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IN the gardens of certain Buddhist temples there are trees which have been famous for centuries, trees trained and clipped into extraordinary shapes. Some have the form of dragons; others have the form of pagodas, ships, umbrellas. Supposing that one of these trees were abandoned to its own natural tendencies, it would eventually lose the queer shape so long imposed upon it; but the outline would not be altered for a considerable time, as the new leafage would at first unfold only in the direction of least resistance: that is to say, within limits originally established by the shears and the pruning-knife. By sword and law the old Japanese society had been pruned and clipped, bent and bound, just like such a tree; and after the reconstructions of the Meiji period, after the abolition of the daimiates, and the suppression of the military class, it still maintained its former shape, just as the tree would continue to do when first abandoned by the gardener. Though delivered from the bonds of feudal law, released from the shears of military rule, the great bulk of the social structure preserved its ancient aspect; and the rare spectacle bewildered and delighted and deluded the Western observer. Here indeed was Elf-land, the strange, the beautiful, the grotesque, the very mysterious, totally unlike aught of strange and attractive ever beheld elsewhere. It was not a world of the nineteenth century after Christ, but a world of many centuries before Christ: yet this fact the wonder of wonders remained unrecognized; and it remains unrecognized by most people even to this day.
Fortunate indeed were those privileged to enter this astonishing fairyland thirty odd years ago, before the period of superficial change, and to observe the unfamiliar aspects of its life: the universal urbanity, the smiling silence of crowds, the patient deliberation of toil, the absence of misery and struggle. Even yet, in those remoter districts where alien influence has wrought but little change, the charm of the old existence lingers and amazes; and the ordinary traveller can little understand what it means. That all are polite, that nobody quarrels, that everybody smiles, that pain and sorrow remain invisible, that the new police have nothing to do, would seem to prove a morally superior humanity. But for the trained sociologist it would prove something different, and suggest something very terrible. It would prove to him that this society had been moulded under immense coercion, and that the coercion must have been exerted uninterruptedly for thousands of years. He would immediately perceive that ethics and custom had not yet become dissociated, and that the conduct of each person was regulated by the will of the rest. He would know that personality could not develop in such a social medium, that no individual superiority dare assert itself, that no competition would be tolerated. He would understand that the outward charm of this life its softness, its smiling silence as of dreams signified the rule of the dead. He would recognize that between those minds and the minds of his own epoch no kinship of thought, no community of sentiment, no sympathy whatever could exist, that the separating gulf was not to be measured by thousands of leagues, but only by thousands of years, that the psychological interval was hopeless as the distance from planet to planet. Yet this knowledge probably would not certainly should not blind him to the intrinsic charm of things. Not to feel the beauty of this archaic life is to prove oneself insensible to all beauty. Even that Greek world, for which our scholars and poets profess such loving admiration, must have been in many ways a world of the same kind, whose daily mental existence no modern mind could share.
Now that the great social tree, so wonderfully clipped and cared for during many centuries, is losing its fantastic shape, let us try to see how much of the original design can still be traced.
Under all the outward aspects of individual activity that modern Japan presents to the visitor's gaze, the ancient conditions really persist to an extent that no observation could reveal. Still the immemorial cult rules all the land. Still the family-law, the communal law, and (though in a more irregular manner) the clan-law, control every action of existence. I do not refer to any written law, but only to the old unwritten religious law, with its host of obligations deriving from ancestor-worship. It is true that many changes and, in the opinion of the wise, too many changes have been made in civil legislation; but the ancient proverb Government-laws are only seven-day laws," still represents popular sentiment in regard to hasty reforms. The old law, the law of the dead, is that by which the millions prefer to act and think. Though ancient social groupings have been officially abolished, re-groupings of a corresponding sort have been formed, instinctively, throughout the country districts. In theory the individual is free; in practice he is scarcely more free than were his forefathers. Old penalties for breach of custom have been abrogated; yet communal opinion is able to compel the ancient obedience. Legal enactments can nowhere effect immediate change of sentiment and long-established usage, least of all among a people of such fixity of character as the Japanese. Young persons are no more at liberty now, than were their fathers and mothers under the Shōgunate, to marry at will, to invest their means and efforts in undertakings not sanctioned by family approval, to consider themselves in any way enfranchised from family authority; and it is probably better for the present that they are not. No man is yet complete master of his activities, his time, or his means.
