Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Kellscraft Studio Logo

The Social Organization

THE late Professor Fiske, in his Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, made a very interesting remark about societies like those of China, ancient Egypt, and ancient Assyria. "I am expressing,” he said, "something more than an analogy, I am describing a real homology so far as concerns the process of development, — when I say that these communities simulated modern European nations, much in the same way that a tree-fern of the carboniferous period simulated the exogenous trees of the present time.” So far as this is true of China, it is likewise true of Japan. The constitution of the old Japanese society was no more than an amplification of the constitution of the family, — the patriarchal family of primitive times. All modern Western societies have been developed out of a like patriarchal condition: the early civilizations of Greece and Rome were similarly constructed, upon a lesser scale. But the patriarchal family in Europe was disintegrated thousands of years ago; the gens and the curia dissolved and disappeared; the originally distinct classes became fused together; and a total reorganization of society was gradually effected, everywhere resulting in the substitution of voluntary for compulsory cooperation. Industrial types of society developed; and a state-religion overshadowed the ancient and exclusive local cults. But society in Japan never, till within the present era, became one coherent body, never developed beyond the clan-stage. It remained a loose agglomerate of clan-groups, or tribes, each religiously and administratively independent of the rest; and this huge agglomerate was kept together, not by voluntary cooperation, but by strong compulsion. Down to the period of Meiji, and even for some time afterward, it was liable to split and fall asunder at any moment that the central coercive power showed signs of weakness. We may call it a feudalism; but it resembled European feudalism only as a tree-fern resembles a tree.


Let us first briefly consider the nature of the ancient Japanese society. Its original unit was not the household, but the patriarchal family, — that is to say, the gens or clan, a body of hundreds or thousands of persons claiming descent from a common ancestor, and so religiously united by a common ancestor-worship, — the cult of the Ujigami. As I have said before, there were two classes of these patriarchal families: the Ō-uji, or Great Clans; and the Ko-uji, or Little Clans. The lesser were branches of the greater, and subordinate to them, — so that the group formed by an Ō-uji with its Ko-uji might be loosely compared with the Roman curia or Greek phratry. Large bodies of serfs or slaves appear to have been attached to the various great Uji; and the number of these, even at a very early period, seems to have exceeded that of the members of the clans proper. The different names given to these subject-classes indicate different grades and kinds of servitude. One name was tomobé, signifying bound to a place, or district; another was yakabé, signifying bound to a family; a third was kakibé, signifying bound to a close, or estate; yet another and more general term was tami, which anciently signified "dependants," but is now used in the meaning of the English word "folk."... There is little doubt that the bulk of the people were in a condition of servitude, and that there were many forms of servitude. Mr. Spencer has pointed out that a general distinction between slavery and serfdom, in the sense commonly attached to each of those terms, is by no means easy to establish; the real state of a subject-class, especially in early forms of society, depending much more upon the character of the master, and the actual conditions of social development, than upon matters of privilege and legislation. In speaking of early Japanese institutions, the distinction is particularly hard to draw: we are still but little informed as to the condition of the subject classes in ancient times. It is safe to assert, however, that there were then really but two great classes, — a ruling oligarchy, divided into many grades; and a subject population, also divided into many grades. Slaves were tattooed, either on the face or some part of the body, with a mark indicating their ownership. Until within recent years this system of tattooing appears to have been maintained in the province of Satsuma, — where the marks were put especially upon the hands; and in many other provinces the lower classes were generally marked by a tattoo on the face. Slaves were bought and sold like cattle in early times, or presented as tribute by their owners, — a practice constantly referred to in the ancient records. Their unions were not recognized: a fact which reminds us of the distinction among the Romans between connubium and contubernium; and the children of a slave-mother by a free father remained slaves.1 In the seventh century, however, private slaves were declared state-property, and great numbers were then emancipated, — including nearly all — probably all who were artizans or followed useful callings. Gradually a large class of freedmen came into existence; but until modern times the great mass of the common people appear to have remained in a condition analogous to serfdom. The greater number certainly had no family names, which is considered evidence of a former slave-condition. Slaves proper were registered in the names of their owners: they do not seem to have had a cult of their own, — in early times, at least. But, prior to Meiji, only the aristocracy, samurai, doctors, and teachers — with perhaps a few other exceptions — could use a family name. Another queer bit of evidence on the subject, furnished by the late Dr. Simmons, relates to the mode of wearing the hair among the subject-classes. Up to the time of the Ashikaga shōgunate (1334 A.D.), all classes excepting the nobility, samurai, Shinto priests, and doctors, shaved the greater part of the head, and wore queues; and this fashion of wearing the hair was called yakko-atama or dorei-atama — terms signifying "slave-head," and indicating that the fashion originated in a period of servitude.

