Japan was an empire of eastern Asia, and one of the great powers of the world. The situation of the Japanese archipelago of four large and nearly 4,000 small islands, off the eastern coast of temperate Asia, is similar to that of the British Isles off the western coast of Europe. Its area of 175,540 square miles is one-fifth greater, its population of 51,000,000 one fourth more.
Its climate, running from the Tropic of Cancer to 50° north, is one of wider range, while its more varied surface gives it greater extremes of heat and cold in every part. The separation from the mainland, on the crest of a 900 mile-long, crescent-shaped mountain-chain that rises from the bed of the ocean, has deeply imbued an imaginative people with a sense of special creation. This colors their literature and art; their manners and customs and religion, and nourishes a fanatical patriotism.
The island empire has an almost uncanny beauty of plain and valley; guarded by wooded ridges, watered by cascades, overlooked by the sacred, snowy peak of Fujiyama, flooded annually by rains and warmed by genial suns that awake myriads of flowers and butterflies, and girded by wide defensive seas.
The early history of the Japanese, as of all ancient peoples, is shrouded in myth. Like the Greeks and Egyptians their origin is ascribed to deities, and the pedigree of the present reigning family is traced back to the sun-goddess. The emperor Jimmu, 600 B. C. is considered an historical personage. It was not until the 10th century of our era, however, that true historic records began to be kept. The Buddhist religion, the literary language and printing, with many of the arts of Japan, were introduced from China. But the political system was a native, free evolution, unaffected by outside influence.
Originally the active rulers, the mikados gradually resigned leadership to a military chieftain or shogun, they retaining their prerogatives and semi-sacred character in a life of enervating seclusion. Japan became a hermit-empire, the inhabitants forbidden to leave the country under pain of terrible punishments. Until 1543 communication was held only with China and Korea. For nearly a century thereafter the Portuguese and the Dutch East India Company carried on a precarious trade with Nagasaki. But from 1638 to 1854 no foreign vessel anchored in any other harbor of Japan.
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In these two centuries the emperor was a sacred recluse in the temple-palace at Kioto, the shogun military dictator in Yedo (now Tokyo). Troops were supplied by 250 daimios or feudal lords of great estates, each of whom had bodies of armed retainers known as the samurai. Shogun, daimio and samurai became hereditary in families and formed a military class that dominated the empire. The mass of the people were agricultural laborers and artizans. Protected by their masters, unable to leave the estate where they were born, unhurried, undisturbed by the wars of clans, all their original genius and aspirations were turned back on their work.
They acquired monumental patience, tactile skill and an exquisite exuberance of fancy that fills the world with wondering admiration of their work to-day. It was in the middle ages of Europe that the artist was set free in the artizans who built the great cathedrals and filled them with paintings and sculptures. So not all was evil in Japan’s hermit centuries that brought a dozen native arts to such perfection. Unnoted, these millions of nameless toilers filled the land with splendor, while the sacred mikados dozed away the idle generations.
At Kioto the shoguns became dictators and the daimios rebelled against their despotic rule. Since the daimios furnished the revenue and the soldiers, they demanded a voice in affairs, as did the nobles of England when they wrested Magna Charta from King John. Five centuries in arrears with Europe, Japan was enacting the drama of civilization. With brief intervals of quiet the country was in a state of civil war from 1603 to 1854 without dislodging the shogun, because the daimios could never stop fighting each other long enough to unite against the common enemy. He was tottering to a fall, however, when Commodore Perry, U. S. N., arrived in Tokyo in a war-vessel (1854), and demanded that the harbor be opened to American trade.
