Open main menu

Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1710/The Japanese New Year

From The Spectator.

THE JAPANESE NEW YEAR.

Yedo, January 9, 1877.

It may not be generally known in England that of the many and great changes which the influx of Western civilization into Japan has made in the manners and customs of the Japanese, not the least in magnitude or importance is the revolution in the calendar, by which the Western method of computing time has been adopted in its entirety. And the Japanese, so often styled the "French of the East," in nothing more justify the title than in the prominence they give to the festival of the New Year's Day, which is now, as with us, the 1st of January. And indeed, Yedo becomes a pretty sight, when decorated in holiday attire, to usher the new year in. A people in whom a natural taste for decorative art is perhaps more developed than anywhere else in the world, throw all their enegies into the task of dressing up their city with evergreen. Rich and poor alike have the taste, and all do something. Before the poorest house will be planted a couple of stalks of the omnipotent bamboo, which, having furnished our houses, nay, almost built them, clothed us, and to a small extent, even fed us, throughout the old year, now lends its delicate leaf, and the graceful pliancy of its stem, to help the city to be gay in welcoming in the new. A street in Yedo this day looks like an avenue of bamboos. But much greater things than this can be done by the more prosperous citizen. Here the bamboo is only used to be bent into, the framework of arches, and every other kind of device, and then covered with green leaves, with small oranges at intervals, thus supplying by art the absence of England's holly, with its natural contrast of red and green. And then the climate of Japan peculiarly lends itself to festivities at this season. With the exception of one slight fall of show, we have had the most glorious weather for many weeks, and the snow itself did not arrive until the new year had fairly begun with a cloudless sky and brilliant sunshine.

If the city is so pretty, it would be natural to suppose that the people would themselves appear in their best attire. And this also is well worth seeing, and worthy of some admiration, as far as the native dresses go. Groups of men and girls are scattered about the streets, playing, with no great skill, it must be confessed, the game of battledore and shuttlecock, a favorite pastime of the Japanese, who play this game as a game of forfeits, wherein the unlucky swain who drops the shuttlecock must submit to have a big streak of black paint drawn across his face by one of the competitors of the other sex, who in this game generally seem to get the best of it, and take huge delight in the infliction of the forfeit. The girls have on their gayest kimono or silk robe, which is often very tastefully decorated, and their best wooden sandals, which are generally lacquered. This attire, and a liberal allowance of powder to whiten the neck, which is left bare by the kimono, and rouge to color up the lips and cheeks, often enable the Japanese girl to put in an appearance, wanting in natural charms, but artistically a success. But when we come to the European costumes, then no pen but the pen of Dickens could do justice to the subject. For on this day everybody calls on everybody else, and the mikado holds a great reception for his ministers; and the correct dress to be worn by all not actually entitled to a uniform is simply European evening dress, surmounted by a tall hat. Surely such hats have never been seen elsewhere. For so long as anything is worn which has once been a tall hat, it does not matter what is its present condition, and such trifles as the fact that it has been persistently brushed the wrong way, or sat upon a few times, are beneath the notice of the statesman whose head it adorns. Nor do the dress-suits fail to come up to the same high standard. A pair of inexpressibles that once were black, made on a plan past mortal ken, so wonderfully tight and short are they, have their commencement about an inch above the tops of a pair of lady's boots. How these have been wriggled into no man shall say; the feat has been performed once more in safety, and the risk has not to be run again until the next new year. But who can blame inexpressibles for being too high at the bottom, when they are so much too low at the top? It must surely be the fault of the waistcoat, of which the other garments are innocent, that there is a broad stratum of shirt between the two; and it is creditable to all concerned that the stratum aforesaid should have been clean no longer ago than the last time it was worn, last New Year's Day. But a dress-suit, even when tastefully constructed of good alpaca, is hardly warm enough for January. We need a comforter, and what so effectual in this capacity as a nice large rough bath-towel? Picture the Japanese yakunin complete; his costume, as above surmounted by the remains of his tall hat, delicately balanced on his ears, himself in a jinriksha, or mounted on a donkey; and compare this with the graceful, flowing robes of elegant materials worn by his fathers, and all will agree that in the matter of the change of costume, Japan has been most ill-advised.

