For metaphors of man we search the skies,
And find our allegory in all the air;–
We gaze on Nature with Narcissus-eyes,
Enamoured of ourshadow everywhere.


What every intelligent foreigner dwelling in Japan must sooner or later
perceive is, that the more the Japanese learn of our æsthetics and of
our emotional character generally, the less favorably do they seem to
be impressed thereby. The European or American who tries to talk to
them about Western art, or literature, or metaphysics will feel for
their sympathy in vain. He will be listened to politely; but his utmost
eloquence will scarcely elicit more than a few surprising comments,
totally unlike what he hoped and expected to evoke. Many successive
disappointments of this sort impel him to judge his Oriental auditors
very much as he would judge Western auditors behaving in a similar
way. Obvious indifference to what we imagine the highest expression
possible of art and thought, we are led by our own Occidental
experiences to take for proof of mental incapacity. So we find one
class of foreign observers calling the Japanese a race of children;
while another, including a majority of those who have passed many years
in the country, judge the nation essentially materialistic, despite the
evidence of its religions, its literature, and its matchless art. I
cannot persuade myself that either of these judgments is less fatuous
than Goldsmith’s observation to Johnson about the Literary Club: “There
can now be nothing new among us; we have traveled over one another’s
minds.” A cultured Japanese might well answer with Johnson’s famous
retort: “Sir, you have not yet traveled over my mind, I promise you!”
And all such sweeping criticisms seem to me due to a very imperfect
recognition of the fact that Japanese thought and sentiment have been
evolved out of ancestral habits, customs, ethics, beliefs, directly
the opposite of our own in some cases, and in all cases strangely
different. Acting on such psychological material, modern scientific
education cannot but accentuate and develop race differences. Only
half-education can tempt the Japanese to servile imitation of Western
ways. The real mental and moral power of the race, its highest
intellect, strongly resists Western influence; and those more competent
than I to pronounce upon such matters assure me that this is especially
observable in the case of superior men who have traveled or been
educated in Europe. Indeed, the results of the new culture have served
more than aught else to show the immense force of healthy conservatism
in that race superficially characterized by Rein as a race of children.
Even very imperfectly understood, the causes of this Japanese attitude
to a certain class of Western ideas might well incite us to reconsider
our own estimate of those ideas, rather than to tax the Oriental
mind with incapacity. Now, of the causes in question, which are
multitudinous, some can only be vaguely guessed at. But there is at
least one–a very important one–which we may safely study, because a
recognition of it is forced upon any one who passes a few years in the
Far East.


“Teacher, please tell us why there is so much about love and marrying
in English novels;–it seems to us very, very strange.”

This question was put to me while I was trying to explain to my
literature class–young men from nineteen to twenty-three years of
age–why they had failed to understand certain chapters of a standard
novel, though quite well able to understand the logic of Jevons and
the psychology of James. Under the circumstances, it was not an easy
question to answer; in fact, I could not have replied to it in any
satisfactory way had I not already lived for several years in Japan.
As it was, though I endeavored to be concise as well as lucid, my
explanation occupied something more than two hours.

There are few of our society novels that a Japanese student can
really comprehend; and the reason is, simply, that English society is
something of which he is quite unable to form a correct idea. Indeed,
not only English society, in a special sense, but even Western life,
in a general sense, is a mystery to him. Any social system of which
filial piety is not the moral cement; any social system in which
children leave their parents in order to establish families of their
own; any social system in which it is considered not only natural but
right to love wife and child more than the authors of one’s being;
any social system in which marriage can be decided independently of
the will of parents, by the mutual inclination of the young people
themselves; any social system in which the mother-in-law is not
entitled to the obedient service of the daughter-in-law, appears to him
of necessity a state of life scarcely better than that of the birds of
the air and the beasts of the field, or at best a sort of moral chaos.
And all this existence, as reflected in our popular fiction, presents
him with provoking enigmas. Our ideas about love and our solicitude
about marriage furnish some of these enigmas. To the young Japanese,
marriage appears a simple, natural duty, for the due performance of
which his parents will make all necessary arrangements at the proper
time. That foreigners should have so much trouble about getting married
is puzzling enough to him; but that distinguished authors should write
novels and poems about such matters, and that those novels and poems
should be vastly admired, puzzles him infinitely more,–seems to him
“very, very strange.”

