Japan's "Cultural Democracy": A Challenging Interpretation of History



THE progress of history has so accelerated that a century now witnesses the profound changes that once took several centuries. This is especially true of the Orient, which until recently stood apart from the central movements of world culture. Japan is the most remote of the Oriental nations and was the last to be washed by the tide of Western culture. But the changes that occurred throughout the Orient after its meeting with the West took place more swiftly in Japan than in any of her neighbors. Japan had to rush along the road which the West had followed at a more leisurely pace since the Renaissance, and in that cultural race Japan proved herself swift-footed. I refer, of course, to Japan since the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

It might be said, with perhaps a little exaggeration, that a Japanese who is still living and who was born in the early years of the Meiji Period (18681912) has in his own lifetime covered a span which stretched over two or three centuries in Europe. I am, I think, one such Japanese.

The modern Japanese is sometimes criticized for forgetting history. The Japanese of the early Meiji Period, when I was born, was moving forward with the vigor necessary to jump from the old feudal state to the modern state, but at the same time past history was with him, not simply as a memory, but as a concrete part of his life. The “child of Meiji,” as he is called in Japan, therefore had in himself, as his period had in itself, a progressive side and a conservative side. In that I think he was a little like the modern Englishman. Actually, this conflict has been true of every period in Japanese history.

The Japanese nature contains many varied elements. Native Shinto is the racial religion, and yet long ago Buddhism was accepted from the continent and peacefully amalgamated with Shinto. The two faiths, native and imported, have lived side by side. St. Francis Xavier, who came to Japan in the 16th century, reported in his letters that in the same family parents and children or brothers and sisters might belong to different sects.

This is true not only of religion but of culture in general. The Japanese, individually and socially, has a malleability which makes it possible for him to incorporate these varied elements. The persecution of Christians toward the end of the Middle Ages is a blot quite without parallel in earlier Japanese history, but it is rather different from the intolerance of medieval Europe. The Dutch, who were in a position of particular intimacy with the Japanese, passed on information on the record of aggression by European powers in the Far East, and it was the fear that Christian missionaries were the spearhead of colonialism that led to the persecution.

After that, Japan sealed herself from the world except for some commercial relations with the Dutch from whom the Japanese learned something of contemporary Europe. Inside Japan a flowering called by historians the “Japanese Renaissance” took place in the 17th century. This awakening, fostered by the stable government of our Edo Period, may be compared to the European stage of development from warring feudal states to free guild cities. I would like to suggest that our Renaissance was possible because certain “modern” characteristics were already to be found in Japan at the dawn of history.

In a sense, Japan has always been a “national” state. With no interruption it has been a nation of one people through more than two thousand years. Not one among the empires of Europe and Asia escaped internal territorial and racial conflicts, but Japan did. As anthropologists point out, the Japanese nation is compounded of various strains, but even as early as the “period of the gods,” a single Yamato people had developed a belief in a common ancestry. Earlier there had been two dominant peoples, the Yamato and the Izumo, who set up rival states, but the Yamato absorbed the Izumo, and the legendary ancestors of both were united in the great shrines of Ise and Izumo, where they are still worshiped today.

Only one other tribe, the Ainu, who had not yet abandoned a primitive totemism, continued to hold out in the northeast, but most of them were assimilated into the Yamato, and the few who were not had been forcibly removed as a group to the northernmost island of Hokkaido by the end of the Middle Ages. There they formed scattered little villages, but their powers of resistance proved even less than those of the American Indian, and their villages are almost gone. As late as the early Middle Ages the Japanese in the northeast were descendants of the Ainus and skilled in the arts of war. They were conscripted and stationed in the south to ward off attacks from the continent.

The Japanese, held together by belief in a common ancestry, were never conquered by another people. And Japan lost her sphere of influence in Korea in ancient times, so that “imperialism” had no chance to show itself until our day, either as imposed from abroad or as launched by the Japanese themselves. Japan resembled, politically and socially, an advanced development of the primitive clan-state.

