The Japanese Smile
THOSE whose ideas of the world and its wonders have been formed chiefly by novels and romance still indulge a vague belief that the East is more serious than the West. Those who judge things from a higher standpoint argue, on the contrary, that, under present conditions, the West must be more serious than the East ; and also that gravity, or even something resembling its converse, may exist only as a fashion. But the fact is that in this, as in all other questions, no rule susceptible of application to either half of humanity can be accurately framed. Scientifically, we can do no more just now than study certain contrasts in a general way, without hoping to explain satisfactorily the highly complex causes which produced them. One such contrast,of particular interest, is that afforded by the English and the Japanese.
It is a commonplace to say that the English are a serious people, — not superficially serious, but serious all the way down to the bed rock of the race character. It is almost equally safe to say that the Japanese are not very serious, either above or below the surface, even as compared with races much less serious than our own. And in the same proportion, at least, that they are less serious, they are more happy: they still, perhaps, remain the happiest people in the civilized world. We serious folk of the West cannot call ourselves very happy. Indeed, we do not yet fully know how serious we are; and it would probably frighten us to learn how much more serious we are likely to become under the ever-swelling pressure of industrial life. It is, possibly, by long sojourn among a people less gravely disposed that we can best learn our own temperament. This conviction came to me very strongly when, after having lived for nearly three years in the interior of Japan, I returned to English life for a few days at the open port of Kobé. To hear English once more spoken by Englishmen touched me more than I could have believed possible; but this feeling lasted only for a moment. My object was to make some necessary purchases. Accompanying me was a Japanese friend, to whom all that foreign life was utterly new and wonderful, and who asked me this curious question: “Why is it that the gwaikokujin never smile ? You smile and bow when you speak to them ; but they never smile. Why ? ”
The fact was, I had fallen altogether into Japanese habits and ways, and had got out of touch with Western life; and my companion’s question first made me aware that I had been acting somewhat curiously. It also seemed to me a fair illustration of the difficulty of mutual comprehension between the two races, — each quite naturally, though quite erroneously, estimating the manners and motives of the other by its own. If the Japanese are puzzled by English gravity, the English are, to say the least, equally puzzled by Japanese levity. The Japanese speak of the “angry faces” of the foreigners. The foreigners speak with strong contempt of the Japanese smile: they suspect it to signify insincerity; indeed, some declare it cannot possibly signify anything else. Only a few of the more observant have recognized it as an enigma worth studying. One of my Yokohama friends — a thoroughly lovable man, who had passed more than half his life in the open ports of the East — said to me, just before my departure for the interior: “ Since you are going to study Japanese life, perhaps you will be able to find out something for me. I can’t understand the Japanese smile. Let me tell you one experience out of many. One day, as I was driving down from the Bluff, I saw an empty kuruma coming up on the wrong side of the curve. I could not have pulled up in time if I had tried; but I did n’t try, because I did n’t think there was any particular danger. I only yelled to the man in Japanese to get to the other side of the road; instead of which he simply backed his kuruma against a wall on the lower side of the curve, with the shafts outwards. At the rate I was going, there was n’t room even to swerve; and the next minute one of the shafts of that kuruma was in my horse’s shoulder. The man was n’t hurt at all. When I saw the way my horse was bleeding, 1 quite lost my temper, and struck the man over the head with the butt of my whip. He looked right into my face and smiled, and then bowed. I can see that smile now. I felt as if I had been knocked down. The smile utterly nonplused me, — killed all my anger instantly. Mind you, it was a polite smile. But what did it mean? Why the devil did the man smile? I can’t understand it.”
Neither, at that time, could I; but the meaning of much more mysterious smiles has since been revealed to me. A Japanese can smile in the teeth of death, and usually does. But he then smiles for the same reason that he smiles at other times. There is neither defiance nor hypocrisy in the smile ; nor is it to be confounded with that smile of sickly resignation which we are apt to associate with weakness of character. It is an elaborate and longcultivated etiquette. It is also a silent language. But any effort to interpret it according to Western notions of physiognomical expression would be just about as successful as an attempt to interpret Chinese ideographs by their real or fancied resemblance to shapes of familiar things.