Mr. Townsend Harris, the first American envoy, had a letter from President Fillmore which he refused to deliver to anyone but the ruler of the land who was thought to be the shogun. Then Admiral Stirling steamed into Nagasaki with Lord Elgin aboard to present English demands. The shogun saw an opportunity to bolster his rickety throne by concessions to these foreign invaders. This so incensed the daimios that the land burst into a conflagration of revolution. Within the next 10 years 18 nations forced an entrance into Japan. The powers at length discovered that they,had been hoaxed and that the sun and center of authority was in the hermit emperor at Kioto. Their support withdrawn, the shogun abdicated, and 16 year old Mutsuhito was swept out of his spiritual retreat and onto a very temporal throne in Tokyo. See Mutsuhito.
The history of modern Japan dates from 1868, the "Era of Enlightened Peace" as it is known to the Japanese. The 15 years since the western powers forced an entrance had united the country, brought forward a number of remarkable men and fitted them for the task of reorganizing the empire. That Japan was far advanced toward political and social changes at the time was shown by the instant advantage taken of the favorable opportunity. Incensed by the foreign invasion, but far from being frightened by it and, indeed, accepting it and determined to turn it to Japan’s advantage, scores of daring young nobles stole out of the country in the 50’s, a thing still forbidden. In the spirit of scientific explorers they went to observe the occidental world. They travelled, attended colleges, studied governments, inventions and institutions. There seemed no bias of prejudice in their minds that prevented the appropriation of any idea or device useful to them. In a dozen years they returned to Japan to lead the revolution and to form the mind of their holy recluse, the young emperor. Needing time and peace more than independence to mature their plans, they submitted with misleading docility to the impositions demanded by the powers, for a quarter of a century, until they were strong enough to strike a blow for liberty and to win the respect of the modern world.
The first thing the boy-emperor did was to receive the foreign envoys and to permit consuls to reside in the treaty-ports. The second was to appoint Japanese representatives in foreign capitals and ports with instructions to keep their eyes open and report all they saw. Next, he rode through the capital in an open palanquin, and forbade even a coolie to prostrate himself. Then he announced his intention of establishing a constitutional, representative government as soon as the people should be educated in the system of public schools to be opened. The next year he called the daimios to Tokyo and demanded of them, as a patriotic duty, that they give up their feudal estates, titles and privileges, and release their samurai to form a national standing army. This was a bitter dose, and the daimios did not all swallow it willingly. None the less the thing was done, with the result that Japan, like Germany almost simultaneously (1871) became a strong, centralized empire by a federation of states, A new nobility in five orders (princes, then marquises, counts, viscounts and barons) was created from complaisant daimios, including the chastened shogun, and from the patriots and statesmen who formed the new empire. These were to make up the membership of the house of peers under the constitutional government.
The promises made in that trying, formative time were carried out to the letter. For 22 years the emperor remained, in theory, an autocratic ruler, but in fact he acted under the advice of the imperial council, and the machinery of a modern government was installed a wheel at a time. Within a few years courts of justice were established, and public schools from kindergartens to a university were opened. The army was organized on the model of that of Germany; the navy after that of Great Britain; the department of justice and police system after that of France. The United States and England furnished the pattern for the constitution, the model for the legislative and executive functions of government. In 1875 an appointive, deliberative body was formed to discuss measures and make recommendations to the emperor and his council. It served as a school to educate future legislators. In 1890 the constitution, on which Marquis Ito and the elder statesmen had worked for 10 years, was proclaimed, and the first election ordered. The franchise was not universal, but was restricted by educational and property requirements. It is being extended gradually. The first parliament was opened with 364 peers and 375 members of the House of Representatives. Marquis Ito was called to form a new cabinet in harmony with the people’s will.