On the 1st, his Majesty the mikado receives ministers, and on the 2nd there is a general reception of foreigners in the employ of the government, to which certain of the foreign employés are invited from each department, the question as to who is to go and who not, being decided arbitrarily by the Japanese in a way which I am informed causes much discontent in some quarters. The presentation on this day consists in waiting the ordinary time that always has to be so spent on such occasions, and then you are admitted to bow to the emperor, who does not return any of the salutations.

Festivities, have not been limited to the Japanese of Yedo. Sir Harry and Lady Parkes have well supported the name of English hospitality, and the legation has night after night been gay with guests within and pretty with lanterns without. On the evening of the 6th there was a brilliant gathering of Japanese and foreign ministers and families at the English legation, who were entertained with a Christmas-tree and other festivities. The scene was peculiarly attractive, owing to the presence of a number of Japanese ladies of high rank, whose costumes were an object of great interest and admiration on the part of the foreigners of the softer sex. One lady in particular, the wife of his Excellency the prime minister, was so very splendidly dressed as to experience some difficulty in locomotion; and I think Sir Harry, on whose arm she entered the ball-room, must have felt a touch of relief when she was safely seated without mishap. Japanese ladies do not wear jewelry, such ornaments as ear-rings are thought barbarous in Japan, but their full-dress costumes of the most magnificent brocades seem to gain rather than lose lustre from the absence of jewels.

To-day the celebrations may be said to have been brought to a close by the ceremony of the reopening and inspection of the Imperial Naval College by his Majesty the mikado. This is an annual affair, and is always performed by the emperor in person. All yesterday was spent in busy preparations, the entrances to the college being decorated, and the walls of the interior hung with drawings and maps. The "Sei-yo-ken" (Foreign House) hotel was also trimmed with evergreen and flags. At eight o'clock this morning, officers of high rank in the Japanese navy assembled in great force to await the coming of the emperor, and of course the English naval mission, in whose hands the actual work of the college lies, were present in their full strength. Waiting in a dress-suit outside a college gate for half an hour or more, with a hard frost on the ground and a keen wind blowing, is chilly work, even under a Japanese sun and cloudless sky; but even this must come to an end at last, and the mikado arrived at about nine o'clock, and proceeded at once to the principal reception-room of the college. Here the officers and instructors of the college and the school attached were presented in due course to his Majesty, after which the foreign ministers arrived, and the proper civilities having been exchanged, the royal party adjourned to inspect the cadets working the heavy guns in the gun-shed of the college, a fine solid wooden building, mounting five seven-inch muzzle-loading rifled guns, of seven tons' weight and Armstrong design, similar to those in use in the British service. These guns were handled by mere boys in a style which spoke volumes for the care and skill of their instructors, as well as for the diligence of the pupils, the excellence of both the broadside and the detached firing leaving no room for fair criticism. When the drill with blank-cartridge was over, his Majesty adjourned to a pavilion outside, to witness the practice with shells at a target moored fifteen hundred yards out to sea. This practice was the weak part of the day's proceedings, for the fuzes of the shells were of Japanese manufacture and pattern, and so much too sensitive that every shell burst almost at the muzzle. But the day, which included a drill of the training-ship, was a most unequivocal success, and Japan may well congratulate herself on having so quickly acquired a large body of officers as well trained and as effective as these cadets showed themselves to be to-day. This training-ship, by the way, was once in the British service, whence it was purchased by the Japanese government. In England she was known as the "Beagle," a name rendered famous by association with that of Darwin. This inspection may be said to have concluded the festivities of the new year, as to-morrow the mikado leaves Yedo, en route for the western capital. This means that the new year is fairly started on its way; the emperor now leaves it to take care of itself.