First impressions, being largely instinctive, are scientifically recognized as partly trustworthy; and the very first impression produced by the Japanese smile is not far from the truth. The stranger cannot fail to notice the generally happy and smiling character of the native faces; and this first impression is, in most cases, wonderfully pleasant. The Japanese smile at first charms. It is only at a later day, when one has observed the same smile under extraordinary circumstances, — in moments of pain, shame, disappointment,— that one becomes suspicious of it. Its apparent inopportuneness may even, on certain occasions, cause violent anger. Indeed, many of the difficulties between foreign residents and their native servants have been due to the smile. Any man who believes in the British tradition that a good servant must be solemn is not likely to endure with patience the smile of his “boy.” At present, however, this particular phase of Western eccentricity is becoming more fully recognized by the Japanese; they are beginning to learn that the average English-speaking foreigner hates smiling, and is apt to consider it insulting; wherefore Japanese employees at the open ports have generally ceased to smile, and have assumed an air of sullenness.
At this moment there comes to me the recollection of a queer story told by a lady of Yokohama about one of her Japanese servants. “ My Japanese nurse came to me the other day, smiling as if something very pleasant had happened, and said that her husband was dead, and that she wanted permission to attend his funeral. I told her she could go. It seems they burned the man’s body. Well, in the evening she returned, and showed me a vase containing some ashes of bones (I saw a tooth among them) ; and she said, ‘That is my husband.’ And she actually laughed as she said it! Did you ever hear of such disgusting creatures ? ”
It would have been quite impossible to convince the narrator of this incident that the demeanor of her servant, instead of being heartless, might have been heroic, and capable of a very touching interpretation. Even one not a Philistine might be deceived in such a case by appearances. But quite a number of the foreign residents of the open ports are pure Philistines, and never try to look below the surface of the life around them, except as hostile critics. My Yokohama friend who told me the story about the kurumaya was quite differently disposed: he recognized the error of judging by appearances.
Miscomprehension of the Japanese smile has more than once led to extremely unpleasant results, as happened in the case of T—, a Yokohama merchant of former days. T— had employed in some capacity (I think partly as a teacher of Japanese) a nice old samurai, who wore, according to the fashion of the era, a queue and two swords. The English and the Japanese do not understand each other very well now; but at the period in question they understood each other much less. The Japanese servants at first acted in foreign employ precisely as they would have acted in the service of distinguished Japanese; 1 and this innocent mistake provoked a good deal of abuse and cruelty. Finally the discovery was made that to treat Japanese like West Indian negroes might be very dangerous. A certain number of foreigners were killed, with good moral consequences.
But I am digressing. T—was rather pleased with his old samurai, though quite unable to understand his Oriental politeness, his prostrations, or the meaning of the small gifts which he presented occasionally, with an exquisite courtesy entirely wasted upon T—. One day he came to ask a favor. (I think it was the eve of the Japanese New Year, when everybody needs money, for reasons not here to be dwelt upon.) The favor was that T—would lend him a little money upon one of his swords, the long one. It was a very beautiful weapon, and the merchant saw that it was also very valuable, and lent the money without hesitation. Some weeks later the old man was able to redeem his sword.
What caused the beginning of the subsequent unpleasantness nobody now remembers. Perhaps T—’s nerves got out of order. At all events, one day he became very angry with the old man, who submitted to the expression of his wrath with bows and smiles. This made him still more angry, and he used some extremely bad language; but the old man still bowed and smiled; wherefore he was ordered to leave the house. But the old man continued to smile, at which T—, losing all selfcontrol, struck him. And then T— suddenly became afraid, for the long sword instantly leaped from its sheath, and swirled above him; and the old man ceased to seem old. Now, in the grasp of any one who knows how to use it, the razor-edged blade of a Japanese sword wielded with both hands can take a head off with extreme facility. But, to T—’s astonishment, the old samurai, almost in the same moment, returned the blade to its sheath with the skill of a practiced swordsman, turned upon his heel, and withdrew. Then T—wondered, and sat down to think. He began to remember some nice things about the old man, — the many kindnesses unasked and unpaid, the curious little gifts, the impeccable honesty. T—began to feel ashamed. He tried to console himself with the thought, “Well, it was his own fault; he had no right to laugh at me when he knew I was angry.” Indeed, T— even resolved to make amends when an opportunity should offer.
But no opportunity ever came, because on the same evening the old man performed hara-kiri, after the manner of a samurai. He left a very beautifully written letter explaining his reasons. For a samurai to receive an unjust blow without avenging it was a shame not to be borne. He had received such a blow. Under any other circumstances he might have avenged it. But the circumstances were, in this instance, of a very peculiar kind. His code of honor forbade him to use his sword upon the man to whom he had pledged it once for money, in an hour of need. And being thus unable to use his sword, there remained for him only the alternative of an honorable suicide.
