Intellectual Life in Japan

THE intellectual life of less self-conscious ages than ours has had no independent existence. Men have sought some other primary purpose, and given to philosophy, to poetry, to story-telling, only that time and attention which they could spare from more strenuous, or at least outwardly more energetic, pursuits. The minnesinger or troubadour played on his viol and poetized when he was not wielding the sword. When men first, begin to devote themselves entirely to the joys of the spirit , their fate is that of Ruteboeuf,—grinding poverty, and the gray misery of an outcast’s life; unless perchance they may come to enjoy the patronage of some Mæcenas. From these humiliations, they cannot, with Dr. Johnson, proudly declare themselves independent, until another age has dawned, an age in which the things of the mind are valued in and for themselves.

Japan is but now emerging from a state of culture which it shared with mediæval Europe throughout a remarkable parallelism of historic development. In Japan, as in Europe, it was the priest who philosophized, though his first duty was to pray; it was the samurai, the warrior, who developed poetry, in the moments of relaxation from the severities of military discipline and warlike combat. Yet, though intellectual life under these conditions can develop only as it connects itself in an ancillary way with the two great interests of war and religion, nevertheless the clear purpose and well-defined ideals that are apt to animate an age of action are favorable to the creation of literary masterpieces, so that there may be a literature though there are no literary men. But even in Dante, the temper of priest and warrior is predominant.

In old Japan, art and philosophy were hieratic, or courtly and precious. Under the Tokugawa régime a new era dawned with the popularizing of literature through Bakin, and the picturing of the humbler phases of life in the Ukiyoye. Then with the Restoration a flood of new experiences and emotions burst upon the Japanese, carrying them along toward a more varied and specialized civilization. Yet the substructure of Japanese society is so firm that the earlier influences and ideas are still powerful, and we cannot understand the intellectual struggles and triumphs of modern Japan unless we often revert to the literary activities of the priests and the samurai, or rather of those among them who had a feeling for the things of the mind.

With the new era has come a reign of general education. Illiteracy has almost disappeared, and a large reading public has come into being. We cannot, indeed, expect the same taste and discrimination that characterized the courtly circles of the earlier age, but there is a broader field in which intellectual life — of higher or lower aspirations— may flourish. Old class distinctions and trade-groupings have broken down, and the simple activities of the earlier societies have multiplied and have become specialized in the endless complexity of modern life. Thus there has come about an opportunity for men to devote themselves more exclusively to science, literature, or philosophy. In dignity and independence their position is not equal to that which savants have obtained in Western countries, but something has been achieved in that direction. The limitations inherited from the earlier society still condition these activities, but they are emerging constantly into greater prominence and repute.

Whoever desires to grasp the essential currents of Japanese thought, and picture to himself the modern development of Japanese psychology, is beset with innumerable difficulties, which all, however, contribute to the deep interest of the problem. The adjustment of an old culture, itself highly refined and complex, to entirely new conditions; trying demands upon faculties which had not been cultivated before; the adoption of new processes and modes of thought, and their amalgamation with those elements which had been retained from the past — these are the main requirements imposed upon Japan by her new situation. Of transcendent interest to the student of psychology is the rapid development of faculties such as the mathematical, which in the feudal society were considered unworthy of cultivation, being looked down upon as mercenary and plebeian.

Nor is the Japanese mind perplexed only by the difficulty of choosing between the old and the new. Added to this great problem of policy and conduct, is one common to the entire civilized world to-day, but which under Japanese conditions assumes a peculiarly troublesome aspect. It concerns the relation of the demands of material development and technical perfection to those deeper elements of culture — the art of literary and pictorial expression, the emotional life of poetry, and all that mankind yearns after when its highways have been constructed and its harvests garnered. The necessities of national self-defense and maintenance have in Japan emphasized everything that makes for material strength; and have put on the defensive, even more than in Western countries, those pursuits and enthusiasms whose value transcends mathematical demonstration.

The student of Japanese psychology will also note many other interesting likenesses to other civilizations. Though in character and temperament the Japanese have much in common with the French, yet in their intellectual and scientific culture, they have followed rather the English and the Germans. During the present era, the star of the French has not been in the ascendant; they are not preëminently a successful race. And disregarding to a certain extent intellectual sympathies, Japan has turned to those who, under present conditions, stand for demonstrable success and positive achievement.