Though the individual is now registered, and made directly accountable to the law, while the household has been relieved from its ancient responsibility for the acts of its members, still the family practically remains the social unit, retaining its patriarchal organization and its particular cult. Not unwisely, the modern legislators have protected this domestic religion: to weaken its bond at this time were to weaken the foundations of the national moral life, to introduce disintegrations into the most deeply seated structures of the social organism. The new codes forbid the man who becomes by succession the head of a house to abolish that house; he is not permitted to suppress a cult. No legal presumptive heir to the headship of a family can enter into another family as adopted son or husband; nor can he abandon the paternal house to establish an independent family of his own.1 Provision has been made to meet extraordinary cases; but no individual is allowed, without good and sufficient reason, to free himself from those traditional obligations which the family-cult imposes. As regards adoption, the new law maintains the spirit of the old, with fresh provision for the conservation of the family religion, permitting any person of legal age to adopt a son, on the simple condition that the person adopted shall be younger than the adopter. The new divorce-laws do not permit the dismissal of a wife for sterility alone (and divorce for such cause had long been condemned by Japanese sentiment); but in view of the facilities given for adoption, this reform does not endanger the continuance of the cult. An interesting example of the manner in which the law still protects ancestor-worship is furnished by the fact that an aged and childless widow, last representative of her family, is not permitted to remain without an heir. She must adopt a son if she can: if she cannot, because of poverty, or for other reasons, the local authorities will provide a son for her, that is to say, a male heir to maintain the family-worship. Such official interference would seem to us tyrannical: it is simply paternal, and represents the continuance of an ancient regulation intended to protect the bereaved against what Eastern faith still deems the supreme misfortune, the extinction of the home-cult.... In other respects the later codes allow of individual liberty unknown in previous generations. But the ordinary person would not dream of attempting to claim a legal right opposed to common opinion. Family and public sentiment are still more potent than law. The Japanese newspapers frequently record tragedies resulting from the prevention or dissolution of unions; and these tragedies afford strong proof that most young people would prefer even suicide to the probable consequence of a successful appeal to law against family decision.
The communal form of coercion is less apparent in the large cities; but everywhere it endures to some extent, and, in the agricultural districts it remains supreme. Between the new conditions 'and the old there is this difference, that the man who finds the yoke of his district hard to bear can flee from it: he could not do so fifty years ago. But he can flee from it only to enter into another state of subordination of nearly the same kind. Full advantage, nevertheless, has been taken of this modern liberty of movement: thousands yearly throng to the cities; other thousands travel over the country, from province to province; working for a year or a season in one place, then going to another, with little more to hope for than experience of change. Emigration also has been taking place upon an extensive scale; but for the common class of emigrants, at least, the advantage of emigration is chiefly represented by the chance of earning larger wages, A Japanese emigrant community abroad organizes itself upon the home-plan;2 and the individual emigrant probably finds himself as much under communal coercion in Canada, Hawaii, or the Philippine Islands, as he could ever have been in his native province. Needless to say that in foreign countries such coercion is more than compensated by the aid and protection which the communal organization insures. But with the constantly increasing number of restless spirits at home, and the ever widening experience of Japanese emigrants abroad, it would seem likely that the power of the commune for compulsory cooperation must become considerably weakened in the near future.
As for the tribal or clan law, it survives to the degree of remaining almost omnipotent in administrative circles, and in all politics. Voters, officials, legislators, do not follow principles in our sense of the word: they follow men, and obey commands. In these spheres of action the penalties of disobedience to orders are endless as well as serious: by a single such offence one may array against oneself powers that will continue their hostile operation for years and years, unreasoningly, implacably, blindly, with the weight and persistence of natural forces, of winds or tides. Any comprehension of the history of Japanese politics during the last fifteen years is not possible without some knowledge of clan-history. A political leader, fully acquainted with the history of clan-parties, and their offshoots, can accomplish marvellous things; and even foreign residents, with long experience of Japanese life, have been able, by pressing upon clan-interests, to exercise a very real power in government circles. But to the ordinary foreigner, Japanese contemporary politics must appear a chaos, a disintegration, a hopeless flux. The truth is that most things remain, under varying outward forms, "as all were ordered, ages since," though the shiftings have become more rapid, and the results less obvious, in the haste of an era of steam and electricity.
