A Diplomat in Japan: A British view of the Meiji Restoration

May 3, 2014

Every country has at least one historical era that forms the basis of much of its books, film, and television. The United States has the Wild West, and Japan has the Meiji Restoration.

The Meiji Restoration has the makings of great drama. Sparked by Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan, there was dramatic conflict between the Southern Coalition demanding the expulsion of “the barbarians” from Japan, and the Tokugawa Shogunate trying to placate everybody. In that conflict were lies and intrigue; plots, conspiracies, and assassinations; masterless samurai and royalty; and crimes of passion and honor.

There was also a story-book hero: Saigo Takamori. While he helped overthrow the Shogunate and form a modern government, he then led a rebellion against that government when it threatened the samurai class. He came to symbolize a romanticized samurai culture, and the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai” presented a fictionalized version of his story.

Most of the stories about the Meiji Restoration focus on the internal conflict within Japan. The foreigners were mainly treated like secondary characters whose function was comical relief. In woodblock prints, foreigners were represented by grotesque caricatures of ape-like creatures with large noses and red cheeks.

After decades of knowing the story from the Japanese point of view, it was interesting to read A Diplomat in Japan, a recollection of incidents from the viewpoint of the secretary of the British legation in Tokyo. This story is told many years later, in 1903, after Ernest Satow became Sir Ernest.

Sir Ernest based his account upon diaries and letters written at the time of the events described. He did not rely on his memory of what happened decades before. For that I commend him.

In one instance, he wrote:

“My diary contains no further entry until the middle of May, and letters I wrote to my parents narrating the incidents which befel us at Kiôto have not been preserved.”

He states the foreign community has been described by an English diplomat as “the scum of Europe,” but said:

 “No doubt there was a fair sprinkling of men who, suddenly relieved from the restraints which social opinion places upon their class at home, and exposed to the temptations of Eastern life, did not conduct themselves with the strict propriety of students at a theological college. That they were really worse than their co-equals elsewhere is unlikely.”

Describing Yokohama society:

“There were few ladies in the settlement. Japan was a long way from Europe, with no regular steam communication, and the lives of foreigners were supposed to be not very safe at the hands of the arm-bearing classes.”

The danger of the arm-bearing classes is shown in the killing of foreigners, like a merchant named Richardson who was riding with friend when they met with a train of a daimiô’s retainers, who bid them stand aside.

“They passed on at the edge of the road, until they came in sight of a palanquin, occupied by Shimadzu Saburô, father of the Prince of Satsuma. They were now ordered to turn back, and as they were wheeling their horses in obedience, were suddenly set upon by several armed men belonging to the train, who hacked at them with their sharp-edged heavy swords.”

After the Richardson murder, the British demanded satisfaction. The Shogunate cooperated, but the Satsuma clan did not, so British ships attacked the clan in Kagoshima and burnt much of the city.

“The Admiral in his report, which was published in the London ‘Gazette,’ took credit for the destruction of the town, and Mr. Bright very properly called attention to this unnecessary act of severity in the House of Commons; whereupon he wrote again, or Colonel Neale wrote, to explain that the conflagration was accidental. But that I cannot think was a correct representation of what took place, in face of the fact that the “Perseus” continued to fire rockets into the town after the engagement with the batteries was at an end, and it is also inconsistent with the air of satisfaction which marks the despatch reporting that £1,000,000 worth of property had been destroyed during the bombardment.”

The bombardment convinced the Satsuma clan of the superiority of Western weapons, and Sir Ernest eventually became friends with the leaders of the clan.

Later, a conflict with the Choushûu resulted in naval operations against their Shimonoseki batteries. The Choushûu clan also learned the superiority of Western weapons, and Sir Ernest eventually became friends with the leaders of that clan as well.

This led to the situation where Great Britain was friendly with the Southern Coalition while the French were friendly with the Tokugawa Shogunate. The book speaks much of this rivalry between Great Britain and France.

Subsequently the writer witnessed the execution of two murderers by decapitation, and says:

“It was a horrible sight to see the attendants holding the headless corpse down to the hole, and kneading it so as to make the blood flow more readily into the hole, and I left the spot in all haste, vowing that mere curiosity should never induce me to witness another execution.”

