Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Hidden Kingdom

We now come to a period of Japanese history when the country withdrew from the life of the world, when she shut herself up, neither visiting nor being visited, and retired into the deepest seclusion. The Japanese rulers, as we have seen, had become profoundly uneasy about the foreign traders and teachers who had entered their country. Did it mean that in time Japan would be invaded by a foreign army? Such an idea set the heart of a Japanese aflame, for to him the soil of his land was sacred, and his proudest boast was that no invader had ever set foot upon it.

What was to be done? Foreign influence was spreading fast. The Christians had been put down, but European ships sought the shores in increasing numbers, and Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu, took a deep resolution to preserve Japan for the Japanese. He shut up the country. He was the third Shogun of the Tokugawa line, and he used his vast power to completely isolate Japan from the world. He closed every port of the empire save at Nagasaki, where the Dutch were allowed to occupy a tiny island and conduct their trade, but no other European nation was allowed to approach Japan. He forbade the Japanese to travel or trade abroad. They were only permitted to sail along their own shores, and large seaworthy vessels which could carry a crew across the ocean were all broken up. And so for two hundred and fifty years Japan lay hidden from the world.

Other nations moved on, but Japan did not move. She was the Sleeping Beauty among the peoples of the earth. Just as in the old fairy story the castle and its inhabitants slept about the sleeping princess behind the magic brier hedge, so Japan slept behind its veil. And when the veil was rent, the world peeped in and saw a picture of the Middle Ages incarnate, a land where men fought with bows and arrows, with spear and sword, at a time when breech-loaders cracked and rifled cannon thundered over the battle-fields of other countries.

During this age of isolation the feudal system which Ieyasu had planned was maintained in perfect order. It is true, of course, that feudal conditions had been present in Japan for centuries before Ieyasu lived, but it fell to the great law-giver to give definite shape to the system, to arrange its ranks, and to give rules for the conduct of each class—rules which were closely observed for centuries.

At the head of the feudal order stood the Daimyos, the nobility. They were not all of equal importance, for some ruled over great provinces and some over small. The measure of each ruler's dignity was the number of koku of rice at which his lands were assessed. A koku is a measure containing about three bushels, and the farmers who tilled the Daimyo's land paid their dues to him in koku. With these payments of rice he supported his state and fed his army of retainers, the Samurai who fought under his banner. A great Daimyo might be worth one million koku of rice per annum, a small one not more than ten to twenty thousand. The value of a koku varied with the rise and fall of prices: at cheapest it sunk to rather more than 1, at dearest it rose to nearly 3.

The Daimyo ruled his province with absolute sway: he owed allegiance to the central government, but there was no interference with him in his management of his province, and before the time of Ieyasu a great feudal lord would often set himself up against the Shogun and give much trouble. He never dared to set himself up against the Emperor, for the Mikado was held in too great reverence. To keep these turbulent nobles in hand, Ieyasu compelled the Daimyos to live at Yedo for six months of the year, and to leave their wives and families there as hostages during the other six months. The Daimyos and their men-at-arms, the Samurai, formed the military class which held itself high above the rest of the population, the common people, who were ranked as follows: farmers, craftsmen, and merchants.

When a Daimyo travelled he formed the centre of a splendid procession. He rode in state in a kind of palanquin or litter called a norimono. It was built of rare woods inlaid in beautiful designs and lacquered until its polished surface glittered like a jewel. A vast train of Samurai attended him armed to the teeth—pikemen, bowmen, and swordsmen—all intent not merely on guarding their master, but watchful to punish all who did not pay proper respect to the great prince. As soon as the train entered a city or village, the streets emptied, and the place became like the abode of the dead. Doors and windows were closed fast, for it was forbidden to the common people even to look upon the passing of a Daimyo. If wayfarers met the train, they at once flung themselves upon their faces and remained prostrate until it had gone by. Woe to one who raised his eyes. He was at once despatched by the fierce Samurai, and his body, carved by their terrible swords, was left at the wayside as a warning to others.

Next below the military class came the farmer, a class held in much respect, as by their labours all were supported. As a rule the taxes claimed from them were not unfair or oppressive, and the farmer took a pride in giving his best rice and presenting it at the collector's storehouse in neat packages of straw. A well-known story is told of Iemitsu, the Shogun who closed the country. He was one day in the field, and when passing a farmer's house sat down to rest upon a bag of rice. The farmer did not know the great man and ordered him angrily to get up at once, saying that the rice was meant for his lord, and he would not permit any one to treat it in so disrespectful a manner as to make a seat of it. The Shogun was so pleased with the poor farmer's loyalty to his master that he gave the man a good post in his service.

