Open main menu

Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Japanese fragments - Part 1




The Japanese Ambassadors are in the United States. The slavery and anti-slavery members have ceased squabbling about that line over which they may use very unparliamentary language, but must not stride. Bowie knives and gouging apparatus have been sheathed pro tem., and shooting at sight deferred, in order that the Envoys of H.I.M., the Taikoon of Japan, be properly received, and that a favourable impression be made on their eastern intellects of the culminating civilisation of American institutions. What a charming relief it must be for that grey-headed chief magistrate of the Great Republic to forget the perils of a committee of both houses especially delegated to destroy a reputation founded on forty years of public service, and to explain to the fresh untutored ambassadors of an Eastern Potentate the blessings of universal suffrage, and the absence of hereditary right. They will come here to England, it is to be hoped,—and before all England has gone to bathe, shoot, and yacht. But if not, we must take them to the Isle of Wight, and show them our big Trafalgars and pretty Blue-bells. We can take them to our great marts of Liverpool and Manchester. We can show them Aldershott and Portsmouth, Oxford and London—but London out of season. They must go to the North, and if we can only get the Kamis into knickerbockers, we may show them Ben Nevis, and remind them feebly of their own beautiful mountain scenery, and we can at least send them away convinced that we are not, all, robbers of gold, or defrauders of foreign customs, as their countrymen very naturally suppose; and that although we possess an uncommon good opinion of ourselves, and do most things with a high hand, except where Americans, French, or Russians are concerned, that still we are not such a bad set of fellows after all: and half-pay officers and workhouse paupers excepted, are fairly clothed, fairly fed, and fairly governed.

It is necessary, however, that we should rub up our knowledge of the people whose ruler has thus sent an embassy to report upon European manners and customs; and as the Japanese have for three centuries refused all intercourse with Europe, we are obliged to go back to ancient documents for much of what we wish to know touching that empire, or of the singular and interesting people dwelling within its boundaries.

Comparing that information with the observations and notes made by us and other recent visitors to Japan, we are struck with the strange immutability of many of the characteristics of the people, and of the institutions under which they have lived for three centuries, whilst, unlike the Chinese, the arts and sciences, the manufactures and industrial produce of the country have advanced considerably. The little compilation, a “Cruise in Japanese Waters,” which was so favourably received by the public, was written under all the advantages on the one hand of fresh impressions, and on the other hand, amidst the multifarious duties of an officer commanding a man-of-war, it was consequently impossible to embody in it all the notes hastily thrown together, or to correct and enlarge upon them from old works that I was well aware existed in abundance, touching the condition of the people and country, at a time when it was unreservedly open to Europeans of all denominations. Here in England, in the noble library of the British Museum, we have a fund of valuable information which may, I believe—and the reader shall be my judge—be profitably explored, and I bring to that ancient knowledge modern information, and, what is better still, a series of native illustrations procured in the city of Yedo itself, which will bring before us in vivid relief the scenery, the towns and villages, the highways and byways of that strange land—the costumes, tastes, and, I might almost say, the feelings of the people—so skilful are Japanese artists in the Hogarth-like quality of transferring to their sketches the characteristics of passing scenes.

