Je ni yuzuri no
I’ll gird me on
My sword, the heirloom of my house.
THE news of the massacre which took place in Tokyo in the early morning of February 26 sounded through the world like a tocsin of St. Bartholomew. The official name given to rebellion and wholesale murder was terrifying in its understatement. The Incident — what a title for a carnival of assassination! And the first formal pronouncement speaking of ‘killings,’ not of murder, and almost justifying the crime by the calculated moderation of its statement, seemed to suggest that the army and the government itself, thinking the rebellion might be successful, judged it prudent not to aggravate murder by harsh words. The mutineers, said the statement, ‘ decided to rise for the purpose of removing corrupt elements around the throne, who they considered should be charged with the crime of destroying national policy.’ The official spokesman talked indeed as if he were spokesman for the rebellion. ‘The officers concerned say in their manifesto [so the report continued] that their purpose was to protect national policy, thus fulfilling their duty to the throne.’
‘Their purpose’! In the West the ‘purpose’ of murder is murder. But in Japan right and wrong lie in the motive. Clear from the first day, clearer with every hour that followed, was the fact that a large part of the nation believed these Byzantine murderers to be as loyal subjects of the Emperor as his official ministers; and the fact, still more pregnant with tragic consequence, that to the nation as a whole murder was still a political weapon. Government by assassination was still tolerated by a people in the forefront of the modern world.
To Americans it seemed that in Japan civilization itself was at stake. But gradually, very gradually, the liberal spirit of the country crystallized, and by a display of persuasive patience unequaled, I think, in modern times the lawful government of Japan prevailed upon the mutineers to surrender, forgave the privates, pawns in a game they did not understand, and turned over the officers to the military arm. After trial, which in its slow and deliberate course precisely paralleled the sobering of public opinion, after almost five months’ delay, seventeen officers were condemned to death and five to life imprisonment.
It may well be that the terrible episode is not yet over. Japan is a fatalistic country, and men feel that what will be will be. But, taking the situation as it stands to-day, it is regarded by the Western world simply as the break-through of a savage past. Men talk of the ‘veneer’ of Japanese civilization. They talk in ignorance. The civilization of Japan is deep and genuine as our own, but those who would understand it must take into account many things, curious and interesting.
In the spirit which animates Japan there are three ultimates, and no man may read its riddle unless he gives thought to them: love of ceremonial, indifference to death, and loyalty surpassing passion or desire. It is the motive behind the act rather than the act itself which to a Japanese gauges its importance, stamping it as a virtue or a crime. The function of ceremony is to explain motive and to invest it with a certain measure of apparent disinterestedness. Thoughtless and willful deeds are perpetrated without ceremony, but those which are ornamented by a ritual of courtesy take on a profounder meaning.
It is ever so. Let teachers and preachers say what they will, it is not what things are done but how they are done that colors men’s minds and shapes their opinions. It is the form of the verse which makes poetry memorable. It is the method of the politician which justifies his acts. When the Covenanters struck off the head of King Charles and
Upon that memorable scene,
their crime was magnified a hundredfold.
Swift currents of feeling such as this flow through the veins of every generous race, but in Japan the manner in which a deed is done effectually transforms it. The murders of that bad night were brutal and horrible, but the prime motive of the rebels was loyalty — loyalty twisted and almost grotesque, but loyalty still. Their indifference to death seemed to lend a certain nobility to their act, and in one instance at least the ancient tradition of manners invested murder with an alien dignity. Before one of the executioners struck down his victim he addressed him courteously, explaining that no personal motives sullied his action, and asked whether his victim had nothing to say which might ease his conscience or after his death give comfort to his friends. It was after several minutes of quiet talk that the assassination proceeded. With such examples of ceremonious death Japanese history is replete.
The February Incident is a fresh illustration of the ancient character of the people. In such an enterprise, death is the only alternative to success. But that hazard did not weigh in the balance with the conspirators, and the foolhardy courage of the rebels excited widespread admiration. Their deed was done neither for power nor for revenge, twin motives which any Western historian would seek, but for loyalty which could not suffer the Emperor to be hoodwinked by advisers who stood between him and the source of his divine wisdom.