In feudal times the people lived under laws so strict that the smallest matters of domestic concern were made subject to rigid orders which might not be disobeyed. The most minute rules were drawn up for every class, according to the income of the household. A man of such and such an income was told what kind of house he might live in, what kind of clothes he and his family might wear, what kind of food they might eat, and even what kind of presents they might give. And if any of those rules were broken, there were plenty of spies to report the matter and get him into trouble.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


Take, for instance, the rules to be observed by a farmer whose land yielded 100 koku of rice. He might build a house sixty feet long, but it must have no parlour and he must not tile the roof. If he feared fire and wished to tile the roof instead of thatching it, he must first obtain permission. When a son or daughter was married only a few gifts might be made, and these gifts are set out in a list; on the wedding-day none but certain simple viands might be eaten. The farmer and his family must never wear silk clothes. If a son or daughter should marry a person whose station permitted the wearing of silk, the farmer must request that person not to wear silk on the wedding-day. If one of the family should pay a visit, no valuable presents might be taken to the person visited, and at the time of a death or a funeral no wine might be offered to those coming to the house. So the list goes on, dealing with the most trifling affairs of life as well as the greatest, and even forbidding the grandparents to make presents of dolls to the girls and flags to the boys on the occasion of the children's festivals, but saying that small money presents may be given instead.

The labourer had his set of rules to obey also. His house was to be smaller still, and must be thatched; nothing else could be thought of. When he made a feast he might offer one dish of food and one soup, but not in cups. His wife might own a sash of silk but she might not wear it in public, which was rather hard on the poor woman. And, above all, the labourer was not to use an umbrella except in case of the direst necessity, as a straw rain-coat was, in the eyes of the lawgiver, amply good enough for him.

With these rules the Government issued a proclamation, explaining their benevolent and friendly intentions towards the people under their charge. The proclamation ran: "These rules are not made to force families of one rank to be equally intimate with all others of the same rank, or to prevent a family from occupying a high rank merely because it is poor; but because, unless some such rules are laid down, families are very likely unable to live upon their means in the station they would like to occupy, and thus would come to grief. So that these classes have been established, and rules carefully laid down. Still the richer farmers must not be arrogant to the poorer farmers and labourers, and the poorer farmers and the labourers must not hate or dislike the former. The poorer should respect the richer, and the richer should treat the poorer kindly. This is the natural law established by Heaven, and it should be obeyed, not struggled against. The community will then be orderly and peaceful. These rules are established in order that people may be frugal and economical."

It is certain that these rules helped to bring about what the lawgivers wished: they and the force of circumstances made the Japanese a frugal and economical race. For hundreds of years the empire was shut up and forced to depend upon itself. All wealth from foreign trade was lacking, eleven-twelfths of the land was bare and sterile mountain, and upon the remaining one-twelfth the teeming millions depended for their entire subsistence.

It followed, then, that the vast masses of the Japanese people were in great poverty. They were, but it is the glory of the Japanese feudal system that the poor did not suffer the terrible miseries of the very poor in feudal days in Europe. Here and there were Daimyos who oppressed their subjects, but in the main there was a very kindly feeling between rich and poor, and in times of scarcity the lord gave freely of his stores of grain to his tenants, to be repaid when prosperous harvests should return. This almost universal poverty has caused the poor to be considered in a hundred ways by the brotherly Japanese. In Old Japan it was almost impossible to turn a poor man out of his house or a distressed tenant out of his farm. If misfortune happened to him, the law provided that his rent should be reduced until times were better, and in any conflict between the interests of a rich man and a poor man it was clearly laid down by the lawgivers that the full benefit of the doubt should be given to the poorer party.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


This spirit remains strongly in evidence at the present day. As a recent writer remarks: "In the West poverty entails upon its victims the necessity of paying the highest prices for food and fuel. Coal bought by the basket makes the price per ton excessive. In Japan the buying in small quantities is to a certain extent regarded as evidence of lack of means, and therefore the purchaser is entitled to receive the utmost consideration and the largest possible discount. Asking the price of a certain article, a figure was named to me. 'How much by the dozen?' I then inquired; instantly the price was greatly advanced. My question was plain evidence of superior ability to pay, and the tax was therefore levied. It was no extortion. In Japanese eyes their system is simply a fair mode of taxation. The rich pay the high prices that the goods may be offered to the poor at the lowest possible rates."