Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Isabella Bird visits my neighborhood - the people of the neighborhood never experience the least annoyance

Isabella Bird's trip to Japan was a consequence, indirectly, of the outcome of a Japanese civil war. Although Bird was in Japan just ten years after the war of the Meiji Restoration, she almost never mentions, or presumably witnesses, any evidence of the war. The modernizers had won the war, Western scientists, traders, and tourists were allowed to troop around the country, and that was that.

I put an ellipsis in a quotation yesterday that excised one of the few times she did mention the war. Why was the town of Shinjo so horrible, full of boot-gnawing rats and the like? Because it had been a daimyo town, the home of a local warlord. The Meiji administration had crushed the daimyos, pulled down their castles, and dispersed their samurai. So the castle towns had fallen into decay.

In the last letter in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Bird has returned to Edo/ Tokyo, where she visits the suburb of Meguro, the very neighborhood where I lived for a month. The attraction, oddly, is a crematorium. It is hygienic and efficient, with high chimneys, so that "the people of the neighborhood never experience the least annoyance." The Governor of Tokyo insists on presenting Bird with a translated history of cremation in Japan.

Reading this letter, I can hardly avoid imagining the entire neighborhood of Meguro as a crematorium. It was incinerated, every scrap of it, by American firebombing. Perhaps there was a monument somewhere, although I never found it. I worked and ate and shopped in Meguro, just like everyone else who works and lives there, without this sort of thing ever crossing my mind. Why would it?

I'm making Unbeaten Tracks in Japan sound like a W. G. Sebald novel, which it is not. One of Sebald's gifts, though, was to transform material like Bird's book, to fit them into his own creative world. If you are actually writing a Japan-centered, Rings of Saturn-inspired novel, take a look at Bird and steal this idea from me. No one will ever know. I won't tell.


  1. When I first arrived in Japan as an adult (I was born there, but remember nothing because we left when I was still quite young) I remember being disappointed at how modern it was. And then of course when I realized exactly why everything is so modern and clean, I was devastated. So much history gone. Kagoshima (where I was born) was particularly devastated since it was the last stop for many planes as they finished their bombing run - it is a beautiful southern city, but very very new.

  2. Looking for history in Japan, as a tourist, required an adjustment in my thinking. A useful adjustment that will benefit me elsewhere.