Hina Hirayama, March 2, 2023


              This is a transcript of the travel diaries that Edward Sylvester Morse kept during his three visits to Japan: in 1877, 1878-1879, and 1882-1883. In 1877, Morse, a rising zoologist but without a permanent employment, went to Japan on borrowed money, in part to investigate brachiopods (a kind of marine animal and the subject of his scientific discovery in the early 1870s) but also with a prospect of securing a teaching position in Japan.[1] In fact, he was appointed professor of zoology at the newly established University of Tokio. As part of his lucrative contract, he taught briefly that fall, returned to Salem the following winter, and sailed back to Japan the next spring, this time with his family, to teach. During his first two stays in Japan, Morse also established the country’s first marine laboratory, dredged in several parts of the archipelago, and undertook an archaeological excavation of the Ōmori shell mound in Tokyo. In his third visit, Morse was a guest of the wealthy Bostonian William Sturgis Bigelow and traveled with him within Japan, chiefly collecting pottery.  

              Even before his first visit to Japan, Morse, who had already established a considerable reputation as a popular public lecturer on science, intended to use his Japanese experience as a topic for his future lectures. It was to this end, as well as to avoid the need to write many similar letters to family and friends, that Morse began to record, in words and images, his exciting encounter with the distant Japan. In fact, this transcript documents that he sent “installments” of his diary back to his folks in the U.S. several times in each of his three visits. The packages of loose diary sheets that Morse mailed in a post office in Japan appear to have gone first to Maine, where Morse’s mother, brother, and best friend lived and his Salem family also sometimes stayed.[2] After being read by them in Maine, the diary sheets were dispatched to Salem, where Margarette W. Brooks was charged with keeping them safe. Brooks was a teenage daughter of the antiquarian Henry M. Brooks who lived nextdoor to the Morses in Salem. She would later become a trusted assistant to Morse, and he would dedicate his book, Japan Day by Day (1917), to her.

              After his three visits to Japan, Morse’s “Japan Diary” served as an invaluable source for many of his popular lectures and publications about Japan in the decades that followed, most notably Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings (1886) and Japan Day by Day. A gifted raconteur and a gregarious charmer, Morse was also a highly successful lecturer on Japan (as well as on science) for many years. Throughout his career the high-energy Salemite was involved in an astonishing array of fields—zoology, geology, archaeology, ethnology, anthropology, astronomy, ceramic studies, and more—while also lecturing, publishing, and serving as the director of the Peabody Academy of Science (today’s Peabody Essex Museum) from 1880 to 1916, the Keeper of the Morse Collection of Japanese Pottery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from 1890 to his death, and in many other official capacities. But above all, he was known as a Japanophile, a kind of “public Japan expert” accessible to and beloved by the public. After his death, in 1925, this Japan-related aspect of his fame resonated particularly well in Japan. His Japan Day by Day was translated into Japanese within five years of his death; an abridged version of it still remains in print. In Japan, more than 250 publications about Morse—books, exhibition catalogues, and articles—have come out in less than a century since his death, and in the U.S. no fewer than 50; many other works have mentioned him.

              As a primary record of Morse’s time in Japan, his “Japan Diary” has met several attempts at deciphering by scholars, but its completion proved difficult and its publication was not accomplished, until now.[3] Morse’s handwriting was notoriously messy to begin with, and his constant haste in Japan further worsened it; it did not help that he sometimes wrote on a moving jinrikisha, or while lying on the floor in a Japanese-style room without a desk or a chair. As a result, to understand Morse’s time in Japan, researchers have relied almost exclusively on his Japan Day by Day, published in 1917, forty years after his first arrival in Japan, rather than on his original manuscript diary on which the book was said to be based. The only English-language biography of Morse, published in 1942 by the American journalist Dorothy G. Wayman, also largely followed the narrative set forth in Japan Day by Day.[4]

              This transcript of Morse’s “Japan Diary,” now available for the first time in its entirety, presents an unfiltered view of his encounter with an alien culture and his reactions to it. It also allows a thorough comparison with its edited, published, and much later version, Japan Day by Day. The comparison reveals many commonalities but also important differences.[5]  Some of the disparities present new facts about Morse in Japan; some of them challenge the conventionally accepted narrative about Morse’s relationship with Japan. It is hoped that this digital presentation will prove a fertile ground for further research on Morse and his contributions, as well as on the gap that can lurk all too easily between fact and narrative—and that also points us to the complexities of knowing what really happened in the past.    