It is many centuries since Europe heard of Japan, yet our information of her is still fragmentary. The early traders, like our modern ones, did not willingly impart their knowledge lest it should interfere with large profits. The missionaries of that day, the followers of Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis, looked to little else than the ecclesiastical points involved in their discoveries or progress, and, with rare exceptions, it was not until the Hollander and Englishman commenced to supersede the Portuguese and Spaniards that reliable or valuable information touching the geography, the polity, and social condition of the Japanese Empire begun to be recorded—and then in such forms! Such huge tomes, such ponderous volumes wrapt in quaint language and mouldy learnedness. One turns in despair from the endless miracles recorded by worthy fathers who lived surrounded by raging heathens and affrighted bonzes, to the wonderful dissertations of worthy John Ogilby, master of the revels to our Charles II. of glorious memory. He insists upon travelling to and fro between Miaco and Thebes, Yedo and Ancient Athens, or Rome. By dint of perseverance we extract his ore and leave his dross, and then clutch sweet Purchas, who startles us by stating, on authority which may not be denied, that in Japan, “where our countryman Williams Adams doth now reside, and hath been there these many years, therefore hath better means to know than any one,” there are two mountains, one of which casteth out flames, and where the Devil might be seen in a bright cloud by such as prepared themselves for the sight by due preparation of mind and body! For a moment we trembled. Could this be our beautiful Fusi-hama, the “matchless one of Ni-pon?” Was she like other peerless ones, merely a snare and a delusion, handing her votaries over to the Evil One in a bright and dazzling cloud? Gracios a Dios! No; further on we recognised her, for the ancient writer mentioned another mountain, our Fusi-hama, as being “many leagues higher than the clouds.” Bother that burning mountain and its unpleasant occupant: we felt so relieved, and turning to our “Hundred Phases of the Matchless Mountain,” published in Yedo, we rejoiced like the travellers who, in the early morn, halt on the highway, and gaze upon her grand proportions in wonderment and love as she towers above that great empire, and daily blesses the millions at her feet.

First View of Fusi-Hama.png

But let us begin our tale of Japan, and try to carry our reader back to the old, old time, a.d. 1300, when Venice and Genoa were as great as we yet hope they will, one day, again become. It was, then, five centuries and a half ago, that Zipangu, the Chinese barbarism for Nipon, was first heard of in Europe, and that through the narration of the brothers Polo. They had just returned from their wanderings and sojournings in Tartary and China, and men hardly knew what to believe of the marvels they related.

That first news of Nipon was brief, yet admirably calculated to awaken the curiosity and cupidity of races who had for ever been accustomed to look to the remotest East, as a land of wondrous wealth, where gold, precious stones, and almost as precious spices, were as dross. Lands which, if the mail-clad warlike sons of Western Europe could only reach, their strong arms and stout hearts would enable each impoverished knight and desperate soldier to carve out a kingdom for himself. Marco Polo had not visited Japan, but he had dwelt long in China; he was the first and last European who ever held office under the Chinese Government, and it was from the Chinese that he had learnt of the great islands to the eastward. “Zipangu!” for so he calls Nipon, “is an island in the Eastern sea, very great in size; the people of a white complexion, of gentle behaviour,—in religion idolators,—and they have a king of their own. They have gold in great plenty; their king permits no exportation of it, and they who have been to that country—and they are few—report the king’s house to be covered with gold (as churches are here with lead), gilded windows, and that they also have many jewels!”

We can imagine the excitement in the stately palaces, and on the marble quays of Venice, when her merchants read this tale, the truth of much of which was subsequently proved; and how they longed that their “talle shippes,” “those proud argosies,” which had explored the inhospitable coasts of Northern Europe, and penetrated to the further shores of the Cimmerian Bosphorus, should likewise attain and secure for the Queen of the Adriatic the promised wealth of that wondrous Zipangu.

They had not, however, been the first to break the Tenth Commandment—to covet that which Providence had given unto others—and Marco Polo relates how his great patron, the conqueror of China, Kublai Khan, had been stimulated to bring the Britain of the Pacific under his paternal sway. Small measure of grace, small persuasion would have fallen to the fair-skinned dwellers in Nipon or Zipangu, could Kublai have reached them with his Tartar hordes. Dieu merci! horses may not swim the deep sea, and a small breadth of blue water stayed the charge of the Tartar cut-throat of the olden day, as we trust it may do the pas accelerè of the more modern Zouaves or Turcos into our own good land. Kublai Khan proceeded therefore to expound certain philosophical principles to the Wang or King of Nipon, in a communication which would vie, in some respects, with similar documents that we have seen of late years appear from other great potentates who dwell nearer to the meridian of Greenwich. We give it verbatim as a charming exemplification of the ancient fable of the wolf and the lamb.