Immigrants from abroad comprised no small part of the population in prehistoric and early historic times, but without exception they were swiftly assimilated, and though legally they were registered as “ foreign clans,” they were, except for distinguishing physical characteristics, no different from the amato people. This great power of assimilation is to be explained by the fact that, as the population is made up of many elements, so also are cultural forms multiple, and it may be said that a “human” or active element prevails over a “racial” or passive element in the Japanese. And this, too, is one of the characteristics of the modern national state.

As a result of unification, Japan already had in the 8th century a national language such as reached maturity in Europe only with the modern age. A people’s literature had arisen by the 10th century, and in the 11th large numbers of novels and essays were written, including our greatest masterpiece the Tale of Genji.

The court early encouraged the spread of the Yamato language, and, to stimulate their composition, systematically collected poems and folk songs throughout the country, had them set to music, and included them in anthologies. The Manyoshu, a collection of some five thousand poems compiled over a long period by a number of editors, reflects the poetic concepts of the age, expressed in the Yamato language, from emperors, nobility, and warriors, down to the common people. Contemporary critics still give the Manyoshu the highest critical rating as poetry, not only because the language is so beautiful but also because the poetic emotions expressed have affinities with modern realism and romanticism — further evidence that the Japanese in ancient times had modern characteristics.


THE modernism of the ancient Japanese was inherent in our culture in the period covered by the legends of the gods. One of the prime scriptures of our Shinto religion, the Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters”), compiled in 712, represents Japanese literature in its most primitive form. The first half of the Kojiki deals with the gods, but these gods do not have the heroic qualities of those in the legends of other countries. They are described as thoroughly human. They participate only in the production of the things of nature, and even here they have not the power to make rivers and mountains, but only to create the staples of an agrarian society — and these almost as if by accident, one product rising quite by chance from another.

The legends of our gods are in the naturalistrealist vein that has characterized so much of Japanese literature. The one heroic god in the pantheon, Susanoo-no-mikoto, was purged for his violence. Japan, we are told, was founded by the Sun Goddess — a survival of sun worship — but she was feminine in nature, and she fled from Susanoo’s violence into a cave, leaving the world in darkness, subsequently to be lured out again by an amusing dance performed by another goddess. It is notable that our legends frequently recount similar victories of the weak over the strong.

The latter half of the Kojiki treats of the earliest historical period, and, as the scholar Norinaga has pointed out, it is a matter-of-fact history in no way distorted by ideology. Its rationale is not far from that of modern historiography — and this already in the 8th century.

And even in those days, thanks to the unified Yamato language, there was a form of education such that literature and history spread through the land like folklore. Villagers in the remotest countryside sang Yamato songs. History was transmitted through kataribe, “reciters,” and as Japan had no native system of writing, Chinese characters were used phonetically by the upper classes to take down the history thus recited. This verbal tradition was preserved particularly well in aristocratic houses and provided material for the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki, another collection of legends.

Scholars of the classics call the Kojiki “realistic" because the recitations of the kataribe were written down in phonetic adaptation of Chinese characters precisely as they were spoken. The Nihonshoki, on the other hand, was written in imitation of Chinese histories. In it examples of conscious distortion are numerous; in particular, matters pertaining to the Imperial House are idealized. The scholar Norinaga holds that the pure, undistorted history of the Kojiki reveals the proper Japanese attitude toward history, and that the Nihonshoki, pseudo-history which allows fact to be distorted by moral precepts, is nearer the Chinese attitude. To this I would add that the type of historiography represented by the Kojiki is also closer to the modern historical methods of the West.

The Japanese character reveals itself most clearly in literature. In my opinion the history of Japanese literature shows less evolution in tendency than that of Europe, which moved from classicism through romanticism to realism and naturalism, while in our literature, from the 10th century onward, the realistic and naturalistic strains have been dominant over the classical and the romantic. I attribute this largely to the fact that Chinese characters were not long retained as our chief written language, giving way to a simple phonetic system which adequately represents the fifty syllables of our spoken language. The first condition for the rise of realistic literature is a system of writing which reproduces colloquial speech.

