Interlocking Ideas-Customs and Symbolism-Simplicity versus Complexity-Flower Arrangement-Teaism-The Egg-Shaped God-The Feudal Era-Ceremonial Tea- Household Decoration-Keys to Japan-The Seven Blind MenWHEN I had been several weeks in Japan, striving continually to gain some comprehension of the people and their ways, I began to feel a little bit discouraged. Never had I been so fascinated by a foreign land. Never in so short a time had I seen and heard so much that was new and strange and charming. Yet never had my observations been so fragmentary, so puzzling. My notebooks made me think of travelling-bags packed with unrelated articles of clothing. With the stockings belonging to one theme I had, as it were, packed the shoes of another. Here was a full dress coat; here a pair of overalls. Nothing was complete and no two things seemed to match. I could help to dress an army of ideas, but I wondered if I could fully clothe one.
I kept asking questions, but frequently the answers led me far afield, and were incomplete and unsatisfactory.
After a time, however, I began to understand why a Japanese so often fails to give a simple and direct answer to a simple and direct question about things Japanese. It is because, in many instances, no such answer is possible. Nor is this impossibility due to any mental kink in the Japanese of whom the question is asked. It is due to the fact that the thing asked about is not a simple, self-contained unit, but is a minute part of some great mass of thought or custom which must be in a general way understood before any single detail of it can be understood. It is as though you were to ask a question about a coloured pebble only to find yourself thereby involved with cosmos.
Japan is a land of customs. Her customs are based on principles which are rooted in traditions, which in turn frequently rest upon foundations of history, religion, superstition, or perhaps a mythology involving all three. Thus it often seems that every little word and act of a Japanese can be accounted for in some curious, complex yet essentially logical manner-that every thought in the Japanese mind has, so to speak, a genealogy, which, like the genealogy of the Japanese Imperial Family, reaches back into the mists of antiquity. Symbolism, moreover, plays an immense part in the daily life of Japan, and this fact enormously complicates matters for the foreigner who aspires to understand the country and the people. These are some of the reasons why in an article recently written for a magazine, I called Japan "The Isles of Complexities." Yet when I mentioned the title of that article to an American friend who has lived for many years in Japan, he wrote me that he considered it a misnomer.
"I should call Japan 'The Isles of Simplicities,'" he declared, "just because life there is so different from life in our own artificial civilization. I am speaking particularly of our false modesty as compared with the more natural ideas of the Japanese concerning natural functions and unnatural emotions -or emotions unnaturally excited. If you will get down to fundamentals I think you will find that we are the complex people and they the simple people. Can you, for instance, project yourself into the mind of a Martian visiting this earth for the first time, taking a trip through the dance-halls, cabarets, and midnight frolics of New York and Chicago, then going to Japan and seeing the class of entertainment there provided for natives and foreigners alike? Let such an unprejudiced outsider watch the street scenes of Japan, note the frank customs of the people, including those revealed in the community baths, and I think he would say the Japanese are essentially simple as compared with us, that they are purer in thought and action, and (though I know I am inviting contradiction) that they have on the average a higher sense of real morality."
My friend makes out a good case and I agree with much that he says, but he is thinking along one line while I am thinking along another. He is thinking of the outward simplicities of Japanese life, while I am thinking of its inward complexities, especially with regard to the relation of one fact to another-I might almost say of every fact to every other fact.
Let me illustrate:
That grouping of flowers in a bamboo vase, which you find so satisfying, is not the result of any fancy of the moment, but is the product of an elaborate art, dating back at least five centuries. Flower Arrangement is a part of the curriculum of girls' schools and is one of the accomplishments of every lady. Hundreds of books have been written on the art and there are thousands of professional teachers of it. It has, you are informed, a philosophy of its own. Confucianism is invoked. The Universe is represented by three sprays of different height-an effect often found also in plantings in Japanese gardens. The tallest spray, standing in the middle, symbolizes Heaven; the shortest, Earth; the intermediate, Man. There may be five, seven or nine sprays, but the principle of Heaven, Earth and Man must be preserved. There must never be an even number of sprays, and four is a number to be avoided above all others, since shi, the Japanese word for "four", also means "death."
Significance likewise attaches to the species of blooms and branches used. The plum blossom, which is sent to brides, symbolizes purity, and also, because it flowers when snow is on the ground, stands for courage in adversity.
