Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Japanese fragments - Part 7




If the native artist has faithfully pourtrayed horse-breaking in Japan in the accompanying sketch, the early training of those Nipon steeds must partake considerably of our English ideas of human education in the last century, the fortiter in re prevailing considerably over the suaviter in modo. And the system appears in both cases to have been successful in producing hard-mouthed steeds, and obstinate old parties; we in England suffer from the latter, the traveller in the land of the Day Dawn has to encounter the former.

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Horse-breaking in Japan. (Fac-simile.)

Our steeds, though spoilt in the mouth, are in other respects nice little animals, compactly built, hardy, and exhibiting considerable care in breeding, grooming, and stabling. But their appearance is most extraordinary. Two stood before us—one equipped purely à la Japonnaise, which I will first describe; for in the wilder parts of Japan, as well as amongst native travellers who have great distances to go, this is still the usual mode of conveyance, although not considered as honourable as being carried by porters in close boxes called “norimas” and “cangos.” The horse has reins of common blue cotton material, fitted to rather a cruel bit; the reins are split, and hang down on either side for men to lead it by. The animal’s shoes are of straw, plaited—a sort of sandal tied with strings round the lower part of the fetlock; the saddle consists of a simple wooden tree, fastened over a cloth; the saddle-tree has crupper and breast-straps, both highly necessary in so hilly a country. From either side of the saddle-tree hang down two leather flaps. Our servants rush at the poor steed, carrying two huge lacquered boxes, each half as long as the animal; they strap the boxes together in such a way that they hang suspended over the saddle against the flanks of the horse, the two leather flaps before mentioned serving to prevent them rubbing through its ribs. Another trunk is now brought, and placed across the saddle-tree, and partially secured to it. The traveller’s sleeping mat and padded quilt are now spread over all, and tied here and there to boxes, flaps, and saddle-tree. Poor Rozinante looks very like the hobby-horse of an ancient “mysterie”—merely a head, tail, and a deal of drapery. The traveller now mounts, going up, as Mr. Rarey has at last discovered to be the proper way, straight over the shoulder. Our Japanese attendant, however, in doing so, looks much more like an old lady getting up into a four-post bed, than to an Alexander mounting a Bucephalus. Balancing himself carefully on the top of the pile of boxes, and placing his legs where he can find room, our friend now commences to stow away in sundry holes and corners, or to tie to divers strings, an appalling number of articles: yet they are all necessary. First comes the lanthorn; it hangs prominently to the bows, so to speak, of this animated ship. On it our arms or crest have been duly emblazoned. By night there must be a light in it; and whether by night or by day, it announces our rank and dignity to the authorities, police, or fellow-travellers. Then there is a string of the copper coin of the country, far too cumbrous for the pocket; a clothes brush and fly-flap; a paper waterproof coat; a broad-brimmed tile for heavy rain or strong sunlight; and, lastly, a bundle of spare straw shoes for the horse. Thus equipped, with two men to lead, and two more on either side to assist him in preserving his balance, our Japanese friend signs that he is ready. We therefore approach the other animal, which at a short distance looks as if it was just ready to take part in a deadly tilt in Front-de-Bœuf’s castle. Our horse looks warlike enough, but what shall I say of the one of a Japanese noble just arrived? It is indeed a gorgeous creature; its headstall richly ornamented with beautiful specimens of Japanese skill and taste in casting, chasing, and inlaying in copper and bronze, the leather perfectly covered with these ornaments. The frontlet had a golden or gilt horn projecting. The mane was carefully plaited, and worked in with gold and silver as well as silken threads. The saddle, which was a Japanese imitation in leather, lacquer, and inlaid bronze, of those in use amongst the Portuguese and Spaniards in the days of Albuquerque, was a perfect work of art, and only excelled in workmanship, weight, and value by the huge stirrups. The reins were of silk; a rich scarlet net of the same material hung over the animal’s shoulders and crupper. The saddle-cloth was a leopard’s skin; and, lastly, as a perfect finish, the long switch tail was encased in a blue silk bag reaching nearly to the ground; whilst, instead of the shoes being of ordinary straw, they were made of cotton and silk interwoven. Not being either a noble or a prince, we are more modest in our show; but the profusion of ornaments and metal even on our steed’s saddle, stirrups, and headstall, are only to be equalled by the excessive discomfort, indeed pain, of riding far, except in armour, upon such mediæval saddlery. It is time, however, to start; our norimas or palanquins follow ready for use when the sun is higher; the stout porters shoulder the luggage; and away we go. Our attendants, porters, and others in the hostelry, had been most careful to appear in their liveries, consisting of simple blue cotton shirt and trousers, on which a crest or design was stamped here and there; but on the road it was amusing to see how they stripped to their work, and tucked up their trews, showing more flesh than even Lord Lovaine would be inclined to admit in the Royal Academy, much less on a highway. As everybody in Japan appeared to be too well bred to notice what we might have otherwise considered indelicate, we held our peace; yet the contrast between the nigh naked porters and some of the well-dressed, luxuriously equipped parties met on the road was very strange. The Japanese noble or gentleman represented the height of refinement; but his porter or retainer struck one as the embodiment of sensual life—rough, coarse, careless, and fearless. They were well cared for, so far as food went, and that seemed everything to them. I could not help wondering whether our English serfs, or even the retainers of feudal times, were any better. I strongly suspect not. England of the Tudors must have been very like the Japan of to-day. The coarse animal enjoyments of the lower classes in Japan are favourite subjects for the pencils of their artists, some of whom appear to desire to correct the vice by broad exaggerations and Punch-like sketches. Take, for instance, the one (page 387) which is wittily entitled “How Soldiers are fed in Nipon!” Were ever soldiers so fattened up, ever so well entertained? Sigh, ye Guardsmen! Your labours consist of something more than merely preparing your mess, devouring it, and then sitting down to digest it, whilst fanning to cool yourselves. And whatever may have been the experiences of the European soldier or sailor as to the rapid expansion of his body under the effects of good food after short rations, we do not remember to have heard of anything, either in poetry, prose, or illustration, similar to the scene pourtrayed opposite of the Japanese troops arming, after a sojourn in some Capua of rice, fish, and sakee.

