Trailblazing Female Who Pioneered Solo Travel in 1800s

Isabella Bird was a true pioneer and adventure seeker in her time. She was a nineteenth-century British traveler best known in Japan for her book, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. Bird made her trip to Japan in 1878, at the age of 47. It was first published in two volumes in 1880. She talks about her travels where she walked approximately 1200 miles in the hinterlands of Hokkaido. She walked many roads and streets and stayed at the Ryokans, the Japanese traditional inns, where the remnants of the Edo period remained. During her trip to Japan, Bird said she felt very safe and peaceful. She believed there was not another country in the world that was safer to travel than Japan, as she felt no danger or rudeness from the locals.

One of the reasons to visit Japan was to see the potential for the growth for Christianity in the Japanese population. And another reason was to see the shifts in culture in Japan, especially in areas unknown to Europeans, as there were transformational changes from Edo period to what is known as the Meiji period or so-called Meiji Restoration.

Modernization, End of the Japan’s Unique Culture

It was a major shift in Japanese history in which Japan went through a modernization period lasting from 1868 to 1912. During this period, Japan’s economy, political ideas, education, and other aspects of life were largely influenced by Western culture.

Although Bird generally felt very safe and comfortable in Japan and with the Japanese people, she also was sometimes shocked at the cultural differences. For example, the ryokan traditionally had no keys/locks, walls, or doors. People were simply separated by sliding doors and shoji screens. She noted that at the ryokan, the servants were very noisy and rough. They also unexpectedly went inside her room, seemingly without a reason. The innkeeper was cheerful & amiable, but he also entered Bird’s room to “sneak a peek”. Although she felt it wasn’t dangerous, it was indeed shocking to see that there was a lack of privacy at times in Japan.


From a Japanese perspective: Awareness of Japanese Privacy in Edo

A leading Japanese ethnographer, Tsuneichi Miyamoto (1907–1981) wrote a book called, Reading of Isabella Bird’s Journey – Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (Original title: Izabera Bādo no Nihon okuchi kikō o yomu, イザベラ・バードの「日本奥地紀行」を読む). Miyamoto, in response to Bird’s book, explained that the Edo period was a safe and secure society that did not require privacy. The need for privacy only meant that safety cannot be ensured without separating the surroundings. In Japan there are no harm and crime committed by others, and things are not stolen. So if the door of the house was left open, it wouldn’t hurt just to look inside the house. Even for the Japanese as well as Westerners, Miyamoto’s words are enlightening. Once others understood Miyamoto’s Japanese perspective, they would understand better why Japanese people in the Edo period are not skeptical and were initially thought to respect privacy less.

Westerners are often surprised by certain questions from the Japanese. They feel these questions were quite personal and invaded the individual’s privacy. For example, some Japanese casually asked about one’s age, marriage history and other personal questions at the very first meeting. For better or for worse, it can be said that the Japanese generally do not want to create a wall of privacy between each other. This type behavior has been passed down to the present from the Edo period.

We heard some foreigners feel discomfort with the behavior of Japanese people, but if there is understanding between the two cultures, the stress on both sides can be reduced somewhat.

Research references: 
1. Travel of Women in the Late Early Modern Period Observed in Travel Diaries: A Study on Its Positioning Relative to the“Popularization of Traveling” YAMAMOTO Shino,
2. Isabella Bird and Japan: A Reassessment, by Kiyonori Kanasaka, FRSGS, FRGS.
3. "Reading Isabella Bird's" Traveling in the Outback of Japan " by Tsuneichi Miyamoto, Heibonsha
4. The Project Gutenberg eBook, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

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