About the origin of Japanese slavery, much remains to be learned. There are evidences of successive immigrations; and it is possible that some, at least, of the earlier Japanese settlers were reduced by later invaders to the status of servitude. Again, there was a considerable immigration of Koreans and Chinese, some of whom might have voluntarily sought servitude as a refuge from worse evils. But the subject remains obscure. We know, however, that degradation to slavery was a common punishment in early times; also, that debtors unable to pay became the slaves of their creditors; also, that thieves were sentenced to become the slaves of those whom they had robbed.2 Evidently there were great differences in the conditions of servitude. The more unfortunate class of slaves were scarcely better off than domestic animals; but there were serfs who could not be bought or sold, nor employed at other than special work; these were of kin to their lords, and may have entered voluntarily into servitude for the sake of sustenance and protection. Their relation to their masters reminds us of that of the Roman client to the Roman patron.

As yet it is difficult to establish any clear distinction between the freedmen and the freemen of ancient Japanese society; but we know that the free population, ranking below the ruling class, consisted of two great divisions: the kunitsuko and the tomonotsuko. The first were farmers, descendants perhaps of the earliest Mongol invaders, and were permitted to hold their own lands independently of the central government: they were lords of their own soil, but not nobles. The tomonotsuko were artizans, probably of Korean or Chinese descent, for the most part, and numbered no less than 180 clans. They followed hereditary occupations; and their clans were attached to the imperial clans, for which they were required to furnish skilled labour.

Originally each of the Ō-uji and Ko-uji had its own territory, chiefs, dependants, serfs, and slaves. The chieftainships were hereditary, — descending from father to son in direct succession from the original patriarch. The chief of a great clan was lord over the chiefs of the sub-clans attached to it: his authority was both religious and military. It must not be forgotten that religion and government were considered identical.

All Japanese clan-families were classed under three heads, — Kōbétsu, Shinobétsu, and Bambétsu. The Kōbétsu ("Imperial Branch") represented the so-called imperial families, claiming descent from the Sun-goddess; the Shinobétsu ("Divine Branch") were clans claiming descent from other deities, terrestrial or celestial; the Bambétsu ("Foreign Branch") represented the mass of the people. Thus it would seem that, by the ruling classes, the common people were originally considered strangers, — Japanese only by adoption. Some scholars think that the term Bambétsu was at first given to serfs or freedmen of Chinese or Korean descent. But this has not been proved. It is only certain that all society was divided into three classes, according to ancestry; that two of these classes constituted a ruling oligarchy;3 and that the third, or "foreign" class represented the bulk of the nation, — the plebs. There was a division also into castes kabané or sei. (I use the term "castes," following Dr. Florenz, a leading authority on ancient Japanese civilization, who gives the meaning of sei as equivalent to that of the Sanscrit varna, signifying "caste" or "colour.") Every family in the three great divisions of Japanese society belonged to some caste; and each caste represented at first some occupation or calling. Caste would not seem to have developed any very rigid structure in Japan; and there were early tendencies to a confusion of the kabané. In the seventh century the confusion became so great that the Emperor Temmu thought it necessary to reorganize the set; and by him all the clan-families were regrouped into eight new castes.