On the other hand, if we turn from these coarse, gross retainers, to the children, whether boys or girls, who are playing by the roadside in the villages, we are struck with their beauty, independence, and the care evidently bestowed upon them. The majority have not, it is true, much clothing to boast of, but they evidently, as they play round the strangers, know that no one will hurt them. We are told that the numerous charms hung about them are to ward off the “evil eye”—rather a necessary precaution, when we see the little innocents in close contact with vice in its most rampant form, or such a scene as that before us.

Under a porch, and in an angle by the side of their house, a man and his wife are enjoying a tub of warm water in the open air. He is seated on the rim of the tub with his legs in the water; his wife, a fine buxom young woman, is busy with a bundle of flax, instead of a sponge, rubbing down his back: both are just as they came into the world, and evidently as indifferent to their neighbours as their neighbours are to them. Nobody looks at them, yet it is contrary to our ideas of propriety, and we do not like seeing children in the neighbourhood, but so it is.

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Soldiers arming. (Fac-simile.)

The boys, we are told, are not left to run about in the streets until they grow into men. About seven years of age they are taken in hand by their fathers, or hired masters; hardihood, obedience, and skill in the use of arms is steadily inculcated. They are kept away from women, whether mothers or sisters, who are said to only render them effeminate, and the best schools or colleges are situated in lonely unfrequented places. A knowledge of reading and writing is very general amongst these people, more so we fear than in England, and the gentry take care to finish the education of their sons by severe training in all the forms of etiquette, and above all in their extraordinary code of honour, the sum of which is, that suicide, or “the happy despatch,” by cutting open the stomach, absolves a gentleman from all blame; and if he misconducts himself, or fail in his duty to the state, he may, by self-destruction, save family and connection from shame, and his property from confiscation.

Thoroughly drilled and schooled into this idea, impressed with a deep sense of obedience, the Japanese boy is then put into the world to play his part, and we are not therefore astonished to find that, one day, his ruler can restrain him from gratifying his eager curiosity to see us, by simply stretching a piece of packthread across the end of a street full of a thousand excited creatures; or that, next day, if he is told to do so, he will cut up a European—nay, more, if he be a retainer, at the command of his immediate chief, attack any one, at any personal risk or cost, be he Taikoon, Mikado, or prince.

