At Hakata

I.

TRAVELING by kuruma one can only see and dream. The jolting makes reading too painful; the rattle of the wheels and the rush of the wind render conversation impossible, even when the road allows of a fellow-traveler’s vehicle running beside your own. And after having become familiar with the characteristics of Japanese scenery, you are not apt to notice, during such travel, except at long intervals, anything novel enough to make a strong impression. Most often the way winds through a perpetual sameness of ricefields, vegetable farms, tiny thatched hamlets, and between interminable ranges of green or blue hills. Sometimes, indeed, there are startling spreads of color, as when you traverse a plain all burning yellow with the blossoming of the natane, or a valley all lilac with the flowering of the gengebana; but these are the passing splendors of very short seasons. As a rule, the vast green monotony appeals to no faculty : you sink into reverie, or nod, perhaps, with the wind in your face, to be wakened again by some jolt of extra violence.

Even so, on my autumn way to Hakata, I gaze and dream and nod by turns. watch the flashing of the dragonflies, the infinite network of ricefield paths spreading out of sight on either hand, the slowly shifting lines of familiar peaks in the horizon glow, and the changing shapes of white afloat in the vivid blue above all, — asking myself how many times again must I view the same Kyūslū landscape, and deploring the absence of the wonderful.

Suddenly and very softly, the thought steals into my mind that the most wonderful of possible visions is really all about me in the mere common green of the world, in the ceaseless manifestation of Life.

Ever and everywhere, from beginnings invisible, green things are growing, — out of soft earth, out of hard rock, forms multitudinous, dumb soundless races incalculably older than man. Of their visible history we know much ; names we have given them, and classification. The reason of the forms of their leaves, of the qualities of their fruits, of the colors of their flowers, we also know ; for we have learned not a little about the course of the eternal laws that give shape to all terrestrial things. But why they are, that we do not know. What is the ghostliness that seeks expression in this universal green, — the mystery of that which multiplies forever issuing out of that which multiplies not ? Or is the seeming lifeless itself life, — only a life more silent still, more hidden ?

But a stranger and quicker life moves upon the face of the earth, peoples wind and flood. This has the ghostlier power of separating itself from earth, yet is always at last recalled thereto, and condemned to feed that which it once fed upon. It feels ; it knows ; it crawls, swims, runs, flies, thinks. Countless the shapes of it. The green slower life seeks being only. But this forever struggles against non-being. We know the mechanism of its motion, the laws of its growth : the innermost mazes of its structure have been explored ; the territories of its sensation have been mapped ami named. But the meaning of it, who will tell us ? Out of what ultimate came it ? Or, more simply, what is it ? Why should it know pain ? Why is it evolved by pain ?

And this life of pain is our own. Relatively, it sees, it knows. Absolutely, it is blind, and gropes, like the slow cold green life which supports it. But does it not also support a higher existence, nourish some invisible life infinitely more active and more complex ? Is there gliostliness orbed in ghostliness, life-within-life without end ? Are there universes interpenetrating universes?

For our era, at least, the boundaries of human knowledge have been irrevocably fixed ; and far beyond those limits only exist the solutions of such questions. Yet what constitutes those limits of the possible ? Nothing more than human nature itself. Must that nature remain equally limited in those who shall come after us ? Will they never develop higher senses, vaster faculties, subtler perceptions ? What is the teaching of science ?

Perhaps it has been suggested in the profound saying of Clifford, that we were never made, but have made ourselves. This is, indeed, the deepest of all teachings of science. And wherefore has man made himself ? To escape suffering and death. Under the pressure of pain alone was our being shaped ; and even so long as pain lives, so long must continue the ceaseless toil of selfchange. Once in the ancient past, the necessities of life were physical; they are not less moral than physical now. And of all future necessities, none seems likely to prove so merciless, so mighty, so tremendous, as that of trying to read the Universal Riddle.