But just when you begin to flatter yourself that you have acquired some understanding of Flower Arrangement you meet some one who does not follow the tenets of the particular school of Flower Arrangemerit you have heard about-which, let us say, is the popular Ikenobo school-but believes in the teachings of the Enshiu school, the Koriu school, or the Nagéire-"thrown in"-school. Or perhaps he favours the kindred art called Morimono- "things-piled-up "-which deals with compositions of fruit and vegetables; or the Morihana school, which applies the "things-piled-up" principle to flowers; or that other kindred art which teaches the making of "tray landscapes"-pictures drawn on the flat surface of a tray in pebbles and various kinds of sand.
The essential point in all Flower Arrangement is that there shall be form and balance, yet that the composition shall not be perfectly symmetrical, as perfect symmetry is not found in nature. In order to attain the desired effects the flower-stalks and branches used are carefully bent and twisted, and this work is done with such delicacy and dexterity as to conceal the fact that their forms have been altered by artificial means. I have seen a Flower Master make waterlilies stand upright on their stalks by forcing water up through the stalks with a syringe. He then set them on one of those flat metal flower-holders we have lately been learning to use in this country, so arranging them in a shallow bowl that there was an open space between the stems, which he said was "for the fish to swim through"- though the fish was in this case purely a creature of his imagination.
Many methods of making flowers draw water are also taught. Especially in the case of chrysanthemums, the ends of the stalks are burned; the end of a hardwood branch is often crushed so that it admits water more freely; certain flowers are put in hot water; others are dipped in a solution of strong tea and pepper.
The origin of Flower Arrangement is traced by Okakura to a time when ancient Buddhist saints "gathered the flowers strewn by the storm and, in their infinite solicitude for all living things, placed them in vessels of water." We are told that Soami, a painter of the Ashikaga period, was an adept, and that Juko the Tea Master was his pupil. Flower Arrangement thus became a recognized art in the fifteenth century, albeit not an independent art, since it was at first a branch of Teaism.
Teaism? They tell you you cannot understand Flower Arrangement unless you also understand Teaism. What is Teaism?
Here is unfolded to you a further range for study. You knew, of course, that the first thing which happens when you pay a call in Japan, be it a business or social call, is the arrival or a cup of clear Japan tea, and that the second and third things which happen are the arrival of the second and third cups. You knew that the tea of Japan is green tea, and that it is taken without cream or sugar from cups having no handles. You knew, perhaps, that such tea is made with hot-not boiling-water. But were you aware that tea is in its highest sense not a beverage, but a creed, a ritual, a philosophy?
The discovery of the brew is said to have been made by the Chinese Emperor Chinnung, in the year 2737 B.C., but the mythology of Buddhism traces the creation of the tea-bush itself to the diverting god Daruma-that amusing egg-shaped fellow often represented in a child's toy which, when pushed over, persists in rolling back to an upright position, thereby symbolizing unflagging aspiration. "Down seven times-up eight times," the Japanese say of Daruma.
Having meditated day and night for weeks, Daruma fell asleep. On awakening he was so vexed with his drowsy eyelids that he cut them off and flung them to the ground, where they sprouted into plants from the leaves of which a sleep-destroying beverage might be made.
The seeds of the tea-plant were brought to Japan from China in the year 805 A.D., but the initiation of the habit of tea-drinking is generally dated from the time, about four centuries later, when the priest Eisai, of the Zen sect of Buddhists-a favourite sect among artists and tea-drinkers to this day- wrote a treatise on "The Salutary Influence of Tea-Drinking," which he presented, along with a cup of tea, to one of the early shoguns, who was ill. Thus tea was first taken as a medicine "to regulate the five viscera and expel evil spirits."
Not long after this we find the drinking of tea becoming a pastime of the nobility, and by degrees we see the development of aesthetic practices in connection with it. Art objects were displayed when people met for tea; sumptuous tea-parties were given by daimyos, and one writer tells us that there came a period of decadence in the Feudal Era when warriors would lay down the sword in favour of the teapot, and die cup in hand when their castles were taken by their enemies.
Let me digress here to speak briefly of the Feudal Era, the most interesting era of Japanese history. It lasted from the twelfth to the middle of the nineteenth century-that is, throughout the period during which Japan was ruled not by its Emperors, but by several successive families of shoguns, or as for reasons given later they were sometimes called, tycoons. Though the shoguns usurped Imperial power it is a noteworthy fact that they did not usurp the throne itself nor attempt to destroy the Imperial family, but were content to keep the successive emperors in a state of impotence. Under the shoguns were the daimyos, powerful feudal lords acting in effect as provincial governors; and each daimyo had his samurai, or fighting men, holding rank in several grades. There was also a class of samurai known as ronin who acknowledged no lord as their master, but were independent fighters and trouble-makers. I give this outline because these various terms confused me at first. There was but one shogun at a time; the daimyos numbered between two and three hundred, and it has been estimated that there were some two million samurai. With a very few exceptions-among them rich farmers and swordmakers-no one below the rank of samurai could wear a sword. The sword-wearing class was the ruling class, and ordinary workers were regarded as of little consequence. A samurai could strike down with his sword any plebeian who jostled him by accident, or who as much as looked at him in a manner which he found distasteful.
The rank of samurai corresponded with that of knights in feudal Europe, and Japanese families who are descended from samurai are proud of the fact, precisely as some European families, and indeed some American families, are proud of having sprung from knightly forbears.
But to return to our tea. A Zen priest named Shuko is said to have originated the idea of associating with the habit of tea-drinking the cultivation of "the four virtues "-urbanity, purity, courtesy, and imperturbability-and this conception, originating about the middle of the fifteenth century, is to this day a tradition of the Tea Ceremony, or chano-yu.
The great soldiers Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, chief figures of the latter half of the sixteenth century, were addicts of the Tea Ceremony. It was Hideyoshi who caused the. Tea Master, Sen-no- Rikyu, to consider the various schools of Ceremonial Tea which had developed, and codify them.
The keynote of the ceremony prescribed by Sen-no-Rikyu was "simplicity" of a most elaborate kind. There must be a special teahouse in the garden-though in recent times a special tearoom in the house is considered adequate. The teahouse was required to be small. Its exact dimensions were given, down even to the height of the doorway, which was so low as to compel guests to enter with bowed heads. The house must be simple in the extreme, yet built of the choicest woods. The character of the tea equipment was specified, as was the nature of the decorations.
This was where Flower Arrangement originally came in. A kakemono-one of those Oriental paintings mounted on a vertical panel of silk arranged to roll up on a cylindrical piece of wood and ivory attached to its lower margin-must hang in the shallow alcove which is the place of honour in every Japanese room; and beneath the kakemono must be displayed an object of art or an arrangement of flowers having a certain relationship to the painting.
For example, if the painting be that of a lion the suitable flower to be displayed beneath it is the peony, because the lion is the king of beasts and the peony the king of flowers. This is merely one simple instance of an artistic association of ideas, infinite in number and sometimes complicated in character. Yet these decorative affinities are understood not only by the highly educated Japanese, but by a large proportion of the people-for the feeling for art is, I believe, distributed more widely amongst the people of Japan than amongst those of any other nation. The Japanese do not jam their homes with furniture and decorations as we so often do, but exhibit their art treasures a few at a time, keeping most of them put away. It is said that Japanese rooms look bare to the average foreigner. To me, however, their rooms do not look bare, but have an air of exquisite refinement seldom found in an American or English room.
Some Americans who have learned to appreciate the Japanese idea of decoration, and who imitate it superficially, nevertheless achieve assemblages of art objects which, because of the lack of relationship between them, offend the trained Japanese eye precisely as a discord offends a trained musical ear. As Chamberlain points out, the Japanese have few mere "patterns." They don't make "fancy figures" merely for the sake of covering up a surface. Their decoration means something- as indeed decoration has in its highest periods in all countries.
There have been many Tea Masters since Senno-Rikyu, and the names of not a few of them are remembered to this day with veneration. The chief treasure of a friend of mine in Tokyo is a little teahouse, standing in his garden, which belonged some three hundred years ago to Kobori-Enshiu, Tea Master to the third. Tokugawa shogun. If you would know how such associations are valued in Japan, go to an auction when some piece of Ceremonial Tea equipment, once the property of a famous Tea Master, is coming up for sale.