The story of the Incident is familiar and it is not my purpose to recite its causes, but a few facts must be recalled to the reader’s mind. The fatal division of authority in the Constitution, bestowed as a personal gift by the Emperor Meiji upon his people, deprives the Prime Minister of the control of the heads of the fighting services. This is a chronic source of political convulsion in Japan, but it is only indirectly responsible for the crisis we are discussing. A proximate cause, as the world knows, was the notorious trial of Lieutenant Colonel Aizawa. This Aizawa was greatly troubled in mind at seeing the liberalism he deplored in politics taking root in the army itself. So long as General Masaki, idol of Japanese jingoes, was Director of Military Education, all seemed safe. But he was replaced by the liberal Hayashi, and it was whispered that the transfer had been manipulated by the secret influence of one Lieutenant General Nagata, whose long and distinguished service did not protect him from the bitter hatred of those who longed to see Japan fulfill her conquering destiny. Aizawa, knowing what loyalty required of him, walked into the office of his superior, General Nagata, cut him down at his desk, and then quietly gave himself up.
The case was entirely simple. A naked murder had been committed; the assassin had been caught redhanded. But behind the crime was a motive. Just as in America or in France, in a case in which a woman’s honor is involved, everything is tried except the crime itself, so in this courtmartial the question of motive prompted a long line of witnesses to make stump speeches in court, all duly reported in the papers. It became Japan’s destiny which was on trial, and the question men asked themselves was whether their Emperor was in truth surrounded by patriots or by traitors.
The Aizawa trial was the match which touched off the conflagration. There is no doubt about that. The conflagration itself was the bright flame of Japanese loyalty nourished through the ages by custom and by precept.
Among all the tales of Japanese history the most famous and the most revealing is the story of the Fortyseven Ronins. No commentary can bring out the inner reason for the Incident half so understandingly as this true tale of the early part of the eighteenth century.
Now a Ronin is a ‘wave man,’ who, having lost his master, is tossed like flotsam about the world. The fortyseven, all of noble blood, were in the service of a great lord, Asano Takumi No Kami, who was brought to destruction by a still greater lord, one Kotsuki No Suké. To the Ronins, after their lord’s death, one duty remained. Did not Confucius say, ‘ Thou shalt not live under the same heaven with the enemies of thy father’? It was their clear duty to prove their loyalty to their dead lord by compassing the ruin of his enemy.
Wandering through the land, penniless and hungry, they thought ceaselessly of their task, and after incomparable hardship and danger they met in secret and stormed the castle of the wicked daimyo who had destroyed their lord. There was bloody work to do, but with the scrupulous courtesy characteristic of their race they refrained with the utmost care from injury to anybody who did not hinder them in their purpose. Through the night they fought, and in the morning dragged their victim, trembling with terror, from his place of concealment. But the birth and position of Kotsuki No Suké made these vengeful men pointing their daggers at his breast realize that he was no common miscreant summarily to be put away. And as they pressed furiously around him their leader, Oishi Kuranosuki, bade them be silent and respectful. Then, falling on his knees before the daimyo who was his master’s enemy, he addressed the old man with infinite respect.
‘My lord,’ said he, ‘we are retainers of Asano Takumi No Kami. Last year your lordship and our master quarreled in the palace. Our master was sentenced to hara-kiri and his family was ruined. We have come to-night to avenge him, as is the duty of faithful and loyal men. I pray your lordship to acknowledge the justice of our purpose. And now, my lord, we beseech you to perform hara-kiri. I myself shall have the honor to act as your second, and when with all humility I shall have received your lordship’s head, it is my intention to lay it as an offering upon the grave of Asano Takumi No Kami.’
Now to the Western mind these are the bitter words of irony. But in truth Oishi Kuranosuki spoke them in sincerity and without malice. He spoke as he did in order that the performance of a supreme and tragic duty might be invested with such dignity and seemliness as to prove beyond cavil this was no murder in the vulgar sense, but the execution of a sentence ordained by the very order of the world. Whoever catches their significance cannot be without understanding of what manners mean in the life of Japan.
