The Japanese Spirit

WHEN Japan fought with China, in 1894, for the independence of Korea, and when, a few years later, she satisfactorily discharged her allotted task as one of the allied powers in the rescue of the foreign legations at Peking from the hands of the Boxers, the general public was pleased to call her a nation of wonderful people. Now that her national safety has been threatened in Manchuria, she has been forced into a war with Russia, and the achievements she has so far accomplished on land and sea seem to have gained her once more the epithet of a wonderful people. Among many congratulatory letters on her hitherto attained success received at the headquarters in Tokyo from persons of note abroad, there was one asking the question, “Why are Japanese so brave in war ? ” The answer given was, “Japanese are brave on account of their patriotism and loyalty to the Emperor.”

If the general public once rightly understood warlike Japan, — her history and institutions, the customs and habits that have formed her military character,— then, what is now looked upon as wonderful will be seen in its true light as no more than might be expected, for knowledge turns the wonderful into the natural.

What we here propose is not a treatise on the subject. It is merely an attempt to lift a corner of the veil so as to let those who will take a peep at the interior of the shrine of national life that has been built up by the sons and daughters of Yamato, and has stood unshaken for thousands of years, gaining strength from age to age.

It is a gross mistake to suppose that civilization in its broad sense first dawned upon the isles of Japan only about fifty years ago, when friendly America knocked at the doors of the empire. Japan had been civilized then; that is, she had left far behind her the vestige of barbarism, and was then just as civilized as any country in Europe or America; only her civilization was peculiar to herself, having been developed by her during her long seclusion from the rest of the world. In the degree of progress from barbarism she stood on the same level as any other civilized nation. But many of the ideas that had been formed under her peculiar civilization seemed so different from those of other civilized nations that she at first misunderstood them, and was misunderstood by them. It was to this difference of ideas that she owed the rubs and difficulties she experienced at the outset when she was introduced into the friendship of nations. Judging them by her own standard, she thought them barbarous; and so was she declared when judged by theirs. Her ideas were shared by none, while theirs were common to the more powerful peoples of the world. So that, having once entered into treaty relationship with them, and being unable to fall back upon her former seclusion, it was necessary for her, if she wished to make a good figure in the brotherhood of nations, to adopt and adapt to herself the civilization of the West. This she saw, and acted upon it. As she studied the culture of the West, the ideas that seemed at first entirely different from her own she found to be not so many as she had thought, and these not so radically opposed to one another as to resist amalgamation. Now it is conceded on all sides that the modern civilization of the West has been greatly indebted to that of ancient Greece and Rome, if not entirely evolved out of them. But if the old customs and institutions of Japan be duly examined, a great many of them will be found analogous to those of the two ancient countries of Europe. If, therefore, Greece and Rome have given rise to and influenced and moulded the modern European civilization, then it stands to reason that it can be adopted and assimilated by Japan, whose culture, customs, and institutions have close resemblance to those of the classical parents of modern Europe. And so Japan embraced and has at length assimilated it, — to a great extent at least.

In consequence the Japanese have been complimented on their imitative, rather to the disparagement of their inventive faculties. But this compliment comes from a superficial observer. He does not see that, in order to adopt a thing, there must be already developed power to grasp it in its details, and that this intellectual grasp presupposes inventive as well as imitative faculties working in that line. The Japanese decorative art has been imitated by the peoples of the West. Look at their objets d’art produced at present; the Japanese influence is more or less apparent in them all. Would any one say on that account that the Westerners lack inventive faculties in this line of industry ? Imitation and adoption prelude adaptation, and adaptation calls forth improvement, which is decidedly within the province of invention. As we are at present considering not industrial or commercial, but warlike Japan, we will speak only of things that are related to war. Let us take a few instances.

