

Japan has a long history of travel literature. From the 10th-century “Tosa Diary,” and even before, journals were built around the pleasures and tribulations of travel. These formed a recognized literary genre (kikobungaku), which, like all such, was heavily codified.

The domestic traveler was expected to see what had already been seen, to add a bit of patina to the famous site (meisho), to repeat not only the required feelings of “being on a journey” (ryoji) but also to include that poignant ingredient so necessary to Japanese travel literature, an indication of the loneliness caused by separation from one’s home (ryoshu).

When Japanese began to travel outside their archipelago and tried to write about this experience, however, they discovered that not only were there no familiar sights to cope with but also that their conventional ways of regarding what they saw were no longer applicable. Their difficulties and solutions form the narrative of Susanna Fessler’s very interesting account of Japanese Meiji Era travel literature.

Early travelers such as Hiroshi Nakai, one of the “Meiji Restoration” students, simply used the domestic writing model, mixing together Japanese prose and Chinese poetry, both heavy with nostalgia: “I head to lands distant from Japan. Where are the three mountains and five peaks?”

These famous sites are not in Japan at all but in China. Nevertheless, they are among the many meisho that are going to be much missed.

So strong were the conventional codes that in all these early diaries the U.S. Civil War is not even mentioned. This omission is by no means inconsistent with the aims of the kikobungaku. When Ki no Tsurayuki was penning his Tosa diary he took small interest in the lands through which he was traveling unless they had a famous site or two. Even Matsuo Basho, much later, was still indicating that contemporary events as well as people whom he passed were irrelevant.

The traditional aim was to experience conventionally landscaped beauty, to detect the old and the familiar, and to entertain a private but highly contagious nostalgia. This was, of course, all but impossible in the New World that the Japanese travelers now found themselves on their way to.

Their various solutions to this problem are entertaining. Eiichi Shibusawa, one of the luminaries of the Meiji industrial revolution, was taken to the Paris zoo and shown his first hippopotamus. “It had a big mouth, the sort that would come in use at the Gion Festival.” This comparison of the foreign unknown with the homegrown known is one way to cope. Anezaki Chofu in a passage that gives this book its title, pens that the trees he saw in Tuscany he would liken to the spring in Musashino.

Another solution was to retain the meisho code but substitute foreign for Japanese regard. Anezaki in Rome quotes the admiration of Goethe and Gibbon, refers to “my (waga) Wagner” and calls Rousseau his Master. These references are used to gloss the text in a way that traditional Chinese and authoritative Japanese references decorate the sites their mention supports.

Yet another resolution was simply to forget about codes from the homeland and look at all of these new things with new eyes. Here, the most successful of the Meiji travelers was without doubt the novelist Nagai Kafu, who displayed an absolute comfort in his new surroundings. The famous sights are there (Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge), but he feels no compulsion to add to their stature, and as for ryoshu he writes: “I cannot help but love this lonely, solitary life I have here overseas.”

Kafu’s solution seems the most practical but also the most difficult to achieve. It takes persons of integrity and some bravery to disregard those cultural codes that have helped them to define the world in which they live and that are, by definition, threatened by the world to which they travel.

The whole spectrum of attitude shown by these early Japanese travelers, both conservative and exploratory, is here carefully laid out in this scholarly but very readable account — it is one that makes us think about our own unthinking codes.

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