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Japanese People (Characteristics of the). Any account of the characteristics of a people must deal with two main points, namely, physical characteristics and mental characteristics. We will first say a few words about the physical characteristics, referring those who desire exhaustive information to Dr. Baelz's admirable monograph entitled Die Körperlichen Eigenschaften der Japaner, printed in Parts 28 and 32 of the "German Asiatic Transactions.

I. Physical Characteristics. As stated in the Article entitled Race, the Japanese are Mongols, that is, they are distinguished by a yellowish skin, straight black hair, scanty beard, almost total absence of hair on the arms, legs, and chest, broadish prominent cheek-bones, and more or less obliquely set eyes. These, with the other characteristics to be mentioned presently, are common both to the more slenderly built, oval-faced aristocracy, and to pudding-faced Gombei, the "Hodge" of Japanese Arcadia. Compared with people of European race, the average Japanese has a long body and short legs, a large skull with a tendency to prognathism (projecting jaws), a flat nose, coarse hair, scanty eye-lashes, puffy eyelids, a sallow complexion, and a low stature. The average stature of Japanese men is about the same as the average stature of European women. The women are proportionately smaller. The lower classes are mostly strong, with well-developed arms, legs, and chests. The upper classes are too often weakly.

The above description will perhaps not be considered flattering. But it is not ours; it is the doctors. Then, too, ideals of beauty differ from land to land. We Anglo-Saxons consider ourselves a handsome race. But what are we still, in the eyes of the majority of the Japanese people, but a set of big, red, hairy barbarians with green eyes?

The Japanese women are, on the whole, better-looking than the men, and have, besides, pretty manners and charming voices.[1] Village beauties are rare, most girls of the lower class with any pretentions to good looks being, as it would seem, sent out to service at tea-houses in the towns, or else early obtaining husbands. Japanese children, with their dainty little ways and old-fashioned appearance, always insinuate themselves into the affections of foreign visitors. Old and young alike are remarkable for quietness of demeanour. The gesticulations of a southern European fill them with amazement, not to say contempt, and fidgeting of every kind is foreign to their nature.

The Japanese age earlier than we do. It has also been asserted that they are less long-lived; but this is doubtful. If statistics may be trusted, the number of octogenarians, nonagenarians, and even centenarians is fairly high. In Japan, as in other countries, the number of very old women considerably exceeds that of the very old men. The diseases which make most havoc are consumption, disease of the digestive organs, and the peculiar affection called kakke, of which an account will be found in a separate article. The Japanese have less highly strung nerves than we Europeans, Hence they endure pain more calmly, and meet death with comparative indifference.[2]

II. Mental Characteristics. The tape-line, the weighing-machine, the craniometer, and the hospital returns give means of ascertaining a nation's physical characteristics? which almost any one can apply and which none may dispute. Far different is it when we try to gauge the phenomena of mind. Does a new comer venture on the task? He is set down as a sciolist, a man without experience the one thing declared needful. Does an old resident hold forth, expecting his experience to command attention? The Globe-trotter journalisticus from London, or may be the cultured Bostonian literary critic, jumps upon him, tells him that living too long in one place has given him mental myopia, in other words has rendered his judgment prejudiced and worthless. The late Mr. Gifford Palgrave said, in the present writer's hearing, that an eight weeks residence was the precise time qualifying an intelligent man to write about Japan. A briefer period (such was his ruling) was sure to produce superficiality, while a longer period induced a wrong mental focus. By a curious coincidence, eight weeks was the exact space of time during which that brilliant conversationalist and writer had been in Japan when he delivered himself of this oracle.

Again, are you in the Japanese service, and do you praise Japan? Then you must be a sycophant. Do you find fault with it? "Ah! don't you know?" it will be said, "when they renewed his engagement the other day, they cut his salary down $50 a month." Worst of all is it if you are a Yokohama merchant. Then you are informed flatly that you are an ignoramus, a "dollar-grinder," and that, as you never see any Japanese of the better class, but only coolies and hucksters, what you are pleased to call your opinion is a mere impertinence worth less than nothing.