The future of the Japanese girl playing at our stirrup is far less certain; she has an important part to play, but it is a fearful lottery with her if she be of humble extraction. Those poor girls in the tea-houses, the women in the temples, the attendants in the public gardens, the ranks of the Bikuni, have all to be filled up from the middle and lower classes. They may become famous in Japanese history, for Japanese history recognises its Aspasias, as Greece and Egypt did of old. They may, by their wit or beauty, win the hearts of wealthy men, who will take them for wives, and thus rescue them from their wretched lot. But in Japan, as in Europe, there is a wide, wide difference between the high and low of womankind, though equally gentle, though equally lovely. We have told of the Bikuni, for whom we shall claim the character given them by one whose heart was in the right place; he generously said, “They are as great beauties as one shall see in Japan, yet their behaviour, to all appearance, is modest and free, neither too bold and loose, nor dejected and mean.” The poor girls at the tea-houses we need not dwell upon; their counterparts are found in all lands; but the opposite extreme of the social scale is proportionately refined.

The child of the nobleman—a sketch of one we gave in a previous chapter—is an example of the luxury of those classes. A face of classical beauty, according to Japanese notions, combined with great modesty of expression, black hair turned up and ornamented with long gold pins and scarlet crape flowers, an outer robe of the most costly silk, embroidered in gold and confined at the waist by a scarf, upon which the highest female art has been expended in ornament, and tied in a large bow behind, the ends flowing over a long train formed by seven or eight silk petticoats, each longer and richer than the other. A sailor may pry no farther into the mysteries of female finery! She must be accomplished in music, embroidery, singing, and, above all, in skilfully improvising verses for the delectation of her future lord. Duty, a bundle of keys, weekly accounts, and good housewifery are all very well. They are expected—the Japanese gentleman requires all that; but he wishes, nay, insists upon the marriage-yoke being entwined with roses and padded with the softest silk,—it must not chafe; if it does, off he goes to his club, or, what is nearly as bad, his tea-house. The law allows him to do so, and is he not lord of the land? The consequence is, that Japanese ladies are very accomplished, very beautiful, and bear high characters in all that constitutes charming women; and their admirers, touched with their many attractions, declare in Eastern metaphor, that for such love as theirs the world were indeed well lost.

These lovely creatures do sometimes confer their hands and hearts upon love-lorn swains, and all we pray is that it may never be our lot, like “my Lord Brockhurst,” to be popped down in a palanquin on the dusty highway, because we happen to meet such a royal lady proceeding to meet her future spouse, and have to sit in dust and heat for three long hours whilst her array passes on its way. A proud pageant must be such a cavalcade—attendants on generous steeds, all richly appareled, emblazoned saddles, bridles studded with precious metals, and a body-guard armed with bows and arrows, pikes and muskets; ladies of honour seated in chariots drawn by oxen and horses, adorned with gilded chains and led by numerous lacqueys; the chariots glittering with richest lacquer and painting, the wheels inlaid with mother-of-pearl so as to reflect the sunlight! A royal wedding in Japan must indeed be a brave show! But we are satisfied with the old ambassador’s account of one, and it is possible that, in the present day, there is less pomp and more good sense in royal or princely progresses in Japan, for, so far as our own observation went, there was a singular absence of anything approaching to mere show. Even in Yedo, although great pomp and ceremony were insisted upon in all that related to official or royal affairs, yet, as a general rule, looking up or down the most crowded street, the traveller would be struck with the quiet colours which prevailed in the dress of the people—especially in the men—who were invariably clothed in blue or black, plain or checked, with one exception, and that was in the policemen. They were attired like harlequins, why or wherefore, except to give notice of their presence, we did not learn. These policemen had no arms, except an iron spike about four feet long, with a number of loose rings in a loop at the end, which, jingling together like the alarum of a rattlesnake, warned the unprepared that the representative of the law was at hand. In spite of all these policemen, and of the order by which a crowd was sometimes kept from annoying us, or impeding our progress; in spite of the arrangement by which, in every town or large village, a series of barriers occurred at every two or three hundred yards, with two headboroughs in each space, so as to suddenly shut off the escape of a criminal, or to prevent the rapid extension of tumult, there was, a sense of insecurity arising from the constant presence of armed men, and the fact that every nobleman, and especially the great princes, had in their pay vast bodies of retainers, ready to perform any act of violence if their chief only assumed the responsibility of giving the order.

