Letters From Japan
by A JAPANESE
MY DEAR H. — Behind the Fine Arts building there was a single tree which became soft yellowish green in early spring when no other trees showed a sign of life in New England. The first spring I had in that cold northern climate was anything but cheerful and I watched this tree from my dormitory room during all the winter through. One day in a vague, vacant mood I looked out and saw this tree, and my heart danced with the joy of the soft green covering it like the haze of a summer morning. So today when I stepped out into my garden and saw the selfsame color in a willow tree that stands above the roof of a neighboring house, I almost cried with tender feelings.
How remote all things around me seem! And how I long to get out of this nightmare country — never to see it again, never to think of it, never again to pronounce the name of Japan. And that soft tender green made me almost cry out for the agony of my soul. But day after day I see my mother’s miserable eyes, so frightened, whenever I move, that I may go away, that I am afraid even to change my clothes. She unconsciously understands my agony about Japan and is afraid that if I go I shall never return. And my father is almost like my mother in his feelings. So you see how I cannot leave here.
Later. More weeks have gone by since I wrote and now it is April fourteenth. In the last few days I have seriously thought about going back to the United States in spite of my mother and father. It is good just to dream about going. My heart jumps as if one fell in love at first sight. I know I shall kiss the soil of the United States with utmost reverence when I return. In the meantime, I am almost choking. I wonder if you can imagine the situation here. You read probably quite a lot about the imperialism of Germany before the war, but still there was some small degree of freedom there. Here there is no freedom.
A most amazing thing happened a few days ago. About three thousand people held a meeting. Over two hundred policemen were directed by high officials of the central government to suppress them the moment any action occurred or speech was made that might hold that the present ruling authority was responsible to the people. But these people before going into the meeting forced all the policemen to take off their swords. You know the Jap police wear long dangling swords to frighten the “subjects,” and no one has ever criticized their presence. They are a symbol of arbitrary authority, but these “subjects” were not awed and made the two hundred policemen take off their swords, except for several high officials who were permitted to keep theirs to save face.
You cannot understand the significance of this unless you know what a sword means to a Japanese official. The stationmaster of a tiny station with no other duties than those of a ticket seller wears a uniform and has a long sword dangling from his waist. There is no use, no least bit of use, for that sword except that he is a government agent. Considering such a state of things, to compel two hundred policemen to take off their swords is the most tremendous accomplishment by the “subjects" in the history of Japan.
The United States is held in contempt. For instance, the American Legion is openly advertised as only an imitation of the Jap “Society of Soldiers at Home,” which is nothing but an organization to carry out government work under compulsion. “The morals of American girl students” is a phrase used as a symbol of degeneracy and corruption. In describing immorality in some Japanese school where girls under eighteen are educated, the article will invariably begin by saying “the most amazing corruption was discovered, which rivals that of American girl students.”
You have no strength to criticize such beliefs. The only thing possible is to let them be and to leave yourself out of it. Of course “American dollar worship” is condemned here as it is in Europe, but nowhere is dollar worship more evident than it is in Japan. I do not understand the psychology of this last unless it is that the Japanese are imitating European sentiment.
DEAR H. — My health has improved considerably since I wrote you last, but this horrible disillusion
about Japan continues and makes me most unhappy.
There is no trusting anybody or anything in Japan. Men are taught from childhood that “the male has seven enemies as he steps out of his door ” and “to consider everybody a thief as you see him” and “let no man and woman stay in the same room after they are seven years old” and “don’t worry about being ashamed when you travel; anything is permissible if committed outside your native village.” Just think over these common precepts, and you will have some idea of the Japanese atmosphere.
The newspapers are full of hue and cry against the American anti-Japanese immigration law. The Cabinet members are busy holding conferences and visiting the elder statesmen in whose hands the real power of Japan rests, and reporting to the Prince Regent and making public announcements. The newspapers are conducting meetings everywhere. Student associations, women’s societies, chambers of commerce, labor organizations, silk dealers’ associations, even village meetings, are all enjoying violent speeches and putting forth resolutions.
