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Article 9 in 2008
First published in ejcjs on 22 December 2008

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Ito and Isabella in the Contact Zone

Interpretation, Mimicry and Unbeaten Tracks in Japan


Andrew Elliott

PhD Candidate
Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies
Kyoto University

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This paper examines Isabella Bird's interaction with Ito, her interpreter-guide, in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880/1885). Concentrating on the textual manifestation of their relationship, and the possibilities for its theoreticisation, I initially consider Ito as first written: obedient and useful, an often-unstated but nevertheless constant presence. Then, I shift perspectives, using the work of Homi Bhabha and others on translation and mimicry as a lens through which to read the text against the grain, arguing that the ambivalence of Ito's role as interpreter (a 'silent-speaker') works to challenge authorial and narratorial power. Finally, I broaden the discussion in order to suggest that, though the text may attempt to contain Ito, the heterogeneous identities he has since appropriated in commentary and rewritings testify to the impossibility, not only of his, but of all determinate meaning.

Key Words: Colonial mimicry; guides; Isabella Bird; Ito; translation; travel writing on Japan; Victorian women travellers


The Victorian traveller/writer Isabella Bird (1831-1904) arrived in Yokohama in May 1878. After preparations and some sightseeing in Tokyo, she went north by rickshaw, on horse, and on foot, first visiting Nikko and Niigata. Then she travelled through Tōhoku, eventually crossing the Tsugaru Strait to Hokkaido ('Yezo'), where she carried out ethnological research in certain Ainu villages, before returning by ship to Tokyo. After a brief recuperation at the British Legation, she began her second trip in Japan, from Kobe to Ise and back. On Christmas Eve, she boarded the SS Volga in Yokohama, sailing first to Hong Kong, then Malaya. In May 1879, she arrived back in Britain. The narrative which these travels produced, largely from letters sent back to Bird's sister, was published by John Murray, first as a two volume edition in 1880, then five years later as a one volume abridged or 'popular' version which excised the Kansai letters. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An Account of Travels in the Interior Including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikkō and Isé, as the first edition was titled (the popular edition erased 'and Isé'), was Bird's fourth book of travels and also, judged by royalties, her most successful (Kanasaka 1995).

On a range of levels, this popularity has continued into the present day: of all Bird's works, Unbeaten Tracks has attracted the most critical attention (Bach 1995; Kröller 1990; Nootbear 2003; Park 2002; Saito and Takahata 2004). Furthermore, if the amount of recent republications can be taken as evidence, it still enjoys a large readership: there are now countless versions of the text available, many of which are cheap reprints of a marketable book out of copyright (Cosimo Classics, The Echo Library, Long Riders Guild Press etc.), others by more respected publishing houses (Ganesha, Tuttle, Virago). Also, Bird's route north has been retraced by modern-day travellers, producing new travel texts such as Evelyn Kaye's Adventures in Japan (2000) and Kanasaka Kiyonori's photographic exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, In the Footsteps of Isabella Bird: Adventures in Twin Time Travel (2005).[1]

In Japan, there has been a Heibonsha translation of the popular edition since 1973, while the missing Kansai letters are now available in a new translation of the first edition by Yoshodo (2002); Heibonsha also publishes a reading guide entitled Isabella Bird no 'Nihon okuchi kikō' o yomu. On the popular social networking website, Mixi, there is a small community dedicated to Isabella Bird whose focus so far has almost entirely been Unbeaten Tracks. And in 2005, Bird's travelogue was honoured with a fictionalised retelling by Nakajima Kyōko[2] called Itō no koi.

