Anthropology Friday: Japan part 2

Incense burns at the graves of the Forty-Seven Ronin at Sengaku-ji, Japan

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’ll be continuing with Sidney L. Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, published in 1903. Gulick was a Puritan missionary who moved to Japan shortly after the “opening of Japan” and Meiji Restoration. He wrote at a time when very Japanese society was changing at break-neck speed and very few accounts of Japan existed at all in the West.

Gulick’s account may not be accurate in every respect–perhaps no native can ever be accurate in every respect–but his affection for his adopted society and desire to explain it to his fellow Westerners is clear.

Heroes:

“If a clue to the character of a nation is gained by a study of the nature of the gods it worships, no less valuable an insight is gained by a study of its heroes. … Japan is a nation of hero-worshipers. This is no exaggeration. Not only is the primitive religion, Shintoism, systematic hero-worship, but every hero known to history is deified, and has a shrine or temple. These heroes, too, are all men of conspicuous valor or strength, famed for mighty deeds of daring. They are men of passion. The most popular story in Japanese literature is that of “The Forty-seven Ronin,” who avenged the death of their liege-lord after years of waiting and plotting. This revenge administered, they committed harakiri in accordance with the etiquette of the ethical code of feudal Japan. Their tombs are to this day among the most frequented shrines in the capital of the land, and one of the most popular dramas presented in the theaters is based on this same heroic tragedy.

Two of the Forty-Seven Rōnin: Horibe Yahei and his adopted son, Horibe Yasubei, by Utagawa Kunisada c1850

“The prominence of the emotional element may be seen in the popular description of national heroes. The picture of an ideal Japanese hero is to our eyes a caricature. His face is distorted by a fierce frenzy of passion, his eyeballs glaring, his hair flying, and his hands hold with a mighty grip the two-handed sword wherewith he is hewing to pieces an enemy. I am often amazed at the difference between the pictures of Japanese heroes and the living Japanese I see. This difference is manifestly due to the idealizing process; for they love to see their heroes in their passionate moods and tenses.

“The craving for heroes, even on the part of those who are familiar with Western thought and customs, is a feature of great interest. Well do I remember the enthusiasm with which educated, Christian young men awaited the coming to Japan of an eminent American scholar, from whose lectures impossible things were expected. So long as he was in America and only his books were known, he was a hero. But when he appeared in person, carrying himself like any courteous gentleman, he lost his exalted position.

What was Oda Nobunaga’s power level?

“Townsend Harris showed his insight into Oriental thought never more clearly than by maintaining his dignity according to Japanese standards and methods. On his first entry into Tokyo he states, in his journal, that although he would have preferred to ride on horseback, in order that he might see the city and the people, yet as the highest dignitaries never did so, but always rode in entirely closed “norimono” (a species of sedan chair carried by twenty or thirty bearers), he too would do the same; to have ridden into the limits of the city on horseback would have been construed by the Japanese as an admission that he held a far lower official rank than that of a plenipotentiary of a great nation. …

“there is nevertheless a class whose ideal heroes are not military, but moral. Their power arises not through self-assertion, but rather through humility; their influence is due entirely to learning coupled with insight into the great moral issues of life.”

Children’s Day kites

Children

“An aspect of Japanese life widely remarked and praised by foreign writers is the love for children. Children’s holidays, as the third day of the third moon and the fifth day of the fifth moon, are general celebrations for boys and girls respectively, and are observed with much gayety all over the land. At these times the universal aim is to please the children; the girls have dolls and the exhibition of ancestral dolls; while the boys have toy paraphernalia of all the ancient and modern forms of warfare, and enormous wind-inflated paper fish, symbols of prosperity and success, fly from tall bamboos in the front yard. Contrary to the prevailing opinion among foreigners, these festivals have nothing whatever to do with birthday celebrations. In addition to special festivals, the children figure conspicuously in all holidays and merry-makings. To the famous flower-festival celebrations, families go in groups and make an all-day picnic of the joyous occasion.