The world’s greatest thinker — he who has told us why the Riddle cannot be read — has told us also how the longing to solve it must endure, and grow with the growing of man.1

And surely the mere recognition of this necessity contains within it the germ of a hope. May not the desire to know, as the possibly highest form of future pain, compel within men the natural evolution of powers to achieve the now impossible, of capacities to perceive the now invisible ? We of to-day are that which we are through longing so to be ; and may not the inheritors of our work yet make themselves that which we now would wish to become ?

II.

I am in Hakata, the Town of the Girdle-Weavers, which is a very tall town, Avith fantastic narrow Avays full of amazing colors; and I halt in the Street-ofPrayer-to-the-Gods because there is an enormous head of bronze, the head of a Buddha, smiling at me through a gateway. The gateway is of a temple of the Jōdō sect; and the head is beautiful.

But there is only the head. What supports it above the pavement of the court is hidden by thousands of metal mirrors heaped up to the chin of the great dreamy face. A placard beside the gateway explains the problem. The mirrors are contributions by women to a colossal seated figure of Buddha, to be thirty-five feet high, including the huge lotus on which it is to be enthroned. And the whole is to be made of bronze mirrors. Hundreds have been already used to cast the head ; myriads will be needed to finish the work. Who can venture to assert, in presence of such an exhibition, that Buddhism is passing away ?

Yet I cannot feel delighted at this display, which, although gratifying the artistic sense with the promise of a noble statue, shocks it still more by ocular evidence of the immense destruction that the project involves. For Japanese metal mirrors (now being superseded by atrocious cheap looking-glasses of Western manufacture) well deserve to be called things of beauty. Nobody unfamiliar with their gracious shapes can know the charm of the Oriental comparison of the moon to a mirror. One side only is polished. The other is adorned with designs in relief : trees or flowers, birds or animals or insects, landscapes, legends, symbols of good fortune, figures of gods. Such are even the commonest mirrors. But there are many kinds ; and some among them are very wonderful, which we call “ magic mirrors,” because, when the reflection of one is thrown upon a screen or wall, you can see, in the disk of light, luminous images of the designs upon the back.2

Whether there be any magic mirrors in that heap of bronze ex-votos I cannot tell ; but there certainly are many beautiful things. And there is no little pathos in the spectacle of all that wonderful quaint work thus cast away, and destined soon to vanish utterly. Probably within another decade the making of mirrors of silver and mirrors of bronze will have ceased forever. Seekers for them will then hear, with something more than regret, the story of the fate of these.

Nor is this the only pathos in the vision of all those domestic sacrifices thus exposed to rain and sun and trodden dust of streets. Surely the smiles of bride and babe and mother have been reflected in not a few; some gentle home life must have been imaged in nearly all. But a ghostlier value than memory can give also attaches to Japanese mirrors. An ancient proverb declares, “ The Mirror is the Soul of the Woman ; ” and not merely, as might be supposed, in a figurative sense. For countless legends relate that a mirror feels all the joys or pains of its mistress, and reveals in its dimness or brightness some weird sympathy with her every emotion. Wherefore mirrors were of old employed — and some say are still employed——in those magical rites believed to influence life and death, and were buried with those to whom they belonged.

And the spectacle of all those mouldering bronzes thus makes queer fancies in the mind about wrecks of Souls,—or at least of soul-things. It is even difficult to assure one’s self that, of all the moments and the faces those mirrors once reflected, absolutely nothing now haunts them. One cannot help imagining that whatever has been must continue to he somewhere ; that by approaching the mirrors very stealthily, and turning a few of them suddenly face up to the light, you might be able to catch the past in the very act of shrinking and shuddering away.

