Distressed Micropsia: Size Distortion and Psychological Disturbance in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan and Subsequent Travel Literature of the 1880s and 1890s.
Isabella Bird’s travel writing is statistically rigorous to a fault, which is understandable, given that statistical accuracy was prized by the Victorians as a hallmark of scientific objectivity and one of the qualities which distinguished professional travel writing from amateur tourist ramblings. However, in Bird’s work on Japan, there is an exception to her usual rigour. The first sign that something is amiss appears the moment she steps off the boat. On the quayside, she notices a “portable restaurant [that] looked as if it were made by and for dolls,” kept by an individual whom she describes as a “mannikin ... not five feet high” (I 17)1. A reader who was unfamiliar with Bird might skim over the passage, assuming that there was, in fact, a considerable size disparity between herself and the shop owner in question, and that she was looming over him. However, at 4'11" (Wrobel 62), Bird would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him. This is the first of several instances where Bird obscures her own size in relation to those around her. Some pages later, when she first arrives at Shinbashi station, she describes a crowd alighting from a train and remarks that “few of the men attained 5 feet 7 inches, and few of the women 5 feet 2 inches,” even in “three-inch clogs.” She adds, disparagingly, that they were “small and tottering” (I 29). Again, these people were around the same height as Bird herself, but the impression she gives of herself is not of a figure among other humans of a similar size, but of a much larger individual, detached from the crowd and looking upon them as if they were miniatures. The crowd, she remarks, looked familiar, because they resembled the pictures she had seen “on trays, fans, and tea-pots” at home (ibid). Bird here depicts herself not as a traveller immersed in a foreign culture and rubbing shoulders with its people, but like the European women on James Tissot’s group of paintings entitled Jeunes femmes regardant des objects japonais (1869-70), peering down on a miniatureized scene from above.
This kind of optical illusion appears periodically throughout Bird’s text. In Nikko, she depicts herself as being grotesquely out of proportion with the local people and environment when she describes the main thoroughfare as “a doll’s street with small low houses.” Inside the houses, she has the sensation of being like “a bull in a china shop, as if my mere weight must smash through and destroy” (I 101-2). Later, when she stays at a guesthouse in Kurokawa near Niigata, we see a scene redolent of the one where Lewis Carroll’s Alice begins to grow to monstrous proportions inside the Wonderland house. Bird finds herself stuffed into a “suffocating” and implausibly small room “exactly five feet high, which hardly allowed of my standing upright with my hat on” (I 243). A similar scenario occurs later on in volume two, when she visits a teahouse near Kyoto with the “exceptionally tall” missionary John Thomas Gulick. The teahouse has a “miniature garden” and “fairy-like rooms,” and this is the first time Bird has seen a European man in such an environment. Gulick, she says, “seemed to fill the whole room, and to have any number of arms and legs!” This disconcerts her, and she remarks, “I knew that the tea-house people looked at us with disgust” (II 255).
Even if Gulick was taller than average, the question still remains as to why Bird assumed that Japanese onlookers would regard both of them as being so enormously out-of-scale. In terms of physique, Bird herself did not, apparently, stand out that much in Japan. For example, when she visited Rokugo in Akita Prefecture, she managed to attend a funeral wearing a kimono and hood and “escaped all notice” (I 290). Similarly, when she went to a festival in Kuroishi near Aomori, again in a kimono but this time with no head covering, she blended into the crowd and “escaped recognition as a foreigner” (I 371). Some critics might accuse Bird of denigrating the Japanese by portraying them as preternaturally small and of indulging in a chauvinistic Orientalist fantasy in order to magnify her own presence as representative of a colonial power. However, the spectre of enormous westerners lumbering destructively around Japan and provoking revulsion among the local people is hardly flattering. Indeed, Bird’s disgust at her own physicality suggests a serious case of body dysmorphia. A deeper understanding of Bird’s flagrant violation of perspective can be achieved by reading Unbeaten Tracks alongside other key works on Japan written during two decades that followed its publication by authors who also experimented with ideas of size and proportion. These include Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthemum (1887), Rudyard Kipling’s From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches: Letters of Travel (1889), Out of the East: Reveries and Studies in New Japan (1895) and Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life (1896) by Lafcadio Hearn, and the best-selling novella My Japanese Wife (1895) by the largely forgotten travel writer, Clive Holland. In this paper, I will compare Unbeaten Tracks with these works, and suggest that representation of physical size had little to do with creating a realistic impression of Japan, and everything to do with finding ways to talk about the phenomena of neurosis and psychological stress.