No one refers to the fact that Japan has similar laws against Indians, Chinese, even Koreans. No one refers to the right of the American government to make its laws to suit itself. No one refers to the fact that it is absolutely necessary to exclude undesirables from a nation if the nation wishes to continue its existence. No one refers to the fact that there actually are among Japanese immigrants many objectionable things to which any nation would object. But the Japanese government and the people do not like to admit this fact.
This attitude is not confined to Japan, of course; it is true of all Eastern Asia, including India. The Japanese call it “injuring dignity,” the Chinese term it “destroying face.” For instance it “destroys face” in a rich Chinese if he hasn’t a fifth wife in his establishment. It “injures dignity” in some rich Japanese if he keeps no woman in his “other house.” It destroys the dignity of a government officer if he is given money for some favor granted; it must come through his wife.
So this American immigration business destroys the dignity of the Japanese if it is made into law and published all over the world, but it will not destroy their face or dignity if it is done secretly. Some of them even admit that it is all for the best interests of the United States, but they cannot understand why the facts should be published although the public has known all about it for two decades. This is the result of the curious Japanese mentality.
DEAR H. — A flood of “Made in Japan” goods seems to be putting fear into both civilization and uncivilization. This manufacturing, a huge pyramid built up by millions of slaves, Japan calls a great monument; millions of little Japs putting European industry out of business. Eighty per cent of these goods are made in little factories — sweatshops — with fewer than fifty employees. What do you call this? Certainly not a great monument! Little underfed girls of no intelligence, perhaps sixteen years old and paid almost nothing, are made to compete with the six-foot factory hands of Manchester, England. Is this “national glory”? Undoubtedly it is making someone rich, but I just can’t put my finger on the vital spot of what it all means.
In modern American tools and automobiles one can’t always see the real American soul, which is founded on the Greeks and the morals of the New Testament. The Japanese see only the machines and think they can be like Americans only by imitating these things without regard to the education and the spirit behind them. So this mountain island swarms with millions of shouting imitators, shallow and opinionated, like noisy frogs in the spring.
At 45 degrees F. outdoors it is quite cold in the house. Indeed it seems warmer outdoors. There is no central heat in Japan. In the city they have a large earthenware dish in which a few pieces of charcoal are placed among the ashes; in the country a huge square pit is opened in the middle of the room without a smokestack, in which wood is burned. The inadequacy of the first makes people huddle themselves into as small a ball as possible; the crudity of the latter makes everybody look sooty. All one’s household goods and the ceiling are covered with soot hanging down like icicles, the paper screens are black, and everybody’s eyes are bad because of the smoke entering them.
DEAR H. — It may be hard for you to realize how glad I was to hear from you. You see, I am alone most of the time, day and night, though I hear the noise of the trains passing and sometimes the railroad porter crying out the name of the station when the wind is favorable.
There is very little to add about the way I live. The one month’s rainy season started June eleventh. The rain may continue for a week in a streak until everything in the house gets moldy. Luckily I gathered my wheat and barley just before the rain began.
Cucumbers, tomatoes, and eggplant will grow wonderfully in rain; the potatoes already are in digging shape. I had several good roses developed this year, but I am afraid the rain will wash away what remains of them. I raised one hundred chickens this spring; there are only four left. If there were any possible way of sharing them with you, I should like that very much.
I spend most of my evenings reading whatever I can obtain — books, magazines, and newspapers. I also use my radio. Although I can get Russia and New Zealand stations on the loud speaker, I can’t get the United States. I can get the signals as far as Schenectady with the earphones. Whenever I can, I go to the movies so that I can hear English spoken even though it is only on the screen.
Financially I am very poor. Of course I need no more than a pair of overalls and a thirteen-cent straw hat, and I want nothing more than a package of tobacco. But nothing ever made me worry in life. I get what I want wherever I may be and I get off very easy because my wants are so limited.