As its title suggests, Nakajima's text concentrates on the relationship between Bird and Ito, the guide and interpreter who accompanied her from Tokyo to Yezo, not only rewriting the story from the latter's perspective but also imagining an intimacy that the original text may or may not, depending on your reading, support. What is certain is that, in its interest in Ito, the novel participates in a long running tradition. For, though Bird bids him farewell in Hakodate, mentioning him but once near Ise in the two volume edition, when she wishes he was there to assist with her baggage (Bird 1880 II: 256), what has followed can hardly be called silence. He reappeared as the guide of Isabella Bird in William Caine Sproston's A Trip Around the World in 1887-8 (1888) and Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore's Jinrikisha Days in Japan (1891). More recently, Patt Barr took note of this post-Bird career for Ito as guide and interpreter in Nikko (1968: 99); while Donald Richie read their relationship as the first of note to be recorded in the history of contact between Japan and the West (1994: 45). Critics have alluded to the very mention by name of her interpreter as evidence of Bird's difference from other western travellers (Park 2002); introduced Ito as a sign of rhetorical tensions within the text (Kröller 1990)[3]; or concentrated on drawing the links between the real Itō Tsurukichi and the Ito written by Isabella Bird, revealing photographs and advertisements for Kaiyūsha Licensed Guide Association (Kanasaka 2000). Rather than directly and completely signifying the guide of Unbeaten Tracks, I argue that these further traces have a more complicated relationship to the text than Kanasaka's titular sunawachi ('namely') perhaps suggests.

My predominant use of the spelling 'Ito', in preference to the transliteration 'Itō', is thus quite deliberate, wishing as I do in what follows to read Bird and her guide's textual relationship in terms of what it reveals about the process of interpretation (as 'translation' and also 'meaning') and, more obliquely, British (western)-Japanese relations. In both cases, it is the representation of Ito and, via him, Japan in terms of hybridity or, said differently, ambivalence which interests me, especially as they relate to Homi Bhabha's work on colonial mimicry and its destabilizing potential. These terms will all be explored in more detail below. The important question of whether Japan, in this sense, is colonial or not has been addressed previously (Minear 1980); similarly, I make no claims for a precise parallel between British India, for example, and Meiji Japan, but would nevertheless argue that certain post-colonial theory can provide a productive methodology for a nuanced thinking about power relations between Japan and the west, and their effect on the formation of identity, both on the national and the individual level. In addition, a more recent wave of criticism offers a way to eschew the formulaic binarism of colonised/coloniser, master/servant, or indeed east/west, especially important in the light of twentieth-century historical events and the continuing frustrations of much western writing to satisfactorily fix Japan within just such a framework.

Though my chief concern here is a close reading of the popular edition of Unbeaten Tracks, I thus take into account work by Kanasaka, and Saito and Takahata that aims to provide a 'real' background to Bird's narrative; and, furthermore, continue to reference where appropriate those other texts which have swept up Ito, to quote Foucault's 1972 preface to Histoire de la Folie, in 'an endless play of repetitions,' doubling "him" with commentary and retelling (cited Eribon 1991:124). For I would also like to maintain a sense of connection, as this long contextualizing introduction has hopefully suggested, to a space outside of the primary text itself in which writing on Bird, if not Bird's writing, still follows – re-tracing, re-inscribing, or perhaps only repeating – the route of Isabella and Ito.

'He … has entered into my wishes': Ito as Servant-Interpreter

After noting the necessity of interpreter-guides for travels by westerners outside of the Christian, English-speaking world, Kanasaka makes a comparison between Bird's travels in Japan and those elsewhere that argues for Ito's (or, precisely, Itō's) importance. Without Itō, he suggests, it is unlikely that her travels in Hokkaido would have succeeded, and without her travels in Hokkaido Bird's reputation would not have been so secure, so early (Kanasaka 2000: 22). Considering Kanasaka's task of recovering Itō Tsurukichi, the possible charge that this interpretation reduces Itō to the level of a utility for Bird can in no way be maintained. Nevertheless, an assessment of value from the perspective of western traveller often risks just this, obscuring Itō (or Upa in Hawaii, or Hadji in Persia etc.) behind the stock figure of an interpreter-guide who serves purely as conduit between subject (traveller) and object (country), a facilitator for the travels.

