Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Japanese fragments - Part 5

JAPANESE FRAGMENTS.

BY CAPTAIN SHERARD OSBORN, R.N.

CHAPTER V.

The execution of the disobedient Christian priests and the death of Taiko-sama, followed, as we have already said, close upon each other. The new emperor, beset with difficulties, paused for a while in the prosecution of his predecessor’s views against the Portuguese and Spaniards, although it appears that the natives of the country who had become Christians were treated with unmitigated severity—death or recantation being their only alternative. We need not dwell on this painful episode in Japanese history, but there is no doubt that between about 1580 and 1620 nigh upon a million and a half of Christianised natives perished, and that the Europeans after the year 1600 made few fresh converts.

Spain never appears to have had any great commercial relations with Japan, and directly the Franciscan monks were banished from Japan, the Spaniards may be said to disappear from the field, except by the accidental wreck of a galleon, bound to Acapulco, upon the west coast of Niphon, and the exchange of courtesies which ensued from the generous treatment they received at the hands of the Japanese authorities. The Portuguese, however, maintained their trading ports at Nangasaki and its neighbourhood, and the Jesuit priests constantly recruited from the great college at Goa, perseveringly intrigued to regain the ground they had lost in the confidence of the ruling classes. Portuguese interests, however, were doomed to receive a blow from a quarter whence danger could then have been little anticipated. The ships of Holland and of England, not men-of-war, not royal ships, but those of their enterprising traders, were about this time, struggling to reach a land of which marvellous tales were then rife in the seaports of Rotterdam, London, and Plymouth. Drake and Cavendish in 1577 and 1586, brought home such astounding proofs of the untold wealth of the various nations dwelling upon the shores of the great South Sea, and of the arrogant weakness of the twain bullies of Rome who wished to monopolise the plunder of those heathen, that the stout burghers and hardy seamen of Northern Europe, determined to contest that right in spite of Dons, Jesuits, or Inquisition. In 1598, two expeditions sailed from Holland—one from the Texel, and the other from Rotterdam. The Texel squadron of five ships was purely Dutch, commanded by one Jacques Mahay, whilst the Rotterdam fleet was a combined one, two out of the four vessels being English. It is worthy of note that the pilots of both these fleets were Englishmen, who had obtained great experience in long voyages. For instance, we find that in the Texel fleet there was William Adams of Gillingham, and his good friend Timothy Shotten, who had circumnavigated the globe a few years previously with Cavendish; whilst in the Rotterdam fleet another of Cavendish’s old followers, Captain Melish, undertook a similarly responsible task. It is foreign to our purpose to follow these stout seamen, these pioneers of Dutch and English enterprise, wealth, and success in the East, through their long and hazardous voyaging. The Rotterdam fleet saw and heard but twice of their brethren during many years, and in neither case was their intelligence cheering. In the Straits of Magellan, they met one of the Texel ships much shattered by weather, her crew broken down and disheartened, and only anxious to escape back in safety to their homes. They reported, however, that the ships in which were embarked the English pilots, Will Adams and Shotten, had proceeded into the Great Sea. Our Rotterdam friends, following Drake’s example, went direct from a little promiscuous plundering on the coast of South America to the Philippine Isles, in the hope of capturing something that would enrich them, and repay all their sufferings. Less fortunate, they had more hard knocks, and found no pieces of gold, no ryalls of plate, no galleon ladened with Mexican silver to exchange for Chinese produce. However, we find them one December morning of 1600, boarding off Manilla, a Japanese vessel, which had been twenty-five days out from a port of that country; and Oliver van Noort and Captain Melish then first learnt and recorded the news of the thriving trade of the Portugals in Japan, and how Japanese vessels came south “ladened with precious metals, and much victual.” The strong north-east monsoon of that season forbade Captain Melish proceeding in the direction of the much to be desired El Dorado, so he wisely turned highwayman, and obtained at “an easy rate,” as he naïvely remarks, all that they wanted, excepting gold and silver. During the cruise of this Rotterdam fleet we are told incidentally, that whilst in Borneo they heard from a Japanese ship, of the ultimate fate of the last of the other Dutch expedition. There is something touching in the words, in which Melish records his information. “We then heard,” he says, “of a great Hollander by tempests shaken, which had put into Japan, the company by famine and sickness all but fourteen dead!” Let us turn to the adventures of that great Hollander, and her gallant survivors. On a spring morning, supposed to be the 11th April, 1600, a sea-worn, tempest-tossed vessel drifted rather than sailed into a port upon the east coast of Kiu-siu, or Bongo. She was the only survivor of the squadron of five which had sailed from the Texel in 1598. The last of her consorts, piloted by Timothy Shotten, went down in the deep sea of the North Pacific, and she (The Erasmus), had much to do to reach any haven. From the letters subsequently received from Japan, written by the English pilot of The Erasmus, we learn how dire was their necessity; for when the anchor was joyfully let go in that port, “hard unto Bungo,” he, Will Adams, of the strong heart, and ten others of her company were only able to creep about upon their hands and knees, and the rest, amongst whom was the captain, looked every moment for death. The Japanese received these new-comers with kindness, and the authorities were not a little astonished to find there were others, as bold seamen, as enterprising navigators, as they of Portugal and Spain.