“The Japanese fondness for children is seen not only at festival times. Parents seem always ready to provide their children with toys. As a consequence toy stores flourish. There is hardly a street without its store.”

Next time Japan invades…

EvX: Even though the Japanese have one of the world’s lowest birth rates, which would seem to make life difficult for toy stores, I still have the impression that the nation produces a great many high-quality, nice toys. Everything from Nintendo, for example. But back to Gulick, on the treatment of children more generally:

“A still further reason for the impression that the Japanese are especially fond of their children is the slight amount of punishment and reprimand which they administer. The children seem to have nearly everything their own way. Playing on the streets, they are always in evidence and are given the right of way. …

“A fair statement of the case, therefore, is somewhat as follows: The lower and laboring classes of Japan seem to have more visible affection for their children than the same classes in the Occident. Among the middle and upper classes, however, the balance is in favor of the West. In the East, while, without doubt, there always has been and is now a pure and natural affection, it is also true that this natural affection has been more mixed with utilitarian considerations than in the West. Christian Japanese, however, differ little from Christian Americans in this respect. The differences between the East and the West are largely due to the differing industrial and family conditions induced by the social order.”

EvX: Remember that Gulick is a missionary, and so apt to think that being Christian or not is a big deal. Interestingly, he sees “being Christian” as more than just a minimalist “believes Christ is God made man and died for your sins,” but also as a suite of cultural norms like “monogamy” and “universalism.” Of course, who chooses to become Christian is not random, but it’d be quite interesting to know whether belief in Christianity in a place like Japan actually does carry with it increased adoption of other social norms. But back to Gulick:

“The correctness of this general statement will perhaps be better appreciated if we consider in detail some of the facts of Japanese family life. Let us notice first the very loose ties, as they seem to us, holding the Japanese family together. It is one of the constant wonders to us Westerners how families can break up into fragments, as they constantly do. One third of the marriages end in divorce; and in case of divorce, the children all stay with the father’s family. It would seem as if the love of the mother for her children could not be very strong where divorce under such a condition is so common. Or, perhaps, it would be truer to say that divorce would be far more frequent than it is but for the mother’s love for her children. For I am assured that many a mother endures most distressing conditions rather than leave her children.

“Furthermore, the way in which parents allow their children to leave the home and then fail to write or communicate with them, for months or even years at a time, is incomprehensible if the parental love were really strong. And still further, the way in which concubines are brought into the home, causing confusion and discord, is a very striking evidence of the lack of a deep love on the part of the father for the mother of his children and even for his own legitimate children. One would expect a father who really loved his children to desire and plan for their legitimacy; but the children by his concubines are not “ipso facto” recognized as legal.

“One more evidence in this direction is the frequency of adoption and of separation. Adoption in Japan is largely, though by no means exclusively, the adoption of an adult; the cases where achild is adopted by a childless couple from love of children are rare, as compared with similar cases in the United States, so far, at least, as my observation goes.”

countries that adopt babies vs countries that send babies out for adoption–only European cultures adopt other countries’ babies

EvX: Adoption of non-kin is a very European/American phenomenon, almost unknown everywhere else in the world. Ever wonder why Americans adopted so many Korean babies? It’s because other Koreans didn’t want them.

Back to Gulick:

“Infanticide throws a rather lurid light on Japanese affection. First, in regard to the facts: Mr. Ishii’s attention was called to the need of an orphan asylum by hearing how a child, both of whose parents had died of cholera, was on the point of being buried alive with its dead mother by heartless neighbors when it was rescued by a fisherman. …

“In speaking of infanticide in Japan, let us not forget that every race and nation has been guilty of the same crime, and has continued to be guilty of it until delivered by Christianity.

“Widespread infanticide proves a wide lack of natural affection. Poverty is, of course, the common plea. Yet infanticide has been practiced not so much by the desperately poor as by small land-holders. The amount of farming land possessed by each family was strictly limited and could feed only a given number of mouths. Should the family exceed that number, all would be involved in poverty, for the members beyond that limit did not have the liberty to travel in search of new occupation. Infanticide, therefore, bore direct relation to the rigid economic nature of the old social order.”

