The Japanese Chronicles

Nicolas Bouvier


The Japanese Chronicles

Nicolas Bouvier


In The Japanese Chronicles, Swiss travel writer and photographer Nicolas Bouvier shares his intimate experience of Japan. Based on three decades of travel throughout the islands, his reports, recollections, and reflections take the reader beyond the commonplace into an unexpected Japan.

Whether describing village festivals or the suburbs of Kyoto, retelling Japanese myth and history, composing poems, reflecting on Noh performances or sketching memorable portraits in a few deft words, Bouvier brings his personal Japan alive in rich, evocative prose. 

Some of the most resonant and perceptive travel writing ... a delight for lovers of travel and fine writing.’  - Kirkus Reviews
‘If you go to Japan, it is unthinkable that you should leave without The Japanese Chronicles.’ Le Figaro
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The Japanese Chronicles
Translated by Anne Dickerson
ISBN: 978-1906011-04-8
Format: 224pp demi pb
Place: Japan


Author Biography

Nicolas Bouvier was born in 1929 near Geneva. Although he was an exquisite traveller and the greatest Swiss travel writer of the 20th century, he was not a restless character. Without waiting for the result of his degree, in 1953 he left for Yugoslavia with no intention of returning. The fruits of this journey of a year and a half, were published some eight years later, as The Way of the World. Bouvier continued, through India to Ceylon and thence to Japan. From his experience Japan, where he was to live for more than a year and to revisit in the 1960s and 1970s, came a distillation of experiences, The Japanese Chronicles, which were published in their final version in 1975. He died in 1998 in Geneva.


Extract From Chapter One

ANYONE TODAY could find the Japanese islands on a map with his eyes closed. But not so many know how the archipelago came to be there, or just where the Japanese came from.

They dropped from the sky.

That, at least, is what we are told in the Kojiki (Collection of Ancient Things) and the Nihongi (Japanese Chronicles), the most important of the Shinto sacred books, which contain ancient national myths gathered by imperial order at the beginning of the eighth century a.d.

The way in which a people explain their existence may be as informative as the way they live it. Here then, sketching this bizarre cosmogony in broad strokes, rough and raw, is how the Japanese fell to earth, which is the first story they are told.

According to this Genesis, in the beginning was not the “Word,” but a layer of ooze floating serenely in the darkness. The subtle and the solid separate to form a High and a Low. Wandering about in this High is a succession of divine spirits (kami), orphans without descendants. They don’t really do anything because there is no support yet for their actions.

In the Low, all is fluid. There is not even a place to set foot until one day when two kami of this first era decide to stir the ocean of silt with the tip of a spear. These kami are brother and sister, the creators of Japan, and every Japanese schoolchild knows their names: Izanagi (he who courts) and Izanami (she who courts). The churned-up sea thickens and a lump drops from their spear and forms the first islet of the Inland Sea. The brother and sister alight on it, look at each other, she entices him, and oh! … they court. They join “their majestic parts in a majestic union” and produce three stunted children, because it wasn’t seemly for a woman to make such advances. (In all things, the Japanese male is a little slower.) They try again the proper way, in the presence of a wagtail that taps out a beat with its tail, and this time the sister-wife gives birth to the eight islands of Japan. (So there are eight divinities incarnate, fruits of a coupling begun without suffering, remorse, or shame, and the woman has been relegated to the background, with that pretense of submission that has allowed her to pull the strings so conveniently. The bird/metronome rates better than our serpent, I think.)

After producing numerous divine offspring, the goddess gives birth to the Kami of Fire, who burns her so badly that she dies. Her husband-brother, in tears, goes to the realm of shadows to search for her. As in the myth of Orpheus, she promises to follow him back on one condition: he must not look back. But he is anxious and looks at her: he sees a rotten cadaver whose every organ shelters an evil spirit. Furious to have been discovered in this state, Izanami sets all the harpies of the underworld upon her brother-husband. He escapes, driving them away by throwing peaches at them (that’s why peaches are considered lucky) and then finally, panting, breathless, he plugs up the opening of hell with a rock.

From the other side of this barrier, the horrible voice of his sister warns him: “So, my fine elder brother, since that’s how it is, I will strangle a thousand among your offspring every day.”

“Since that’s how it is, my sister, I will give birth to five hundred thousand every day.” (Take the metro in Tokyo on a Sunday in May and you will see that he has kept his word.) Then, to show her that he means what he says, he spits and begets the Kami of Spit.

Not losing a minute, he goes to purify himself, rinsing off the pollutions of hell in a stream. Every piece of clothing he sheds becomes a kami and his scrubbing creates others: Susano wo (the Impetuous Male) comes out of his nose; from his right eye comes the Goddess of the Moon; and from the left (in China and Japan, left prevails over right), Amaterasu O-mi Kami, Goddess of Light, ancestor of the imperial family and the most venerated figure in the immense Shinto pantheon.

Then, for the first time, the sun rises on a Japan where the great laws of life (you are born, you die, you grow anyhow) have already been given their justification.

The celestial kami put Susano wo, the Impetuous Male, in charge of governing the Earth; to everyone’s dismay, he is soon behaving like a troublemaker, an outlaw, and a hooligan. He destroys the rice growers’ dams, puts the horses out to graze in the rice paddies, lays waste to the fields, and releases a flood that kills everyone who doesn’t have a solid grasp on eternity. Unhappy at being exiled to the Low, he smears his sister’s palace with his excrement, defiles it with the corpse of a colt, creates trouble, and makes himself hateful in a hundred ways. The goal of this excess (the details would fill pages) is probably to force the unwilling Heaven to pay attention to his terrestrial kingdom. So this conflict is necessary, and the god’s excesses as well. The numerous temples that still honor him today clearly prove that no one holds a grudge against him. More than a spirit who is truly evil, he is the expression of the Earth’s elemental energies, the noisy advocate of an untamed nature in which “even the rocks, trees, and grasses are overtaken by the violence,” the expression of an infant world that needs all the celestial forces in order to find its equilibrium and form. But he goes too far, and Amaterasu, offended by these provocations, hides in a cave, plunging Creation into night and the celestial kami into confusion.

The kami assemble before the cave. They hold interminable discussions on how to lure the goddess from her cave. The story of this assembly is unintentionally funny because one can see, in a primitive form, the horror the Japanese have of the unexpected and the decisions it requires. These kami are the rough masters of a still-young universe. They may always be ready to enthusiastically embody a constellation, or a mountain, or thunder, but speculation and strategy are not their strong points. They ask the Kami of Thought to formulate a plan: despite the talent attributed to him, he proposes one that seems dreadfully vague. They must restore harmony to the world, be sensitive to delicate feelings, and vanquish doubt. In Japan—even celestial Japan—a plan like this is not easy to put into action. Finally, on the expert’s advice, the celestial kami construct a mirror, send it up to the heavens on the back of a stag, and decorate the trees with peace offerings. They make all the birds sing at once so that the offended goddess will think another sun has risen and to pique her jealousy. But all their schemes fail, and the cave stays obstinately closed.

In a final act, the Goddess of Laughter performs a sacred dance before the group of kami; quickly carried away by the rhythm, she picks up her skirts like a bacchanal, exhibiting a good bit of herself. There is a gigantic burst of laughter from the spectators, which brings the intrigued Amaterasu out of her retreat. Her brother, who has made his amends, is sent back to Earth, and Creation continues in the returned light.