My young questioner said “strange” for politeness’ sake. His real
thought would have been more accurately rendered by the word
“indecent.” But when I say that to the Japanese mind our typical novel
appears indecent, highly indecent, the idea thereby suggested to my
English readers will probably be misleading. The Japanese are not
morbidly prudish. Our society novels do not strike them as indecent
because the theme is love. The Japanese have a great deal of literature
about love. No; our novels seem to them indecent for somewhat the same
reason that the Scripture text, “For this cause shall a man leave his
father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife,” appears to them
one of the most immoral sentences ever written. In other words, their
criticism requires a sociological explanation. To explain fully why our
novels are, to their thinking, indecent, I should have to describe the
whole structure, customs, and ethics of the Japanese family, totally
different from anything in Western life; and to do this even in a
superficial way would require a volume. I cannot attempt a complete
explanation; I can only cite some facts of a suggestive character.

To begin with, then, I may broadly state that a great deal of our
literature, besides its fiction, is revolting to the Japanese moral
sense, not because it treats of the passion of love per se, but
because it treats of that passion in relation to virtuous maidens, and
therefore in relation to the family circle. Now, as a general rule,
where passionate love is the theme in Japanese literature of the best
class, it is not that sort of love which leads to the establishment
of family relations. It is quite another sort of love,–a sort of
love about which the Oriental is not prudish at all,–the _mayoi_, or
infatuation of passion, inspired by merely physical attraction; and its
heroines are not the daughters of refined families, but mostly hetæræ,
or professional dancing-girls. Neither does this Oriental variety
of literature deal with its subject after the fashion of sensuous
literature in the West,–French literature, for example: it considers
it from a different artistic standpoint, and describes rather a
different order of emotional sensations.

A national literature is of necessity reflective: and we may
presume that what it fails to portray can have little or no outward
manifestation in the national life. Now, the reserve of Japanese
literature regarding that love which is the great theme of our greatest
novelists and poets is exactly paralleled by the reserve of Japanese
society in regard to the same topic. The typical woman often figures
in Japanese romance as a heroine; as a perfect mother; as a pious
daughter, willing to sacrifice all for duty; as a loyal wife, who
follows her husband into battle, fights by his side, saves his life at
the cost of her own; never as a sentimental maiden, dying, or making
others die, for love. Neither do we find her on literary exhibition as
a dangerous beauty, a charmer of men; and in the real life of Japan
she has never appeared in any such rôle. Society, as a mingling of the
sexes, as an existence of which the supremely refined charm is the
charm of woman, has never existed in the East. Even in Japan, society,
in the special sense of the word, remains masculine. Nor is it easy
to believe that the adoption of European fashions and customs within
some restricted circles of the capital indicates the beginning of such
a social change as might eventually remodel the national life according
to Western ideas of society. For such a remodeling would involve the
dissolution of the family, the disintegration of the whole social
fabric, the destruction of the whole ethical system,–the breaking up,
in short, of the national life.

Taking the word “woman” in its most refined meaning, and postulating
a society in which woman seldom appears, a society in which she is
never placed “on display,” a society in which wooing is utterly out of
the question, and the faintest compliment to wife or daughter is an
outrageous impertinence, the reader can at once reach some startling
conclusions as to the impression made by our popular fiction upon
members of that society. But, although partly correct, his conclusions
must fall short of the truth in certain directions, unless he also
possess some knowledge of the restraints of that society and of the
ethical notions behind the restraints. For example, a refined Japanese
never speaks to you about his wife (I am stating the general rule),
and very seldom indeed about his children, however proud of them he
may be. Rarely will he be heard to speak about any of the members of
his family, about his domestic life, about any of his private affairs.
But if he should happen to talk about members of his family, the
persons mentioned will almost certainly be his parents. Of them he will
speak with a reverence approaching religious feeling, yet in a manner
quite different from that which would be natural to an Occidental,
and never so as to imply any mental comparison between the merits of
his own parents and those of other men’s parents. But he will not
talk about his wife even to the friends who were invited as guests to
his wedding. And I think I may safely say that the poorest and most
ignorant Japanese, however dire his need, would never dream of trying
to obtain aid or to invoke pity by the mention of his wife–perhaps
not even of his wife and children. But he would not hesitate to ask
help for the sake of his parents or his grandparents. Love of wife and
child, the strongest of all sentiments with the Occidental, is judged
by the Oriental to be a selfish affection. He professes to be ruled
by a higher sentiment,–duty: duty, first, to his Emperor; next, to
his parents. And since love can he classed only as an ego-altruistic
feeling, the Japanese thinker is not wrong in his refusal to consider
it the loftiest of motives, however refined or spiritualized it may he.

In the existence of the poorer classes of Japan there are no secrets;
but among the upper classes family life is much less open to
observation than in any country of the West, not excepting Spain. It
is a life of which foreigners see little, and know almost nothing, all
the essays which have been written about Japanese women to the contrary
notwithstanding.[1] Invited to the home of a Japanese friend, you may
or may not see the family. It will depend upon circumstances.