From the 10th century on Japanese could be noted down with rigid formality in the fifty phonetic signs. These were later reduced to forty-eight, and, like the alphabet, the series was named for its first letters (in this case, the three sounds i, ro, ha). Anyone who knew these forty-eight symbols could read all the literature of the day. Until the end of the Edo Period (1600-1867), works completely in the phonetic syllabary were common, and the highest literary achievement thus reached down to the lowest strata of society.

In the Middle Ages it became the custom for even pure Japanese to be translated into Chinese, and this affected speech, so that the Japanese sentence became a mixture of pure Japanese (in the phonetic script) and Chinese. Few, however, except the nobility, the warrior class, and scholars, had an opportunity to study Chinese and in due course the Chinese characters used in writing also came to be transcribed after their sounds into the phonetic script so that they could be read by the populace at large. As a result the demand for historical and literary works increased, and to satisfy it — there was no printing in those days and hand-copied texts were costly — the art of reciting grew rapidly from around the 14th century. Blind priests made their living by singing historical narratives in the streets to the simple accompaniment of a sort of mandolin. The classic Noh drama which survives today is a product of the same epoch. Its content was influenced by a sort of Buddhist romanticism, for by the 14th century Buddhism had spread from the upper classes to the masses. Yet this romanticism in Noh was balanced by the realism of Kyogen, the comic interludes which were interspersed with the serious plays. The vein of Kyogen resembles the realism of Molière, though Kyogen predated Molière by three centuries.


IN THE Edo Period, literature and the arts flourished in Edo (the present Tokyo) and Osaka as never before in Japanese history. Unlike the West, however, where the old was usually discarded for the new, in Japan the historical and the contemporary existed side by side. All periods in Japanese history were piled one on another to give form to the Edo Period.

On top, so to speak, of the old Noh drama the Bunraku puppet theater and the Kabuki theater developed. Noh continued to be performed, in theory only for the Samurai— it was forbidden to the commoner— but actually it was widely appreciated, the prohibition being little more than a form. In prose, the fantasies of the Muromachi Period gave way to more modern romances and novels. Critics have noted that Edo literature was rather similar to English literature during and after the Renaissance. The playwright Chikamatsu is often compared to Shakespeare, the romancer Bakin to Scott, and Edo humor to that of Dickens and Thackeray.

The art of wood-block printing saw marked advances in the Edo Period, and a wide variety of literature was transcribed into the phonetic syllabary and published with Ukiyo-e-style illustrations as ezoshi, “picture books,”a popular form that reached to every level of society. Romances were imported from China and translated in large numbers. Even in an age that did not know movable type, books printed from wood blocks were published in very large editions. By the Edo Period the illiteracy rate was extremely low, and even the illiterate could become familiar with the contents of literary and historical works by hearing them read or recited. Thus the finest works of literature became accessible to the lowest levels of society. Japan was politically a most undemocratic country, but culturally it was from its beginnings one of the most democratic societies. I like to call this Japan’s “cultural democracy.”

When I was asked once by an American professor what I meant by my term “cultural democracy,”I cited the Katsura Imperial Villa near Kyoto, which is illustrated in this collection. I pointed out that it is an extremely small and simple wooden building, somewhat different in its form from the house of a commoner but no different in its basic principles. It does not suggest wealth and power as do European palaces. It has none of their decorations and elaborations; it is simplicity itself. Smaller in scale than even the houses of the wealthy and noble, it is a symbol of the way in which the Imperial Family held itself aloof from politics, rather as in a modern democracy. Like the English monarch today, our Emperor reigned but did not rule.

