National identity in the late 19th-century travelogues from Japan written by Estonian sailors


Keywords: depiction of a nation, travelogues, sailors, Japan, 19th-century Estonia

The aim of the article is to examine what the Estonians’ idea of their own nationality was in the late 19th century. The empirical evidence comes from Estonian sailors’ travelogues from Japan, published in Estonian language press. Those travelogues, comparing own and other cultures, enable an analysis of how Estonians would depict and construct the Estonian nation, doing it from a considerable distance and against the background of another nation. The sailors could be relied on as people with a wide horizon and rich experience, while Japan is distant enough, both geograph­ically and culturally, to provide a relatively neutral frame of reference.

Earlier studies on the emergence of Estonian national identity and the national movement used to focus first and foremost either on the leaders of the movement or on its social aspects, practically neglecting the personal level. The Estonian press of the time did a good job mediating the seafarers’ experience of an exotic country to the Estonian readership. In describing their contacts with other ethnic groups they had, on the one hand, to make sense of being Estonian and, on the other hand, to render their experience in a language understandable to folks at home, resorting to a metaphor now and then. The article is based on altogether 30 travelogues of three Estonian seamen, published in the press from 1867–1900.


Ene Selart (b. 1973), MA, University of Tartu, Faculty of Social Sciences, Institute of Social Studies, Junior Lecturer of the History of Journalism (Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu); University of Tartu, Asian Centre, Japanese Coordinator, ene.selart@ut.ee

Anu Masso (b. 1977), PhD, Tallinn University of Technology, School of Business and Governance, Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance, Tenured Associate Professor (Akadeemia tee 3, 12616 Tallinn); University of Tartu, Faculty of Social Sciences, Institute of Social Studies, Associate Professor, anu.masso@ut.ee