If you see any of them, it will probably be for a moment only, and
in that event you will most likely see the wife. At the entrance
you give your card to the servant, who retires to present it, and
presently returns to usher you into the zashiki, or guest-room, always
the largest and finest apartment in a Japanese dwelling, where your
kneeling-cushion is ready for you, with a smoking-box before it. The
servant brings you tea and cakes. In a little time the host himself
enters, and after the indispensable salutations conversation begins.
Should you be pressed to stay for dinner, and accept the invitation,
it is probable that the wife will do you the honor, as her husband’s
friend, to wait upon you during an instant. You may or may not be
formally introduced to her; but a glance at her dress and coiffure
should be sufficient to inform you at once who she is, and you must
greet her with the most profound respect. She will probably impress you
(especially if your visit be to a samurai home) as a delicately refined
and very serious person, by no means a woman of the much-smiling and
much-bowing kind. She will say extremely little, but will salute you,
and will serve you for a moment with a natural grace of which the mere
spectacle is a revelation, and glide away again, to remain invisible
until the instant of your departure, when she will reappear at the
entrance to wish you good-by. During other successive visits you may
have similar charming glimpses of her; perhaps, also, some rarer
glimpses of the aged father and mother; and if a much favored visitor,
the children may at last come to greet you, with wonderful politeness
and sweetness. But the innermost intimate life of that family will
never be revealed to you. All that you see to suggest it will be
refined, courteous, exquisite, but of the relation of those souls to
each other you will know nothing. Behind the beautiful screens which
mask the further interior, all is silent, gentle mystery. There is no
reason, to the Japanese mind, why it should be otherwise. Such family
life is sacred; the home is a sanctuary, of which it were impious to
draw aside the veil. Nor can I think this idea of the sacredness of
home and of the family relation in any wise inferior to our highest
conception of the home and the family in the West.

Should there be grown-up daughters in the family, however, the visitor
is less likely to see the wife. More timid, but equally silent and
reserved, the young girls will make the guest welcome. In obedience to
orders, they may even gratify him by a performance upon some musical
instrument, by exhibiting some of their own needlework or painting, or
by showing to him some precious or curious objects among the family
heirlooms. But all submissive sweetness and courtesy are inseparable
from the high-bred reserve belonging to the finest native culture. And
the guest must not allow himself to be less reserved. Unless possessing
the privilege of great age, which would entitle him to paternal freedom
of speech, he must never venture upon personal compliment, or indulge
in anything resembling light flattery. What would be deemed gallantry
in the West may be gross rudeness in the East. On no account can
the visitor compliment a young girl about her looks, her grace, her
toilette, much less dare address such a compliment to the wife. But,
the reader may object, there are certainly occasions upon which a
compliment of some character cannot be avoided. This is true, and on
such an occasion politeness requires, as a preliminary, the humblest
apology for making the compliment, which will then be accepted with a
phrase more graceful than our “Pray do not mention it;”–that is, the
rudeness of making a compliment at all.

But here we touch the vast subject of Japanese etiquette, about which
I must confess myself still profoundly ignorant. I have ventured thus
much only in order to suggest how lacking: in refinement much of our
Western society fiction must appear to the Oriental mind.

To speak of one’s affection for wife or children, to bring into
conversation anything closely related to domestic life, is totally
incompatible with Japanese ideas of good breeding. Our open
acknowledgment, or rather exhibition, of the domestic relation
consequently appears to cultivated Japanese, if not absolutely
barbarous, at least uxorious. And this sentiment may be found to
explain not a little in Japanese life which has given foreigners a
totally incorrect idea about the position of Japanese women. It is not
the custom in Japan for the husband even to walk side by side with
his wife in the street, much less to give her his arm, or to assist
her in ascending or descending a flight of stairs. But this is not
any proof upon his part of want of affection. It is only the result
of a social sentiment totally different from our own; it is simply
obedience to an etiquette founded upon the idea that public displays of
the marital relation are improper. Why improper? Because they seem to
Oriental judgment to indicate a confession of personal, and therefore
selfish sentiment For the Oriental the law of life is duty. Affection
must, in every time and place, be subordinated to duty. Any public
exhibition of personal affection of a certain class is equivalent to
a public confession of moral weakness. Does this mean that to love
one’s wife is amoral weakness? No; it is the duty of a man to love his
wife; but it is moral weakness to love her more than his parents, or
to show her, in public, more attention than he shows to his parents.
Nay, it would be a proof of moral weakness to show her even the _same_
degree of attention. During the lifetime of the parents her position
in the household is simply that of an adopted daughter, and the most
affectionate of husbands must not even for a moment allow himself to
forget the etiquette of the family.