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Fusi-hama seen through the rain. (Fac-simile.)

The Zio-goon, or Tai-koon, sent for William Adams, and must have been interested in the honest fearlessness of the old scurvy-stricken sailor, who, having tenderly bid his shipmates Good-bye, and commended his soul to God, boldly told the successor of Taiko-sama that his countrymen had long sought the Indies for mercantile purposes, and that his sovereign was at war with all Portugals and Spaniards, though at peace with the world beside. The Tai-koon, no doubt, was not sorry to see the prospect of European aid, thus held out, to rid himself of the threatening military preponderance of those two great powers. If others dare beard the Don, why might not he? And the Japanese monarch must have marked the contempt of the Hollander and Englishman for the military prowess of those two nations of southern Europe that had hitherto carried all before them in the East. The Portuguese and Jesuits used all their arts and influence to have the wretched crew of The Erasmus executed as pirates. They failed signally; and, although The Erasmus was confiscated, and her people desired to consider themselves to all intents and purposes Japanese, the kindness they experienced in other respects was very great. Will Adams became in time the European adviser to the emperor, and for years afterwards we constantly meet the name of our honest pilot as the transactor of business between the court of Yedo and the subjects of foreign powers. Mindful of his friends the Dutchmen, he secured to them, in 1601, a place of trade at a place called Firando, an island off the west coast of Kiu-siu, not very distant from Nangasaki. Indeed, in his own quaint way, he tells us as much in a letter bearing date January 12th, 1613. “The Hollanders being now settled,” says Adams, “I have got them such privileges as the Spaniards and Portuguese could never get, and last year those nations tried to employ me to obtain them like advantages; but, upon consideration of further inconvenience, I have not sought it for them.” There is little doubt, from the rapid decadence of Portuguese commerce and influence after the arrival of The Erasmus and William Adams, that Englishmen and Dutchmen contributed in no small degree to enlighten the Japanese as to the best mode of getting rid of those their first European friends. Year by year, fresh restrictions, fresh annoyances, rendered the position of the Portuguese more and more intolerable, and at last they may almost be said to have voluntarily withdrawn, leaving the field clear to their more energetic opponents, the heretics of Europe. The Portuguese went not away empty-handed, and either through their system of commerce, or system of plunder, they drew off a quantity of gold from the country which, for those times, seems almost fabulous—so much so, indeed, that it became a common saying amongst the Portuguese of Macao, “that if they could have preserved the Japanese trade to themselves for a few years more, that the streets of that colony would have been paved with gold kobangs;” a boast only on a par with the offer of the Spanish citizens of Lima, who tried to induce the emperor to visit that city by offering to lay down silver ingots for him to travel upon from Callao to the city gates, a distance of eight miles. According to one writer the sum of gold and silver carried off by the Portuguese during three years amounted to the enormous figure of 2,713,795l. sterling; but the Hollanders subsequently exceeded this considerably, for, by an estimate made by Mr. Rendall in his curious compilation of Japanese information, they exported, in some thirty years or so, nigh upon twenty-nine and three-quarter millions’ worth of the precious metals from the two ports of Firando and Nangasaki.