In order to render this story less disagreeable, the reader may suppose that T—was really very sorry, and behaved generously to the family of the old man. What he must not suppose is that T—was ever able to imagine why the old man had smiled the smile which led to the outrage and the tragedy.
To comprehend the Japanese smile, one must be able to enter a little into the ancient, natural, and popular life of Japan. From the modernized upper classes nothing is to be learned. The deeper signification of race differences is being daily more and more illustrated in the effects of the higher education. Instead of creating any community of feeling, it appears only to widen the distance between the Occidental and the Oriental. Some foreign observers have declared that it does this by enormously developing certain latent peculiarities, — among others an inherent materialism little perceptible among the common people. This explanation is one I cannot quite agree with; but it is at least undeniable that, the more highly he is cultivated, according to Western methods, the further is the Japanese psychologically removed from us. Under the new education, his character seems to crystallize into something of singular hardness, and to Western observation, at least, of singular opacity. Emotionally, the Japanese peasant appears incomparably closer to us than the Japanese mathematician, the coolie than the statesman. Between the most elevated class of thoroughly modernized Japanese and the Western thinker anything akin to intellectual sympathy is non-existent: it is replaced on the native side by a cold and impeccable formality. Those influences which in other lands appear most potent to develop the higher emotions seem here to have the extraordinary effect of suppressing them. We are accustomed abroad to associate emotional sensibility with intellectual expansion : it would be a grievous error to apply this rule in Japan. Even the foreign teacher in an ordinary school can feel, year by year, his pupils drifting further away from him, as they pass from class to class ; in various higher educational institutions, the separation widens yet more rapidly, so that, prior to graduation, students may become to their professor little more than casual acquaintances. The enigma is certainly, to some extent, a physiological one, requiring scientific explanation. It can be fully discussed only when its natural causes are understood : and these, we may be sure, are not simple. By some observers it is asserted that because the higher education in Japan has not yet had the effect of stimulating the higher emotions to the Occidental pitch, its developing power cannot have been exerted uniformly and wisely, but in special directions only, at the cost of character. Yet this theory involves the unwarrantable assumption that character can be created by education; and it ignores the fact that the best results are obtained by affording opportunity for the exercise of preëxisting inclination rather than by any system of teaching.
The causes of the phenomenon must be sought in the race character; and whatever the higher education may accomplish in the remote future, it can scarcely be expected to transform nature. But does it at. present atrophy certain finer tendencies ? I think that it unavoidably does, for the simple reason that, under existing conditions, the moral and mental powers are overtasked by its requirements. All that wonderful national spirit of duty, of patience, of self-sacrifice, anciently directed to social, moral, or religious idealism, must, under the discipline of the higher training, be concentrated upon an end which not only demands, but exhausts, its fullest exercise. For that end, to be accomplished at all, must be accomplished in the face of difficulties that the Western student rarely encounters, and could scarcely be made even to understand. All those moral qualities which made the old Japanese character admirable are certainly the same which make the modern Japanese student the most indefatigable, the most docile, the most ambitious, in the world. But they are also qualities which urge him to efforts in excess of his natural powers, with the frequent result of mental and moral enervation. The nation has entered upon a period of intellectual overstrain. Consciously or unconsciously, in obedience to sudden necessity, Japan has undertaken nothing less than the tremendous task of forcing mental expansion up to the highest existing standard; and this means forcing the development of the nervous system. For the desired intellectual change, to be accomplished within a few generations, must involve a physiological change never to be effected without terrible cost. In other words, Japan has attempted too much; yet under the circumstances she could not have attempted less. Happily, even among the poorest of her poor the educational policy of the government is seconded with an astonishing zeal; the entire nation has plunged into study with a fervor of which it is utterly impossible to convey any adequate conception in this little essay. Yet I may cite a touching example. Immediately after the frightful earthquake of 1891, the children of the ruined cities of Gifu and Aichi, crouching among the ashes of their homes, cold and hungry and shelterless, surrounded by horror and misery unspeakable, still continued their small studies, using tiles of their own burnt dwellings in lieu of slates, and bits of lime for chalk, even while the earth still trembled beneath them.2 What future miracles may justly be expected from the amazing power of purpose such a fact reveals!
