Following in the Footsteps of Isabella Bird?

Alma Karlin and Her Representations of Japan


  • Klemen SENICA Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), University of Tokyo, Japan



Alma Karlin, Japan, travel writing, Isabella Bird, representations, Orientalism


Alma Karlin (1889–1950), a round-the-world traveller, intellectual, and writer from Celje, Slovenia, arrived in Japan and lived in Tokyo in the early 1920s, an era which historians consider to be an interim period between the initial expansion of the Japanese Empire to mainland Asia and its end in 1945. The writer’s fascination with the land can be inferred, among other things, from a 35-page description of Japan and the Japanese in her most famous book, Einsame Weltreise. Die Tragödie einer Frau (The Odyssey of a Lonely Woman), and passages in Reiseskizzen (Travel Sketches), an earlier work. The article aims to place these travel accounts in the historical and ideological contexts of their time while highlighting some similarities and differences between the representations of the land and its people by Karlin and those by Isabella Bird (1831–1904). Although Karlin makes no explicit reference to the famous British traveller in her writing on Japan, the article demonstrates that she must have known about Bird’s book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. It is, above all, her decision to introduce her (German) readers to topoi that were typical of Victorian women’s travel writing which suggests that Karlin partly based her image of Japan, if not even the itinerary of her journey there, on Bird’s bestselling work. Nevertheless, Karlin does not seem to have conformed to the then dominant orientalist discourses on Japan, her representations generally showing none of the Western arrogance that was so typical of her fellow travellers of both sexes.


Download data is not yet available.


Bach, Evelyn. 1995. “A Traveller in Skirts: Quest and Conquest in the Travel Narratives of Isabella Bird.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 22 (3/4): 587–600.

Baskar, Bojan. 2015. Nacionalna identiteta kot imperialna zapuščina: uvod v slovensko etnomitologijo. Ljubljana: Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete.

Bassnett, Susan. 2002. “Travel Writing and Gender.” In The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, edited by Peter Hulme, and Tim Youngs, 225–41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Befu, Harumi. 2001. Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Bird, Isabella. 1881. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An Account of Travels in the Interior Including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikkô and Isé. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Bodrova, Anna G. 2018. “‘Sama sem hodila kot belka skozi divjo deželo’: iskanje identitete v ustvarjanju in biografiji Alme M. Karlin.” Dialogi 54 (9): 35–47.

Clarke, Hugh. 2009. “Language.” In The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture, edited by Yoshio Sugimoto, 56–75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cvirn, Janez. 1992. “Celjsko nemštvo in problem nacionalne identitete.” Zgodovinski časopis 46 (4): 451–55.

Cwiertka, Katarzyna J. 2006. Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity. London: Reaktion Books.

Elliott, Andrew. 2008. “‘It Is Japan, but yet There Is a Difference Somehow’: Editorial Change and Yezo in Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.” Journeys 9 (1): 1–20.

Fister-Stoga, Frances. 2001. “Alma Karlin in Japan: Impressions of a Slovene Writer.” Language Information Text 8 (1): 99–112.

Gabrič, Aleš. 2018. “Slovenian Familiarization with Japan and the Japanese.” In The 20th Century through Historiographies and Textbooks: Chapters from Japan, East Asia, Slovenia and Southeast Europe, edited by Žarko Lazarević, Nobuhiro Shiba, and Kenta Suzuki, 149–75. Ljubljana: Inštitut za novejšo zgodovino.

Goodenough, Ward H. 2002. “Anthropology in the 20th Century and Beyond.” American Anthropologist 104 (2): 423–40.

Gordon, Andrew. 2020. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hennessey, John. 2018. “Moving up in the World: Japan’s Manipulation of Colonial Imagery at the 1910 Japan–British Exhibition.” Museum History Journal 11 (1): 24–41.

Hrvatin, Klara. 2019. “Alma Karlin’s Musical Miniatures: Japanese Musical Instruments from the Collection of Alma M. Karlin and Their Relation to Religious Music.” Poligrafi 24 (93/94): 109–35.

Ishige, Naomichi. 2014. The History and Culture of Japanese Food. London: Routledge.

Ito, Ruri. 2008. “The ‘Modern Girl’ Question in the Periphery of Empire: Colonial Modernity and Mobility among Okinawan Women in the 1920s and 1930s.” In The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalisation, edited by Alys Eve Weinbaum et al. 240–62. Durham, N.C.): Duke University Press.

Iwao, Sumiko. 1995. The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality. New York: Free Press.

Jezernik, Jerneja. 2006. Afterword to Japonske novele, by Alma Karlin, 75–119. Translated by Jerneja Jezernik. Celje: Celjska Mohorjeva družba.