Here I must touch upon one feature of Western literature never to be
reconciled with Japanese ideas and customs. Let the reader reflect
for a moment how large a place the subject of kisses and caresses and
embraces occupies in our poetry and in our prose fiction; and then
let him consider the fact that in Japanese literature these have no
existence whatever. For kisses and embraces are simply unknown in Japan
as tokens of affection, if we except the solitary fact that Japanese
mothers, like mothers all over the world, lip and hug their little
ones betimes. After babyhood there is no more hugging or kissing. Such
actions, except in the case of infants, are held to be highly immodest.
Never do girls kiss one another; never do parents kiss or embrace
their children who have become able to walk. And this rule holds good
of all classes of society, from the highest nobility to the humblest
peasantry. Neither have we the least indication throughout Japanese
literature of any time in the history of the race when affection
was more demonstrative than it is to-day. Perhaps the Western reader
will find it hard even to imagine a literature in the whole course of
which no mention is made of kissing, of embracing, even of pressing
a loved hand; for hand-clasping is an action as totally foreign to
Japanese impulse as kissing. Yet on these topics even the naïve songs
of the country folk, even the old ballads of the people about unhappy
lovers, are quite as silent as the exquisite verses of the court
poets. Suppose we take for an example the ancient popular ballad of
Shuntokumaru, which has given origin to various proverbs and household
words familiar throughout western Japan. Here we have the story of two
betrothed lovers, long separated by a cruel misfortune, wandering in
search of each other all over the Empire, and at last suddenly meeting
before Kiomidzu Temple by the favor of the gods. Would not any Aryan
poet describe such a meeting as a rushing of the two into each other’s
arms, with kisses and cries of love? But how does the old Japanese
ballad describe it? In brief, the twain only sit down together _and
stroke each other a little._ Now, even this reserved form of caress is
an extremely rare indulgence of emotion. You may see again and again
fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, meeting
after years of absence, yet you will probably never see the least
approach to a caress between them. They will kneel down and salute
each other, and smile, and perhaps cry a little for joy; but they will
neither rush into each other’s arms, nor utter extraordinary phrases of
affection. Indeed, such terms of affection as “my dear,” “my darling,”
“my sweet,” “my love,” “my life,” do not exist in Japanese, nor any
terms at all equivalent to our emotional idioms. Japanese affection is
not uttered in words; it scarcely appears even in the tone of voice: it
is chiefly shown in acts of exquisite courtesy and kindness. I might
add that the opposite emotion is under equally perfect control; but to
illustrate this remarkable fact would require a separate essay.

[1] I do not, however, refer to those extraordinary persons who make
their short residence in teahouses and establishments of a much worse
kind, and then go home to write books about the women of Japan.


He who would study impartially the life and thought of the Orient
must also study those of the Occident from the Oriental point of
view. And the results of such a comparative study he will find to
be in no small degree retroactive. According to his character and
his faculty of perception, he will be more or less affected by those
Oriental influences to which he submits himself. The conditions of
Western life will gradually begin to assume for him new, undreamed-of
meanings, and to lose not a few of their old familiar aspects. Much
that he once deemed right and true he may begin to find abnormal and
false. He may begin to doubt whether the moral ideals of the West are
really the highest. He may feel more than inclined to dispute the
estimate placed by Western custom upon Western civilization. Whether
his doubts be final is another matter: they will be at least rational
enough and powerful enough to modify permanently some of his prior
convictions,–among others his conviction of the moral value of the
Western worship of Woman as the Unattainable, the Incomprehensible,
the Divine, the ideal of “_la femme que tu ne connaîtras pas,_”[1]–the
ideal of the Eternal Feminine. For in this ancient East the Eternal
Feminine does not exist at all. And after having become quite
accustomed to live without it, one may naturally conclude that it is
not absolutely essential to intellectual health, and may even dare to
question the necessity for its perpetual existence upon the other side
of the world.

[1] A phrase from Baudelaire.


To say that the Eternal Feminine does not exist in the Far East is to
state but a part of the truth. That it could be introduced thereinto,
in the remotest future, is not possible to imagine. Few, if any, of
our ideas regarding it can even be rendered into the language of the
country: a language in which nouns have no gender, adjectives no
degrees of comparison, and verbs no persons; a language in which,
says Professor Chamberlain, the absence of personification is “a
characteristic so deep-seated and so all-pervading as to interfere even
with the use of neuter nouns in combination with transitive verbs.”[1]
“In fact,” he adds, “most metaphors and allegories are incapable of so
much as explanation to Far-Eastern minds;” and he makes a striking
citation from Wordsworth in illustration of his statement. Yet even
poets much more lucid than Wordsworth are to the Japanese equally
obscure. I remember the difficulty I once had in explaining to an
advanced class this simple line from a well-known ballad of Tennyson,–

“She is more beautiful than day.”

