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The awakening of a nation permanently at peace

by Michal Hoffman

There’s something to be said for national isolation. Peace, for example. The very few foreigners allowed into Japan during its 250-odd years of almost total seclusion, from the early 17th century to the mid-19th, were awed by the spectacle of a nation permanently at peace.

In Europe, this was inconceivable. “There is not one such peaceful country anywhere in the world,” said the head of the Dutch trading station on Deshima Island off Nagasaki in 1838. “In the West, one cannot sleep or eat in peace a single day.”

Yes, peace — but could it last? As the 19th century dawned, Japan, static in an increasingly dynamic world, began to foresee challenges it might not be able to meet. Foreign ships — British, Russian, American — were infiltrating its waters, docking in its ports, clamoring for trade, demanding supplies. An early Japanese response was the uchiharai edict of 1825: all approaching foreign ships, regardless of nationality, were to be driven off with gunfire. Which was all very well — but Japanese guns, as soon became evident, were no match for Western ones.

Seclusion had been a desperate expedient. It began in the early 1600s. Other Asian nations were being colonized; Japan would not be. Foreigners — out; Japanese — in, death the penalty for all caught trying to enter or leave.

Dutch and Chinese traders, very few and under very tight restrictions, were the only exceptions. The Dutch, therefore, became Japan’s window, hardly more than a peephole, on the Western world.

Peace is wonderful, and the culture that flourished in the peace of what became known as the Edo Period (1603-1867) — kabuki, haiku, ukiyo-e painting — is among the most distinctive and vibrant in the world. But people get restless. They sense inadequacies, have vague intimations of greener grass on the forbidden other side, are not convinced by official assurances that everything is perfect, or appeased by official commands to be satisfied or else. Public dissatisfaction was a crime. Prison, torture and death are fearful punishments — but people do get restless.

And restlessness under such conditions breeds subversion. The form it took in Edo Japan is a most extraordinary one in the history of individuals defying their rulers. It goes by the name rangaku — literally “Dutch studies”; more broadly, Western, scientific studies.

It had corrosive potential. The neo-Confucianism that was the official philosophy of Edo Japan saw the universe as a moral order. Not gravity and other blind physical forces but heavenly harmony guided the stars and planets. Human beings too must submit to heavenly harmony — as represented by the government.

An orthodox neo-Confucian thinker put it this way: “Northern lights, comets and shooting stars are ordinary things, and not the reproofs of heaven to the Westerns, who will not stand in awe of them. They think heaven a dead thing … and thus the Way of the Sages and man’s obedient heart are both destroyed. … Most pitiful! Most detestable!”

Detestable, yes, but Confucianism had gaps in it that became glaring as time wore on — so much so that in 1720 the shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, eased a total ban on Western books and so became, in a sense, the first sponsor of rangaku. Yoshimune’s problem, in the face of recurring famines, was to make agriculture more productive. Prerequisite was calendrical reform, which in turn, Yoshimune perceived, required more astronomical knowledge than the Confucian sages were demonstrating. And so the ban was eased, with future consequences he could hardly have guessed.

It was the physicians who most vigorously seized the new opportunity. In the vanguard was one Sugita Genpaku (1733-1817), who left an account of a revelatory encounter with a Dutch medical book: “I couldn’t read a word, of course, but the drawings of the viscera, bones and muscles were quite unlike anything I had seen before, and I realized they must have been drawn from life.”

Drawn from life! Astonishing. Confucian medicine would never descend from the moral heights to anything so low as blood and guts — but slowly it was dawning that Confucian anatomy was one thing and the human body something else altogether. The hereditary clan of interpreters on Deshima, the only Japanese who could then speak Dutch, guarded their knowledge as a professional secret and refused Sugita’s appeal for help in translating the book into Japanese. That he and a few other physicians equally ignorant of the language, armed only with a rudimentary Dutch-Japanese word list, actually managed it testifies to the indomitable passion that drove the rangaku pioneers. With them begins the history of Western medicine in Japan.

But the real hero of our story has yet to be introduced. Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841) was neither a physician nor a rangaku scholar. Who was he? Many things — too many things: samurai, artist, Confucian scholar, Confucian skeptic, fervent upholder of the old order, herald, almost against his will, of the new. A brilliant man, torn by the contradictions that often assail the brilliant. They were too much for him — they drove him to ritual suicide in 1841. He was 48.

The rapacity of the “barbarians at the Western extremity of the world” revolted him. Why must they conquer and colonize others? Didn’t their very voraciousness prove their moral inferiority?

It did, but on the other hand, “the formidable thing about Westerners,” he wrote, “is that they discuss and debate everything.”

Kazan, too, was keen to discuss and debate everything. He sought out rangaku scholars, read Dutch books in translation, pondered, wrote — and was arrested. Had he not compared Confucian Japan to “a frog in a well” who knows nothing of the ocean? He escaped the death penalty but was rusticated for life and killed himself in sheer mortification. In a last letter to his brother, he wrote: “I have no way to apologize to mother. I shall leave behind in the world the reputation of having been disloyal and unfilial.”

The old and the new fought a tragic battle in Kazan’s soul. Had he been born a generation later, he would have seen himself as a victim of injustice. As it was, he blamed only himself.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “The Naked Ear” (2012).