Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

Japan in Perry's Time

We must now look at Japan as it was when Commodore Perry was on his way to tell its government: "You can no longer refuse the hand of friendship we are holding out to you. It is absurd to suppose that, because of a mere whim, our ships will avoid your shores. We do not propose to take any advantage of you; but we ask you to sell us what we need, and you can, if you wish, buy from us what you may need. At any rate, we do not purpose to stay away from your country simply because you would like us to." Perry, as we have seen, was the right man to carry this message.

For two hundred and fifty years the descendants of Iyeyasu had ruled over Japan. During all this time there had been peace at home and abroad, owing to the strict laws, the perfect system of spying, and the exclusion of foreigners. The people worked hard and made a living; but as they could not sell in the markets abroad, they received very small pay. There was, however, no poverty, that is, suffering from want; nor was there any great wealth. If the people had enough rice, vegetables, fish, and clothing to cover themselves, what more did they require? Thus the great masses of the people were contented and happy,—but how about the samurai?

For some two hundred and fifty years their swords had been sheathed. They had busied themselves with the affairs of their clans; but that did not occupy all their time. To be sure, they could pay and receive calls from their friends, and show their intimate knowledge of the ceremonies inseparable from a tea party. They knew exactly the deference due to a person, and the number of compliments he was entitled to. But even the acquisition of this knowledge left them considerable leisure, and they spent it in reading.

The samurai from the time of Nobunaga, who, as we have seen, made war upon the ambitious monks, held Buddhism in contempt. They turned to the study of the pure Shinto religion, which regards the Tennô as divine and worships the ancestors as gods. But when they began to study the history of their country, when they understood that this regent in Yedo, before whom they were compelled to bow, was only a usurper, and that the Tennô, and the Tennô only, was the lawful ruler of Japan, they looked around for means to deny the authority of the regent.

A very large number of the samurai read with absorbing attention the history of Japan, completed under the second daimio of Mito, who was a descendant of Iyeyasu; and another history written by Rai Sanyo (ri-sahn-yoh), wherein it was shown that the loyalty of the samurai was due to the Tennô, was also extensively studied. The reading of these books made them all the more impatient of the Tokugawa rule.

"Are we less brave and less stout than our fathers?" they would ask. "Why must our swords remain sheathed? Who is responsible for these long years of contemptible peace? Why can we not subdue Korea, which by law of conquest belongs to Japan?" There was deep dissatisfaction among the samurai, and while they were not able to express all they felt, of one thing they were very sure,—that they no longer wanted the descendants of Iyeyasu to rule over them.

The great daimio of the south, those of Satsuma, Choshiu (choh-shoo), and Tosa, were especially hostile to the regent. The trade with Holland, which was very profitable, was for the benefit of the Yedo government. Through the Hollanders, the regent could know what was passing abroad; he could order the latest guns and cannon, and thereby acquire the means to keep the daimio in submission. All these daimio encouraged, therefore, the reading of these books, and urged their men to arouse the Yamato Damashii (yah-mah-toh dah-mah-shee-ee)—that is, the Spirit of Old Japan—among the people.

But the regent in Yedo could afford to laugh at all this discontent so long as the daimio remained divided among themselves. Even if the most powerful among them should dare deny his authority, eighty thousand of his own samurai were prepared to punish a rebel. And besides, the loyal daimio, descendants of Iyeyasu or of his generals, were ready to take up arms in his defense. There was only the fear that the disaffected daimio might unite, that they might march upon Kyoto and obtain the sacred person of the emperor,—then, and then only, would there be an end to the Tokugawa rule.

Kyoto was the key to the situation. But there was a strong garrison composed of the samurai of the most loyal clan, guarding the palace, and the admittance to Kyoto was strictly prohibited to any of the southern daimio. So long as the emperor remained in the power of the Tokugawa, all was well. The court nobles,—who and what were they? Paupers, glad enough to be fed from the crumbs of the regent's bounty.

