The most effective ambassador that Canada has ever sent abroad may be a red-haired girl in pigtails who never really existed - except in the imagination.
Anne of Green Gables, the orphaned heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery's books, has delighted readers around the world since 1908. And Anne's passion for Prince Edward Island - an inviting land of gently rolling countryside where lady-slippers bloom abundantly - draws thousands of tourists to the island.
Notably, the Japanese.
Their numbers may be modest - less than 1 percent of total visitors, says Don Cudmore, executive director of the Tourism Industry Association here - but they are disproportionate spenders. And they are no longer just single young women, but couples and families, too.
Each year, dozens of Japanese couples get married here - in the very room where Lucy Maud exchanged vows with the Rev. Ewan Macdonald or in a little country church up the way.
Like other Anne pilgrims, the Japanese tour "her" house in Cavendish - the original "Green Gables" that inspired the books and is now part of a national park. And they see "Anne of Green Gables - the Musical," which has played to full houses for 35 years in Charlottetown and is still going strong.
Why does Anne's story resonate so with the Japanese? Is there a fascination for them beyond the universal appeal of an orphan who finds a home?
"What they often jump to first is the red hair," says Irene Gammel, director of the L.M. Montgomery Institute at the University of Prince Edward Island here. Indeed, Anne is known in Japanese as "Red-Haired Anne."
There's the appeal of the exotic in that, Dr. Gammel says. "The red hair is something that makes Anne look different, sets her apart as a rebel."
"Anne of Green Gables" appeared in Japanese in 1952, when Japan was under American occupation, devastated by war, and filled with orphans. For the generation that grew up reading the books as part of its school curriculum, the Anne books were regarded as a guide to life.
Anne's devotion to her studies and efforts to win a scholarship have been other points for Japanese readers to identify with. Anne's talkativeness, however, "must have been quite new to those first readers," as the Japanese scholar Yoshiko Akamatsu writes in "L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture," edited by Gammel and Elizabeth Epperly.
"Since the Japanese value silence," Professor Akamatsu continues, "children were not allowed to talk freely in the presence of adults. The talkative Anne became a new heroine symbolizing the democratic world after the war."
As the postwar period in Japan recedes into history, the "orphan" aspect of Anne's story resonates less among younger Japanese. The appeal of the nature descriptions, however, and of Anne's response to natural beauty, is as intense for today's younger generation as for their parents.
"Anne is so sensitive - she can feel the beauty of nature," says Yuka Takahashi, a Japanese who has settled on Prince Edward Island and now markets the province to her compatriots for Canadian Pacific Hotels.
Anne as role model
Clare Fawcett, an anthropologist at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, P.E.I., says, "Anne is rambunctious - but she ultimately capitulates," to care for her aging adoptive mother - accepting a filial duty "that fits well with Japanese cultural ideals."
She continues: "Anne allows Japanese women to have a fantasy of independence - and then reconciliation" to traditional mores. "The same is true of North American women," she adds.
For some Japanese, the and fascination with Anne goes beyond one visit. A few have made Anne a permanent part of their home - literally. About a dozen P.E.I.-like houses, designed by Charlottetown architect Larry Jones with Victorian motifs, have been sold to Japanese buyers by Atlantic Canada Home. The houses are sold in kits for easy transoceanic shipping.
For other Japanese, the pull of Anne is so great that they move to Canada. Terry Kamikawa is one such "Anne pilgrim" who has settled here. "I grew up in Osaka," she says. "It's not a beautiful city at all; it's so crowded. I always had a longing for the countryside." She always had one of Montgomery's books with her on the commuter train between class and home, so that she could lose herself in the beautiful descriptions of the island landscapes.
Her first visit to P.E.I. was about 20 years ago - two unimaginably rainy days in August, as part of a package tour. But she was delighted to see the countryside she had so long read about.
Two years later, she and her husband, a mechanic and handyman whose skills were much in demand, moved to Canada. They settled first near Toronto; after 5-1/2 years they sold their house for an undreamed-of profit during a real estate boom, thereby financing a move to the island.
Tea and tales
Now they run the Blue Winds Tearoom in New London. In the off-seasons Ms. Kamikawa has written and published three Anne-related books, a guide to Canadian history and culture, an Anne cookbook, and a collection of light essays on owning a cottage on the island.
Says Kamikawa: "Anne taught me to imagine. She imagined Shakespearean romances. I don't imagine things like that. I imagine things like living in P.E.I.."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society