Some observers may assert, of course, that Bird and her contemporaries were merely representing actual racial differences in height between Europeans and the Japanese. However, this is a contestable point. In the late nineteenth century, it was not unusual to see people in Europe who, like Isabella Bird, were of a similar height to the average Japanese citizen. Information on average heights from the period is difficult to obtain, since most anthropometric data appears in the form of army records and only represents a fraction of the population; however, available records do give clues as to what was regarded as “normal” male height across cultures. When Japan introduced conscription in 1873, average male height was estimated at 5.015 feet (154 cm) (Mason 177). By 1896, the average height of conscripts in Nagasaki was 156-156.9cm (5'1½") (Shay 189). In France, on the other hand, the mean height of conscripts in 1880 was around 165.4cm (5'5") (Floud 16), while in Britain between 1871 and 1885, army recruits were averaging around 167.05 cm, increasing to 169.88 cm in 1900 (Hatton and Bray 11). However, since Britain had no conscription, recruits might have been self-selecting for greater height. From these figures, the height difference between Japanese and European soldiers seems discernible, but not dramatic. However, many people in Britain did not reach what the army considered to be a “normal” height, because of the impact of poor nutrition and physical or psychological stress on growth.2 Indeed, so many working-class applicants failed to meet the army’s height requirement during the Boer War that it was reduced to 5' (152.4cm) (Vrettos 124) – lower than the 5'1" (154.94cm) minimum for joining the Japanese army (Lu 319). Similarly, World War I saw “Bantam” regiments, with a height minimum of 147 centimeters (4'10"), established for the considerable number of applicants who did not meet the 5'3" (160cm) demanded by the regular army (Brooke 157). To insinuate that all Japanese people were dramatically smaller than Europeans was, therefore, a wild exaggeration.
Recent studies in the history of racial typology have examined the ways in which signs of racial difference that are commonly regarded as “objective,” such as skin colour and body shape, only began to be thought of as such in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. In Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking, Michael Keevak demonstrates how, during the 16th century when Europeans first encountered Japan, “the very concept of colouring had not yet been fixed as a racial marker” (40). Early Jesuit visitors described the Japanese as “white” (28), although later commentators described them variously as white, brown, yellow, tawny, black, olive, “the colour of Africans” and “the colour of lead” (29). Moreover, because skin colour was generally regarded as the product of environmental influences rather than an inherited quality (41), the Japanese upper classes were often described as “white,” while commoners, who worked in the fields, were said to be darker (28-9). However, with the advent of Linnean taxonomy in the late 18th century, observers began to view ethnic groups as distinct entities classifiable according to inherited physical traits. According to Gary Leupp, the first writer to describe the Japanese as “yellow” was Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), botanist and physician at the Dutch trading post of Dejima at Nagasaki, who studied with Linnaeus before embarking on a medical career (77). East Asians were classified as “yellow” not because they were yellow, but because ethnologists wanted a racial category that was neither “white” nor “black.” These colours were chosen for their symbolic associations rather than their accuracy, and by classifying European “races” as “white,” ethnographers were able to imagine themselves as embodying the qualities of purity and light, in a superior position to those who were non-white.
Height is easier to quantify than skin colour. However, prior to the late nineteenth century, descriptions of Japanese stature and build varied dramatically between observers. In 1547 the Portuguese sea captain Jorge Álvarez told Francis Xavier that the Japanese were “of average height, well proportioned, and fair” (Demel and Kowner 47). In the 1690s, the Dutch physician Engelbert Kaempfer described the Shogun’s Chamberlain, Makino Narisada, as “somewhat tall and thin,” with “a long, ordinary, nearly German face” (760). In general, however, he said, the Japanese were “short siz’d, strong, [and] thick-legg’d” (763). The sailor and diarist William Cleveland, who visited Nagasaki 1800 with the ship Massachusetts, remarked that “the Japanese are extremely well built, though not so tall as Europeans they are Stouter & handsome, their complexions rather lighter than the Chinese & their features entirely different” (Leupp 77). In 1837, when the American merchantman the Morrison arrived in Edo Bay in a failed attempt to repatriate seven shipwrecked Japanese mariners, the ship’s doctor Peter Parker said that the population was “above the common stature of Chinese or Europeans.” The ship’s naturalist, Samuel Wells Williams received a completely different impression, and described their stature as “inferior.”3 However, an 1841 volume by M.M. Busk entitled Manners and Customs of the Japanese, which summarized the work of earlier key writers including Thunberg and two other physicians who worked at Dejima, the Germans Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) and Philip Franz Siebold (1796-1866), said that most travellers depicted the Japanese as “well made, strong, alert, and fresh-coloured” (Gill 19).