The whole story of these noble vagabonds reads like a fable of loyalty through life and death. Their quiet acceptance of the inevitable penalty of hara-kiri for every man of them — each for having done his duty — may be taken as a case history of the Japanese spirit. Among no other people could there be such a happening as this true tale of courtesy, loyalty, and indifference to death. Every boy and girl in Japan knows it by heart in all its stately horror. Each year the tragedy, in eight hours of detail, is put on at the Kabuki Theatre, home of Romantic Drama, and when it appears on the stage there is no seat vacant in the house. Indeed, if the theatrical season promises to be a failure, the story of the Ronins is billed as a sovereign and infallible remedy. In the city there is this proverb current: ‘If you are in trouble the Forty-seven Ronins will serve you.’
More than once I have made my own pilgrimage to the burial place of the Ronins. When Tokyo, ‘the Eastern Capital,’ was Yedo, Takanawa was a rural retreat. Now the ancient Sengakuji Temple is a little oasis in the roar of steady traffic. Almost from dawn till long after dark worshipers crowd the courtyard. They come by hundreds, by thousands, from every part of the Empire — old men hobbling on their canes, peasant women in gray, city girls in groups flowery as nosegays, troops of school children in those drab and misshapen uniforms which are the sole unpardonable crime Japan commits against the laws of beauty. Threading your way through the crowd, you turn left to where the little fountain still bubbles in the well. Here it was that Oishi Kuranosuki reverently washed the head of Kotsuki No Suké, who had destroyed his chief, and before delivering it for burial to the abbot of the temple laid it as an offering on the grave of his lord which stood hard by, while forty-six homeless vagabonds looked on with expressionless faces and hearts filled with sorrow and fierce joy, knowing they had done their duty and waiting for the order to die from the Shogun, Daimyo of Daimyos.
Just beyond the fountain on the crest of a green hill overlooking the temple, clustered about the shaft which marked their lord’s resting place, huddle forty-eight little stones, each one bearing the name of the samurai who lies beneath. Forty-eight, not fortyseven, for there too lies buried the Satsuma man who, thinking that Oishi Kuranosuki was recreant to his duty, had spat upon him in the street and a year later, to make what amends was possible, had humbly ripped open his own belly on the grave of the hero he had traduced.
There they stand, the forty-nine stones, pressed about by the never lessening throng. Like the rest, I lighted a taper of incense before each grave, watching the ceaseless stream of pilgrims eddy about the tiny necropolis, and as I watched I thought of those other assassins about to die for killing the ministers who they thought were betraying their Emperor. Were they not in blood and in spirit descendants of the Forty-seven Ronins?
As the fan is the symbol of manners and of living, so is the sword the emblem of honor and of death. When Admiral Togo, the Nelson of Japan, was making his triumphal tour about the world, he paid a ceremonious visit to Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill. That irrepressible hero displayed a noble sword bestowed on him by the Emperor of Japan. The Admiral received it with infinite respect, examining each several part: the kashira or tip, the menuki or rivet placed beneath the frapping to improve the grip, the ornamental fuchi ringing the hilt, the guard, the seppu or small plate through which the haft passes before entering the guard, the habuki or welded flanges gripping the blade — all were austerely beautiful as they should be; but the Admiral frowned. On the once bright blade a splotch of rust desecrated its brilliant sheen. The old samurai bore it to his room and spent long hours that night polishing the sword with his own hands till it glistened as if the red sun of Japan were shining on it.
The first sword was forged in heaven. ‘Great and sharp’ it was. The God of Fire snatched it from the body of the serpent he had slain and gave it to the Sun Goddess, Great-Grandmother of Emperors, Amaterasu-O-Mikani, who caused it to be forever guarded at the sacred shrine of Ise, where it lies inviolate until this day. But concerning the swords of mortal men we hear not much that is precise before the fourth century of our era, when the Emperor Notoken caused the hilt of his blade to be decorated in a manner befitting his authority, and ever since the glint of steel has gone sparkling through the history of Japan.