To be sure, the Emperor was deified, but, he was a most human god, a model of humanism, quite divorced from military power, which was in the hands of the Shoguns and, in our time, of the generals and their clique. The shrines where the Imperial ancestors are worshiped are termed “great” shrines, but they are actually even smaller than the Villa, and Ise, the greatest shrine of all, is a simple little building not as large as the house of a small landowner. Anyone familiar with the grandeur of St. Peter’s in Rome is no doubt surprised when he sees the modesty of the building in which is enshrined the ancestor of the Japanese race. This I consider a typical manifestation of Japanese “cultural democracy.”

The finest art and literature of the Edo Period was popular. The Ukiyo-e print, now recognized throughout the world as the highest product of wood-block art, was provided in every household for the education of children, and in middle-class families prints were collected year by year for generations, so that the family collection was larger than that of the specialized collector today. A wood-block portrait by Sharaku that would now sell for tens of thousands of yen, was one of my childhood companions, along with my picture book. As a child I enjoyed too the series of Ukiyo-e prints called the “Genji-e,” a widely read modernized version of the Tale of Genji. A further example of the democratic vein in our literature is Saikaku Ibara’s tale in this collection, the story of the niece of a proud feudal Daimyo who dared to accept the love of a commoner.

As with literature, so with the theater, where art of the highest order was appreciated by the lower levels of society. Square, straw-matted stalls were provided at the Kabuki-Za so that the whole family could see the play together, and I can remember how as children we went with our parents to the theater. The most demanding critics of the Kabuki were from the Tokyo artisan and working class. It was the custom to shout words of criticism or approval at the stage, and the most enthusiastic always came from the highest and cheapest balconies. The man in the street was skilled at mimicking the speeches and motions of the great actors such as Danjuro and Kikugoro. When I was in London some fifty years ago, I asked if workers could imitate Tree and Irving, the great English actors of the day. I was told that such a thing would be impossible in Europe or America. But it was possible in Japan as late as my childhood. That is what I mean by Japan’s “cultural democracy.”

The characteristics of Japanese culture which I have stressed persisted into the late 19th century, but from the beginning of the Taisho Period (1912 to 1926) far-reaching social and cultural changes began to set in. European influence took hold and the highest culture soon became the property of the intelligentsia and the economically privileged classes. The masses were left at a distance from it, with a lower-level literature and art of their own. Not only were the best things the most expensive and thus beyond the reach of the masses, but their Westernized content was beyond popular comprehension. This sudden intrusion of alien forces led to a distorted sort of culture in which a form reached high quality only when it was divorced from the masses. “Cultural democracy” declined.

What was the nature of the Western tide that swept over Japan? In the early Meiji Period Japan had pursued Anglo-Saxon culture, attracted by its liberal spirit. But from the mid-Meiji Period, leaders in the bureaucracy, the armed forces, and the academic world began to feel that Japan’s position in the Far East was not unlike that of Germany in Europe. They therefore proceeded to replace their Anglo-American model with a German one. Misguided by the currents of the time, they tried to make their debut on the stage of 20th-century history in German costume and make-up, adopting a transcendentalism and idealism diametrically opposed to our traditional realism and naturalism. Japanese civilization became highly Germanized, and the country was finally led to the same fate as the German Empire.

Since her defeat Japan has been forced to devote her whole effort toward reorganizing the nation in the direction of modern history. The most fortunate factor in this situation is the tradition of “cultural democracy" which Japan possessed from its origins down to the Meiji Period. I find our oldest traditions are in accord with the most advanced steps forward.

Nevertheless I am disturbed by doubts as to whether most Japanese, not yet free from the influence of the un-Japanese elements of education in the Taisho Period and after, are yet properly conscious of their own true national character. The ruling class in particular seems to lack this consciousness. Yet it is hard to believe that the traditional traits in a national history of over two thousand years can be destroyed by the distortions of less than half a century. Provided the Japanese do not give up the desire to return to their own fundamental nature, the day when they will do so cannot be far away.

Translated by William Candlewood