Japan as Wonderland: From British Children’s Literature in Japanese Culture

By | October 18, 2023

The radical politician, Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, who had visited Japan in 1875, was perhaps the first person to draw a comparison between that country and Carroll’s fantasies. Concluding an article in The Fortnightly Review the following year, he declared that Japan’s ‘rural districts form, with Through-the- Looking-Glass-Country and Wonderland, the three kingdoms of merry dreams’ (Dilke 1876: 443).

Dilke’s sentimental allusion was soon to be elaborated in a more specific way, in the travel writings of Lady Annie Brassey. By the time Dilke’s article appeared in late 1876, Brassey and her family, then engaged in a round-the-world trip on the steam yacht, ‘Sunbeam’, were already well on their way to Yokohama, where they arrived in January 1877. At that point, Through the Looking-Glass had been in print for barely five years, having been published at the end of 1871. Despite this, it and its predecessor, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, were already sufficiently celebrated that Brassey, like Dilke, could be confident that a reference to Alice would be readily understood by her readers. It was to Through the Looking-Glass that Brassey turned to convey her sense that Japan offered an apparently nonsensical (but perhaps just arbitrary) reversal of English life:

There were many strange things upside down to be seen on either hand – horses and cows with bells on their tails instead of on their necks, the quadrupeds well clothed, their masters without a scrap of covering, tailors sewing from them instead of to them, a carpenter reversing the action of his saw and plane. It looked just as if they had originally learned the various processes in ‘Alice’s Looking-glass World’ in some former stage of their existence.

(Brassey 1984: 318)

Nor was Brassey the only writer to reach for Carroll’s texts in order to make the point. In 1882, D. C. Angus published The Eastern Wonderland, a volume in which he aimed to introduce modern Japan to ‘English children – say from eight to fourteen years of age’ (1890: v). Unlike Dilke, Brassey or North, Angus was not recounting a trip he had undertaken personally but attempting to describe the country and its recent dramatic history in a way that would be accessible to children. For this purpose, he invented a Japanese narrator for his story: a man born in 1850, who in relating the circumstances of his life could bear witness to the upheavals of the previous thirty years. Angus’s fictional narrator explains that he studied at University College, London, during which time he was introduced to Alice in Wonderland by his host family:

The children were much given to talking about ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and one day I rashly said, ‘I don’t believe your Alice saw things a bit more wonderful than you would see if I could take you to my country. That is a wonderland if you like!’ Then, of course, they began to ask how and why, and to set some startling incident of Alice’s life before me, and ask if I could match that! And then I used to bring out the oddest things I knew (odd, I mean, to English people), and sometimes succeeded in beating Alice. . . .

So I said aloud, ‘Well, in two years you may expect a book of pictures, with as many particulars as I can crowd into a little space, about –

‘THE EASTERN WONDERLAND’.
Then they said, ‘But there must be a little girl in it; there always is a little girl in “Wonderlands”’. But I didn’t see how that could be done, unless I borrowed Alice from Mr. Carroll, who is not likely to wish to part with her.

(Angus 1890: 9–10)

The children’s reply that ‘there always is a little girl in “Wonderlands”’ suggests the extent to which Carroll’s books had already established a genre, replete with recognized conventions. The Alice books were indeed much imitated, as one might expect of such immediate bestsellers, their influence being clear in children’s stories such as Frederic Edward Weatherly’s Elsie’s Expedition (1874) and Clara Bradford’s Ethel’s Adventures in the Doll Country (1880), among many others. Before Angus, however, authors of children’s fiction seem to have avoided the term ‘wonderland’ itself, perhaps because it was so closely associated with Carroll’s work. Writers on travel and geography showed no such reticence: Richard Meade Bache’s American Wonderland (1871), John Tinne’s Wonderland of the Antipodes (1873) and Edwin J. Stanley’s Rambles in Wonderland: Or, Up the Yellowstone, and among the Geysers and Other Curiosities of the National Park (1878) were all published in the years between Carroll’s and Angus’s books. The Eastern Wonderland itself, being both a geographical text and a book that explicitly invokes children’s fantasy, was thus taking advantage of not one but two fashions begun by the Alice books, even as it nominally set them at odds. Would its Japanese narrator be successful in proving the reality of Japan more wonderful than the fantasy of Wonderland?

Extending this device into the body of the text, Angus, like Brassey, picks up on the ways in which Japan offers a ‘looking-glass’ version of the world familiar to British readers. Describing a street of craftsmen, he has his Japanese narrator write to his young friends:

Carpenters make our shoes, and basket-makers our hats; and you would see the blacksmith pulling the bellows with his foot, the cooper holding his tub with his toes, the tailor sewing from him, and the sawyer pulling the saw to him, and many ways of doing things which would seem to you ‘upside down’ if you had walked through our streets and watched the people at work.

(Angus 1890: 83)

When Angus became aware that Lady Brassey had used the same Through the Looking-Glass comparison, he used the preface to a later edition to acknowledge her priority but suggested that the association of Alice and Japan was a very natural one:

I have only to add that the Introduction to ‘The Eastern Wonderland’ was written without any knowledge that the same idea had suggested itself to Lady Brassey (see ‘Voyage of the Sunbeam’) by the confusing effect of Japanese character and habit on her mind. It may well occur to more than one student of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – and of Japan.

(Angus 1890: vii)

In fact, neither Brassey nor Angus was the first to use the trope of Japan as ‘essentially a country of paradoxes and anomalies, where all – even familiar things – put on new faces, and are curiously reversed’. Those words belong to Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British government’s first diplomatic representative at the court of the Shōgun, where he served from 1859. In his 1863 account of his three years in Japan, Alcock provides an even lengthier list of examples, with such items as women blackening rather than whitening their teeth and wearing tight-fitting kimono rather than bulky crinolines, and old men flying kites as children look on (1863: 414). Annie R. Butler’s Stories about Japan, too, boasts a substantial catalogue of such ‘paradoxes’, including the child-directed observations that ‘if you went into a Japanese school, you would find the children reading down rather than across the page, and from the end instead of the beginning of the book; while their examinations are after, instead of before the holidays’ (1888: 49–50). A similar list is given by Basil Hall Chamberlain in his 1890 book, Things Japanese, in a chapter entitled ‘Topsy-Turvydom’ (Chamberlain 1905: 480–2). Not all writers connected these phenomena directly to Alice – Alcock, writing in 1863, was of course not in a position to do so – but for Victorian Britons considering the trope of Japan as a country of reversals and reflections, Carroll’s Looking-Glass country offered a natural comparison.


Catherine Butler, author of British Children’s Literature in Japanese Culture is Reader in English Literature at Cardiff University. Her academic books include Four British Fantasists (2006), Reading History in Children’s Books (2012) and Literary Studies Deconstructed (2018). She has also edited numerous academic collections, and is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Children’s Literature in Education.

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