The samurai was ‘the man of two swords.’ Both were carried in his girdle, so inseparably that the word dai-sho (long-short) was used to express them collectively. Separately they were the katena and the waikizashi. From very early times swords were a cult and took on a sanctity such as the Crusader acknowledged when, sticking his blade in the desert sand, he knelt before the crossed hilt. Four kinds of swords were recognized in the ritual. Only samurai of the highest rank wore the long, curving jin tachi. The more familiar weapon was the straight tsurugi, cutting both ways. But this yielded in time to a blade with a single cutting edge. A dagger without guard, aikuchi, was convenient for stabbing a prostrate foe. When a samurai entered the dwelling of a friend or his own teahouse, he retained merely the dirk, leaving his chief weapon hanging on the sword-stone at the door. It need only be added that the kaiki, — or dagger without guard, — which might be plunged to the hilt and beyond, was the protection of women.
The sword was the symbol of the samurai’s honor, sign manual of his devotion to his lord. The instinct of the race for ritual found its expression in the infinitude of excellence in its workmanship. The criteria of the cognoscenti were the curve of the blade, the perfection of the forging, the texture and quality of the steel, the richness of design, and the elaboration of rivets. It was the blade of the Lion Heart and Saladin combined. It could part an iron bar or cut with razor edge a cushion of feathers. Steel capable of severing three heads at a stroke was the high ambition of the smith, and not infrequently was an executioner bribed to test the temper of samurai steel by using it to decapitate the condemned.
In victory the samurai sword was the perfect servant of his master. In defeat it was his certain safeguard against disgrace. All through the early history of Japan, hara-kiri offered the only escape from the degradation of imprisonment, and in the fourteenth century, under the Ashikaga dynasty, the custom was widely recognized as a privilege beyond price. When a man of noble birth had broken the law or incurred the disfavor of the Emperor, he received a note couched in considerate and gracious terms, informing him of his condemnation to death. Often the present of a jeweled dagger gave point to the request. But nothing was done in unseemly haste. Death is the prologue to eternity: there was no need of hurry. The gentleman about to die would cause to be erected in his own hall a dais as his scaffold. Then, with a profound obeisance to the emissary of his master, he would make public acknowledgment of his fault, and, after a prayer, would strip himself to the waist. Tucking the wide sleeves of his kimono carefully under him lest he fall back and not forward, he would plunge the dagger deep into the left side of his belly, twist it viciously to the right, and let his soul gush forth to find communion with the spirits of his ancestors.
So highly esteemed was this privilege of hara-kiri that over and over again the state has been forced to use extreme measures, not to oblige gentlemen to do away with themselves, but to prevent them from doing so. Junshi, or self-destruction of retainers at their lord’s death, became so universal that Iyeyasu, first of the Tokugawa Shoguns, straitly forbade it and ordered that a yo — or effigy of the vassal — be buried in his stead. One of these yo is on my mantel as I write, a curious equivalent for the ram in the thicket which Jehovah accepted as a savory substitute for little Isaac. Still the practice persisted in defiance of every edict, and when a famous warrior, one Oyemon No Hyagi, disemboweled himself on the death of his master, the government actually executed two of his sons, banished the rest, and confiscated the entire family property. Not even then was the privilege of junshi entirely abandoned, and all the world knows how General Nogi, when the news of his Emperor’s death was brought to him, followed by hara-kiri his great master to the shades.
There is a passivity among Orientals in their attitude toward death which we may not understand. It is not merely that their Nirvana and our Heaven are worlds apart. I have heard Christians say with admirable assurance that the gateway of immortality was no more than the threshold leading to the next room. But to the Japanese no wall separates this life from the next. The father lives immortally almost in the presence of his children and his children’s children, aiding them by his counsel and animating them by his spirit.
Go into a Japanese house of any reasonable comfort and in the midst of its perfect simplicity you will find three shrines, often of elaborate beauty. One is to the protector of the house. He may be the God of Fire or some local deity worshiped before gods were. One is the Buddhist altar, blazoned with gold and lacquer. On an upper shelf, beside some small statue or emblem of the Buddha, are a group of polished ebony tablets, each a tribute to some particular ancestor to whom the household’s debt is thus acknowledged. The third shrine is pure Shinto, traditional native faith which twelve hundred years ago became the indissoluble ally of Japanese Buddhism. Every morning the head of the house, with his family and servants about him, makes offering of fruit and flowers at each of these three shrines. What a new conception it gives one of the religious life of the heathen!