But it is true that as yet the results of the higher training have not been altogether happy. Among the Japanese of the old régime one encounters a courtesy, an unselfishness, a grace of pure goodness, impossible to overpraise. Among the modernized of the new generation these have almost disappeared. One meets a class of young men who ridicule the old times and the old ways without having been able to elevate themselves above the vulgarism of imitation and the commonplaces of shallow skepticism. What has become of the noble and charming qualities they must have inherited from their fathers ? Is it not possible that the best of those qualities have been transmuted into mere effort, — an effort so excessive as to have exhausted character, leaving it without weight or balance ?
It is to the still fluid, mobile, natural existence of the common people that one must look for the meaning of apparent differences in the race feeling and emotional expression of the West and the Far East. With those gentle, kindly, sweet-hearted folk, who smile at life, love, and death alike, it is possible to enjoy absolute community of feeling in simple, natural things; and by familiarity and sympathy we can learn why they smile.
The Japanese child is born with this happy tendency, which is fostered through all the period of home education. But it is cultivated with the same exquisiteness that is shown in the cultivation of the natural tendencies of a garden plant. The smile is taught like the bow; like the prostration; like that little sibilant sucking-in of the breath which follows, as a token of pleasure, the salutation to a superior; like all the elaborate and beautiful etiquette of the old courtesy. Laughter is not encouraged, for obvious reasons. But the smile is to be used upon all pleasant occasions, when speaking to a superior or to an equal, and even upon occasions which are not pleasant; it is a part of deportment. The most agreeable face is the smiling face; and to present always the most agreeable face possible to parents, relatives, teachers, friends, well-wishers, is a rule of life. And furthermore, it is a rule of life to turn constantly to the outer world a mien of happiness, to convey to others as far as possible a pleasant impression. Even though the heart is breaking, it is a social duty to smile bravely. On the other hand, to look serious or unhappy is rude, because this may cause anxiety or pain to those who love us; it is likewise foolish, since it may excite unkindly curiosity on the part of those who love us not. Cultivated from childhood as a duty, the smile soon becomes instinctive. In the mind of the poorest peasant lives the conviction that to exhibit the expression of one’s personal sorrow or pain or anger is rarely useful, and always unkind. Hence, although natural grief must have, in Japan as elsewhere, its natural issue, an uncontrollable burst of tears in the presence of superiors or guests is an impoliteness; and the first words of even the most unlettered countrywoman, after the nerves give way in such a circumstance, are invariably, “Pardon my selfishness in that I have been so rude! ” The reasons for the smile, be it also observed, are not only moral; they are to some extent æsthetic; they partly represent the same idea which regulated the expression of suffering in Greek art. But they are much more moral than æsthetic, as we shall presently observe.
From this primary etiquette of the smile there has been developed a secondary etiquette, the observance of which has frequently impelled foreigners to form the most cruel misjudgments as to Japanese sensibility. It is the native custom that whenever a painful or shocking fact must be told, the announcement should be made, by the sufferer, with a smile.3 The graver the subject, the more accentuated the smile; and when the matter is very unpleasant to the person speaking of it, the smile often changes to a low, soft laugh. However bitterly the mother who has lost her firstborn may have wept at the funeral, it is probable that, if in your service, she will tell of her bereavement with a smile: like the Preacher, she holds that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh. It was long before I myself could understand how it was possible for those whom I believed to have loved a person recently dead to announce to me that death with a laugh. Yet the laugh was politeness carried to the utmost point of self - abnegation. It signified, “This you might honorably think to be an unhappy event; pray do not suffer Your Superiority to feel concern about so inferior a matter, and pardon the necessity which causes us to outrage politeness by speaking about such an affair at all. ”
The key to the mystery of the most unaccountable smiles is Japanese politeness. The servant sentenced to dismissal for a fault prostrates himself, and asks for pardon with a smile. That smile indicates the very reverse of callousness or insolence: “Be assured that I am satisfied with the great justice of your honorable sentence, and that I am now aware of the gravity of my fault. Yet my sorrow and my necessity have caused me to indulge the unreasonable hope that I may be forgiven for my great rudeness in asking pardon.” The youth or girl beyond the age of childish tears, when punished for some error, receives the punishment with a smile which means, “No evil feeling arises in my heart; much worse than this my fault has deserved.” And the kurumaya cut by the whip of my Yokohama friend smiled for a similar reason, as my friend must have intuitively felt, since the smile at once disarmed him: “I was very wrong, and you are right to be angry: I deserve to be struck, and therefore feel no resentment.”