Whilst, on the one hand, the emperor thus liberally entertained the newly-arrived Dutchmen and especially our countryman (indeed, he raised him to the high offices of imperial tutor, and charged him with the responsibility of constructing vessels upon the model of The Erasmus), the Roman Catholic Christians in Kiu-siu were perseveringly persecuted; and when they, in despair, flew to arms, they were ultimately exterminated, and, sad to say, in that final extinction of the faith implanted by the brethren of Xavier, the Dutch took a lamentable part. We need say no more, than that they subsequently suffered the deepest humiliation, and although, as the poet observes—

Gold helps the hurt that honour feels,

the Hollanders, in their wretched prison of Nangasaki, had, for centuries, to regret that they should have allowed themselves to be tempted by Asiatics to take a part in exterminating men who, whatever were their faults, were nevertheless fellow Christians. The success of the Tai-koon against the representatives of those two great powers whose colonies and forces had hitherto awed the kings and nobles of all Eastern nations, rendered him perfectly at his ease in the treatment of the Dutch and English. At first they were granted most liberal concessions. The treaty arranged by Captain Saris, in August, 1613, between the Emperor of Japan and King James was a great deal more liberal than any which ambassadors of to-day have been able to negotiate, and the freedom with which the Dutch and English passed and repassed from one part of the country to the other, and the insight they obtained into the manners and customs of this singular people was very great. That commercial and personal liberty was, however, very short-lived. The English factory was voluntarily abolished at Firando about 1620, a year after the death of Will Adams, and the Dutch were ordered to occupy the vacated prison of Desima, in the harbour of Nangasaki,—an imprisonment from which they may be said to have been only released by the perseverance and pertinaciousness of the Americans in our day, who have almost insisted upon Japan being again opened to the intercourse of foreign nations.

Between those distant years 1600 and 1650, the opportunities of studying the Japanese people were very great, and we cannot accuse our friends the Dutch or our own countryman of having failed to take advantage of them. The information they gleaned, however, is spread over such a vast area of print, and often given in such unpalatable forms, that the wheat is in most cases buried under a mountain of chaff, and it is only now that we are in a position to separate one from the other. There is hardly a prospect of our countrymen being able, for many years to come, to pass and repass as our forefathers did in the interior of Japan. It may never arrive, perhaps, that another Englishman shall be taken into royal favour, and be granted estates and rank like unto a lordship in England, with eighty or ninety retainers to support his rank; and we must therefore content ourselves, for the present, with the commercial advantages secured by the Earl of Elgin, and satisfy ourselves as to the condition and habits of the people of the interior of Japan as they were reported and observed by our forefathers. Happily for us, the aspect of an Asiatic nation does not change as rapidly as in Europe. A picture of any state in our quarter of the globe drawn two hundred years ago would hardly be recognisable to-day; but it is not so in Japan, China, or many other places we could name. The Japanese of to-day are just the same people first seen by Pinto and praised by Xavier. The very cut of their garments is unchanged, they shave the tops of their heads and brush up their back hair as in the sixteenth century, and although their curiosity and skill are as great as when they imitated the petronels of their Portuguese visitors and Toledo blades of the Spaniards, yet they are in all other respects that same people of the isles of the day-dawn who repelled Kublai-khan’s fleets and armies, and preferred heathen independence to the Christian vassalage of the Church of Rome.

