Reversed Ideas-Some Advantages of Old Age-Morbidity and Suicide-High Necks and Long Skirts-Language- -Chinese Characters and Kana-Calligraphy as a Fine Art-The Oriental Mind-False Hair-The Mystery of the Bamboo Screens-A Note on Cats at Cripple Creek-The Occidental MindON THE day of my arrival in Japan I started a list of things which according to our ideas the Japanese do backwards-or which according to their ideas we do backwards. I suppose that every traveller in Japan has kept some such record. My list, beginning with the observation that their books commence at what we call the back, that the lines of type run down the page instead of across, and that. "foot-notes" are printed at the top of the page, soon grew to considerable proportions. Almost every day I had been able to add an item or two, and every time I did so I found myself playing with the fancy that such contrarieties ought in some way to be associated with the fact that we stand foot-to-foot with the Japanese upon the globe.
The Japanese method of beckoning would, to us, signify "go away"; boats are beached stern foremost; horses are backed into their stalls; sawing and planing are accomplished with a pulling instead of a driving motion; keys turn in their locks in a reverse direction from that customary with us. In the Japanese game of Go, played on a sort of checkerboard, the pieces are placed not within the squares but over the points of linear intersection. During the day Japanese houses, with their sliding walls of wood and paper, are wide open, but at night they are enclosed with solid board shutters and people sleep practically without ventilation. At the door of a theatre or a restaurant the Japanese check their shoes instead of their hats; their sweets, if they come at all, are served early in the meal instead of toward the end; men do their saké drinking before rather than after the meal, and instead of icing the national beverage they heat it in a kettle. Action in the theatre is modelled not on life but on the movements of dolls in marionette shows, and in the classic No drama the possibility of showing emotion by facial expression is eliminated by the use of carved wooden masks.
Instead of slipping her thread through the eye of her needle a Japanese woman slips the eye of her needle over the point of her thread; she reckons her child one year old on the day it is born and two years old on the following New Year's Day. Thus, when an American child born on December thirtyfirst is counted one day old, a Japanese child born on the same day is counted two years old.
Once when I was dining at the house of a Japanese family who had resided for years in New York, their little daughter came into the room. Hearing her speaking English, I asked:
"How old are you?"
"Five and six," she answered. Then she added, by way of explanation, that five was her "American age" and six her "Japanese age."
Old age is accepted gracefully in Japan, and is, moreover, highly honoured. Often you will find men and women actually looking forward to their declining years, knowing that they will be kindly and respectfully treated and that their material needs will be looked after by their families. Old gentlemen and ladies are pleased at being called grandfather and grandmother-o-ji-san and obá san-by those who know them well, and elderly unmarried women like similarly to be called óba san-aunt. The same terms are also used in speaking to aged servants and peasants whom one does not know, but to whom one wishes to show amiability.
The duty of the younger to the older members of a family does not stop with near relatives, but includes remote ones, wherefore poorhouses have until quite recently been considered unnecessary.
It seems to me that one of the most striking differences between the two nations is revealed in the attitude of Japanese school and college boys. Instead of killing themselves at play-at football and in automobile accidents-as is the way of our student class, Japanese boys not infrequently undermine their health by overstudy, and now and then one hears that a student, having failed to pass his examinations, has thrown himself over the Falls of Kegon at Nikko. Undoubtedly there is a morbid strain in the Japanese nature. Translations of the works of unwholesome European authors have a large sale in Japan, and suicides are by no means confined to the student class. Poisoning, and plunging before an oncoming locomotive are favourite methods of self-destruction. Once when I was riding on an express train I felt the emergency brakes go on suddenly. A moment after we had stopped I saw a woman running rapidly away on a banked path between two flooded rice-fields with a couple of trainmen in pursuit. They caught her, but after a few minutes' agitated talk during which they shook her by the sleeves as though for emphasis, let her go. We were told that the engineman had seen her sitting on the track. Two or three days later I read in a newspaper that a woman had committed suicide beneath a train at about the place where I witnessed this episode. Her husband, the paper said, had deserted her. I suppose it was the same woman.