But how about the regent himself? Was he the same able, self-reliant man that Iyeyasu, the founder of the house, had been? No. The Tokugawa had gone the way of all the rulers of Japan. Seven regents had succeeded from the direct line, and then successors had been adopted. For a long time the descendants of Iyeyasu had been shadow regents,—puppets in the hands of ambitious prime ministers, who trusted to their spies to maintain their power.

Dissatisfaction existed everywhere. But while the great majority of samurai would have been well pleased to see the authority restored to the emperor, the ablest among them desired to be his personal advisers; in other words, they wished for themselves the power held by the Tokugawa. Satsuma thought that it would be better for Japan if he should be regent, the other great daimio had probably the same idea regarding themselves, and their kerai (kay-ri), or councilors, thought how much better it would be if they could direct the affairs. But neither daimio nor samurai had any idea of personal gain; they honestly believed they were right. And they would have been pleased to accept this power without any salary, except just enough to secure the absolute necessities of life for themselves and their families.

It was sure to go hard with the government of Yedo when the opportunity for action came. Hundreds of samurai were ready to sever the connection with their clan and turn rônin, if they could thereby assist in over-turning the Tokugawa. What cared they if hara-kiri must inevitably follow? They were prepared for it. Were not the graves of the forty-seven free lances kept green in the memory of the people, and would not they also be celebrated in song and story? What greater desire could a true samurai have than to die in the service of his clan and his lord?

Many of the samurai were not so ignorant as they seemed. Some of them had studied Dutch; and although all the books on board a Dutch vessel arriving at Nagasaki were supposed to be stored in chests and kept under lock and key in possession of the regent's officers, to be returned only when the ship was ready to sail, this did not prevent the inquisitive and studious Japanese from obtaining possession of some of them. And these barbarian vessels that were coming so repeatedly, notwithstanding the regent's prohibition, would they insist upon breaking the laws of Japan? Was it not true that the king of Holland had sent a letter, advising the regent to enter into a treaty with these hairy (bearded) strangers? And was it not true also that these same barbarians had dared invade the soil of China, and compelled that great empire to grant their demands? Would they also dare come with an armed force to sacred Japan, the country of the gods, and profane the land destined for the Japanese? Or would the Tokugawa at Yedo repeat the disgrace inflicted upon Japan by the cowardly Ashikaga? These were the questions that agitated the samurai, those four hundred thousand men who had been and were then at once the head and the arms of the country, who ruled as well as defended it.

They were thinking and watching. They felt instinctively that the time for action was drawing nigh; and all of them were sure that the samurai of Japan would be able, when the time came, to give a lesson to the barbarians. They wished to have their coast defenses strengthened, and requested the Yedo government to attend to this. No notice was taken of this request. The councilors of the regent, troubled about affairs at home, hoped and trusted that foreign powers would continue to respect their absolute refusal to enter into intercourse with them.

Every foreign vessel entering the Japanese waters was received by officers, who were naturally Tokugawa men; that is, men belonging to the clan of the regent. And while many of them were in favor of more liberal measures, they were loyal to those who stood at the head of their clan, and were prepared to carry out their orders. Captains of such foreign vessels could not judge, therefore, of the actual feeling prevailing among the Japanese, since these men represented only the Tokugawa clan.

When, at last, compulsion made the regent grant the demands of the self-invited guests, the Tokugawa samurai were fully satisfied. But not so those of other clans. They could not, and did not, deny that since a Tokugawa regent had taken it upon himself to exclude foreigners, another regent of the same house could rescind or abolish this law by his own authority. What they did object to was the manner in which permission to trade with and to reside in Japan had been obtained: that a regent of Japan should have submitted to demands from foreigners without striking a blow! Had he granted the requests of petitioners, and had he opened such ports as would have given to every daimio the opportunity to profit by this intercourse, the Tokugawa regents might have secured another lease of government. But the government of Yedo thought that they would be able to isolate these newcomers as they had the Dutch, and so opened only such ports as belonged to the Tokugawa. This caused the hatred, both against the Yedo government and the foreigners, and the many murders of innocent men by self-appointed avengers.