The “exalted Emperor of the Mongols” from his capital of Cambolu, supposed to be the present Pekin, writes in the year of Grace, 1278, to the Wang, or King of Nipon, as follows:

“I am a prince of a formerly small state to which the adjacent lands have united themselves, and my endeavour is to make inviolable truth and friendship reign among us. What is more, my ancestors have, in virtue of their splendid warrant from Heaven, taken possession of Hia dominions (? China). The number of distant countries and of remote cities that fear our power, and love our virtue, passes computation. Nipon lies near, and has, from the beginning held intercourse with the central empire. But, during my reign, not a single envoy has appeared to open a friendly intercourse with me. I apprehend that this state of things is not, as yet, well known in your country, wherefore I send envoys with a letter to make you acquainted with my views, and I hope we shall understand each other. Already philosophers desire to see the whole world form one family. But how may this one family principle be carried into effect if friendly intercourse subsist not between us? I am resolved to call this principle into existence, even should I be obliged to do so by force of arms! It is now the business of the Wang of Nipon to decide what course is most agreeable to him!”

As a specimen of imperial correspondence, in the year of Grace, 1278, we may say that this document is not an uninteresting one, though it failed in convincing the ruler of Japan (then called the Zio-goon) of the advisability of entering into “amity and friendship” with such a ruffian. Kublai proceeded to enforce his arguments, and a mighty fleet put forth from the shores of the wide-spreading Yangstye-keang to the shallow waters, and hardier climes of Pechalee and the hosts of Tartary sailed for the subjugation of the Isles of the Day-dawn. It was another Armada, and met with the same well-deserved fate. Storms swept the rocky shores of Kin-su, the southernmost island of the Japanese group, and by shipwreck, famine, and the sword of the islanders, nearly all that vast force perished.

Yet, in days still more remote, a peaceful conquest of Japan had been effected by the swarming hive of human beings located in the great plain which forms the heart of China. The Chinese dwelling in that rich valley of the Yangstye-keang appear from the earliest ages to have been the prey of their neighbours, or else to have been constantly over-run by fresh inroads from those wide plains of Mongolia whence they derived their origin. Pressed on by the sword of a conqueror, or fleeing from the plague, pestilence, and famine which followed in his path, it was but natural, whilst portions of the Chinese masses fled over the lofty mountain ranges which lie south of the Yangstze, and so reached the rich provinces which now constitute the tropical portion of that great empire, that another exodus took place from the seaboard, whence the unhappy fugitives took ship and fled eastward across the great ocean, in search of that peace and security which was denied them at home. Chinese and Japanese records happily approximate in their dates of one such exodus; and, taking the latter as our guide, we learn that about 300 years before the advent of the Saviour, there arrived from the “setting sun” (China) a number of beneficent strangers, led by one who combined, like another Moses, the triple office of legislator, high priest, and generalissimo. This great leader, Sin-fuh, has since been deified in Japan: but the occasion of his peaceful invasion of that land is otherwise explained by the myth-loving historians of China. They tell, that during the reign of one Hwang-te, 300 couple of young men and women were sent across the eastern sea in search of the waters of immortality; and that these wanderers elected one Sin-fuh as their leader, and, under his skilful guidance, after dire adventures by sea and land, reached the pleasant shores of Nipon—it was their Canaan. It is more than probable that the aboriginal race then found in Kiu-siu and Nipon Islands was of those same Ainos who now dwell in Yesso and the Kurile Islands; and the sword, as well as the milder influence of a superior civilisation, had doubtless much to do with the moulding of the Japanese people and government into what we now find them. From the reign of this warrior priest, Sin-fuh, date most of the arts and sciences now existing in that country, and his rule must have rapidly spread from the southern portion of the empire as far as the latitude of Yedo, the present capital; for it is said that, although he only lived 150 years, his death took place upon Mount Fusi-hama, the Matchless-mountain of Japan. That lofty and beautiful peak is the Sinai of the Japanese islander—for Sin-fuh, with great wisdom, and still better taste, did not trust to the grateful memory of his countrymen for a monument to his fame, or to perishable statues of marble and brass, but identified his life and death with the handiwork of the great Creator. If the Japanese records tell truly, their wonderful cone of Fusi-hama was projected upward by volcanic action during the lifetime of Sin-fuh, and the thunders of the Deity might have been possibly invoked by the Japanese legislator, to confirm his authority, as was done in the olden time by the great Israelite at Sinai. Sin-fooism, the ancient faith of the Japanese islander, has its stronghold in that mountain, and in the type of strength, purity, and grandeur which it represents. On its crest is the supposed resting-place of the founder of that faith, and thither have wended the devout of all times in earnest pilgrimage.