Such was the primal constitution of Japanese society; and that society was, therefore, in no true sense of the term, a fully formed nation. Nor can the title of Emperor be correctly applied to its early rulers. The German scholar, Dr. Florenz, was the first to establish these facts, contrary to the assumption of Japanese historians. He has shown that the "heavenly sovereign" of the early ages was the hereditary chief of one Uji only, — which Uji, being the most powerful of all, exercised influence over many of the others. The authority of the “heavenly sovereign" did not extend over the country. But though not even a king, — outside of his own large group of patriarchal families, — he enjoyed three immense prerogatives. The first was the right of representing the different Uji before the common ancestral deity, — which implies the privileges and powers of a high priest. The second was the right of representing the different Uji in foreign relations: that is to say, he could make peace or declare war in the name of all the clans, and therefore exercised the supreme military authority. His third prerogative included the right to settle disputes between clans; the right to nominate a clan-patriarch, in case that the line of direct succession to the chieftainship of any Uji came to an end; the right to establish new Uji; and the right to abolish an Uji guilty of so acting as to endanger the welfare of the rest. He was, therefore, Supreme Pontiff, Supreme Military Commander, Supreme Arbitrator, and Supreme Magistrate. But he was not yet supreme king: his powers were exercised only by consent of the clans. Later he was to become the Great Khan in very fact, and even much more, — the Priest-Ruler, the God-King, the Deity-Incarnate. But with the growth of his dominion, it became more and more difficult for him to exercise all the functions originally combined in his authority; and, as a consequence of deputing those functions, his temporal sway was doomed to decline, even while his religious power continued to augment.

The earliest Japanese society was not, therefore, even a feudalism in the meaning which we commonly attach to that word: it was a union of clans at first combined for defence and offence, — each clan having a religion of its own. Gradually one clan-group, by power of wealth and numbers, obtained such domination that it was able to impose its cult upon all the rest, and to make its hereditary chief Supreme High Pontiff. The worship of the Sun-goddess so became a race-cult; but this worship did not diminish the relative importance of the other clan-cults, — it only furnished them with a common tradition. Eventually a nation formed; but the clan remained the real unit of society; and not until the present era of Meiji was its disintegration effected — at least in so far as legislation could accomplish.

We may call that period during which the clans became really united under one head, and the national cult was established, the First Period of Japanese Social Evolution. However, the social organism did not develop to the limit of its type until the era of the Tokugawa shōguns, — so that, in order to study it as a completed structure, we must turn to modern times. Yet it had taken on the vague outline of its destined form as early as the reign of the Emperor Temmu, whose accession is generally dated 673 A.D. During that reign Buddhism appears to have become a powerful influence at court; for the Emperor practically imposed a vegetarian diet upon the people — proof positive of supreme power in fact as well as in theory. Even before this time society had been arranged into ranks and grades, — each of the upper grades being distinguished by the form and quality of the official head-dresses worn; but the Emperor Temmu established many new grades, and reorganized the whole administration, after the Chinese manner, in one hundred and eight departments. Japanese society then assumed, as to its upper ranks, nearly all the hierarchical forms which it presented down to the era of the Tokugawa shōguns, who consolidated the system without seriously changing its fundamental structure. We may say that from the close of the First Period of its social evolution, the nation remained practically separated into two classes: the governing class, including all orders of the nobility and military; and the producing class, comprising all the rest. The chief event of the Second Period of the social evolution was the rise of the military power, which left the imperial religious authority intact, but usurped all the administrative functions — (this subject will be considered in a later chapter). The society eventually crystallized by this military power was a very complex structure — outwardly resembling a huge feudalism, as we understand the term, but intrinsically different from any European feudalism that ever existed. The difference lay especially in the religious organization of the Japanese communities, each of which, retaining its particular cult and patriarchal administration, remained essentially separate from every other. The national cult was a bond of tradition, not of cohesion: there was no religious unity. Buddhism, though widely accepted, brought no real change into this order of things; for, whatever Buddhist creed a commune might profess, the real social bond remained the bond of the Ujigami. So that, even as fully developed under the Tokugawa rule, Japanese society was still but a great aggregate of clans and sub-clans, kept together by military coercion.

At the head of this vast aggregate was the Heavenly Sovereign, the Living God of the race, — Priest-Emperor and Pontiff Supreme, — representing the oldest dynasty in the world.

