Modern Restraints

Dec 15, 2021Blog, Culture, Shinto

Modern Restraints

For even a vague understanding of modern Japan, it is necessary to consider the effect of the three forms of social coercion, mentioned in Survivals, as restraints upon individual energy and capacity.

All three represent survivals of the ancient religious responsibility. 

It has often been asserted by foreign observers that the real power in Japan is exercised not from above, but from below. 

What cannot be denied is that superior authority has always been more or less restrained by tendencies to resistance from below. 

At no time in Japanese history do the peasants appear to have been left without recourse against excessive oppression, notwithstanding all the humiliating regulations imposed on their existence.

They were suffered to frame their own village-laws, to estimate the possible amount of their tax-payments, and to make protest through official channels against unmerciful exaction. 

白川村 - Land Of The Rising Son

They were made to pay as much as they could, but they were not reduced to bankruptcy or starvation.

And their holdings were mostly secured to them by laws forbidding the sale or alienation of family property. 

There were, however, wicked daimyo, who treated their farmers with extreme cruelty, and found ways to prevent complaints or protests from reaching the higher authorities.

The almost invariable result of such tyranny was revolt, and the tyrant was then made responsible for the disorder, and punished.

Samurai Executing Prisoner - Land Of The Rising Son

Though denied in theory, the right of the peasant to rebel against oppression was respected in practice.

The revolt was punished, but the oppressor was likewise punished. 

It may seem strange that a society in which religion and government, ethics and custom, were practically identical, should furnish striking examples of resistance to authority. 

From the earliest period there was firmly established, in the popular mind, the conviction that implicit obedience to authority was the universal duty under all ordinary circumstances. 

But with this conviction there was united another, that resistance to authority (excepting the sacred authority of the Supreme Ruler) was equally a duty under extraordinary circumstances.

And these seemingly opposed convictions were not really inconsistent.

So long as rule followed precedent, so long as its commands, however harsh, did not conflict with sentiment and tradition, that rule was regarded as religious, and there was absolute submission.

But when rulers presumed to break with ethical usage, in a spirit of reckless cruelty or greed, then the people might feel it a religious obligation to resist with all the zeal of voluntary martyrdom. 

Greed is a Mental-Health Disorder - Land Of The Rising Son

The danger-line for every form of local tyranny was departure from precedent. 

Even the conduct of regents and princes was much restrained by the common opinion of their retainers, and by the knowledge that certain kinds of arbitrary conduct were likely to provoke assassination.

This old policy still characterizes Japanese administration, and the deference of high authority to collective opinion astonishes and puzzles the foreign observer. 

Just as in Old Japan the ruler of a district was held, responsible for the behaviour of his subjects, so to-day, in New Japan, every official in charge of a department is held responsible for the smooth working of its routine.

But this does not mean that he is responsible only for the efficiency of a service.

It means that he is held responsible likewise for failure to satisfy the wishes of his subordinates, or at least the majority of his subordinates. 

Bossy Boy Boss - Land Of The Rising Son

The efforts of the man will never be judged by any accepted standard of excellence, never estimated by their intrinsic worth, they will be considered only according to their direct effect upon the average of minds.

Considering the extraordinary changes suddenly made in the educational system, it will be obvious that a teacher’s immediate value was likely to depend on his ability to make his teaching attractive. 

If he attempted to teach either above or below the average capacity of his pupils, or if he made his instruction unpalatable to minds greedy for new knowledge, but innocent as to method, his inexperience could be corrected by the will of his class.

From above downwards through all the grades of society, the same system of responsibility, and the same restraints upon individual exercise of will, persist under varying forms.

The second kind of coercion to which the individual is subjected, the communal, seems likely to prove mischievous in the near future, as it signifies practical suppression of the right to compete.

The everyday life of any Japanese city offers countless suggestions of the manner in which the masses continue to think and to act by groups.

But no more familiar and forcible illustration of the fact can be cited than that which is furnished by the code of the kurumaya or jinrikisha-men.

Rick Shaw - Land Of The Rising Son

According to its terms, one runner must not attempt to pass by another going in the same direction. 

Among the tens of thousands of public kurumaya, it is the rule that a young and active man must not pass by an old and feeble man, nor even by a needlessly slow and lazy man.

To take advantage of one’s own superior energy, so as to force competition, is an offence against the calling, and certain to be resented. 

You engage a good runner, whom you order to make all speed.

He springs away splendidly, and keeps up the pace until he happens to overtake some weak or lazy puller, who seems to be moving as slowly as the gait permits.

Therewith, instead of bounding by, your man drops immediately behind the slow-going vehicle, and slackens his pace almost to a walk.

For half an hour, or more, you may be thus delayed by the regulation which obliges the strong and swift to wait for the weak and slow. 

Japan’s 105-year-old Golden Bolt Sprint Record - Land Of The Rising Son

Of course the modern communal restraint upon free competition represents the survival and extension of that altruistic spirit which ruled the ancient society, not the mere continuance of any fixed custom.

In feudal times there were no kurumaya, but all craftsmen and labourers formed guilds or companies.

The discipline maintained by those guilds or companies prohibited competition as undertaken for merely personal advantage. 

There remains to be considered a third form of restraint, that exercised upon the individual by official authority. 

This also presents us with various survivals, which have their bright as well as their dark aspects.

We have seen that the individual has been legally freed from most of the obligations imposed by the ancient law.

