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Authors: Lafcadio Hearn

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Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan

BOOK: Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
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Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan
First Series
First published in 1894
ISBN 978-1-62012-922-7
Duke Classics
© 2012 Duke Classics and its licensors. All rights reserved.
While every effort has been used to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in this edition, Duke Classics does not assume liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions in this book. Duke Classics does not accept responsibility for loss suffered as a result of reliance upon the accuracy or currency of information contained in this book.

Emeritus Professor of Philology and Japanese in the
Imperial University of Tokyo


In the Introduction to his charming Tales of Old Japan, Mr. Mitford
wrote in 1871:

'The books which have been written of late years about Japan have either
been compiled from official records, or have contained the sketchy
impressions of passing travellers. Of the inner life of the Japanese the
world at large knows but little: their religion, their superstitions,
their ways of thought, the hidden springs by which they move—all these
are as yet mysteries.'

This invisible life referred to by Mr. Mitford is the Unfamiliar Japan
of which I have been able to obtain a few glimpses. The reader may,
perhaps, be disappointed by their rarity; for a residence of little more
than four years among the people—even by one who tries to adopt their
habits and customs—scarcely suffices to enable the foreigner to begin
to feel at home in this world of strangeness. None can feel more than
the author himself how little has been accomplished in these volumes,
and how much remains to do.

The popular religious ideas—especially the ideas derived from Buddhism
-and the curious superstitions touched upon in these sketches are
little shared by the educated classes of New Japan. Except as regards
his characteristic indifference toward abstract ideas in general and
metaphysical speculation in particular, the Occidentalised Japanese of
to-day stands almost on the intellectual plane of the cultivated
Parisian or Bostonian. But he is inclined to treat with undue contempt
all conceptions of the supernatural; and toward the great religious
questions of the hour his attitude is one of perfect apathy. Rarely does
his university training in modern philosophy impel him to attempt any
independent study of relations, either sociological or psychological.
For him, superstitions are simply superstitions; their relation to the
emotional nature of the people interests him not at all.
And this
not only because he thoroughly understands that people, but because the
class to which he belongs is still unreasoningly, though quite
naturally, ashamed of its older beliefs. Most of us who now call
ourselves agnostics can recollect the feelings with which, in the period
of our fresh emancipation from a faith far more irrational than
Buddhism, we looked back upon the gloomy theology of our fathers.
Intellectual Japan has become agnostic within only a few decades; and
the suddenness of this mental revolution sufficiently explains the
principal, though not perhaps all the causes of the present attitude of
the superior class toward Buddhism. For the time being it certainly
borders upon intolerance; and while such is the feeling even to religion
as distinguished from superstition, the feeling toward superstition as
distinguished from religion must be something stronger still.

But the rare charm of Japanese life, so different from that of all other
lands, is not to be found in its Europeanised circles. It is to be found
among the great common people, who represent in Japan, as in all
countries, the national virtues, and who still cling to their delightful
old customs, their picturesque dresses, their Buddhist images, their
household shrines, their beautiful and touching worship of ancestors.
This is the life of which a foreign observer can never weary, if
fortunate and sympathetic enough to enter into it—the life that forces
him sometimes to doubt whether the course of our boasted Western
progress is really in the direction of moral development. Each day,
while the years pass, there will be revealed to him some strange and
unsuspected beauty in it. Like other life, it has its darker side; yet
even this is brightness compared with the darker side of Western
existence. It has its foibles, its follies, its vices, its cruelties;
yet the more one sees of it, the more one marvels at its extraordinary
goodness, its miraculous patience, its never-failing courtesy, its
simplicity of heart, its intuitive charity. And to our own larger
Occidental comprehension, its commonest superstitions, however condemned
at Tokyo have rarest value as fragments of the unwritten literature of
its hopes, its fears, its experience with right and wrong—its
primitive efforts to find solutions for the riddle of the Unseen flow
much the lighter and kindlier superstitions of the people add to the
charm of Japanese life can, indeed, be understood only by one who has
long resided in the interior. A few of their beliefs are sinister—such
as that in demon-foxes, which public education is rapidly dissipating;
but a large number are comparable for beauty of fancy even to those
Greek myths in which our noblest poets of today still find inspiration;
while many others, which encourage kindness to the unfortunate and
kindness to animals, can never have produced any but the happiest moral
results. The amusing presumption of domestic animals, and the
comparative fearlessness of many wild creatures in the presence of man;
the white clouds of gulls that hover about each incoming steamer in
expectation of an alms of crumbs; the whirring of doves from temple-
eaves to pick up the rice scattered for them by pilgrims; the familiar
storks of ancient public gardens; the deer of holy shrines, awaiting
cakes and caresses; the fish which raise their heads from sacred lotus-
ponds when the stranger's shadow falls upon the water—these and a
hundred other pretty sights are due to fancies which, though called
superstitious, inculcate in simplest form the sublime truth of the Unity
of Life. And even when considering beliefs less attractive than these,-
superstitions of which the grotesqueness may provoke a smile—the
impartial observer would do well to bear in mind the words of Lecky:

Many superstitions do undoubtedly answer to the Greek conception of
slavish "fear of the Gods," and have been productive of unspeakable
misery to mankind; but there are very many others of a different
tendency. Superstitions appeal to our hopes as well as our fears. They
often meet and gratify the inmost longings of the heart. They offer
certainties where reason can only afford possibilities or probabilities.
They supply conceptions on which the imagination loves to dwell. They
sometimes impart even a new sanction to moral truths. Creating wants
which they alone can satisfy, and fears which they alone can quell, they
often become essential elements of happiness; and their consoling
efficacy is most felt in the languid or troubled hours when it is most
needed. We owe more to our illusions than to our knowledge. The
imagination, which is altogether constructive, probably contributes more
to our happiness than the reason, which in the sphere of speculation is
mainly critical and destructive. The rude charm which, in the hour of
danger or distress, the savage clasps so confidently to his breast, the
sacred picture which is believed to shed a hallowing and protecting
influence over the poor man's cottage, can bestow a more real
consolation in the darkest hour of human suffering than can be afforded
by the grandest theories of philosophy. . . . No error can be more grave
than to imagine that when a critical spirit is abroad the pleasant
beliefs will all remain, and the painful ones alone will perish.'

That the critical spirit of modernised Japan is now indirectly aiding
rather than opposing the efforts of foreign bigotry to destroy the
simple, happy beliefs of the people, and substitute those cruel
superstitions which the West has long intellectually outgrown—the
fancies of an unforgiving God and an everlasting hell—is surely to be
regretted. More than hundred and sixty years ago Kaempfer wrote of the
Japanese 'In the practice of virtue, in purity of life and outward
devotion they far outdo the Christians.' And except where native morals
have suffered by foreign contamination, as in the open ports, these
words are true of the Japanese to-day. My own conviction, and that of
many impartial and more experienced observers of Japanese life, is that
Japan has nothing whatever to gain by conversion to Christianity, either
morally or otherwise, but very much to lose.

Of the twenty-seven sketches composing these volumes, four were
originally purchased by various newspaper syndicates and reappear in a
considerably altered form, and six were published in the Atlantic
Monthly (1891-3). The remainder forming the bulk of the work, are new.



Chapter One - My First Day in the Orient

'Do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible,'
said a kind English professor
whom I had the pleasure of meeting soon after my arrival in Japan:
'they are evanescent, you know; they will never come to you again, once
they have faded out; and yet of all the strange sensations you may
receive in this country you will feel none so charming as these.' I am
trying now to reproduce them from the hasty notes of the time, and find
that they were even more fugitive than charming; something has
evaporated from all my recollections of them—something impossible to
recall. I neglected the friendly advice, in spite of all resolves to
obey it: I could not, in those first weeks, resign myself to remain
indoors and write, while there was yet so much to see and hear and feel
in the sun-steeped ways of the wonderful Japanese city. Still, even
could I revive all the lost sensations of those first experiences, I
doubt if I could express and fix them in words. The first charm of Japan
is intangible and volatile as a perfume.

It began for me with my first kuruma-ride out of the European quarter of
Yokohama into the Japanese town; and so much as I can recall of it is
hereafter set down.

Sec. 1

It is with the delicious surprise of the first journey through Japanese
streets—unable to make one's kuruma-runner understand anything but
gestures, frantic gestures to roll on anywhere, everywhere, since all is
unspeakably pleasurable and new—that one first receives the real
sensation of being in the Orient, in this Far East so much read of, so
long dreamed of, yet, as the eyes bear witness, heretofore all unknown.
There is a romance even in the first full consciousness of this rather
commonplace fact; but for me this consciousness is transfigured
inexpressibly by the divine beauty of the day. There is some charm
unutterable in the morning air, cool with the coolness of Japanese
spring and wind-waves from the snowy cone of Fuji; a charm perhaps due
rather to softest lucidity than to any positive tone—an atmospheric
limpidity extraordinary, with only a suggestion of blue in it, through
which the most distant objects appear focused with amazing sharpness.
The sun is only pleasantly warm; the jinricksha, or kuruma, is the most
cosy little vehicle imaginable; and the street-vistas, as seen above the
dancing white mushroom-shaped hat of my sandalled runner, have an
allurement of which I fancy that I could never weary.

BOOK: Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
11.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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