Next to him stood the Kugé, or ancient nobility, — descendants of emperors and of gods. There were, in the time of the Tokugawa, 155 families of this high nobility. One of these, the Nakatomi, held, and still holds, the highest hereditary priesthood: the Nakatomi were, under the Emperor, the chiefs of the ancestral cult. All the great clans of early Japanese history — such as the Fujiwara, the Taira, the Minamoto — were Kugé; and most of the great regents and shōguns of later history were either Kugé or descendants of Kugé.

Next to the Kugé ranked the Buké, or military class, — also called Monofufu, Wasarau, or Samurahi (according to the ancient writing of these names), — with an extensive hierarchy of its own. But the difference, in most cases, between the lords and the warriors of the Buké was a difference of rank based upon income and title: all alike were samurai, and nearly all were of Kōbétsu or Shinbétsu descent. In early times the head of the military class was appointed by the Emperor, only as a temporary commander-in-chief: afterwards, these commanders-in-chief, by usurpation of power, made their office hereditary, and became veritable imperatores, in the Roman sense. Their title of shōgun is well known to Western readers. The shōgun ruled over between two and three hundred lords of provinces or districts, whose powers and privileges varied according to income and grade. Under the Tokugawa shōgunate there were 292 of these lords, or daimyo. Before that time each lord exercised supreme rule over his own domain; and it is not surprising that the Jesuit missionaries, as well as the early Dutch and English traders should have called the daimyō "kings." The despotism of the daimyō was first checked by the founders of the Tokugawa dynasty, Iyéyasu, who so restricted their powers that they became, with some exceptions, liable to lose their estates if proved guilty of oppression and cruelty. He ranked them all in four great classes: (1) Sanké, or Go-Sanké, the "Three Exalted Families" (those from whom a successor to the shōgunate might be chosen in case of need); (2) Kokushū, "Lords of Provinces"; (3) Tozama, "Outside-Lords"; (4) Fudai, "Successful Families": a name given to those families promoted to lordship or otherwise rewarded for fealty to Iyéyasu. Of the Sanké, there were three clans, or families: of the Kokushū, eighteen; of the Tozama, eighty-six; and of the Fudai, one hundred and seventy-six. The income of the least of these daimyō was 10,000 koku of rice (we may say about Ł10,000, though the value of the koku differed greatly at different periods); and the income of the greatest, the Lord of Kaga, was estimated at 1,027,000 koku.

The great daimyō had their greater and lesser vassals; and each of these, again, had his force of trained samurai, or fighting gentry. There was also a particular class of soldier-farmers, called gōshi, some of whom possessed privileges and powers exceeding those of the lesser daimyō. These gōshi, who were independent landowners, for the most part, formed a kind of yeomanry; but there were many points of difference between the social position of the gōshi and that of the English yeomen.

Besides reorganizing the military class, Iyéyasu created several new subclasses. The more important of these were the hatamoto and the gokénin. The hatamoto, whose appellation signifies “banner-supporters," numbered about 2000, and the gokénin about 5000. These two bodies of samurai formed the special military force of the shōgun; the hatamoto being greater vassals, with large incomes; and the gokénin lesser vassals, with small incomes, who ranked above other common samurai only because of being directly attached to the shōgun's service.... The total number of samurai of all grades was about 2,000,000. They were exempted from taxation, and privileged to wear two swords.


Such, in brief outline, was the general ordination of those noble and military classes by whom the nation was ruled with great severity. The bulk of the common people were divided into three classes (we might even say castes, but for Indian ideas long associated with the term): Farmers, Artizans, and Merchants.