All things considered, the would-be critic of Japanese mind, manners, and morals has a thankless task before him. The present writer feels that he cannot hope to escape being classed in some one or other of the above-named categories of pariahs not fit to have an opinion of their own. He has, therefore, decided to express none at all, but simply to quote the opinions of others. Perhaps he may thus avoid blame and unpleasantness. He has chosen the opinions impartially, or rather he has not chosen them, but taken them at random from his commonplace-book. He has not, it is true, thought fit to include all or any of the absurdities of the casual passer-by;—one French count, for instance, a stripling of twenty, who spent just three months in the country and then wrote a book about it, sums up his acquired wisdom in the tremendous assertion, "Le japonais n'est pas intelligent." Of trash of this kind there is enough to fill many volumes. But who would care to wade through it? The opinions which we quote will be seen to be in some cases judgments of the people, in others judgments of the country. But it is not practicable to separate one class from the other:—

"This nation is the delight of my soul." (St. Francis Xavier, middle of sixteenth century.)

"The people of this Iland of Iapon are good of nature, curteous aboue measure and valiant in warre: their justice is seuerely executed without any partialitie vpon transgressors of the law. They are gouerned in great ciuilitie. I meane, not a land better gouerned in the world by ciuill policie. The people be verie superstitious in their religion, and are of diuers opinions."—This last sentence does not fit the present day. No one now accuses the Japanese of superstitious religionism. Our author is again in touch with modern times when he speaks of "the peopell veri subject to thear gouvernours and superiores." (Will Adams, early in the seventeenth century.)

"Bold,… heroic,… revengeful,… desirous of fame,… very industrious and enured to hardships,… great lovers of civility and good manners, and very nice in keeping themselves, their cloaths and houses, clean and neat… As to all sorts, of handicrafts, either curious or useful, they are wanting neither proper materials, nor industry and application, and so far is it, that they should have any occasion to send for masters from abroad, that they rather exceed all other nations in ingenuity and neatness of workmanship, particularly in brass, gold, silver and copper… Now if we proceed farther to consider the Japanese, with regard to sciences and the embellishments of our mind, Philosophy perhaps will be found wanting. The Japanese indeed are not so far enemies to this Science, as to banish the Country those who cultivate it, but they think it an amusement proper for monasteries, where the monks leading an idle lazy life, have little else to trouble their heads about. However, this relates chiefly to the speculative part, for as to the moral part, they hold it in great esteem, as being of a higher and divine origin I confess indeed, that they are wholly ignorant of musick, so far as it is a science built upon certain precepts of harmony. They like wise know nothing of mathematicks, more especially of its deeper and speculative parts. No body ever cultivated these sciences but we Europeans, nor did any other nations endeavour to embellish the mind with the clear light of mathematical and demonstrative reasoning They profess a great respect and veneration for their Gods, and worship them in various ways: And I think I may affirm, that in the practice of virtue, in purity of life, and outward devotion, they far out-do the Christians: Careful for the Salvation of their Souls, scrupulous to excess in the expiation of their crimes, and extremely desirous of future happiness. Their Laws and Constitutions are excellent, and strictly observed, severe penalties being put upon the least transgression of any. (Engelbert Kaempfer, end of seventeenth century.)

Sir Rutherford Alcock, one of the most acute writers on Japan, is also one of the most difficult to quote, as his whole book, The Capital of the Tycoon, is one continued criticism of the Japan of his time (about 1860), and one would like to transcribe it all. Here are a couple of his witty sayings:

"(Japan) is a very paradise of babies."—"There is a mistake somewhere, and the result is that in one of the most beautiful and fertile countries in the whole world the flowers have no scent, the birds no song,[3] and the fruit and vegetables no flavour.

