Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/July 1893/Moral Life of the Japanese
|MORAL LIFE OF THE JAPANESE.|
AMONG the many interesting features that a close acquaintance with Japan and its people reveals to foreigners, the ethics of the Japanese will surely claim the paramount attention of the ethnologist. The people are unlike any other; and we find that this strong national individuality—so fascinating to visitors to Japan—reaches far beyond the quaint homes, graceful costumes, obsequious courtesy of both rich and poor, and the picturesque beauty of the country itself; finding its origin in the very heart of the people, inculcated by the lives and precepts of generation upon generation of warriors, poets, and statesmen.
The moral life of the Japanese has found many exponents in the literature of the Occident, and, on account of the contradictory character of many of the writings on the subject, the ideas gained by the reading public can not be other than confusing and vague. Any just consideration of the ethics of the Japanese admits of no equivocation, and conventional prudery must in all cases be replaced by simple, ungarnished facts. I would neither seek to confirm nor deny the varied statements of other observers, believing that a clearer insight may be gained from a brief portrayal of the various ethical influences—either domestic, social, or religious—that touch the life of the people from early childhood until, after life is done, their mortal remains are packed into a square pine box, not unlike an ordinary dry-goods case, and consigned to the keeping of Mother Earth.
Japan has been frequently referred to as the "Children's Paradise," and with considerable justice, for in no other country is childhood made so much of, and are children surrounded by so many devices for their amusement. In every town there are numbers of street venders and hawkers whose sole customers are children. One class of these venders carry two charcoal stoves, or furnaces, swung in the conventional manner of the country from the ends of a pole which rests across the shoulder. Arriving at a convenient corner, the load is put down, and a group of eager children quickly gather. For the moderate sum of one or two rin the children are each supplied with a tiny cup of sweetened batter and a spoon. Thus equipped, they proceed to bake their own cookies on the smooth iron top of the stoves, fashioning the dainties into whatever shape they please, and when they are crisp and brown, devouring them. The amé vender also devotes his skill to children. His "stock in trade" consists of dried reeds and a quantity of midzu amé, a sort of malt paste. Some of the amé
is put on the end of a reed, and is molded or blown into some fantastic shape by the vender. The young customers dictate as to the figures, and butterflies, flowers, gourds, or what not are shaped from the sweet paste. The children, after having satisfied their tastes for artistic design, eat the finished work, the reed handle preventing their fingers from becoming sticky. There is another of the child amusers that can be seen in the streets of Tōkyō or any other Japanese city. This artisan molds fruits, flowers, and
vegetables from colored rice-flour dough, and does his work so deftly that it is really difficult to distinguish the artificial from the real fruit.
This universal love and regard for children is also displayed at every temple festival, where numerous booths, gay with toys, flags, and games, form always a prominent feature.
And what of the life of and influences surrounding these little folks? Well, the first event of importance after they have been ushered into this world occurs when they are one hundred days old. This is a feast day for the family, in which the baby plays the chief role. Toys, money, gowns, and sweets are lavished upon him by admiring friends and relatives. Among the poorer classes the baby is then considered old enough to be strapped on the back of its brother or sister (usually the latter) and to go about with them during-the greater part of the day, and from that time spend at least half the day in the open air. As soon as the child is old enough and strong enough to run about, a small doll-like bundle is strapped to its back, the weight of which is frequently increased as the child grows stronger; so, by the time the next arrival in the family has put in an appearance, a well-broken and docile little human "pack-horse" will be found ready for him. The newcomer is put through a similar course of training in due time; and so on, and so on—but let us trust not ad infinitum!
The relations between parents and children are entirely natural, free, and unrestrained. The truths of life and Nature are unfolded to them as soon as the children are old enough to inquire about them. Nothing is left for them to learn from outside sources. The result of this perfect candor, so far from developing any undue precocity in the children, serves to preserve that indefinable, unconscious grace, so beautiful in childhood, which, by the secret acquisition of some hidden knowledge, is so apt to be replaced by that glance of definable conscious disgrace seen in the faces of so many prematurely "old" children of the Occident.
There are two national children's festivals during the year: Sekku, for boys, and Ohinasama, for girls. Sekku, or "boys' day," is celebrated on the 5th of May. At this time gifts are made to the boys of the home, and for every male child in the family a huge paper carp (koi), of some brilliant hue, is hung out on a pole above the house-top. During this festival a Japanese town looks like a great aerial fish-pond. Ohinasama, "the honorable goddess of maidenhood," rules Japanese homes on the 3d of March, provided there are any daughters in the household. It is virtually "dolls' day," for all the dolls hold high carnival, and are brought forth with all their belongings—such as miniature ceremonial teasets, ornaments, and utensils—and set out in state; while in the tokonoma, or alcove, hangs a silken picture of Ohinasama herself; and a vase filled with odorous blossoms is placed before her. Presents to the daughters of the household, of flowers, cakes, and sweets, are also in order.
The school education of Japanese children begins at the age of six years; and in the primary departments the boys and girls are taught together, although occupying different parts of the schoolroom. It would be impossible, in this article, to discuss the present status of education in Japan; suffice it to say that there are business colleges, mining and engineering schools, law schools, universities, and even musical conservatories—all of which rank most high. Regarding the education of women, this usually consists in an eight years' grammar-school course, and frequently two or three additional years in the shihan-gakko, or normal school. The moral education of Japanese children is conducted partly at home and partly in school, and is based largely upon the teachings of the history of the country. Intrepid valor, zeal, sobriety, directness of speech, extreme courtesy, implicit obedience to parents and superiors, and deferential reverence and regard for old age—
these are among the chief characteristics looked for in boys: while industry, gentleness, faithfulness, and cheerful demeanor are required of girls.
Little or no importance is attached to the religious training of children. Whether the parents be Buddhists or Shintoists it matters not, for in either case the children rarely take any part in the religious life of their parents or elders, and indeed usually grow up in blissful ignorance as to what it is all about. True, they may be occasionally taken to the temple, and taught to rub their palms together, clap thrice, and incline their heads toward the shrine, as they toss their offering of rin through the wooden grating of the huge money-till. They may have some vague notion that there is something meritorious in all this, but nothing more, although every Japanese home has a latticed niche, or kamidana, dedicated to the service of the household Lares and
Relics of the hero are preserved in the rear.
Penates, or Daikoku and Ebisu as they appear in Japan. These quaint figures—Daikoku with his bag of rice, and Ebisu with his wise smile and accompanying fish—are regarded more as symbols of good luck than supreme beings, and are retained, in many homes at least, in the same spirit as we Occidentals would fasten a horseshoe over a doorway.The entire absence of demonstrative affection in Japanese families seems almost incompatible with the deep feeling of parental and filial love and tenderness that exists. Petting and caressing are dispensed with as soon as babyhood is over; and even during this time the mother but rarely presses her lips to the child's
face, although the ministering love and tender care of the parent are not lessened one whit with the advancing maturity of the child. Again, while the relationship between brothers and sisters is most sincere and cordial, embracing, kissing, or any other caress is never thought of. An old Japanese precept goes so far as to command that, after the age of seven, brothers and sisters should not even sit together; and up to the present dynasty this rule was strictly adhered to. So, when the father of the family would read aloud to the assembled children, the daughters would always sit apart, half hidden by a screen. In contradistinction to these apparently formal relations, brother or sister, even after having attained the age of puberty, will have no hesitation in disrobing or bathing before one another; while the utmost freedom in conversation is admissible. This formality between the sexes, even in the same family, may be briefly summed up in the words, "Hands off!" and apart from this the closest intimacy and affection may exist.
The word "kiss" finds no exact equivalent in the Japanese language; the nearest approach to it being kuchi-su, literally "to suck the mouth"—a caress only admissible in conjugal relations. The principal years of a girl's life that are specially celebrated are the third, seventh, and fifteenth, at which latter age she is regarded as a woman, and no longer a child. The most important years of a boy's life are the third, fifth, and fifteenth, and at this last age he is supposed to put off childishness, and is regarded as a man and of age. Besides the two children's festivals already referred to, there are four other minor boys' festivals and four girls' festivals in the year, so that practically every month has its "children's day."
So much for the ethics of child life in Japan; and much that has been said concerning the same holds good also during later years, in so far as the family relationships are concerned. We now can turn to a consideration of the various relationships between the sexes.
Engagements for marriage are either arranged by the parents of both families, while the principals are yet children, or else through the mediumship of a nakodo, or go-between, who must be a friend of both families. In the former case, it is usually with the desire of uniting the houses, and the engagement is arranged by the parents while the contracting parties are only infants; or even—conditionally, of course—before the birth of either child. The children thus engaged are brought up to regard each other as affianced, although their relationship toward each other is no more than playmate or friend, until the consummation of the marriage.
When a youth chooses a wife for himself, and has settled upon his choice, he summons a mutual friend to act as nakodo. In this case the engagement is usually of very short duration; frequently not more than a few days or weeks. The nakodo arranges
permits the daughters of the home to entertain their male guests alone, would be regarded as unpardonable in Japan.
As I have said, the engagement is either the matter of a lifetime or else of a few days or weeks. The date of the wedding having been fixed upon, and finally arriving, the first step is taken by the ceremonious removal of the bride's effects to the home of the groom elect. Apart from a nominal civic marriage, which practically only consists in registration, the ceremony is purely of a domestic nature.
The wedding invariably takes place in the groom's house. The bride elect is escorted to her future home by her parents, and is received by a young girl, who acts as the machi-joro, "waiting lady," by whom she is conducted to the dressing-room. In the mean time the parents of both parties have assembled in the guests' chamber, with a few intimate friends and the inevitable nakodo. Before the tokonoma, or alcove, is a lacquered table, in the center of which is a miniature pine tree—the symbol of good fortune and prosperity; and beneath the tree are two miniature figures of an old man and woman, each with a broom—symbols of household thrift and long life; while at the root of the tree is an ancient turtle of bronze, also symbolic of longevity and good fortune. This odd ornament is known as the takasago, and is always placed between the bride and groom during the ceremony. There are also in readiness the me-o-chocho (male and female butterflies), a boy and a girl of about eight years old, who wait upon the bridal couple and take the place of our "best man" and "maid of honor." The nakodo is also present with a nest of three sake cups of different sizes, and a supply of hot saké, a rice spirit. The bride and groom having taken their places on either side of the takasago, the ceremony proper, or san-san-ku-do, or "three times three toasts," is next performed. The nakodo takes one of the cups and passes it to the groom. It is then filled with saké by the "best man," and then the groom drinks and returns the cup to the nakodo, who passes it to the bride. It is now filled by the "maid of honor" and emptied by the bride, and again returned via the nakodo to the groom, and again emptied. This same form is gone through with the two remaining cups, after which the couple are regarded as man and wife. Then the nakodo, or parent of the bride, chants the takasago, or nuptial ode, as follows:
"Takasagoya, kono ura buné ni,
Ho-o-ageté tsuki uiorotomo ni, ideshi-o no,
Narmi no awaji no shima kageya,
To-oku naruo-no oki sugite,
Haya suminoye ni
Tsuki ni keri."
I will not attempt to render this in verse; approximately it may be Englished as follows:
Takasago, ye married ones, have sailed now
From the bay of lone estate,
The moon of love has risen with the tide of joy
And casts its silver beams upon the waters of your lives.
The shadow of Awaji's Island steals across the rippling bay,
And now the waters are all enshadowed, e'en to Suminoyé—
Let peace and joy remain, for ye are one!
I have endeavored to ingraft the hidden meaning, or imi, into the above. Literally the ode would signify but little to us. The chant being finished, the few friends and relatives now offer their congratulations. In the evening there are a general reception and congratulations and good wishes all around. Among the merchant classes it is customary for the naikodo to take the bride around among her new neighbors the day after the wedding. The costume of both bride and groom at the wedding is ordinary "full dress," of a somber hue, but it must bear the family crest. Naturally, the details of marriage etiquette differ somewhat according to the social standing of the contracting parties, but the wedding itself always remains the same.
An interesting description of a sumptuous marriage and feast is contained in the following story, which also goes to show that the Japanese fox—that wary beast—also takes a keen interest in weddings:
About fifty years ago, when the Shōgun Tokugawa was at the head of the feudal chiefs, there was a prince in the province of Mikawa, whose prime minister was a man of great renown for his wisdom. This minister had lost his wife in the early years of wedlock, after the birth of a little daughter. The child grew to maidenhood, and often wandered far into the woods that surrounded the grounds adjoining the homestead, searching for wild flowers. The thousand sweet odors and the graceful blossoming plants filled her with intense enjoyment. One day she strolled deeper into the odorous shade of the thick forest than was her custom, and discovered a large hole, which she knew was the den of a fox. With childlike whim and thoughtlessness she began to throw little stones into the opening; but when the shadows of the great trees grew longer and longer, she suddenly remembered that the hour was late, and with a flutter of the heart hastened homeward to her father.
Full twelve mouths passed without any noteworthy occurrence. The minister's daughter grew more subtly beautiful day by day. and many noble lovers sought to win her favor. But the
About the bell are hung the straw sandals of devout pilgrims.
maiden's heart was not unlocked; her eyelids closed upon dreamless slumbers, and her gentle soul knew no dawning thought of love. Then one morning came, when a gold-bedecked rider with a dazzling retinue drew up before the door of the mansion, and a servant with low prostrations made known that the son of the prime minister of a neighboring prince had arrived. So soon as the handsome youth had dismounted, he was ceremoniously welcomed, and the cause of his visit inquired into. He answered that the fame of the young girl's beauty had reached his province, and he had hastened hither to ask for her hand in marriage. Greatly overjoyed, the proud father at once gave his consent, and ordered the attendants to summon his daughter; but the young knight interposed, saying that he must return without delay, and wished his bride to accompany him. With courteous mien he added that all necessary arrangements could be equally well carried out upon arriving at his father's house—such as the dower, wedding gifts, and everything relating to the marriage ceremony. No pomp or pageant would lack in fit magnificence by being postponed a little later, and the bride should be heralded by flowers, torches, and the marriage song; but their immediate departure was inevitable.
For a moment the lordly father was silent and embarrassed by doubts; but fearing that he might lose so brilliant a fortune for his only child, he gave his full consent. Within an hour the blushing girl, in bridal robes and splendid draperies, came through the outspread inner doors, and stood in all the "alarm of beauty and troubled pride," ready for the journey. Her waiting maids and servants, who were to accompany her, clustered around her, wondering whence sprang all this blaze of wealth in so short a space of time.In a moment the kago (palanquin) for the bride was brought forth, and before she and her maids could realize the fact, the kago, the horsemen, and the courtly suite were in motion. This time the palanquins of the bride and retinue of women took the precedence and headed the rest, as with joyous music, and heralded by the blare of trumpets and roll of drums, the procession left the minister's door. It seemed not long before the bridal cavalcade drew up before a palatial building. The young groom sprang from his saddle, and, hastening to the kago of his bride, softly announced that this was his dwelling, and requested her to step out and enter the guest-chamber. She did so, while shadowy servitors bowed low within the halls as they entered. The bride said nothing, but opened her soft eyes half in fright, and then with wonder and admiration, at the beauty of the palace. Stately halls opened into still statelier chambers. Such unrivaled magnificence!—carved cedar, gold lacquer, and vessels of solid gold. In one fairy room, a mimic glade and shady forest with branching stems interlaced, recalled to her the woodland walks at home, while the very air seemed laden with the sweet odor of blossoms and wild flowers she used to gather.
On either side of the road are stone lanterns, gifts of worshipers at the temple, and frequently memorials to the dead.
Upon reaching the largest room a regal feast was spread. Here, too, small woodland intricacies and miniature trees were in each nook and niche. The rich luster of the banquet-room, so filled with perfume and brilliancy, with mirrors on the walls, making twin pictures of all this loveliness, utterly bewildered the young bride. Then the groom reassuringly pressed her hand and told her that this feast had been prepared for her and her attendants. Happiness stole over her, and her rosy cheeks seemed to absorb the delight of her lover as he gazed upon her. Joy and gladness pervaded the guests, and the youthful bride tasted with delight the dainty dishes set before her.
Then, suddenly, a war cry resounded through the halls, and clearly could be heard the neighing of excited steeds and the
clash of drawn swords. The bride sprang up in terror, and her trembling maidens surrounded her as they beheld a full-armed knight, with threatening aspect, ride toward her. She turned quickly to her carvings, vases and embroideries, palace and court were all gone. All was blighted. She and her maidens were standing in the middle of a shady recess in the woods; before her gaped only the dark opening of a fox's hole; and around them, instead of the splendors of the feast table, were refuse, offal, and all manner of offensive things. At this moment a horse and rider galloped up hurriedly beside them, and told the weeping maiden that he was the real son of the neighboring prime minister. He had heard that a deceiver had made use of his name, and had carried off the lovely daughter of the minister of Mikawa. He had come to find the wretch and avenge the dishonor, but had met no one but this little group of weeping girls in the wood.for protection—but where was he? She shrieked, but nothing but the shriek and its echo were heard. Where was the gorgeous palace with all its new-born delights? All had vanished. The stately music and the soft-voiced lutes had ceased. A deadly silence, that seemed like a horrid presence, was all that remained. Bridegroom and friends, paintings and
Good counsel was dearly purchased. Heart-struck, the young bride, with weak hand, motioned him to be silent, for she knew now that she had been enchanted by the cruel fox, and that all that had occurred was a wizard's revenge. Sad and ashamed, with one beseeching glance, she turned away; and with her maids and servants entered her father's house again, and recounted all that had befallen her with browbeaten air, her fair form trembling with apprehension.
The minister was shocked and overcome with emotion, but carefully commanded that the affair should be kept a profound secret; as it was considered an entailed disgrace when a samurai, or high noble, or his children, allowed themselves to be bewitched by a fox.
Despite all warnings and every precaution on the part of his minister and his retainers, the rumor of the disgraceful enchantment reached the ears of the prince. He was terribly angry. "Surely, it must be a weak-minded fool," thought he, "who could so easily fall a victim to the intrigues of a fox," and he at once determined to banish the minister and his family from his kingdom. The honorable minister waited upon his princely master, and entreated a milder punishment, but without any success; leave he must with his daughter and servants. He journeyed to a distant province and died soon after, heartbroken by the disgrace. His daughter never married. It is true, her hand was sought by other men of rank, but she had had more than enough experience with her first bridegroom, and refused all others.
This was the revenge of the fox!
The system of legalized concubinage, still existing in Japan, is far from being akin to polygamy in a social sense. In taking up this question, I am forcibly reminded of Pierre Loti's "Madame Chrysanthème." This story, while in many respects faulty in its portrayal of Japanese life, and at best revealing a rather degrading and unfortunate view, by no means typical except in seaport towns where the foreign element is strong, nevertheless serves to reflect with considerable truth the attitude of so many—so very many—foreigners toward the women of Japan.
In Japanese households the concubine or mekaké occupies a position similar to that of a servant, so far as her rights are concerned. The wife is always the mistress of the house, and looks upon her husband's mekaké in the light of a maid. Should the concubine become a mother, she has no claim upon the child, who belongs to her master and mistress, and who is taught to regard them only as his natural parents. Indeed, most frequently a
mekaké is employed in a family for the sole purpose of securing an heir; and no sooner has the child been born and weaned, than the concubine is discharged.
The mekaké has no prerogatives above the other servants of the house, and is subject to immediate dismissal whenever the master of the house desires it. No pseudo-marriage, such as suggested by Pierre Loti, ever exists between the master of the house and the mekaké. She is simply a convenience, and has been secured from some employment bureau, just as any other servant, and receives regular wages.
Concubines are rarely, if ever, employed by unmarried men—at least among the Japanese; I do not refer to the foreign element—it being regarded as a grave breach of social laws. Where the mekakés mostly find a place is in the home of a long-married or childless couple. How does the wife tolerate the presence of the concubine? In the majority of cases, very well; for but few Japanese wives expect absolute loyalty on the part of their husbands.
Although, as a rule, the husband remains true to his wife, he nevertheless is not bound to do so by any legal or moral obligation.
There have been several efforts made by reformers to discountenance the system of concubinage, and to make it illegal. But it would be decidedly a case of "people in glass houses," should the present Emperor of Japan enforce any such law, or allow it to be enacted. For not only is the Emperor himself the child of a mekaké, but so is also the present heir apparent to the throne, both the Empress Dowager and the present Empress being childless. Then, besides this, the Emperor's household includes several mekakés chosen from noble families.