Another curious inversion is to be found in the Japanese point of view concerning woman's dress- and undress. I have been told that our style of evening gown, revealing shoulders, arms and ankles (to state the matter mildly), does not strike the Japanese as modest. Certainly the mandate of the Japanese Imperial Court is not the same as that of the French modiste (how curiously and inappropriately the word suggests our word "mod- dest"!) for whereas, at the time of writing, the latter decrees skirts of hardly more than knee length, the former decrees, for ladies being presented at court, skirts that touch the ground. Considering the foregoing facts it is, however, somewhat perplexing to the Occidental mind to find that men and women often dress and undress, in Japanese inns, with their bedroom shoji wide open, and that furthermore they meet in the bath without, apparently, the least embarrassment.
Like the English, the Japanese are persistent bathers, but whereas the English take cold baths the Japanese bathe in water so hot that we could hardly stand it. And when they have bathed they dry themselves with a small, damp) towel, which they use as a sort of mop.
Also like the English they drive to the left of the road. There is much to be said for that, but some of their other customs of the road surprise one. Wherever they have not been. "civilized" out of their native courtesy you will find that, one chauffeur dislikes to overtake and pass another. Surely to an American this is an inversion! When a procession of automobiles is going along a road and one of them is for some reason required to stop, the cars which follow do not blow their horns and dash by in delight and a cloud of dust, but draw up behind the stationary car; and if it becomes necessary for them to go on, the chauffeurs who do so apologize for passing. This custom, which is dying out, comes, I fancy, from that of ricksha-men, who never overtake and pass each other on the road, but always fall in behind the slowest runner, getting their pace from him, protecting him against the complaints which his passenger would make if others were continually coming up behind and going by.
Of all differences, however, none is more pronounced than that of language. Instead of a simple alphabet like ours, the fairly educated Japanese must know two or three thousand Chinese ideographs, and a highly cultivated person will know several thousand more. To be sure, there is a simple way of writing by a phonetic system, not unlike shorthand, which is called kana. Every Japanese can read kana, which is sometimes also mastered by foreigners long resident in Japan. There are but forty-eight characters in kana, and as the characters have in themselves no meaning, but signify only a set of sounds, they can be used to write English names as well as Japanese words. My own name is written in kana characters having the following sounds: Su-tō-rii-tō-which being spoken in swift succession produce a sound not unlike "Street."
The Chinese ideographs used by the Japanese. have the same forms as the characters used in China, but are pronounced in an entirely different way, so that the Japanese and Chinese can read each other's writing, yet cannot talk together. Books and newspapers published in Japan are printed in a mixture of Chinese characters and kana, and there is, moreover, beside each Chinese character in newspapers a tiny line of kana giving the sound of the word represented. In this way a reader of newspapers gets continual instruction in the written language and finally comes to know the most frequently used words from the ideographs, without referring to the kana interpretation. Thus there are actually two ways of reading a Japanese paper. A thoroughly educated man reads the ideographs, while a poorly educated one reads the kana, which gives him the sound of a word that he knows by ear, though he does not know it by sight when it is written in the classic character. These conditions, of course, eliminate the use of our sort of typewriter, though there is an extremely complicated and slow Japanese typewriter which is used chiefly where carbon copies are required. Also, they render the use of the linotype impracticable, and make handtypesetting an extremely complicated trade. The difficulty of learning the Chinese characters, moreover, makes it necessary for students to remain in school and college several years longer than is the case with us. There is a movement on foot to Romanize the Japanese language, just as in this country there is a movement to adopt the metric system; but practical though such improvements would be in both cases, the realization of them is, I fear, far distant, because of the difficulties involved in making the change. And, indeed, from the standpoint of picturesqueness, I should be sorry to see the Chinese characters discarded, for they are fascinating not only in form but by reason of the very fact that we never, by any chance, know what they mean.