Before entering upon a survey of the intellectual life of Japan, it is necessary that we should divest ourselves entirely of the superficial theory, so frequently put forward, that there is an impassable gulf between the psychology of the East and that of the West. If such a view is to be held at all, we ought to accept it only after it has been forced upon us unavoidably as the result of long observation and comparison in many fields of intellectual life. Nothing is easier than to enunciate a startling and absolute theory and then give a few examples which to the superficial view bear out the aphorism. No matter how different from our own may be the Japanese mental attitude and manner of expression, it is not necessary to accept such a transcendental explanation when we still have the effects of social structure and physical environment to take into account as determining factors. Were we to enter upon this matter at this place, it would be easy to make a prima facie case for the identity of psychological organization and intellectual activity among Japanese and Europeans; but this is not our purpose. We would rather look at life as it presents itself and, above all, endeavor to appreciate the multitude of shades that distinguish apparently similar relations and phenomena. Thus, shunning generalization of a sweeping kind, we shall pass in review certain types of Japanese intellectual experience, and attempt to gather by accretion a composite view of the operation of intellectual forces in the Japan of to-day.

The type of priest who is also a philosopher and man of learning is still found in Japan, though modernized and adapted to new conditions. Let us look for a moment at the career of Count Kōzui Otani, by inheritance Lord Abbot of the Nishi Hongwanji, the great western monastery of the Shin sect of Buddhism. This young man, destined for the most influential position in the Buddhist Church in Japan, prepared himself for his duties and responsibilities by a long period of study abroad. He spent four years in Europe examining the relations of religion to political life, looking into the details of the government of the Established Church in England and Germany, as well as into the religious difficulties of France. Nor was he without the companionship of numerous other Buddhist students, men of high rank who were following learning with a similar purpose and from a similar point of view in the great centres of European education.

After completing his European studies, Count Otani went to India, where he carried on researches in the early history of Buddha and his religion. He gathered many inscriptions and other historical data, proceeding in the collection and criticism of historical material according to approved scientific methods. The death of the reigning Lord Abbot called him back to Japan in 1903. Here an abundance of work lay ready to his hand. Buddhist missionaries were sent to the United States and to China, and the Buddhist societies in California were given assistance and encouragement. When the great war came, a service of chaplains for the army had to be organized. The patriotic outburst of the war aroused in Buddhist endeavor new vigor and enthusiasm. Especially in the field of China was missionary work taken up with redoubled energy. Fertile in resources, an active and efficient organizer, the Lord Abbot has been the soul of the great Buddhist expansion of these recent years. Meanwhile, he leads the simplest of lives, ascetic in his conduct, living without ostentation or a large household, but full of energy and enthusiasm in his action.

The sermons of another Buddhist ecclesiastic, Sōyen Shaku, Lord Abbot of the great Kamakura monastery, which were delivered to audiences in the United States, also give us an insight into the intellectual awakening among the higher Buddhist clergy. Not only are internal questions of belief and ethical principle dealt with in a broad and modern spirit, but these sermons also contain highly significant discussions of the relation of Buddhism to Oriental and Western culture. There is a great deal of preaching in Japan, and many books of sermons are published. These discourses are less formal than with us, they contain little of purely doctrinal matter, but discuss ethical teaching in its relation to life, and are enlivened with many ancedotes and quaint applications of folk-wisdom.

In its first effects, the Restoration in Japan was not favorable to religious fervor. Therevival of Shintō proceeded from purely political motives and did not imply a strengthening of religious sentiment except as it expressed itself in loyalty to the throne and to national traditions. Whatever religious zeal was aroused by this feeling was turned into channels of state action. The attitude of mind of the leaders in this great transformation was purely secular. They judged of religions by their fruits, that is, by the ethical impulse they imparted. Nor were they inclined to view with enthusiasm the achievements of the older forms of religion in the matter of ethical culture.

Kunitake Kume has described for us, with a touch of humor, the experience of a group of representative Japanese in 1872. In that year Prince Iwakura went to America and Europe at the head of a mission of which such prominent men as Kido, Okubo, and Itō were members. Kume, who accompanied the mission in the capacity of an expert on Chinese and literary subjects, was detailed, with another member, to make an investigation of the state of religion in the West. In their zeal to begin work, they early on the voyage accosted a Roman Catholic priest, and questioned him about Western religion. They got an account of the Ten Commandments and of the Trinity; but soon the tables were turned, and they were themselves questioned on the religion of Japan. The answers which they gave did not satisfy either themselves or their hearers. So a council of war was held in the smoking-room that night. What attitude should the mission take when questioned about Japanese religion? It was first suggested that they might claim Buddhism as the religion of Japan, but it had to be confessed that there was no one in the mission who knew enough of Buddhism to give a trustworthy account of it, especially on doctrinal matters. Confucianism might be professed, but this would not help matters, as Occidentals look upon the doctrines of the great sage as merely a politico-ethical system. Shintō was ruled out, as it was then too little known in the West, and also because a religion which lacks sacred books, and one whose observances are so archaic, might not particularly impress the Western mind. There remained no alternative but to confess that Japan had no religion—an unfortunate situation, because heathen are considered but little better than wild beasts in the West.

