Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Hidden Kingdom (continued)

The next class below the farmers was that of the craftsmen. A craftsman was a very useful person and highly regarded, but he was not so necessary as the farmer, upon whom all depended for daily food, and so the farmer took the higher rank. During the period of seclusion the art of the Japanese craftsman was carried to a wonderful pitch. Some of the Tokugawa Shoguns were men of great culture, and at their Courts they gave encouragement to poets, painters and armourers, metal-workers, makers of porcelain, swordsmiths, and carvers in wood and stone. The porcelain and swords, the lacquer and the work wrought in gold, silver, and bronze, are the delight of judges who examine them at the present day and the despair of the workers who try to equal them.

Many of the Daimyos were also patrons of great craftsmen, and each lord had his own band of workers who turned out all that was needed for the dress and adornment of the Daimyo and his palace. There was no question of buying and selling in the matter. The craftsman was supported by his lord, and was often a member of the household. He was in no haste to complete his work, for he could take what time he pleased. So he leisurely and lovingly spent his labour upon some miracle of his craft which slowly grew under his hands, a marvellous piece of armour or a lacquered bowl, upon which very possibly he had spent years of patient toil and marvellous skill.

The trading class came last among the people, for in Old Japan trade and commerce were looked down upon. "As far back as history carries us, contempt for the mere business of money-making was a prominent characteristic of the Japanese people. There is hardly a tale of any length which does not furnish facts proving this. The merchant, the usurer, the middlemen were regarded as the dregs of ancient Japanese society, to the level of whose life the noble Samurai would rather die than descend."

Before the time of seclusion Japanese traders and merchants had begun to move abroad, and their junks were known on the coasts of neighbouring countries. But when the empire was shut up, all this movement ceased. The sea-going junks were destroyed, and the clumsy, cumbrous vessels which were all the Shoguns would allow, crept along the shore much as crabs crept on the shore. A voyage of a few hundred miles from one port to another often took a whole year.

The traders of Old Japan were formed into guilds, and there were guilds controlling those who dealt in various goods and those engaged in various occupations. There were guilds of bath-house-keepers, peddlers, sellers of silk, cotton, ironware, cloth, and so on. These guilds became very powerful as time went on, and used their power to fix prices and control trade. The people became very dissatisfied, for they accused the guilds of keeping prices up when things were so plentiful that prices should have been low, and about 1841 the guilds were abolished.

Soon it was found that things were worse than before. The guilds had certainly fleeced the people, but they had also protected them in maintaining rules of commercial honour, and placing each branch of trade on the firm footing which a strong community of merchants could give. Now that each trader was left to do as he pleased and had no fear of the headmen of the guilds before his eyes, customers found themselves out of the frying-pan into the fire. So the guilds were set up again in 1851, but their power to oppress the purchasers of the goods was taken from them by certain restrictions.

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


There was another class of Old Japan which we must mention, a class in many ways of deep interest. It was not numbered with the people, for the people would have deemed it the greatest insult if the class had been considered as a part of the nation. This was the Eta class, the pariahs, the outcasts of Japan. The Etas were not allowed to live near other people, for the poorest coolies considered their mere presence to be an insult, and the Eta who dared to enter a tea-house would be swiftly driven out with blows and revilings.

The members of this outcast and degraded class were compelled to herd together in their own villages, and their very existence was ignored. They were not counted among the inhabitants of the district but were numbered with the cattle, and any highway which passed by their abodes was left out of all road measurements. The spot where an Eta had stood was polluted, and must be sprinkled with salt before a Japanese could set foot on it without defiling himself. No Japanese would ever allow for an instant that an Eta belonged to the same race as himself. If one offended him and he slew the offender, he thought no more of it than if he had killed a dog.

Whence came this strange outcast race whom the Japanese, as a rule so kind and tolerant, treated with such bitter cruelty, and looked upon with so unutterable a disdain? No one knows, for their origin lies so far back in the history of Japan that the reason for this violent hatred has been forgotten, but many opinions are put forward. Some say they are the descendants of Korean captives brought to Japan during the Korean wars. Others say that the Etas spring from Tartar captives taken at the time when Kublai Khan sent his Great Armada against Japan, and that the deep hatred borne towards them springs from the fury felt at that time against the invaders. But other thinkers put the origin of the Etas back to a much more distant date, to the introduction of Buddhism in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Buddhist priests taught that those who took life were to be looked upon with horror and disdain, so that the class which killed and skinned animals, put criminals to death, and performed the like degrading tasks, gradually became a class apart and was looked upon as a polluted race, hated and abhorred.

In Old Japan the lowest and most despised occupations were reserved for the Etas. It was their duty to kill and flay animals, to crucify criminals and transfix them with spears after they were bound to the cross, and finally bury the bodies. Many were tanners and shoemakers, and in their own villages they were ruled by their headmen. The Chief of the Etas lived at Yedo and, according to their tradition, was a descendant of the great ruler Yoritomo. He was permitted the privilege of wearing two swords.

It was not uncommon in Old Japan for an Eta to travel to a distant part and, hiding his origin, try to obtain work as a labourer and live among the people. It was a dangerous task, for if discovered he was put to death at once, and it was no easy thing to hide the marks of his race. Centuries of oppression and ill-treatment had given the Eta a peculiar and distinctive look, and his secret was often discovered.

In the year 1871 the Etas were placed beside the other people of the realm in the eyes of the law. It was also ordained that they should receive education. But for a long time the people were unwilling to have anything to do with these poor outcasts, and it fell to the gentry to lead the way in the accepting of Etas as citizens. In one village a school was needed, and some men found the money to build the school and pay a schoolmaster. But on the day of opening not a child was there. The men who had founded the school were Etas, and the Japanese would not send their children. But there was one scholar there, after all. This was no other than the Governor of the district, a Samurai gentleman. He had foreseen what would happen, so he went to the school, entered his name as a pupil, and the night before the school opened actually slept at the house of one of the Etas. The people were filled with surprise and wonder. But when they saw that he was willing to be a friend to this new class of citizens, a change of feeling took place and the school prospered.