It was 1895 before the disabilities imposed by foreign powers were removed and Japan had full, internal jurisdiction or adequate revenues. Earthquake, floods and failures of the rice-crop visited her. A war with China was fought to a successful issue, but aside from greater internal independence her victory brought her little advantage. She secured the cession of Formosa and the Pescadore Islands, but the great powers united to check her ambition on the mainland. She was forced to abandon Shantung province, which she had conquered, and the fortified peninsula of Port Arthur, which she had carried by brilliant assault. Within two years, through treaties, Russia occupied Manchuria and was entrenched in Port Arthur, and England and Germany were in Shantung, the three controlling the Gulf of Pechili, the approach to Pekin. Japan felt that her national existence was threatened. But government and people were so quiet that the western world thought her helpless and acquiescent. Viewed in the light of after events 50,000,000 people now seem to have been in a conspiracy of silence during 10 long years of preparation for war. Russia was the only power whose occupation of Chinese territory was backed by land forces and fleet. The Japanese minister in St. Petersburg made persistent demands that Russia keep her promises to get out of Manchuria. Diplomatic negotiations dragged through two years. Twice Russia set dates for the evacuation, but it was only to gain time to strengthen her fortifications and concentrate troops. Suddenly, when Russia had a quarter of a million soldiers in Manchuria and Japan was expected to back down, diplomacy was abandoned.
On the night of Feb. 8, 1904, Japanese warships fired on Port Arthur and bottled up the crippled Russian fleet. Within two weeks Japan was landing troops at Chemulpo, Korea, the port of Seoul, far up in the Yellow Sea, capturing or sinking two Russian cruisers. Then followed the swiftest, most business-like war that the modern world has ever seen. The fortified Yalu River, bounding Korea, was crossed on May 1. After the battle of Liao-Yang in August the Japanese forces divided, one moving on mukhden, the other attacking the defenses of Port Arthur. Port Arthur and the shattered fleet in the harbor were surrendered on Jan. 1, 1905, after a five months1 bloody siege, during which the world stood aghast at the fanatical patriotism and military genius of the Japanese. On the 12th of March Mukhden fell, the Russians, with a loss of 150,000 out of 375,000 men, retreating 160 miles northward. On May 27th and 28th, the vessels of the second Russian fleet, sent to the relief of Port Arthur from the Baltic Sea and flying to the safe ty of Vladivostok harbor, were captured or sunk in the Japan Sea. It furnished the world its first example of a great naval battle in open sea, with modern battle-ships and guns. The war lasted only 16 months and ended in complete rout for Russia. The financial resources of both nations were practically exhausted. Through the friendly intervention of President Roosevelt a treaty of peace was signed in Portsmouth, N. H., August 29, 1905. Russia surrendered all claims in Manchuria and ceded the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan. Japan has since established a protectorate over Korea without protest from the powers, is developing the jRussian railroads in Manchuria, and continues to occupy Port Arthur. She has added some 20 Russian vessels to her navy, and the names of Admiral Togo, Field-Marshal Oyama and Generals Kuroki, Nogi and others to the world’s roll of military and naval heroes.The progress of Japan is still proceeding at a rapid pace. Her wealth is estimated (1911) at $6,410,403,500 and one-fourth of her national debt of $1,442,581,237 is held in western capitals. Her imports and exports exceed $500,000,000, about a third of that sum representing her trade with the United States There were no schools; now there are 30,000 elementary schools, 150 high schools and academies and 40,000 students in the universities and colleges for professional training. Large numbers of students are in universities abroad, a policy in part supported by the government. The samurai of the daimios were scattered, warring clans who were humorously described by an early traveller as wearing "iron-pot helmets with the lid over the face, chain and lacquer armor, and led by a chief in a palanquin with a fan." The army to-day excites no one’s sense of humor. Its peace-footing is 220,000; its war-footing 800,000. There are 193 vessels in the navy and 36,000 men. The empire hss its own arsenals and shipyards, and all the harbors are fortified. In 1875 the imperial revenues were only $30,000,000. In 1912 they were $286,445,000. Vast sums have been spent in internal improvements and developments, Japan comparing in this respect with Mexico. A necklace of lighthouses has been strung around the islands, and the waters charted, making navigation safe. Over 5,000 miles of railway have been constructed. Telegraphs are established throughout the empire, and cable connection made with Korea and China. Commercial steamship lines to the United States, China, Australia and the