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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

May 22, 2009

Journeys Outside of the Bubble

Here’s a question for you: what’s the stereotypical image of a Japanese tourist abroad? Thinking about it, you might say that the question is misphrased, because there’s no such thing as a Japanese tourist, only Japanese tourists – they only ever occur in groups. That’s obviously an overstatement, and yet it’s probably true to say that many, or perhaps most, Japanese leisure travellers outside of their own country do so as part of package, group, tours. If you live in a tourist area of Japan, you’ll be familiar with the sight of tour groups, each with their own guide, being bussed from place to place according to a carefully planned schedule of sightseeing and shopping, and the sight of groups of tourists being gathered together at airports, often all wearing name badges, or with similar hats, is one I’m familiar with from my own travels.

The Japanese tour group, too, travelling together, speaking only Japanese and being rushed from place to place, snapping photographs, but never stopping long, is almost a metaphor for Japan’s preferred way of dealing with kaigai 海外 (‘abroad’): looking at it through a Japanese lens, or visiting it in a Japanese bubble. (The British, of course, aren’t any better – thousands of Britons visit popular tourist spots in Europe every year, and spend their time eating British food, visiting British pubs and clubs, and staying in hotels surrounded by other Brits – the only way they know they’re not at home is because the weather’s better. This type of attitude was satirised by the Comic Strip team, in the episode ‘Funseekers’ (1988), at the end of which the gormless protagonists emerge from a church where they have just assisted a young Spanish woman to give birth to her illegitimate child, gaze around in amazement, and say, ‘I’ve just realised – we’re in Spain!’ – but I digress.)

Package tours are such a part of Japanese travel now that it’s difficult to believe that they are a relatively recent development, only really taking off after the 1960s with Japan’s rise to economic superpower status. Incidentally, do you know the origin of the modern package tour? It’s, in fact, a British invention: on 5 July 1841 a cabinet maker by the name of Thomas Cook reached an agreement with the Midland Counties Railway company to send 570 people from Leicester to a temperance rally in Loughborough eleven miles away. He was so successful in this and arranging other trips, after some initial problems, that he abandoned cabinet making altogether, and became the first travel agent, eventually arranging to send people all over the world.

Anyway, I seem to be digressing again.

Foreign travel by Japanese didn’t start in the 1960s, of course, it’s just that earlier travellers tended to be solo ones, and leisure wasn’t the reason they left Japan. In Meiji and the early twentieth century, Japanese travelled for education – to learn about the world outside, which was a strange place after the two hundred and fifty odd years of isolation of the Tokugawa period. Some of Japan’s most famous modern writers went overseas, either voluntarily, or because the government despatched them, to improve their knowledge and return with it to Japan, and had intense experiences while there. For example, Natsume Kinnosuke (1867-1916), better known by his pen-name Sōseki 漱石, the famous author of works such as Botchan 坊ちゃん (‘The Young Master’) (1906) and Kokoro こころ (1914), and, by all accounts something of an eccentric (his first remark to his wife on their marriage was apparently, ‘I am a scholar and therefore must study. I have no time to fuss over you. Please understand this.’), spent two very unhappy years in England from 1900, eventually behaving so oddly that reports were sent back to Tokyo that he had gone mad, resulting in his urgent recall home. Years later, when asked about his impressions of his stay there, he was to say, ‘To tell the truth, I have no liking for England. But I must be honest, whether I like the country or not. I do not think there is a place in the world so free or so orderly.’ Arishima Takeo 有島健郎 (1878-1923), another famous writer, spent over three years abroad, from 1901-04, travelling through the US and on to Europe, where he fell in love with a Swiss innkeeper’s daughter. He left after they had spent only a week together, but they corresponded until his death, and she remained faithful to his memory, visiting his grave in Japan and buying copies of his books, which she kept until her death at the age of 84 in 1970, although she was unable to read a word of them (Llewellen 1993).