This dilemma did not, however, prove fatal to the mission, for they were not questioned as to their religion during all the remainder of their trip. On their part they had the amusement of wondering at the strangeness of Western ceremonies and at the piety of their host, when Sir Harry Parkes took them to a service of the Established Church in England. In relating this experience, Kume dwells upon the change which has come over the educated Japanese in the matter of religion. In the earlier part of the Meiji era most men of education shunned religion as unworthy of a rational mind and corrupting in its practices. Now they no longer denounce and repudiate religion, but admitting the importance of religious sentiment, direct their shafts of satire against beliefs and practices that seem superstitious.

On the other hand, it is apparent that the educated classes of Japan are not entirely free from what may be truly called superstition, — from the personal belief that man is surrounded by beneficent as well as by evil spirits or influences, which may be propitiated by befitting observances. Fanciful suppositions of occult influences by which the course of human destiny is determined, are common in Japan. During the Russian War, carloads of ikons were shipped to the frontier by the Orthodox believers; but the Japanese, also, did not disdain to court the favor of mystic powers by wearing amulets, and observing special rites.

It is difficult to draw the line between superstition and higher forms of religion, and the ceremonies observed by such great leaders as Togo and Kodama undoubtedly bear witness to the awakening of religious feeling under the spur of the tremendous struggle for national life. But other practices common among the people are plainly superstitious — certain sounds are believed to forebode ill, there are lucky and unlucky ways of beginning an undertaking. Wonder-working priests have a great many adherents, even among the educated and the wealthy; nor have the superstitious practices of such sects as the Jisshūkyō, whose activities are devoted mainly to exorcism and divination, abated with the progress of enlightenment.

The fading of the first flush of rationalism which dominated the beginning of the Meiji era, has thus resulted not only in a revival of religious sentiment, but also in a recrudescence of superstitious feelings and observances. In the masses of the people, rationalism had made little headway, and the grosser superstitions current among them have never been energetically combated by the priests, who profit by popular ignorance in these matters. There is, however, in Japanese superstition much that is poetical, much that has a deep meaning, approaching to a profound wisdom in matters of human destiny, as is well known to those who have read Hearn’s marvelous studies in the borderland of psychic mystery.

Religious life is not stationary in Japan, or in other Oriental countries. New sects are being thrown off by the main stocks of religion, new tendencies are being developed in individual groups. Such a new sect is that of Shingaku, which attempts to represent in itself the best elements of Shintō, Confucianism, and the Buddhist faith. There are two recent Shintō sects, the Remmon Kyōkai and the Tenri Kyokai, which seem to many to be but baneful and superstitious corruptions of Shintō.

Tenri Kyōkai (the teaching of heavenly bliss) has a strange similarity to the Christian Science movement in America, especially in the matter of healing disease through prayer. The sect was founded by a woman, Omiki, who died in 1879, and who exercised a great personal ascendancy over her followers. Its doctrines are simple. They have a tinge of individualism as well as of communism, inculcating the sacredness of labor, coöperation in the activities of life, and mutual assistance in misfortune. It calls for fellowship between husbands and wives, and would give Japanese women a more independent position. But the sect appeals most to the Japanese masses by associating religion with health and material welfare. It preaches cheerfulness, and aims to uplift the masses to a more joyous condition of life. Its faith-healing practice, resting on optimistic views of psychic power, attracts many votaries. Though it teaches kindly morals, its ethical standards are not exacting, and it calls for no self-sacrifice other than that which is involved in fellowship and coöperation. The sect believes in one chief god or supreme ruler, and is true to its Shintō derivation in being extremely nationalistic in its enthusiasm. Its joyousness often takes a luxuriant form, such as hilarious dancing and wild orgies,— frowned upon by the police authorities. For this reason, the government at first refused to recognize the sect as an authorized religious body. But the growth of the Tenrikyō in numbers and influence was such that the state was forced to take official cognizance of it. In the few decades of its existence, this sect has grown so as to comprise at the present time over four million adherents, and many thousand preachers.