Sir Rutherford speaks, in his preface, of "the incorrigible tendency of the Japanese to withhold from foreigners or disguise the truth on all matters great and small." Yet he allows that they are "a nation of thirty millions of as industrious, kindly, and well-disposed people as any in the world." Their art, too, rouses his admiration, though he makes a reservation to the effect that there are some departments in which they have failed to produce anything to be named in the same day with the masterpieces of the great artists of Europe." Perhaps in nothing," says he. "are the Japanese to be more admired than for the wonderful genius they display in arriving at the greatest possible results with the simplest means, and the smallest possible expenditure of time and labour or material. The tools by which they produce their finest works are the simplest, and often the rudest that can be conceived. Wherever in the fields or the workshops nature supplies a force, the Japanese is sure to lay it under contribution, and make it do his work with the least expense to himself of time, money, and labour. To such a pitch of perfection is this carried, that it strikes every observer as one of the moral characteristics of the race, indicating no mean degree of intellectual capacity and cultivation."

"A brave, courteous, light-hearted, pleasure-loving people, sentimental rather than passionate, witty and humorous, of nimble apprehension, but not profound; ingenious and inventive, but hardly capable of high intellectual achievement; of receptive minds endowed with a voracious appetite for knowledge; with a turn for neatness and elegance of expression, but seldom or never rising to sublimity."—But he adds, "The Japanese are never contented with simple borrowing. In art, political institutions, and even religion, they are in the habit of modifying extensively everything which they adopt from others, and impressing on it the stamp of the national mind." (W. G. Aston, in A History of Japanese Literature.)

Rev. C. Munzinger, who has striven with considerable success, in his work entitled Die Japaner, to cover the whole field of a criticism of the Japanese mind and of Japanese intellectual, social, and religious life, arrives at conclusions closely similar:—"Great talent, but little genius." "Martha rather than Mary,—busy, deft, practical, somewhat superficial withal, not deep, not given to introspection." "Extraordinarily perspicacious, not profoundly contemplative." "Highly ethical, not highly religious." "An intellectual life mechanical rather than organic." And Japonisation, that is, the method whereby native insufficiency is made good by loans from abroad, is "a radical process, in which little is bent and much is broken,… a process rather of accommodation than of assimilation." Nevertheless, and "with all his lack of originality, the Japanese is a strongly marked individuality, which refuses to rest permanently content with foreign importations in their foreign shape."

"The lack of originality of the Japanese is very striking after one has got over one's first dazzle at strange antipodal sights. Modification of foreign motif, modification always artistic, and at times delightfully ingenious, marks the extent of Japanese originality… A general incapacity for abstract ideas is another marked trait of the Japanese mind… Lastly, the decorous demeanor of the whole nation betrays the lack of mental activity beneath. For it is not rules that make the character, but character that makes the rules. No energetic mind could be bound by so exquisitely exacting an etiquette." (Percival Lowell, in Occult Japan.}

"We should say … that the most striking quality of the Japanese is precocity, that the keenness of their perceptions is far in advance of the soundness of their judgments, that their minds, or rather the minds of their leading classes, are always on the rush, that they receive ideas and lay aside ideas much as acute youngsters do … The Japanese upper class strike us, in fact, as the undergraduates of the human family, clever, enjoying, and full of 'go,' but as yet immature … They love change for the sake of change, take up ideas because they are startling to their seniors or to their Government or to themselves, and suffer none of them to really dye their minds with any permanent colour … They are open to all teachings, which, however, go about one inch deep … They devise a constitution which does not work, except so far as it is sustained by the old fact of the Mikado's authority; they start a press which discusses everything in the spirit of an undergraduate's wine-party; they even adopt a new costume and live in constricting uniforms before the majority have given up the habit of living in a loin-cloth … [The Japanese] has an enormous respect for the words of ancient philosophers and European writers, will quote them, as our countrymen quote proverbs, as if they ended discussion; but he does not all the while absorb this wisdom, and will pass from believing in, say, St. Augustine, to believing in, say, Mr. Grant Allen at a bound, and with no sense that he is exhibiting volatility of intellect." (From an article in the Spectator of the 5th December, 1896, founded on numerous appreciations forwarded by a twenty years resident.)

