CHAPTER II. THE TRADITION
THE Japanese tradition relates the formation of the islands and the origin of the race, the former crystals from the point of the Creator's spear, and the latter the descendants of the gods. Iconoclastic science shows the lands to be of volcanic origin, rising out of the Pacific, and the people to be Mongolians who came from the continent of Asia in successive waves of immigration. How long ago they came we do not know, for in their earliest memories their migrations were already long since forgotten, and no traces of them can be found in the greatly older records of China. But already, as always with the oldest families, others had preceded them and were in possession, the non-Mongolian race called Ainu, these in their turn having been preceded by still earlier settlers, who doubtless in their time made a dwelling-place for themselves by dispossessing predecessors. The Japanese followed the good old rule,
. . . "the simple plan, That they should take who have the power, And they should keep who can,"so that wars ensued for centuries, perhaps for millenniums, the Ainu mixing sparingly and ineffectively with the latest invaders and being pushed gradually eastward and northward until at last they left the main island for Yezo, where a scanty remnant still remains, conquered but unabsorbed and unassimilated, their ancient ferocity subdued, and content if their simple life can furnish means for existence and liquor in abundance for feasts, a people without history or hope.
Language allies the Japanese with a group of peoples of whom they are chief, the others living in the chain of little islands stretching southward towards Formosa, and, on the continent, in Korea. The same evidence separates them widely from the Chinese, for though all are classed as Mongolians and we in our superior way think all Mongolians one, yet the languages are wholly distinct, in no respect more akin than are Hebrew and English. If the two peoples ever were one, it was in some far-away place and time which we are powerless to name. The Japanese, in any case, in remote antiquity, travelled east until farther they could not go, and then they conquered the Ainu and occupied their land.
Remote as were their migrations, their records are comparatively recent. The traditions were first written down in 712 A.D., and the volume constitutes the first book written in their tongue, Ko-Ji-Ki; the Records of Ancient Matters. The very islands, according to one legend, were begotten by the divinities, and by and by after many stories of the gods in Heaven, Earth, and Hades, the ancestors of the emperor came down from heaven. Indeed, the distinction between heaven and earth was not great, for the two had features of the same kind and were connected by a ladder, and an "arrow shot from earth could reach heaven and make a hole in it." Up and down the ladder went beings, far other than those Jacob saw, having strange adventures. Of one "we learn of his conversations with a hare and with a mouse, of the prowess and cleverness he displayed on the occasion of a visit to his ancestor in Hades, of his amours, of his triumphs over his eighty brethren, of his reconciliation with his jealous empress, and of his numerous descendants." His name, Anglicised, was the "Impetuous Male Deity," and he was given dominion over the sea, which, however, he never tries to control, but "afterwards appears as the capricious and filthy deity of Hades, who, however, seems to retain some control over the land of the living as he invests his descendant of the sixth generation with the sovereignty of Japan." But this descendant, whose adventures were almost as remarkable as those of his ancestor, was ultimately deposed and became himself a god. Another descendant of the gods, perhaps of the Impetuous Male, perhaps of the Sun-goddess, the history leaving us in doubt, became the first "historic emperor." Those who would pursue the story in detail must be referred to Mr. Chamberlain's admirable translation, where they will learn how the connection with heaven was broken off and how it comes a descendant of the deities still occupies the Imperial throne. The modern Japanese are content with the date assigned to Jimmu Tenno, 660 B.C., as the beginning of history, but Western scholars are sceptical. Jimmu had adventures of his own, meeting people with tails, getting a crossbow from heaven, being guided by a crow eight feet in length, and marrying the daughter of a god. He died full of years, an hundred and thirty-seven years old. After his death troubles ensued which are briefly narrated, and then for five hundred years there are simple genealogies, with a list of sovereigns noteworthy for nothing but the extraordinary length of their reigns. When details are again given it is in the beginning of the Christian era, and they are chiefly marvels. Indeed, the empress (named Jingo) who conquered Korea in the third century A.D. was aided by "fishes both small and great and by a miraculous wave, and not until the beginning of the fifth century A.D. do the wonders cease."
