A Ball in Edo
by Pierre Loti
(trans. David Rosenfeld, ©2001)
For Madame Alphonse Daudet
The Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Countess
Sodeska have the honor of asking you to pass the
evening at the Rokumeikan to celebrate the birth of
H.M. the Emperor. There will be dancing.
This was engraved, in French, on an elegant card with
gilded corners that reached me by post one day in November at
Yokohama Bay. On the reverse, the following was added in a
A special return train will leave Shibachi station at
one o’clock in the morning.
Having been in this cosmopolitan Yokohama for only two
days, I turned the small card over in my hands with a certain
astonishment. I had to admit that it confounded all the notions
of Japanese-ness with which my stay in Nagasaki had left me. I
did not expect much from this European-style ball, with the
high society of Edo in black tie and Parisian dress. From the
first, this “countess” (as well as a “marchioness” that I had seen
mentioned the day before in a high-class local newspaper)
made me smile. But why, after all? These women were des-
cended from noble families; all they had done was change their
Japanese titles into equivalent French ones. Their education
and aristocratic refinement were no less real or hereditary. It
was even possible that it would be necessary to go back farther
than our crusades to find the origins of these nobles, lost in the
annals of a people so ancient.
Text: Pierre Loti, ‘Un bal à Yeddo’ (A ball in Edo),
(Paris: Calmann-Levy, 34th ed., 1910), 77-106.
On the evening of the ball, there was a crowd at Yokohama
station for the eight-thirty departure. All the Europeans of the
colony were on foot, in full dress, in response to the invitation
of the “countess.” The men were in opera hats, the women
cowled in lace, with long trains and fur stoles. The guests, in
the waiting rooms just like ours, conversed in French, English
and German – this 8:30 departure was anything but Japanese.
After an hour, the ball train stopped at Edo.
Here was another surprise. Had we arrived at London, or
Melbourne, or New York? Around the station stood tall houses
of brick, of an American ugliness. Lines of gaslights allowed
one to see far down long, straight streets. The cold air was
criss-crossed with telegraph wires and, in various directions,
with trams leaving amid familiar sounds of stamps and