Philippines have been established, partly with the aid of government subsidies. The latest machinery is used on farm and in factory, and this machinery, at first imported, is now produced in Japan. Engineers, mechanics, learned professors, experts in every line, once sought abroad, are now displaced by native talent. Japan’s population has increased from 40,000,000 to 51,000,000 in one generation. Tokyo, from a shogun’s walled citadel, has changed to a modern capital as big as Chicago. Osaka has 1,226,590 people; Kobe is as big as Milwaukee, Yokohama as San Francisco, Hiroshima as New Orleans. Kioto, the sacred city of the hermit emperor, has 442,462 busy people, and the temple-palace is a museum of antiquities in a public pleasure park. Thousands of Japanese have emigrated to China, Korea and the Philippines. In 1900 there were 60,000 of them in Hawaii, 25,000 in the United States and as many more in British Columbia. Nine tenths of the Japanese in the United States are coolies, and are concentrated in Washington, Oregon and California chiefly in the cities, mines and fruit ranches where their competition with white labor aroused hostility. In 1906 the feeling against the Japanese was so strong in San Francisco that they were refused admission to the schools. Japan entered a protest against this discrimination, claiming that it violated treaty rights. The matter was compromised by admitting Japanese children, but excluding adults, and by an amendment to the immigration laws excluding Japanese laborers from the United States. All matters of dispute were settled amicably, and Japan entertained the American squadron, on its cruise around the globe in 1908 with every demonstration of friendliness. In the development of Japan the only subject touched upon by all writers with regret is the decadence of her distinctive arts. But one might as well deplore the decline of cathedral building in Europe. Conditions have changed irrevocably, and the artizan could not feed his family by working at a handloom to produce a web of crepe or for months over a bit of ivory-carving, lacquer gold-painting or cloisonne, enamelled vase. Artistic feeling is so deeply embedded in the nation, however, that it is bound to find new expression. Cloisonne is said to be comparatively modern and to have been brought to perfection since the upheaval of 1868. The demand for embroideries, finer potteries and hand-made rice-papers for decorative use is on the increase, while the cheaper straw mattings, jute rugs and common potteries are disappearing.
People and Customs
The philosophical students of history look for analogies. To them it is an equally striking fact that the Japanese, like the English and the people of the United States, are a mixed race, for the mixed races have been the conquerors. The Japanese are an amalgamation of Mongols, Tartars, Koreans and Malays with the aboriginal Ainu, of whom 12,000 still survive, making a race superior to any other yellow people. Their stature is that of southern Europe; their complexion lighter and clearer than the Chinese, their eyes less oblique; their extremities more delicately fashioned. In youth their cheeks are rosy. Their teeth are even and white, their hair fine, abundant and coal-black. It is almost superfluous to speak of the exquisite courtesy and cheerful demeanor of the Japanese, of their personal cleanliness, of the phenomenal good temper of the children. A Japanese baby is said never to cry, not because of an Indian stoicism, but from sheer happiness and well-being. Japan is the children’s paradise, where a harsh word is never spoken, obedience never refused.
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European dress and habits of living have made little headway. They have been adopted in the imperial court, in the army and navy and at the university and colleges, but 95 per cent. of the men still cling to their long robes, girdled with brocade, their loose jackets and wooden-soled pattens. The jinriksha boys run bare-legged in the streets; the farm-laborers wear knee-breeches of blue or white cotton and bamboo umbrella-hats; the women and children their wide-sleeved kimonos and gorgeous silk obis, tied into nuge butterfly-bows in the back. The architecture peculiar to the land is likely to be retained, for it is the offspring of the earthquake - light, flat, elastic - bamboo, dove-tailed woodwork and paper-screens are not easily shaken down. Even the temples palaces and tea-houses are of these materials, richly gilded and painted and anchored by heavy, overhanging roofs. The floors are covered with thick, padded straw-mats and divided into temporary rooms by sliding screens. There is little furniture except tables and trays of bamboo and lacquered wood. The ornaments are inscribed rolls of silk, embroideries, art potteries, cloisonne enamels on brass and gold-lacquer art-objects, brought out a piece at a time for admiration. The land wears a holiday air, as of a summer show, clean, gay, fragile. Even the charcoal braziers used for cooking and heating the bath seem like devices for picnic use. The frequent fires are not a great calamity, for the buildings are quickly and cheaply replaced.
