Ancient History & Civilisation

The Makers of Japan

THE history of Japan is an unfinished drama in which three acts have been played. The first—barring the primitive and legendary centuries—is classical Buddhist Japan (522-1603 A.D.), suddenly civilized by China and Korea, refined and softened by religion, and creating the historic masterpieces of Japanese literature and art. The second is the feudal and peaceful Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), isolated and self-contained, seeking no alien territory and no external trade, content with agriculture and wedded to art and philosophy. The third act is modern Japan, opened up in 1853 by an American fleet, forced by conditions within and without into trade and industry, seeking foreign materials and markets, fighting wars of irrepressible expansion, imitating the imperialistic ardor and methods of the West, and threatening both the ascendancy of the white race and the peace of the world. By every historical precedent the next act will be war.

The Japanese have studied our civilization carefully, in order to absorb its values and surpass it. Perhaps we should be wise to study their civilization as patiently as they have studied ours, so that when the crisis comes that must issue either in war or understanding, we may be capable of understanding.


How Japan was created—The rôle of earthquakes

In the beginning, says the oldest of Japanese histories,1 were the gods Male and female they were born, and died, until at last two of them, Izanagi and Izanami, brother and sister, were commanded by the elder deities to create Japan. So they stood on the floating bridge of heaven, thrust down into the ocean a jeweled spear, and held it aloft in the sky. The drops that fell from the spear became the Sacred Islands. By watching the tadpoles in the water the gods learned the secret of copulation; Izanagi and Izanami mated, and gave birth to the Japanese race. From Izanagi’s left eye was born Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun, and from her grandson Ninigi sprang in divine and unbroken lineage all the emperors of Dai Nippon. From that day until this there has been but one imperial dynasty in Japan.*

There were 4,223 drops from the jeweled spear, for there are that number of islands in the archipelago called Japan, Six hundred of them are inhabited, but only five are of any considerable size. The largest-Hondo or Honshu—is 1,130 miles long, averages some 73 miles in width, and contains in its 81,000 square miles half the area of the islands. Their situation, like their recent history, resembles that of England: the surrounding seas have protected them from conquest, while their 13,000 miles of seacoast have made them a seafaring people, destined by geographical encouragement and commercial necessity to a widespread mastery of the seas. Warm winds and currents from the south mingle with the cool air of the mountain-tops to give Japan an English climate, rich in rain and cloudy days4 nourishing to short but rapid-running rivers, and propitious to vegetation and scenery. Here, outside the cities and the slums, half the land is an Eden in blossom-time; and the mountains are no tumbled heaps of rock and dirt, but artistic forms designed, like Fuji, in almost perfect lines.

Doubtless these isles were born of earthquakes rather than from dripping spears.6 No other land—except, perhaps, South America—has suffered so bitterly from convulsions of the soil. In the year 599 the earth shook and swallowed villages in its laughter; meteors fell and comets flashed, and snow whitened the streets in mid-July; drought and famine followed, and millions of Japanese died. In 1703 an earthquake killed 32,000 in Tokyo alone. In 1885 the capital was wrecked again; great clefts opened in the earth, and engulfed thousands; the dead were carried away in cartloads and buried en masse. In 1923 earthquake, tidal wave and fire took 100,000 lives in Tokyo, and 37,000 in Yokahama and nearby; Kamakura, so kind to Buddha, was almost totally destroyed,7 while the benign colossus of the Hindu saint survived shaken but unperturbed amid the ruins, as if to illustrate the chief lesson of history—that the gods can be silent in many languages. The people were for a moment puzzled by this abundance of disaster in a land divinely created and ruled; at last they explained the agitations as due to a large subterranean fish, which wriggled when its slumber was disturbed.8 They do not seem to have thought of abandoning this adventurous habitat; on the day after the last great quake the school-children used bits of broken plaster for pencils, and the tiles of their shattered homes for slates.9 The nation bore patiently these lashings of circumstance, and emerged from repeated ruin undiscourageably industrious, and ominously brave.

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