As suggested by the praise for Ito quoted above (Bird 2000: 257) and the following scene, in which he first appears for interview, this is an understanding of Ito's role that Unbeaten Tracks tries hard to maintain:

However, when I had nearly made up my mind in [the previous candidate's] favour, a creature appeared without any recommendation at all ... He is only eighteen, but this is equivalent to twenty-three or twenty-four with us, and only 4 feet 10 inches in height, but, though bandy-legged, is well proportioned and strong-looking. He has a round and singularly plain face, good teeth, much elongated eyes and the heavy droop of his eyelids almost caricatures the usual Japanese peculiarity. He is the most stupid-looking Japanese that I have seen ... I suspected and disliked the boy. (19-20)

Named only later, Ito's position in relation to Bird is implied by the use of 'boy.' The attention to his body, and the term 'creature' further distances him, as does the chapter heading, 'First Impressions of Ito' (17) which connects this description with other, similarly objectifying passages such as 'First View of Japan' (1) and 'First Impressions of Tôkiyô' (11). And, Eve-Marie Kröller continues, the placing of Ito's age within a European context naturalizes what is unknown and thereby threatening. Subsequently, the gaze roams over his body, making value judgements upon his potential efficacy: though 'bandy-legged' he is 'strong-looking.' Then, the text shifts from the physical to the mental, making a phrenological statement upon his likely intelligence and character (Kröller 1990: 92).

The sense of suspicion that concludes Bird's appraisal gradually eases as Ito proves to be a capable (Bird 2000: 20, 85) and dependable (36, 50, 176) 'servant interpreter' (18). Just as importantly, Bird is able to assert her authority over him, or so it seems at first. Thus she persuades him to change his headwear, a small act no doubt but one that is described with a certain amount of satisfaction: '… and I succeeded in getting Ito out of his obnoxious black wide-awake into a basin-shaped hat like mine' (85).

Importantly, in that Ito is figured symbolically as a representative of Japan ('caricatures the usual national peculiarity'; also 260), such moments of asserted power over her guide become possible to read analogously in terms of Bird's relationship to Japan. Thus Bird's decision to exhibit her English to the crowd in Numa by giving orders to Ito in public (136), a very spectacular form of discipline that, as I will explore later, speaks of non-panoptical modes of control; or the following scene, in which Bird attempts to navigate the Omono-gawa:

Firmness in travelling is nowhere more necessary than in Japan. I decided some time ago, from Mr. Brunton's map, that the Omono must be navigable from Shingoji, and a week ago told Ito to inquire about it, but at each place difficulties have been started .... I saw in the distance a merchandise boat going down, and told Ito I should go that way and no other .... Lastly, they said there was no boat, but on my saying that I would send ten miles for one, a small, flat-bottomed scow was produced by the Transport Agent, into which Ito, the luggage, and myself accurately fitted. (169-70)

This is a battle of wills between two opposing forces. On one side, there is Bird, confident after a month of travels, and 'Mr. Brunton's map,' symbol of western geographical knowledge. On the other, the Transport Agent and the Japanese landscape itself. Ito is associated with the latter and, via her ability to order him, Bird's eventual success in ordering the scene appropriately is predicted; whether 'too much water' or 'too little,' 'boats broken to pieces' or 'no boat' at all, both Japanese officialdom and Japanese environment are figured as obstacles which will be surmounted. As in Numa, it is through language – the spoken word – that this battle is fought; to what extent this can be read as verbal violence is uncertain, but certainly the locus of Bird's power here, as was often said about women, is in her speech acts (Franey 2003: Chapter 5). Thus the importance of her verbal orders to Ito ('told ... told) and the subsequent victory via the spoken word over the Transport Agent: 'they said ... but on my saying.' Her 'firmness' with Ito is symbolic of the 'firmness' necessary to complete her journey through the Japanese interior.

