In the gardens of certain Buddhist temples there are trees which have been famous for centuries, trees trained and clipped into extraordinary shapes.
Some have the form of dragons, and others of pagodas, ships, and umbrellas.
Suppose one of these trees were abandoned to its own natural tendencies, it would eventually lose the queer shape so long imposed upon it.
However, the outline would not be altered for a considerable time, as the new leafage would at first unfold only in the direction of least resistance.
That is to say, within limits originally established by the shears and pruning-knife.
By sword and law the old Japanese society had been pruned and clipped, bent and bound, just like such a tree.
After the reconstructions of the Meiji period, after the abolition of the feudal fiefdoms, and the suppression of the military class, it still maintained its former shape, just as the tree would continue to do when first abandoned by the gardener.
Though delivered from the bonds of feudal law, released from the shears of military rule, the great bulk of the social structure preserved its ancient aspect, and this rare spectacle bewildered, delighted, and deluded the Western observer.
Here indeed was Elf-land.
The strange, the beautiful, the grotesque, the very mysterious, totally unlike anything as strange and attractive ever to have been beholden elsewhere.
It was not a world of the nineteenth century after Christ, but a world of many centuries before Christ.
Yet this fact, a wonder of wonders, remained unrecognized, as it remains unrecognized by most people even to this day.
Fortunate indeed were those privileged to enter this astonishing fairyland thirty odd years ago, before the period of superficial change, and to observe the unfamiliar aspects of its life.
Liker the universal courteousness, the smiling silence of crowds, the patient deliberation of toil, and the absence of misery and struggle.
Even yet, in those more remote districts where alien influence has wrought but little change, the charm of the old existence lingers and amazes, and the ordinary traveller can little understand what it means.
That all are polite, that nobody quarrels, that everybody smiles, that pain and sorrow remain invisible, that the new police have nothing to do, would seem to prove a morally superior humanity.
But for the trained sociologist it would prove something different, and suggest something very terrible.
It would prove that this society had been moulded under immense coercion, and that the coercion must have been exerted uninterruptedly for thousands of years.
He would immediately perceive that ethics and custom had not yet become dissociated, and that the conduct of each person was regulated by the will of the rest.
He would know that personality could not develop in such a social medium, that no individual superiority dare assert itself, that no competition would be tolerated.
He would understand that the outward charm of this life, with its softness, its smiling silence as of dreams signified the rule of the dead.
Yet this knowledge probably would not, and certainly should not blind him to the intrinsic charm of things.
Not to feel the beauty of this archaic life is to prove oneself insensible to all beauty.
Now that the great social tree, so wonderfully clipped and cared for during many centuries is losing its fantastic shape, let us try to see how much of the original design can still be traced.
Under all the outward aspects of individual activity that modern Japan presents to the visitor’s gaze, the ancient conditions really persist to an extent which no observation could reveal.
The immemorial cult still rules all the land.
Still the family-law, communal law, and to a lesser extent clan-law, control every action of existence.
I do not refer to any written law, but only to the old unwritten religious law, with its host of obligations deriving from ancestor-worship.
It is true that many changes and, in the opinion of the wise, too many changes have been made in civil legislation.
However, the ancient proverb, “Government-laws are only seven-day laws,” still represents popular sentiment in regard to hasty reforms.
The old law, the law of the dead, is that by which the millions prefer to act and think.
Though ancient social groupings have been officially abolished, re-groupings of a corresponding sort have been formed, instinctively, throughout the country districts.
In theory the individual is free, in practice he is scarcely more free than were his forefathers, and this remains true up until this very day.
Old penalties for breach of custom have been abrogated, yet communal opinion is able to compel the ancient obedience.
Though the individual is now registered, and made directly accountable to the law, and the household has been relieved from its ancient responsibility for the acts of its members, still the family practically remains the social unit, retaining its patriarchal organization and its particular cult.
Not unwisely, the modern legislators have protected this domestic religion.
To weaken its bond at this time were to weaken the foundations of the national moral life, and likely to introduce disintegrations into the most deeply seated structures of the social organism.
Family and public sentiment are still more potent than law.
However, a political leader fully acquainted with the history of clan-parties, and their offshoots can accomplish marvelous things.
Even foreign residents with long experience of Japanese life have been able, by pressing upon clan-interests, to exercise a very real power in government circles.
But to the ordinary foreigner, Japanese contemporary politics must appear a chaos, a disintegration, a hopeless flux.
Not only politics, but nearly all phases of modern life yield evidence that the disintegration of the old society has been superficial rather than fundamental.
The dissolved structures have recrystallized, taking forms dissimilar in aspect to the original forms, but inwardly built upon the same plan.
Independence of personal action, in the Western sense, is still almost inconceivable.
The individual of every class above the lowest must continue to be at once coercer and coerced.
Like an atom within a solid body, he can vibrate; but the orbit of his vibration is fixed.
He must act and be acted upon in ways differing little from those of ancient time.
As for being acted upon, the average man is under three kinds of pressure.
Pressure from above, exemplified in the will of his superiors.
Pressure about him, represented by the common will of his fellows and equals.
Pressure from below, represented by the general sentiment of his inferiors.
Individual resistance to the first kind of pressure, as represented by authority is not even to be thought of, as the superior represents a clan, a class, an exceedingly multiple power of some description.
To resist injustice he must find ample support, in which case his resistance does not represent individual action.
Resistance to the second kind of pressure, communal coercion, signifies ruin and the loss of the right to form a part of the social body.
Resistance to the third sort of pressure, embodied in the common sentiment of inferiors, may result in almost anything, from momentary annoyance to sudden death, all according to circumstances.
In all forms of society these three kinds of pressure are exerted to some degree.
However, in Japanese society, owing to inherited tendency, and traditional sentiment, their power is tremendous.
Thus, in every direction, the individual finds himself confronted by the despotism of collective opinion.
It is impossible for him to act with safety except as one unit of a combination.
The first kind of pressure deprives him of moral freedom, exacting unlimited obedience to orders.
The second kind of pressure denies him the right to use his best faculties in the best way for his own advantage (that is to say, denies him the right of free competition).
The third kind of pressure compels him, in directing the actions of others, to follow tradition, to forbear innovations, to avoid making any changes, however beneficial, which do not find willing acceptance on the part of his inferiors.
These are the social conditions which, under normal circumstances make for stability, for conservation, and they represent the will of the dead.
They are inevitable to a militant state and they make the strength of that state.
They render facile the creation and maintenance of formidable armies.
But they are not conditions favourable to success in future international competition, in the industrial struggle for existence against societies incomparably more plastic, and of higher mental energy.
Japan, An Attempt At Interpretation
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn