After all, the life of the people is the most interesting, as I think it is the most instructive, matter connected with any country. It is assuredly impossible to form a clear or indeed any correct idea in regard to a nation unless we know something of the manners and customs, the daily life, the amusements, the vices of its people. Unless we can, as it were, take a bird's-eye view of the people at work and at play, at their daily avocations in their homes, see them as they come into the world, as they go through life's pilgrimage, and, finally, as they pay the debt of nature and are carried to their last resting-place in accordance with the national customs, with the respect or the indifference the nation shows for its dead.
If one is to arrive at a correct idea regarding the life and habits of the Japanese people it is, I think, essential to get away from the ports and large towns where they have been influenced by or brought much into contact with Europeans, and see them as they really are, free from conventionalities, artificialities, and the effects of Western habits and customs which have undoubtedly been pronounced in those centres where Europeans congregate.
The house in Japan does not play the important part it does in this country. When a man in England, whatever his station in life may be, contemplates taking a wife and settling down, as the phrase goes, the home and the contents thereof become an all-important matter and one needing much thought and discussion. In Japan there is no such necessity. A Japanese house is easily run up--and taken down. The "walls" are constructed of paper and slide in grooves between the beams of the floor which is raised slightly above the ground. The partitions between the rooms can easily be taken down and an additional room as easily run up. The house is, as a rule, only one storey high. The carpets consist of matting only, and practically no furniture is necessary. A witty writer on Japan has aptly and wittily remarked that "an Englishman's house may be his castle, a Japanese's house is his bedroom and his bedroom is a passage." The occupant of this house sits on the floor, sleeps on the floor, and has his meals on the floor. The floor is kept clean by the simple process of the inhabitants removing their boots, or what do duty for boots, and leaving them at the entrance, so as to avoid soiling the matting with which the floor of each room is covered. This is a habit which has much to commend it, and is, I suggest, worthy of imitation by other countries. After all, the Japanese mode of life has a great deal to be said in its favour. It seems strange at first, but after the visitor to the country has got over his initial fit of surprise at the difference between the Japanese domestic economy and his own, he will, if he be a man of unprejudiced mind, admit that it certainly has its "points."
The bulk of the population is poor, very poor, but that poverty is not emphasised in their homes to the same extent as in European countries. The house--a doll's house some irreverent people term it--with paper partitions doing duty for walls, white matting, a few cooking utensils costs only a few shillings. It can, as I have said, be taken down and run up easily, and enlarged almost indefinitely. The inhabitants sleep on the floor, and the bedding consists not as with us of mattresses, palliasses, and other more or less insanitary articles, but of a number, great or small, and elaborate or otherwise, in accordance with the means of the owner, of what I will term quilts. The Japanese pillow is a fearful and wonderful article. I can never imagine how it was evolved and why it has remained so long unimproved. It is made of wood and there is a receptacle for the head. The European who uses it finds that it effectually banishes sleep, while the ordinary Japanese is apparently unable to sleep without it. In most houses, however poor, a kakemono, or wall picture, is to be seen. It is usually the only decoration save an occasional vase containing flowers, and of course flowers themselves, which are in evidence everywhere. Light is, or used to be, given by a "lamp," a kind of Chinese lantern on a lacquer stand, the light being given by a rush candle. I am sorry, however, to say that these in some respects artistic lanterns are being generally replaced by hideous petroleum or kerosene lamps, not only ugly but a constant source of danger in these flimsy houses.
The most important accessory of nearly all Japanese houses is the bath-room, or wash-house, to use a more appropriate term. The hot bath is a universal institution in the country, and nearly every Japanese man and woman, whatever his or her station in life, washes the body thoroughly in extremely hot water more than once daily. The Japanese, as regards the washing of their persons, are the cleanest race in the world, but many hygienic laws are set at defiance possibly because they are not understood. A gradual improvement is, however, taking place in these matters, and the cleanliness as regards the body and their houses, which is such a pleasing feature of the people, will no doubt extend in other directions also.
Japanese houses are habitable enough in warm weather, but in winter-time they are, as might be expected, exceedingly cold, especially as the arrangements for warming them are of an extremely primitive nature. Those complaints which are induced or produced by cold are prevalent in the country.
The food of the people is as simple as their houses, and as inexpensive. A Japanese family it has been calculated can live on about £10 a year. A little fish, rice, and vegetables, with incessant tea, is the national dietary. The people living on this meagre fare are, on the whole, a strong and sturdy race, but it is questionable if the national physique would not be vastly improved were the national diet also. I have touched on this matter elsewhere, so I need not refer to it further here. Tobacco is the constant consoler of the Japanese in all his troubles. Why he smokes such diminutive pipes I have never been able to understand. They only hold sufficient tobacco for a few whiffs, and when staying in a Japanese house the constant tap, tap, tap of the owner's pipe as he empties the ashes out prior to refilling it reminds one of the woodpecker.
There are doubtless some persons, especially those persons who consider that to enjoy life a superabundance or even a plethora of material comforts are necessary, who, after reading a description of the home and fare of the Japanese peasant, will assume that his life is a burden and that he derives no enjoyment whatever from it. Nothing could be more erroneous. There is probably not a more joyous being on the face of the globe than the Japanese. His wants are few, and in that fact probably lies his happiness. He does not find his enjoyment in material things, but he has his enjoyment all the same, and I think on the whole that he probably gets more out of life and has more fitting ideas regarding it than the Englishman who considers an abundance of beef and beer its objective point.
To me one of the most pleasing features of Japan is the fondness and tenderness of the Japanese of all ranks and classes for children. The Japanese infant is the tyrant of Japan, and nothing is good enough for it. The women, as most people know, carry their babies on their backs instead of in their arms. A baby is, however, not so for very long in Japan. Very young Japanese girls may be seen carrying their little baby brothers and sisters behind their backs, and thus learning their maternal duties in advance. The position of women in Japan, married women, is not so satisfactory as it ought to be. The laws in regard to divorce are, I think, too easy, and a Japanese possesses facilities for getting rid of his wife which does not tend to the conservation of home-life. The custom, which was at one time universal, of women blackening their teeth, has largely diminished, and will no doubt in due course become obsolete. The idea which underlay it was that the woman should render herself unattractive to other men. There was no object in having such an adventitious attraction as pearly teeth for her husband, who might be presumed to know what her attractions really were. The Japanese woman in her education has inculcated three obediences, viz., obedience to parents, obedience to husband, and after the death of the latter obedience to son. Although the Japanese girl comes of age at 14 she cannot marry without her father's consent until she is 25.
The dress of the Japanese people is so well known that it is not necessary for me to describe it. The kimono is, I think, a graceful costume, and I am very sorry that so many women in the upper classes have discarded the national dress for European garments. Japanese women who wear the national costume do not don gloves. If their hands are cold they place them in their sleeves, which are long and have receptacles containing many and various things, including a pocket-handkerchief, which is usually made of paper, and sometimes a pot of lip-salve to colour the lips to the orthodox tint. The poorer classes, of course, do not go in for such frivolities. Talking of paper handkerchiefs reminds me of the innumerable uses to which paper is put in Japan; it serves for umbrellas and even for coats, and is altogether a necessity of existence almost for the great mass of the people.
I have referred to the lack of what may be deemed material comforts in Japan, as also to the fact that the Japanese are a joyous race but that their enjoyment is not of a material nature. They are, in fact, easily amused, and their enjoyment takes forms which would hardly appeal to a less emotional people. In the large towns the theatre is a perennial source of amusement. I have referred to the theatre in the chapter dealing with the drama, and remarked therein that the excess of by-play, irrelevant by-play, in a Japanese drama was rather wearisome to the European spectator. Not so to the Japanese. He positively revels in it. The theatre is for him something real and moving. He has, whatever his age, all the zest of a youth for plays and spectacles. How far the Europeanising of the country, which is having, and is bound still further to have, an effect on dramatic art, will affect the amusements of the people and their proneness for the theatre remains to be seen. There is so far nothing approaching the English music-hall in Japan. Let me express a hope that there never will be. It is a long cry from the graceful Geisha to the inanities and banalities which appear to be the stock-in-trade of music-hall performances in this country. These appear to meet a home want, but I sincerely trust they will be reserved for home delectation and not be inflicted in any guise upon Japan. The matter of music-halls suggests some reference to the ideas of the Japanese in respect of music. The educated classes appear to have an appreciation of European music, but Japanese music requires, I should say, an educational process. Some superficial European writers declare that the Japanese have not the least conception of either harmony or melody, and that what passes for music in the country is simply discord. It might have struck these writers that criticism of this kind in reference to a most artistic people could hardly be correct. Any one who has listened to the Geisha or heard the singing of trained Japanese would certainly not agree in such statements as I have referred to. Japanese music is like Japanese art--it has its own characteristics and will, I am sure, repay being carefully studied.
Festivals and feasts, religious and otherwise, which are many and varied, afford some relaxation for the people. There are, according to a list compiled, some 28 religious festivals, 16 national holidays, and 14 popular feast-days. New Year's Day is termed Shihohai, and on it the Emperor prays to all his ancestors for a peaceful reign. Two days subsequently, on Genjisai, he makes offerings to him and all his Imperial ancestors, while two days later still all Government officers make official calls. These are legal holidays. The 11th of February (Kigen Setsu) and the 3rd of April (Jimmu-Tenno-sai) are observed as the anniversaries respectively of the accession to the throne and the death of Jimmu-Tenno, the first Emperor. The 17th of October (Shinsho-sai) is the national harvest festival. On this day the Emperor offers the first crop of the year to his divine ancestor, Tenshoko Daijin. It may be interesting to record that the 25th of December (Christmas Day), is observed as a holiday by the Custom-house department "for the accommodation of foreign employees."
The popular festivals are equally interesting and curious. The 3rd of March (Oshinasama), is the girls' or dolls' festival, while the 5th of May (Osekku), is the boys' festival, or Feast of Flags. A three days' festival, 13th-15th of July (Bon Matsuri), is the All Souls' Day of Japan in honour of the sacred dead. The 9th of September (Kikku No Sekku), is the festival of chrysanthemums, the national flower, and the 20th of November, appropriately near the Lord Mayor of London's day, is the festival held by the merchants in honour of Ebisuko, the God of Wealth. The Feast of Flags--the boys' festival--is one much esteemed by the Japanese people. On the occasion of it every house the owner of which has been blessed with sons displays a paper carp floating from a flagstaff. If a male child has come to the establishment during the year the carp is extra large. It is considered a reproach to any married woman not to have this symbol flying outside the house on the occasion of this feast. Why the carp has been selected as a symbol is a matter upon which there is much difference of opinion. The carp, it is said, is emblematic of the youth who overcomes all the difficulties that lie in his path during life, but I confess I rather fail to see what connection there is between this fish and such an energetic youth. On this day the boys have dolls representative of Japanese heroes and personages of the past as well as toy swords and toy armour. On the girls' festival--the Feast of Dolls--there is no outward and visible display. The fact of a girl having been born in the family is not considered a matter to be boasted of. On this feast there is a great display indoors of dolls. As a matter of fact dolls form a very important part of the heirlooms of every Japanese family of any importance. When a girl is born a pair of dolls are procured for her. Dolls are much more seriously treated than they are in European countries, where they are bought with the full knowledge that they will quickly be destroyed. In Japan the dolls are packed away for nearly the whole of the year in the go-down, and are only produced at this particular festival. I may add that not only the dolls themselves but furniture for them are largely in request in Japan, and that this dolls' festival is really a very important function in the national life.
New Year's festival is the great day of the year in Japan. In this respect it approximates to our Christmas. Not only the houses but the streets are decorated, and every town in the land has at this particular season an unusually festive appearance. At this period visits are exchanged, and New Year's presents are the correct thing.
On the Bon Matsuri, or All Souls' Day, the Japanese have a custom somewhat similar to that which obtains in Roman Catholic countries on the 2nd of November. On the first night of the feast the tombs of the dead during the past year are adorned with Japanese lanterns. On the second night the remaining tombs are likewise decorated, while on the third night it is the custom, although it is now somewhat falling into desuetude, for the relatives of the dead to launch toy vessels made of straw laden with fruit and coins as well as a lantern. These toy ships have toy sails, and the dead are supposed to sail in them to oblivion until next year's festival. These toy ships, of course, catch fire from the lanterns. Not so very many years ago the spectacle of these little vessels catching fire on some large bay was a very pretty one. I am afraid this feast has a tendency to die out--a fact which is greatly to be regretted, as there is behind it much that is poetical and beautiful.
Wrestling, as most people know, is a favourite amusement of the Japanese, and wrestling matches excite quite as much interest as boxing used to do in this country. Of late years English people have taken much interest in Ju Jitsu. The Japanese style of wrestling is certainly peculiar, and training does not apparently enter so much into it as is considered essential in reference to displays of strength or skill in this country. One sometimes sees very expert Japanese wrestlers who are not only fat but bloated.
The Japanese have long been celebrated archers, and archery, though it is largely on the wane, is much more in evidence than is the case in this country. It is an art in which a great many of the people excel, and archery grounds still exist in many of the towns.
Marriages and christenings have important parts in the social life of the people. These ceremonies, however, are not quite so obtrusive as they are in Western lands. As regards christenings, if I may use such a term in reference to a non-Christian people, the first, or almost the first, ceremony in reference to the infant in Japan is, or used to be, the shaving of its head thirty days after birth, after which it was taken to the temple to make its first offering, a pecuniary one, to the gods. This shaving of babies is no doubt diminishing, at any rate in the large towns. Indeed, everything in regard to the dressing of and dealing with the hair in Japan is, if I may use the term, in a state of transition.
[Illustration: STREET SCENE ON NEW YEAR'S DAY FROM A PRINT BY HIROSHIGE]
Some writers on Japan have been impressed by the fact that the Japanese appear to be more concerned about the dead than the living. Ancestor worship plays an important part in the religious economy of Japanese life, and, as I have shown, the All Souls' Day in Japan is an important national festival. But the respect that these people have for their dead is not shown only on one or two or three days of the year; it may be deduced from a visit to any of their cemeteries. These are nearly always picturesquely situated, adorned with beautiful trees, and exquisitely kept in order. Indeed, the cemeteries are in striking contrast to those of European countries. The hideous and inartistic tombstones and monuments, the urns and angels, and the stereotyped conventionalities of graveyards in this country are all absent. There is usually only a simple tablet over each grave bearing the name of the deceased and the date of his death, and occasionally some simple word or two summing up succinctly those qualities he had, or was supposed to have, possessed. Near each grave is usually a flower-vase, and it is nearly always filled with fresh flowers. As I have remarked, flowers play an important part in the lives of the Japanese people, and with them no part is more important than the decoration of the graves of their dead. In England flowers also play an important part in connection with the dead--on the day of the funeral. It is then considered the correct thing for every one who knew the deceased to send a wreath to be placed upon his coffin. These wreaths, frequently exceedingly numerous, are conveyed to the cemetery, where they are allowed to rot on top of the grave. To me there is no more mournful sight than a visit to a great London cemetery, where one sees these rotting emblems, which quite palpably meant nothing save the practice of a conventionality. The Japanese, however poor his worldly circumstances may be, is not content with flowers, costly flowers on the day of the funeral; he places his vase alongside the grave of the departed, and by keeping that vase filled with fresh and beautiful flowers he sets forth as far as he possibly can his feeling of respect for the dead and the fact that the dead one still lives in his memory.
One cannot study, however cursorily, the lives of the Japanese people on the whole without being convinced of the fact that there is among them not only a total absence of but no desire whatever for luxury. The whole conception of life among these people seems to me to be a healthy and a simple one. It is not in any way, or at any rate to any great extent, a material conception. The ordinary Japanese--the peasant, for example--does not hanker after a time when he will have more to eat and more to drink. He finds himself placed in a certain position in life, and he attempts to get the best out of life that he can. I do not suggest, of course, that the Japanese peasant has ever philosophically discussed this matter with himself or perhaps thought deeply, if at all, about it. I am merely recording what his view of life is judging by his actions. He, I feel confident, enjoys life. In some respects his life no doubt is a hard one, but it has its alleviations, and if I judge him aright the ordinary Japanese does not let his mind dwell overmuch on his hardships, but is content to get what pleasure he can out of his surrounding conditions.
One very pleasing characteristic of the Japanese men and women to which I have already referred is the habit of personal cleanliness. In every town in the country public baths are numerous, and every house of any pretensions has a bath-room. The Japanese use extremely hot water to wash in. The women do not enter the bath immediately upon undressing, but in the first instance, throwing some pailsful of water over the body, they sit on the floor and scrub themselves with bran prior to entering the bath, performing this operation two or three times. Men do not indulge in a similar practice, and I have never been able to understand why this different mode of bathing should obtain in reference to the two sexes. In houses possessing a bath-room the bath consists merely of a wooden tub with a stove to heat the water. The bath is used by the whole family in succession--father, mother, children, servants. Shampooing also forms an important part of the Japanese system of cleanliness. It is not, as in this country, confined to the head, but approximates to what we term massage, and consists in a rubbing of the muscles of the body--a fact which not only has a beneficial effect physically, but is also efficacious in the direction of cleanliness.
Nearly every house in Japan possesses a garden, and the garden is a source of perpetual delight to every Japanese. He is enabled to give full vent therein to his love of flowers. Some critics have found fault with Japanese gardens on account of their monotony. Miniature lakes, grass plots, dwarfed trees, and trees clipped and trained into representations of objects animate and inanimate are the prevailing characteristics. A similar remark might, however, be made in regard to the gardens of, say, London suburban houses, with this exception--that the Japanese gardens show infinitely more good taste on the part of the cultivators of them. These little gardens throw a brightness into the life of the people which it is impossible to estimate.