This ability to control Ito is made much of in the text, especially in terms of the 'squeeze,' the practice of one's servant taking a cut of all transactions. Bird is warned of it in Tokyo (22), sees it for the first time in Yumoto (71), and returns to it again in each of Unbeaten Track's long passages on Ito. After praising his skills as a 'cook, laundryman, and general attendant, as well as courier and interpreter,' Bird notes that 'I am trying to manage him, because I saw that he meant to manage me, specially in the matter of "squeezes"' (95-6; also 177). As in the scene above, Bird successfully pits herself against her guide, deliberately choosing to use the Land Transport Company, 'much against Ito's wishes,' because it will hamper his ability to extract 'squeezes' from farmers along the way (86).

Thus the image of Ito that emerges in such passages is of a capable, dependable 'boy,' a servant over whom Bird is able, from an early point, to gain control; later, he can be used to display her authority. This assessment of Ito is an assessment from the perspective of Bird and it is supported by the text's relative silence about him. Aside from scenes in which he and Bird directly converse, Ito says very little. In effect he is subsumed by the text, his actual absences from Bird's side, the first of which comes almost two-hundred pages into the popular edition, striking because of what they reveal about all the other scenes, scenes in which he is clearly present but unmentioned: '... and his absence was like the loss of one of my senses' (183). The simile implies much about the necessity and the expectations of his role. At times, the Crusoe-esque nature of Bird's power over Ito seems to corroborate the suggestion that all such travel texts, in their desire to replicate the paradigmatic master/servant relationship, refer back to Defoe's narrative (Lawrence 1994: 24). At other times, his erasure from the text speaks of the ideal interpreter, and a concomitant desire for ideal exchange: this [Ito], simultaneously present/not-present, is a perfect conduit between Bird and Japan. In both of these formulations, Ito is valorised, much as in the first impressions scene, based on his utility to Bird.

Ironically, considering the focus of the story, it is this version of Ito/Itō that is the dominant one in Nakajima's novel. Telling of his burgeoning love for Bird, one of the final, climatic scenes of the novel imagines Itō boarding the SS Volga in Yokohama. He surprises Bird on deck, and over the course of some meetings in her cabin confesses his feelings. Then, in a move that brings to mind Friday's willing forfeiture of his life to Crusoe (Defoe 1965: 209), Itō says he will follow her everywhere, be her servant (geboku) forever. Finally, tragically, learning of Bird's refusal to allow him to return with her to Britain, Itō kneels (hizamazuku) before her, less a gesture of romance – unless it is the romance between master/slave so prevalent in many colonial fantasies – than an apt symbol of their relationship as described so far. In short, though focusing on Itō's imaginary diary, the text circles around Bird; it is her presence, domineering, queen-like, that structures the novel, and it is an image of her that remains upon finishing (Nakajima 2005: 249-62). It is, I think, a missed opportunity, not only to imagine a truly subversive rewriting of Unbeaten Tracks from Ito's perspective, similar perhaps to that managed for Jane Eyre in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), but also to tease out and expand upon the more challenging aspects of Ito that can, clearly and not so clearly, be read in Unbeaten Tracks.

