The idea of the journey is as old as the literate world. If we read the Old Testament as an edifying travelogue through the Levantine, the great Indian epics as picaresque fables, tales of wanderlust, the descriptive passages contained in these texts are not so far removed from the unfettered writings of the great Arab traveler Ibn Battuta or the Venetian Marco Polo.

Under the police state managed by Japan’s Tokugawa Shogunate from 1603-1868, the movements of foreign visitors inclined to write travel accounts, were even more circumscribed than those of Japanese citizens, who were able to resort to the pretext of undertaking religious pilgrimages to satisfy their urge to explore.

Restrictions on the itineraries of foreign visitors didn’t stop them from recording their experiences and impressions. Some of the travel-like accounts were in the nature of reports that would have had political weight, particularly in Catholic Europe, where missionary work was often a prelude to military ambition. The Jesuit, Francis Xavier, in a letter to the Society of Jesus in Rome, described his activities in 1552, depicting the Japanese as, “honoring all that has to do with war, and all such things, and there is nothing of which they are so proud as weapons adorned with gold and silver … when they go to sleep they hang them at the bed’s head.” Observations like this would have been poured over and analyzed.

In an age of navigation and an insatiable thirst for knowledge, the captains of foreign ships were obliged to keep records of their voyages. Some, like Englishman John Saris, captain of a vessel called the Clove, even kept personal journals, which today, read very much like travel accounts. Saris visited the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), Japan’s de facto capital, in 1611, noting how it made, a “very glorious impression upon us; the ridge-tiles and corner-tiles of buildings richly gilded and varnished.” Richard Cocks, visiting the city five years later, was intrigued by its scale, unbeknown at the time to Europeans. “We went roundabout the Kyngs castell or fortress,” he misleadingly observed about the shogun’s fortification, “which I do hould to be much more in compass than the city of Coventry.”

Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician to the Dutch, gave a detailed account of the strange obeisances required of foreign emissaries. Watching from behind a screen, he described how the shogun required them to “take off our kappa, or ceremonial robes, and sit upright so that he could inspect us; he had us now stand up and walk, now pay compliments to each other, then again dance, jump, pretend to be drunk, speak Japanese, read Dutch, draw, sing, put on our coats, then take them off again.”

The Dutch were an expedient people. It was a tiresome business, but, eager to maintain their pre-eminence in trade, they were prepared to oblige, even when the occasion required humiliating performances.

The early foreign visitors to Edo, forgetting, perhaps, the anomalies of beauty and cruelty in their own countries, were fond of remarking on the stark contrast between execution grounds, where heads and carcasses were left for carrion to pick over, and the exquisite taste evident in nearby gardens and temples.

Few Westerners had visited Miyako (present-day Kyoto), but that didn’t stop Marco Polo from writing about it as if he had a casual familiarity with the city. One shamelessly fabricated section of “The Travels of Marco Polo” includes the assertion that Mongol troops laid siege and subdued the Imperial city, taking “many pretty women” as captives. He did get one thing right. They “live quite separate,” he wrote, “entirely independent of all other nations.”

One early visitor who did set eyes on the city was the Portuguese Jesuit Louis Frois, who arrived in Japan in 1563. Frois spent 34 years in the country, but never lost his initial sense of wonder toward its cultural achievements. An early observer of the Japanese garden, he wrote of the topiary in one Kyoto landscape, with “delightful and strange trees … all of which were cultivated artificially, so that some are shaped like bells, others like towers, others like domes.”

Henry Heusken, in his “Japan Journal 1855-1861,” made the common error of mistaking Edo Castle for the Imperial Palace, referring to the shogun as “His Majesty.” A court audience left a favorable impression on the translator, who noted “the noble and dignified bearing of the courtiers, their polished manners which would do honor to the most illustrious court, cast a more dazzling splendor than all the diamonds of the Indies.” Heusken, unfortunately, never saw the birth of the new age. While returning from a dinner in January, 1861, he was assassinated by a member of the anti-shogunal Satsuma clan. These were perilous times for foreign visitors. In 1859, the American businessman, Francis Hall, wrote about his preparations for a stroll in Edo, which involved “putting a revolver in one pocket and a copy of Tennyson in the other.”

Such travel accounts may have represented an “age of innocence” in terms of the engagement between foreign travelers and Japan, but the observations of these early visitors could be chillingly prescient. The grandson of Captain Basil Hall, an English sailor who had dropped anchor in Okinawa in 1816, characterized the main attributes of the people when he wrote of their “gentleness of spirit and manner, their yielding and submissive disposition, their hospitality and kindness, their aversion to violence and crime.” It was a temperament, in other words, that might easily submit to the attentions of more ruthless peoples and political doctrines.

This is the first of a three-part series on foreign travel writing on Japan. The next installment will appear on Jan. 16, 2016. Stephen Mansfield’s new history book, “Tokyo: A Biography,” will appear in the spring of 2016.

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