But it should be understood that the poorest and humblest Japanese is rarely submissive under injustice. His apparent docility is due chiefly to his moral sense. The ruffianly English sailor who strikes a native for sport may have reason to find that he has made a serious mistake. The Japanese are not to be trifled with; and brutal attempts to trifle with them have cost several worthless lives.
Even after the foregoing explanations, the incident of the Japanese nurse may still seem incomprehensible; but this, I feel quite sure, is because the narrator either suppressed or overlooked certain facts in the case. In the first half of the story, all is perfectly clear. When announcing her husband’s death, the young servant smiled, in accordance with the native formality already referred to. What is quite incredible is that, of her own accord, she should have invited the attention of her mistress to the contents of the vase, or funeral urn. If she knew enough of Japanese politeness to smile in announcing her husband’s death, she must certainly have known enough to prevent her from perpetrating such an error. She could have shown the vase and its contents only in obedience to some real or fancied command; and when so doing, it is more than possible she may have uttered the low, soft laugh which accompanies either the unavoidable performance of a painful duty, or the enforced utterance of a painful statement. My own opinion is that she was obliged to gratify a wanton curiosity. Her smile or laugh would then have signified, “Do not suffer your honorable feelings to be shocked upon my unworthy account ; it is indeed very rude of me, even at your honorable request, to mention so contemptible a thing as my sorrow. ”
But the Japanese smile must not be imagined as a kind of sourire figé, worn perpetually as a soul-mask. Like other matters of deportment, it is regulated by an etiquette which varies in different classes of society. As a rule, the old samurai were not given to smiling upon all occasions; they reserved their amiability for superiors and intimates, and would seem to have maintained toward inferiors an austere reserve. The dignity of the Shintō priesthood has become proverbial; and for centuries the gravity of the Confucian code was mirrored in the decorum of magistrates and officials. From ancient times the nobility affected a still loftier reserve; and the solemnity of rank deepened through all the hierarchies up to that awful state surrounding the Tenshi-Sama, upon whose face no living man might look. But in private life the demeanor of the highest had its amiable relaxation; and even to-day, with some hopelessly modernized exceptions, the noble, the judge, the high priest, the august minister, the military officer, will resume at home, in the intervals of duty, the charming habits of the antique courtesy.
The smile which illuminates conversation is in itself but a small detail of that courtesy ; but the sentiment which it symbolizes certainly comprises the larger part. If you happen to have a cultivated Japanese friend who has remained in all things truly Japanese, whose character has remained untouched by the new egotism and by foreign influences, you will probably be able to study in him the particular social traits of the whole people, — traits in his case exquisitely accentuated and polished. You will observe that, as a rule, he never speaks of himself, and that, in reply to searching personal questions, he will answer as vaguely and briefly as possible, with a polite bow of thanks. But, on the other hand, he will ask many questions about yourself: your opinions, your ideas, even trifling details of your daily life, appear to have deep interest for him; and you will probably have occasion to note that he never forgets anything which he has learned concerning you. Yet there are certain rigid limits to his kindly curiosity, and perhaps even to his observation: he will never refer to any disagreeable or painful matter, and he will remain absolutely blind to eccentricities or small weaknesses, if you have any. To your face he will never praise you; but he will never laugh at you nor criticise you. Indeed, you will find that he never criticises persons, but only actions in their results. As a private adviser, he will not even directly criticise a plan of which he disapproves, but is apt to suggest a new one in some such guarded language as, “Perhaps it might be more to your immediate interest to do thus and so.” When obliged to speak of others, he will refer to them in a curious indirect fashion, by citing and combining a number of incidents sufficiently characteristic to form a picture. But in that event the incidents narrated will almost certainly be of a nature to awaken interest, and to create a favorable impression. This indirect way of conveying information is essentially Confucian. “Even when you have no doubts,” says the Li-Ki, “do not let what you say appear as your own view.” And it is quite probable that you will notice many other traits in your friend requiring some knowledge of the Chinese classics to understand. But no such knowledge is necessary to convince you of his exquisite consideration for others, and his studied suppression of self. Among no other civilized people is the secret of happy living so thoroughly comprehended as among the Japanese ; by no other race is the truth so widely understood that our pleasure in life must depend upon the happiness of those about us, and consequently upon the cultivation in ourselves of unselfishness and of patience. For which reason, in Japanese society, sarcasm, irony, cruel wit, are not indulged. I might almost say that they have no existence in refined life. A personal failing is not made the subject of ridicule or reproach; an eccentricity is not commented upon; an involuntary mistake excites no laughter.