There were other incidents, including times when his life was in danger, partly by his own recklessness. He was a bold man, sometimes more reckless than prudent. He was also a good storyteller, but part of the story that he told (maybe unintentionally) was the ignoble role that the European forces played in Japanese society. The British weren’t there for noble reasons, but then neither were the French, Dutch, Americans, North-Germans and Italians. They were all there for the great adventure, and the thrill of the chase for wealth.

The status of Working Women of Japan

March 22, 2011

A Japanese proverb from the WWII post-war period says:「戦後強くなったのは女性と靴下。」It translates as “After the war, two things became stronger: women and socks.” Women had gotten stronger thanks to new laws that granted them the right to vote, and other rights. The socks had gotten stronger because of nylon.

To see how much has changed, read Sidney L. Gulick’s “Working Women of Japan.” It shows what the life of working Japanese women was like in 1915 and the years before.

The purpose of this book is to give some information as to conditions prevailing among working women, which conditions have called for the establishment of institutions whose specific aim is the amelioration of the industrial and moral situation. Two classes of workers have not been considered—school-teachers and nurses.

Specifically treated were farm workers, workers in domestic industries, silk workers, wives of artisans and merchants, baby-tenders, household domestics, hotel and tea-house girls, factory workers, geisha, and licensed prostitutes. None of these were fun occupations. The hours were long, the conditions were harsh, and the pay was small.

For instance, he gives this description of conditions of a cotton thread spinning factory in Matsuyama, on the island of Shikoku.

Silk Factory

Factory Workers in a Silk Factory

In 1901, when Mr. Omoto began to work in the factory, he was amazed to see how many were the children taking their turns in work along with the older girls by day and by night. Large numbers ranged from seven to twelve years old, the majority, however, being from fifteen to twenty. They worked in two shifts of twelve hours each, but as they were required to clean up daily they did not get out till six-thirty or seven, morning and night. The only holidays for these poor little workers came two or three times a month, when the shifts changed; but even then there was special cleaning, and the girls who had worked all night were kept till nine and even ten in the morning. He was also deeply impressed with their wretched condition and immoral life. The majority of them could neither read nor write; their popular songs were indecent, and they were crowded together in disease-spreading and vermin-breeding, immoral boarding-houses, where they were deliberately tempted. Some of the landlords were also brothel keepers.

As a missionary in Japan for twenty-five years, the author’s distaste for the “native religions” was evident in passages such as this:

The reader will naturally ask what the native religions have done to help women meet the modern situation. The answer is short; practically nothing. They are seriously belated in every respect. For ages the native religions have served by doctrine and practise to hold women down rather than to elevate them. The doctrine of the “triple obedience” to father, to husband, and when old to son, has had wide-reaching and disastrous consequences. It has even been utilized for the support of the brothel system.

Also evident was his distaste for the “loose morality” of the Japanese culture. Speaking of prostitution, he wrote:

while in Occidental Christian lands no girl can voluntarily enter this sphere of life without being conscious of its shame and immorality, many of the girls of Japan may have no adequate knowledge of these inevitable consequences until their fate has been sealed.

Finally, also evident was his strong conviction that adoption of the Christian system of beliefs was necessary for Japan to become an ethical and moral country. This led him to be a tad dismissive of the strengths of native culture.

This book is not an objective look at the role of working women in Japan, instead it was a call for support of the missionary movement. That movement was not a general success, with only about 1 to 2% of the Japanese becoming Christian. Still, the book does have insights into the situation that did exist at one point in time in Japan, viewed through the mindset of a missionary living there.

Story for Halloween: The Corpse-Rider”

October 31, 2010

This appeared in Lafcadio Hearn’s Shadowings, which is now available for smooth reading and will be posted to Project Gutenberg in early November. Enjoy.

THE body was cold as ice; the heart had long ceased to beat: yet there were no other signs of death. Nobody even spoke of burying the woman. She had died of grief and anger at having been divorced. It would have been useless to bury her,—because the last undying wish of a dying person for vengeance can burst asunder any tomb and rift the heaviest graveyard stone. People who lived near the house in which she was lying fled from their homes. They knew that she was only waiting for the return of the man who had divorced her.

At the time of her death he was on a journey. When he came back and was told what had happened, terror seized him. “If I can find no help before dark,” he thought to himself, “she will tear me to pieces.” It was yet only the Hour of the Dragon; but he knew that he had no time to lose.