Japanese Buddhism is remarkable for the great number of sects into which the believers are divided. Every conceivable tendency of thought is represented by a different grouping. Of late there has moreover been great activity in the formation of Buddhist societies among the educated people. Among organizations recently formed, the Great Japan Young Men’s Buddhist Association, which works among the students of the different Tokio universities, is perhaps the most important. Many of its older members have attained high position in the social and political world, and the society therefore enjoys a considerable influence among the intellectual classes. It includes among its members adherents of all the different sects of Buddhism.

Other associations are formed for special purposes, such as the scientific study of Buddhism, the commemoration of important personalities, or the development of the tenets of particular sects. The great commercial house of Mitsui and Company has been instrumental in organizing a Buddhist society of nearly one thousand members — officials, statesmen, newspaper editors, and well-known business men. This society devotes itself especially to meditation and to the study of Hekiganroku, one of the most popular books of the Zen sects. Recently a young Buddhist priest has established a dormitory where he brings under his educational and religious influence a great number of young men. These are some of the centres of activity through which Buddhism is regaining in part the influence which it formerly exercised among the intellectual classes of Japan.

We may note in passing that the situation is not entirely unfavorable to the further development of Christianity in Japan. The rationalistic apathy of the first part of the Meiji era was the most unpropitious soil for religious growth. Rationalism is indeed still strong, and therefore rationalistic forms of Protestantism, especially Unitarianism, have exercised a definite influence among thinking men of Japan. Some scholars even believe in the possibility of a Japanese religion constructed upon a rational basis, with an eclectic use of the best elements in other religions. Of this opinion is Dr. Tetsujirō Inouye, whose writings are quite representative of the thought of educated Japanese. Dr. Inouye’s point of view is, however, essentially secular.

He values religions according to their ethical contents and the moral influence which they exert. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity, considered as forms of supernatural belief, inspires him with enthusiasm. The mixture of doctrines in Buddhism brings about a distracting confusion, and as for moral influence, ‘the majority of Buddhist priests are so bad that if there was such a place as hell they ought to be the first to go there.’ Christian teaching, on the other hand, to his mind lacks many of the characterforming elements in which Confucianism is rich. In common with many Japanese Christians, he believes that the future growth and influence of Christianity in Japan depends upon the manner in which it shall be able to solve the ethical questions that perplex Japan, and to adapt itself to Japanese character and social conditions.

The search for ethical standards to be applied in national life has strengthened the hold which Confucianism has upon the Japanese. The ethical elements contained in Bushidō, the warrior’s code which has of late received so much applause in Europe and America, are drawn mainly from Confucian thought; therefore the success of Japan in the recent war again redounds to the prestige of the Chinese sage, as it encourages in general a return to Oriental origins. Thus it happens that we witnessed, a year or two ago, the revival in Japan of the custom of publicly paying honor to the memory of Confucius. This ceremony in honor of Confucius had been allowed to lapse at the time of the Restoration, when Japan was bent upon the revival of Shintō and was in other respects looking to Europe for light and guidance. But now the commemorative festival is again observed — a spontaneous homage to a great Oriental sage and hero. Moreover, Confucian thought has been made the basis of the practical work of several ethical societies, as notably of the association which, under the guidance of such men as Baron Shibusawa and Mr. Yano Tsuneta, is attempting to develop higher standards of morality in the Japanese business world.

In the matter of ethical ideals and common morality, Japan is passing through a critical era. The code of Bushidō, which produced the moral excellences of the feudal age, deals in the main only with the reciprocal duties of feudal vassal and superior. It has no teachings for the relations of man to man in a more democratic state of society, especially in a society of competition where men meet face to face in the strenuous and grim struggle for a livelihood. Despite itself, Japanese society is becoming individualistic. The harsh compulsion of the competitive system, ambitious striving after success, or mere grasping for the necessaries of life, has brought into play motives which were dormant in the older era of group association. The word ‘success’ is used as frequently in Japan as in the rest of the world, and seems to exercise the same kind of charm.

With the older restraints removed, and with a universal worship of getting ahead, there remains no ethical check upon selfish and ruthless action in the scramble for livelihood, wealth, and power. The virtues of liberality, generosity, and self-control, inculcated by the code of Bushidō, have not as yet been transferred to the ordinary relations between men. Even the greatest admirer of Bushidō would not claim that this code answers the moral needs of Japan to-day. The inspiring devotion and self-sacrifice of the Japanese soldier have not been given their counterpart in the virtues of every-day life. The principle of the limitation of moral force seems to be borne out by Japanese experience. The potentialities of Japan are exhausted in the heroic virtues of war and the traditional loyally and piety toward superiors and parents. A new distribution of moral energies, in accord with the new structure of society, is a task that will require the patient effort of generations.