Of these three classes, the farmers (hyakushō) were the highest; ranking immediately after the samurai. Indeed, it is hard to draw a line between the samurai-class and the farming-class, — because many samurai were farmers also, and because some farmers held a rank considerably above that of ordinary samurai. Perhaps we should limit the term hyakushō (farmers, or peasantry) to those tillers of the soil who lived only by agriculture, and were neither of Kobétsu nor Shimbéttsu descent.... At all events, the occupation of the peasant was considered honourable: a farmer's daughter might become a servant in the imperial household itself — though she could occupy only an humble position in the service. Certain farmers were privileged to wear swords. It appears that in the early ages of Japanese society there was no distinction between farmers and warriors: all able-bodied farmers were then trained fighting-men, ready for war at any moment, — a condition paralleled in old Scandinavian society. After a special military class had been evolved, the distinction between farmer and samurai still remained vague in certain parts of the country. In Satsuma and in Tosa, for example, the samurai continued to farm down to the present era: the best of the Kyūshū samurai were nearly all farmers; and their superior stature and strength were commonly attributed to their rustic occupations. In other parts of the country, as in Izumo, farming was forbidden to samurai they were not even allowed to hold rice-land, though they might own forest-land. But in various provinces they were permitted to farm, even while strictly forbidden to follow any other occupation, — any trade or craft.... At no time did any degradation attach to the pursuit of agriculture. Some of the early emperors took a personal interest in farming; and in the grounds of the Imperial Palace at Akasaka may even now be seen a little rice-field. By religious tradition, immemorially old, the first sheaf of rice grown within the imperial grounds should be reaped and offered by the imperial hand to the divine ancestors as a harvest offering, on the occasion of the Ninth Festival, Shin-Shō-Sai.4


Below the peasantry ranked the artizan-class (Shōkunin) including smiths, carpenters, weavers, potters, all crafts, in short. Highest among these were reckoned, as we might expect, the sword-smiths. Sword-smiths not infrequently rose to dignities far beyond their class: some had conferred upon them the high title of Kami, written with the same character used in the title of a daimyo, who was usually termed the Kami of his province or district. Naturally they enjoyed the patronage of the highest, — emperors and Kugé. The Emperor Go-Toba is known to have worked at sword-making in a smithy of his own. Religious rites were practised during the forging of a blade down to modern times....

All the principal crafts had guilds; and, as a general rule, trades were hereditary. There are good historical grounds for supposing that the ancestors of the Shōkunin were mostly Koreans and Chinese.


The commercial class (Akindō), including bankers, merchants, shopkeepers, and traders of all kinds, was the lowest officially recognized. The business of money-making was held in contempt by the superior classes; and all methods of profiting by the purchase and re-sale of the produce of labour were regarded as dishonourable. A military aristocracy would naturally look down upon the trading-classes; and there is generally, in militant societies, small respect for the common forms of labour. But in Old Japan the occupations of the farmer and the artizan were not despised: trade alone appears to have been considered degrading, — and the discrimination may have been partly a moral one. The relegation of the mercantile class to the lowest place in the social scale must have produced some curious results. However rich, for example, a rice-dealer might be, he ranked below the carpenters or potters or boat-builders whom he might employ, — unless it happened that his family originally belonged to another class. In later times the Akindō included many persons of other than Akindō descent; and the class thus virtually retrieved itself.


Of the four great classes of the nation — Samurai, Farmers, Artizans, and Merchants (the Shi-No-Ko-Shō, as they were briefly called, after the initial characters of the Chinese terms used to designate them) — the last three were counted together under the general appellation of Heimin, “common folk." All heimin were subject to the samurai; any samurai being privileged to kill the heimin showing him disrespect. But the heimin were actually the nation: they alone created the wealth of the country, produced the revenues, paid the taxes, supported the nobility and military and clergy. As for the clergy, the Buddhist (like the Shinto) priests, though forming a class apart, ranked with the samurai, not with the heimin.