He is no longer obliged to follow a particular occupation, he is able to travel, he is at liberty to marry into a higher or a lower class than his own, he is not even forbidden to change his religion, he can do a great many things at his own risk. 

But where the law leaves him free, the family and the community do not.

The persistence of old sentiment and custom nullifies many of the rights legally conferred. 

香取神宮 - Land Of The Rising Son

Precisely in the same way, his relations to higher authority are still controlled by traditions which maintain, in despite of constitutional law, many of the ancient restraints, and not a little of the ancient coercion. 

In theory any man of great talent and energy may rise, from rank to rank, up to the highest positions. 

But as private life is still controlled to no small degree by the old communal way, so public life is yet controlled by survivals of class or clan despotism. 

The chances for ability to rise without assistance, to win its way to rank and power, are extraordinarily small, since to contend alone against an opposition that thinks by groups, and acts by masses, must be almost hopeless. 

Only commercial or industrial life now offers really fair opportunities to capable men. 

Several years ago a Japanese official made in my presence this curious observation: 

“Our Government does not wish to encourage competition beyond the necessary. The people are not prepared for it; and if it were strongly encouraged, the worst side of character would come to the surface.”

 How far this statement really expressed any policy I do not know. 

Japanese Doctor Shrugging - Land Of The Rising Son

But every one is aware that free competition can be made as cruel and pitiless as war, though we are apt to forget what experience must have been undergone before Occidental free competition could become as comparatively merciful as it is. 

Among a people trained for centuries to regard all selfish competition as criminal, and all profit-seeking despicable, any sudden stimulation of effort for purely personal advantage might well be impolitic. 

Evidence as to how little the nation was prepared, twelve or thirteen years ago, for Western forms of free government, has been furnished by the history of the earlier district-elections and of the first parliamentary sessions. 

There was really no personal enmity in those furious election-contests, which cost so many lives, there was scarcely any personal antagonism in those parliamentary debates of which the violence astonished strangers.

The political struggles were not really between individuals, but between clan-interests, or party-interests, and the devoted followers of each clan or party understood the new politics only as a new kind of war, a war of loyalty to be fought for the leader’s sake, a war not to be interfered with by any abstract notions of right or justice. 

justice-not-blind-hand-offers-money-to-moves-bandage-look-greedy-political-cartoon - Land Of The Rising Son

Suppose that a people have been always accustomed to think of loyalty in relation to persons rather than to principles, loyalty as involving the duty of self-sacrifice regardless of consequence.

It is obvious that the first experiments of such a people with parliamentary government will not reveal any comprehension of fair play in the Western sense. 

If you can persuade such a people that in other matters every man has a right to act according to his own convictions, and for his own advantage, independently of any group to which he may belong, the immediate result will not be fortunate, because the sense of individual moral responsibility has not yet been sufficiently cultivated outside of the group-relation.

The probable truth is that the strength of the government up to the present time has been chiefly due to the conservation of ancient methods, and to the survival of the ancient spirit of reverential submission. 

Perhaps the future history of modern civilization will hold record of nothing more touching than the patient heroism of those myriads of Japanese patriots, content to accept, under legal conditions of freedom, the official servitude of feudal days, satisfied to give their talent, their strength, their utmost effort, their lives, for the simple privilege of obeying a government that still accepts all sacrifices in the feudal spirit as a matter of course and a national duty. 

And as a national duty, indeed, the sacrifices are made. 

All know that Japan is in danger, between the terrible friendship of England and the terrible enmity of Russia.

Battle_of_Yalu_River_1904 - Land Of The Rising Son

That she is poor, that the cost of maintaining her armaments is straining her resources, that it is everybody’s duty to be content with as little as possible. 

So the complaints are not many.  

Nor has the simple obedience of the nation at large been less touching, especially, perhaps, as regards the imperial order to acquire Western knowledge, to learn Western languages, to imitate Western ways. 

Only those who have lived in Japan during or before the early nineties (1890) are qualified to speak of the loyal eagerness that made self-destruction by over-study a common form of death. 

The passionate obedience that impelled even children to ruin their health in the effort to master tasks too difficult for their little minds (tasks devised by well-meaning advisers with no knowledge of Far-Eastern psychology).

Moreover, the strange courage of persistence in periods of earthquake and conflagration, when boys and girls used the tiles of their ruined homes for school-slates, and bits of fallen plaster for pencils. 

What tragedies I might relate even of the higher educational life of universities, of fine brains giving way under pressure of work beyond the capacity of the average European student, of triumphs won in the teeth of death, of strange farewells from pupils in the time of the dreaded examinations, as when one said to me: 

“Sir, I am very much afraid that my paper is bad, because I came out of the hospital to make it, there is something the matter with my heart.”* 

*His diploma was placed in his hands scarcely an hour before he died.

早稲田卒業書 - Land Of The Rising Son

And all this striving, striving not only against difficulties of study, but in most cases against difficulties of poverty, and underfeeding, and discomfort has been only for duty, and the means to live. 

To estimate the Japanese student by his errors, his failures, his incapacity to comprehend sentiments and ideas alien to the experience of his race, is the mistake of the shallow. 

To judge him rightly one must have learned to know the silent moral heroism of which he is capable.

Based Upon

Japan,  An Attempt At Interpretation

Published 1904

Patrick Lafcadio Hearn