To most pre-Victorian travellers, therefore, the Japanese were not unusually small. This trend continued through the 1860s and 1870s; indeed, to some observers, height seems not even to have merited a mention. In his well-respected two-volume work The Capital of the Tycoon (1862), the diplomat Rutherford Alcock says nothing about height or any other aspect of Japanese physique, despite also having initially been a doctor by training. Another early diplomatic writer, Christopher Pemberton Hodgson, describes one woman as a “good-looking little person” (217), but refrains from generalizing about the Japanese as a whole. In The Mikado’s Empire (1876), the American missionary and educator William Eliot Griffis remarks that the average height in Japan is five feet, but seems not to find this particularly remarkable, noting that the physique of mountaineers, sailors, fishermen and coolies to be of “the finest” (570). Indeed, the Swiss diplomat Aimé Humbert (1819-1900) was unusual in making a lengthy description of the Japanese physique. Japanese men, he said, averaged five feet one and the women four feet one to four feet three; they were, therefore, “of middling height, very inferior to the men of the Germanic race, but not without some resemblance to the inhabitants of the south-west of the Iberian peninsula” (35). When Bird depicted the Japanese as preternaturally small, therefore, she was not reiterating conventional stereotypes; she may, however, have been establishing some.
There might, of course, have been factors that affected Bird’s sense of proportion, both literally and figuratively. We know that she went to Japan “to recruit [her] health” (vi), that she was carrying chlorodyne (I 165), an over-the-counter medicine containing morphine, chloral and cannabis indica (Parsinnen 34-5), and that she took large quantities of potassium bromide for acute anxiety. Indeed, Kay Chubbock claims that she overdosed on this (6). Bird also suffered from migraines (Kenyon 213). The use of opiates and bromides, as well as conditions such as migraine, psychosis and fever, are all associated with “micropsia,” or “Liliputian hallucinations,” where an individual perceives objects and people to be smaller than they actually are. Micropsia, and its counterpart, macropsia (“Brobdingnagian hallucinations”), where objects seem disproportionately large, are part of a range of perceptual disorders known as “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” (Blom 324-5). While it is impossible to prove that Bird’s descriptions of Japan were influenced by micropsia, it is possible that the experience of such hallucinations provided her with a way of articulating her own feelings of alienation while travelling. Unbeaten Tracks is a deeply neurotic text, and Bird’s descriptions of herself as a conspicuous, larger-than-life creature being pursued, even in small hamlets, by unfeasibly large crowds of small people have a Swiftian aspect. This is particularly evident in Bird’s preoccupation with the grotesque – in her constant references to skin diseases4 and unpleasant “smells”,5 and in her revulsion towards cosmetics and personal grooming, for example, when she sees a woman performing the “tiresome and disgusting process” of blackening her teeth (I 375). Bird also shows evidence of sensory disturbance, in particular misophonia (a strong aversion to specific sounds). After a dinner with Dr. Nozoki in Shinjô, she complains vigorously about his “noisy gulpings, and ... gurgling and drawing in of the breath” (I 276). Later, a concert on traditional Japanese instruments at Ernest Satow’s house left “not a single nerve untortured” (II 209). This neuroticism also emerges in a frequent use of the words “pain” and “painful,” even to describe phenomena not normally thought of in such terms. For example, the streets of Nikko are “painfully clean” (I 102), the sight of child dancers at a festival in Minato, Kubota who performed “painfully well” (I 330), and the shrines near Nara are “painfully numerous” (II 269).