In the chapter which I have devoted to the religions of the Japanese people, I have remarked that religion appears to be losing its influence upon the educated classes of the country, who are quickly developing into agnostics. No such remark can, however, be made in reference to the great mass of the Japanese people. For them religion is an actuality. Take it out of their lives and you will take much that makes their lives not only enjoyable but endurable. As a writer on Japan has somewhat irreverently observed, the Japanese "is very chummy with heaven. He just as readily invokes the aid of his household gods in the pursuit of his amours as in less illegitimate aspirations. He regards them as kind friends who will help, rather than as severe censors who have to be propitiated." The spiritual aspect of the Deity has not, I think, entered at all into the conceptions of the ordinary Japanese. His ideas in regard to God or the gods--his pantheon is a large and a comprehensive one--are altogether anthropomorphic. Every action of his life, however small, is in some way or other connected with an unseen world. In this matter, Buddhism and Shintoism have got rather mixed, and, as I have elsewhere said, if the founder of Buddhism were reincarnated in Japan to-day, he would find it difficult to recognise his religion in some of the developments of Buddhism as it exists in Japan. Nevertheless, this anthropomorphic idea of God, however it may fit the Japanese for the next world, undoubtedly comforts him in this. The religious festivals, which are numerous, are gala days in his life, and the services of religion bring him undoubtedly much consolation. But he does not of necessity go to a temple to conduct that uplifting of the heart which is, after all, the best service of man to the Creator. Every house has its little shrine, and although some superior persons may laugh at the act of burning a joss-stick, or some other trivial act of worship, as merely ignorant superstition, I think the unprejudiced man would look rather at the motive which inspired the act. If this poor ignorant native burns his joss-stick, makes his offering of a cake, lights a lamp in front of an image, or takes part in any other act which in effect means the lifting up of his soul to something higher and greater than himself that he can now only see through a glass darkly, surely he ought not to be condemned. At any rate I will pass no condemnation on him. Outside the accretions which have undoubtedly come upon Buddhism and Shintoism in the many centuries they have existed in Japan, I desire once more to emphasise the fact, to which I have previously made reference, that both these religions have had, and I believe still have, a beneficial effect, from a moral point of view, on the Japanese people. There is nothing in their ethical code to which the most censorious person can raise the slightest objection. They have inculcated on the Japanese people through all the ages, not only the necessity, but the advisability of doing good. Buddhism, in particular, has preached the doctrine of doing good, not only to one's fellow-creatures but to the whole of animate nature. These two religions have, in my opinion, placed the ethical conceptions of the Japanese people on a high plane.
In my remarks on the people of Japan I do not think I can more effectually sum up their salient characteristics than has been done by the writer of a guide to that country. "The courtly demeanour of the people," he says, "is a matter of remark with all who visit Japan, and so universal is the studied politeness of all classes that the casual observer would conclude that it was innate and born of the nature of the people; and probably the quality has become somewhat of a national characteristic, having been held in such high esteem, and so universally taught for so many centuries--at least, it seems to be as natural for them to be polite and formal as it is for them to breathe. Their religion teaches the fundamental tenets of true politeness, in that it inculcates the reverence to parents as one of the highest virtues. The family circle fosters the germs of the great national trait of ceremonious politeness. Deference to age is universal with the young. The respect paid to parents does not cease when the children are mature men and women. It is considered a privilege as well as an evidence of filial duty to study the wants and wishes of the parents, even before the necessities of the progeny of those who have households of their own."
I do not think that it is necessary for me to add much to these wise and pregnant remarks. The more one studies the Japanese people, the more I think one's admiration of them increases. They have, in my opinion, in many respects arrived, probably as the result of the accumulated experience of many ages, at a right perception and conception of the philosophy of life. Judged from the highest, and as I think only true, standpoint, that is the standpoint of happiness not in a merely material but in a spiritual form, they have reached a condition that but few nations have yet attained. They may provoke the pity of the man who believes in full diet and plenty of it, and who fails to comprehend how a people living on a meagre fare of fish and rice can be contented, much less happy, but the Japanese in his philosophy has realised a fact that happiness is something other than material, and that a man or woman can be largely independent of the accidentals of life and can attain a realisation of true happiness by keeping under the, too often, supremacy of matter over mind in the average human being.