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Street in the suburb of Yedo. (Fac-simile.)

Let us turn therefore, to the people themselves, and leave the history of their foreign relations until we again take up the theme, in the modern visits to Japanese seaports. The first thing that strikes us is the strange coincidence between Marco Polo’s report of 1295, and the accounts given in letters written by Adams three hundred years subsequently, of the general character and disposition of the Japanese. He dwells especially upon the good administration of the laws, and the order everywhere prevalent, as well as the courtesy and valour of the people. But it must not be denied, that there was a dark side to this picture, for none of our writers pretend that the Japanese are a heaven-born race, free from the usual taints of frail mortality. Jealous of foreign interference, contented with their own laws and institutions, they at the same time, unlike the Chinamen, were full of curiosity as to the habits, manners, arts and sciences of other nations. Every visitor to Japan was struck with their intellectual superiority over all other Easterns—their sound sense, and powers of reasoning, their ready wit, keen perception, and great taste. The Jesuits, the soldiers and merchants of Europe, all bear testimony to their quickness in acquiring languages—their love for the exact as well as speculative sciences. The self-possession and self-respect, so apparent in the present day amongst all classes, was constantly noted. “Their rustics,” said Ambassador Spex, “appear gentlemen by the side of our churls:” and it was remarked, in favourable contrast to the relative position of European classes of the community in those days, that although the inferiors were most respectful to their superiors, their superiors were ever mindful of civility to those beneath them. Brave, prone to appeal to arms, and ruthless in battle, the Japanese exhibited at the same time a strange contrast in a hardened indifference to the sufferings of his fellow-creature: there was a total absence of all public charity for the relief of the aged or diseased; infanticide was frequent; and there was an anomalous mixture of love and respect for women and the sanctity of the marriage tie, with legalised prostitution and public indecency. Then, as to-day, the stranger visiting a Japanese city, was struck with the strange olio of civilisation and utter barbarism—of extreme delicacy and good taste, combined with grossness, and disregard of those commonest conventionalities which raise us above the beasts of the field. Take, for instance, the preceding illustration, that of a street in the suburb of Yedo. Evening is setting in; travellers are unloading their horses and seeking a hostelry for the night. Mark the advanced condition of civilisation in the appearance of the dwellings, the neatness of the road, the trees allowed to grow as ornament and shade, the monumental arch erected to woman’s virtue, or man’s valour, the policeman in the distance; and, above all, the mingling of the sexes, so different to what is generally witnessed in the East; and, lastly, mine host, of the Hotel of Ten Thousand Centuries, praising the advantages of his establishment to the passing traveller. Then look at the reverse. The hotels are to be recognised by the courtesans, who both in the balconies and on the door-steps are inviting the passers-by. The three travellers in the fore-ground are criticising the poor girls, and debating at which house to put up. Neither parties seem in the least ashamed of the part they are performing. This is a truthful every-day scene, sadly illustrative of the remarks we have just made; and we fancy the admirers of the ancient civilisation of Greece and Rome, will in Japan find a strong and living example of the stand point to which those various nations reached.

We have hundreds of sketches made by natives, illustrative of the wayside scenes of Japan. They were not made for the purpose of impressing foreigners with the comfort and well-to-do appearance of the people, any more than of the beauty of the scenery in the interior: yet there is in all a total absence of squalor, misery, or want. Could an artist, in most continental countries of Europe, we ask, sit down and sketch what was passing before him in a street or on a highway, without introducing figures from which one would turn with loathing? Not only does it appear to be otherwise in Japan, but the remarks of European travellers in the interior confirm the fact to a very great degree. We do not in Japan find, as in India, the roadside leading to some great shrine or temple beset with starving disease-stricken pilgrims; neither, as Abbé Huc has recently seen in China, do you meet with the tens of thousands who formerly inhabited some prosperous province, forced by war or famine to leave their home, and marching in quest of sustenance—an army of starving creatures, more dangerous than wild beasts, more destructive, wherever they come, than locusts. Beggars there are in Japan; but it appears to be a lawful institution, not an unpleasant occupation, and kindly supported out of the surplus of their neighbours,—somewhat resembling the religious mendicant societies once so common in Europe. Yet the Japanese mendicants are original: the beggars do not trust to your mere charity to move your heart. If they be old, and fail to move you with the tale of their wants, they immediately, we are told, change from grief to gaiety, and either perform “coach-wheels,” as the London gamin does, or tell you some witty tale, or sing a song,—in short, attest the fact that they are jolly beggars after all, and are ready to earn their penny if you will let them.