My students could understand the use of the adjective “beautiful”
to qualify “day,” and the use of the same adjective, separately, to
qualify the word “maid.” But that there could exist in any mortal mind
the least idea of analogy between the beauty of day and the beauty
of a young woman was quite beyond their understanding. In order to
convey to them the poet’s thought, it was necessary to analyze it
psychologically,–to prove a possible nervous analogy between two modes
of pleasurable feeling excited by two different impressions.

Thus, the very nature of the language tells us how ancient and how
deeply rooted in racial character are those tendencies by which we must
endeavor to account–if there be any need of accounting at all–for
the absence in this Far East of a dominant ideal corresponding to
our own. They are causes incomparably older than the existing social
structure, older than the idea of the family, older than ancestor
worship, enormously older than that Confucian code which is the
reflection rather than the explanation of many singular facts in
Oriental life. But since beliefs and practices react upon character,
and character again must react upon practices and beliefs, it has
not been altogether irrational to seek in Confucianism for causes as
well as for explanations. Far more irrational have been the charges
of hasty critics against Shintō and against Buddhism as religious
influences opposed to the natural rights of woman. The ancient faith
of Shintō has been at least as gentle to woman as the ancient faith
of the Hebrews. Its female divinities are not less numerous than its
masculine divinities, nor are they presented to the imagination of
worshipers in a form much less attractive than the dreams of Greek
mythology. Of some, like So-tohori-no-Iratsumé, it is said that the
light of their beautiful bodies passes through their garments; and the
source of all life and light, the eternal Sun, is a goddess, fair
Amaterasu-oho-mi-kami. Virgins serve the ancient gods, and figure in
all the pageants of the faith; and in a thousand shrines throughout
the land the memory of woman as wife and mother is worshiped equally
with the memory of man as hero and father. Neither can the later and
alien faith of Buddhism be justly accused of relegating woman to a
lower place in the spiritual world than monkish Christianity accorded
her in the West. The Buddha, like the Christ, was horn of a virgin;
the most lovable divinities of Buddhism, Jizo excepted, are feminine,
both in Japanese art and in Japanese popular fancy; and in the Buddhist
as in the Roman Catholic hagiography, the lives of holy women hold
honored place. It is true that Buddhism, like early Christianity, used
its utmost eloquence in preaching against the temptation of female
loveliness; and it is true that in the teaching of its founder, as
in the teaching of Paul, social and spiritual supremacy is accorded
to the man. Yet, in our search for texts on this topic, we must not
overlook the host of instances of favor shown by the Buddha to women of
all classes, nor that remarkable legend of a later text, in which a
dogma denying to woman the highest spiritual opportunities is sublimely

In the eleventh chapter of the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law, it
is written that mention was made before the Lord Buddha of a young girl
who had in one instant arrived at supreme knowledge; who had in one
moment acquired the merits of a thousand meditations, and the proofs of
the essence of all laws. And the girl came and stood in the presence of
the Lord.

But the Bodhissattva Pragnakuta doubted, saying, “I have seen the Lord
Sakyamuni in the time when he was striving for supreme enlightenment,
and I know that he performed good works innumerable through countless
æons. In all the world there is not one spot so large as a grain of
mustard-seed where he has not surrendered his body for the sake of
living creatures. Only after all this did he arrive at enlightenment.
Who then may believe this girl could in one moment have arrived at
supreme knowledge?”

And the venerable priest Sariputra likewise doubted, saying, “It may
indeed happen, O Sister, that a woman fulfill the six perfect virtues;
but as yet there is no example of her having attained to Buddhaship,
because a woman cannot attain to the rank of a Bodhissattva.”

But the maiden called upon the Lord Buddha to be her witness. And
instantly in the sight of the assembly her sex disappeared; and she
manifested herself as a Bodhissattva, filling all directions of space
with the radiance of the thirty-two signs. And the world shook in six
different ways. And the priest Sariputra was silent.[2]

[1] _See Things Japanese_, second edition, pp. 255, 256; article

[2] See the whole wonderful passage in Kern’s translation of this
magnificent Sutra, _Sacred Books of the East_, vol. xxi. chap. xi.


But to feel the real nature of what is surely one of the greatest
obstacles to intellectual sympathy between the West and the Far East,
we must fully appreciate the immense effect upon Occidental life of
this ideal which has no existence in the Orient. We must remember what
that ideal has been to Western civilization,–to all its pleasures
and refinements and luxuries; to its sculpture, painting, decoration,
architecture, literature, drama, music; to the development of countless
industries. We must think of its effect upon manners, customs, and
the language of taste, upon conduct and ethics, upon endeavor, upon
philosophy and religion, upon almost every phase of public and private
life,–in short, upon national character. Nor should we forget that
the many influences interfused in the shaping of it–Teutonic, Celtic,
Scandinavian, classic, or mediæval, the Greek apotheosis of human
beauty, the Christian worship of the mother of God, the exaltations
of chivalry, the spirit of the Renascence steeping and coloring all
the preëxisting idealism in a new sensuousness–must have had their
nourishment, if not their birth, in a race feeling ancient as Aryan
speech, and as alien the most eastern East.