DEAR H. —This is a joyful day in my uneventful life. I received your letter, which has given me the most restful hour I have had in a long time. Also I went to a family party for all the children. But I have not described my feelings for so many years that I cannot describe competently just how I feel.
The American Navy massed in the Pacific for some time now is raising a hue and cry here as though America intended to strike. Perhaps they do. An American naval officer, in an important magazine article, has said almost that, and American sailors showed quite a pugnacious spirit towards Japan during the Shanghai trouble. But all this is putting the people under heavy taxes again. An old woman I know had to go hungry seven days in order to pay her thirty-cent tax for the airplane assessment!
There are heavily armed guards with bayonets by the moat of the Emperor’s residence in Tokyo “to guard during Japan’s emergency period.” Now I am wondering if these bayonets are aimed at the Russians over beyond the Japan Sea or against the Americans in the Pacific. These people in power must have pretty good imaginations. They are drunk with their actions, leaving the League of Nations, building a nation in Manchuria, refusing to return those South Sea Islands to Germany (but, of course, no nation after the war returned any colonies to Germany), and arousing England’s anger because of Japan’s policy and trade.
But whatever the idea under the brains, the factories producing arms and army equipment are working in double shifts, spending millions of money. No party representative is allowed openly to oppose the army’s expenditure. “National safety,” as they call it, cannot be opposed without extreme discomfort to those who oppose it.
In the meantime, millions of beggarly farmers are struggling to pay taxes, to gather food, and to produce millions of children!
DEAR H. — The other day I was in Tokyo. First you see a solid reinforced concrete building with a huge garden, and wide paved roads. Then suddenly you come into only six-foot roads lined on both sides with little houses like piano boxes. There is no end to these roads, and many thousands live in such sections.
Now the Minister of War is crying at these people that the nation is fast approaching dangerous days and he pats his sword. There are a million cries about national glory and the Emperor and his son. What do you think this means? Can the War Minister be hatching some war eggs? I denounced this dangerous agitation to myself in my hermitage, but today a little bolder spirit started to come out and I laughed — only a feeble laugh though, as at any moment some self-appointed patriot of the hobo type of young man may rush in with a dagger, crying out “Traitor!” The longer I stay here and the closer I watch all this, the more puzzling it becomes and I lose my sense of proportion about everything.
DEAR H. — I am afraid this letter may be the last one I can write you if the United States is going to attack this country. In time of war all the news is controlled and we are not allowed to know the whole truth. But such news as reaches me in the newspapers indicates there is no doubt at all that the United States means war by sending lots of American ships to Singapore, starting large air bases on Northern Pacific coasts, acquiring air and naval bases in Mexico and South America as well as sending large numbers of marines to Hawaii and other little islands in the Pacific.
In this country we common people cannot believe that war is possible. The idea is so startling that the United States will attack us that we cannot speak. The Premier said over the radio that the nation is in the most critical period of its history, not figuratively but actually, and that the population must be of one mind and action to survive the crisis. Now this seems to be the attitude of the public too. They know they are in a life-and-death struggle, with the emphasis on death. The United States Army will face men vastly different from those they met in the last war with Germany.
In the meantime, Japan is undergoing tremendous changes, a sort of revolution unknown in her history. So far the movement is called the New Order. No one seems to know just what this new order means, but I think it is a totalitarian system. We know it as an accomplished fact, however, that all political parties have been dissolved, not by government order, but by the parties themselves. Even the Club for Representatives has been abolished.
Some days ago the newspapers printed the outlines of the new order. I gathered that it is nothing more than a government within the government and that it means to control the entire Japanese population, submerging individual initiative and enterprise to the nation. Everything — food, drink, clothing, and shelter — comes under this control. Someone of the organization will take up the telephone and say that we are not to eat rice for one day as a measure of economy; then instantly that order will reach the entire population. This is a tremendous attempt, but I think this country and its subjects, so accustomed to obey, will follow the lead.