In isolation, Bird’s text, with its distorted perspectives and disturbances, seems eccentric. However, when compared with other writers of the 1880s and 1890s, her work begins to fit into a pattern, particularly in its preoccupation with size and with the neurotic. These writers remark on the size of the Japanese to a much greater extent than their predecessors, the most outrageous being Pierre Loti. In Madame Chrysanthemum, Loti exaggerates the smallness of Japan to such an extent that he criticises himself for making a “sad abuse of the adjective ‘little’,” explaining:
I am quite aware of it, but how can I do otherwise? In describing this country, the temptation is great to use it ten times in every written line. Little, finical, affected, - all Japan is contained, both physically and morally, in these three words. (242)6
Loti’s descriptions of Japanese size are offensively out of scale. For example, in Chapter III, when he is looking for a wife, a go-between introduces him to a number of eligible women. Loti describes them as “absurdly small,” and as resembling marmosets (“ouistitis”7) or “knick-knacks” (my translation, in the original French edition, “bibelot d’étagère” 23). He alleges that his neighbour, Madame Touki, is “the height of an ankle boot” (“haute comme une demi-botte” 82), and when, one evening, Loti visits Nagasaki’s European quarter with his shipmate Yves, Loti describes him being mobbed by “ladies of a doubtful reputation” of about twelve to fifteen years old who “barely reached up to his waist” (93). If Loti’s ostentatious exaggeration is not enough to arouse the reader’s suspicion, the illustration accompanying this passage directly contradicts the text by showing Yves surrounded by girls standing shoulder-height to him – no smaller than French teenagers of an equivalent social class would have been. Other illustrations – corroborated by contemporary photographs – show no great height discrepancy between Loti and the real-life woman on whom Madame Chrysanthemum was modelled, Okane-san.8 This inconsistency should not be surprising. In the preface to Madame Chrysanthemum, Loti clearly warns his readers not to take his statements at face value; the book, he says, is a “preposterous trifle” (6), not a serious travelogue.
Like Unbeaten Tracks, Madame Chrysanthemum is a neurotic text, and its distorted representations of Japan, arguably, say more about the mental state of the narrator than the reality of the people he purports to describe. Throughout the text, Loti gives an overwhelming sense of depression. Nagasaki is not just “small” and “finicking”; it is also “mournful” with its “incessant rain” (43), and he makes frequent use of the words “melancholy” (“mélancolie”) and “sad” (“triste”). It is even possible that Loti was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time. Chrysanthemum was based Loti’s exploits when his ship was docked in Nagasaki, where it had gone in order to give the crew respite during the Tonkin Campaign, a particularly brutal episode in French military history. In 1883, the crew had been involved in a clash with Vietnamese forces during the Battle of Thuận An. The atrocities Loti saw the French commit were so appalling that he exposed them in Le Figaro, endangering his career in the process (Lefêvre 222). At the opening of Chrysanthemum, as the ship is heading towards Nagasaki, Loti feels that he is “a terrible distance” from home. As an antidote to his feelings of alienation, he yearns for somewhere small, safe and intimate where he can retreat into a childlike world. He tells his friend Yves that in Japan he wants to marry “a little yellow-skinned woman…no bigger than a doll” and live with her “in a little paper house” (8). However, when he settles on shore he is disconcerted by Nagasaki, particularly by the contrast between buildings and objects created by people, which are small, and the landscape, which is vast. Nagasaki sprawls up the sides of the mountains surrounding it, and Loti rents a suburban house up a “green hill”, but soon begins to feel the hill “crushing” him “with its towering height.” In bad weather, the “heavy, dark clouds” which hang “lowering” above the hill appear “like a leaden canopy confining us in this unknown spot”, completely out of perspective with his house, which is supposed to be a “tiny corner…of homely Japan” (35).
Loti discovers that the Japanese do have a taste for the miniature; however, this is disturbing rather than comforting. For example, his temporary mother-in-law has built a miniature garden on a hillside, designed specifically to create spatial illusions. It is a “tiny representation of a wild spot,” full of “dwarf” trees. This “perplexes” Loti because it “falsifies the perspective,” and looks like “a real country view seen through a distorted vision out of focus, or through the wrong end of a telescope”. It makes him feel “melancholy”, and gives him “an insurmountable feeling of spleen” (203). In another passage, Loti describes the view down to the city from the hillside and gives the reader a sense of vertigo by juxtaposing the large and the tiny, first expanding on the “marvelous panorama of woods and mountains” then describing “the venerable Japanese quarters of Nagasaki lying confusedly like a black ant-heap, six hundred feet below us” (53). When he climbs down the mountain, he feels as if the city is at the bottom of a “yawning abyss” (66). Loti’s depiction of space is dizzying, and by using perspective to evoke neurotic sensations, he achieves a kind of three-dimensional pathetic fallacy.