Of all these various influences combined to form our ideal, the classic
element remains perceptibly dominant. It is true that the Hellenic
conception of human beauty, so surviving, has been wondrously informed
with a conception of soul beauty never of the antique world nor of
the Renascence. Also it is true that the new philosophy of evolution,
forcing recognition of the incalculable and awful cost of the Present
to the Past, creating a totally new comprehension of duty to the
Future, enormously enhancing our conception of character values, has
aided more than all preceding influences together toward the highest
possible spiritualization of the ideal of woman. Yet, however further
spiritualized it may become through future intellectual expansion,
this ideal must in its very nature remain fundamentally artistic and

We do not see Nature as the Oriental sees it, and as his art proves
that he sees it. We see it less realistically, we know it less
intimately, because, save through the lenses of the specialist, we
contemplate it anthropomorphically. In one direction, indeed, our
æsthetic sense has been cultivated to a degree incomparably finer
than that of the Oriental; but that direction has been passional. We
have learned something of the beauty of Nature through our ancient
worship of the beauty of woman. Even from the beginning it is probable
that the perception of human beauty has been the main source of all
our æsthetic sensibility. Possibly we owe to it likewise our idea of
proportion;[1] our exaggerated appreciation of regularity; our fondness
for parallels, curves, and all geometrical symmetries. And in the long
process of our æsthetic evolution, the ideal of woman has at last
become for us an æsthetic abstraction. Through the illusion of that
abstraction only do we perceive the charms of our world, even as forms
might be perceived through some tropic atmosphere whose vapors are

Nor is this all. Whatsoever has once been likened to woman by art or
thought has been strangely informed and transformed by that momentary
symbolism: wherefore, through all the centuries Western fancy has
been making Nature more and more feminine. Whatsoever delights us
imagination has feminized,–the infinite tenderness of the sky,–the
mobility of waters,–the rose of dawn,–the vast caress of Day,–Night,
and the lights of heaven,–even the undulations of the eternal hills.
And flowers, and the flush of fruit, and all things fragrant, fair,
and gracious; the genial seasons with their voices; the laughter of
streams, and whisper of leaves, and ripplings of song within the
shadows;–all sights, or sounds, or sensations that can touch our love
of loveliness, of delicacy, of sweetness, of gentleness, make for us
vague dreams of woman. Where our fancy lends masculinity to Nature,
it is only in grimness and in force,–as if to enhance by rugged and
mighty contrasts the witchcraft of the Eternal Feminine. Nay, even the
terrible itself, if fraught with terrible beauty,–even Destruction, if
only shaped with the grace of destroyers,–becomes for us feminine. And
not beauty alone, of sight or sound, but well-nigh all that is mystic,
sublime, or holy, now makes appeal to us through some marvelously
woven intricate plexus of passional sensibility. Even the subtlest
forces of our universe speak to us of woman; new sciences have taught
us new names for the thrill her presence wakens in the blood, for
that ghostly shock which is first love, for the eternal riddle of her
fascination. Thus, out of simple human passion, through influences
and transformations innumerable, we have evolved a cosmic emotion, a
feminine pantheism.

[1] On the origin of the idea of bilateral symmetry, see Herbert
Spencer’s essay, “The Sources of Architectural Types.”


And now may not one venture to ask whether all the consequences of this
passional influence in the æsthetic evolution of our Occident have been
in the main beneficial? Underlying all those visible results of which
we boast as art triumphs, may there not be lurking invisible results,
some future revelation of which will cause more than a little shock to
our self-esteem? Is it not quite possible that our æsthetic faculties
have been developed even abnormally in one direction by the power of a
single emotional idea which has left us nearly, if not totally blind
to many wonderful aspects of Nature? Or rather, must not this be the
inevitable effect of the extreme predominance of one particular emotion
in the evolution of our æsthetic sensibility? And finally, one may
surely be permitted to ask if the predominating influence itself has
been the highest possible, and whether there is not a higher, known
perhaps to the Oriental soul.

I may only suggest these questions, without hoping to answer them
satisfactorily. But the longer I dwell in the East, the more I feel
growing upon me the belief that there are exquisite artistic faculties
and perceptions, developed in the Oriental, of which we can know
scarcely more than we know of those unimaginable colors, invisible to
the human eye, yet proven to exist by the spectroscope. I think that
such a possibility is indicated by certain phases of Japanese art.