The greatest of living Japanese statesmen, the Marquis Ito, long ago perceived that the tendency of political life to agglomerations, to clan-groupings, presented the most serious obstacle to the successful working of constitutional government. He understood that this tendency could be opposed only by considerations weightier than clan-interests, considerations worthy of supreme sacrifice. He therefore formed a party of which every member was pledged to pass over clan-interests, clique-interests, personal and every other kind of interests, for the sake of national interests. Brought into collision with a hostile cabinet in 1903, this party achieved the feat of controlling its animosities even to the extent of maintaining its foes in power; but large fragments broke off in the process. So profoundly is the grouping-tendency, the clan-sentiment, identified with national character, that the ultimate success of Marquis Ito's policy must still be considered doubtful. Only a national danger the danger of war, has yet been able to weld all parties together, to make all wills work as one.
Not only politics, but nearly all phases of modern life, yield evidence that the disintegration of the old society has been superficial rather than fundamental. Structures dissolved have recrystallized, taking forms dissimilar in aspect to the original forms, but inwardly built upon the same plan. For the dissolutions really effected represented only a separation of masses, not a breaking up of substance into independent units; and these masses, again cohering, continue to act only as masses. Independence of personal action, in the Western sense, is still almost inconceivable. The individual of every class above the lowest must continue to be at once coercer and coerced. Like an atom within a solid body, he can vibrate; but the orbit of his vibration is fixed. He must act and be acted upon in ways differing little from those of ancient time.
As for being acted upon, the average man is under three kinds of pressure: pressure from above, exemplified in the will of his superiors; pressure about him, represented by the common will of his fellows and equals; pressure from below, represented by the general sentiment of his inferiors. And this last sort of coercion is not the least formidable.
Individual resistance to the first kind of pressure that represented by authority is not even to be thought of; because the superior represents a clan, a class, an exceedingly multiple power of some description; and no solitary individual, in the present order of things, can strive against a combination. To resist injustice he must find ample support, in which case his resistance does not represent individual action.
Resistance to the second kind of pressure communal coercion signifies ruin, loss of the right to form a part of the social body.
Resistance to the third sort of pressure, embodied in the common sentiment of inferiors, may result in almost anything, from momentary annoyance to sudden death, according to circumstances.
In all forms of society these three kinds of pressure are exerted to some degree; but in Japanese society, owing to inherited tendency, and traditional sentiment, their power is tremendous.
Thus, in every direction, the individual finds himself confronted by the despotism of collective opinion: it is impossible for him to act with safety except as one unit of a combination. The first kind of pressure deprives him of moral freedom, exacting unlimited obedience to orders; the second kind of pressure denies him the right to use his best faculties in the best way for his own advantage (that is to say, denies him the right of free competition); the third kind of pressure compels him, in directing the actions of others, to follow tradition, to forbear innovations, to avoid making any changes, however beneficial, which do not find willing acceptance on the part of his inferiors.
These are the social conditions which, under normal circumstances, make for stability, for conservation; and they represent the will of the dead. They are inevitable to a militant state; they make the strength of that state; they render facile the creation and maintenance of formidable armies. But they are not conditions favourable to success in the future international competition, in the industrial struggle for existence against societies incomparably more plastic, and of higher mental energy.
1 That is to say, he cannot separate himself from the family in law; but he is free to live in a separate house. The tendency to further disintegration of the family is shown by a custom which has been growing of late years, especially in Tōkyō: the custom of demanding, as a condition of marriage, that the bride shall not be obliged to five in the same house with the parents of the bridegroom. This custom is yet confined to certain classes, and has been adversely criticised. Many young men, on marrying, leave the parental home to begin independent housekeeping, though remaining legally attached to their parents' families, of course.... It will perhaps be asked, What becomes of the cult in such cases? The cult remains in the parental home. When the parents die, then the ancestral tablets are transferred to the home of the married son.