Pierre Loti, in his Madame Chrysanthème and Japoneries d'Automne, emphasises over and over again one particular aspect of Japanese life—its smallness, its quaintness, its comicality. Here are just a few samples of the adjectives which he sows broadcast over his pages, almost exhausting the resources of the French language in that direction: petit, bizarre, disparate, heterogéne, invraisemblable, mignon, bariolé, extravagant, inimaginable, fréle, monstrueux, grotesque, mivré, exotique, lilliputien, minuscule, manieré, etc., etc. The houses are all maisonnettes; each garden is, not a jardin, but a jardinet, each meal a dínette, each inscription a griffonnage. The Kobe-Kyōto railway is un dróle de petit chemin de fer, qui n'a pas l'air serieux, qui fait l'effet d'une chose pour rire, comme toutes les choses japonaises.—Doubtless there is an element of truth in all this. Query: is it the whole truth? Pierre Loti's final and sweeping condemnation of Japan, as he was preparing to set sail, is as follows: "Je le trouve petit, vieillot, à bout de sang et à bout de sève; j'ai conscience de son antiquité antèdiluvienne; de sa momification de tant de siecles, qui va bientót finir dans le grotesque et la bouffonnerie pitoyable, au contact des nouveautés d'occident." Such criticism, published sixteen years ago, reads oddly nowadays. Instead of Japan being at fault, it was her French detractor whose self-centred, unsympathetic attitude rendered him unfit for the comprehension of a highly complex subject.

Mr. Walter Dening, whose acquaintance with modern Japanese literature and with the men who produce it is probably unrivalled, writes as follows:

"It is well-known that one of the most marked characteristics of the Japanese mind is its lack of interest in metaphysical, psychological, and ethical controversy of all kinds. It is seldom you can get them to pay sufficient attention to such questions to admit of their understanding even their main outlines." And again:—

"Neither their past history nor their prevailing tastes show any tendency to idealism. They are lovers of the practical and the real: neither the fancies of Goethe nor the reveries of Hegel are to their liking. Our poetry and our philosophy and the mind that appreciates them are alike the result of a network of subtle influences to which the Japanese are comparative strangers. It is maintained by some, and we think justly, that the lack of idealism in the Japanese mind renders the life of even the most cultivated a mechanical, humdrum affair when compared with that of Westerns. The Japanese cannot understand why our controversialists should wax so fervent over psychological, ethical, religious, and philosophical questions, failing to perceive that this fervency is the result of the intense interest taken in such subjects. The charms that the cultured Western mind finds in the world of fancy and romance, in questions themselves, irrespective of their practical bearings, is for the most part unintelligible to the Japanese."

Dr. Bussse, in his elaborate essay on the Japanese ethical literature of the present day, complains of the want of thoroughness, of insight, and of original thought which inclines the leaders of Japanese opinion to a superficial eclecticism. They attack problems, says he, with a light heart, because not appreciating their true difficulty.

A careful and fair-minded writer says, speaking of the danger run by Japan from European aggression during the first years of renewed intercourse: "She was saved by the possession of a remarkable combination of national characteristics, the powers of observation, of appreciation, and of imitation. In a word, her sensitiveness to her environment and her readiness to respond to it proved to be her salvation," He also repeatedly asserts the Japanese to be "an emotional people." The whole trend of his argument however, goes to minimise racial divergences and special aptitudes or failings. "The differences," he writes, "which separate the Oriental from the Occidental mind are infinitesimal as compared with the likenesses which unite them." (Rev. S. L. Gulick, in Evolution of the Japanese.}

In discussing their Japanese neighbours, the foreign residents frequently advert to the matter-of-fact way of looking at things which characterises all the nations that have come under Chinese influence. The Editor of the "Japan Mail" has drawn an acute distinction between the matter-of-fact Japanese and the practical European, instancing the calculations of a pamphleteer anent a projected line of railway, the probable yearly profits of which were worked out to decimals of a cent! The matter-of-fact Japanese calculator simply transferred to his pamphlet the figures that came out on his abacus. The practical (because also theoretical) European knows that such apparent exactness is illusory. We have ourselves often seen, when travelling through various provinces of Japan, the distances along roads (in one instance across a wide strait of the sea) given, not only down to feet, but down to inches!

Here are two or three shorter dicta on the land and its people:—

"The land of disappointments." (An Old Resident in the Japanese service.)

"They impress me as the ugliest and the most pleasing people I have ever seen, as well as the neatest and most ingenious." (Mrs. Bishop, in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.)