Japanese government cannot possibly be stronger than that of England used to be when each baron had his own armed retainers, or when every free man and noble walked about with a sword by his side. They are no better, and we believe no worse, and until the Japanese generally disarm, it would, we opine, be as well for our travellers in Japan to be armed likewise. A drunken retainer will be less likely to assail a European when he sees him ready to defend himself, and it is not likely that we should become assailants.

Every Japanese gentleman carries two swords, one somewhat longer than the other, and in the hilt of one of them is inserted a sharp dagger which still remains in his hand, supposing the other weapons fail him. These swords are never parted with; even when seated one is still kept in the belt, the other laid down by the side. The value of these weapons is sometimes enormous, and no foreigner may purchase them without the consent of the authorities, a jealousy said to arise from a belief that Japanese valour and Japanese steel go together. The old Spanish motto upon Toledo blades, “Draw me not without reason, sheathe me not without honour,” has a practical exemplification in Japan. They dislike drawing their swords for mere exhibition: “it was not good to look upon naked swords amongst friends,” as one native remarked at Yedo. This feeling arose from no nervous squeamishness, but rather from a deep sense of the sad frequency of appeals to the sword, and because none of them knew how soon the edge of the sword would be their sharp bridge to another state of existence. Indeed, whilst we are writing, news has reached us of recent appeals to arms in that fair city of Yedo. A hostile prince directed his retainers to cut off one who is at present Regent to the young Taikoon. They failed, although they wounded the Regent, in consequence of the devotion of his own guard. The assailants fled, followed by the Imperial forces. A few only escaped; and mark the desperate valour of these men—as every one of the retreating party fell through wounds or fatigue, their comrades decapitated them in order that no evidence should be forthcoming to inculpate their chief! The next stage in the tragedy is the “happy despatch” of the unsuccessful nobles, and all this in 1859—how very horrid and barbarous, some may say. We reply, go read the History of England, and say how long it is since we emerged from that condition; and remember, we were Christians, these people are not.

There used to be some years ago in Japan a curious custom, which it is possible has in this day ceased to be practised—for even in the East there is a progress—and it illustrated the native valour and generous courage of these people perhaps more strongly than what we have just seen occur in Yedo. When a nobleman had committed a crime worthy of death, he might, if he pleased, instead of disembowelling himself, call upon all his kith and kin to assemble in his abode, and endeavour to hold it by force of arms against the Imperial forces. The fight generally terminated in a great slaughter, yet, strange to say, any of his kinsmen who failed to share in such a mêlée were considered to be dishonoured.

But let us pass on. The sun has risen high, it is rather warm and dusty, and the demi-peak saddle lined with brass not the most pleasant of seats. We call the norima-men to bring that Japanese palanquin within reach, and take refuge in it. It looks heavy, but it is not so, and is constructed of very thin panels of cedar varnished over. The interior is very comfortably furnished, and allows one to lie down with much ease. The pole of the norima is the important feature: it passes over the roof, and by its length and massive proportions our rank is proclaimed. A small humble individual, a short, light pole; a great important personage, a long ponderous one. The laws are very strict upon this head, as far as men are concerned; but the laws are gallant, and allow considerable licence to ladies upon the question of poles to their norimas. Huge as the pole looks, Kæmpfer assures us the materials of which it is artfully constructed, thin slabs of pine or cedar, and much glue, deprive it of its apparent weight. The porters do not appear to heed either it or our weight, and go off at a sharp pace. If we were a Japanese prince, our pole would only rest on the palms of the men’s hands, and they would strut through all the towns in a very quaint, coxcomb-like manner; not being a prince, we are shouldered, and our bearers walk like human beings. We thank Providence, however, that we are sufficiently exalted to be allowed a norima instead of having to travel in the smaller conveyance called a cango—a sort of a bird-cage open at the sides, which by far the major portion of the people we meet on the roads are compelled to be satisfied with. We know what it is to be cramped up in a cango, because in scaling the two or three high ranges of mountain-land between Yedo and Miaco, people of all grades must get into them, in consequence of the steepness and danger of the mountain paths. But how those poor women and men can sit there in the dust, sun, rain, or wind, cramped up with their knees and chins together, through some of the terribly long journeys they have to make, is a perfect mystery. They must be a patient, long-suffering race, or they would have rebelled against it, for by the laws they must travel. Every noble and every official passes annually with all his relatives or retainers to and from the capital. Every governorship, judgeship, and generalship is in duplicate, one at court, the other in office; they relieve each other annually. Then all the shrines have to be visited, and pilgrimages done—in fact, everybody seems to travel more or less in Japan, yet they travel very uncomfortably as far as the vehicles are concerned.

