Was the ‘Japanese Renaissance’ lost at sea?

by Michael Hoffman

Last week, Japan celebrated Umi no Hi (Marine Day). First observed as a national holiday in 1996, Marine Day marks the anniversary of the return of Emperor Meiji from a boat trip to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido on July 20, 1876.

It is intended, as current Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura has said, “to thank the sea for its benefits and hope for the prosperity of Japan as an island nation.’

That Japan is “an island nation” is beyond question. But is it a maritime nation?

The sea looms large in Japan’s earliest myths. Izanagi and Izanami, divine parents of the Japanese islands, begot the sea as well. The sea and Japan are siblings.

But their fraternity foundered. Obscure and mysterious, the breach is described in the 8th-century chronicle known as the “Nihon-gi.”

The tale features two brothers. “The elder brother, Ho-no-susori no Mikoto, had by nature a sea gift; the younger brother, Hiko-hoho-demi no Mikoto, had by nature a mountain gift.” In short, they were fisherman and hunter, respectively. One day they decided to “exchange gifts.” But the elder proved a poor hunter, the younger an indifferent fisherman. The elder returned the younger’s bow and arrows and asked for his fishhook back. Unfortunately the younger had lost it. He offered substitutes, which the elder indignantly rejected.

“Therefore Hiko-hoho-demi no Mikoto’s grief was exceedingly profound, and he went and made moan by the shore of the sea.”

There the “Salt-sea Elder,” taking pity on him, fashioned a magic basket which whisked him deep beneath the waves to the palace of the Sea-God. Hiko-hoho- demi married Toyo-tama-hime, the Sea-God’s daughter. About to be delivered of a child, she implored her husband not to look at her while she was in labor. But Hiko-hoho-demi couldn’t resist taking a peep.

“Now Toyo-tama-hime was just in childbirth, and had changed into a dragon. She was greatly ashamed, and said: ‘Hadst thou not disgraced me, I would have made the sea and land communicate with each other, and forever prevented them from being sundered. But now that thou hast disgraced me, wherewithal shall friendly feelings be knit together?’ So she wrapped the infant in rushes, and abandoned it on the seashore. Then she barred the sea-path, and passed away.”

Hiko-ho-ho-demi no Mikoto is better known to posterity as Jimmu, legendary grandson of the Sun Goddess and first occupant of Japan’s Imperial throne.

But what is meant by his wife’s “barring the sea-path”? Might this suggestive, enigmatic phrase point to a singular void in Japanese history — namely, Japan’s failure to develop as a maritime power?

We need only consider Britain to see what geography might have made of Japan. Geographically, the two nations are almost mirror images of one another. Each entered history as an island backwater, remotely peripheral to the landmass it faced. And each had at its back a vast, unknown, wide-open sea — Britain the Atlantic, Japan the Pacific.

They might have shared a common fate. That they did not reflects a plain fact: Britain rose to the challenge of the sea; Japan retreated from it.

Japan’s history as a seafaring nation began in the third century, peaked 600 years later, and thereafter waned.

Destinations throughout those six centuries never varied, except between China and Korea. If the ancient Japanese even knew that the world contained other lands, the fact clearly did not interest them. And so in 238 we hear of the shaman-queen Himiko, ruler of one of the “100 countries” into which the settled part of Japan was then loosely organized, sending an embassy to China to appeal for help against a hostile neighbor. The Wei emperor Ming responded: “You live very far away across the sea; yet you have sent an embassy with tribute. Your loyalty and filial piety we appreciate exceedingly.”

Probably a century or so later (experts despair of precisely dating these shadowy episodes) the Empress Jingu led a triumphant naval expedition to Korea. Her prayer to the gods, recorded in the “Nihon-gi,” expresses her purpose: “We are proceeding westward, where we desire to gain possession of the Land of Treasure.”

Receiving signs of divine favor, she declared, “Brandishing our weapons, we shall cross the towering billows: preparing an array of ships, we shall take possession of the Land of Treasure.”

The winds and tides were hers to command. “The tide-wave following the ships,” says the “Nihon-gi,” “reached far up into the interior of the country. Hereupon the King of Silla” — one of three principal Korean kingdoms — “feared and trembled, and knew not what to do . . . “

The in-rushing Japanese fleet was so alarming that the king “was terrified out of his senses. But presently coming to himself, he said: ‘I have heard that in the East there is a divine country named Nippon . . . This divine force must belong to that country. How could we resist them by force of arms?’ So he took a white flag, and of his own accord rendered submission, tying his hands behind his back with a white rope.”