He went at once to an inyoushi and begged for succor. The inyoushi knew the story of the dead woman; and he had seen the body. He said to the supplicant:—”A very great danger threatens you. I will try to save you. But you must promise to do whatever I shall tell you to do. There is only one way by which you can be saved. It is a fearful way. But unless you find the courage to attempt it, she will tear you limb from limb. If you can be brave, come to me again in the evening before sunset.” The man shuddered; but he promised to do whatever should be required of him.

At sunset the inyoushi went with him to the house where the body was lying. The inyoushi pushed open the sliding-doors, and told his client to enter. It was rapidly growing dark. “I dare not!” gasped the man, quaking from head to foot;—”I dare not even look at her!” “You will have to do much more than look at her,” declared the inyoushi;—”and you promised to obey. Go in!” He forced the trembler into the house and led him to the side of the corpse.

The dead woman was lying on her face. “Now you must get astride upon her,” said the inyoushi, “and sit firmly on her back, as if you were riding a horse…. Come!—you must do it!” The man shivered so that the inyoushi had to support him—shivered horribly; but he obeyed. “Now take her hair in your hands,” commanded the inyoushi,—”half in the right hand, half in the left…. So!… You must grip it like a bridle. Twist your hands in it—both hands—tightly. That is the way!… Listen to me! You must stay like that till morning. You will have reason to be afraid in the night—plenty of reason. But whatever may happen, never let go of her hair. If you let go,—even for one second,—she will tear you into gobbets!”

The inyoushi then whispered some mysterious words into the ear of the body, and said to its rider:—”Now, for my own sake, I must leave you alone with her…. Remain as you are!… Above all things, remember that you must not let go of her hair.” And he went away,—closing the doors behind him.

Hour after hour the man sat upon the corpse in black fear;—and the hush of the night deepened and deepened about him till he screamed to break it. Instantly the body sprang beneath him, as to cast him off; and the dead woman cried out loudly, “Oh, how heavy it is! Yet I shall bring that fellow here now!”

Then tall she rose, and leaped to the doors, and flung them open, and rushed into the night,—always bearing the weight of the man. But he, shutting his eyes, kept his hands twisted in her long hair,—tightly, tightly,–though fearing with such a fear that he could not even moan. How far she went, he never knew. He saw nothing: he heard only the sound of her naked feet in the dark,—picha-picha, picha-picha,—and the hiss of her breathing as she ran.

At last she turned, and ran back into the house, and lay down upon the floor exactly as at first. Under the man she panted and moaned till the cocks began to crow. Thereafter she lay still.

But the man, with chattering teeth, sat upon her until the inyoushi came at sunrise. “So you did not let go of her hair!”—observed the inyoushi, greatly pleased. “That is well … Now you can stand up.” He whispered again into the ear of the corpse, and then said to the man:—”You must have passed a fearful night; but nothing else could have saved you. Hereafter you may feel secure from her vengeance.”

Halloween is traditionally celebrated big time around DP. Lots of scary books to proof, format or smooth read. Have fun celebrating!

Halloween Bash 2010


October 20, 2010

Momotaro and retainers

In the same way that the classic fairy tale “Cinderella” has become part of Western culture, the fairy tale “Momotaro” has become ubiquitous in Japanese culture, with references to it cropping up in comic strips, movies, comedy shows, posters, anime, manga, advertisements, toys, and even government propaganda. There is even a Hello Kitty anime version of the tale available on DVD.

One illustrated telling of that story is Momotaro or Little Peachling, found in the Japanese Fairy Tale Series. This book tells the tale of an old couple that finds a peach, and from that peach pops up a little boy. They adopt him and he grows up strong and goes off to the island of the devils to take their riches. Joining him are three animals:

Then first a dog came to the side of the way and said; “Momotaro! What have you there hanging at your belt?” He replied: “I have some of the very best Japanese millet dumplings.” “Give me one and I will go with you,” said the dog. So Momotaro took a dumpling out of his pouch and gave it to the dog. Then a monkey came and got one the same way. A pheasant also came flying and said: “Give me a dumpling too, and I will go I along with you.” So all three went along with him.

There is a battle with a great multitude of the devil’s retainers, and then with the chief of the devils, called Akandoji. At the end Momotaro triumphs and returns to his adopted parents. There is a happy ending for everyone, except for the devils.

I had heard about the story for decades. This was the first time that I actually read it. Reading it as an adult, I had qualms about the legality of Momotaro’s actions. But then children don’t normally concern themselves with the property rights of devils.

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