Other writers from the 1880s and 90s also distorted perspective as a way of evoking neurosis and anxiety. In From Sea to Sea, Rudyard Kipling describes arriving in Nagasaki and initially finding it “a soothing place for a small man,” because “[n]obody comes to tower over him, and he looks down upon all the women, as is right and proper” (296-7). Like Loti, he wants Japan to be a place where he can escape the adult world of colonial responsibility and access the comforts of childhood. At first glimpse the place seems to be dedicated to children, and “grown-ups exist on sufferance” (316). When Kipling makes a visit to a curiosity shop, however, the “soothing” sensation disappears. The building appears so delicately constructed that he feels “for the first time” that he is “a barbarian, and no true sahib” (297). The shop reminds him of the Chinese cabinet in Mrs. Molesworth’s children’s story The Cuckoo Clock. Like many works of children’s literature from this time, Molesworth’s story plays with perspective by featuring dream episodes where things and people change size dramatically. Griselda, Molesworth’s protagonist, goes to live with two staid elderly aunts who possess a large, old house full of exotic antique objects. One of these, a German cuckoo clock, hangs in the room where Grizelda does her schoolwork, and the aunts advise her to observe the cuckoo and learn the virtues of punctuality and self-discipline. Grizelda chafes at confinement her aunts impose on her, and throws a shoe at the cuckoo when he annoys her with his punctuality. However, the cuckoo is determined to educate and amuse her. At night he shrinks her to his own size, and when she learns to control her impulses, he both allows her into his clock and takes her inside an ornate Chinese cabinet inhabited by figurines of Chinese Mandarins. Kipling is as upset by the perfection embodied by the shopkeeper as Grizelda is by the cuckoo. The shopkeeper is “much too clean and refined for this life here below.” His shop is “unfit for a man to live in until he has been taught a lot of things which I have never learned”, and Kipling feels that the shopkeeper “know[s]” him “for a savage” (320). Aware that he is a “bog trotting Briton” (320), he tries to “console” himself with the idea that he “could kick the place to pieces,” but this merely makes him “feel large and coarse and dirty” (297). Later, he remarks that the neat and tidy Japanese were “a nation to bow down to” (324). “Miniature” Japan here represents tidiness, order and self-control, qualities alien to the clumsy disorder of western modernity, symbolized for Kipling, as for Bird, by his boots, which mark him out as “inferior” and “savage” (320).
By the 1890s, the stereotype of miniature Japan had clearly become a cliché, because it attracted a wry response from the best-selling novelist Clive Holland, who wrote both factual and fictional works about Japan. In Old and New Japan (1907), Holland complained that it was difficult to “disabuse the average Western mind” of the mistaken idea “that everything in Japan is on a small scale” – a notion which was blatantly false, given the national taste for giant statues, temples and battleships (237). Holland’s best-selling novels My Japanese Wife and its sequel Mousmé (1901) feature a neurotic traveller who seeks psychological comfort in Japan and loses all sense of proportion in doing so. However, unlike Loti, Holland’s protagonist finds contentment in Japan, with the woman he marries there. He regards it as an uncomplicated “fairyland,” and eventually abandons England, with its “ugly climate” (34). At the beginning of the book, Cyril, a pampered upper-class aesthete of independent means, is sojourning in Japan, where he meets Hyacinth, the sister of an acquaintance, a girl he refers to as “Mousmé”, the generic name used by Victorian tourists for young Japanese women. Like Bird, Loti and Kipling, Cyril regards Mousmé as a miniature art-object: “a little figure off a tea-caddy” (33); he falls in love with this “radiant, childish being” (32) at first sight, and marries her. Mousmé is described as having “Dresden-china tinted cheeks, and tiny ways,” and as “playing at life, as it always seems…with the dainty grace of Japan, that idealized doll’s house land” (3). Cyril finds Nagasaki the epitome of psychological comfort. Its “pygmy” gardens and miniature scale remind him of his idyllic childhood (109-10), and it is full of “soothing” things; for example, the scent of blossoms on the breeze floating over the “toy-like” fences of gardens (7), the sound of a dancing geisha’s stockinged feet (30), and the “shish-shish” of Mousmé’s step (127). However, Cyril is also a victim of perceptual disturbances. After his first meeting with Mousmé, he goes home alone, and finds that the “tiny rooms” of the house he rents have become “vast.” Afraid of the dark like he was as a child, he spies some “little red-and-blue tortoises painted on the paper panels near the window” and feels as if they are “coming to life and crawling about” (38-9). However, Cyril experiences the greatest degree of visual disturbance not in Japan but in England, where he attempts to return with Mousmé in the second of the two books, and which he describes as a place of “turmoil and stress.” He and Mousmé find England too enormous to handle. Arriving in London, they feel as if the “great city” is “crouching like some huge animal under its pall of smoke, ready to engulf” them (10). They hate the “vast” bedroom of their London hotel, with its “huge brass bed-stead large enough for a giant” (15), as well as “the windows of the huge drapers” with “vast premises” on Oxford Street, and the staring crowds (24). Cyril feels “almost an alien” among his “own people” and eventually the couple retreat back to Japan (208).