To the extent that this is fact and not legend, it shows Japanese naval prowess at a height it was not to attain again until World War II. History resounds with ironic echoes. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, battling his way to precarious ascendancy over Japan’s fractious warlords, wrote to his wife: “I have sent word by fast ship to Korai (Korea) ordering them to appear and submit to the (Japanese) Emperor. I told them that if they do not appear I will punish them next year.”

The next time Japan was to hear language like that it was uttered not by the Japanese but at them — in the 1850s, by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in command of a squadron of “Black Ships.”

Hideyoshi, unlike Perry, lacked force commensurate with his strong language. More precisely, Japan’s naval skills had sadly deteriorated since Jingu’s day, and were no match for Korea’s. The invasion came to grief.

In 607, Japan took to sea in a centuries-long quest with few if any historical parallels. The voyagers were for the most part neither fighters nor traders; they were Buddhist priests, poets, artists, craftsmen, physicians and government officials representing a newly civilized nation keen to nourish itself at the source: China. The mission dispatched in 607 by Prince Regent Shotoku was the first of 19 over the next 231 years. It was led by the envoy Ono no Imoko, who arrived in Chang-an, the glittering Chinese capital, with a memorial from Shotoku containing the words, “The child of heaven in the land where the sun rises addresses the child of heaven in the land where the sun sets.” It must have struck the recipients as somewhat impudent. Here was Japan, which two centuries before had not even been literate, presuming to address this rich and ancient empire as an equal!

Actually, Japan knew its place better than Shotoku’s missive implied. The bilateral relationship, acknowledged on both sides, was student-nation to teacher-nation. Japan’s eagerness to learn may be gauged by the dangers and hardships of the crossing — 800 km of stormy sea in rickety flat-bottomed boats caulked with seaweed. A third of those who set out never returned. Strangely enough, two elective subjects Japan apparently declined to pursue were shipbuilding and navigation, though China could have taught it much.

The Chinese had by this time been seafaring traders for 1,000 years. Their ships, massive multistory vessels known as junks, were expertly built. Was this aspect of Chinese civilization of no interest to Japanese students? Or were they too dazzled by the wonders they beheld on land to even notice it?

Perhaps they noticed but dismissed it as subsidiary. If so they were not wrong. China’s was, predominantly, a land civilization, its values terrestrial rather than maritime. Freedom had no place in it. Freedom as we know it was born — or at least conceived — at sea. It first saw the light of day in maritime ancient Greece, then lay dormant for a millennium and a half before reviving in maritime England. Japan had maritime potential but missed the boat. Its falling so early in its development under China’s overwhelming spell was not an unmixed blessing.

The missions to China ceased abruptly in 838. Various reasons are given — surging instability in China, the rise of piracy, the need for Japan to assimilate its borrowed culture. The Heian Period (794-1185) produced great literature, notably “The Tale of Genji,” but the sea was at most a distant backdrop, a bleak symbol of tears, loneliness, remoteness, suicide, and, in Genji’s case, exile.

The one partial exception is the “Tosa Nikki,” written around 935. This is a genuine sea story — a diary, rather, as its title suggests. Its author is Ki no Tsurayuki, an eminent poet and courtier. In prose and poetry, Tsurayuki records his homeward voyage along the Inland Sea to Kyoto, the capital, from Tosa in the southern island of Shikoku, where he had been serving as governor.

The 300-km journey, frequently interrupted by bad weather and “unlucky days for travel,” took 55 days — 22 more than Columbus’ first Atlantic crossing five and a half centuries later. The boat is believed to have been a kind of canoe, some 12 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. The prevailing emotion on board, as evoked by Tsurayuki, is of being out of one’s element. The clouds are lowering, pirates threatening, civilization nowhere in sight.

The sea Tsurayuki experiences is worlds apart from the joyous “wine-dark sea” of Homer. The wind, the waves, the sharp briny air do not stir the soul; the vast horizons suggest nothing of freedom or wonder. There is much poetry in the diary — Chinese-style poetry — but it is cramped and melancholy. One poem, likening the waves to flowers, muses sadly, “Neither nightingales nor spring / Knew these flowers were blossoming.” Another laments, ” . . . I seem to be / Rowing all alone / Far across the heavenly sky — Lone and desolate am I.”

As important as poetry has been to Japanese traditional culture, and as omnipresent as is the sea, one would expect that at some point a fusion would occur and sea poetry be born. It never happens. Basho, the itinerant 17th-century haiku master, scarcely notices the sea. Mountains, insects, flowers and the moon are what move him. His most famous symbol of Zen infinity is a pond stirred by a frog jumping in.

