Michi and Meiji

Nobuko Albery

  • Principles of Classical Japanese Literature edited by Earl Miner
    Princeton, 281 pp, £25.00, August 1985, ISBN 0 691 06635 3
  • The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature by Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri and Robert Morrell
    Princeton, 570 pp, £39.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 691 06599 3
  • Mitford’s Japan: The Memoirs and Recollections, 1866-1906, of Algernon Bertram Mitford, the First Lord Redesdale edited by Hugh Cortazzi
    Athlone, 270 pp, £18.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 485 11275 2

I once received this stern admonition from an English editor: ‘If you intend to be a Japanese novelist whom we are translating into English, okay – I accept your manuscript as it is and will get on with publication. But if you wish to be considered an English writer, then you must rewrite. Don’t narrate to us, show us. And-then-and-then is not the way we want a story told.’ Ah, but I had been fed on the stodge of and-then-and-then all my life! In the course of the gruelling process of rewriting to show rather than to tell, I soon realised that we Japanese have a congenital difficulty in understanding the Western sense of ‘a plot’. To us a plot means suji, nothing more than a line, a sequential flow, which Professor Ueda, in a chapter in Principles of Classical Japanese Literature, explains is an antithesis of ‘plot’, in which the law of causality unites all the parts into a whole. This characteristically Japanese principle may seem more incidental, associational and irrational than its Western counterpart, so it is not surprising that Westerners often complain of meandering formlessness in Japanese novels, music, dance and theatre: but the Japanese in return find the implacable advance of a logical, causal plot suffocating. It seems to leave little room for the appreciation of what to them is the indispensable joy of any artistic expression – ma, literally ‘pause’ or ‘breath’. A Western play that drives helter-skelter towards a causal dénouement within a matter of two hours strikes them as jejune, they who adore sitting through a five or six-hour-long performance of kabuki, during which they pay blithely little attention to plot, logic or plausibility but delight in its incorporation of disconnected scenes from lengthy plays – to the point of knowing every line and gesture by heart.

The great modern novelist, Junichiro Tanizaki, wondered if Japanese writers lacked the physical strength to construct a long plot, whilst Kafu Nagai emphasised the unpredictability of the Japanese climate and the resulting tendency to believe in coincidence and fate. Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel Prizewinner, felt that pre-modern Japanese writers refrained from constructing a tightly wrought plot because they viewed life as formless and structureless. A further theory, in my rude opinion, concerns money. In the land where the morning paper Yomiuri boasts a circulation of seven million, celebrated authors vie with one another to write serialised novels for newspapers, which guarantees an excellent steady income and an eventual best-seller. And what other form is better suited for this purpose than the and-then-and-then narrative? But the authors must not idle or run out of steam. Unfortunately many do, and the Yamanoue Hotel in Kanda, the literary district of Tokyo, is famous as the place where these tardy authors are locked up by anxious editors. Yukio Mishima, who was known to be seldom late in delivering his manuscript, joked that his body-building was a gesture of defiance against the limp, greenish, unslept writers sequestered in the Yamanoue Hotel.

Whilst I remain somewhat sceptical about the aforementioned writers’ opinions, Professor Noguchi in his chapter on the great classic The Tale of Genji is most convincing when he says the structurelessness present in our writing is chiefly due to the fact that the earlier Japanese novels were more recited narratives than written tales. This explains not only the ‘indefinable quality without order and purpose’ which we cherish in terms of time and space in literature but also the polyphonic flexibility or, to put it crudely, the confusion over who in which world or context is speaking to whom at a given moment as the narrator’s voice and the fictional characters’ utterances creep in and out of the narration and the dialogue.

This narrative structure would have driven my English editor to insanity with its interminable and flat yarn of and-then-and-then undulating like a loosened roll of toilet-paper: but this helped develop a curious yet highly effective dramatic convention called michiyuki (going-the-road), to which the majority of Japanese, myself included, respond with instantly opened tear ducts and hearts. In a going-the-road scene, time and space are blended to such a point of fusion that a play-wright can ‘capture a flow of time by depicting the movements of characters who pass significantly named places’. In other words, by reciting the names of towns and heaths and rivers that King Lear must have travelled from his heath to the country near Dover where he dies, a Japanese Shakespeare would be able to grip his spectators’ agonised sympathy and carry them, totally involved, step by step, to Lear’s tragic end. Sounds fantastical? Only a month ago at the Kabuki Theatre in Tokyo I was watching two star-crossed lovers going the road to their double suicide, ecstatically received by the full-house audience: a sheer magic of the old convention, the haunting and-then-and-then!

