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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Look At Japan Through The Eyes Of An 1880 English Teacher

The following is from the Weekly Argus newspaper, dated February 26, 1880 - Port Townsend, Washington State, and unlike any history book that has the propensity to be dull and dreary, I like to think this writer writes in a similar manner to myself—facts with personal anecdotes.

I'm not sure what is more amazing, the confession of the newspaper editors regarding the delay in printing this story of the fact that letter writer is perhaps the first foreigner to go live and teach in Akita-ken in the northern part of the main island of Japan.

It's a nice account of a gaijin (foreigner) teacher, and you may notice that his complaints about Japan back in 1880 are similar in scope to such complaints made by foreigners in 2014.

And, in defense of this long-dead writer/teacher, his writings are not necessarily complaints as they are observation of facts, and that is how he presents them.

About Japan
The following are a few extracts from a letter written by Mr. C. Carters, formerly of Lopez Island, to Mr. Jos. A Merrill, of San Juan Co.

The latter kindly sent it to us for public notice some time ago, but its appearance has been delayed on account of the manuscript having been mislaid. It may interest some of our readers to know of the peculiarities of the Japs. The writer came from Japan to San Juan Co., during the summer of '78, but returned thither after a brief stay in this Territory. Among other difficulties under which he labors, we may mention that he writes from a place the euphonious title of which is: "Akita Shikan Gakko, Akita Ken, Japan." Hear him:

"When last I wrote to you, I was in Tokio, the capital of Japan. At that time I had doubts of the possibility of getting employment in this country, and thought I might be under the necessity of returning soon to the United Sates. But at the eleventh hour I found a position. It is at a large school located in the northern part of the main Japanese Island.
No foreigner has ever lived there, and but few have ever visited the place as it is not an open port. It is a seaport, and is visited by native steamers and sail vessels.
It is distant by land about 450 miles north of Tokio, This distance I passed over in eleven days. During the journey I had rare opportunity of observing the scenery of the interior, the productions of the country and the habits and customs of the people.
Seventy miles I traveled in a stage coach. Most of the remainder of the distance was passed in the "jinrikisha," or man-powered cart. This vehicle is peculiar to japan, and came into use here only about eight years ago. It is nothing more than an enlarged two-wheeled baby carriage, It has a comfortable cushioned seat, for one or two persons, and is drawn by one man in the shafts. If two men are needed on can push or go before the other by means of a rope. These vehicles are now all over Japan, and are the almost exclusive means of land travel where the roads will permit.
There are relay stations at every town, and, by changing men, a person can travel fifty or more miles per day over good roads. You will be surprised to learn how cheap the fare is for traveling this way—only THREE CENTS PER MILE, and the coolies board themselves. When natives travel they do not pay more than two cents per mile. No charge is made for the time occupied in the return of the coolie and carriage…
Away from the open ports we must of course lodge at Japanese hotels, and eat Japanese food, unless he be fool enough to carry food with him.
A Japanese hotel is generally a large two-story nailing (sometimes three stories, sometimes only one). The kitchen is always in the front of the house, and the guests pass through it to the rooms assigned to them. The best rooms are generally at the back of the house. The rooms are usually twelve feet square and are separated by paper sliding screens. When desirable a whole story can be thrown into one room by the removal of the screens. The floor is covered with n ice clean rice straw mats, twi inches thick. The ceiling is commonly seven or eight feet high. No chairs or tables are used and a person must squat or lie down on the soft clean mats. Of course shoes are not admitted into these rooms. They must be removed at the entrance. The landlord and servants greet honorable guests, both on their arrival and departure. The meal is eaten in each one's room, being brought on a very diminutive table which is removed at the close of each meal.
The main article of food is clean, boiled rice. In addition are fish and boiled vegetables, and occasionally other accompaniments.
All is washed down by tea taken from wee cups. The charge for lodging, supper and breakfast, is twenty cents; dinner eight cents.
Everything, including the food, is clean, and one can fare pretty well while trveling (sp) in Japanese style.
The hotel waiters are usually females. They are all very polite and attentive to every want of the guests. The bed consists of a thin cotton padded cushion beneath, and a similar one for a covering. These are removed in the day time.
The general appearance of the interior of Japan is mountainous. The valleys are well cultivated. Rice, wheat, beans, vegetables and fruit are the principal productions in the northern portions.
Some localities are devoted almost exclusively to the production of silk; and others largely to that of tea. … Farmers, men and women, work hard and use little or no machinery. The spade, hoe an mattock (Blog note: similar to a pickaxe) are the principal tools. Except work horses (used for packing) but little stock is raised. The government has lately begun sheep raising near Tokio, which will no doubt in the course of time result in general sheep grazing.
I think the country is well adapted to grazing. Cattle are found only in certain localities.
My engagement at the Akita college is for two years, … I like to live in Japan. I have been in nearly all parts of the empire, know the language of the people and their habits and customs. I would be quite contented to spend my days here, but, as a foreigner cannot become a citizen nor hold property, except in open ports, he of course cannot feel as contented as in his own country.
Good pay keeps many who would otherwise quickly leave.
The Japanese are becoming expert in all kinds of business that they do not need much assistance from foreigners. The government is still seclusive to a certain degree, beyond that of other lands, but it is thought that another decade will remove all barriers to free intercourse.
I spend my summer vacation at the open port of Hakkodate."


