“The evolution of political thought in this relatively isolated island nation during the period in question is unique to the point of being somewhat freakish.”
This gives a reader pause. Freakish? The judgment is historian Hiroshi Watanabe’s in “A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901,” his 2010 book whose title defines “the period in question.”
“Nor,” he adds, “did it (Japanese political thought) have much impact on thought outside the Japanese archipelago. In this sense, it may call to mind the strange animals of the Galapagos Islands, pursuing their own evolutionary path.”
Japan, Galapagos: The association seems irresistible and recurs frequently, expressing bewilderment, frustration, amusement, sometimes admiration at Japan’s tendency, even today, to be startlingly different from other “Western” developed democracies.
Early-modern Japan was truly a political and cultural Galapagos. Apart from a handful of Chinese and Dutch traders restricted to an island off Nagasaki, it was a “closed country”; Japanese could not leave, foreigners could not enter — on pain of death. Seventeenth- and 18th-century Japan to all intents and purposes was not part of the world. It was a world unto itself.
The Tokugawa shoguns, its rulers from 1603 to 1867, were acting in self-defense against foreign powers they saw, reasonably enough, as predatory — not that Japan was a shining live-and-let-live exception, as its 1592 invasion of Korea showed; but the issue was practical, not moral. Isolation, deemed the best defense, was ruthlessly imposed.
In a sense it came naturally. Geographical isolation helps explain why Japan circa A.D. 300 had barely graduated from the stone age to primitive agriculture. That might have sounded a warning, had the shoguns been historians. Isolation has a price: backwardness. Inevitably? Perhaps not.
Was Tokugawa Japan backward? To U.S. sailors who came in “black ships” to pry it open in the 1850s, it seemed so; they vaunted their “triumphant revelation to a partially enlightened people of the success of science and enterprise.” On the other hand … there is always an “other hand.”
Tokugawa Japan was in intellectual ferment, but one occurring in a vacuum. These years correspond to Europe’s Age of Reason, its Enlightenment. Fresh air! Experiment, observation, free thought. A thing was no longer true merely because Aristotle or the Church had said it. Philosophers began by doubting everything they thought they knew. They sought new knowledge. They went back to square one. They challenged each other, spurred each other on, built on each others’ findings. This was an intellectual, created “new world” to match the physical, discovered New World: America.
All this Japan missed. “Ours is a world in which living things are confined and regimented as if dead things” — so wrote a despairing artist, scholar and samurai named Watanabe Kazan, one whose restlessness in the shuttered little world he was born into led to his suicide in 1841 at age 48. In 1821, while traveling on domain business, he stopped at the island of Enoshima off present-day Kanagawa Prefecture, and wrote in his diary: “How wonderful! How marvelous! From here to the southeast is what the Westerners call the Pacific Ocean and the American states! They must be very close!”
Kazan was one of a coterie of “Dutch scholars” — so called because the Dutch traders and Dutch books were their prime sources — who congregated in Edo (now Tokyo) to share what little they knew of Western science, gunnery, medicine, history, geography and politics. Their talk was considered subversive by an absolutist regime determined at all costs to remain absolute. Watanabe barely escaped execution — he was rusticated instead.
He and his friends of course represented the future, though few at the time would have seen that. To most of its subjects, Tokugawa rule must have seemed unshakable. What preoccupied the intellectual mainstream? This question in particular: Is the nation’s true path the Confucian Way, or the Japanese Way?
Watanabe, the historian, has a beautiful passage about time machines: “Investigating the past, one is often seized with the desire to board a time machine to walk the city streets and meet the people of some specific period. … In fact we already have a highly advanced time machine: the written word.”
Reading past thinkers’ works is a salutary reminder of how the world is subject to wildly varying interpretations. Was Confucius a fool, and his Tokugawa followers dupes for believing all problems were at bottom moral; that disasters natural, political and economic occurred only when sage-rulers failed to govern according to rites and music?
Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725), a shogunal adviser and great Confucian thinker, wrote: “Rites and music are not properly practiced, and there are places where the qi (spirit) of heaven and earth is disturbed. Thus, without the assistance of the gods and spirits, it is possible that the principle of germination cannot be achieved” — an admonitory reference to Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s failure to produce an heir.
But the swelling ranks of anti-Confucian nativist thinkers sneered at this Chinese frippery. One, Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714), wrote, “The path of the soldier is a deceitful one. Depending upon the circumstances of the moment, one might trick or betray one’s allies, usurp the spoils won by others, or throw the land into turmoil and seize it from above: As a matter of military tactics, there is nothing wrong with this. It is the way of warfare in Japan. If one adopted the Chinese Way, it would be difficult to conduct warfare in the Japanese manner. Japan is a martial nation; it would be impossible to triumph here following the undissembling and soft customs of the Chinese.”
So much for rites and music. The trouble was, Tokugawa Japan was a martial nation at peace. It’s an impossible contradiction. The looming crisis was unseen but inevitable.
