Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

How Civilization Came to Japan

There is not much of absorbing interest in early Japanese history. For a period of some twelve hundred years nearly all that we know of the mikados is that they "lived long and died happy." No fewer than twelve of these patriarchs lived to be over one hundred years old, and one held the throne for one hundred and one years. But they were far surpassed in longevity by a statesman named Takenouchi, who served five mikados as prime minister and dwelt upon the earth for more than three hundred and fifty years. There was not much "rotation in office" in those venerable times.

We must come down for six hundred years from the days of Jimmu to find an emperor who made any history worth the telling. In truth, a mist of fable lies over all the works of these ancient worthies, and in telling their stories we can never be sure how much of them is true. Very likely there is sound history at the bottom, but it is ornamented with a good deal that it is not safe to believe.

The first personage after Jimmu upon whom we need dwell was a wise and worthy mikado named Sujin, who spent his days in civilizing his people, probably no easy task. The gap of six centuries between Jimmu's time and his had, no doubt, its interesting events, but none of particular importance are upon record.

As a boy Sujin displayed courage and energy, together with the deepest piety. As a man he mourned over the sinfulness of his people, and earnestly begged them to give up their wicked ways and turn from sin to the worship of the gods. He was not at first very successful. The people were steeped in iniquity, and continued so until a pestilence was sent to change the current of their sinful thoughts.

The pious monarch called upon the gods to stay the plague, doing penance by rising early, fasting, and bathing,—possibly an unusual ceremony in those days. The gods at length heard the voice of the king, and the pestilence ceased. It had done its work. The people were convinced of the error of their ways and turned from wantonness to worship, and everywhere religious feeling revived.

As yet Japan possessed no temples or shrines, all worship being conducted in the open air. The three holy emblems of the nation, the mirror, the sword, and the ball, had thus far been kept within the palace. Wherever they were the divine power dwelt, and the mikado, living within their influence, was looked upon as equal to a god.

But the deities taught Sujin—or at least he thought they did—that this was not the proper place for them. A rebellion broke out, due, doubtless, to the evil spirit of men, but arising, in his opinion, from the displeasure of the gods, who were not pleased with his keeping these sacred objects under his own roof, where they might be defiled by the unholiness of man. He determined, therefore, to provide for them a home of their own, and to do so built the first temple in his realm. The sacred symbols were placed under the care of his daughter, who was appointed priestess of the shrine. From that day to this a virgin princess of imperial blood has been chosen as custodian of these emblems of deific power and presence.

The first temple was built at Kasanui, a village in Yamato. But the goddess Amaterasu warned the priestess that this locality was not sufficiently holy, so she set off with the mirror in search of a place more to the taste of the gods, carrying it from province to province, until old age overtook her, yet finding no spot that reflected the clear light of holiness from the surface of the sacred mirror. Another priestess took up the task, many places were chosen and abandoned, and finally, in 4 A.D., the shrine of Uji, in Isť, was selected. This apparently has proved satisfactory to the deities of Japan, for the emblems of their divinity still rest in this sacred shrine. Sujin had copies made of the mirror and the sword, which were kept in the "place of reverence," a separate building within the palace. From this arose the imperial chapel, which still exists within the palace bounds.

We speak of the "palace" of the mikado, but we must warn our readers not to associate ideas of splendor or magnificence with this word. The Emperor of Japan dwells not in grandeur, but in simplicity. From the earliest times the house of the emperor has resembled a temple rather than a palace. The mikado is himself half a god in Japanese eyes, and is expected to be content with the simple and austere surroundings of the images of the gods. There are no stateliness, no undue ornament, no gaudy display such as minor mortals may delight in. Dignified simplicity surrounds the imperial person, and when he dies he is interred in the simplest of tombs, wonderfully unlike the gorgeous burial-places in which the bodies of the monarchs of continental Asia lie in state.

When Sujin came to the throne the people of Japan were still in a state of barbarism, and there was scarce a custom in the state that did not call for reform. A new and better system of arranging the periods of time was established, the year being divided into twenty-four months or periods, which bear such significant names as "Beginning of Spring," "Rain-water," "Awakening of the Insects," "Clear Weather," "Seed rain," etc. A census was ordered to be taken at regular intervals, and by way of taxation all persons, men and women alike, were obliged to work for the government for a certain number of days each year.

To promote commerce, the building of boats was encouraged, and regular communication was opened with Corea, from which country many useful ideas and methods were introduced into Japan. Even a prince of one of the provinces of Corea came to the island empire to live. Agriculture was greatly developed by Sujin, canals being dug and irrigation extensively provided for. Rice, the leading article of food, needs to be grown in well-watered fields, and the stealing of water from a neighbor's field is looked upon as a crime of deepest dye. In old times the water-thief was dealt with much as the horse-thief was recently dealt with in some parts of our own country.

Sujin's work was continued by his successor, who, in 6 A.D., ordered canals and sluices to be dug in more than eight hundred places. At present Japan has great irrigating reservoirs and canals, through which the water is led for miles to the farmers' fields. In one mountain region is a deep lake of pure water, five thousand feet above the sea. Many centuries ago a tunnel was made to draw off this water, and millions of acres of soil are still enriched by its fertilizing flood. Such are some of the results of Sujin's wise reforms.

Another of the labors of Sujin the civilizer was to devise a military system for the defence of his realm. In the north, the savage Ainos still fought for the land which had once been all their own, and between them and the subjects of the mikado border warfare rarely ceased. Sujin divided the empire into four military departments, with a shogun, or general, over each. At a later date military magazines were established, where weapons and rations could be had at any time in case of invasion by the wild tribes on the border or of rebellion within the realm. In time a powerful military class arose, and war became a profession in Japan. Throughout the history of the island kingdom the war spirit has been kept alive, and Japan is to-day the one nation of Eastern Asia with a love of and a genius for warlike deeds. So important grew the shoguns in time that nearly all the power of the empire fell into their hands, and when the country was opened to foreign nations, one of these, calling himself the Tai Kun (Tycoon), posed as the emperor himself, the mikado being lost to sight behind the authority of this military chief.

At length old age began to weigh heavily upon Sujin, and the question of who should succeed him on the throne greatly troubled his imperial mind. He had two sons, but his love for them was so equally divided that he could not choose between their claims. In those days the heirship to the throne seems to have depended upon the father's will. Not being able to decide for himself, he appealed to fate or divination, asking his sons one evening to tell him the next morning what they had dreamed during the night. On their dreams he would base his decision.

The young princes washed their bodies and changed their clothes, seemingly a religious rite. Visions came to them during the still watches of the night, and the next morning they eagerly told their father what dreams the gods had sent.

"I dreamed that I climbed a mountain," said the elder, "and on reaching its summit I faced the east, and eight times I cut with the sword and thrust with the spear."

"I climbed the same mountain," said the younger, "and stretched snares of cords on every side, seeking to catch the sparrows that destroy the grain."

The emperor listened intently, and thus sagely interpreted the visions of his sons.

"You, my son," he said to the elder, "looked in one direction. You will go to the east and become its governor. You looked in every direction," he said to the younger. "You will govern on all sides. The gods have selected you as my heir."

His words came true. The younger became ruler over all the land; the elder became a warrior in the east and governor over its people.

And Sujin the civilizer, having lived long and ruled wisely, was gathered to his fathers, and slept death's dreamless sleep.