Cool, eh? Hakkodate (which is more correctly spelled as Hakodate), is the third-largest city in the northern island of Hokkaido. Tokio is, of course, Tokyo, spelled in the archaic manner. I believe the Dutch spell the city as Tokio, and why not... they were the one's who were there a lot earlier than other countries...

Still, according to someone who posted a comment on a blog asking about the change in usage from Tokio to Tokyo, they said they checked all the small to medium sized US newspapers with a few Canadian and British ones and discovered that:
  • term -----------Tokio--- Tokyo
    1880-1900--- 11,500 --- 676
    1901-1920--- 70,063 --- 5,519
    1921-1930--- 58,450 --- 197,561**
    1931-1940--- 41,785 --- 119,810
    1941-1950--- 28,349 --- 315,170
    1951-1970--- 13,129 --- 462,547
 BUT... this person, then just checked data from the New York Times:
--------------------Tokio --------Tokyo
1850-1899-------- 1718--------41
1900-1910-------- 4169---------67
1911-1920-------- 2783--------107
1921-1930-------- 8708--------439
1931-1940-------- 1484--------18,188

The implication here is that usage changed sometime in the 1930s... but one can be sure it was still used later than that—especially of one checks WWII US materials (comic books, ads, and other media). 

Within this letter, I love how the writer laments that despite one's wishes, a foreigner can never truly become Japanese—and thus can never really call it his home.

I hear, ya, brother. I felt the same way.

Others will also note that Japan offering high wages to foreigners helps sway them into staying and working, when otherwise, owing to the hardship of homesickness or just not being Japanese, might cause one to say fug it and go home after a short stay.

The writer is very descriptive in his descriptions, offering excellent value for the read by giving us prices for things—something I am often remiss in providing simply because I did not write it down at the time I was there... suffice to say that nowadays, Japan is a an expensive place to live, and rather than driving oneself crazy, it is best NOT to convert Japanese yen to your country's monetary figures. It is what it is, get used to it.

The only thing that the writer appears to have got incorrect was his supposition that sheep farming might take off in Japan. If it did after he wrote his letter, it isn't a large part of Japan's economy now, with only a few such farms existing in the Hokkaido region. I'm, guessing that part of that is because arable land was better purposed to the growing of rice crops, which all Japanese people ate/eat every day and with every meal.

Okay... the writer also suggest that the rickshaw was invented around 1870 or so, and while his information might be correct, others suggest that it was invented in Japan in the 1860s. I'm guessing it was invented after the American/European visits spurred on some technological advancements in a country that up until the opening up of its borders could have been seen as being incredibly backwards technology-wise.

Still, Japan... if it ain't broke, don't fix it. 

As usual, special thanks to my cousin Vinnie who had me take a look at the Early American newspaper collection at—a facility (and comrade) that has become an invaluable resource for my blog and I.

Andrew Joseph

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