Other travellers went for religious reasons: the most famous Meiji example was Kawaguchi Ekai河口慧海, a Buddhist monk who made several journeys to Nepal and Tibet and was the first known modern Japanese visitor to both countries, while the most famous Japanese Christian traveller was undoubtedly Kibe Petro 岐部ペトロ (1587-1639). Kibe was born to Christian convert parents in Kyushu, and seems to have wanted to be nothing other than a priest, enrolling in a Jesuit school at the age of 13, and being deported by the Bakufu to Macao in 1614 at the age of 23. He then set off on a odyssey in search of ordainment, eventually walking the entire length of the Silk Road, some 2000 miles, becoming the first Japanese to enter the Holy Land, and the first to visit Rome, where his wish was eventually granted. He returned to Japan in 1630, after the sakoku 鎖国 (‘seclusion’) policy had been instituted, landing in secret at Nagasaki and travelling as far north as Sendai before he was finally betrayed to the shogunate and arrested. By all accounts, great efforts were made to make him apostatise, including interrogation by Christovao Ferreira, a Portuguese Jesuit who had abandoned his faith after torture (if you’ve read Endō Shūsaku’s 遠藤周作 (1923-96) award winning novel Chinmoku 沈黙 ('Silence') (1966), you’ll be familiar with his name, as he’s the man the protagonists enter Japan to seek). Kibe remained, however, true to his beliefs, and eventually died under torture in July 1639. His name appears near the top of the list of Japanese Christian martyrs recognised by the Catholic church, and he was beatified in November last year.

Japanese Buddhists, of course, travelled abroad in search of enlightenment and instruction centuries before Christianity ever came to Japan. Probably the most famous of these, even though he spent relatively little time away, was a man by the name of Saeki no Mao 佐伯 眞魚 (774-?835), although he’s far better known now by his Buddhist name of Kūkai 空海, or his posthumous title of Kōbō Daishi 弘法大師. Mao came from an aristocratic background, as many monks did at the time, and was prodigiously clever, publishing his first work Sangō Shiiki三教指帰, a comparison of the merits of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, in 794 at the age of just 24. Ten years later, he travelled to China and within two years had been initiated as a master of Shingon 真言 esoteric Buddhism, a faith he was to bring back to Japan, which proved to be fertile ground for its teachings. In addition to his religious duties, Kūkai worked as an advisor to the imperial throne and is known to have guided the building works to improve Mannō Ike 満濃池, Japan’s largest agricultural irrigation reservoir, which is still to be found in Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. Kōbō Daishi remains the single most revered Japanese Buddhist figure, legendarily responsible for inventing both the kana 仮名 syllabary and the Iroha poem traditionally used to teach it, and the faithful believe that he did not die in 835, but merely entered permanent meditation on Mount Kōya 高野, where his body remains to this day.

Finally, we should also remember that in pre-modern times, travel within Japan could be just as daunting as long sea voyages abroad, and so I’ll end this week with a poem composed by an anonymous retainer of Ōtomo no Tabito 大伴旅人, while journeying with him from Kyushu back to the capital in Nara:

opoumi nö
oku ka mo sirazu
yuku ware wo
itu kimasamu tö
topisi kora pa mo

On the vastness of the sea
Not knowing what's to come
Or whither bound am I;
"When will you be home?"
My children asked...

MYS XVII: 3897

There won’t be a column next week, as I’ll be on holiday, so look for the next one on, or around, June 5th.

Llewellen, John (1993), Modern Japanese Novelists: A Biographical Dictionary Tokyo, Kodansha International.

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I loved the fun little fact about the first travel agent, thanks for that!

I think younger Japanese tourists opt out of the guided tours and are backpacking more than before. I still see hoards of Japanese group tours in Times Square, but there's also more solo or couple travelers. Although the latter is almost always lost and looking at a map, it's part of the experience and fun of a foreign country!

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