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“Go, my son! Fight, make your way in the world.” But — the proviso is implicit — tell no one who or what you are.

Ushimatsu Segawa, the protagonist of Toson Shimazaki’s 1906 novel “Hakai” (“The Broken Commandment”), harbors a deep, dark secret: who and what he is. His true self is very different from his apparent self. His person and his persona are separate and incompatible. The Ushimatsu his friends know is a personable, intelligent young man, an able and popular rural primary school teacher. The Ushimatsu his friends don’t know is an eta — a member of a traditional underclass whose name means, roughly, “filth.”

It’s a designation with roots deep in ancient Shinto notions of purity. Buddhism, a more philosophical and compassionate religion, unfortunately had its own notions of purity, and the eta, hereditary slaughterers, tanners and executioners, found themselves twice damned when Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century. Official emancipation from opprobrium came in 1871. But unofficial opprobrium raged on.

A born eta had, it seemed, one passport to full humanity — concealment. With his father’s encouragement, Ushimatsu hides his background, enters college, graduates and begins a career. His future looks bright. It isn’t.

Two facts threaten his secret. One is the suspicion of jealous colleagues. Sniffing out dirt to bring him down to their level, they find it. The second is the prompting of his own conscience. His secret weighs heavily. His idol is a charismatic crusader for eta rights, an eta who himself came out of the closet after acquiring an education, a man of indomitable courage and dedication. Should not Ushimatsu follow Rentaro Inoko’s example and join his cause? A true man is true to his true self, not a careerist cringing behind a mask.

As a first step along a braver road, he makes up his mind to reveal his secret to Rentaro. Opportunities present themselves, but always he steps back from the brink. Weakness, perhaps — but had not his father forced him to swear he would never tell anyone? That is the “broken commandment” of the title. Eventually he does break his oath — not as a fighter flinging a bold challenge at a corrupt world but as a criminal confessing a crime; and not to Rentaro but to his 10- and 11-year-old students. They, it is pleasant to report, stand by him regardless.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was a political, social and economic revolution. It built modern Japan. It was also a psychological revolution — how could it not be? So vast a change in so short a time is a reconfiguring experience. The “I,” ego, self of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) is as different from the “I” of the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) as Meiji industrial capitalism is from Tokugawa feudalism.

Tokugawa morality was Confucian, stressing duty and social cohesion. Meiji morality, without shedding Confucianism, seasoned it, intoxicated it, some said poisoned it, with new, foreign ideas. “Man is born free” was one.

The 44 years of Meiji split fairly neatly into two phases. The labels “progressive” and “reactionary” are simplistic but, due allowances made, convenient. The paradoxical dividing line is the opening in 1890 of Japan’s first parliament. It’s paradoxical because this seemingly progressive innovation in fact ushered in the reactionary phase. The progressive ferment that characterized early Meiji was spent. Individualism morphed into jingoism, the quest for self-fulfillment into one for national fulfillment.

There were reasons. Western imperialism was spreading. So was Western individualism, percolating vigorously through Japan’s popular rights movement of the 1880s. But what was individual liberty if the nation itself was enslaved? China, India, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam — cautionary tales, all wholly or partly swallowed up by the rapacious West. Would Japan be next? What would guarantee that it wouldn’t be? National strength, national unity. Individual rights could wait. The government’s logic was persuasive. Many popular agitators were won over; the movement petered out — leaving pockets of despair in its wake.

Tokoku Kitamura (1868-94) — poet, essayist and popular rights activist — at 17 committed himself to “becoming a great philosopher and destroying the new school of ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy.” That it itself was fit to survive he must have known, for he also wrote: “I desired … to become a great statesman and recoup the failing fortunes of the Orient. I conceived the ardent desire to sacrifice myself entirely for the benefit of the people. Like another Christ, I would consecrate all my energies to politics.”

Christ seems an odd model for a political activist, but Kitamura did adopt Christianity and its view of each individual as precious in God’s sight. The air of post-1890 Meiji Japan was toxic to him. “The greatest misfortune of the Orient,” he wrote, “is that, from its beginnings up to the present, it has not known freedom of spirit.” In 1894, age 26, he “sacrificed himself.” More prosaically, he hanged himself. Among those shocked by his death was his close friend, literary disciple and fellow-Christian Toson Shimazaki.

“Freedom of spirit” is Toson’s theme and Ushimatsu’s quest. Does Ushimatsu achieve it? It’s hard to say. His public unmasking of his secret self seems more a defeat than a victory. Expectations that he will go on from there to fight for eta justice are disappointed; he emigrates to America instead. What is Toson trying to tell us? That freedom can be pursued in America but not, alas, in Japan? Inoko, Ushimatsu’s mentor, is murdered by political thugs and Ushimatsu’s emigration, though presented as an escape into a wider, freer life, seems something else: a kind of death like Inoko’s, or of suicide, like Kitamura’s. The Meiji regime served the nation, which flourished, but betrayed the self, which withered.

This concludes a four-part series on the evolution of the Japanese ego. Previous installments can be found at bit.ly/2nD8Kfk, bit.ly/2nCUjrF and bit.ly/2nDcCgd. Michael Hoffman’s latest books are “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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