Having early realized that, despite the progress of international law and the humanitarian professions of the powers of the world, might is still right at bottom in the intercourse of nations, Japan has taken to the study of the modern tactics and other military arts and sciences of the West. How much she has already availed herself of the new knowledge combined with her own bequeathed by her ancestors has been shown in the scientific address and machine-like movements of her forces on land and sea in the present war with Russia. And not only that; many of the munitions and ammunitions wherewith she is now fighting are of her own invention and make. The Shimose powder and shells, the Oda submarine mines, the Arisaka quick-firing guns, and the Meiji 30th year rifles have all proved their effectiveness, to the great loss of the enemy. Even the apparatus of wireless telegraphy she is now using is of a special type of her contrivance; and she has devised, though not yet used them in the present war, a new type of balloons. Thus she is fighting with new knowledge and new equipment. Yet she is still eager to learn, and has already learned much from her enemy. She has deeply regretted the death of Makaroff, not only from the high esteem in which she had held him, but also from the frustration of the hopes she had entertained of learning a great deal from him, whose books on naval matters she had carefully studied.

But all this intelligence would be of little avail had not Japan that bravery which is one of the flowers of her patriotism. The love of one’s fatherland is common to the natives of all countries, but in the Japanese patriotism there are certain things peculiar to itself.

When we consider Japanese patriotism, we must never lose sight of its great concomitant, loyalty to the Emperor. These two passions are so closely united in the breast of an ordinary Japanese, that he can hardly conceive of one without the other. When a Japanese says, “I love my country,” a great or even the greater part of his idea of his “country” is taken up by the Emperor and the imperial family. His duty to his country, as conceived by him, includes, first of all, duty to his Emperor. Moreover, to him his country does not mean simply a group of islands with about fifty millions of people living on them. His forefathers and descendants are also taken into account. To him the past, present, and future generations are commingled into one; so that if we analyze the idea of his kuni, country, as understood by him, we find it composed of the following elements: —

1. The imperial ancestors.

2. The reigning Emperor.

3. The imperial family.

4. The imperial descendants.

5. His own ancestors.

6. His own family and relations.

7. His descendants.

8. His fellow countrymen, their families, and their relations.

9. Their ancestors.

10. Their descendants.

11. The extent of land or lands occupied by his race.

Since Jimmu, the first Emperor, ascended his throne more than five-andtwenty centuries ago, one unbroken line of Emperors and Empresses has reigned over the isles.1 The empire has stood for this long succession of centuries unpolluted by the foot of a conqueror. Indeed, toward the end of the thirteenth century Kublai Khan, attracted by the accounts of Japan given by seafarers as a land of inexhaustible gold mines, sent a vast fleet with the purpose of adding the country to his dominions. But the fleet was repulsed and destroyed. Out of the hundred thousand men sent by him only three returned to tell the tale. Japan had never been before that time, nor has she been since, attacked by a foreign power.

The Japanese knows that his own ancestors served those of his Emperor. Nay, he knows that, if his own genealogy be traced to bygone ages, it will be found more or less connected with that of the imperial household. In short, the Japanese are members of one vast family with the Emperor as the head, and representative of its main stock. The Emperor is by birth the head of the nation. Neither he nor any of his ancestors came to the throne by ruse or violence. Suppose Abraham had founded an empire in Palestine; that his heirs in an unbroken line ruled over the twelve tribes, themselves descendants of Abraham, and that the empire continued powerful to this day; — suppose this, and you have an idea somewhat similar to that of the Empire of Japan. The Japanese has in his house a household shrine 2 dedicated to the imperial ancestors and to his own. Every morning and evening he lights the lamps in the shrine; and, according to the days of the month, he makes ordinary and special offerings, which he partakes afterward with his wife and children. If he makes an unusual gain in business, he puts the money a while in the shrine for the ancestors to see, and he thanks them for their parental care. If his rank be promoted in office, he reports it to them. When he sets out on a travel, he takes leave of them; and on his return he pays homage to them. He invokes them in adversity, and in prosperity he glorifies them. In joy and in sorrow he believes they are with him. He serves them as if they were living. And these ancestors whom he loves and reveres were all loyal to their Emperors in their days; so that he feels he must be loyal to his Emperor, as they were to theirs, if he means to prove himself worthy of their race. This is a sentiment born with him. It is owing to this deep-rooted feeling in the people that, although several daimyōs fought with one another during the sixteenth century for the aggrandizement of their powers, yet none of them dared to aim at the imperial throne. They obtained their ranks and titles from the Emperor then reigning. Their aim was to be the chief military officer — or we may say viceroy — of the empire. Even Iyeyasu Tokugawa, the greatest of shoguns, who was the de facto ruler of Japan in his time, was legally but an officer under the sovereign. He and his heirs actually held the reins of the empire for about two hundred and sixty years, but none of them dared even to become a shogun without being so appointed by the reigning Emperor. The hereditary loyalty of the people to the Emperor, with whose ancestors are associated their own forefathers, is too stubborn a sentiment to be trifled with, and no intelligent shogun ever attempted to disregard it.