Professor Junichi Konishi is one of Japan’s greatest living scholars and his chapter entitled ‘Michi and Medieval Writing’ is a vaut le détour even to those to whom the title suggests something as repugnantly exotic as raw ink-fish swallowed with green mustard. I myself find the idealisation of michi (Way) one of the few attitudes to life that redeem our fiercely competitive and achievement-hungry national character. The ideal of a single pursuit, based on the Zen belief that one is many and many are one, is possible only in a society as conformist as Japan, but the basic principle is simple. It matters little what you specialise in – poetry, flower-arrangement, cooking, carpentering or even tree-climbing: a lifetime devoted to the one specialism will bring you universality, authority and conformity. But the specialism must be transmitted from generation to generation: if an expert’s craft dies with him, it is not an ideal Way.

In the country where ‘a nail that shines will get knocked down,’ too much creativity or innovative talent tends to be frowned on and mistrusted. An expert or a teacher in any field is invariably called sensei (one who is born before us) and to this day the highest praise one can give to an artist is to call him a meijin (one with a great name), and of course it is understood that the name can be great only if it has been transmitted over generations. Progress and improvement of a different sort are effected through the denial of one’s immediate creativity. This conformist ethic may have done harm to lesser talents, but it may have discouraged mediocrity, and by strictly denying small ideas may have given access to ‘freedom of a higher dimension’.

As crowded universities all over Japan pour out ill-mannered, big-headed but shallowly educated graduates each year, I am beginning to appreciate the wisdom of the words of Kenko Yoshida (1282-1350) on a master tree-climber: ‘This man belonged to the lowest class, but his words were in perfect accord with the precepts of the sages.’

The belief that universal truth may ultimately be attained through concentrated specialisation is encouraging and positive: no wonder many a Japanese mother today, fed up with a dehumanising educational system, its costs and its lamentable results, is coming round to the conclusion: better to apprentice my son to a potter or a baker than to send him to college. At least he’ll have the skill and the discipline of his Way.

The last and longest chapter is by Professor Jones and it deals with a problem that faces today’s Japan just as much as it did that of the late 18th century. This concerns a language crisis: the society, having changed far more rapidly than its language, has left the latter in the lurch. The portrait Jones draws of Gennai Hiraga, whom I would describe as an 18th-century Japanese Dadaist, is riveting, and his iconoclastic use and abuse of the language made me scream with laughter: a hard-won laughter, I confess, as this was not an easy read, often requiring the stretching of wits beyond their limits and a huge oyster’s patience.

I finished reading this demanding book filled with astonished admiration at the level of Japanese studies in North America. Academic work can sometimes be an act of philanthropy. In my grateful view, the Prince ton Companion is one too. If I’d set out to gather most, not all, of what is contained in these pages, a colossal amount of time, money, patience, and a few nervous breakdowns, would have been required. The illustrations on architecture, fashion, theatre, are, seeing is believing, most helpful, and the chronological catalogues on emperors and shoguns, for example, and on the subordinate ranks and offices, will come to seem an indispensable aid for anyone getting to grips with the classical Japanese literature.

‘It is sad to reflect how few of our own career diplomats could possibly write such a brilliant and penetrating book as this on the countries to which they have been posted.’ These words appeared in the militantly progressive Asahi Journal, when, a few years ago, they reviewed a collection of Sir Hugh Cortazzi’s lectures, given in Japanese. The lectures describe his visits to provincial capitals of Japan, where he was British Ambassador, and the book, never translated into English, is entitled Island Countries East and West: Japan and England. Shortly before this, Sir Hugh had edited in English A Diplomat’s Wife in Japan by Mary Crawford Fraser, which, published in 1899, its two volumes boasting a formidable 905 pages, had long been out of print and forgotten. This is an enchanting book, which I could recommend as enthusiastically as I would Madame de la Tour du Pin’s Mémoires, venturing to add that Lady Fraser was probably a far nicer lady than the French-Irish (born a Dillon) survivor of the political changes in France from Louis IV through the Revolution, the Terror and Napoleon to Louis XVIII. The prolific Sir Hugh has now made available to the English-speaking public The Memoirs and Recollections: 1866-1906 of Algernon Bertram Mitford, the 1st Lord Redesdale. As in the case of Lady Fraser’s mammoth work, I would hardly have dared attempt lectures and correspondence which Jessica Mitford dismissed as ‘Grandfather’s depressingly huge autobiography’ – 1100 pages of it – had they not been so ably digested by Sir Hugh.