From these Records of Ancient Matters Mr. Chamberlain has reconstructed for us the outlines of the primitive society. Wooden huts with mud floors and a low shelf running around the room on which were spread mats and the skins of beasts, were the dwellings. They had holes for windows, doors hung on hinges, and were surrounded by fences. The posts were held together by vines and thongs, the smoke from the fire finding its way out as best it could. There were conveniences which surprise us and lead us to expect a delicacy and a decency unusual in so low a stage of social development, an expectation unhappily disappointed as the narrative proceeds. Iron was in common use, with silver, gold, and bronze as curiosities from foreign lands. Food was chiefly fish, rice, and game, with vegetables, grains, and fruits. Sake made from rice was the intoxicating drink. Hempen cloth, the bark of the paper mulberry, skins, straw, and the tendrils of creeping plants furnished material for clothes. Naturally there were no schools before books, and education was confined to practice with bows and arrows. We read of hunting, fishing, and war, but not of commerce, or money, or trades. Only a love of bathing and a certain artistic gift identify the life with the civilisation of later days.
Marriage was a matter of little ceremony or of none, and sister and wife were designated by the same word. A man might have one wife or three, and divorce was at his will. In such a primitive society we should not look for language or conduct in accordance with our standards, and there was an entire unconsciousness of impropriety even in "a shocking obscenity of word and deed."
When a man died his hut was deserted and his clothing and ornaments were buried with the corpse, a custom magnified on the death of a ruler to the desertion of the capital and the burying of servants alive. After a time images were buried as substitutes, and with the coming of a more elaborate architecture the other custom fell into disuse.
The gods were as rude as the men; some were good and some were bad; some had tails; some lived in heaven, some on earth, some in Hades, and some divided their time between the three. There were gods of the sun and moon and rivers and seas; of utensils, of the kitchen, of the earth; gods innumerable. The Sun-goddess hid in a cave and was enticed out through her jealous curiosity; other gods had human wives and adventures incoherent, silly, and worse. Some of the gods are deifications of nature's powers, and some are possibly formed from the dim, exaggerated traditions of heroes, but most of the stories are dull, or revolting, and only a few merit repetition. They are in two cycles loosely connected, without real unity, and doubtless of very diverse origin. The worship of ancestors was not a part of the tradition or of the religion.
There are none of the common stories of our Western races, of a "fall of man," an Eden, a flood. As we should expect, there is no doctrine and no ethics nor any trace of a monotheistic belief. Diverse superstitions and a belief in dreams and divinations prevailed, with prayers and offerings and hymns to the gods. The temples were ordinary huts without images or adornments, and the priests were men with a special function added to their ordinary avocations. But there were no sacrifices, excepting sometimes in extremity the offering up of life, and no belief in a future state of rewards and punishments, nor in transmigration. Purifications by water were the chief rites.
The government was by the rule of petty chiefs, and only after centuries was centralisation effected. The Emperor long lived with his people and was little distinguished from them. Punishments were savagely cruel, and terribly revolting punishments remained even after the introduction of more formal law-the Chinese system involving the whole family in the guilt of a single member. Early Japan is not attractive, for its Records of Ancient Matters make sombre pictures, but so is it ever with descriptions of primitive peoples. The vital question is whether a race can survive contact with a superior civilisation. Shall it contract only vices and perish in consequence, or shall it mingle with its conquerors and lose its identity, or like the Ainu shall it offer a dull resistance so that in the midst of progress it shall remain unchanged? The fit survive, adopting the new civilisation, adapting and improving it, and in turn becoming contributors to the progress of the world. Such a process constitutes the history of Japan. The race was active, self-reliant, eager, emotional, easily moved by the marvellous, and ready to adopt the wonderful and the novel as its own, yet with its distinct characteristics which it could not lose, but must impress on its new possessions. Such were the Japanese in the beginning, and so they remain in our day.