In many other countries kings and emperors have to keep their pomp in order to uphold their authority. Not so in Japan. The lower the imperial pomp dwindles down, the warmer and deeper is the popular sympathy. The people cannot bear seeing the chief of their race in wretchedness. They will eventually rise up for him. Without looking for an instance in ancient history, we have it in the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867. As the authority of the Emperors had gradually been effaced by that of the shoguns, popular discontent, originating among the literati, began to spread itself against the Tokugawa family. It was rife when Commodore Perry came to Japan. The shogun acted contrary to the orders of the Emperor, when he concluded treaties with America and some other foreign powers. This was a glaring case of disobedience to the imperial authority at the time of a national crisis. The fire of discontent with the shogunate that had been smouldering under the thin surface of the Tokugawa régime now broke out, and set the empire ablaze. Loyalist daimyōs gathered round the throne, and marching against the shogun, at last compelled him to resign his post. The rule of the country was restored to the imperial head of the nation both in name and in fact. Such is the loyalty of the Japanese to their Emperor, who represents in his person all that is dear to them. This deeprooted sentiment is peculiar to Japan. It is seen nowhere else, because it is the outcome of the unique development of the Japanese race. No foreigner within our knowledge who has written about Japan seems to have remarked it. Some, looking upon the downfall of the last shogunate, say that “many daimyōs who cared little for the Emperor’s abstract rights, cared a great deal for the chance of aggrandizing their own families at the shogun’s expense,” and that therefore they fought against the shogun. This is a crass misunderstanding of the fact, though perhaps an unavoidable one to a foreigner born in a country where a very different idea of kingship obtains. But a misunderstanding it certainly is; for, soon after the downfall of the shogunate, the daimiates were abolished and prefectures established at the initiation of the very daimyōs who had pulled down the shogunate, and who, though they could do almost anything if they wished to aggrandize their own families, yet gave up of their own accord their hereditary fiefs, so as to set an example for other lords to follow. Nay, there were among the loyalist daimyōs some very prominent on account of their family relationship with the shogun, such as the lords of Mito and Fukui. In truth, the “Restoration” as it actually took place is an event that could never have happened, nor can ever happen, anywhere except in Japan. These lords and their men saw that feudalism had lasted too long, throwing the imperial authority into the shade, and that the throne must shine in its pristine glory upon all the sons of Yamato, to unite them into one body and soul at that national crisis, when the country was to begin a new life among the powers of the world. The lords and their men forgot their own interests for the sake of their fatherland and its chief. The intervening hand of the shogunate was at last removed from between the heir of the parental stock and the children of the race, and the national blood resumed its course in its original veins, giving the members, each and all, mutually responding throbs. Thus we see loyalty and patriotism are so blended in the Japanese heart that the two terms have come to be almost synonymous. The Emperor representing the stem of the race, the memories of the forefathers dear to all are inseparably associated with the glory of the throne.