Husbands and wives:

“Shortly after my first arrival in Japan, I was walking home from church one day with an English-speaking Japanese, who had had a good deal to do with foreigners. Suddenly, without any introduction, he remarked that he did not comprehend how the men of the West could endure such tyranny as was exercised over them by their wives. I, of course, asked what he meant. He then said that he had seen me buttoning my wife’s shoes.

“I should explain that on calling on the Japanese, in their homes, it is necessary that we leave our shoes at the door, as the Japanese invariably do; this is, of course, awkward for foreigners who wear shoes; especially so is the necessity of putting them on again. The difficulty is materially increased by the invariably high step at the front door. It is hard enough for a man to kneel down on the step and reach for his shoes and then put them on; much more so is it for a woman. And after the shoes are on, there is no suitable place on which to rest the foot for buttoning and tying. I used, therefore, very gladly to help my wife with hers.

“Yet, so contrary to Japanese precedent was this act of mine that this well-educated gentleman and Christian, who had had much intercourse with foreigners, could not see in it anything except the imperious command of the wife and the slavish obedience of the husband. His conception of the relation between the Occidental husband and wife is best described as tyranny on the part of the wife.”

EvX: I include this excerpt because, as an amusing misunderstanding, it warns against overconfidence in interpreting the actions of folks from another culture that may have perfectly mundane explanations, and because it casts light on the speaker’s own assumptions.

Adoption:

“Another evangelist, with whom I had much to do, was the adopted son of a scheming old man; it seems that in the earlier part of the present era the eldest son of a family was exempt from military draft. It often happened, therefore, that families who had no sons could obtain large sums of money from those who had younger sons whom they wished to have adopted for the purpose of escaping the draft. This evangelist, while still a boy, was adopted into such a family, and a certain sum was fixed upon to be paid at some time in the future. But the adopted son proved so pleasing to the adopting father that he did not ask for the money; by some piece of legerdemain, however, he succeeded in adopting a second son, who paid him the desired money. After some years the first adopted son became a Christian, and then an evangelist, both steps being taken against the wishes of the adopting father. The father finally said that he would forego all relations to the son, and give him back his original name, provided the son would pay the original sum that had been agreed on, plus the interest, which altogether would, at that time, amount to several hundred yen. This was, of course, impossible.

“The negotiations dragged on for three or four years. Meanwhile, the young man fell in love with a young girl, whom he finally married; as he was still the son of his adopting father, he could not have his wife registered as his wife, for the old man had another girl in view for him and would not consent to this arrangement. And so the matter dragged for several months more. Unless the matter could be arranged, any children born to them must be registered as illegitimate. At this point I was consulted and, for the first time, learned the details of the case. Further consultations resulted in an agreement as to the sum to be paid; the adopted son was released, and re-registered under his newly acquired name and for the first time his marriage became legal. The confusion and suffering brought into the family by this practice of adoption and of separation are almost endless. …

“In the first place, the affectionate relation existing between husbands and wives and between parents and children, in Western lands, is a product of relatively recent times. In his exhaustive work on “The History of Human Marriage,” Westermarck makes this very plain. Wherever the woman is counted a slave, is bought and sold, is considered as merely a means of bearing children to the family, or in any essential way is looked down upon, there high forms of affection are by the nature of the case impossible, though some affection doubtless exists; it necessarily attains only a rudimentary development. …

“We must remember, in the second place, what careful students of human evolution have pointed out, that those tribes and races in which the family was most completely consolidated, that is to say, those in which the power of the father was absolute, were the ones to gain the victory over their competitors. The reason for this is too obvious to require even a statement. Every conquering race has accordingly developed the “patria potestas” to a greater or less degree. Now one general peculiarity of the Orient is that that stage of development has remained to this day; it has not experienced those modifications and restrictions which have arisen in the West. The national government dealt with families and clans, not with individuals, as the final social unit. In the West, however, the individual has become the civil unit; the “patria potestas” has thus been all but lost.