The Japanese write with a brush dipped in water and rubbed on a stick of India-ink; they seem to push the brush, writing with little jabs, instead of drawing it after the hand, even though they write down the column. Calligraphy is with them a fine art; and beautiful brushwork, such as we look for in a masterly painting, is a mark of cultivation. Because of their drilling with the brush almost all educated Japanese can draw pictures. Short poems and aphorisms written in large characters by famous men are mounted on gold mats and hung like paintings in the homes of those so fortunate as to possess them. A scription from the hand of General Count Nogi or Prince Ito would be treasured by a Japanese as we would treasure one from the hand of Lincoln or Roosevelt-possibly even more so, for where a letter from one of our great men has a sentimental and historical value, a piece of writing from one of their great men has these values plus the merit of being a work of art. Such bits of writing bring large prices when put up at auction, and forgeries are not uncommon.
In its structure the Japanese language is the antithesis of ours. Lafcadio Hearn declares that no adult Occidental can perfectly master it. "Could you learn all the words in the Japanese dictionary," he writes, "your acquisition would not help you in the least to make yourself understood in speaking, unless you learned also to think like a Japanese- that is to say, to think backward, to think upside down and inside out, to think in directions totally foreign to Aryan habit."
The simplest English sentence translated word for word into Japanese would be meaningless, and the simplest Japanese sentence, translated into English, equally so. To illustrate, I choose at random from my phrase book: "Please write the address in Japanese." The translation is given as: Doka Nihon no moji de tokoro wo kaite kudasai. But that sentence translated back into English, word for word, gives this result: "Of beseeching Japan of words with a place write please." And there is one word, wo, which is untranslatable, being a particle which, following the word tokoro, "a place," indicates it as the object of the verb. I shall mention but one more inversion. The Japanese use no profanity. If they wish to be insulting or abusive they omit the customary honorifics from their speech, or else go to the opposite extreme, inserting honorifics in a manner so elaborate as to convey derision.
Numerous and curious though these reversals be, they are but the merest surface ripples upon the deep, dark, pool of Japanese thought and custom.
At first I did not quite grasp this fact. In my early days in Japan, when I was asking questions about everything, it sometimes looked to me as if the average Japanese was constitutionally unable to give a direct and simple answer to a direct and simple question, and my first impression was that this was due to some peculiarity of the farfamed Oriental Mind. But that impression soon changed-so much so that I am now disposed to doubt that such a thing as the Oriental Mind exists in Japan, if by that term is meant a mental fabric constitutionally different from that, of Occidental peoples. That is to say, I believe the average Japanese child starts out in life with about the same intellectual potentialities as the average American, English, French or Italian child, and that differences which develop as the child grows older are not differences in mental texture, but only in the mental pattern produced by environment. My contention is not that Japanese brains are never imperfect or peculiar, but that their imperfections and peculiarities are precisely those found everywhere else in the world. And the same rule applies, of course, when one compares the great intellects of Japan with the great intellects of other nations. At bottom we are much more of a piece with the Japanese than either they or we generally suppose. The differences between us, aside from those of colour, size, and physiognomy, are almost entirely the result of our opposite training and customs and the effect of these upon our respective modes of thought. Neither nation has a corner on brains nor on the lack of them.
In a hotel in Kobe a lady of my acquaintance ordered orange juice for breakfast. The Japanese "boy"-waiters and stewards are all "boys"in the Far East-presently returned to say that there was no orange juice to be had that morning. But he added that he could bring oranges if she so desired.
The Oriental Mind? Not at all. The Orient has no monopoly of stupid waiters. The same thing might have happened in our own country or another. And that is the test we should apply to every incident which we are inclined to attribute to some basic mental difference between the Orientals and ourselves.
Granted the same background, could not this thing have happened in an Occidental country?