The mendicant priesthood of Fusi-hama, men who form their homes in lonely spots or dangerous places around the immortal shrine they worship, who give themselves up to the contemplation of what they believe to be the good and pure, praying ever for the sinning sons and daughters of Nipon, only mortify the flesh by abstaining considerably from ablutions and in forswearing razors; but they have cosey houses burrowed out amongst rocks and forest-covered ravines. Of course they are necromancers; so were our early monks; but these worthy Yamanboos—priests of the mountain—marry and bring up their families of mountaineers, of whom the young lady portions are notorious for their beauty, and would we could say for their virtue also. These children—at least the daughters of the mountain-priests—are born to beg, as mendicants, unless their beauty or talents induce the wealthier sons of the plains to raise them from their humble occupation to be the mistresses of their households. Under the term Bikuni, these pretty damsels travel in pairs, clothed in a dress not unlike that of a sister of charity, and frequenting the great routes which, at certain seasons, are thronged with pilgrims and travellers, these fair nuns are said to seldom beg in vain. The artful hood hides a laughing black eye and rosy cheek, the modest robe covers far too faultless and well developed a form to pass unscathed where warm hearts are untrammeled, in a climate of Italian fervour, by those social rules which we have the Poet Laureate’s authority for saying, “Sin against the strength of youth.”

More than that, love and religion in Japan have a certain mystic connection on which it were not well to dwell. It comes of old, old time, and is not altogether heathenish. We all know how it crops up here and there, as Michelet tells us, amongst the mysteries of Rome, and even sober Protestantism cannot deny that the abodes of love, the Agapemones, are not confined to the neigbourhood of Taunton.

Fling not stones, therefore, most righteous ones, at the poor priestesses of Japan. We, at any rate, shall not, and insist upon the fair Bikuni being allowed to pass in peace until it shall please God to call them to a better form of faith. For, after all, is it worse to touch your heart and sympathies by a pretty face, and a wild mountain chaunt, than to do so by exposing the sores of a Lazarus or the social horrors of a Magdalen? Bikuni, thou art as welcome to our mite as any beggar that ever idled upon the steps of St. Peter’s, or cowered under the shade of Westminster.

The religious element enters so largely into the social condition of the Japanese people that we must allude to some of the different forms of faith and superstition, the distinction being but small. Recent visitors to Yedo, as well as those of olden time, have been struck with the superior condition of the priesthood there as compared with those of China. The attendance in the temples, the orderly and reverent performance of the religious services all attest the fact that, in Japan, there is none of that sad stoical indifference to any faith, to over-ruling Providence, or a future state, which renders the Chinaman such a hopeless object of conversion to Christianity. The old Jesuits who did not love the Japanese priesthood, acknowledged nevertheless that, amongst the higher orders, there were men eloquently impressive in their preachings, and that their rhetoric, logic, as well as good manners and elegance of style—whether in conversation or their writings—was not a little to be admired; in short, that the church of the devil—as they charitably styled the Japanese religion—was quite as well adapted to enlist the feelings and touch the senses of the lower orders as that of Rome.