Cyril has particular problems gauging human size. In My Japanese Wife, Mousmé is five feet one-and-a-half (127); in the next volume, she somehow increases to five feet three (34). Cyril’s sister, an overbearing, matchmaking socialite referred to as “velly large Lou” (Mousmé 95), also grows and shrinks. Lou upsets Cyril by pushing him onto the London social scene. Despite describing her as a “substantial person” (28), however, Cyril admits that she “was not in reality very big” (27). Indeed, when Lou abandons her social schedule to nurse Mousmé through an illness with “tender solicitude,” Cyril forgets that she is “a big woman” (255.) Once safely domesticised, his sister becomes “no longer ‘velly big Lou’” (258). Human size here is, again, not literal, but relates to the degree of threat a person or place is felt to pose to the neurotic narrator. Interestingly, Lou’s aristocratic husband, also very tall, produces no sense of threat.
The idea that “tiny” Japan offered a psychological refuge from the Brobdignagian urban industrial west acquired some popularity. In Kokoro, Lafcadio Hearn describes Japan as a refuge from modernity. In one passage, he recalls an unsettling daydream he had while living in Tokyo. He had a vision that he was in a “great city” of “the new industrial age” that was “roaring like the sea,” with chasm-like streets “walled up to the sky.” He remarks:
These leagues of palaces, of warehouses, of business structures, of buildings describable and indescribable, are not beautiful, but sinister. One feels depressed by the mere sensation of the enormous life which created them, life without sympathy, of their prodigious manifestation of power, power with-out pity. (15-7)
In contrast, Tokyo, whose buildings were on a more human scale, offers “the peace of a country village” (15).
Fear of western modernity seems, therefore, to have driven some writers to seek life on a smaller scale in Japan. However, it is possible that all these writers were also projecting their own insecurities around body size onto Japan. With the growth, from the 1870s, of anthropometrics in the fields of public health, anthropology, and criminology came the theory that below-average stature correlated to degeneracy.9 Indeed, Isabella Bird’s own publisher, John Murray, also worked with Francis Galton, who, in the 1870s, advocated holding an anthropometric survey of Britain in order to determine whether the nation was improving or degenerating (Szreter 132-3). Galton conflated physical height with an individual’s moral and social value, and hysteria over “degeneration” must have created body-focused anxiety for people who felt they did not conform to prescribed norms. When Bird was a child, doctors pronounced her head to be disproportionately large for her body, and her family believed that she would die young (Wrobel 62). Loti also felt self-conscious about his size. In 1874, he “joined the École Gymnastique at Joinville-le-Pont,” in order, according to Inka Piegsa-Quischotte, to “mak[e] up for his wiry but short stature,” and this eventually led him into the Navy.10 Loti was insensitively caricatured in Vanity Fair magazine by Jean Baptiste Guth (6th June 1895), with disproportionately short legs, an enlarged chest and an outsized head.11 Consciousness of social hostility affected writers’ relationships to their own bodies, as well as other people’s. By criticizing the Japanese physique, Bird and Loti could be employing a kind of compensatory mechanism, deflecting their own bodily anxieties onto the Japanese. Indeed, Bird may be doing this when she comments that Japanese women “look below par, as if the race were wearing out,” and that the men have a “physique [which] is wretched” (I 77): an obvious reference to contemporary notions of the association between physical smallness and degeneration.
Paradoxically, Bird and Loti also display an admiration of the physical feats achieved by the Japanese, despite their supposed “smallness.” Bird repeatedly shows how the apparently “wretched” Japanese body performs superhuman feats. She describes, for example, how baggage carriers and merchants routinely carry loads of between 50 and 120 pounds over great distances (I 249), and how a “coolie” carried her on his “tattooed shoulders” through the shallows of the Tone River (I 94). Although Ito, her guide, is “4 feet 10 inches in height” and “bandy-legged,” he is “well proportioned and strong-looking” (I 49), and his “cleverness in travelling and ... singular intelligence ... surprise” her “daily” (I 155). Bird contrasts the Japanese, who look weak but who demonstrate great physical and mental strength, with the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido as physically “grand looking,” but as “stupid,” and doomed to extinction (45). Here, Bird engages with contemporary debates on size and degeneracy, challenging the anthropological notion that mental enervation correlated with below-average growth. Like commentators such as Galton, however, she confuses the effects of deprivation (in the form of centuries of discrimination by the government in mainland Japan) with innate racial degeneracy, and merely succeeds in shifting the abjection placed on herself over to another innocent party.