This is the first installment of a column that will appear on this page on the fourth Sunday of each month. Michael Hoffman’s two latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).Did people of the distant past feel essentially as we feel, human nature being more or less constant? Or did radically different settings give rise to radically different emotions?
Heian Period Japan (794-1185) “has disappeared from the face of the Earth more completely than ancient Rome,” wrote historian Ivan Morris. That’s true in terms of its palaces, temples, houses and gardens. It’s true, too, in terms of its philosophies, morals and way of life, whose influence on Japan’s subsequent history went little farther than providing a touchstone for peculiarity — or should we say weirdness?
Heian literature, though, is as alive and eternally pertinent as any literature of the weird, remote and vanished past can be. What survives of it is voluminous, artistically brilliant and surprisingly approachable. We, a thousand years later, can travel to Heian much more easily than we can to any of our more conventional holiday destinations. No visa required; no air fare; just the price of a copy of “The Tale of Genji,” to name only the most famous of the period’s classics.
“Genji” is the first, probably the longest, and among the best novels ever written. It is at once modern and ancient — modern in its subtle grasp of individual psychology, ancient in its physical, cultural, moral and emotional setting. It was written around the year 1000 by a court lady known as Murasaki Shikibu. Its principal character is “the shining prince,” Genji. What woman wouldn’t want to be loved by such a man? Looks, grace, royal birth, a splendid if flawed character (even his flaws are charming) — all gifts are his. “The meeting of so many talents in one person — it was the wonder of the day, and it told of great merit accumulated in other lives,” the author says of him.
Still, happiness eludes him, for though aware that the world is no more real than a dream, he cannot bring himself to “leave” it and enter religion as he knows he should — so irresistible are the world’s attractions, so weak a man’s will.
Heian Japan was simultaneously very large and very, very small. Its capital, Heian Kyo (today’s Kyoto), was one of the world’s great cities. Its population was roughly 100,000 — no match for the 2 million of Chang’an, the Chinese capital (today’s Xian) on which it was modeled, but considerably larger than any European city of the time.
The smallness lay in who and what mattered. Very few, and very little, did.
You’d have to look far to find a more haughtily exclusive culture. Beneath contempt, beneath even acknowledgment, were the masses who were not of the 10,000 or so nobility. The rest of the estimated 5 million population were no more regarded than flies, weeds or other unlovely aspects of nature.
The smug, self-satisfied ignorance of the courtiers is hard to take at times. The outside world scarcely existed for them. The unknown excited no curiosity. China, to be sure, and to a lesser extent Korea and India, were acknowledged, but China’s civilizing contribution to Japan’s cultural formation had run its course, and direct contact between the two realms had ceased in 894, a century or so before “Genji” was written.
Chinese arts, Chinese dress, Chinese urban planning and Indian Buddhism via Chinese interpretations were the main components of Heian culture, but the sources were remote and no longer of interest. Japan was Japanizing its cultural inheritance. Style outranked substance, appearance trumped reality. Appearance was reality. To a Chinese or Indian visitor it all would have looked very quaint.
Love is the most powerful of emotions. Was the Heian courtier in love anything like us in love? Two words sum up the amorous setting: softness and darkness.
Men and women alike swathe their soft inactive bodies in soft voluminous robes. Women wait in dark rooms, behind curtains, for lovers who, when they come, can scarcely see them, or be seen by them. Physical appearance is beside the point. Visibility, like plain speaking, is vulgar. Coitus sight unseen is typical. What arouses a man? A tasteful color-coordination of kimono sleeves, glimpsed through curtains; an artfully turned verse; subtle calligraphy on well-chosen paper. What arouses a woman? Sensitivity. What repels her is strength. Genji, Heian lover par excellence, is exquisitely sensitive, and physically soft to the point of what we would call effeminacy.
So let us observe Genji in love. The book is very long, and Genji evolving from birth to maturity, then to decline and death, goes through many changes. As a young man he had numerous ladies of various ranks and attributes. Here he is, then, having slipped into a wing of the Imperial Palace in search of a woman. She turns out to be absent … but what’s this? An open door? Who could be behind it? Judging by the refined voice as she quietly recites poetry to herself, “its owner could be no ordinary serving woman.”
Delighted, he caught at her sleeve. “Who are you?” She was frightened. “There is nothing to be afraid of.” … Quickly and lightly he lifted her down to the gallery and slid the door closed. Her surprise pleased him enormously. Trembling, she called for help. “It will do you no good. I am always allowed my way. Just be quiet, if you will, please.”
The modern reader naturally asks whether this is rape or seduction. It is seduction — artful, sensitive, irresistible seduction. Today’s wanderer in Heian gradually learns to accept that. Human nature — to return to our initial question — is constant but elastic. Emotions do vary with time and place. Ours would seem as bizarre to Heian courtiers as theirs do to us.
She recognized his voice and was somewhat reassured. Though of course upset she evidently did not wish him to think her wanting in good manners.
That wouldn’t do at all.
Michael Hoffman’s two latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan”(2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).