Ceremonial Tea has practically nothing to do with ordinary tea-drinking. The very tea used for the purpose is not like other tea. It comes in the form of fine green powder which is placed in a special sort of bowl in a special sort of way, whereafter water of exactly the right temperature and quantity is added, and the mixture is whipped to a creamy froth with a tiny bamboo brush, manipulated in a special manner. Great stress is laid upon the frame of mind brought into the tearoom, as well as on the etiquette and technique governing every detail connected with the making and drinking of the tea. The bowl is passed and received according to exact rules, and there is profound bowing back and forth. First it circulates as a loving-cup amongst the guests; later a special bowl is served to each in turn. On accepting the bowl the guest revolves it gently in both hands; then with as much of the calm dignity of a Zen Buddhist as he is able to exhibit, he raises it and takes a large sip. Removing the bowl from his lips lie pauses meditatively; then repeats the process. Etiquette demands that when three large sips have been taken there shall remain in the bowl enough tea to make a small sip. In disposing of this final draught great gusto must be shown. The head is thrown back in indication of eagerness to drain the last drop, and the tea is drawn into the mouth with a sucking sound which advertises the delight of the drinker.
The second night afterward he may be able to sleep. Ceremonial Tea is potent. Nor is its potency diminished by the fact that the hand which makes and serves it is a characteristically exquisite little Japanese hand, set off by the long soft sleeve of a flowered silk kimono.
Obvoiusly you cannot understand Japan without understanding the Japanese woman-the nation's crowning glory. But as Lafcadio Hearn tells you, she is not, to be understood without an understanding of the organization of Japanese society, which in turn, is not to be understood without a comprehension of Shintoism, the State religion. Everyone has a prescription for understanding Japan. One friend told me I could never understand it until I' had grasped the attitude of the people toward the Imperial House. But that is only another way of saying that Shintoism must be understood. Many, naturally, speak of Buddhism. Others mention the feudal system, with its clan loyalty, as the touchstone, and still others assured me that a knowledge of the Tea Ceremony and the No drama were essential.
"Fujiyama is the key-note of Japan," wrote Kipling. "When you understand the one you are in position to learn something about the other." Sir Charles Eliot, long before he became British Ambassador at Tokyo, wrote that it is hopeless to attempt to understand Japan without first recognizing "the peculiar spirituality of the Japanese"; but there are not wanting others to deny the existence of any such spirituality as Sir Charles describes, and who, instead, harp upon the alleged Prussianism of Japan as explaining everything.
Doctor Nitobé, the gifted Japanese author, who, like Okakura, writes delightfully in English, gives us as the key to Japan the doctrine of bushido, or "military knight ways"; but again there are students of Japan who affirm that the system of practical ethics attributed by the doctor's patriotic pen to the samurai of old, would astound those doughty warriors could they hear of it. The book "Bushido," declare these critics, is less a key to Japan than to Doctor Nitobé.
Is not the interdependence of facts, of which I spoke earlier, illustrated in the trend of this chapter, all of which, remember, grew out of a discussion of a bunch of flowers in a bamboo vase? Do you see why I called Japan "The Isles of Complexities"? And do you see that I might also call it "The Isles of Contradictions"?
Perhaps you will not be surprised, then, at my confession that after having spent several weeks in Japan I found myself fascinated but also puzzled. Why, I asked myself, had I so gaily set forth under an agreement to write about Japan? Why hadn't I made it a mere pleasure trip? For it is one thing to see and be satisfied with seeing, and quite another to attempt interpretation.
It has often been said that if a man stays in Japan six or eight weeks he can write a book about it; that if he stays a year or two he may write a single article for a magazine; but that if he stays several years he will be afraid to write at all.
"To get the Japanese background," one friend told me, "you ought to have a month or two in Korea, and at least a year in China. Then you should come back and rent a house and live in Japanese fashion for a while."
"Say about two hundred years?" I suggested.
My friend smiled.
"One hundred and fifty years might do," he said, "if you made every minute count."
Then, perhaps because he read in my face the signs of my discouragement, he reminded me of an old fable:
Seven blind men went to "see" an elephant. One of them, bumping into the great beast's side, said, "Here is a creature resembling a wall." Another, feeling the trunk, likened the elephant to a serpent; another, touching a tusk, announced that the animal resembled a spear; and still another, grasping an ear, compared the elephant to a large leaf. The one who got hold of the tail likened it to a rope, while he who embraced a leg thought of a tree, and he who crawled over the back declared that an elephant resembled a hill.
There in a paragraph you have Japan and her interpreters.