Things Japanese/Society

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Society in Japan is almost purely official. There is nothing here corresponding to the English "county families," whose members may or may not accept office, but who, if they do so, add a lustre to it, far from its adding any to them. Neither is there any class superior by birth or by intellect, as in France or in America, which stands scornfully aloof and would deem it derogatory to take any part in the vulgar scramble for office. The Court is in Japan the sole and actual fountain of honour; fallen causes have in this land no partisans. Even money is comparatively little esteemed. There are few millionaires, and it so happens that the half-dozen men who have amassed large fortunes in business during the last twenty or thirty years are, for the most part, either indifferent to society or little qualified to shine in it. The Court (or whoever it is that acts in the name of the Court) has raised up a new bureaucracy on the ruins of the old feudalism,—a bureaucracy composed partly of men of good birth, partly of men of good brains sharpened by the best attainable training, that is, in the proper and original sense of the word, an aristocracy which is the state, which is society, and precludes the existence of any rival. Even the outward aspect of the country bears testimony to these peculiar social conditions. "Where are the country houses?" we have sometimes been asked. There are none, for the good reason that there is no one to live in them. Peasants live in the country, officials naturally live in the town, where their offices are. To go and bury themselves in the country, is an idea that never occurs to them. How should it? They do not walk, they are not sportsmen. As for any ties binding the rich to their lowly neighbours, that feudal or semi-feudal view of things has passed away. At the most, the high official and his family may go for a week or a fortnight to some mineral spring resort or to the seaside; but they are not really happy till they get back to town.

It would be interesting to follow out in detail the far-reaching results of a constitution of society differing so widely from that to which Anglo-Saxons—whether of the Kingdom, the States, or the Commonwealth are accustomed. One is that Japanese society is dull, because it is not continuous:—at least the non-continuity greatly aggravates that dullness which is rooted in the unfitness of Japanese ladies for social life, in our sense of the word. These sweet, retiring little creatures, who perform un complainingly all the duties of the home, lack influence over the men, and have (so far at least) acquired none of the arts of social leadership. What they might learn of such matters is subject to frequent interruption; for when a man is out of office, he is eclipsed utterly, and society sees him and his wife no more, as all invitations are issued according to official lists, and his own means of entertaining are conditioned by the drawing of his official salary. If you are not in office, those who are have no need of you, no room for you.

Curiously enough, even travellers are sometimes affected by this state of things. If we have heard one, we have heard a score of complaints somewhat to the following effect:—"Why! when the so-and-so's (mentioning some minister maybe, or consul-general, or head of commission and his wife) were in Europe, they dined with us over and over again, I helped Mme. so-and-so to choose her things, etc., etc.; and yet when I called upon them in Tōkyō, they seemed to be always out or some thing, and they never asked us to anything, and we are so disappointed, because what we should have enjoyed, of all things, would have been to see a nice Japanese home,—see how they live,—and it seems so odd, too, after all we did for them. Of course, we got an invitation to the Imperial Garden Party and to the Birthday Ball; but that is different." These, or something like these, are the expressions of disappointment which we have heard drop from the lips of not a few intelligent ladies visiting Japan, nor have we always found it easy to make them appreciate the situation. If the Japanese couple in question are removed, temporarily or permanently, from official life, they are almost certainly in reduced circumstances. When they were in Europe, they dressed a l'européenne, lived altogether a l'européenne. Now they can do so no longer; not improbably they do not even care to do so, but when in office, found the having to do so rather a constraint. They went to see you in London as great folks; you come to see them at Tōkyō when they have shrivelled into small folks. They feel a delicacy about asking you to their house, for fear you should be uncomfortable squatting on the floor,—for fear, too, lest you should inwardly make comparisons unfavourable to them or their country. Our Anglo-Saxon idea is to let the foreign visitor take pot-luck with the home circle. Well-bred Japanese are more formal, official life having helped to make them so. If they cannot make ready for you a kid, they would rather say "not at home." The result is unpleasing; yet there is no intentional breach of hospitality. How hospitable this nation can be, has been demonstrated over and over again by the reception accorded to notabilities political, literary, and journalistic. But there, once more, it is officialdom that has stepped in, money has been granted by one of the public departments, action has been directed from headquarters. In fact, officialdom is an overwhelming element in Japanese society, it is the dominant element: without official assistance, nothing can be done. Anglo-Saxons will be apt to judge such want of individualism a source of weakness. But Japan's marvellous rise, the position she has won for herself in a single generation of officially directed effort, supplies an incontestable proof to the contrary. She has succeeded, as Prussia succeeded, through centralisation; her five-and-forty millions move as one man.

The functions—we hesitate to call them entertainments, so little entertaining are they—incident to Japanese society as at present constituted, are of two kinds. First, dinners in native style for men only, often served by singing-girls, meetings of political or scientific associations, club gatherings, and the like:—these do offer a modicum of fun and interest, and much sans-gêne, but lack that refinement which the presence of ladies would confer. The other category includes dinners in European style, where, if foreigners are present, the language difficulty, combined with the paucity of mutually interesting topics of conversation, doubles and trebles that gloom of dullness which the absence of social talent and of the habit of society spreads in deep layers over the whole surface of Tokyō life. Besides dinners, there are balls at which the Japanese have now—after an ineffectual attempt—practically ceased to dance, and garden parties consisting either of men alone (!) or of men and women. Some well-advised hosts supply an actual performance on such occasions,—jugglers, day fireworks, the dance, or a public story-teller (see Article so entitled). Occasionally, too, nowadays there is a band; but in the lack of all talent for music, it were better dispensed with. The foreign residents of Tōkyō—or rather the members of the diplomatic body—entertain each other a great deal. In fact, more dinners are given there during the winter than in many a European capital; for, in the absence of European theatres, concerts, galleries, lectures, and intellectual interests generally, what remains but the "pleasures of the table?" Needless to say, however, that this charmed circle is fast closed to travellers, unless they happen to be personally intimate with one of its members.

It will be judged from the above that social functions are not what any well-advised person will cross these seas to seek. Even so fascinating a country as Japan cannot provide everything. The charm here is in the street life of the lower classes, the kindliness of the simple country folk, the delicate art adorning each common object of every-day life, the parks of cherry-blossom that break the monotony of the cities, the trim chrysanthemum gardens, above all the enchanting scenery,—those giant cedars that overshadow moss-grown shrines, those volcanic cones of ineffably graceful logarithmic curve, those torrents to be crossed warily on stepping-stones or on "hanging bridges" stretched like a spider's thread and trembling at every step, and the breezy uplands carpeted with wild flowers and re-echoing with the carolling of nightingales and larks, and the summer hills around which the vapours twirl in grey semi-diaphanous garlands, and the valleys of mingled scarlet maple and deepest green, whose pinnacled rock-walls zigzag the sky with their sharply serrated line. Surely the catalogue of Japan's perfections is sufficiently long and goodly. But when your cultured soul begins to sigh for the delights of the drawing-room and the concert-hall, you had better invest in a ticket home.