CHAPTER XII. THE COMMON PEOPLE: FARMERS, ARTISANS, AND ARTISTS
The life of the common people is much like the life of the peasantry in other lands. Next to the samurai ranked the farmers, and some of these men were rich and lived in abundance and even in luxury. I remember the farmhouse of the older brother of a friend, standing far removed from the public road, an avenue of great trees leading to its somewhat pretentious gate. Within the gate was a mansion, comparable to the one described before in Tosa, with many rooms and a beautiful and ancient garden. The owner was a farmer on a very large scale, with five hundred tenants, and his land had come down to him through many generations of ancestors by strict primogeniture. His tenants were at his mercy, as they owned only their cabins and the land on which their cabins stood, and not a foot besides. He could not turn them out of their houses, but he could deprive them of employment at his will. My friend, in illustrating the completeness of his father's control, pointed out a cabin with the stump of a tree beside it and said: "My father had that tree cut down. I remonstrated, saying, 'The peasant gets much pleasure from it,' but he replied, 'So much pleasure that by and by he will begin to think the tree his own, so I will cut it down at once.'"
The custom as to tenant right varied in different provinces. In Tosa the peasant could possess his land so long as he paid the rent and could dispose of his lease as he saw fit, nor could the landlord increase his rent, and all the profits from improvements were his own. But in the neighbourhood of Tokyo, more directly under the Tokugawa rule, the peasants were at the mercy of their wealthier landlords. This farmer of whom I speak was not only landlord, but petty magistrate, and he was permitted on occasion to wear a single sword. Yet, though he was the most important man in the region, he was at the mercy of the samurai, and when the officials came through the district, they would stop at his house, use it as their own, treat his wife as if she were a servant, and go on their way without a cent of pay. So disagreeable were these visits that the farmer compounded for them, paying the officials a certain rate per year with which they could entertain themselves at the village inn.
Before visiting the home my friend charged me carefully as to the language I should use to his brother's wife, "For," he said, "if you use the terms with which you address the city women, she will think that you are mocking her; therefore talk to her with plain speech."
The farms of the peasants average one acre and a quarter each, and four-tenths of the products are paid for rent. It is plain that the support of a family on six-tenths of the products of an acre and a quarter is a matter of the greatest difficulty. A farmer brought me his accounts, showing the gross results of a year of labour. It came to $18, and out of this he bought most of the food which he ate and paid for all his expenses, for the peasant farmer cannot eat the rice which he grows- he must sell it and buy cheaper food, rye, wheat, and millet. In addition to the rice, he raises, on the borders of his fields and every scrap of otherwise unused land, vegetables, with which, and the cheapest of fish and the grains mentioned, he must be content. Only on high festivals, once or twice a year, can he indulge in the luxury of rice. I said to the farmer who showed me his accounts, "How can you ever make two ends meet?" and he replied, "By arithmetic the feat is impossible, but in actual life we somehow manage it."
Clothing, of course, is of the simplest, and in hot weather is almost wholly wanting. The woman shares with her husband in all the labours of the field, as of the house, and has an independence unknown to her more favoured sisters in the capital. The pleasures are found chiefly in connection with the neighbouring temple and with journeys to remoter shrines and places of note, for the common people manage in their poverty to travel. They are formed in associations in which each member pays one cent a month as dues, and once a year lots are drawn and the favoured few, taking the whole sum collected, go on pilgrimage. Sometimes on the journey they wear peculiar hats and special garments, handed down from year to year. They carry banners and with them goes some man who acts as guide, and at every point of interest volubly and loudly describes the scene. Especially in the intervals of farm work one sees these groups, aggregating thousands, going by the cheapest conveyances, stopping at the cheapest inns, eating the cheapest food, and having an amount of pleasure which any one might envy.