The modern Zen master Daisetsu Suzuki (1871-1966), describing a late 12th-century drawing by the Chinese artist Ma Yuan, draws our attention to a seemingly natural affinity between Zen and the sea: “A simple fishing boat in the midst of the rippling waters is enough to awaken in the mind of the beholder a sense of the vastness of the sea and at the same time of peace and contentment — the Zen sense of the Alone. Apparently the boat floats helplessly . . . But (in) this very helplessness . . . we feel the incomprehensibility of the Absolute encompassing the boat and all the world.”

So we do, which makes the comparatively slight impression the sea has made on Japanese poetry all the more remarkable.

Fifteenth-century Europe bred a new human type — the explorer. The story begins with Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal (1394-1460) and climaxes in the grand world-sweeping voyages of 15th- and 16th-century seamen whose very names tell immortal tales: Vasco da Gama, Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci (whence the name America), Magellan, Francis Drake and many others. The explorer in origin is a purely European character; his defiance of the limits of the known has no counterpart in other cultures. A partial explanation lies, paradoxically, in the same Christian religion that for centuries had boxed in the European mind with narrow dogmatism. The mind grew and eventually burst its bonds, directing outward now the unshakable confidence that Christians alone possessed the ultimate truth.

Prince Henry, not himself an explorer but the world’s first mobilizer of exploration, began his career as a Crusader. The maritime expeditions he dispatched one by one over 25 years down the terrifying African coast, each venturing ever so slightly farther than the one before, were designed in part, explains the historian Daniel Boorstin, to “convert countless souls to Jesus Christ.”

Old merged with new — Christian faith with a craving to penetrate the fearful unknown. Prince Henry’s headquarters at Sagres at the southwest tip of Portugal was, as Boorstin describes it, “a center for cartography, for navigation and for shipbuilding.” It was an archetypal research center. Each expedition returned with pepper, ivory, gold and — dreadful portent of worse to come — slaves; but also with new knowledge. A realistic map of Africa slowly took shape.

The enterprise Prince Henry began survived him. In 1488, da Gama was blown by a storm around Africa into the Indian Ocean. Africa, once thought to extend all the way around to northeast Asia, was shown to be a free-standing continent. A world of land was transformed, says Boorstin, into one of “boundless, world-reaching oceans.”

England at first lagged behind, then caught up to and finally surpassed her seafaring rivals, Portugal and Spain. In 1589, the English chronicler Richard Hakluyt proudly recorded his country’s progress: “Which of the kings of this land before Her Majesty (Queen Elizabeth I), had their banners ever seen in the Caspian Sea? Which of them hath ever dealt with the Emperor of Persia as Her Majesty hath done, and obtained for her merchants large and loving privileges? . . . What English ship did heretofore (range the world) — further than any Christian ever passed . . . last of all to return home richly laden with the commodities of China, as the subjects of this now flourishing monarch have done?”

Japan may not have had a Columbus, but it had a Gulliver. His name is Asanoshin, and his adventures at times so startlingly recall those of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver that it is hard to believe what is, however, the truth — that “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) was unknown in Japan when the comic novelist Hiraga Gennai (1728-79) published “The Modern Life of Shidoken” in 1763.

Like Gulliver, Asanoshin embarks on imaginary voyages to fantastic countries — the Land of Giants, the Land of Tiny People, the Land of Long-Legged People, the Land of Hedonists, the Land of Quack Doctors, and so on. Unlike Gulliver, he travels not by ship but by means of a magic fan that whisks him from place to place. This reflects the different worlds inhabited by the authors. Swift wrote against a background of real exploration and real discovery of unknown lands. Hiraga wrote in a country shut almost airtight against the outside world for 120 years.

It is not that Japan lacked the adventuring spirit. As the historian George Sansom put it: “During the 15th century, the Japanese were known and feared as corsairs along all the shores of eastern Asia, and adventurers were finding their way to the Malay Archipelago and Farther India (Indochina). Thus when Europeans first entered the Pacific, the Japanese had already emerged from a seclusion which geography rather than temperament had imposed upon them . . .

“It was no failure of the expansive impulse,” he continues, “but only a reluctant recognition of weakness that caused Japan to withdraw into almost complete seclusion in 1640. The hazard that brought Western influence into the Pacific before Japan had achieved a stable central government thus gave the maritime countries (of Europe) a free hand in the Far East and so fixed for centuries the pattern of colonial enterprise in that region. During those centuries, the rulers of Japan abandoned all dreams of empire . . . “

Was Japan, then, on the brink of an “Elizabethan” renaissance that sakoku, the “closed country” policy enforced for 200 years by the Tokugawa shoguns, nipped in the bud?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space” (Printed Matter Press, 2008). His Web site is www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com/