Pilgrims to Fusi-Hama.png

Everything in Japan reminds the visitor of this prevailing faith. The love of the people for Fusi-hama in all her phases, and the thousand scenes incident to the yearly pilgrimage to its summit, are the favourite topic of her literati, and the constant subject of her artists’ pencils. Amongst other graphic illustrations of the toil and danger undergone by Japanese devotees, we give a fac-simile of one, which brings vividly before us the “antres vast and deserts idle” through which they have to wend their way; and we can sympathise with the Alpine Club as they view our fac-simile, and regret that no artist has been found in Europe who could as truthfully pourtray their deeds of daring at the shrine of their mountain goddess. There is, however, one hope left for them. A talented Japanese artist is in the suite of this foreign embassy: we should recommend them to engage him to illustrate their next work.

The faith of Sin-fuh, and the theocracy founded by him, lasted nigh upon twelve hundred years, to A.D. 1150, about a century before Kublai Khan, desirous of making war for an idea, made an attack upon the liberties of the Japanese. Those twelve centuries, however, were chequered with an average amount of intestine wars and rebellions, and a warlike spirit was fostered, which tended to the extension of the race over the whole of Nipon Island and a portion of Yesso, the original dwellers being thrust northward, or destroyed. In that period of time, and prior to Kublai’s attempt, there was evidently frequent intercourse with the Chinese Empire, though no acknowledgment of its supremacy, and it was doubtless through the traders between Japan and China that Kublai Khan learnt of the wealth and importance of the “Land of the Day-dawn,” and with becoming modesty desired to bring it under his beneficent sway. A hundred years, however, before this attempt was made, the Priest-kings, or Dairi, now called Mikados, of Japan, had almost resigned the executive control to the representative of the military forces of the empire. The first Zio-goon, or executive ruler of Japan, crushed out the rebellious spirit of the great feudal barons, who, of course, under an ecclesiastical sway, had been nigh independent, and he then placed the head of the church in a secondary position, tendering him allegiance, however, and using his ecclesiastical influence for the purposes of the state. Fresh energy had thus been imparted to the ancient empire founded by Sin-fuh, and Japan was in no mood to bow to Kublai Khan.

The storms which sweep the seas of this Eastern Britain stood Mikado and Zio-goon, priest and soldier, in good stead; and, elated by their first success in resisting the onslaught of the Chinese armies and fleets, they passed an edict, that “Henceforth no Mongol subject should set foot in Nipon under pain of death!” Brave words! of which Kublai Khan tested the sincerity, by rashly despatching an envoy and suite to summon its promulgators to pay tribute; and when the Zio-goon, true to his word, executed them on the sea-board of his kingdom, the indignant conqueror of many realms launched forth another host, to perish as the first had done; and Kublai brought upon all the sea-board of China the curse of a desolating retaliation by Japanese marauders. Through centuries the recollection of that attempt to rob them of their independence, sharpened the sword and nerved the arm of the bold pirates from Nipon, and the Chinese trader ceased to traverse the narrow valley of waters which divided the plains of the Yangstye-keang from the rocky iron-bound coasts of Zipangu. The traffic between the two countries, and traffic there must have been, now passed entirely into the hands of the Japanese seamen, whom the Chinese historians quaintly paint as half robber, half merchant, strongly resembling those early merchant-explorers from whom we, in Great Britain, date our commercial and maritime greatness.

Whilst such was the state of affairs in Japan, the news brought by Marco Polo to Europe was working—a little leaven was leavening the enterprising spirit of Christendom. Cathay and Zipangu were the goal of popes and kings, priests and soldiers; and a real knowledge of the earth’s surface was unrolling itself before the genius and cupidity of Europe. Whilst, therefore, Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, and English are rapidly struggling towards the land where “the king’s house was covered with gold,” let us look upon the fair kingdom of Japan.