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Sunday, Dec. 15, 2002


Staff writer
MITFORD'S JAPAN: Memories & Recollections 1866-1906, edited and introduced by Hugh Cortazzi. Japan Library, 2002 (revised edition), 307 pp., paper ($33)

"I jumped out of my palanquin more quickly than I ever in my life jumped out of anything, and rushed forward. There were pools of blood in the street, and I saw the murderer coming at me, by this time himself wounded, but not seriously, and full of fight. His sword was dripping and his face bleeding. I knew enough of Japanese swordsmanship to be aware that it was no use to try and avoid his blow so I rushed underneath his guard and wrenched the bleeding sword out of his grip."

And so by the grace of God and good reflexes, Algernon Betram Mitford lived to a ripe old age instead of dying in the streets of 19th-century Kyoto.

Mitford, later known as the first Lord Redesdale, watched the tumultuous Meiji Restoration unfold as a British diplomat serving in Japan from 1866 to 1870.

Returning to London after his service in Japan, he committed his memories to paper, publishing "Tales of Old Japan" in 1871.

He returned to Japan only twice more, in 1873 and in 1906. Although Mitford spent only a small part of his life there, the experience left a lasting mark that is reflected in his autobiography, "Memories," and other writings.

Portions of these works make up the bulk of "Mitford's Japan." Newly added to this edition are extracts from "Tales of Old Japan," included by editor Hugh Cortazzi to help "bring to life some aspects of a Japan . . . which have long since disappeared."

This ambitious objective is met thanks to sharp editing -- most sections are prefaced with useful background information -- and Mitford's skill as a narrator, his keen eye for detail and his ability to weave his personal experiences into the larger tapestry of events around him. His prose is free of both the fawning saccharine sentimentalities found in Lafcadio Hearn's works and the streak of Western superiority found in the writing of Basil Chamberlain.

Though wordy by modern standards, his detailed descriptions succeed in bringing the past to life. Take, for example, his chilling account of the death of 32-year-old samurai Taki Zensaburo, who was commanded by the Emperor -- at the behest of the Treaty Powers -- to commit seppuku in 1868 for leading an attack on foreigners.

"Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him -- he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately -- for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left hand side he drew it slowly across to the right side and turning the dirk in the wound gave a slight cut upwards: during this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face.

"When he drew out the dirk he leant forward and stretched out his neck -- an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air -- there was a flash -- a heavy ugly thud, a crashing fall -- with one blow the head had been severed from the body.

"A deadly silence followed -- broken only by the hideous noise of blood gushing out of the inert heap before us which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible."

Yes, it certainly was.

If you want to visit 19th-century Japan -- to witness civil war erupt in the streets of Kyoto, to accompany the first Westerners to meet the Emperor or to simply stroll among the emerald-green rice fields of Meguro village -- you would be hard pressed to find a better travel companion than Algernon Mitford.

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