Taste. Japanese taste in painting, in house decoration, in all matters depending on line and form, may be summed up in one word—sobriety. The bluster which mistakes bigness for greatness, the vulgarity which smothers beauty under ostentation and extravagance, have no place in the Japanese way of thinking. The alcove of a Tōkyō or Kyōto drawing-room holds one picture and one flower-vase, which are changed from time to time. To be sure, picture and vase are alike exquisite. The possessions of the master of the house are not sown broadcast, as much as to say, "Look what a lot of expensive articles I've got, and just think how jolly rich I must be!" He does not stick up plates on walls:—plates are meant to hold food. He would not, whatever might be his means, waste £1000, or £100, or even £20, on the flowers for a single party:—flowers are simple things, perishable things; it is incongruous to lavish on them sums that would procure precious stones for heirlooms. And how this moderation makes for happiness! The rich not being blatant, the poor are not abject; in fact, though poverty exists, pauperism does not. A genuine spirit of equality pervades society.
When will Europe learn afresh from Japan that lesson of proportion, of fitness, of sobriety, which Greece once knew so well? When will America learn it,—the land our grandfathers used to credit with republican simplicity, but which we of the present age have come to connect with the idea of a bombastic luxury, comparable only to the extravagances of Rome when Rome's moral fibre was beginning to be relaxed? But it seems likely that instead of Japan's converting us, we shall pervert Japan. Contact has already tainted the dress, the houses, the pictures, the life generally, of the upper class. It is to the common people that one must now go for the old tradition of sober beauty and proportion. You want flowers arranged? Ask your house-coolie. There is something wrong in the way the garden is laid out? It looks too formal, and yet your pro posed alterations would turn it into a formless maze? Call in the cook or the washerman as counsellor.
To tell the whole truth, however, the Japanese have not escaped the defects of their qualities. Their sobriety tends to degenerate into littleness. Grandeur in any shape, rugged mountain ranges, the storm-tossed sea, wide sweeps of moorland, make no deep impression on them. They love to expatiate on the natural beauties of their country. Nevertheless, with so much to choose from, their taste in almost every instance singles out views of limited extent and a kind of polished loveliness partly dependent on human aid. In short, they admire scenes, not scenery. He who has visited Matsushima, the "Plains of Heaven" near Yokohama, or any other widely celebrated spot, will appreciate what we mean. Again, they do not set their houses on heights commanding distant prospects. They build preferably on the flat or in a hollow, where the fence of their dainty garden shuts off the outer world.