Foreign diplomats sailed their many seas to the Japanese archipelago, demanded that the Shogun open up the island after her three-century-long isolation and indirectly helped to restore the Emperor as uncontested ruler and to establish a sort of parliamentary monarchy in 1868: and it is clear that they enjoyed an incomparable advantage over the Japanese of the day in coming face to face with the boy Emperor or the deposed Shogun in far less protocol-and myth-petrified circumstances. They could observe these rulers with a disabused eye, recording their impressions free of our atavistic impedimenta and in a rather less elusive language than Japanese. Till I read Lady Fraser’s memoirs I had not come across a humanly recognisable face of the wife of Meiji Emperor. Likewise, in Mitford’s diary, the last Tokugawa Shogun, who had been only a faceless token of degeneration and empty pomp, is seen as ‘the handsome man with a clear, healthy olive colour’.

The book is rich in such refreshing discoveries and in startlingly graphic descriptions – of a ritual disembowelment, for instance, or of the very first audience granted by the Emperor to the English Ministers:

a tall youth in a white coat with long padded trousers of crimson silk trailing like a lady’s court train. His eyebrows were shaved off and painted in high up on the forehead; his cheeks were rouged and his lips painted with red and gold. His teeth were blackened. It was no small feat to look dignified under such a travesty of nature; but the sangue Azul would not be denied.

The memoirs also provide ample evidence of how acutely the Victorian English understood the Meiji Japanese. Those English who pressed for the restoration of Imperial power were denying the very raison d’être of the proud samurai class: at the same time, it is obvious that the earliest English diplomats in Japan could not help admiring the weight of the samurai tradition. Mitford uses the word ‘gentleman’ frequently and aptly; everywhere in his writing we feel the Western Island gentlemen’s intuitive sympathy for the Eastern Island gentlemen; and this innate understanding helped navigate English diplomacy over the turbulent and perilous sea of the Meiji Revolution to a spectacular triumph. Unlike their French colleagues, who backed the Shogun, the English played their game with cunning and foresight and contributed in no small measure to the transfer of power from the Shogun to the Emperor.

Unlike many Japanologists, Mitford never became fully proficient in the language, nor did he stay more than four years in Japan, returning later on two brief visits. He was not, as the French say, a tatamisé – he did not go native. By remaining positively English and detachedly respectful of the Japanese Way, he may have gained a far clearer and more compassionate insight into what others, not Mitford, would call the inscrutable Japanese. The perfect example is when the samurai who ordered his men to fire on a peaceful gathering of foreigners in Kobe was condemned to death by disembowelment. The well-meaning foreign representatives considered it politic to intercede for the life of the samurai, but Mitford staunchly opposed this abstention, saying, rightly, that the sentence was undoubtedly deserved and that the form chosen was in Japanese eyes merciful and yet judicial. The solemn death ritual went ahead.

For a Christian brought up in the complacency of upper-class Victorian England, Mitford confronted the scene of harakiri, which he and six other diplomats had been called to witness, with a truly heroic lack of prejudice. ‘The ceremony was characterised throughout by that extreme dignity and punctiliousness which are the distinctive marks of the proceedings of Japanese gentlemen of rank,’ Mitford wrote. He neither overlooked how the condemned man ‘took the dirk and looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately, before stabbing himself deeply below the waist’, nor underestimated the duty of coup de grâce, always carried out by the dying man’s best friend or kinsman: ‘In what other country in the world does a man learn that the last tribute of affection which he may have to pay to his best friend may be to act as his executioner?’

Mitford used to call himself a diplomatic stormy petrel. A constant target of assassination attempts and street harassment by fanatical samurais protesting against the opening of their country to foreigners, he never went to bed without a Spencer rifle and bayonet to hand. It is almost unimaginable that Tokyo at that epoch was far more dangerous for foreign diplomats than Belfast is today for British soldiers, and that one of the legation student-interpreters was so terrorised that he finally shot himself. ‘This suicide was followed by two more cases in a week at Yokohama legation,’ wrote Mitford laconically.

After 117 subsequent years of frenzied Westernisation it is poignant to read Mitford’s letter to his father in 1868, the first year of Meiji era:

And all this misery has come on the country simply in order that a few European merchants may be enriched. There is no concealing the fact that the advent of foreigners was the beginning of the trouble. The Japanese did not want us; they were rich, at peace, and happy in their own way. They are now impoverished, hungry, paying increased prices for everything, they have the horrors of a civil war to face. I have seen the so-called march of civilisation both in China and Japan, and I have seen it a curse to both nations.