Technical notes

              In Japan, Morse kept his diary—wrote and sketched—on loose sheets of paper which were never bound. He wrote on both sides of the paper except on the back of sketches, indicating his intention to use the images in future publications. The diary for his second stay is incomplete; the pages from its last two and a half months (from June to September 1879) are missing from this collection.[6] Of the more than 3,000 pages, approximately the first 40% covers his first trip to Japan, the next 35% or so his second stay, and roughly the remaining 30% his third sojourn. In simple terms, he wrote at the fastest pace during his first visit (140 days), on average more than nine pages per day. In his second and longest stay (298 days), with family, his daily rate fell sharply to below two pages, and in his third (259 days), with Bigelow, it hovered just above three.

              This transcript tries to present as accurately as possible what Morse wrote and sketched. Yet some indecipherable words remain, and there are bound to be inadvertent errors. We hope researchers will provide missing information and point out mistakes. For conventions and formatting of this transcript, please download the PDF from the red button at the bottom of this page.


This transcription began in the early months of the Covid pandemic, when archives and libraries closed. I gratefully acknowledge the perseverance of many archivists and librarians through the difficult time and the help they offered me during it. I also thank the following fellowships and grant for support of research for this project: Phillips Library Research Fellowship, Peabody Essex Museum; New England Regional Fellowship Consortium; and AAS Northeast Asia Council Japanese Studies Grant. Finally, I dedicate this transcript to my late father, mother-in-law, and mother—Eizo Hirayama, Judith Lindau McConnell, and Kazuko Hirayama—who died in 2020, 2021, and 2022, respectively. This project took me outside of my sorrow from time to time, if only for fleeting moments.



[1] Before Japan, Morse owed as much as $3,500 on his house and land in Salem and was looking for donors to fund his trip to Japan. Letter, Morse to Gould, Tokyo, 7/11/1877, E. S. Morse Papers (E 2) Box 17, Folder 8 (hereafter E2-B17F8), Phillips Library, PEM; 3/19/1877, John Mead Gould Diary (Coll. 1033; hereafter Gould Diary), vol. 10, Collections of the Maine Historical Society. Morse pleaded for loans of money from family and friends almost until the day of his departure for Japan. Letter, Morse to Gould, Salem, 5/15/1877, E2-B17F8. On Morse’s prospect on securing an academic position in Japan, see: Michiko Nakanishi, Mōsu no sukecchibukku (2002), pp. 211–232.

[2] For example, the first installment of Morse’s diary mailed from Japan in late June was handed by his brother George Frederic Morse to Morse’s best friend John Mead Gould in Portland, Maine, on August 13: “Fred Morse brought in Ed’s first set of diary.” 8/13/1877, Gould Diary, vol. 10. Morse’s second diary installment in July 1877 was carried back to the U.S. by Horace Wilson (1843–1927), who was returning to Maine after teaching at the predecessor of the University of Tokio from 1871.

[3] For example, the journalist and Morse biographer Dorothy G. Wayman read a substantial portion of Morse’s “Japan Diary” (E2-B20F108 & 109); the zoologist and historian of science Naohide Isono deciphered a small portion (covering late June 1877) and cited it in his Mōsu sonohi sonohi (1987), p. 326n3; and the art historian Luke Gartlan read an early part of the journal (covering summer 1877), compared it to the corresponding portion of Japan Day by Day, and analyzed the near-total erasure of Morse’s traveling companion in the book, in Gartlan, “Japan Day by Day? William Henry Metcalf, Edward Sylvester Morse and Early Tourist Photography in Japan,” Early Popular Visual Culture 8, no. 2 (2010): 125–146.

[4] Wayman lived in Japan from 1918 to 1922 and singled out Morse’s Japan Day by Day as the most memorable book she had read about the country before going there. Theodate Geoffrey [Dorothy G. Wayman], trans. Michiko Nakanishi, Yokohama monogatari: Amerika josei ga mita Taishō-ki no nihon (1998), p. vi. Wayman visited Japan again in 1939, for research of her biography of Morse, with support from Morse’s daughter, Edith Morse Robb. For records of this trip, see: “Copies of Letters from Dorothy Godfrey Wayman to Mrs. Russell Robb,” Papers of Dorothy G. Wayman (E 49), Phillips Library, PEM.

[5] On some of the differences and their implications, see: Hina Hirayama, “The Self-Fashioning of E. S. Morse: A Comparison of Japan Day by Day and Its Primary Source,” Monumenta Nipponica 77, no. 2 (2022): ___-___.

[6] The missing portion became the basis for 29 pages in Japan Day by Day (vol. 2, pp.179–207). The absent pages were not part of Morse’s papers when they entered the Phillips Library collection in 1926.