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Isabella Bird and Japonisme Travel Writing: Common Interests
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The Late Nineteenth Century was so replete with popular texts about Japan that Basil Hall Chamberlain, a self-proclaimed “Japanologist,” wryly remarked that “not to have written a book about Japan is fast becoming a title to distinction,” clearly demonstrating his disdain for the plentiful, popular texts cluttering the literary market. This literary trend has been dramatically underread by scholars and the larger movement, Japonisme, has traditionally been seen as strictly the purview of art historians, a branch of High Aestheticism that predominantly revolved around the artistic influence of Japanese woodblock prints on notable artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Auguste Renoir, and James Tissot. This view excludes all mass culture aspects of the movement, from the circulation of Japanese merchandise to the examination of the popular Japonisme texts that Chamberlain complained about. Texts by established Japanologists such as Ernest Satow and Basil Hall Chamberlain have always had a place in the study of the formation of disciplines—Asian languages, anthropology, and sociology. The fact that they comprised a small portion of a larger body of Japonisme texts that they themselves felt overwhelmed by has largely been forgotten.

The history of this reception of Japanologist texts and the elision of popular Japonisme texts is a familiar story of gender privilege, elitism, and imperialist racism. Japanologists were exclusively male, almost always government employees, and happy to assert their individual “expertise” over other claims, even those from native speakers. Popular Japonisme authors, on the other hand, were typically female, hugely varied in their motivations for seeking out Japan as a destination, and explicitly united by their subject matter. Popular Japonisme texts encourage an expansion of the genre; Japanologist texts assert themselves as the sole texts of worth. In short, popular Japonisme texts are searching for common interests while Japanologist texts assert that their value is as an “object of uncommon interest,” as Commodore Perry expressed it in the account of his 1854 expedition to forcibly “open” Japan to foreign trade.

While travel writing was traditionally a man’s genre, written for and by men, technological innovations in travel and communication and shifting societal values allowed women to participate more widely in the nineteenth century. By the time Japan had been “opened” to foreign trade and communication in 1854, several female travel authors had established themselves as celebrity tourists and amateur naturalists. A little more than two decades later, Isabella Bird (1831–1904) was already the author of best-selling epistolary travel narratives of expeditions in Hawaii (1875), Australia (1877), and the Canadian Rockies (1879) by the time she set her sights on Japan. Her continued commercial success was so certain that John Murray promised to publish anything she might write about her next destination. When he received the completed manuscript in 1880, he published a two-volume edition of her epistolary account of her trip, Un-beaten Tracks in Japan, and a shortened “popular” edition five years later. This text would prove to be the most popular work of Bird’s oeuvre. She earned a princely £1,458 from the 6,536 copies of Unbeaten Tracks in Japan sold during her lifetime, almost double the amount she earned from her second-best seller, A Lady’s Life in the Rockies (1879).

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London: John Murray, 1911

Anna Stoddart, Bird’s first biographer, ranks her as one of only four memorable female travelers of the late nineteenth century, placing her alongside Mary Kingsley, Marianne North, and Constance Gordon-Cumming: “Four Englishwomen have, during the last thirty years, established themselves a well-grounded fame as travelers—Mrs. Bishop [née Bird] … has shown what English ladies can do, and with pen and pencil aroused the interest of the reading public.” The fact that Bird chose Japan as her next location shows how canny she was as a genre writer: books on Japan were selling fast, as Chamberlain’s complaint demonstrates, and Unbeaten Tracks in Japan capitalized on their popularity. She was already thoroughly competent in her genre through the success of previous narratives. She struck a careful balance between the occasional florid passage and the workmanlike prose of a critical commentator and preempted any attacks on her femininity by prefacing...

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