——. 2009. Alma M. Karlin, državljanka sveta – življenje in delo Alme Maximiliane Karlin (1889‒1950). Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga.

Kanasaka, Kinoyori. 2017. Isabella Bird and Japan: A Reassessment. Translated by Nicholas Pertwee. Folkestone: Renaissance Books.

Karlin, Alma M. 1996. Urok Južnega morja: tragedija neke žene. Translated by Majda Šijanec Novak. Celje: Mohorjeva družba.

——. 1997. Popotne skice. Translated by Irena Dolschon. Ljubljana: Kmečki glas.

——. 2006. Samotno potovanje v daljne dežele: tragedija ženske. Translated by Mateja Ajdnik Korošec. Celje: Društvo Mohorjeva družba; Celjska Mohorjeva družba.

——. 2010. Sama : iz otroštva in mladosti. Translated by Mateja Ajdnik Korošec. Celje: In lingua.

Klein, Ronald D. 2011. “Western Women Tourists Write about Meiji Japan, Part I.” Hiroshima jogakuin daigaku daigakuin gengo bunka ronsō 14: 1–38.

Kontje, Todd Curtis. 2004. German Orientalisms. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kregar, Tone. 2009. “Almina pot k partizanom.” In Almine meje in margine, edited by Marija Počivavšek, 72–79. Celje: Muzej novejše zgodovine.

Kume, Kunitake. 2009. Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 1871–1873. Edited by Chūshichi Tsuzuki and R. Jules Young. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kuwayama, Takami. 2009. “Japan’s Emic Conceptions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture, edited by Yoshio Sugimoto, 38–55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieven, Dominic. 2001. The Russian Empire and Its Rivals. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Maček, Amalija. 2018. “‘Biti jaz v popolni svobodi’: poskus orisa Alminega pojmovanja književnosti in ljubezni.” Dialogi 54 (9): 5–25.

March, Roger. 2007. “How Japan Solicited the West: The First Hundred Years of Modern Japanese Tourism.” In CAUTHE 2007: Tourism: Past Achievements, Future Challenges, edited by Ian McDonnell, Simone Grabowski, and Roger March, 843–52. Sydney: University of Technology Sydney.

Maver, Igor, and Darja Zorc-Maver. 2012. “The South Pacific in Mind: A 1920s Slovenian Literary View of Australia and New Zealand.” Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 118: 17–31.

McDonald, Kate. 2017. Placing Empire: Travel and the Social Imagination in Imperial Japan. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Mihurko Poniž, Katja. 2018. “Feljtonski potopisni prispevki Alme M. Karlin in Zofke Kveder.” Dialogi 54 (9): 60–73.

Mills, Sara. 2001. Discourse of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism. London: Routledge.

Mulligan, Maureen. 2014. “Women Travel Writers and the Question of Veracity.” In Woman, Travel Writing, and Truth, edited by Clare Broome Saunders, 171–84. New York: Routledge.

Oguma, Eiji 小熊英二. 1998. “Nihonjin” no kyōkai: Okinawa, Ainu, Taiwan, Chōsen, shokuminchi shihai kara fukki undō made 〈日本人〉の境界: 沖縄・アイヌ・台湾・朝鮮植民地支配から復帰運動まで (The Boundaries of the Japanese). Tokyo: Shinyōsha.

Ölschleger, Hans Dieter. 2014. “Ainu Ethnography: Historical Representations in the West.” In Beyond Ainu Studies, edited by Mark J. Hudson, Ann-Elise Lewallen, and Mark K. Watson, 25–44. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Orožen, Božena. 1990. “Dom, domovina, jezik … in Alma Karlin: ob 40-letnici smrti svetovne popotnice in pisateljice.” Celjski zbornik 25: 153–64.

Ozawa, Shizen. 2008. “Erasing Footsteps: On some Differences between the First and Popular Editions of Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.” In Asian Crossings: Travel Writing on China, Japan and Southeast Asia, edited by Steve Clark and Paul Smethurst, 87–98. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Park, Jade Joohyun. 2015. “Missing Link Found, 1880: The Rhetoric of Colonial Progress in Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.” Victorian Literature and Culture 43 (2): 371–88.

Perenič, Urška. 2018. “Alma Karlin: ‘dvopripadna’ avtorica?.” Dialogi 54 (9): 48–59.

Plevnik, Matija. 2018. “Alma M. Karlin: snovna in nesnovna kulturna dediščina Celja(nov)?.” Dialogi 54 (9): 133–51.

Pušavec, Marijan. 2009. “O zapuščini Alma M. Karlin in kaj njenega hrani Osrednja knjižnica Celje.” In Almine meje in margine, edited by Marija Počivavšek, 126–33. Celje: Muzej novejše zgodovine.

——. 2018. “Alma M. Karlin: identitete, pisanje, recepcija.” Dialogi 54 (9): 3–4.

Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Senica, Klemen. 2011. “Veliki japonski imperij v popotniških zapisih Alme Karlin. Zgodovina za vse 18 (2): 70–9.

Shigemori, Chikako Bučar. 2019. “Alma Karlin’s Visits to Temples and Shrines in Japan.” Poligrafi 24 (93/94): 3–48.

——. 2020. “Alma Karlin in Korea: Observation of the Land and its People by an Adventurer from Slovenia.” In Koreans and Central Europeans: Informal Contacts up to 1950, vol. 3, edited by Andreas Schirmer, 207–22. Wien: Praesens Verlag.

Sperber, Richard. 2007. “Slave and Sovereign: Alma M. Karlin and Senta Dinglreiter in the Western Pacific.” Colloquia Germanica 40 (2): 175–96.

Šlibar, Neva. 1998. “Traveling, Living, Writing from and at the Margins: Alma Maximiliana Karlin and her Geobiographical Books.” In Transforming the Center, Eroding the Margins: Essays on Ethnic and Cultural Boundaries in German-speaking Countries, edited by Dagmar C. G. Lorenz, and Renate S. Posthofen, 115–31. Columbia, SC: Camden House.

Šlibar, Vladimir. 2009. “Alma M. Karlin: popotnica in zbirateljica.” In Almine meje in margine, edited by Marija Počivavšek, 134–47. Celje: Muzej novejše zgodovine.

Šmitek, Zmago. 1995. Srečevanja z drugačnostjo: slovenska izkustva eksotike. Radovljica: Didakta.

——. 2009. “Duhovni svetovi Alme Karlin.” In Almine meje in margine, edited by Marija Počivavšek, 62–71. Celje: Muzej novejše zgodovine.

Šučur, Maja. 2014. “Alma M. Karlin: zasebno.” Časopis za kritiko znanosti 42 (256): 232–41.

Takeuchi, Keiichi. “Some Remarks on the Texts by Foreigners on Japan up to the End of the Nineteenth Century: How they Changed the Image of Japan Abroad and the Impact They had on the Landscape Sensibilities of the Japanese.” Finisterra 33 (65): 85–98.

Tōkyō daigaku shiryōhensanjo koshashin kenkyū purojekuto 東京大学史料編纂所 古写真研究プロジェクト. 2018. Kōseisai-gazo de yomigaeru 150-nen mae no Bakumatsu/Meiji shoki Nihon: Burugā & Mōzā no garasu genban shasin korekushon 高精細画像で甦る150年前の幕末・明治初期日本: ブルガー&モーザーのガラス原板写真コレクション (Bakumatsu and Early Meiji Japan 150 Years Ago Brought Back to Life with High-Definition Images: The Burger and Moser Collection of Glass Photographic Plates). Tokyo: Yōsensha.

Trnovec, Barbara. 2020. Neskončno potovanje Alme M. Karlin: življenje, delo, zapuščina. Celje: Pokrajinski muzej; Ljubljana: Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete.

Uno, Kathleen S. 1993. “The Death of ‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’?” In Postwar Japan as History, edited by Andrew Gordon, 293–322. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Vampelj Suhadolnik, Nataša. 2016. “A Lonely Odyssey: The Life and Legacy of Alma M. Karlin.” Orientations 47 (3): 50–55.

Veselič, Maja. 2020. “Podobe tajvanskih staroselcev v zbirki razglednic Alme M. Karlin.” Ars & Humanitas: revija za umetnost in humanistiko 14 (2): 137–52.

——. 2021. “The Allure of the Mystical: East Asian Religious Traditions in the Eyes of Alma M. Karin.” Asian Studies 9 (3): 259–98.

——. Forthcoming. “Collecting Heads: Taiwanese Indigenous People, Japanese Colonial Photographs and the Postcard Collection of Alma M. Karlin.”

Vidmar-Horvat, Ksenija, and Gerard Delanty. 2008. “Mitteleuropa and the European Heritage.” European Journal of Social Theory 11 (2): 203–18.

Weber, Irena. 2003. Ženski itinerariji: med antropologijo potovanja in literaturo. Koper: Znanstveno društvo za južno Primorsko; Univerza na Primorskem: Znanstveno-raziskovalno središče Koper.

Williams, Laurence. 2017. “‘Like the Ladies of Europe’? Female Emancipation and the ‘Scale of Civilisation’ in Women’s Writing on Japan, 1840–1880.” Studies in Travel Writing 21 (1): 17–32.




How to Cite

Senica, K. (2021). Following in the Footsteps of Isabella Bird? Alma Karlin and Her Representations of Japan. Asian Studies, 9(3), 225–257.



East Asian Traditions: Perception and Representation in Alma Karlin’s Writing