This project showcases student project work from Japan and the World, a modern Japanese history course offered at Kanda University of International Studies. It focuses on important themes and individuals from the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) periods, when Japan was beginning to open to the world after centuries of government-enforced isolation.

All submissions are researched, whether in English or Japanese, and references provided. Comments responding to and exploring ideas, suggesting connections or further reading, are most welcome. As entries are written by non-native English speakers, please refrain from non-constructive comments about language use.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Isabella Bird and her stay in Japan

By Kanako Kawai
Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird

If you had the opportunity to travel around the world, where would you want to go? An English explorer, Isabella Bird traveled around the world for almost her whole life to treat her illness. On her journey, she met lots of people and had various experiences. For example, she climbed Rocky Mountain, experienced Ainu tribe culture in Japan, and became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Also, she published some books, which if you read them, perhaps you will notice she has really strong opinion, and has different views for observing. In this paper, I will first mention her early life, and next describe her journey particularly in Japan, and finally conclude what she contributed to the later society.

Isabella Bird, who was born in the English county of Yorkshire in 1831, was well-known among people as she traveled all over the world. In her early age, she was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various diseases. She mentions that she began to have health troubles at least six different times during her six-month stay in Hawaii. Although she had several diseases, she was really active, and her desire was to travel around the world. In 1854, she was allowed to travel to America with £100, and the trip inspired her to travel other countries like Australia, China, Japan or anywhere she interested in. Surprisingly, during her journey, she never got ill. 

When she landed in Japan, she first realized that it was really hard to find her way around. Because there are no names on the streets but just numbers on maps without sequence, she was confused a lot. Moreover, there were no Europeans on the way to go. Therefore, she had trouble with lots of people because of the language problem, so she finally hired a young Japanese man to be her translator, and they traveled together to Hokkaido. On the way to Hokkaido, in her observation of the urban area, Yokohama and Tokyo, she was really frank. She said “Yokohama does not improve on further acquaintance. It has a dead-alive look” (Simkin, 1997), and “In Tokyo, the houses were mean, poor, shabby, often even squalid, the smells were bad and the people looked ugly, shabby, poor…” (Lucier, 2008). However, she was not always so critical. Meli (2008) says “Indeed, she is struck by the beauty of the landscape she travels through on her way to Nikko.” Also, she mentions that the hospitality and generosity of the Japanese people were respectable, and in fact, some people say that these features and characteristics remain intact. Probably most travelers agree with her opinion.

When she arrived in Hokkaido, she experienced culture of The Ainu tribe which is non-Japanese, and inhabitants of the islands. Their culture is distinct from Japanese. For example, they used their own language, had own culture, and believed in a particular religion. Actually, her observation of the tribe is particularly valuable. As she experienced Ainu culture, she describes them as “complete savages”, although she did not mean this completely negatively. Indeed, she had a great respect for them and their customs. She actually spent a lot of time investigating their culture and customs, and she found their social customs and spiritual beliefs “simple”. For example, she was curious about their thoughts of the possibility of life after death. First of all, she had no idea whether life after death existed or not, but she says “Although the future…does not occupy any place in their thoughts, and they can hardly be said to believe in the immortality of the soul,… their fear of ghosts shows that they recognize a distinction between body and spirit.” This means even if we have died, our spirit is still alive, and there is another life as a ghost. Like this, she gradually began to understand their culture and customs, and wrote everything she saw and experienced on her travelogue.

To conclude, she contributed to the later society as she tells us that she “writes the truth as sees it” (Honjo, 2001). This is one of her famous sayings, and she said she wrote everything truthfully on her travelogue. Thanks to her, now we can see what exactly happened, and the real situations of Japan in the era. However, there is one problem with her observation. As she observed Japan, she wrote her travelogue just on her self-reflection. There might be different concept of what she saw from other people. Even so, knowing the real lives of every different class which may not told by any text in schools is important, and her journey and experiences definitely made the later society reconsider the history. Bird gives us an opportunity to know the importance of studying every little piece of history because they all eventually fade away.


Honjo, Y. (2001 December), "Bird's eye view of early Japan", The International Herald Tribune-Asahi Shimbun, Pg. 23. 

Lucier, A. (2008, September), “Lady Isabella Bird in Japan”, Wuthering expectations. Retrieved on 17/07/2013 from

Meli, M. (2008 November), “The “Savage” and “Gentle” Race: Isabella Bird on the Ainu”, Jairo. Retrieved on 16/07/2013 from

Simkin, J.(1997), “Isabella Bird”, Spartacus.schoolnet. Retrieved on 16/07/2013 from