OSAKA >> 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 by choices. 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 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.
They were confined to a few port areas such as Yokohama, Kobe, Niigata, Nagasaki and Hakodate, and forbidden initially from visiting Kyoto and Nara. Foreign residents lived in a country wracked by civil war and anti-foreign sentiment. They journeyed by ship or riverboat due to poorly maintained roads — sometimes dangerous but always exotic.
Some of the most influential English-language guidebooks in the late 1800s and early 1900s were published by London-based John Murray.
Early Japan guides in the “Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers” series were penned by such distinguished Japanologists as 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 pose: 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 one of the biggest differences 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.”
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 Kyoto, says that, like long ago, language and knowledge of Japanese society remain the major factors limiting foreign guidebook writers.
“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, and cost and time as limiting factors.
“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.