Here it becomes as difficult as dangerous to particularize. I dare
hazard only some general observations. I think this marvelous art
asserts that, out of the infinitely varied aspects of Nature, those
which for us hold no suggestion whatever of sex character, those
which cannot be looked at anthropomorphically, those which are
neither masculine nor feminine, but neuter or nameless, are those
most profoundly loved and comprehended by the Japanese. Nay, he sees
in Nature much that for thousands of years has remained invisible to
us; and we are now learning from him aspects of life and beauties
of form to which we were utterly blind before. We have finally
made the startling discovery that his art–notwithstanding all
the dogmatic assertions of Western prejudice to the contrary, and
notwithstanding the strangely weird impression of unreality which
at first it produced–is never a mere creation of fantasy, but a
veritable reflection of what has been and of what is: wherefore we
have recognized that it is nothing less than a higher education in art
simply to look at his studies of bird life, insect life, plant life,
tree life. Compare, for example, our very finest drawings of insects
with Japanese drawings of similar subjects. Compare Giacomelli’s
illustrations to Michelet’s “L’Insecte” with the commonest Japanese
figures of the same creatures decorating the stamped leather of a cheap
tobacco pouch or the metal work of a cheap pipe. The whole minute
exquisiteness of the European engraving has accomplished only an
indifferent realism, while the Japanese artist, with a few dashes of
his brush, has seized and reproduced, with an incomprehensible power
of interpretation, not only every peculiarity of the creature’s shape,
but every special characteristic of its motion. Each figure flung from
the Oriental painter’s brush is a lesson, a revelation, to perceptions
unbeclouded by prejudice, an opening of the eyes of those who can see,
though it be only a spider in a wind-shaken web, a dragon-fly riding
a sunbeam, a pair of crabs running through sedge, the trembling of a
fish’s fins in a clear current, the lilt of a flying wasp, the pitch of
a flying duck, a mantis in fighting position, or a semi toddling up a
cedar branch to sing. All this art is alive, intensely alive, and our
corresponding art looks absolutely dead beside it.

Take, again, the subject of flowers. An English or German flower
painting, the result of months of trained labor, and valued at several
hundred pounds, would certainly not compare as a nature study, in
the higher sense, with a Japanese flower painting executed in twenty
brush strokes, and worth perhaps five sen. The former would represent
at best but an ineffectual and painful effort to imitate a massing
of colors. The latter would prove a perfect memory of certain flower
shapes instantaneously flung upon paper, without any model to aid,
and showing, not the recollection of any individual blossom, but the
perfect realization of a general law of form expression, perfectly
mastered, with all its moods, tenses, and inflections. The French
alone, among Western art critics, seem fully to understand these
features of Japanese art; and among all Western artists it is the
Parisian alone who approaches the Oriental in his methods. Without
lifting his brush from the paper, the French artist may sometimes,
with a single wavy line, create the almost speaking figure of a
particular type of man or woman. But this high development of faculty
is confined chiefly to humorous sketching; it is still either
masculine or feminine. To understand what I mean by the ability of
the Japanese artist, my reader must imagine just such a power of
almost instantaneous creation as that which characterizes certain
French work, applied to almost every subject except individuality,
to nearly all recognized general types, to all aspects of Japanese
nature, to all forms of native landscape, to clouds and flowing water
and mists, to all the life of woods and fields, to all the moods of
seasons and the tones of horizons and the colors of the morning and
the evening. Certainly, the deeper spirit of this magical art seldom
reveals itself at first sight to unaccustomed eyes, since it appeals
to so little in Western æsthetic experience. But by gentle degrees it
will so enter into an appreciative and unprejudiced mind as to modify
profoundly therein almost every preëxisting sentiment in relation to
the beautiful. All of its meaning will indeed require many years to
master, but something of its reshaping power will be felt in a much
shorter time when the sight of an American illustrated magazine or of
any illustrated European periodical has become almost unbearable.

Psychological differences of far deeper import are suggested by
other facts, capable of exposition in words, but not capable of
interpretation through Western standards of æsthetics or Western
feeling of any sort. For instance, I have been watching two old men
planting young trees in the garden of a neighboring temple. They
sometimes spend nearly an hour in planting a single sapling. Having
fixed it in the ground, they retire to a distance to study the position
of all its lines, and consult together about it. As a consequence, the
sapling is taken up and replanted in a slightly different position.
This is done no less than eight times before the little tree can be
perfectly adjusted into the plan of the garden. Those two old men are
composing a mysterious thought with their little trees, changing them,
transferring them, removing or replacing them, even as a poet changes
and shifts his words, to give to his verse the most delicate or the
most forcible expression possible.