Pierre Loti also re-addresses his attitude to the Japanese physique in the sequel to Madame Chrysanthemum, La Troisième Jeunesse de Madame Prune (1905). Madame Prune, which presents Japan in a much more sympathetic light than its predecessor, appeared during the Russo-Japanese war. With a string of surprise victories against a power that had assumed that they were “feminine, weak, and racially inferior” (Kowner 2001, 20), Japanese soldiers gained a reputation in Europe for pluckiness and determination. In his introduction to Madame Prune, Loti discusses the Japanese assaults on Port Arthur and Mukden, and pays “homage ... deeply and seriously” to the “courage” of the “heroic little yellow soldiers” who fell (1). Like many journalists of his time, Loti celebrates the Japanese overcoming the stereotype of being small, weakly and unhealthy, and although he employs the insulting epithet “yellow”, he dissociates it from its traditional connotations of cowardice and ill health.12
Body anxiety could also engender an inverted prejudice against the large, a phenomenon which can be seen in the work not only of Clive Holland, but also Lafcadio Hearn. According to Henry Goodman, Hearn was self-conscious about his own physique, feeling “marked off from the rest of mankind by his small stature, his strange appearance and...his uneven eyes, one blind, marbled and sunken in his skull” (Hearn and Goodman 6). Louis Allen and Jean Wilson say that Hearn, at 5'3", “felt he blended well” in Japan. In emigrating there from the west, he had, he said, “escaped from the ‘pressure of ten atmospheres into a perfectly normal medium’” (296). Hearn depicted the western body as grotesquely out-of-proportion. Despite seeming “superior” by virtue of its size, it was, he claimed, doomed because of the sheer quantity of resources needed to feed it. In Out of the East (1895), he contrasted the compact, efficient East Asian body, which was, supposedly, able to survive on nothing more than a handful of rice a day, to the western body, which needed much more food to sustain it. Westerners were like dinosaurs and other “races of huge and wonderful creatures, now extinct.” In times of environmental crisis, these creatures had “perished simply by reason of the enormous costliness of their structures,” and in the future the same would happen to the western races. East Asians, “much less expensive for Nature to support,” would, meanwhile, survive (242).
Bird’s technique of using distorted perspective to express psychological distress was, therefore, also echoed – perhaps copied – by other writers to express a whole range of anxieties and insecurities; indeed, it became something of a cliché. As theorists of culture shock have demonstrated, travelling brings about a variety of psychological challenges, and perhaps it is, therefore, inevitable that travel writers should explore ideas of mental upheaval and neurosis. But why did Japan in particular become a focus of so much neurosis? The western “rediscovery” of Japan, and the establishment of western narratives about the country, coincided with the emergence of psychology as a recognised medical discipline, and with new ideas of neurosis entering public debate. In the late 1870s, neurosis was regarded as a mostly female affliction, and perhaps Bird, at that time, felt freer to detail her subjective responses to her surroundings than male counterparts. Just as Unbeaten Tracks appeared, psychologists were beginning to recognise that men also suffered from psychological disorders, and perhaps a growing acceptance of this led them to emulate Bird’s neuroticism. Moreover, some of the most prominent psychological theories of 1870s and 1880s focused on pathologies in the perception of space and size. In 1871, Karl Otto Westphal coined the term “agoraphobia” to indicate a fear of wide spaces, large buildings and crowds. Agoraphobia featured symptoms such as anxiety, palpitations and vertigo, and its counterpart “claustrophobia” appeared shortly after. Westphal and his followers, such as Georg Simmel, suggested that the unnatural over-stimulation caused by modern life, with its noise, pace, and intensive contact with large numbers of strangers caused undue “nervous stimulation” which resulted in “hyperaesthesia”; a condition in which “every direct and energetic disturbance causes pain” (Reuter 29). Unbeaten Tracks, with its enormous crowds and claustrophobic interiors, surely qualifies as a hyperaesthetic text. Japan became popular as a destination for both professional and amateur travelers as this explosion of interest in psychological disturbance arose, and this coincidence may be another reason why it became a venue for the study of the neurotic.