In the field of ethical speculation, men’s minds are confused by the impact of system upon system, and sect upon sect. Christian ethics is a matter of ideal to which, even in Christian societies, conduct conforms only in part; it is an aspiration which presupposes all that is contained in Western civilization. Its full bearing and influence cannot therefore be appreciated by an alien society. The greatness of Buddhism lies in the realm of psychology and in the refinement of mental powers and processes, through freeing the mind from the limitations of individual existence. On the side of popular morals, its teachings are subject to a great many conflicting interpretations. The ethics of Confucius does not deal with the relations of man to man, but with certain enumerated social relations, leaving the men who may not be thus bound together confronted with each other in the struggle of competition without any adequate ethical guidance.

Whatever instruction the masses of the Japanese people receive in ethical subjects is based upon the imperial edict on education of 1890. With great wisdom the Japanese government resolved to place public education on a secular footing; and in following the precedent set by America, it avoided the endless struggles which the introduction of religious teaching would inevitably have brought about. But it was felt that some ethical guidance should be afforded the young. The highest authority in the realm therefore addressed the nation on this matter in the edict which has become the Magna Charta of Japanese education.

The principles which this edict lays dowm as fundamental in ethical culture are grouped about the duties of loyalty to the sovereign, and piety toward parents and other superiors. A second edict was issued in 1908, which instills the virtues of frugality, frankness, and simplicity of life. The moral problems resulting from the victories over Russia offered the occasion for issuing this edict; but its purpose may also have been to supply guidance in the more ordinary and less heroic virtues, of which Japan has been in special need in times that require patient dutifulness in every-day relations. The reception accorded this ethical exhortation was rather cool, and some critical minds ventured to suggest that such preaching on the part of the government was not complimentary to the intelligence and self-reliance of the nation.

The complaint is often heard that while the edict might be made the basis of broad instruction, the official interpretation has been such as to confine emphasis entirely to the ideas of loyalty and filial piety (chu ko). Should any teacher attempt a broader treatment, or should he even suggest that the imperial edict ought to be supplemented by further instruction in order to fulfill its purpose, he might be accused of want of respect to the Emperor, and his position would be endangered. The Japanese school system exercises the most painstaking care with respect to the observance of loyalty to the Emperor. The loyalty which the Bushidō code inculcated is at the present time focused entirely upon the head of the state. The Emperor’s photograph hangs in every schoolroom in the Empire. The attitude of students and teachers toward this picture is one of veneration, sometimes almost of fearsome awe. It is certainly not in accord with the wishes of His Majesty that his picture should become a source of apprehension to his subjects, and yet such has been the result, in many cases, of official practice. Persons have lost their lives in trying to rescue the photograph from fire, and school principals have committed suicide because the imperial picture had been destroyed or removed.

A peculiar situation has thus been brought about. In the schools, from which religious instruction is excluded, there has grown up a political cult, which claims the entire force of the religious sentiments of the pupils in deep reverence, and the unquestioned acceptance of mythical explanations of national origins. The moral capital accumulated during the feudal era has been invested almost entirely in loyalty to the Emperor. By the side of this cult, no other religious feelings are encouraged in the schools; any ethical ideas that do not directly contribute to its strength are frowned upon by the authorities. A certain kind of official guardianship over morals is also illustrated by an order issued by the Tokiō police to troops of itinerant story-tellers, to the effect that only such stories are to be related as teach loyalty to superiors and filial piety. It is not difficult to imagine how readily these disreputable vagabonds will satisfy ethical requirements by allowing their hero-villains to utter a few pious sentiments — an art of ethical legerdemain which is, as we know, also practiced in higher circles.

While speaking of ethical motives in Japanese life, we ought not to overlook the fact that ethical conflicts form the deepest interest in Japanese drama and literature. The Japanese distinguish between giri, which is reason, principle, duty, and ninjo, human affections. When these two are in conflict, the knightly code of Japan demands an absolute sacrifice of all human feeling. The moral grandeur of suppressing the strongest passions and affections of the heart and obeying without a murmur the dictates of duty, will always move the Japanese, to the point of causing them to shed tears even when the conflict is presented only in poetry or on the stage. This great ethical force, though focused upon loyalty to a superior, might in time come to form a strong substructure for broader moral sentiments and enthusiasms. The problem of developing it in such a manner as to comprise the social relations between man and man, and to bring these powerful ideas of duty and justice to bear upon the ordinary affairs of life, is what Japan has set herself to solve, as a result of the social transformations during the Meiji era.