Thursday, October 14, 2010

"The Wonders of Japan"

When news that the Japanese Embassy to the United States was due to stop in Hawaii one can imagine what the perceptions people in the island held of a country and people secluded for so long. Those perceptions were at least in part framed by news accounts furnished by visitors to Japan.

The March 5, 1859 edition of Honolulu’s Polynesian newspaper featured such travelogue copied from the Liverpool Courier. In the beginning of the piece the text references Lord Elgin and his tour of China and a short trip to Japan.

Here is the transcription:

"The description given to Japan by some of the members of Lord Elgin’s suit, rivals that of the enchanted island of the Arabian Nights. Nothing can exceed the picturesque beauty of the bay of Nagasaki, and the situation of the city at its extremity. Swelling hills covered with verdure rise from the water’s edge. The thatched roofs of snug cottages peep from out the dense foliage amid which they nestle. Precipitous walls of rock are mirrored in the azure blue of the waters at their base. The Japanese are courteous, affable, gentlemanlike and good natured, quite different from the description our disinterested friends, the Dutch, gave of them.

“Jeddo, the capital, is larger than London, and contains 3,000,000 of people. The leading street is ten miles long, and closely packed with stuccoed houses. Here are the palaces of 360 of the hereditary princes, each a sovereign in his own dominions, but compelled to reside in the metropolis for six months of the year. Some of the mansions are built to hold 10,000 retainers. The palace of the secular king is surrounded by a triple wall, and gives lodging to 40,000 people. The streets are spacious, clean and airy; no dirt, no smell, no street obstructions.

“In this country, every cottage, temple and teahouse is surrounded by gardens laid out in exquisite taste. Tea-houses are found in every shady nook, or by pleasant rivers. The tea is served by the ministrations of fair damsels; who glide noiselessly and rapidly about, suspecting no indecorum and meaning none.

“Strange that we should have known so little of this modern Atalanta, this beauteous isle set in the silver sea! Stranger still that they should have worked our so perfect and yet so grotesque a species of civilization, like the devices in their own ware, odd, startling, but minutely finished off. Here we have two kings; one spiritual, who can his lineage for 2,500 years; the other secular, who commands the forces, both dwelling in the same city like brothers. The Japanese seem to be the most impressible nation on earth; whatever they see they imitate –telescopes, aneroids, steam engines, spy glasses, &c. –and yet they have hitherto locked themselves up within an impenetrable barrier.

“Our exports to Japan, last year, amounted to L200. Surely this wonderful people must have something to export and something to import, too. They will not export any manufactured articles, but they will readily import them. Our warm woolens and stout cottons are just the thing for the northern districts. We trust that our manufacturers are awake to this market, and will not allow themselves to be beaten as they were in China, by the Americans and Russians, even in our staple manufactures.” [Liverpool Courier]

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