Only when taxation becomes unendurable does the peasant yield to discontent. There are stories in Old Japan of fierce gatherings of farmers who destroyed their landlord and his property and sometimes carried their grievances to the capitol. But under the new régime such risings are unknown, partly because the weight of taxation is less and is no longer subject to the whims of individuals, partly because the peasant now has the same rights with other men and there are other means for making his needs known, and partly because he finds new opportunities for gaining the objects which he desires.
Naturally enough, the state of morality among the peasants is low. In some provinces, in the past at least, there was a good deal of infanticide or, if the infant daughters were not killed, they were sold to lives of infamy. The men, brought up without respect for women and without ideals of high virtue for themselves, sought their pleasures in ways little above those of animals.
The hard life with its limited interests and narrow outline has driven thousands of men in the last few years to the cities. In the old days they were forbidden to leave their homes; there were barriers on all the main roads, where travellers were checked and examined and sent back if they could not give a good account of themselves. But with restrictions removed, thousands of young men have given up their ancestral homes with the monotonous toil and scanty remuneration. The jin-riki-sha men in Tokyo are largely recruited from the farmer class, as they find liberty, larger pay, less constant toil, better things to eat, and the amusements of the city. Their pay is about two cents a mile, and they earn varying sums per day. In a private family the jin-riki-sha man is content with eight dollars per month, out of which he buys his food and perhaps supports his family. He is the most pampered of his fellows, though sometimes the men who stand on the corners of the streets earn much more money for a time. It is customary to engage them at rates settled in advance, for short trips or for long. Often, like cab drivers in all lands, they attempt to take far more than their lawful fare; and sometimes discussions as to the rate of pay are noisy and prolonged, but if the traveller is wise enough to make his bargain in advance, he may be certain that his human steed will find no fault and faithfully perform his part to the end. On long journeys the jin-riki-sha men are changed at stages of, say, ten miles, but occasionally they prefer to go the whole day, making journeys that seem incredible.
On the west coast of Japan a man pulled me in one day fifty-five miles over ordinary country roads, up hill and down. I remonstrated repeatedly, but he told me that his home was at the end of our route, and he desired to get back that night. It took him eleven hours to cover the distance. At its end, taking me to the hotel, while I engaged my room and exchanged salutations with my host, he threw water over himself and put on a clean robe. Then he followed me to my room in the rear, bowed himself to the floor and said: "You must be tired after so long a ride, and I desire to know if there is not something I can do to help you."
Sometimes we would engage men by the week making a round of resorts and on these trips day by day, perhaps thirty miles would be an average run. On such long journeys the men come to consider themselves your personal servants and your friends; they are on the outlook for whatever they think will amuse or interest, pointing out bits of scenery, telling the incidents that they chance to know from history and, if they find you are interested, say, in flowers, bringing specimens. With unfailing politeness and good nature and endurance, on the whole I do not think that the coolies of Japan can be equalled by those of any other race or place. The men engaged in a family for such work could be trusted absolutely. They would take little children for any distance and to any place and their employer would be certain that no harm would come and that they would defend his interests as their own.
The artisans in the ancient régime ranked next the farmers. Nowadays the old distinctions are gone and the common people mingle as elsewhere, with little which is distinctive in life or thought.
The first impression is that the artisans are skilful, careful, and trustworthy. The second is that they are careless, idle, and ready to take advantage of ignorance or a want of vigilance. It used to be said among foreigners that one perilled his soul's salvation if he attempted to build a house, and that no one was such a saint that he could build two without losing all claim to heaven. For example, after a severe earthquake, in a time of rain, the tiles on the roof were displaced, and the entire interior of the house was threatened in case of a shower. A messenger was sent post-haste for the carpenter. Late in the afternoon he came and heard, patiently, the story of the damage done. The second day he appeared and deposited a ladder; the third day he put the ladder against the house, ascended it, and inspected the injured place, and finally, on the fourth day the work began.