Regarding divorces, up to the present time the husband has always had the privilege of divorcing his wife at will, and sending her back to her parents' home for apparently trivial reasons. But, as easy as it is to sever the nuptial bonds, this privilege is rarely taken advantage of, except in extreme cases, for divorces are looked upon with anything but tolerance by the Japanese. On the other hand, the only thing which warrants a wife in leaving her husband is cruel treatment, in which case she may return to her father's house, and the marriage may be annulled.
There are two other classes of Japanese women that I would make mention of: geisha, or professional entertainers, and jōro, or prostitutes. The geisha is a time-honored institution, and may be seen at almost any public dinner or entertainment. They are professional musicians, dancers, and entertainers in general, and are licensed as such. Frequently the geisha will take out a prostitute's license as well. From this it will be understood that what has been said concerning the reserved nature of social and domestic relationships in Japanese society is entirely absent with geisha. The women of the Japanese household rarely if ever take part in the public social life of their husbands, and therefore all social or official dinners among men are held at some restaurant or tea-house, and geishas employed to furnish music and entertainment. They frequently are accompanied by two or three dancers (oshakku), girls between twelve and fifteen years of age, who dance while the geishas furnish music and song. The moral instincts of the geisha are crude, to say the least, and many progressive Japanese look eagerly forward to the day when the geisha will not be an inevitable feature of entertainments.
Prostitution is under strict government control and supervision, and all houses of ill fame relegated to certain portions of the town known as the yoshiwara. A prostitute's license is only for three years, for which period of time she sells herself to the keeper of one of these houses for a lump sum. Not infrequently among the poorer families, one of the daughters of the home is thus practically sold to a life of dishonor by her parents, in order to keep the wolf from the door. I know of many sad cases of this kind; and while this heartless procedure is legal, yet it is regarded with equal repugnance and abhorrence by the Japanese public as it would be with us, and is as loudly condemned. After the three years' service is over, the daughter may again return to the parental roof.Regarding the moral life of women of the poorer classes, it is in the main similar to that of the higher. The maids employed
by the second-rate hotels and tea-houses bother themselves but little about any moral obligation; button the whole, the immorality laid at the door of Japanese women is unjust and misleading.
Regarding the religious life of women as affecting the ethics of the country, little remains to be said. The enamored maiden may write the name of her lover and herself on two strips of paper, and, twisting them together, tie the spell to the lattice work of the temple of Kwannon, the goddess of love, trusting that her offering and prayers may be of avail, and unite their lives and hearts.
Religion enters mostly into the lives of the Japanese people when the sands of life are nearly run out. It is then that the people, and more especially the old women, turn to Buddhism or Shintoism with great avidity, and if wealthy will make lavish gifts to the temples, or cause votive stone lanterns to be erected at their expense along the approach to the temples, and will readily yield themselves to the commands of the astute priests, so that they may be assured of future peace and happiness. The Buddhist faith undoubtedly offers the greatest inducements to believers and condemnation to heretics. The Shinto faith, which is the present court religion, is practically a hero worship, and the Shinto priests are not celibates. Some of the more popular saints or deities have been adopted by both creeds—as a matter of policy—notably the "Seven Wise Ones," Sichi Fuku Jin, among whom are Daikoku and Ebisu, the household Lares and Penates. In the Shinto temples there are no idols, but relics of the deified hero are preserved; and before the shrine stands a huge mirror of polished metal, into which the worshiper gazes, seeking to place himself face to face with his own soul. In the Buddhist temples there are idols and superstitions galore.
Such are briefly the most salient features of the ethics of the Japanese, in the account of which I have unavoidably been compelled to omit much that is interesting and novel. As I have said, on the whole the Japanese people have been done a great injustice to, when a lack of moral instinct has been charged to them. In no other country, and surely in no other language, has love found an apter exponent. Filial piety, connubial affection, parental tenderness, fraternal fondness—all these have been sung about in Japanese poetry in a thousand dainty ways, and may be daily witnessed in the lives of the people, and above all this is that ardent spirit of patriotism and love for home that so preserves the unity of the Japanese people; and should we seek for the keynote of the wondrous ancient heroism and present rapid advance of the country we will surely find it in the words Mikune no tame, "For my country's sake."
- The Japanese rin is the tenth part of one sen, or cent; 1,000 rin, therefore, equal one yen, or dollar.
- Originally translated into German by F. Wanington Eastlake, Ph. D., and read before the Gesellschaft für Volkerkunde in Ost-Asien.