In the Western world the Ten Commandments have not been generally obeyed, but they have never been repealed and their influence in Christian countries has been immense. Standards may be honored in the breach, yet standards they still are. But to a Japanese most of our commandments seem negative. To him ‘Thou shalt not’ has less power than ‘Thou shalt.’ He accepts our Fifth Commandment with a fervor greater than our own, but for the most part his are not the precepts taught by a lawgiver to his people, but the codified virtues of a feudal aristocracy. Take, for instance, the quality called fushodin, or movelessness of the heart. Seven centuries ago Zen, the intellectual and aristocratic sect of Buddhism, taught believers to strip themselves of emotion and passion, to keep their bodies still and their minds unmoved by circumstances. Thus, says the historian, ‘the bushi — the noble soldier — remains as calm in the stress of battle as in the quietude of the council chamber.’
The repose of body is the result of severe restraint. Repose of mind is the result of creed and custom. Only a man of long experience, the head of a family or official of government, is called upon to make decisions. The duty of others is not to think, but to accept. To the burden of conscience, the terrifying inheritance of Protestantism, the Japanese is a stranger. He has no abiding sense of sin haunting the mind and paralyzing the will. Plain guideposts mark every step of his way. If he has followed them he cannot have gone astray. The morbidities which harass us before our nightly dreams begin — ‘Was I right in this?’ ‘Was that wrong?’ — do not vex his mind. In the Catholic Church a man may find case from doubts which beset him, but in the thoughts of a Japanese these doubts do not arise. His mind, untroubled by this world, is unvexed about the next. The wheel of Karma will bear him on, but finally he will escape. Death will not sever him from his master or from his family. Beyond the grave he will serve them, joining his will to theirs in a common effort to fulfill the purpose of their united ancestors.
In an earlier paper I have said that duty, to a Japanese, is the First and Great Commandment. And to him duty is but another name for loyalty. It is a virtue so great, so absolute, so uncompromising, that it will not brook the restraint of other virtues. Not love, nor human feeling, must for an instant stand in the way of a man’s obligation to a master. In Japanese tragedy the culminating poignance is a man’s willingness to send his son to slaughter and his wife to prostitution if only thereby his lord may be saved. Among the Daimyos of the Kabuki Drama all emotions are canalized into a central religious passion of service to their master, much as the austere heroes of Racine appeal from human compulsion to the mandates of Jehovah: —
O divine, O charmante Loi!
Statecraft and education combine with the natural feeling of the Japanese to make the sacred name of ‘Emperor’ the be-all and end-all of human devotion.
This is the keystone of the Japanese arch. To say that Japan is still a feudal state does not explain it. The ties between master and man are human ties. The devotion to the Emperor is a religious devotion. He is in very truth divine. It is no natural process of history which has kept these 125 members of a single family upon the throne in unbroken succession for nigh three thousand years. The line came down from Heaven, and the Godhead of its divinity still persists. How strange the paradox! Japan in its commercial aspects is the most modern of nations, schooled in everything the West has to offer. Yet to sixty million Japanese the Emperor is more than mortal man. His blood runs in the veins of his people, and when they worship at the Shrine of his Ancestors they are worshiping their own Kami. Troops of school girls and boys make innumerable pilgrimages to the Imperial Altars. There is no victory on land or sea which is not directly to be ascribed to Imperial merit. No diplomat starts on an important mission without asking divine help at the Emperors’ Shrine in Ise.
We conquer only in that sign.
In the House of Peers the empty throne stands high above the speaker’s chair, and before it every man who enters the chamber makes profound obeisance. Always, everywhere the Emperor, the incarnation of the spirit of Japan, watches over his folk. ‘Though I am far away in the Great Palace,’ said Emperor Meiji in a famous distich, ’I cease not to think of the happiness of my people.’ In an actual sense the Emperor’s thought is the thought of God.