An addition was to be built, and one noticed with interest the procedure. A contract had been made with a responsible man, so that our interest was merely in the fashion of the workman's life. Leisurely, at eight o'clock or thereabouts the men assembled, made a fire of chips, heated water, prepared their tea, smoked their pipes, and then began. After an hour and a half of steady work they stopped, started up the fire, drank a cup of tea, smoked a pipe, and then went back to work. At noon they took a full hour for rest and lunch, with another pause for tea and smoke in the middle of the afternoon, and an early stop for the night, gathering around the fire once more for another cup and another pipe before they parted.
Bad material, bad workmanship, extortionate prices are as common as elsewhere, perhaps not more common, notwithstanding the protests of foreign residents who are sure the Japanese are without rivals in delays and carelessness and general unreliability. So much we allow for the debit side of the account, and for the credit?
If one will exercise thorough patience, and possess expert knowledge, if he will be as nice in his choice of men as in his native land and will be as ready to pay large sums for fine work he can procure results almost unrivalled. It is a mistaken notion which is the cause of many difficulties that fine work in Japan is cheap, and that the ordinary workman is to be trusted implicitly. But the ordinary workman in Japan is like his fellow everywhere, and the extraordinary workman in Japan is also like his fellow, unusual by definition, difficult to discover, and when discovered conscious of his own value, and we may add, worth the estimate. When we get over the notion, once for all, that there is an inherent difference in psychology, and that the Japanese is something mysterious for either good or evil, and come to deal with him as with our common humanity, we find sure ground, and get on at once.
Japanese houses for the most part are flimsy in construction, with almost nothing beyond a superficial cleanliness and an artistic simplicity to recommend them. The wood of which they are made is badly seasoned and full of knots, the floors are covered with thick mats, so that the boards are left unmatched, with unfilled knot-holes, and generally untidy and unformed as if anything would do. Then the finish is given in paper, or plaster, and a little fine-grained wood is carefully chosen as ornament. Possibly the common fires have had to do with the miserable construction, it being a kind of insurance to put into the dwelling no more expense than would be covered by a few years' rent.
When a different fashion is required it can be furnished, but with these requisites,-unlimited time, unlimited patience, and a seemingly disproportionate disbursement of funds. For good work, as already indicated, is expensive and is in demand only by the rich. Yet when all is said, there is still a balance on the side of the Japanese, for even the cottages, miserable as they are, have an appearance which does not grievously offend. When one thinks of the rows of cottages in many factory towns in the West, without a touch of beauty, ungraceful, gaunt, disorderly, even the tiny cottages of Japan seem attractive in the comparison. They at least do not offend the eye, and if they are not built for ages, they cost little to construct, little for rent, and serve their purpose before they reach their predestined end and go up in flame and smoke.
When the work is fine, it is extremely good, and very costly. I remember a villa in the sub. urbs of Tokyo which belonged to a wealthy merchant. It was large, and yet in general form and fashion was like any Japanese house, but the pains which had been taken and the expense incurred were incredible. Thus, the wood in the different rooms differed in kind, and in each the exposed framework was absolutely of a colour and a grain. The timbers which supported the floor above, running around the room, had been so matched in grain that the lines seemed continuous. No less care had been taken with the garden. In its midst there was a hill, an imitation of a famous mountain, and the gardener told us it had been erected and destroyed fifteen times before the owner could be satisfied with the slope of its sides.
In the ancient days the best artisans were artists, and they were independent of the changing markets. Employed for life by the feudal barons, they worked at leisure and were under no temptation to substitute quantity of output for its perfect quality. Indeed, the tradition has it that in some instances, as in the kilns of the Lord of Satsuma, the workmen were told to break every piece which showed any flaw, as the entire output was for the Baron, and was used by him or given to his friends. Artisan and artist were indistinguishable. Ornament was not essentially adornment, but it was the perfect formation of some useful article, made beautiful according to the canons of accepted art. For such creations time was essential, whether the work be in lacquer, in metals, in porcelain, on silk, or in wood. Another fashion of work was common, when the main things were speed and cheapness, but even these productions had an artistic quality which could not be omitted in the workmanship of this æsthetic race. A foreigner wants so much for so much in such a time, and he can get it, of a most uncertain quality. But the transaction belonged to a commercial class, and the Japanese artisan of the highest order was not commercial but feudal. That is, like the samurai, he had his own ideals, and his own status, and his own way of life, and with these he was content, not being engaged in a scramble for more money or a higher position.