Outside of the three classes of commoners, and hopelessly below the lowest of them, large classes of persons existed who were not reckoned as Japanese, and scarcely accounted human beings. Officially they were mentioned genetically as chōri, and were counted with the peculiar numerals used in counting animals: ippiki, nihiki, samhiki, etc. Even to-day they are commonly referred to, not as persons (hito) but as "things" (mono). To English readers (chiefly through Mr. Mitford's yet unrivalled Tales of Old Japan) they are known as Ėta; but their appellations varied according to their callings. They were pariah-people: Japanese writers have denied, upon apparently good grounds, that the chōri belong to the Japanese race. Various tribes of these outcasts followed occupations in the monopoly of which they were legally confirmed: they were well-diggers, garden-sweepers, straw-workers, sandal-makers, according to local privileges. One class was employed officially in the capacity of torturers and executioners; another was employed as night-watchmen; a third as grave-makers. But most of the Ėta followed the business of tanners and leather-dressers. They alone had the right to slaughter and flay animals, to prepare various kinds of leather, and to manufacture leather sandals, stirrup-straps, and drumheads, the making of drumheads — being a lucrative occupation in a country where drums were used in a hundred thousand temples. The Ėta had their own laws, and their own chiefs, who exercised powers of life and death. They lived always in the suburbs or immediate neighbourhood of towns, but only in separate settlements of their own. They could enter the town to sell their wares, or to make purchases; but they could not enter any shop, except the shop of a dealer in footgear.5 As professional singers they were tolerated; but they were forbidden to enter any house — so they could perform their music or sing their songs only in the street, or in a garden. Any occupations other than their hereditary callings were strictly forbidden to them. Between the lowest of the commercial classes and the Ėta, the barrier was impassable as any created by caste-tradition in India; and never was Ghetto more separated from the rest of a European city by walls and gates, than an Ėta settlement from the rest of a Japanese town by social prejudice. No Japanese would dream of entering an Ėta settlement unless obliged to do so in some official capacity.... At the pretty little seaport of Mionoséki, I saw an Ėta settlement, forming one termination of the crescent of streets extending round the bay. Mionoséki is certainly one of the most ancient towns in Japan; and the Ėta village attached to it must be very old. Even to-day, no Japanese habitant of Mionoséki would think of walking through that settlement, though its streets are continuations of the other streets: children never pass the unmarked boundary; and the very dogs will not cross the prejudice-line. For all that the settlement is clean, well built, — with gardens, baths, and temples of its own. It looks like any well-kept Japanese village. But for perhaps a thousand years there has been no fellowship between the people of those contiguous communities.... Nobody can now tell the history of these outcast folk: the cause of their social excommunication has long been forgotten.

Besides the Ėta proper, there were pariahs called hinin, — a name signifying "not-human-beings.” Under this appellation were included professional mendicants, wandering minstrels, actors, certain classes of prostitutes, and persons outlawed by society. The hinin had their own chiefs, and their own laws. Any person expelled from a Japanese community might join the hinin; but that signified good-by to the rest of humanity. The Government was too shrewd to persecute the hinin. Their gipsy-existence saved a world of trouble. It was unnecessary to keep petty offenders in jail, or to provide for people incapable of earning an honest living, so long as these could be driven into the hinin class. There the incorrigible, the vagrant, the beggar, would be kept under discipline of a sort, and would practically disappear from official cognizance. The killing of a hinin was not considered murder, and was punished only by a fine.


The reader should now be able to form an approximately correct idea of the character of the old Japanese society. But the ordination of that society was much more complex than I have been able to indicate, — so complex that volumes would be required to treat the subject in detail. Once fully evolved, what we may still call Feudal Japan, for want of a better name, presented most of the features of a doubly-compound society of the militant type, with certain marked approaches toward the trebly-compound type. A striking peculiarity, of course, is the absence of a true ecclesiastical hierarchy, due to the fact that Government never became dissociated from religion. There was at one time a tendency on the part of Buddhism to establish a religious hierarchy — independent of central authority; but there were two fatal obstacles in the way of such a development. The first was the condition of Buddhism itself, — divided into a number of sects, some bitterly opposed to others. The second obstacle was the implacable hostility of the military clans, jealous of any religious power capable of interfering, either directly or indirectly, with their policy. So soon as the foreign religion began to prove itself formidable in the world of action, ruthless measures were decided; and the frightful massacres of priests by Nobunaga, in the sixteenth century, ended the political aspirations of Buddhism in Japan.

Otherwise the regimentation of society resembled that of all antique civilizations of the militant type, — all action being both positively and negatively regulated. The household ruled the person; the five-family group, the household; the community, the group; the lord of the soil, the community; the Shōgun, the lord. Over the whole body of the producing classes, two million samurai had power of life and death; over these samurai the daimyō held a like power; and the daimyō were subject to the Shōgun. Nominally the Shōgun was subject to the Emperor, but not in fact: military usurpation disturbed and shifted the natural order of the higher responsibility. However, from the nobility downwards, the regulative discipline was much reinforced by this change in government. Among the producing classes there were countless combinations — guilds of all sorts; but these were only despotisms within despotisms — despotisms of the communistic order; each member being governed by the will of the rest; and enterprise, whether commercial or industrial, being impossible outside of some corporation.... We have already seen that the individual was bound to the commune — could not leave it without a permit, could not marry out of it. We have seen also that the stranger was a stranger in the old Greek and Roman sense, — that is to say an enemy, a hostis, — and could enter another community only by being religiously adopted into it. As regards exclusiveness, therefore, the social conditions were like those of the early European communities; but the militant conditions resembled rather those of the great Asiatic empires.