Stiffened somewhat by the Chinese conservatism of the old conditions, it is true that this ethical system was maintained to the extreme of giving fixity to ideas, and at the cost of individuality. And yet, if regulated by a broader comprehension of social requirements, if expanded by scientific understanding of the freedom essential to intellectual evolution, the very same moral policy is that through which the highest and happiest results may be obtained. But as actually practiced it was not favorable to originality; it rather tended to enforce that amiable mediocrity of opinion and imagination which still prevails. Wherefore a foreign dweller in the interior cannot but long sometimes for the sharp, erratic inequalities of Western life, with its larger joys and pains and its more comprehensive sympathies. But sometimes only, for the intellectual loss is really more than compensated by the social charm; and there can remain no doubt in the mind of one who fully understands the Japanese that they are still the best people in the world to live among.
As I pen these lines, there returns to me the vision of a Kyōtō night. While passing through a wonderfully thronged and illuminated street, of which I cannot remember the name, I had turned aside to look at a statue of Jizō, before the entrance of a very small temple. The figure was that of a kozō, an acolyte, — a beautiful boy; and its smile was a bit of divine realism. As I stood gazing, a young lad, perhaps ten years old, ran up beside me, joined his little hands before the image, bowed his head, and prayed for a moment in silence. He had but just left some comrades, and the joy and glow of play were still upon his face; and his unconscious smile was so strangely like the smile of the child of stone that the boy seemed the twin brother of the god. And then I thought, “The smile of bronze or stone is not a copy only; but that which the Buddhist sculptor symbolizes thereby must be the explanation of the smile of the race. ”
That was long ago; but the idea which then suggested itself still seems to me true. However foreign to Japanese soil the origin of Buddhist art, yet the smile of the people signifies the same conception as the smile of the Bosatsu, — the happiness that is born of selfcontrol and self-suppression. “If a man conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand, and another conquer himself, he who conquers himself is the greatest of conquerors.” “Not even a god can change into defeat the victory of the man who has vanquished himself.” 4 Such Buddhist texts as these — and they are many — assuredly express, though they cannot be assumed to have created, those moral tendencies which form the highest charm of the Japanese character. And the whole moral idealism of the race seems to me to have been imaged in that marvelous Buddha of Kamakura, whose countenance, “calm like a deep, still water, ” 5 expresses, as perhaps no other work of human hands can have expressed, the eternal truth, “There is no higher happiness than rest.”6 It is toward that infinite calm that the aspirations of the Orient have been turned; and the ideal of the Supreme Self-Conquest it has made its own. Even now, though agitated at its surface by those new influences which must sooner or later move it even to its uttermost depths, the Japanese mind retains, as compared with the thought of the West, a wonderful placidity. It dwells but little, if at all, upon those ultimate abstract questions about which we most concern ourselves. Neither does it comprehend our interest in them as we desire to be comprehended. “That you should not be indifferent to religious speculations,” a Japanese scholar once observed to me, “ is quite natural; but it is equally natural that we should never trouble ourselves about them. The philosophy of Buddhism has a profundity far exceeding that of your Western theology, and we have studied it. We have sounded the depths of speculation only to find that there are depths unfathomable below those depths; we have voyaged to the furthest limit that thought may sail, only to find that the horizon forever recedes. And you, you have remained for many thousand years as children playing in a stream, but ignorant of the sea. Only now you have reached its shore by another path than ours, and the vastness is for you a new wonder; and you would sail to Nowhere because you have seen the infinite over the sands of life. ”
Will Japan be able to assimilate Western civilization, as she did Chinese more than ten centuries ago, and nevertheless preserve her own peculiar modes of thought and feeling? One striking fact is hopeful: that the Japanese admiration for Western material superiority is by no means extended to Western morals. Oriental thinkers do not commit the serious blunder of confounding mechanical with ethical progress, nor have they failed to perceive the moral weaknesses of our boasted civilization. One Japanese writer has expressed his judgment of things Occidental after a fashion that deserves to be noticed by a larger circle of readers than that for which it was originally written: —
“Order or disorder in a nation does not depend upon something that falls from the sky or rises from the earth. It is determined by the disposition of the people. The pivot on which the public disposition turns towards order or disorder is the point where public and private motives separate. If the people be influenced chiefly by public considerations, order is assured; if by private, disorder is inevitable. Public considerations are those that prompt the proper observance of duties; their prevalence signifies peace and prosperity in the case alike of families, communities, and nations. Private considerations are those suggested by selfish motives: when they prevail, disturbance and disorder are unavoidable. As members of a family, our duty is to look after the welfare of that family; as units of a nation, our duty is to work for the good of the nation. To regard our family affairs with all the interest due to our family, and our national affairs with all the interest due to our nation, — this is to fitly discharge our duty, and to be guided by public considerations. On the other hand, to regard the affairs of the nation as if they were our own family affairs, — this is to be influenced by private motives and to stray from the path of duty. . . .