An artist painted some pictures for friends of mine who were travelling. We discussed the subjects and the methods of execution, and left the painter to his own ways and times, the pictures eventually to meet my friends at home after their leisurely journey around the world. At the same time the artist agreed to paint a picture for me. Its theme was religious,-the original disciples of Buddha after their attainment of salvation,-and its execution involved much detail. Long after, when the transaction had almost faded from my memory, the artist appeared with the picture, complete and mounted. His only response to my words of admiration was, "I have put my heart into it." He had painted at his pleasure, when in the mood, and nothing would have tempted him to work when the spirit failed. The sum he asked was twenty en, perhaps fifteen dollars at the current rate of exchange. He was not putting a price upon his work, but worked for the love of it, and the price enabled him to supply his simple wants. He lived in a tiny tenement in the rear of a shop, in a plebeian part of the city. His rooms cost him perhaps three dollars a mouth, and the rest of his living possibly ten dollars more. It was plain living and high art. So one would find the best workers in all the arts, in tiny apartments, in the rear of shops, with the suggestion of a garden, with the simplest wants, and working care-free at their ease.
The artist, to whom we have drifted from the artisans,-for the first in Japan is only the second working for the love of his handicraft,-has his secrets and his etiquette. It would not be Japan if organisation had not been carried to the extreme, so there are guilds with dinners, ceremonies, initiations, and mysteries. Families hand down the secrets from generation to generation, and the art is more than blood or kindred. For if the son shows no skill or aptitude, then some promising apprentice will become the heir and inherit the name and the headship of the family, as of the guild or school. This accounts for the long lines of distinguished artists and artisans and actors and all the rest. It seems astonishing that so often for many generations, son should follow father in possession of high ability until one learns the facts and discovers that adoption takes the place of nature and supplies a son who can take the father's place not by the lottery of heredity, but by the surer selection of long training and years of test, the ablest coming to the fore.
In such an atmosphere, where the thing is more important than the man, it is difficult to distinguish the original from the copy. For as the secret of the art is handed down, and, as time passes, its preservation becomes all important, almost a religious rite, copying becomes a fine art. Originality disappears, and generation follows generation in the well-worn path. When now an original is desired and not a copy, it, too, can be produced, with all the marks of age, and as such desires become common it is easy to supply the demand, so that one may have originals so long as his desires and his purse hold out. If one knows the trick there is no concealment, but the visitor will be shown the process in the shop, and one may buy his antique in the making.
Showing some friends one day through a well- known shop in Tokyo, while they were employed in looking at a variety of articles I strolled around the place and the proprietor called my attention to a peculiarly beautiful bronze antique. I know nothing of bronzes, but drew my bow at a venture, remarking, "Yes, it is very beautiful, but I prefer something which shows plainly that it is new. For I fear this preparation which gives the antique appearance will show wear, and the effect will be ludicrous." And he replied, "You need not hesitate on that account, for the preparation is so good that before it wears off the vase will be really old." So if in a commercial age people want things for fictitious purposes and at fictitious values they can be produced in quantity, in haste, with any marks desired, costly or cheap as you may wish, the work of artisans who meet a commercial demand. But if one wishes art in house building, in porcelain, in lacquer, in ivory, in painting, in gardening, or in silks, he must do as the Japanese do, wait in peace and pay as the artist works, with honour for honour, and respect for respect, and value for value.