And the forefathers are never forgotten. “ He throws mud at the faces of his ancestors,” is a Japanese expression used to describe an evil-doer. “No, if I do that I cannot look with good conscience upon the ihai3 of my ancestors,” says a trueborn Japanese when he resists a temptation. Or he says, “What apologies could I make to the ancestors, if I did such a thing?” The dead are considered as still keeping company in spirit with the living, whose lives they are watching with anxious sympathy. “Make your ancestors known to the world by doing good,” is the moral incitement that urges a true Japanese on the path of virtue. The dead share in the honors of the living. Nay, some honors are paid specially to the dead. Here is an instance. Not only those who have died up to this moment in the present war with Russia have been accorded ranks of honor and orders of merit, but Tokimune Hōjō, the hero of the thirteenth century who destroyed the fleet of Kublai Khan, has recently been created a dignitary of the Second Class of the First Rank. There is not in Japan a city or town that has not a shōkonsha, a shrine dedicated to the spirits of those who laid down their lives for their country. Twice in a year a special festival is held, when people assemble there to make offerings. Strangers may laugh at it. Bigots may deride it. But derision and laughter are turned to shame when this national custom shows its effects, with blood and iron, on the national enemy.

And our Japanese soldier knows that he shall be honored if he serves his country well. “ Man lives but his lifetime; his name it is that lives to posterity,” has been told him from his childhood. He believes the ancient heroes of his race are watching him and guiding him. The banner of his regiment has characters written by his Emperor, and was given to his regiment by the Emperor himself, the chief by birth of his race. Such being the banner, and consequently the inborn memories of the race twining round it, the soldier sees with the eye of his faith his ancestors marching before the standard of the Rising Sun. He knows he has the deep fellow feeling of his living countrymen, and that if he dies he shall be honored, for endless generations, with offerings and festivals by his countrymen yet to come. Nothing is so real to him as what he feels; and he feels that with him are united the past, the present, and the future generations of his countrymen. Thus fully conscious of the intense sympathy of his compatriots both dead and living, and swelled with lofty anticipation of his glorious destiny, no danger can appall, and no toil can tire the real Japanese soldier.

This soul of patriotism has been brilliantly evinced by the single-hearted, enthusiastic, yet cool-headed actions of the Japanese fighting men at the front. The public has seen how quickly they seized the command of the Yellow Sea; how undaunted they were in blocking Port Arthur, a fair success not coming to them till their third attempt; how valiantly they crossed the Yalu, and took Chiulienchen, crushing down in one day the strong fortifications that it had been thought would hold out at least two months: how they took possession of Kinchau and, after sixteen hours’ fighting, the stronghold of Namsan; and how they routed at Tehlisz the vast number of men that came down for the rescue of Port Arthur. So far there has not been a regular battle that they have not won. These with their detailed accounts are now before the world. And more are yet to be seen. The indomitable valor of the fighting men has been declared marvelous by eye-witnesses, who attribute it to lofty enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm it is, but not of that transient sort which is kindled in one moment and put out in the next. It is latent; it is calm. Let us take a glance at the men from another point of view. Every mail from the front brings some poems composed by them to their relations and friends at home. Admiral Togo gave commission to a merchant to send him some dwarfed trees in pots, to beguile his officers and men from the monotony of the sea. The men of another vessel drank Banzai !4 at seeing a branch of cherry flowers brought to them by the captain of a transport. A reconnoitring party which landed at a point in Manchuria brought back, in addition to an accurate report, a bouquet of violets. Here is a soldier on the bank of the Yalu, who picks some azalea flowers, and sends them in a letter to his parents at home. He says he wants to share with them the pleasure of seeing the first flowers in Manchuria. Another soldier writes home, asking his brother to send him some books of poetry. Such are the men. Yet under this smooth surface there lies a terrible determination; a determination to win or die. To a friend’s letter wishing for his safe return, “I will cling to the word of my mother,” answered a soldier, “and will either return in triumph, or receive your offerings and hers at the shōkonsha.” When the victorious march upon Chiulienchen was about to be made, the soldiers, without any previous talk, changed their shirts, and dusted their clothes even to a man. What for ? In order not to leave behind them unseemly corpses after they have left this world. This reminds us of the ancient Japanese warriors who used to perfume their helmets when they went to a battle, in order not to give the enemy uncomely heads, if they fell in the battle, and thereby to show them that they had been fully prepared for death. In time of peace, if a man dies, his relations and friends wash his corpse, shave its face, dress it with new clothes, and fill the coffin with the powder and leaves of incense-wood. In time of war, the man makes so far as is possible these preparations for his own burial. “Show no regrets at death, nor be overtaken by death unawares;” this has been a proverb from time immemorial.