"The land of gentle manners and fantastic arts." (Sir Edwin Arnold.) The same author says of the Japanese: "They have the nature rather of birds or butterflies than of ordinary human beings … They will not and cannot take life au grand sérieux." (!!)

People are fond of drawing comparisons between the Chinese and the Japanese. Almost all seem agreed that the Japanese are much the pleasanter race to live with,—clean, kindly, artistic. On the other hand, the Chinese are universally allowed to be far more trustworthy. "I know," says Sir Ewen Cameron, late Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Shanghai, "of no people in the world I would sooner trust than the Chinese merchant or banker For the last twenty-five years the bank has been doing a very large business with Chinese in Shanghai, amounting, I should say, to hundreds of millions of taels, and we have never met with a defaulting Chinaman." Or listen (we cull at random one more testimony from among a hundred) to Mr. J. Howard Gwyther, chairman of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China. Speaking in 1900 at the half-yearly general meeting of the bank in London, that gentleman said: "I take this opportunity of stating that the bank has had very extensive dealings with Chinese traders, and has always found them reliable and honest. By their integrity and solvency they have shown a bright example to other mercantile communities." Mr. T. R. Jernigan, ex-Consul-General of the United States at Shanghai, expresses himself in almost identical terms in his work entitled China's Business Methods and Policy, published in 1904.—Woefully different from this is the tale told by the European bankers and merchants in Japan. They complain, it is true, not so much of actual, wilful dishonesty—though of that, too, they affirm there is plenty—as of pettiness, constant shilly-shallying, unbusinesslikeness almost passing belief. Hence the wide divergence between the impressions of the holiday-making tourist, and the opinions formed by the commercial communities at the open ports. Japan, the globe-trotter's paradise, is also the grave of the merchant's hopes. Another deep-seated difference between the Chinese and the Japanese is that the former have race pride, the latter national vanity. The Chinese care nothing for China as a political unit, an abstraction, an ideal to die for if need be; but they are nevertheless inalienably wedded to every detail of their ancestral civilisation. The Japanese, though they have twice, at intervals of a millennium, thrown everything national overboard, are intense nationalists in the abstract. In fact, patriotism may be said to be their sole remaining ideal. No Chinaman but glories in the outward badges of his race; no Japanese but would be delighted to pass for a European in order to beat Europeans on their own ground. The Japanese, too, are brave almost beyond the limits of practicality. The Chinese, eminently practical folks, follow the doctrine that

He who fights and runs away,
May live to fight another day.

The characteristic in which the Chinese and Japanese most agree (and other Far-Eastern peoples—the Koreans for example—agree in it also) is materialism. That is where the false note is struck, which, when long residence has produced familiarity, jars on European nerves and prevents true intellectual sympathy.

One more quotation only. It is from the Rev. G. M. Meachan, a missionary of many years standing, and epitomises what hundreds of residents have thought and said:—

"A few months do not suffice to give a correct understanding of the situation, though the visitor should enjoy the kind attention and guidance of high officials. There are perhaps no people under heaven who know better the happy art of entertaining their guests, and none perhaps who succeed better in preoccupying them with their views. Indeed, the universal experience of those who remain long enough in this country to see beneath the surface is that first impressions are very deceitful."

To sum up: the average judgment formed by those who have lived some time among the Japanese, seems to resolve itself into three principal items on the credit side, which are cleanliness, kindliness, and a refined artistic taste, and three items on the debit side, namely, vanity, unbusinesslike habits, and an incapacity for appreciating abstract ideas.

As for the imitativeness which strikes all observers, we hesitate to which side of the account to pass it. Most persons seem to blame it as a symptom of intellectual inferiority: they term it lack of originality. By some we have heard it commended as a proof of practical wisdom in a world where most ideas of any value have been ventilated already. Whether it be good or bad, one cannot but marvel at seeing into what finicky details imitation is carried. This will strike even a new-comer, but it impresses itself on an old hand with ever-increasing force. We remember, for example, that some years ago the question was gravely debated as to whether the custom of "April fool" should or should not be introduced into Japan! That particular suggestion happens to have been rejected; but the fact of its being mooted at all may serve to instance the extraordinary lengths to which the passion for adopting things foreign has been pushed.