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How Soldiers are Fed in Nipon. (Fac-simile of a sketch from Yedo.) (See p. 384.)

After a short stage in our norima, the general halt is sounded; another post-house receives us, another meal is discussed, and following the general custom of those around us, we all go off for an afternoon’s nap. It is very un-English this custom of sleeping away two hours of the afternoon; the Chinamen don’t do it, yet they appeared to go all to sleep in Yedo during the afternoon. Possibly the custom has been derived from the old Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch visitors: it is not the only point in which we recognise a grafting of European habits on to native ones, and it will be deeply interesting for future visitors to this strange people to note how far their ancient love for European customs has allowed those customs to survive the subsequent persecution and expulsion of the foreigner.

Nigh unto our resting-place a monastery of blind devotees, or monks, or the shrine of some beneficent god or goddess would, in all probability, be found; and it was charming to observe how lively was the faith of these poor islanders, and how well their clergy seemed to be supported, and how rich their temples were in such wealth as the land possessed. In former days, when more of the interior was known, European visitors were struck with the vast wealth of some of these edifices, and their descriptions, supported by Japanese authorities, are truly marvellous. For instance, in the great temple of Miaco the Spanish Ambassador, Don Rodriguez de Vivero, saw such an accumulation of wealth, such a profusion of human wit and ingenuity, as perfectly put to blush all the cathedrals of Europe. The great bell of that Temple weighed alone two million and a quarter Dutch pounds, and so huge was the principal idol—a bronze one—that one of the ambassador’s suite could not embrace the thumb with both hands; 100,000 men were at work on the edifice, and had been for some time, and yet it was still incomplete. Satan, as the worthy Don suggests, could not have invented a shorter way of impoverishing the national exchequer than in the construction of such temples and such idols. In all probability, wars and earthquakes have swept away many of these ancient and wealthy temples; but we shall be curious to read the report of the first traveller who visits Miaco in the present day, and is allowed to see it, and tell us what he has seen. Apart from their wealthy shrines there are many curious ones famous for miracles performed, which would put many to the blush nearer Rome. There is, for instance, at Firando, near our old trading port, a shrine where ladies in a certain condition go to pray that they may be blest with male children. “Oh, give me a boy, great goddess!” they cry, “and I’ll bear him cheerfully even though he be a big one!” On Kin-sin there is another shrine, over a spot where formerly stood a crucifix; the inexhaustible wood of which, if swallowed in a powder, always led to the detection of a thief, by causing him to swell to an inordinate size. Then there are, as in all Buddhist lands, hospitals for dumb creatures, of which the waggish Japanese tell many good stories; especially of that one for dogs, founded by a crazy Taikoon; and how, one hot day, when two honest porters were carrying to the cemetery the carcase of a brute, “Friend,” quoth one, as they toiled up the hill side, “this is rascally work for human beings. Hang the Taikoon and his love for dogs! I wish he was here to carry about dead ones!” “Hush!” replied his comrade, “we are born to obey, and Taikoons to do as they please. Let us only thank Buddah that our ruler did not take it into his head to make a hospital for horses! Fancy what it would have been to carry one of them to its grave on such a day!”

Thus, there is no lack of interest, wit, and fun, even by the wayside in Japan, and without taking our readers for another day’s journey, we think we have said enough to excite the curiosity of future adventurous travellers, and to encourage them to strive to open to our modern ken this strange land and wonderful people, who, believe me, in spite of their hot tempers and sharp swords, are anything but savages, and whose country, although it has no butchers’ shops whither to send for your pound of beef-steaks or mutton-chops, and although it is occasionally shaken by earthquakes, is a pleasant place of sojourn notwithstanding.