National / History

Tourism boom highlights evolution of Japan guidebooks

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The nation’s continuing tourism boom has been accompanied by countless new guidebooks and websites on all things Japanese. Today, those who want to learn about Japan are spoiled for choice. But that was not always the case.

Well over a century ago, reliable English-language information on Japan came in the form of a few guidebooks, as well as personal letters and journals from perhaps a dozen or so British and American visitors and residents. A sample of some of these 19th and early 20th century English-language accounts offers clues as to how successive foreign visitors, and the guidebooks that catered to them, came to see Japan.

It is difficult for today’s travelers to fully appreciate the barriers faced by the very small numbers of Western residents and tourists in the years that followed the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

Confined to a few ports like Yokohama, Kobe, Niigata, Nagasaki and Hakodate, and forbidden initially from visiting Kyoto and Nara, they lived in a country wracked by civil war and anti-foreign sentiment.

Making journeys by ship or riverboat due to poorly maintained roads, traveling around Japan was no vacation. It was a voyage into the unknown — sometimes dangerous but always exotic.

Some of the most influential English-language guidebooks for general readers in the late 1800s and early 1900s were issued by the London-based publisher John Murray.

Early Japan guides in the “Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers” series were penned by distinguished Japanologists like British diplomat and scholar Sir Ernest Satow, who traveled extensively throughout the country when few outsiders could, and his compatriot Basil Hall Chamberlin, a professor of Japanese at Tokyo Imperial University who wrote about different aspects of Japan and translated the “Koji-ki” (“Records of Ancient Matters”).

These early works focused on the universal questions travelers may pose in any age: How do I get around? What simple Japanese words and phrases are needed to do so? What are the histories of major cities, temples and shrines?What do I need to know about hotels and inns, and local customs, such as bathing?

But a major difference between today’s guidebooks and these early works concerns food. Unlike the plethora of books, blogs, and websites now touting the nation’s gourmet food and drink items, the first guides were full of caution about the local cuisine.

“Many who view Japanese food hopefully from a distance have found their spirits sink and their tempers embittered when brought face to face with the unsatisfying actuality. Except at some of the larger towns and favorite hill or seaside resorts, meat, bread, and other forms of European food are scarce. Those, therefore, who cannot subsist on the native fare of rice, eggs, and fish (this, too, not be counted on in the mountains), should carry their own supplies with them,” said the Murray’s updated 1913 guide to Japan.

Shutterbugs were also warned to be careful, as it was prohibited to photograph anything within several miles of forts or military arsenals. Two pieces of advice, though, can still be found in guidebooks today.

“Never enter a Japanese house with your boots on, and take visiting cards with you. Japanese with whom you become acquainted will often desire to exchange cards,” the Murray’s guidebook advises.

In addition, a modern complaint some foreign tourists have when staying in Japanese hotel chains, especially in hot, humid weather, was already addressed long ago, albeit for different reasons than today.

“It is next to impossible to get windows opened at night in Japanese inns. The reason is that it is considered unsafe to leave anything open on account of thieves, and there is a police regulation to enforce closing.”

At many hotels in Japan today you still cannot open the windows, partly because the building is designed that way, leading to complaints from guests who, for health or comfort reasons, don’t want to sleep in an air-conditioned room.

Finally, the guidebook warns visitors they run the risk of offending their hosts by focusing on the exotic. The following advice might be kept in mind by today’s visitors when in overcrowded tourist spots.

“Many travelers irritate the Japanese by talking and acting as if they thought Japan and her customs a sort of peep show set up for foreigners to gape at.”

While Murray’s was a formal guidebook, personal travel journals also enjoyed great popularity. One of the most famous travel journals, still read and admired today, is Isabella Bird’s 1880 work “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan,” in which she explores the back roads of Tohoku and Hokkaido.

Some of the first-ever English-language descriptions of Hokkaido’s Ainu are in the book. Bird, a British explorer, describes her stay with an Ainu family in Biratori, where she asked the village chief and other Ainu residents to teach her as much as they could about their culture, customs and lifestyle. The Ainu agreed, on one condition.

“Before they told me anything they begged and prayed that I would not inform the Japanese government that they had told me of their customs, or harm might come to them.”

Other, lesser-known descriptions of Japan came from works like American astronomer Percival Lowell’s 1891 “Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan.” He writes of reaching the Noto Peninsula and attempting to cross a mountain pass in the Japan Alps that his guidebook indicated would be an easy walk. He and his companions were warned in Toyama this would not be the case.

“But with the fatal faith of a man in his guidebook, we ignored the native forebodings,” he writes, leading to a trek he describes as being far more difficult and dangerous than originally thought.

Today, Western guidebook writers on Japan see change and continuity in how the country is presented. Judith Clancy, an American who has written numerous books on various aspects of Kyoto, says that, like long ago, language and knowledge of Japanese society remain the major factors limiting foreign guidebook writers today.

“The only stereotype that is long-lasting is that Japanese can’t speak English. But that is changing, except for places like Kanazawa that have been overwhelmed with foreign tourists since a shinkansen station opened (in 2015). The city was never a major sightseeing route, so it never had to deal with foreign tourists,” she said.

Chris Rowthorn, U.S. founder of online guides InsideKyoto.com and TrulyTokyo.com, and a former Lonely Planet guidebook writer, identifies a lack of Japanese ability among writers, as well as cost and time, as limits on how much they can write about the country.

“Many people who write about Japan speak very little Japanese. Even fewer read it with any proficiency. And while Japan is not nearly as expensive as many people think, it is still quite expensive to travel widely and really sample what’s on offer,” he said.

At the same time, Rowthorn notes that a major change between travel writers long ago and guidebook writers today is the attitude that modern publishers take toward Japan.

“With the 19th century writers, you get lots of interesting and often valid insights along with doses of cultural jingoism. Now, one is more likely to get uncontroversial observations from writers who are afraid of giving offense, rather than being truly descriptive,” he says.

Clancy also notes that modern publishing is a business, not an academic pursuit, and that writers need to keep in mind modern marketing strategies.

“Publishers have three strategies: one-time publication, such as for the Christmas market or spring gardening market; long shelf-life guidebooks; and popular demand books, such as cookbooks and health-related books,” she says.

In his 1891 satirical essay, “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde took aim at popular images of Japan perpetrated by the West. Though referring to Japan as portrayed in the woodblock prints of Hokusai, some visitors and residents might be tempted to apply his observations to old, and modern, images of Japan in certain guidebooks as well.

“The whole of Japan is pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people,” the Irish author said.

Wilde, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, advised against being a tourist in Japan, lest the reality of seeing the country clash with the romantic images seen from afar.

But the continuing evolution of guidebook writing about Japan suggests that overseas interest in traveling to Japan, rather than relying on far-away, long-ago images, is stronger than ever.