There is much confusion as to the particular form of faith which might be considered the state religion of Japan; but, so far as we can glean, it appears to be a form of Budhism modified by the Spiritualism of the ancient Sintoo faith. We hear of many orders of priesthood, but those of the highest class are indubitably better educated, more intelligent, and far more respected than in China. They are spoken of as the encouragers of intellectual progress and education, and the natives give them credit as the introducers and inventors of many of their arts and sciences. Next to these stood formerly, and in all probability do still, three or more orders of military clergy, somewhat resembling in character the knightly priesthood of ancient Europe. They are, however, said to be unpopular on account of their turbulence, and of the bad odour they fell into in the sixteenth century, when, by way of checking the progress of Christianity and other innovations, they, to the number of thirty thousand, took up arms against their sovereign, and actually captured the spiritual capital. The Emperor Nebonanga punished them with great severity; but it seems likely that his assassination was brought about by this reactionary party, and that the severities of Taiko-sama and his hostility to Christians arose from a fear of this powerful confederacy of warlike priests. There are other sects of the priesthood, who rigidly abstain from all animal food, and spend a life of penance and mortification. Celibacy, though not general amongst the Japanese priests, is enforced amongst particular sects with severe penalties, incontinence being punished with death. The Ikkois take charge of certain temples, in which hospitality and kindness are carried out to a very profane extent; they never, says a scandalised father, trouble each other or dispute with the citizens upon questions of faith; their temples are the houses of good-fellowship, built in pleasant places; in short, these are the Friars Tuck of Japan. And lastly, we have the mountain priesthood, the Yamanboos before mentioned. All these sects are more or less mendicants; and amongst these thrifty people a system of loans, not gifts to the ministers of their Gods, has been introduced, which is as perfectly unique as the conclusion they arrived at, to prevent a dispute about the colour of the “Evil One” bringing about a schism in the church. Each sect declared the said personage to be of a particular hue; all the churches were by the ears upon the subject, all the authorities at variance; the dispute became serious, and was referred to the emperor; he solved the question with a wisdom worthy of Solomon. The devil, he declared to be of all colours! and we suppose the harlequin attire of the Japanese policeman, as seen to-day, is to remind those who stray from the paths of virtue and the law, that the representative of the many-coloured one will have them unless they mend their ways. But to return to the loans to the Church; it is a standing law amongst the Japanese bonzes that he who lends them cash in this world will receive in the next world the capital and ten per cent. at simple interest. Bills of exchange payable hereafter are duly given to the lender, who carefully preserves them; and it is not unusual for dying persons to leave especial directions as to these bills. They are generally buried with the corpse, in order that principal and interest may be claimed in the other world, as well as to frighten off the Evil One, who is reputed to have a very natural horror of such I.O.U.’s.

Another religious custom of a truly painful nature is often spoken of by all old writers upon Japan, and that is the self-sacrifice of the more enthusiastic priests in their desire to inherit more quickly the blessings of the future state. The neighbourhood of the great religious college of Conay[1] is especially mentioned as the scene of these suicides. The enthusiasts usually announced their intention of proceeding to the other world on a given day, and expressed a willingness to undertake any commissions for departed friends or relatives. They carefully noted down all such messages in books carried for the purpose, they loaded their wallets with alms, and armed themselves with a sharp scythe, to clear the road of the many thorns and briars said to impede the paths to Paradise. Thus equipped, the poor creatures would embark on a deep lake in a small canoe; paddling out a short distance, they attached heavy weights to their bodies, and sprang into the water, whilst their admiring fraternity calmly regarded them as men much to be envied, and took care that the canoe should be burnt with fire, as a vessel too sacred to be ever defiled by being applied to less noble purposes.


  1. This college of Conay appears to be close to the ancient city of Serungo, about half way between Yedo and Osaca. It was visited in 1649 by a Dutch Embassy, who say hither repair all the learned of Japan to dispute in theology and philosophy, and they appear to have witnessed some of these suicidal attempts to reach Paradise.