In every large Japanese cottage there are several alcoves, or tokonoma,
one in each of the principal rooms. In these alcoves the art treasures
of the family are exhibited.[1] Within each toko a kakemono is hung;
and upon its slightly elevated floor (usually of polished wood)
are placed flower vases and one or two artistic objects. Flowers
are arranged in the toko vases according to ancient rules which Mr.
Conder’s beautiful hook will tell you a great deal about; and the
kakemono and the art objects there displayed are changed at regular
intervals, according to occasion and season. Now, in a certain alcove,
I have at various times seen many different things of beauty: a
Chinese statuette of ivory, an incense vase of bronze,–representing a
cloud-riding pair of dragons,–the wood carving of a Buddhist pilgrim
resting by the wayside and mopping his bald pate, masterpieces of
lacquer ware and lovely Kyōto porcelains, and a large stone placed on
a pedestal of heavy, costly wood, expressly made for it. I do not know
whether you could see any beauty in that stone; it is neither hewn nor
polished, nor does it possess the least imaginable intrinsic value.
It is simply a gray water-worn stone from the bed of a stream. Yet it
cost more than one of those Kyōto vases which sometimes replace it, and
which you would be glad to pay a very high price for.

In the garden of the little house I now occupy in Kumamoto, there are
about fifteen rocks, or large stones, of as many shapes and sizes.
They also have no real intrinsic value, not even as possible building
material. And yet the proprietor of the garden paid for them something
more than seven hundred and fifty Japanese dollars, or considerably
more than the pretty house itself could possibly have cost. And it
would be quite wrong to suppose the cost of the stones due to the
expense of their transportation from the bed of the Shira-kawa. No;
they are worth seven hundred and fifty dollars only because they are
considered beautiful to a certain degree, and because there is a large
local demand for beautiful stones. They are not even of the best class,
or they would have cost a great deal more. Now, until you can perceive
that a big rough stone may have more æsthetic suggestiveness than a
costly steel engraving, that it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever,
you cannot begin to understand how a Japanese sees Nature. “But what,”
you may ask, “can be beautiful in a common stone?” Many things; but I
will mention only one,–irregularity.

In my little Japanese house, the fusuma, or sliding screens of opaque
paper between room and room, have designs at which I am never tired of
looking. The designs vary in different parts of the dwelling; I will
speak only of the fusuma dividing my study from a smaller apartment.
The ground color is a delicate cream-yellow; and the golden pattern
is very simple,–the mystic-jewel symbols of Buddhism scattered over
the surface by pairs. But no two sets of pairs are placed at exactly
the same distance from each other; and the symbols themselves are
curiously diversified, never appearing twice in exactly the same
position or relation. Sometimes one jewel is transparent, and its
fellow opaque; sometimes both are opaque or both diaphanous; sometimes
the transparent one is the larger of the two; sometimes the opaque is
the larger; sometimes both are precisely the same size; sometimes they
overlap, and sometimes do not touch; sometimes the opaque is on the
left, sometimes on the right; sometimes the transparent jewel is above,
sometimes below. Vainly does the eye roam over the whole surface in
search of a repetition, or of anything resembling regularity, either
in distribution, juxtaposition, grouping, dimensions, or contrasts.
And throughout the whole dwelling nothing resembling regularity in
the various decorative designs can be found. The ingenuity by which
it is avoided is amazing,–rises to the dignify of genius. Now, all
this is a common characteristic of Japanese decorative art; and after
having lived a few years under its influences, the sight of a regular
pattern upon a wall, a carpet, a curtain, a ceiling, upon any decorated
surface, pains like a horrible vulgarism. Surely, it is because we have
so long been accustomed to look at Nature anthropomorphically that
we can still endure mechanical ugliness in our own decorative art,
and that we remain insensible to charms of Nature which are clearly
perceived even by the eyes of the Japanese child, wondering over its
mother’s shoulder at the green and blue wonder of the world.

“_He_” saith a Buddhist text, “_who discerns that nothingness is
law,–such a one hath wisdom._”

[1] The tokonoma, or toko, is said to have been first introduced into
Japanese architecture about four hundred and fifty years ago, by the
Buddhist priest Eisai, who had studied in China. Perhaps the alcove was
originally devised and used for the exhibition of sacred objects; but
to-day, among the cultivated, it would be deemed in very had taste to
display either images of the gods or sacred paintings in the toko of
a guest-room. The toko is still, however, a sacred place in a certain
sense. No one should ever step upon it, or squat within it, or even
place in it anything not pure, or anything offensive to taste. There
is an elaborate code of etiquette in relation to it. The most honored
among guests is always placed nearest to it; and guests take their
places, according to rank, nearer to or further from it.