So far this little symposium on the mental characteristics of the Japanese. Any one who thinks it not full enough or not representative enough, is earnestly requested to supplement it, either from his personal experience or from his reading. For our own part, we cannot but -feel surprise at the way in which, like sheep jumping over a fence, one writer after another has enlarged on certain traits as characteristic of the Japanese nation, which history shows to be characteristic merely of the stage through which the nation is now passing. Their modern fervour of loyalty is a good case in point:—Europe manifested exactly the same symptom on her emergence from feudalism.

Just one consideration more: how do our characteristics strike the Japanese? From hints dropped by several of the educated, and from the still more interesting, because frankly naive, remarks made by Japanese servants whom the present writer has taken with him to Europe at different times, he thinks he may state that the travelled Japanese consider our three most prominent characteristics to be dirt, laziness, and superstition. As to the comparative dirtiness, there can be no doubt in any unprejudiced mind. You yourself, honoured Madam, of course take your tub regularly every morning. But are you so sure that your butler, your coachman, even your lady's maid, as regularly take theirs? Again, what is a stranger who hails from a land of fifteen working hours daily and of well-nigh three hundred and sixty-five working days yearly, to conclude from the habits of European artisans and servants, from post-offices closed on Sundays either totally or during portions of the day, etc., etc.? With regard to superstition, that is a matter of individual opinion. Of our poetry, our music, our metaphysics, our interest in all manner of things scattered over the two worlds of sense and thought, the Japanese visitor to Western lands can naturally notice little and appreciate less. Neither our pictures nor our cathedrals touch any chord in his heart. On the other hand, all our materially useful inventions are already shared by his countrymen, who work them—if not quite as well—at any rate more cheaply than we do, and in ways more suitable to their peculiar needs. For all these and yet other reasons, Europe and America make a far less favourable impression on the Japanese visitor than seems to be generally expected. Be he statesman or be he valet, he is apt to return to his native land more patriotic than he left it. (See also Article on Woman.)

Books recommended. Evolution of the Japanese, by Rev. S. L. Gulick.—The Soul of the Far East, by Percival Lowell—Die Japaner, by Rev. C. Munzinger. Excepting a short paper by Walter Dening, in Vol. XIX. of the Asiatic Transactions, we are acquainted with no other works treating explicitly of the mental characteristics of the Japanese: but Aston's History of Japanese Literature and Lafcadio Hearn's books are perfect mines for the enquirer to dig in. To residents in Japan the Rev. Arthur H. Smith's somewhat sombre book, entitled Chinese Characteristics, should prove fruitful reading, by way both of likeness and of contrast.


  1. For a detailed analysis of the Japanese standard of female beauty, see Miss Bacon's Japanese Girls and Women, pp. 58—60, where also the true remark is made that foreigners long resident in Japan find their standard gradually change, "and see, to their own surprise, that their countrywomen look ungainly, fierce, aggressive and awkward among the small, mild, shrinking, and graceful Japanese ladies."
  2. We have classed indifference to death among the physical characteristics, because none can doubt that a less sensitive nervous system must at least tend in that direction. It is possible, however, that opinions and beliefs have had some influence in the matter. Most Japanese are either agnostics looking forward to no hereafter, or they are Buddhists; and Buddhism is a tolerant, hopeful creed, promising rest at last to all, even though it may have to be purchased by the wicked at the price of numerous transmigrations. Christianity, on the other hand, with its terrible doctrine of final and hopeless perdition, may have steeped in a still more sombre hue the naturally excitable and self-questioning European mind. The Greeks and Romans appear to have faced death with an indifference to which few moderns can attain.
  3. How often, we wonder, has this strange error been repeated? We should like to take those who still credit it out upon the moors of almost any Japanese province in springtime, and let them listen to the carolling of the larks and the nightingales, or into the woods that re-echo with the note of the cuckoo and other songsters. As for Japanese flowers lacking scent, what of the fragrant plum-blossom, the cassia-tree, the lilies, jonquils, wild roses, and many more?