The divinity that doth hedge a king is something less than this. I once asked a distinguished statesman what it was in the Japanese mind that made the Emperor a god. Was it the sublimation of the spirit which in Scotland made the chieftain of the clan the object of supreme devotion? Was it akin to the godship of the Emperor Augustus erected by the State? ‘No,’ he said, ‘the spirit, is quite different. Behind the Emperor Augustus there were not three thousand years.’ The gods are always ancient, and, in Japanese thinking, Augustus Cæsar was a parvenu.
To the Emperor of Japan the Pope of Rome is no analogue. His office is divine, but he is wholly human. We can best gauge the feeling, I think, if we recall our Christian religion. To millions Christ is God in very truth. To other millions he is wrapped in a haze of divinity not to be penetrated. So it is with the Japanese worship of their Emperor. There are shades of conviction, but in their world there is no room for the agnostic or the atheist.
Perhaps this explains, too, something of the horror Japan feels toward Communism. Russia is not only the enemy, but Antichrist. I have seen Russian travelers present their passports and have watched the long scrutiny of their visas. Of the most innocent foreigner every book in his baggage, be it guide or volume of poetry, must be separately noted and examined. ‘Improper thought,’ which may extend from Red Communism to liberal opinion regarding constitutional government, is a crime against the State.
Kenjutsu, or the art of handling a sword, displays to a peculiar degree the martial virtues which the Japanese most prize. Very different is it from the fencing that we know. Skill in reaching one’s antagonist is prized, of course, and the defense against attack, but above and beyond all manual dexterity are valued courtesy, poise, and an unruffled presence of mind. Kenjutsu or judo — the modern equivalent of jiujitsu — is compulsory in the schools. Both are the applied morals of the educational system. Watch two fencers and you will understand. They enter the hall grasping their bamboo blades — no mean weapon, as you realize when they clash or crash through an opponent’s guard. Bowing first to the Shrine, then to the instructor, lastly to their adversary, they stand opposed for minutes without striking, each studying the adversary’s character and steeling his own to determination. Their countenances are placid and unmoved, but at the moment of the stroke an instantaneous tenseness comes over them. The pupils of the eyes contract, and in the swordsman’s face is the look of murder; but of a sudden the stroke is suspended in midair, and all is perfect courtesy again.
Both in kenjutsu and judo, I am told, the skill of strength and grip can readily be learned, but behind them is a moral training of the most strenuous and exacting kind. In judo there are ten grades of proficiency, the zenith being reached alone by Mr. Kano Jigoro, the originator of the modern version of the art. To pass from one grade to another requires years of training, and masters who have attained the higher reaches of the art are renowned throughout Japan.
All things, the Japanese believe, may be taught — repose, courage, patriotism, inflexibility. Not long ago a Tokyo movie theatre billed Lives of a Bengal Lancer. That poignant melodrama, as all ‘fans’ know, is built about the character of a British soldier to whom army tradition is the single rule of life, and who, Roman fashion, finds a moral satisfaction in permitting his son to suffer cruelly rather than to swerve a hair’s breadth toward what he regards as favoritism.
To our thinking the Colonel’s character is not attractive, but he certainly does his duty with a vengeance. Here was an opportunity to teach the value of duty at all hazards, and the Commander of the Tokyo Garrison gave formal orders to his officers to see the movie not once but twice, that the heroic picture on the screen might drive the lesson home.
Modern civilizations, as we know them, have grown piecemeal. Japan’s was made to order, vast new patches holding the ancient fabric together. The men who made it had their minds full of the glory and power of the West, but they had been brought up on the logic of Confucius and remembered with perfect clarity his picture of social perfection.
The ancients [wrote the Sage] who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Empire first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first regulated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first regulated their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole Empire was made tranquil and happy.
That is the philosophy of the Fan — an ideal civilization based on natural goodness and the virtues of quietude and peace. There must be ‘no contrariety,’ said Confucius, in the home or in the state. There must be no disruption of the harmonies. How fearfully the philosophy of the Sword disrupts them! The Fan and the Sword —opposites irreconcilable warring eternally in spirit.
As we look realistically upon the policies of Japan one main objective must not be lost sight of. To fight a long war the nation must have oil, and oil it does not have. The Army seeks to expand northward where no oil is; the Navy southward to the Islands of the East which reek with it. And the troubled waters will not be quieted when oil is poured upon them.