However, size distortion was also an established technique used among Japanese artists, and I would argue that Bird and her successors were, consciously or unconsciously, translating proportion-distorting techniques which they had seen used in Japanese art into their writing in order to evoke the neuroses that psychologists were exploring. By experimenting with ideas of size and perspective they performed a kind of “transmedialization” – transferring techniques from one artistic medium to another in order to evoke psychological and physical sensations that still had no vocabulary to describe them. Contemporary art critics were beginning to identify the perspective-distorting techniques used by Japanese artists for emotional effect, rather than dismissing their work as poorly executed. For example, the art writer Marcus Huish explained that reverse perspective was often used in landscapes. In reverse perspective, objects close to the viewer would be made to appear smaller than conventional perspective would dictate, while objects further away would appear disproportionately large. This would emphasise the enormous scale of the landscape (8). A good example is Hokusai’s Kudan Ushigafuchi, where an exaggeratedly small man pushes a cart in the foreground, making the prospect of his climbing the hill in front of him more daunting than if natural perspective had been used. Another common form of non-linear perspective was axonometric perspective, often used in engineering diagrams. Here, lines which would normally project away from the viewer towards a vanishing point remain parallel to each other, and the viewer has the sensation of being lifted above the scene depicted. In Kawanabe Kyōsai’s Fashionable Battle of Frogs, this technique allows us to see each soldier in individual detail, creating a sense of action and horror.
Western writers remarked that these techniques were designed for their psychological impact. The critic Sadakichi Hartmann said the aim of distorted perspective was to produce “a commentary on some pictorial vision, which sets the mind to think and dream” (84), while both Pierre Loti remarked that “falsifying … perspective” added “sentiment” – an emotional and sensory dimension - to artworks (Chrysanthemum 299-300). Clive Holland also discussed the Japanese use of perspective, explaining how Japanese interior design used space and size to make rooms seem larger. The scarcity of furniture, the practice of sitting on the floor and observing a room from a lower vantage point, and the use of smaller utensils than in the west, he said, lent an impression of great space to a “comparatively tiny apartment” (Old and New 238). In My Japanese Wife, Holland goes further by demonstrating how perspective can also be distorted through rhetoric. When Cyril’s friend Kotmatsu describes England to Mousmé, his remarks are “very funny” and “fairly correct”, but, according to Cyril, “lacking in the most elementary perspective”. This is “not because his perceptive faculties are lacking”; it is merely “that they follow the national groove, the worship of the minute to the exclusion of broader effects” (184).
Indeed, it would be surprising if art had not impacted on visitors’ perceptions of Japan. With photographic depictions of the country still relatively rare, visual impressions of Japan which they would have grown up with were probably from decorative items designed for the export market, typically carrying images of miniature people in out-of-perspective landscapes. These images must have conditioned expectations of what the “real” Japan would look like. Newly disembarked visitors, in the honeymoon euphoria of early culture shock apparently imagined they were seeing similar views to those they had seen on these products. Thus, at the beginning of her visit, Bird feels that the Shinbashi crowd resemble “pictures on trays, fans, and tea-pots” (I 29), and Loti recognizes the “tiny, artificial, fictitious world” of Nagasaki “from ... paintings on lacquer and porcelains” (37). Obviously the euphoria wore off and reality set in. While this was happening, visitors would also have been exposed to art that was not designed for export, and to more sophisticated and sometimes disturbing renditions of perspective that would have presented a forcible contrast to the images of Japan they had seen at home. With art playing so crucial a part in the formation of expectations about the country, it was inevitable that they would find their way into literature.
It would be easy to dismiss Bird and her proportion-distorting successors as self-aggrandizing imperialists desperate to belittle up-and-coming Meiji Japan and bolster their own cultural superiority. But these writers’ sense of body dysmorphia – Bird’s fear of being a “Bull in a China Shop,” Kipling’s sense of shame and awkwardness, and Hearn’s prediction that westerners were destined to be the next dinosaurs - clearly shows that “bigger” was not analogous to “better.” The Victorians had learned, through Japanese art, that the non-literal representation of size could be used to evoke the felt experience of being in challenging places and unfamiliar spaces more than literal depictions were able to do, and perhaps for the neurotic travellers of the 1880s and 1890s, this also became the ultimate way to convey the sensation of being in a place where one literally, and figuratively, does not “fit in.”
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