Of course such a society had nothing in common with any modern form of Occidental civilization. It was a huge mass of clan-groups, loosely united under a duarchy, in which the military head was omnipotent, and the religious head only an object of worship, — the living symbol of a cult. However this organization might outwardly resemble what we are accustomed to call feudalism, its structure was rather like that of ancient Egyptian or Peruvian society, — minus the priestly hierarchy. The supreme figure is not an Emperor in our meaning of the word, — not a king of kings and vicegerent of heaven, — but a God incarnate, a race-divinity, an Inca descended from the Sun. About his sacred person, we see the tribes ranged in obeisance, — each tribe, nevertheless, maintaining its own ancestral cult; and the clans forming these tribes, and the communities forming these clans, and the households forming these communities, have all their separate cults; and out of the mass of these cults have been derived the customs and the laws. Yet everywhere the customs and the laws differ more or less, because of the variety of their origins: they have this only in common, — that they exact the most humble and implicit obedience, and regulate every detail of private and public life. Personality is wholly suppressed by coercion; and the coercion is chiefly from within, not from without, — the life of every individual being so ordered by the will of the rest as to render free action, free speaking, or free thinking, out of the question. This means something incomparably harsher than the socialistic tyranny of early Greek society: it means religious communism doubled with a military despotism of the most terrible kind. The individual did not legally exist, — except for punishment; and from the whole of the producing-classes, whether serfs or freemen, the most servile submission was ruthlessly exacted.

It is difficult to believe that any intelligent man of modern times could endure such conditions and live (except under the protection of some powerful ruler, as in the case of the English pilot Will Adams, created a samurai by Iyéyasu): the incessant and multiform constraint upon mental and moral life would of itself be enough to kill.... Those who write to-day about the extraordinary capacity of the Japanese for organization, and about the "democratic spirit" of the people as natural proof of their fitness for representative government in the Western sense, mistake appearances for realities. The truth is that the extraordinary capacity of the Japanese for communal organization, is the strongest possible evidence of their unfitness for any modern democratic form of government. Superficially the difference between Japanese social organization, and local self-government in the modern American, or the English colonial meaning of the term, appears slight; and we may justly admire the perfect self-discipline of a Japanese community. But the real difference between the two is fundamental, prodigious, measurable only by thousands of years. It is the difference between compulsory and free cooperation the difference between the most despotic form of communism, founded upon the most ancient form of religion, and the most highly evolved form of industrial union, with unlimited individual right of competition.

There exists a popular error to the effect that what we call communism and socialism in Western civilization are modern growths, representing aspiration toward some perfect form of democracy. As a matter of fact these movements represent reversion, — reversion toward the primitive conditions of human society. Under every form of ancient despotism we find exactly the same capacity of self-government among the people: it was manifested by the old Egyptians and Peruvians as well as by the early Greeks and Romans; it is exhibited to-day by Hindoo and Chinese communities; it may be studied in Siamese or Annamese villages quite as well as in Japan. It means a religious communistic despotism, — a supreme social tyranny suppressing personality, forbidding enterprise, and making competition a public offence. Such self-government also has its advantages: it was perfectly adapted to the requirements of Japanese life so long as the nation could remain isolated from the rest of the world. Yet it must be obvious that any society whose ethical traditions forbid the individual to profit at the cost of his fellow-men will be placed at an enormous disadvantage when forced into the industrial struggle for existence against communities whose self-government permits of the greatest possible personal freedom, and the widest range of competitive enterprise.