“Selfishness is born in every man; to indulge it freely is to become a beast. Therefore it is that sages preach the principles of duty and propriety, justice and morality, providing restraints for private aims and encouragements for public spirit. . . . What we know of Western civilization is that it struggled on through long centuries in a confused condition, and finally attained a state of some order; but that even this order, not being based upon such principles as those of the natural and immutable distinctions between sovereign and subject, parent and child, with all their corresponding rights and duties, is liable to constant change, according to the growth of human ambitions and human aims. Admirably suited to persons whose actions are controlled by selfish ambition, the adoption of this system in Japan is naturally sought by a certain class of politicians. From a superficial point of view, the Occidental form of society is very attractive, inasmuch as, being the outcome of a free development of human desires from ancient times, it represents the very extreme of luxury and extravagance. Briefly speaking, the state of things obtaining in the West is based upon the free play of human selfishness, and can only be reached by giving full sway to that quality. Social disturbances are little heeded in the Occident; yet they are at once the evidences and the factors of the present evil state of affairs. . . . Do Japanese enamored of Western ways propose to have their nation’s history written in similar terms? Do they seriously contemplate turning their country into a new field for experiments in Western civilization? . . .
“In the Orient, from ancient times, national government has been based on benevolence, and directed to securing the welfare and happiness of the people. No political creed has ever held that intellectual strength should be cultivated for the purpose of exploiting inferiority and ignorance. . . . The inhabitants of this empire live, for the most part, by manual labor. Let them be never so industrious, they hardly earn enough to supply their daily wants. They earn on the average about twenty sen daily. There is no question with them of aspiring to wear fine clothes or to inhabit handsome houses. Neither can they hope to reach positions of fame and honor. What offense have these poor people committed that they, too, should not share the benefits of Western civilization ? . . . By some, indeed, their condition is explained on the hypothesis that their desires do not prompt them to better themselves. There is no truth in such a supposition. They have desires; but nature has limited their capacity to satisfy them; their duty as men limits it, and the amount of labor physically possible to a human being limits it. They achieve as much as their opportunities permit. The best and finest products of their labor they reserve for the wealthy; the worst and roughest they keep for their own use. Yet there is nothing in human society that does not owe its existence to labor. Now, to satisfy the desires of one luxurious man, the toil of a thousand is needed. Surely it is monstrous that those who owe to labor the pleasures suggested by their civilization should forget what they owe to the laborer, and treat him as if he were not a fellow-being. But civilization, according to the interpretation of the Occident, serves only to satisfy men of large desires. It is of no benefit to the masses, but is simply a system under which ambitions compete to accomplish their aims. . . . That the Occidental system is gravely disturbing to the order and peace of a country is seen by men who have eyes, and heard by men who have ears. The future of Japan under such a system fills us with anxiety. A system based on the principle that ethics and religion are made to serve human ambition naturally accords with the wishes of selfish individuals ; and such theories as those embodied in the modern formula of liberty and equality annihilate the established relations of society, and outrage decorum and propriety. . . . Absolute equality and absolute liberty being unattainable, the limits prescribed by right and duty are supposed to be set. But as each person seeks to have as much right and to be burdened with as little duty as possible, the results are endless disputes and legal contentions. The principles of liberty and equality may succeed in changing the organization of nations, in overthrowing the lawful distinctions of social rank, in reducing all men to one nominal level; but they can never accomplish the equal distribution of wealth and property. Consider America. ... It is plain that if the mutual rights of men and their status are made to depend on degrees of wealth, the majority of the people, being without wealth, must fail to establish their rights; whereas the minority who are wealthy will assert their rights, and, under society’s sanction. will exact oppressive duties from the poor, neglecting the dictates of humanity and benevolence. The adoption of these principles of liberty and equality in Japan would vitiate the good and peaceful customs of our country, render the general disposition of the people harsh and unfeeling, and prove finally a source of calamity to the masses. . . .
