Griffiths the Safe Man

(notes by David Page)

Publication history

First published in the Civil and Military Gazette, 31 July 1890. Collected Volume VII, No. 47 of Turn-overs, 1890, and in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions), 1909. It has also been collected in Kipling’s Japan: Collected Writings, edited by Hugh Cortazzi & George Webb, The Athlone Press, 1988.

The story

The story is set in Japan, and is located in the town of Otsu, near Kyoto. It depends upon the fact that foreigners arriving at the Japanese Treaty ports were issued with passports to travel within Japan, and that these documents had to be shown at frequent intervals, and particularly when booking into hotels.

The narrator could be described as one of those happy-go-lucky travellers who is not overly concerned with the security of his possessions, whereas Griffiths is the complete opposite and locks up all his baggage with the most secure devices available. On arrival in Otsu, they are asked for their passports which Griffiths has in his safe-keeping. On attempting to open the ‘yellow-hide’ bag in which he had put them, the lock is jammed and he is unable to retrieve them.

Neither of the travellers speaks Japanese, and Griffiths tries to explain to the hotel proprietor that they will be forthcoming once the lock has been attended to. The hotel proprietor summons the police, and the narrator wanders off leaving Griffiths to his travails. He suggests to another policeman that he meets that he should take along a group of soldiers along to the hotel in order to ‘assist’ the police.

The narrator eventually returns to the hotel and asks Griffiths:

“Have you looked in your great-coat? It’s on the bed, and there’s a blue envelope in it that looks like a passport. You put it there before you left Kyoto.”


Kipling had left India on 9 March 1889, travelling with Prof “Aleck” and Mrs Edmonia Hill via Burma, Malaya, and China to Japan on their way to the U.S.A., and for Kipling, back to England. Edited versions of the reports that he sent back to the Pioneer describing his travels, were collected in From Sea to Sea (1899).

The travellers arrived at Nagasaki in Japan aboard the P. & O. steamer S.S. Ancona on 15 April 1889 and disembarked to travel through Japan. They departed from Yokohama on 11 May aboard the S.S. City of Peking heading for California.

As with this story, most of those which Kipling wrote during this journey, such as “A Smoke of Manila”, “A Little More Beef”, or “The Red Lamp”, were sent to the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore rather than to the Pioneer in Allahabad.

The natural inclination when reading this story is to assign the role of the narrator to Kipling and that of Griffiths to Professor Hill. In the reports sent to the Pioneer, the narrator’s companion was always identified as “the Professor”. Although it is possible that an incident with Professor Hill and a mislaid passport had provided the model for Griffiths, the Hills were both Americans and Griffiths is very clearly identified as being British on page 70, lines 6 & 7.

In Kipling’s Japan: Collected Writings, the Editors, Hugh Cortazzi and George Webb, have gone back to the original material about Japan that was published in 1889-90 and 1892, rather than the edited versions that Kipling included in From Sea to Sea. As with the American section of his travels, the originals are both longer and more pungent in the views expressed, than Kipling’s own edited version, and it is well-worth reading the work by Cortazzi and Webb.

[D. P.]

©David Page 2007 All rights reserved