Nor does the Japanese soldier make light of death. He knows the value of life; only he is ready to risk it in performance of his duties. “Life is difficult to maintain, while death is easy to attain,” is the saying; and a death that is neither honorable nor conducive to the furtherance of one’s duties is called inu-jini, a dog’s dying. The full appreciation of the value of life is shown in the completeness of the means and appliances of the field-hospitals, the care and deftness with which the wounded are carried in and attended there, and the eagerness wherewith the soldiers rescue one another. Life is valued as highly by the Japanese as by any other soldier, but in the Japanese camp every man sets more value on the lives of his comrades than his own, and is willing to undertake, in order to spare others, the hardest work in front of the enemy. At the march on Namsan it was suspected that a mine had been laid by the enemy in a certain place. “If any of you is willing to tread on that ground to try the mine let him lift up his rifle! ” cried the colonel who led the van of the middle division. His regiment was unanimous. There was not one rifle unraised. However, to imperil the whole regiment being needless, a selection was made. The selected party cheerfully rushed forward amidst a hailstorm of shells and bullets. Yet, fortunately, when they reached the suspected ground, the mine had been rendered inactive by a shell, shot by the artillery, which cut up the electric wire that had connected the mine with the battery. These men were willing to lay down their lives, not because they courted death, nor because they set their lives at naught, but because they wanted to save their friends from the danger of the mine. At the time of the same attack, a party from another division ran out to break the wire netting set up by the enemy for obstruction. The enemy’s missiles came swarming upon them; and, while yet at some distance from the netting, some men fell mortally wounded. One of the lieutenants, while engaged in piling up mud, stones, and such things as could be found, to protect the wounded from further injuries, himself was shot down. Then one of the wounded men rose up, and, with tottering steps, endeavored to carry the officer back to his division. This beautifully illustrates the attachment existing between the Japanese officers and their men. The general public is aware that the late Commander Hirose, at the blocking of Port Arthur, went back from his boat three times to the sinking steamer in search of his missing subordinate, Sugino. These men cherished their lives as much as anybody else, but they risked them to save those of their friends. Death is not in itself honorable. Duty is paramount; and it is to die in accordance with duty that is regarded as highly honorable. In the balance of the Japanese chivalry, “Duty is as heavy as a mountain,” so goes an old saying, “and death as light as a feather.” And, “If a man does not die at the time he ought to,” says another adage, “he shall incur shame more unbearable than death itself.” “ The time he ought to die ” is the time when he judges his duty requires him to sacrifice himself at the altar of the national honor. An illustration of this is afforded in the case of the ill-fated transport Kinshumaru. The ship being surrounded, unarmed and helpless, by the squadron of Vladivostock, the few naval officers that were on the vessel went to the Russian flagship to save by negotiations if possible the military officers and soldiers on board, at the risk of their own lives, which they were willing to sacrifice for their sake. These naval officers not having come back, and the Russians meanwhile threatening to destroy the transport, the military officers urged non-combatants, against their will, to escape by boats. After they had reluctantly left the ship, the officers appeared with the soldiers on the deck, and they fired at the enemy. They knew very well this was not of much avail, but they were unwilling to die without making some resistance. “If you fall in a battle, fall with your heads toward your enemy,” is an old saying. So these men fired at the Russians. And after that, having burnt their flags, banners, and all important documents, and shouting three times their last Banzai ! to their Emperor and their fatherland, these brave men committed harakiri, and were buried with their ship under the waves. Had they been engaged in a battle on land, they would have fought to the last. This being beyond their power in their situation, they preferred death to captivity; for to be taken captive appeared to them a shame unbearable, while to die by their own hands was what some of their ancestors had done when circumstanced as they were. We do not here intend either to recommend or condemn their deed, our business being simply to explain it; and in doing so, we remark here the same spirit that prompted Roman warriors to fall on their own swords in similar cases.