The United States, according to the newspapers, is talking a lot about her rights in the South Sea countries, French Indo-China, Siam, and the Dutch East Indies, and is ready to fight Japan over those countries. I, who have seen those countries, can but say that the attitude of the United States is that of the Southerners at the time of the United States Civil War. The natives in these countries have been kept as slaves since the time of Napoleon, and a very few Europeans have enjoyed princely livings at their expense. And the United States is going to keep them slaves by fighting Japan if necessary. America refuses to see the whole truth about those countries and China. After the war, we shall see the matter correctly. There is no hope now either for us or for Americans.
Maybe the United States will not attack us yet, and you could manage to send me some magazines that do not have political opinions. Could you also send me some blue serge for a pair of pants? I might send you some silk cloth in return, because I cannot send you money under the present law. I want reasonably strong wool cloth, enough for one suit. Let me know if this barter is possible. But I am almost without clothes now and I can get no cloth here unless it is so heavy with vegetable fibers that it will wear out in no time. Pants made of it cannot last one month, and it is as expensive as woolen cloth. For my working clothes, I am using overalls so beautifully patched that the original appearance is totally absent. One shirt costs ten yen — a laborer’s daily wage is about two yen, so he must work for five days to get a shirt. Other commodities are not abundant.
Spring is almost here and crocus is blooming in spite of war and privation. And the cabbage is showing signs of life. I have seeded a lot of potatoes to help out on the food shortage, and am getting my garden ready for beans, carrots, and the rest.
The west wind is blowing hard tonight. It is not a comfortable wind and I cannot keep my temper down on such a night. But somehow I thought I must write this letter immediately.
My best regards to N. and how are your children?
March 20, 1940
In my last letter I mentioned something about blue serge. Please forget all about it as I discovered that the United States does not mean to let me wear that cloth by prohibiting its export to Japan. But see what you can do about the magazines — those may not be included in the prohibition. Any one of my letters might be the last one henceforth, and I wish you to understand that even if communications are interrupted I shall always remain your sincere friend. [A postal card]
DEAR H. — I am not yet supplied with a new typewriter ribbon, so once again you must put up with my bad handwriting. I was surprised to learn that my letter and card reached you so quickly. I always think that what I write takes so long to reach you that I must always write a long letter; now that is not so. Another surprise was your picture. You look so old and so important, standing with those venerable old men. But of course I know you are not half so old as you seem. Don’t apologize for not writing. Although I am not a wise man, the experience of the years has taught me to know just what can be done and what cannot.
Who knows but this may be the last letter I receive from you? The United States may declare war at any day or any moment if anything like a Lusitania incident should occur in the war zone. I hope she will not enter the war. The last great war gave nothing good to the United States or to Europe either, in spite of the great sacrifices. I read an article in Fortune called “Great Britain’s Europe” and am reassured that someone in the United States knows Europe as it really is and the true position of the United States. Lindbergh and ex-President Hoover express parts of the truth, each within his own field and experience.
Don’t bother to subscribe for any American papers to send way out here. They arrive in such huge bunches that if costs a great deal to receive them, and as usual I have very meager money. Well, even if the United States comes to bomb us, I can go back to the family homestead in the country, where I shall have everything to keep life going except perhaps salt. I am learning to make syrup out of grain and malt, getting the idea from a story of Southern farmers at the time of the American Civil War who made a syrup out of sorghum. It isn’t very good, but is a fair substitute for the sweets which are scarce. But it takes a great deal of time to make.
Though I hope things will never come to that, if this letter should be the last one I can send, remember I shall be thinking of you and your family always,
P.S. My address will soon be changed because of all these new factories coming into being. I will send you the new one next month.
I am writing a letter, but just a card today, as it is feared U.S. may attack us any day, and U.S. thinks three weeks are safe anyway for the Americans to get to ships. Consequently I believe mail is yet carried for that period. This may be the last of my Good Will to you and wishes to say that your friendship has been a joy and pleasure most of my life. I hope you and N. and children will be happy and well.
I wish the United States will not attack us. There is no antagonizing feeling toward her.