Challenge in Unbeaten Tracks: Ito as Silent-Speaker

In arguing that the act of translation is never complete, that instead it produces a 'tense "space-in-between"' (1999: 4), Duncan and Gregory offer a way to read Bird's narrative against the grain, disclosing as illusionary the notion of interpretation as the unbroken transmission of absolute meaning, and furthermore revealing the lie to Ito's erased presence. This ambivalence in Unbeaten Tracks' representation of the servant-interpreter brings to mind Lord Macaulay's famous call for a 'class [of] interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in taste' (1835). According to this formulation, British power in India was predicated on a deliberately partial reform of the colonial subject that Homi Bhabha has described in terms of 'almost the same, but not quite …. Almost the same but not white' (1994: 122-8). Bird's attempted refashioning of her guide's manners and dress (while maintaining a strict sense of racial difference) suggests that Bhabha's play upon Macaulay is not without direct relevance here. Nevertheless, my focus on Ito's role as an interpreter calls for a slight rewording. At the risk, then, of doing away with much of its pithiness, I would rephrase Bhabha's line to 'always there, but not quite' or, to expand the analogy further and add my own term, silent-but-speaking/speaking-but-silent (silent-speaking). By this I mean that, in a similar process to that at work in Macaulay's 'Minute,' through its simultaneous desire for and denial of the interpreter, the text produces Ito in terms of a hybrid between-space.

Kanasaka's research on Itō Tsurukichi, and that by Saito Shōichi and Takahata Miyoko on Japanese travellers/writers such as Furukawa Koshōken and Yoshida Shōin[4], gesture towards this aporia and encourage one to think about the relationship between Bird and Japan in terms of 'contact zone,' the term that Mary Pratt coined from linguistics in order to foreground 'the interactive dimensions of … encounter' and treat relations between 'travelers and "travellees" … in terms of copresence' (1992: 7). This perspective makes it difficult, not only to deny Ito, but also to support the concept of unidirectional power which the text, via this erasure, attempts to construct. Again, Bhabha's work on the ambivalence of colonial discourse may prove of use: though intended to support British power and its transmission outward or downward, the hybridisation implicit in Macaulay's envisaged 'class [of] interpreters' results in a form of mimicry that is both resemblance, as (partially) desired, and, in an ironic reversal, parodic, potentially mocking or menacing the authority in whose name it is designed to function:

… in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference …. Mimicry is, thus, the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation, and discipline, which "appropriates" the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which coheres the dominant strategic function of colonial power, intensifies surveillance, and poses an immanent threat to both "normalized" knowledges and disciplinary powers. (Bhabha 2003: 212)

Because of its analogous hybridity, this 'double articulation' – of service and disservice – is also immanent in the textual representation of Ito as interpreter, as a return to the issue of the squeeze will show.

The squeeze was only possible because of the traveller's all-but-insurmountable, should they be a short-term visitor, deficiency: their lack of Japanese and the resulting inability to communicate directly with shopkeepers and yadoya owners. For one's interpreter to engage in squeezing was then a direct upset of the ideal master/servant power relationship in whose image the text tries to construct Bird and Ito's relationship; not specifically for the money taken, but because it is a use of language ability, supposed to be at the service (silently, behind the scenes) of the traveller, to directly deceive (silently, behind the scenes) the traveller. The control over language, the sharp tongue, upon which power is often figured to rest, is thus turned back against the 'master.'

Furthermore, the image of the squeeze draws attention to a deeper problem with narrative authority. For if the traveller lacks the language which would allow him/her to avoid being cheated, then s/he also lacks the language by which his/her authority is so often asserted, as in the scene at the river cited above. The text, in erasing the interpreter's presence and reporting much of the dialogue as if it was directly between Bird and others, tries hard to conceal this fact. Yet, reinsert Ito into such scenes and the question of who is really in control becomes a little more difficult to answer, a little more ambiguous. Thus to rewrite: 'Lastly, they said there was no boat, but on [Ito] saying that [he] would send ten miles for one, a small, flat-bottomed scow was produced.'

Similar techniques for understanding subversion could be applied to almost any nineteenth-century travel text simply because so few disclose the figure of the interpreter-guide, just as so few admit the process of translation (both linguistic and cultural) that is central to travel literature. Why Unbeaten Tracks is exceptional, as perhaps the critical, biographic and novelistic interest attests, is the fact that Ito, in contrast to the guides of many of Bird's other narratives, quite directly inserts himself into the text in unexpected ways.

The first occasion of note is soon after leaving Nikko. So far, Ito has proved dependable, capable and, if at times his attempts to squeeze have threatened her authority, she has at least just asserted her ability to 'manage' him.

