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With Japan’s frightening economic decline and news of massive lay-offs by the country’s most respected companies in the news headlines daily, this description of poverty in Japan more than a century ago is sobering:
A road, at this time a quagmire, intersected by a rapid stream, crossed in many places by planks, runs through the village. This stream is at once “lavatory” and “drinking fountain.” People come back from their work, sit on the planks, take off their muddy clothes and wring them out, and bathe their feet in the current. On either side are the dwellings, in front of which are much-decayed manure heaps, and the women were engaged in breaking them up and treading them into a pulp with their bare feet. All wear the vest and trousers at their work, but only the short petticoats in their houses, and I saw several respectable mothers of families cross the road and pay visits in this garment only, without any sense of impropriety.
The younger children wear nothing but a string and an amulet. The persons, clothing, and houses are alive with vermin, and if the word squalor can be applied to independent and industrious people, they were squalid. Beetles, spiders, and wood-lice held a carnival in my room after dark, and the presence of horses in the same house brought a number of horseflies.
I sprinkled my stretcher with insect powder, but my blanket had been on the floor for one minute, and fleas rendered sleep impossible. The night was very long. The andon went out, leaving a strong smell of rancid oil. The primitive Japanese dog— a cream-coloured wolfish-looking animal, the size of a collie, very noisy and aggressive, but as cowardly as bullies usually are—was in great force in Fujihara, and the barking, growling, and quarrelling of these useless curs continued at intervals until daylight; and when they were not quarrelling, they were howling. Torrents of rain fell, obliging me to move my bed from place to place to get out of the drip.
At five Ito came and entreated me to leave, whimpering, “I’ve had no sleep; there are thousands and thousands of fleas!” He has travelled by another route to the Tsugaru Strait through the interior, and says that he would not have believed that there was such a place in Japan, and that people in Yokohama will not believe it when he tells them of it and of the costume of the women. He is “ashamed for a foreigner to see such a place,” he says.1
This was written by nineteenth-century English travel-writer Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904), who in 1887 (Meiji 20) travelled deep into Japan’s heartland.
1 Bird, Isabella L. (1911). Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of travels in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the shrine of Nikko. John Murray.