Never, in Japan, was I able to answer that test question with a final, confident "No."
Sometimes, however, I thought I was going to be able to.
One day on the Ginza, the chief shopping street of Tokyo, I saw a well-dressed young lady strolling along the walk with her long, beautiful hair hanging down her back, and false hair dangling from her hand. She was evidently returning from the hairdresser's where she had been for a shampoo. The situation, from my point of view, was precisely as if I had seen a similar spectacle on Fifth Avenue. But when I spoke about it to Yuki, who besides being our maid was our guide, philosopher, and friend, she assured me that the young lady was quite within the bounds of custom.
"We Japanese no think it shame to have false hair," she said.
Once I thought I had the Oriental Mind fairly cornered, and had I not later chanced to discover my mistake I should probably be thinking so still.
I was driving in an automobile with a Japanese gentleman, a director in a large pharmaceutical company. Parenthetically, I may say that he had been telling me how, when his company bought three hundred thousand hectares of land in Peru, for the purpose of raising plants from which some of their products are manufactured, the anti-Japanese press of the United States took up the story, falsely declaring that here was a great emigration scheme backed by the Japanese Government. But that is by the way.
Presently we came to a place where a large building was being erected. The framework was already standing and was surrounded by screens of split bamboo which were attached to the scaffolding. Having noticed other buildings similarly screened, I asked about the matter.
"Ah," said the gentleman, "the screens are to prevent the people on the streets from seeing what is going on inside."
"But what goes on inside that they ought not to see?" I asked, mystified.
My informant gazed at me gravely for a moment through his large round spectacles. Then he said, as it seemed to me cryptically: "It is not thought best for the people to see too much."
I pondered this answer for a moment, then noted it down in my little book, adding the memorandum:
"The Oriental Mind!"
Doubtless I should now be making weird deductions from that brown-eyed gentleman's explanation of the screens, had I not chanced to mention the matter to another Japanese with whom I was more intimately acquainted.
"But that is not correct," he said, smiling. "The screens are not there to prevent people from seeing in, but to prevent things from falling on their heads as they pass by."
The bamboo screens, in other words, served pre- cisely the protective purpose of the wooden sheds we erect over sidewalks before buildings in process of construction. The pharmaceutical gentleman did not know what they were for, just as we do not know the uses of a great many things we see daily on the streets of cities in which we live; he was anxious to be helpful to me; he did not wish to fail to answer any question I might ask him; so he guessed, and guessed wrong. But as any reporter can tell you, the practice of passing out the results of guessing in the guise of accurate information is by no means exclusively a Japanese practice. Reporters sometimes guess at things themselves, but that is not what I mean. I mean that a conscientious reporter now and then finds himself deceived by misinformation coming from some source he had supposed reliable.
In writing about American towns and cities I have more than once been so deceived. An old inhabitant of Colorado told me that the altitude of Cripple Creek was so great that cats could not live there. Later, however, I learned that cats can perfectly well live in Cripple Creek despite the altitude. Indeed some cats having but little regard for the character of their surroundings do live there. It is only the more critical cats who cannot stand the place.
Every American knows that he could be asked questions about his own country and its ways which he could not answer accurately offhand, but in a foreign land he expects every resident of that land to be able to explain anything and everything. I wonder if the Japanese expect as much of us when they question us.
"Why do you say 'Dear me!'?" I once heard a Japanese gentleman inquire of an American lady. And though the lady explained why she said "Dear me!" I doubt that the Japanese gentleman was able to understand. I know that I was not.
Another Japanese who had been in New York wished to know why we called a building in which there were no flowers "Madison Square Garden," and why ladies called a certain garment, once generally worn by them, a "petticoat," although it is distinctly not a coat, but a skirt.
My answers to these questions were, to put it mildly, vague, and I suppose my questioner said to himself as he listened to me:
"Ah, the Occidental Mind! How curiously it works!"