Our manners, eyes, and modes of eating appear simply odious to him. He delights in retelling stories of the bad manners of Englishmen, describes them as "roaring out ohio to every one on the road," frightening the tea-house nymphs, kicking or slapping their coolies, stamping over white mats in muddy boots, acting generally like ill-bred Satyrs, exciting an ill-concealed hatred in simple country districts, and bringing themselves and their country into contempt and ridicule [1]. He is very anxious about my good behaviour, and as I am equally anxious to be courteous everywhere in Japanese fashion, and not to violate the general rules of Japanese etiquette, I take his suggestions as to what I ought to do and avoid in very good part, and my bows are growing more profound every day! (Bird 2000: 96)

Here, then, is a mimicry that has exceeded itself and become mockery; similarly, Ito seems to have overstepped the bounds of what is expected from an interpreter, that silent-speaker supposedly at their master's beck and call. In such scenes, he becomes a counter-presence and a counter-voice to that of the narrator-traveller, undercutting English superiority and Bird's authority. The real clue to his challenge lies not, of course, in what is said, at least not directly; for ostensibly, the narrator and Ito are in accord: 'He is very anxious ... I am equally anxious.' One hint is in the exclamation mark at the end of the citation, a nervous supplement to the conversation itself which is aimed directly at the English reader: in attempting to produce ironic detachment (Kröller 1990: 92) it reveals the lack thereof. Another is in the footnote ([1]): 'This can only be true of the behaviour of the lowest excursionists from the Treaty Ports' (Bird 2000: 96). Again directed at the reader, the footnote, used by Bird on other occasions to add references, or comment on the travels with the perspective and authority of hindsight, demands to be taken seriously. Where the text may announce its subjectivity, the footnote is tied to a supposedly objective editorial power; where the text is concerned with the particularity of the present, the footnote speaks from a non-specific time and space in which everything seems visible. That Ito's comments necessitate a footnote thus suggests something of their real threat; they are an excess, a slippage that cannot be contained in the writing-up alone.

A more obvious example of the ways in which challenge can be read through Ito begins when Bird arrives in the village of Shingoji, near Kubota, and is forced to retreat into her room to escape the crowd outside. Yet, upon waking later that night, she finds about forty of the villagers staring at her, having removed the shoji to get a better look. After sending Ito to the police in order to have them dispersed, one of the officers enters her room so as to, according to Bird, 'have a privileged stare at me' (Bird 2000: 168). Again, as in Numa, it could be argued that Bird attempts to transform the potentially threatening experience of being seen – in the passive – into an active staged exhibition of her authority as westerner travelling in an interior space previously unknown: 'The policeman said that the people had never seen a foreigner.'

These scenes exemplify Bhabha's postcolonial reworking of Foucault's seminal work on surveillance and disciplinary power, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison (1975). In that the (cultural, racial, administrative) discriminatory practices of colonial authority disallow a 'stable unitary assumption of collectivity' (1994: 158), Bhabha suggests that colonial power cannot operate through transparency, the mere fact of things or people being seen in the immediate collective gaze best typified in Jeremy Bentham's eighteenth-century prison design; the implications of this he explores in some depth. More importantly for my present purposes, a further distinction from this unseen panoptical gaze is found in the way the exhibition of the highly individuated "monarchical" body continues to function within a colonial setting as confirmation of power; thus Bird in Numa and Shingoji. Yet, conversely, such passages also reveal the extent to which the urge to display is founded on fears of disempowerment – the preoccupation with security, according to Franz Fanon, demands the colonialist 'remind the native out loud that there he alone is master' (cited Bhabha 1994: 166); and hint at even greater problems with exhibition – the constant possibility that it is read counter to intentions, for example, or its easy distortion into parody. Note the response of Bird's guide to the crowd of spectators in Shingoji: 'Ito said he could make a yen a day by showing them!' (Bird 2000: 168). In pre-empting the chapter-closing remark cited above, Ito unsettles it, challenging the efficacy of Bird's defensive strategies. On the face of it, of course, he is talking about Bird's camp bed and mosquito net, in which the police also show interest, and the exclamation mark can again be interpreted as an attempt to inject irony. Yet, read comparatively with a later scene in which Bird is mistaken for a show-animal, it becomes possible to understand the remark also in reference to Bird herself:

The boy said that they thought that Ito was a monkey-player, i.e. the keeper of a monkey theatre, I, a big ape, and the poles of my bed the scaffolding of the stage! (192)

Rich though such passages are in interpretative possibilities, there are just two main elements I wish to draw attention to here. Firstly, that both scenes focus attention on Bird's canvas bed ('more important than all else,' Bird 2000: 37) and net, articles of luggage that respectively raise her from the tatami and its fleas and shield her from mosquitoes, protecting her against bites (haematic mixing?), and marking her difference from Japanese and other European travellers. In sardonically refiguring these objects as pantomimic props, the effect of their display at all other moments in the text is made disturbingly interdeterminate. Secondly, that the comment by the Japanese boy is a reversal, not only of the relative positions of Bird and Ito, but also the Darwinian simian metaphor used in Unbeaten Tracks to dismiss Japanese in European clothing and common in western discourse on Japan from the nineteenth century and up to the end of WWII (Littlewood 1996: Chapter 2).

Thus the correlation made between Ito and Japan can be seen to work both ways: insomuch as Bird's imagined control over her guide projects an analogous power over the country in which she travels, then Ito's contestation of her authority is emblematic of western anxieties about Japan and its threat. Much of this unease has centred on problems of categorisation which, though they do surface in sixteenth-century European accounts, seemed to gain added pertinency with the reforms that followed the Meiji Restoration. In short, following Marilyn Ivy (1995: 7), it can be suggested that Japan's gradually intensifying challenge to western dominance from the late nineteenth century onwards seems to embody much about mimicry and fears of its menace: the purchase by Japanese entrepreneurs of their own pearling luggers in north Australia (Denoon 1999: 559) or property in California (Littlewood 1996: 195); the reiterated derision then anxiety about Japanese manufacture of 'western' goods that, though often seen in contemporary travel texts, perhaps climaxed in the 1980s, when Japan became the world's largest automobile producer; the rise of Japan as a colonial power in Asia, and the shock when Singapore fell; or the continuing prevalence in western writing about Japan of tropes of contradiction, inscrutability, and topsy-turvydom – all attempts, it can be argued, to come to terms with the problematic bluntly raised by Rudyard Kipling upon first visit: 'the Japanese isn't a native, and he isn't a sahib either' (1988: 54).

Certainly, it is within this context that I read Ito's continuing subversion of the text's conceptual and rhetorical structures. His inter-jections (Latin, between-thrown) into the narrative, both literal and metaphoric, can be read as a breach of boundaries – the supposedly silent interpreter, in speaking, is 'thrown' into the space between subject/object, destabilising the either/or binary logic of colonial and, often, travel cultures. Or, alternatively, as a return of that which was necessarily repressed in order for the text to constitute itself; as an excess that spills out beyond Unbeaten Tracks itself.

Some Concluding Remarks: Unbeaten Tracks in the Contact Zone

Attempting to explain the relationship of Ito and Isabella, Kröller (1990) suggests that Bird increasingly loses her detachment as the account progresses, citing the second and final digression upon Ito as a key moment in this process (Bird 2000: 179). Certainly, there is far more of his dialogue directly reported, and his ironic critiques of English travellers in Japan are allowed to pass without either judgement or supplement. The parting at Hakodate, post-Yezo, suggests a similar story of cultural-crossing and friendships made: 'I have parted with Ito finally to-day, with great regret … I miss him already' (341).