Nor is it the men at the front alone that are bearing the hardships of the war. Their countrymen at home are doing all they can to share the load with them, and to back them up in their glorious mission. Societies and associations have been organized to relieve the families of the fighting men, and every one makes certain contributions to the relief fund. Some men contribute money or goods, some their labor, and most of the lint and bandages used for the wounded are the work of women, from the Empress down to the peasant girl. Little boys and girls willingly forego their daily sweetmeats, and give the small moneys thus saved to the relief societies. A boy eleven years old in a country school made one day a contribution of two yen. It was thought too much for a country boy’s gift. The schoolteacher and the elderman of the village suspected the money might have been given the lad by his parents to satisfy his vanity; in which case it should be admonished against. An inquiry was accordingly made, and brought out the fact that the boy had actually earned the money for the purpose by devoting his play hours to the making of straw sandals. Even some criminals working in prisons have made several applications to contribute their earnings to the funds, though their wishes have not been complied with. In every village a compact has been made that those remaining at home should look after the farms of those at the front, so that their families may not be disappointed of the usual crops. Since the outbreak of the war the government’s bonds have been twice issued at home, and each time the subscription more than trebled the amount called for, the imperial household taking the lead by subscribing twenty million yen. Thus the hardships of the war are cheerfully borne by every man, woman, and child in the land.

Yet see how quiet and calm they are. As the men in the front are picking flowers and composing poems, when not engaged in fighting, so are the people at home peacefully pursuing their usual avocations. A stranger walking in the streets of Tokyo or any other city or town will not notice that Japan is engaged in a war with one of the strongest powers of the world. This calm, this peacefulness is the outcome not of indifference, but of a firm determination to fight till the last sen is spent, and the last drop of blood is shed. Those in the front fight for these at home, and these,in return, make every endeavor to relieve those from cares for their families, that their valor may not be blunted.

Such is Japan in her warlike character. In industrial and commercial achievements she is yet far behind some countries of the world. Until she has accomplished in these two spheres many things such as will benefit mankind at large, let her not consider herself a great nation. Until such time is come, let her deem herself a mere apprentice in the arts of peace, lest her vanity should thwart her progress; for she has a great many things yet to learn. But in war she is surpassed by none other. Her national traditions, her history as believed by her people, her national faith, her intelligence and valor which are the results of her history and faith,—all combine to make her a nation of clever and intrepid fighters. In time of peace she may be divided into parties and factions, but in a war with another country her racial instinct asserts itself, and the whole nation becomes one compact body. The country of tea ceremonies, flower arrangements, dancing, and fine arts, transforms itself at the sound of the bugle into one vast camp, where every person, male or female, is ready to sacrifice everything, even life itself, to the furtherance of the common cause. Quite recently an officer of the general staff of the navy has remarked, “A war is our great undertaking which determines the fate of our state for numberless generations to come. Therefore we must take utmost care not to defeat our common cause by our errors; and holding ourselves responsible to the milliards of souls of our ancestors and to our illimitable posterity, we must forget ourselves and everything of our own to gain the object of the war.” This expresses the general sentiment of the nation.

Thus seen, in the light emanating from the shrine of national life through the corner of the veil we have lifted in the foregoing pages, the achievements already accomplished, and those yet to be accomplished by Japan in the present war, become all natural to such a people. They appear wonderful only to those who have not understood her. And of all nations, the one that ought to have understood, and yet has grossly misunderstood her is her present antagonist; and it is this misunderstanding on the part of her enemy that has given the general public an opportunity of discerning, as Japan marches on with her ancestral sword, her real military worth.

  1. We are now concerned with the vital belief that is the moving power of the nation, and not engaged in a chronological discussion on the so-called minor discrepancies in the annals of the country.
  2. In a Japanese household there are usually two shrines, one called Kamidana, beingrelated to Shintoism, and the other Butsudan, related to Buddhism. The rites and ceremonies respectively observed in regard to them differ, but we leave their several descriptions to another occasion; our present purpose being as well served by speaking as if there were but one shrine, since the two have had the same pietistie origin.
  3. Ihai. Tablets on which are inscribed the names of one’s ancestors, and which are kept in one’s household shrine.
  4. Banzai! It means 10,000 years, and is used similarly to the French Vive !