Japan was lucky in the distinction of its visiting writers. Many, including Rudyard Kipling, Edmund Blunden, Marguerite Yourcenar and Angela Carter, have published memorable works inspired by their time here. Isabella Bird (1831-1904), a Yorkshire-born travel writer and explorer, continues to command the affection of Japanophiles.

Isabella Bird and Japan: A Reassessment / Undefeated Tracks in Japan: Revisiting Isabella Bird, by Kiyonori Kanasaka
Translated by Nicholas Pertwee
277 pages / 372 pages

In the second half of the 19th century, Bird was one of a race of women slowly emerging from the confines of the Victorian drawing room, stepping through the garden gate and embarking on steamships to distant lands. She was already an accomplished writer and seasoned traveler when she arrived in Tokyo in 1878, having explored the far reaches of the globe, passing from the volcanoes of Hawaii to the Rocky Mountains of North America. Her ambitious trajectories are studied in great detail by Kiyonori Kanasaka, author of “Isabella Bird and Japan: A Reassessment” and “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: Revisiting Isabella Bird”.

Professor Emeritus of Kyoto University and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Kanasaka is considered one of the world’s foremost bird scholars. Asked about his research approach, he says: “I continued my studies of Isabella Bird as a geographer. I believe that a geographer who is interested in time and space is most suited to travel science and travel writing.

Her 2017 work, “Isabella Bird and Japan: A Reassessment,” is part analysis, part criticism, part biography. Applying scrupulous research methods and a concern for authenticity, it traces the itineraries, family situation and religious activities of Bird before his arrival in Japan. Bird may have been an open-minded and innovative travel writer, but when it came to religious beliefs, she was largely a product of her time. Bird’s blind spot, common to almost all Western visitors to Japan at the time, was an inability to recognize the ethical qualities of non-Christian religions and peoples. Although she was exposed during her travels through Japan to the fruits of an advanced society, she was still able to write: “The nation is steeped in immorality…its progress is political and intellectual rather than moral. However, Bird could also be gracious and offer praise where she saw fit. “I believe there is no country in the world to which a woman can travel with such absolute safety from danger and rudeness as in Japan,” she wrote.

Bird was primarily a documentarian, as opposed to a sentimental traveler. Confronted by her editor, John Murray, who begged her to soften her realistic depictions of poverty, disease, and hardship, she replied that she intended to “deflower” Japan. At Murray’s request, however, Bird set out to write an abridged version of his original 1880 text. It is unclear whether reducing the two-volume work to a form that would complement the existing series of adventures publisher’s romantic journeys resulted in a satisfactory result for the author or a mutilation. From the reader’s point of view, the resulting work, “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan”, is almost flawless, the reformatting in no way detracting from the literary quality of the text.

In terms of the scope of the journey, there are considerable differences between the original volume and the new abridged edition presented by Kanasaka in her 2020 book, “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: Revisiting Isabella Bird”. While the original included trips to the Kansai region and the great shrines of Ise, the following, shorter book focuses on a journey north from Tokyo, through Nikko, Niigata and the remote parts of Tohoku, before ending in Hokkaido.

In the preface and author’s commentary to Kanasaka, which precedes Bird’s travelogue, he describes some of his additions that make the work more accessible. These include a new pivoting of the book’s orientation, emphasizing the centrality of its journey to the less traveled north. Where full notes, annotations, comments, footnotes, and annotations may seem tedious in lesser hands, Kanasaka extensions are indispensable for text enrichment. In “Revisiting Isabella Bird” and “A Reassessment,” Kanasaka cites troubling sources of misinformation about Bird, from Japanese press accounts of the time to a ruthless critique of the misinterpretations, trial and error of facts, and sloppy research of some . of his academic contemporaries.

An early proponent of investigative travel, in which narratives were rendered in a refined and distinctive style of prose, Bird’s work, notably in his account of Japan, foreshadowed the now common term “literary writing of travel “. With the exception of major figures in the field, such as Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, few contemporary writers can match Bird’s authorship, determination and common sense.

These two beautifully paired and illustrated books would seem like a satisfying coda, the final word on Isabella Bird’s studies. One suspects, however, that the author has much more to say on the subject.

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