Yet in the index, Kröller concludes, there is a withdrawal from the full implications of this relationship, as Ito is reduced to an almost de-individuated specimen whose entries predominantly register his utility ('a zealous student … an apt pupil) or repeat character flaws which Bird's first impression had seemed to predict ('personal vanity … surliness … delinquency,' Bird 1905: 331). In short, Ito is contained, his boundary lines delimited, his identity as 'native' guide conclusively defined; this in turn enables the reestablishment of narratorial authority, and the textual exclusion of hybridisation as a threat/possibility of travel. While in the main agreeing with Kröller's analysis, I situate the beginnings of this process in Yezo, especially after the editorial changes made for the popular edition have transformed it into the destination that resolves narrative crises, and closes both journey and text (Elliott 2008).

Two further points must nevertheless be made. Firstly, that the very need for containment speaks of the seriousness of the threats represented by Ito. In that these must be dealt with from without the travel narrative itself, in the index and through re-editing, conveniently brings me to my second point: that, strenuously though Unbeaten Tracks may work to achieve this end, Ito will not be gagged or constrained. Rather, as noted in the introduction, his appearances since 1880 in travel writing, commentary, and novel have not been infrequent; and however these texts choose to re-write him, their very existence can be taken in support of Bhabha's claim that what emerges out of mimicry – that fundamental ambivalence of, or hybridity in, colonial discourse – is 'a writing' (2003: 213), a writing which in this case mocks and menaces (authorial, narratorial) power simply because it continues to speak of Ito and through which Ito continues to speak. Furthermore, in that it can be argued that these texts do not re-present Ito so much as repeat him incompletely – a process inadvertently made clear I think by the slippage between 'Ito' and 'Itō' – the textual threat suggested in my reading of his hybridic presence can continue to be seen. For, in a direct and ironic challenge to the ultimate and determinate meaning within which the index would lock him, Ito/Itō has escaped, taking on new and heterogeneous identities as a result of textual interactions within a contact zone that has so far spanned centuries and continents. Some of these figures, such as that of Nakajima's novel, seem to support the image of Ito prescribed by Unbeaten Tracks; others, such as that of this very article, suggest, I hope, the possibilities of reading him in a different way.

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[1] Although the source photographs came from a second trip to Japan in the 1890s, they were used in a George Newnes new edition of Unbeaten Tracks published in 1900 (Kanasaka 2005: 376). For information on the exhibition see: www.nls.uk/news/isabella_bird_exhibition.html

[2] Throughout this paper, Japanese names are written family name first. Macrons are used to distinguish a long vowel sound in transliterated Japanese words, apart from cases in which the word is commonly written otherwise (i.e. Tokyo).

[3] This essay, in particular, has been a useful starting-point for beginning to think critically about Bird and Ito's relationship, as later citations evidence.

[4] In that these writers travelled along and wrote about much of the same route as Bird; their study thus discloses the ethnocentrism of concepts like 'unbeaten tracks' or assumptions such as the traveller as westerner.

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__________. 2000 [1885]. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. San Francisco: Travelers' Tales.

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__________. 2000. 'Itō, sunawachi Itō Tsurukichi ni kan-suru shiryou to chiken – Isabella Bird ron no ichibu toshite' (author’s translation: Some discovered materials and views about Ito, namely Tsurukichi Ito as a part of Isabella Bird study of the author), Ryoko no bunka kenkyuujyo kennkyuu houkoku 3, 21-66.

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About the Author

Andrew Elliott is a Monbukagakusho scholar, working on his PhD at Kyoto University, Japan. He has an MA from the School of English, University of Leeds, UK. His present research focuses on nineteenth-century British and American travel writing about Japan, particularly the ways in which travel becomes text and, more specifically, how contemporary (cultural, military, political, economic) anxieties about Japan are registered rhetorically.

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Copyright: Andrew Elliott
This page was created on 22 December 2008.

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