- Musashino in Tuscany: Japanese Overseas Travel Literature, 1860-1912
Greeting the New Year as a guest abroad is quite strange
I do not know these barbarians whom I face
I drank up a bottle of champagne
Yet the song I sang was an old tune of Tokyo.Narushima Ryūhoku, Kōsai nichijō (as translated in Fessler, p. 114)
Recent years have witnessed increased scholarly attention by both literature and history specialists to the subject of travel and travel writing. Scholars of literature have pioneered in this field, but in their wake historians have shown greater interest and brought their own arsenal of concerns to bear on the voluminous body of Japanese travelogues. Susanna Fessler's new book thus finds a niche and makes an important contribution of its own. One can now teach a course on Japanese travel writing—even foreign travel alone— for the modern era, using this volume together with W. G. Beasley's Japan Encounters the Barbarian: Japanese Travellers in America and Europe, 1860–1873 (Yale University Press, 1995), Masao Miyoshi's As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States (1860) (University of California Press, 1979), and my own The Literature of Travel in the Japanese Rediscovery of China, 1862–1945 (Stanford University Press, 1996), among others.
Opportunities for overseas travel only became available for Japanese at the end of the Edo period, beginning with the mission to the United States in 1860 to ratify the Harris Treaty of 1858. Until the end of the era in 1868, though, travel abroad remained difficult and expensive. In the Meiji period, the number of travelers began to grow steadily, as did the number of travel books they produced. The emergence of institutions to enable travel abroad, such as travel agencies, the publication of travel magazines, and (in fact) the enhancement of travel itself as a meaningful cultural or educational venture [End Page 486] all began to take place. This is the period under study here, 1860 to 1912, the last year of the Meiji era.
Although she by no means ignores topics potentially more interesting to historians, as a specialist in modern Japanese literature, Fessler is less concerned—not unconcerned, just less—with these sorts of practicalities. In their stead, she brings great sensitivity to the readings of texts and a wonderful ability to read those texts as documents of poetry and prose in a long history of Japanese literature. She thus reads with a deep appreciation for convention in Japanese travel writing that goes back over a millennium.
Instead of trying to cover every single travel book from the 52 years under study, Fessler made the wise choice—one for which I wish I had opted—to concentrate on several dozen and examine them closely. She also made the extremely wise choice—ditto—of translating significant chunks of the prose and poetry (from both Japanese and kanbun) from those works and thus enables the reader to capture a bit of the flavor of those texts (in translation, of course). In addition, she includes a large number of photographs, not necessarily from the works in question but from postcards and other sources roughly of the time which help the reader vicariously "travel" to many of the European and North American sites visited by the Japanese travelers being discussed.
After a lengthy chapter on the history and discourse of travel writing in Japan before 1860—including some of the works that resulted from castaway reports, a rich genre of writing in pre-bakumatsu Japan that deserves further study—Fessler begins with travel accounts dating from the 1860s. The first three bakumatsu accounts she explores in depth are by Nakai Hiroshi, Nomura Fumio, and Shibusawa Eiichi, all of whom were in their twenties at the time they set sail. While the objective in these cases was always "the West," sea travel usually demanded at least a stopover in China (usually Shanghai) en route or on the return trip home, often both. We thus...