We might suppose that perpetual and universal coercion, moral and physical, would have brought about a state of universal sameness, — a dismal uniformity and monotony in all life's manifestations. But such monotony existed only as to the life of the commune, not as to that of the race. The most wonderful variety characterized this quaint civilization, as it also characterized the old Greek civilization, and for precisely the same reasons. In every patriarchal civilization ruled by ancestor-worship, all tendency to absolute sameness, to general uniformity, is prevented by the character of the aggregate itself, which never becomes homogeneous and plastic. Every unit of that aggregate, each one of the multitude of petty despotisms composing it, most jealously guards its own particular traditions and customs, and remains self-sufficing. Hence results, sooner or later, incomparable variety of detail, small detail, artistic, industrial, architectural, mechanical. In Japan such differentiation and specialization was thus maintained, that you will hardly find in the whole country even two villages where the customs, industries, and methods of production are exactly the same.... The customs of the fishing-villages will, perhaps, best illustrate what I mean. In every coast district the various fishing-settlements have their own traditional ways of constructing nets and boats, and their own particular methods of handling them. Now, in the time of the great tidal-wave of 1896, when thirty thousand people perished, and scores of coast-villages were wrecked, large sums of money were collected in Kobé and elsewhere for the benefit of the survivors; and well-meaning foreigners attempted to supply the want of boats and fishing implements by purchasing quantities of locally made nets and boats, and sending them to the afflicted districts. But it was found that these presents were of no use to the men of the northern provinces, who had been accustomed to boats and nets of a totally different kind; and it was further discovered that every fishing-hamlet had special requirements of its own in this regard.... Now the differentiations of habit and custom, thus exhibited in the life of the fishing-communities, is paralleled in many crafts and callings. The way of building houses, and of roofing them, differs in almost every province; also the methods of agriculture and of horticulture, the manner of making wells, the methods of weaving and lacquering and pottery-making and tile-baking. Nearly every town and village of importance boasts of some special production, bearing the name of the place, and unlike anything made elsewhere.... No doubt the ancestral cults helped to conserve and to develop such local specialization of industries: the craft-ancestors, the patron-gods of the guild, were supposed to desire that the work of their descendants and worshippers should maintain a particular character of its own. Though individual enterprise was checked by communal regulation, the specialization of local production was encouraged by difference of cults. Family-conservatism or guild-conservatism would tolerate small improvements or modifications suggested by local experience, but would be wary, perhaps superstitious likewise, about accepting the resists of strange experience.

Still, for the Japanese themselves, not the least pleasure of travel in Japan is the pleasure of studying the curious variety in local production, — the pleasure of finding the novel, the unexpected, the unimagined. Even those arts or industries of Old Japan, primarily borrowed from Korea or from China, appear to have developed and conserved innumerable queer forms under the influence of the numberless local cults.


1 In the year 645, the Emperor Kotoku issued the following edict on the subject — "The law of men and women shall be that the children born of a free man and a free woman shall belong to the father; if a free man takes to wife a slave-woman, her children shall belong to the mother; if a free woman marries a slave-man, the children shall belong to the father; if they are slaves of two houses, the children shall belong to the mother. The children of temple-serfs shall follow the rule for freemen. But in regard to others who become slaves, they shall be treated according to the rule for slaves." Aston's translation of the Nihongi, Vol. II, p. 202.

2 An edict issued by the Empress Jitō, in 690, enacted that a father could sell his son into real slavery; but that debtors could be sold only into a kind of serfdom. The edict ran thus: "If a younger brother of the common people is sold by his elder brother, he should be classed with freemen; if a child is sold by his parents, he should be classed with slaves; persons confiscated into slavery, by way of payment of interest on debts, are to be classed with freemen; and their children, though born of a union with a slave, are to be all classed with freemen." Aston's Nihongi,, Vol. II, p. 402.

3 Dr. Florenz accounts for the distinction between Kobétsu and Shinbétsu as due to the existence of two military ruling classes, resulting from two successive waves of invasion or immigration. The Kobétsu were the followers of Jimmu Tenno; the Shinbétsu were earlier conquerors who had settled in Yamato prior to the advent of Jimmu. These first conquerors, he thinks, were not dispossessed.

4 At this festival the first new silk of the year, as well as the first of the new rice-crop, is still offered to the Sun-goddess by the Emperor in person.

5 This is still the rule in certain parts of the country.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.