Besides, I must observe that the pathos of this exhibition has been specially intensified for me by one memory which the sight of a Japanese mirror always evokes, — the memory of the old Japanese story Matsuyama no Kagami. Though related in the simplest manner and with the fewest possible words,3 it might well be compared to those wonderful little tales by Goethe, of which the meanings expand according to the experience and capacity of the reader. Mrs. James has perhaps exhausted the psychological possibilities of the story in one direction; and whoever can read her little book without emotion should be driven from the society of mankind. Even to guess the Japanese idea of the tale, one should be able to feel the intimate sense of the delicious colored prints accompanying her text, — the interpretation of the last great artist of the Kano school. (Foreigners, unfamiliar with Japanese home life, cannot fully perceive the exquisiteness of the drawings made for the Fairy-Tale Series; but the silk-dyers of Kyōtō and of Ōsaka prize them beyond measure, and reproduce them constantly upon the costliest textures.) But there are many versions ; and, with the following outline, readers can readily create nineteenth-century versions for themselves.

III.

Long ago, at a place called Matsuyama in the province of Echigo, there lived a young samurai husband and wife whose names have been quite forgotten. They had a little daughter.

Once the husband went to Yedo, — probably as a retainer in the train of the Lord of Echigo. On his return he brought presents from the capital, — sweet cakes and a doll for the little girl (at least so the artist tells us), and for his wife a mirror of silvered bronze. To the young mother that mirror seemed a very wonderful thing; for it was the first mirror ever brought to Matsuyama. She did not understand the use of it, and innocently asked whose was the pretty smiling face she saw inside it. When her husband answered her, laughing, “ Why, it is your own face ! How foolish you are! ” she was ashamed to ask any more questions, but hastened to put her present away, still thinking it to be a very mysterious thing. And she kept it hidden many years, — the original story does not say why ; perhaps for the simple reason that in all countries love makes even the most trifling gift too sacred to be shown.

But in the hours of her last sickness she gave the mirror to her daughter, saying, “ After I am dead you must look into this mirror every morning and evening, and you will see me. Do not grieve.” Then she died.

And the girl thereafter looked into the mirror every morning and evening, and did not know that the face in the mirror was her own shadow, but thought it to be that of her dead mother, whom she much resembled. So she would talk to the shadow, having the sensation, or, as the Japanese original more tenderly says,

having the heart of meeting her mother ” day by day ; and she prized the mirror above all things.

At last her father noticed this conduct, and thought it strange, and asked her the reason of it, whereupon she told him all. “ Then,” says the old Japanese narrator, “ he thinking it to he a very piteous thing, his eyes grew dark with tears.”

IV.

Such is the old story. . . . But was the artless error indeed so piteous a thing as it seemed to the parent ? Or was his emotion vain as my own regret for the destiny of all those mirrors with all their recollections ?

I cannot help fancying that the innocence of the maiden was nearer to eternal truth than the feeling of the father.

For in the cosmic order of things the present is the shadow of the past, and the future must be the shadow of the present. One are we all, even as Light is, though unspeakable the millions of the vibrations whereby it is made. One are we all, and yet many, because each is a world of ghosts. Surely that girl saw and spoke to her mother’s very soul, while seeing the fair shadow of her own young lips and eyes, uttering love !

And, with this thought, the strange display in the old temple court takes a new meaning, — becomes the symbolism of a sublime expectation. Each of us is truly a mirror, imaging something of the universe, —reflecting also the reflection of ourselves in that universe ; and the destiny of each is to be molten by the perpetual image-maker, Death, into some great sweet passionless unity. How the vast work shall be wrought, only those to come after us may know. We of the present West do not know ; we merely dream. But the ancient East believes. Here is the simple imagery of the faith. All forms must vanish at last to blend with the Being whose smile is immutable Best, whose knowledge is Infinite Vision.

Lafcadio Hearn.

  1. First Principles (The Reconciliation).
  2. See article entitled On the Magic Mirrors of Japan, by Professors Ayrton and Perry, in vol, xxvii. of the Proceeding of the Royal Society; also an article treating the same subject by the same authors in vol. xxii. of The Philo-sophical Magazine.
  3. See, for Japanese text and translation, A Romanized Japanese Reader, by Professor B. H. Chamberlain. The beautiful version for children, written by Mrs. F. H. James, belongs to the celebrated Japanese Fairy-Tale Series, published at Tōkyō.