“Though at first sight Occidental civilization presents an attractive appearance, adapted as it is to the gratification of selfish desires, yet, since its basis is the hypothesis that men’s wishes constitute natural laws, it must ultimately end in disappointment and demoralization. . . . Occidental nations have become what they are after passing through conflicts and vicissitudes of the most serious kind ; and it is their fate to continue the struggle. Just now their motive elements are in partial equilibrium, and their social condition is more or less ordered. But if this slight equilibrium happens to be disturbed, they will be thrown once more into confusion and change, until, after a period of renewed struggle and suffering, temporary stability is once more attained. The poor and powerless of the present may become the wealthy and strong of the future, and vice versa. Perpetual disturbance is their doom. Peaceful equality can never be attained until built up among the ruins of annihilated Western states and the ashes of extinct Western peoples.” 7
Surely, with perceptions like these, Japan may hope to avert some of the social perils which menace her. Yet it appears inevitable that her approaching transformation must be coincident with a moral decline. Forced into the vast industrial competition of nations whose civilizations were never based on altruism, she must eventually develop those qualities of which the comparative absence made all the wonderful charm of her life. The national character must continue to harden, as it has begun to harden already. But it should never be forgotten that old Japan was quite as much in advance of the nineteenth century morally as she was behind it materially. She had made morality instinctive, after having made it rational. She had realized, though within restricted limits, several among those social conditions which our ablest thinkers regard as the happiest and the highest. Throughout all the grades of her complex society she had cultivated both the comprehension and the practice of public and private duties after a manner for which it were vain to seek any Western parallel. Even her moral weakness was the result of that which all civilized religions have united in proclaiming virtue, the self-sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the family, of the community, and of the nation. It was the weakness indicated by Percival Lowell in his Soul of the Far East, a book of which the consummate genius cannot be justly estimated without some personal knowledge of the Far East. The progress made by Japan in social morality, although greater than our own, was one-sided in the direction of mutual independence. And it will be her coming duty to keep in view the teaching of that mighty thinker whose philosophy she has wisely accepted, Herbert Spencer,—the teaching that “the highest individuation must be joined with the greatest mutual dependence,” and that, however seemingly paradoxical the statement, “the law of progress is at once toward complete separateness and complete union.”
Yet to that past which her younger generation now affect to despise Japan will certainly one day look back, even as we ourselves look back to the old Greek civilization. She will learn to regret the forgotten capacity for simple pleasures, the lost sense of the pure joy of life, the old loving divine intimacy with nature, the marvelous dead art which reflected it. She will remember how much more luminous and beautiful the world then seemed. She will mourn for many things, — the oldfashioned patience and self - sacrifice, the ancient courtesy, the deep human poetry of the ancient faith. She will wonder at many things; but she will regret. Perhaps she will wonder most of all at the faces of the ancient gods, because their smile was once the likeness of her own.
- The reader will find it well worth his while to consult the chapter entitled Domestic Service, in Miss Bacon’s Japanese Girls and Women, for an interesting’ and just presentation of the practical side of the subject, as relating to servants of both sexes. The poetical side, however, is not treated of, — perhaps because intimately connected with religious beliefs which one writing from the Christian standpoint could not be expected to consider sympathetically. Domestic service in ancient Japan was both transfigured and regulated by religion ; and the force of the religious sentiment concerning it may be divined from the Buddhist saying, still current: —↩
- “ Oyako wa issei,
Fufu wa nissei,
Shujū wa sansei.”↩
- The relation of parent and child endures for the space of one life only; that of husband and wife for the space of two lives ; but the relation between master and servant continues for the period of three existences.↩
- The shocks continued, though with lessening frequency and violence, for more than six months after the cataclysm.↩
- Of course the converse is the rule in condoling with the sufferer.↩
- These extracts from a translation in the Japan Daily Mail, November 19, 20, 1890, of Viscount Tōrio’s famous conservative essay do not give a fair idea of the force and logic of the whole original. The essay is too long to quote entire ; and any extracts from the Mail’s admirable translation suffer by their isolation from the singular chains of ethical, religious, and philosophical reasoning which bind the various parts of the composition together. The essay was furthermore remarkable as the production of a native scholar, totally uninfluenced by Western thought. He correctly predicted, even to minutiæ, every social and political disturbance which has occurred in Japan since the opening of the new parliament. Viscount Tōrio is also well known as a master of Buddhist philosophy. He holds a high rank in the Japanese army.↩