The holiday aspect of Japan is increased by the semipublic outdoor life of the people and by the profusion of tiny gardens. The rice and fish that form the staple food are easily cooked, as well in an arbor as in a house, and tea is brewed anywhere. Fruits, nuts, seaweed, beef, beans, poultry, eggs, wheat-bread and confections are used by the wealthy, and the introduction of dairy cattle is making milk and butter familiar. The wealthy enliven the dinner hour with the professional music and dancing of pretty geisha girls. Then they go to the theater in jinrikshas, and listen to plays all whose characters are acted by men and that, like our serial stories, are "to be continued." Or they go to a public tea-house, a temple-festival or a flower-show. They are fond of travel, picnics, stories and poetry. On holidays the streets are gay with flags and paper-lanterns. The boys have their kite-flying day, as hilarious as our Fourth of July, and the girls their feast of the dolls. The entire population of city and country turns out at the flower-festivals, of cherry-blossom time in April, and the chrysanthemum shows of November. The essential refinement and gentleness of the Japanese are shown by the character of their pleasures.
The explanation of much that is strange in Japanese customs and ideas is to be found in their two principal religions: Shintoism and Buddhism. The first is ancestor-worship in the broadest sense, and makes for family affection and loyalty, civic duty and national patriotism. It has many temples, few ceremonials and no idols. It is not inconsistent to be a good Shintoist and also a good Buddhist. Buddhism is the predominant religion, as it is of China and Korea. Its underlying principle is that all life is eternal and sacred; hence the universal kindness to animals, birds and even insects and the indifference to death shown by Japanese soldiers. The Buddhist virtues are self-control, kindness, patience, duty. St. Francis Xavier introduced Christianity in the 16th century, but it was afterwards forbidden. Two hundred and fifty years later, when the country was opened, 25,000 Roman Catholics were found to have survived persecution. Now all religions are permitted. The Presbyterian and Congregationalists have flourishing missions, the Greek Catholics a church, and the Y. M. C. A. an organization. The Roman Catholic and Protestant converts together number scores of thousands.
The natural growth varies from palms and bamboos of southern valleys to the oaks and pines of the mountains of Yezo; the crops, from the camphor-gum of Formosa to semitropical tea and rice and mulberry groves for the silkworm; to tobacco, wheat and barley; and up to the wild grasses and reindeer-moss of Sakhalin. Of native wild animals there are foxes and wolves, boars and black bears, none of them numerous. But of birds there are the species common to the continent beside millions of waterfowl, heron and crane and gulls, ducks and geese and reed-birds that make any bit of coast look like the panel of a painted Japanese screen.
The sterile, rocky ridges are underlaid with iron, worked for ages into swords for the samurai, and with coal dug out since the awakening, for warship, locomotive and factory. There are some gold and silver and copper, a great deal of sulphur and graphite and ancient beds of kaolin that centuries of porcelain making have failed to exhaust. Yet Japan is a poor country in proportion to the population she must support. A large percentage of her area is infertile. History, however, proves that countries, like individuals, usually prosper in inverse ratio to their natural wealth. Like Great Britain, Japan is being forced by necessity into manufacturing and trade and immigration, to take toll of the world.
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 15. pgs. 156.
The New Student's Reference Work (1914)
See W. E. Griffis: The Mikado’s Empire; Henry Norman: The Real Japan; Isabella Bird Bishop: Unbeaten Tracks in Japan; Lafcadio Hearn: Kokoro and Japan; W. T. Stead: Japan and the Japanese; and McCarty: The Coming Power.