Richard Gordon Smith

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Richard Gordon Smith (1858 – 6 November 1918) was a British traveler, sportsman and naturalist who traveled through many countries in the late nineteenth century and lived in Japan for a number of years.

Illustration from Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan


Richard Gordon Smith was an English gentleman, naturalist and sportsman who enjoyed traveling abroad, visiting France, Norway and Canada in his earlier years. Richard's father was John Bridson Smith, the youngest of a family of nine children and his mother was Annie Lawrence of Cheltenham. It was from her family that he acquired his interests in sporting pursuits.[1]

After being married for eighteen years he could no longer tolerate living with his wife so he left home and took up world travel. He must have been a man of means as he traveled first class, keeping a series of eight large leather-bound diaries in which he recorded his experiences. He called these his "Ill-Spelled Diaries" and they are full of idiosyncratic and chauvinistic observations of the things he encountered, his impressions of Japan at the turn of the century, the Russo-Japanese War and the daily life of the people.[2] They included illustrations and mementoes from around the world. He journeyed to the Far East, visiting Ceylon and Burma before arrived in Japan on Christmas Eve 1897. He stayed there till February 1900 when he set off to return to England via New Guinea and Fiji. However he became ill and abandoned the journey, returning to Japan instead. In 1903 and again in 1905 he did travel to England, visiting China, Singapore and Ceylon on his way. He returned to Kyoto by the end of 1905 where he continued transcribing folktales and myths and filling his diaries with his observations. He also collected animals and plants which he sent to the British Museum. Many of these were new to science and were named in his honour.[3]

In 1908 he published Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan but it was not greeted with much interest in Britain.[3] In the preface he states:[1]

THE stories in this volume are transcribed from voluminous illustrated diaries which have been kept by me for some twenty years spent in travel and in sport in many lands--the last nine of them almost entirely in Japan, while collecting subjects of natural history for the British Museum; trawling and dredging in the Inland Sea, sometimes with success, sometimes without, but in the end contributing to the treasury some fifty things new to Science, and, according to Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, 'adding greatly to the knowledge of Japanese Ethnology.'

By 1910 his financial circumstances were deteriorating and his wife was asking for a legal separation. He suffered from beriberi and malaria and his health continued to get worse and the last entry in his diary was made in September 1915.[3] He died on the 6th November, 1918 and an obituary was published in the Japanese "Weekly Chronicle".[4]

He was awarded the Fourth Order of the Rising Sun in Japan.[5]


  • Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan [6]
  • Travels in the Land of the Gods: The Japan Diaries of Richard Gordon Smith

Species linked to Smith[edit]


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