Ancient History & Civilisation


The paternal autocrat—The status of woman—Children—Sexual morality—The “geisha”—Love

For the real source of social order, in the Orient even more than in the West, was the family; and the omnipotence of the father, in Japan as throughout the East, expressed not a backward condition of society but a preference for familial rather than political government. The individual was less important in the East than in the Occident because the state was weaker, and required a strongly organized and disciplined family to take the place of a far-reaching and pervasive central authority. Freedom was conceived in terms of the family rather than of the individual; for (the family being the economic unit of production as well as the social unit of order) success or failure, survival or death, came not to the separate person but to the family. The power of the father was tyrannical, but it had the painless grace of seeming natural, necessary, and human. He could dismiss a son-in-law or a daughter-in-law from the patriarchal household, while keeping the grandchildren with him; he could kill a child convicted of unchastity or a serious crime; he could sell his children into slavery or prostitution;* and he could divorce his wife with a word.70 If he was a simple commoner he was expected to be monogamous; but if he belonged to the higher classes he was entitled to keep concubines, and no notice was to be taken of his occasional infidelities.71 When Christianity entered Japan, native writers complained that it disturbed the peace of families by insinuating that concubinage and adultery were sins.72

As in China, the position of woman was higher in the earlier than in the later stages of the civilization. Six empresses appear among the rulers of the imperial age; and at Kyoto women played an important, indeed a leading, rôle in the social and literary life of the nation. In that heyday of Japanese culture, if we may hazard hypotheses in such esoteric fields, the wives outstripped their husbands in adultery, and sold their virtue for an epigram.73 The Lady Sei Shonagon describes a youth about to send a love-note to his mistress, but interrupting it to make love to a passing girl; and this amiable essayist adds: “I wonder if, when this lover sent his letter, tied with a dewy spray of hagi flower, his messenger hesitated to present it to the lady because she also had a guest?”74 Under the influence of feudal militarism, and in the natural and historical alternation of laxity and restraint, the Chinese theory of the subjection of woman to man won a wide influence, “society” became predominantly male, and women were dedicated to the “Three Obediences”—to father, husband and son. Education, except in etiquette, was rarely wasted upon them, and fidelity was exacted on penalty of death. If a husband caught his wife in adultery he was authorized to kill her and her paramour at once; to which the subtle Iyeyasu added that if he killed the woman but spared the man he was himself to be put to death.76 The philosopher Ekken advised the husband to divorce his wife if she talked too loudly or too long; but if the husband happened to be dissolute and brutal, said Ekken, the wife should treat him with doubled kindness and gentleness. Under this rigorous and long-continued training the Japanese woman became the most industrious, faithful and obedient of wives, and harassed travelers began to wonder whether a system that had produced such gracious results should not be adopted in the West.77

Contrary to the most ancient and sacred customs of Oriental society, fertility was not encouraged in Samurai Japan. As the population grew the little islands felt themselves crowded, and it became a matter of good repute in a Samurai not to marry before thirty, and not to have more children than two.78 Nevertheless every man was expected to marry and beget children. If his wife proved barren he could divorce her; and if she gave him only daughters he was admonished to adopt a son, lest his name and property perish; for daughters could not inherit.79 Children were trained in the Chinese virtues and literature of filial piety, for on this, as the source of family order, rested the discipline and security of the state. The Empress Koken, in the eighth century, ordered every Japanese household to provide itself with a copy of the “Classic of Filial Piety,” and every student in the provincial schools or the universities was required to become a master of it. Except for the Samurai, whose loyalty to his lord was his highest obligation, filial piety was the basic and supreme virtue of the Japanese; even his relation to the emperor was to be one of filial affection and obedience. Until the West came, with its disruptive ideas of individual freedom, this cardinal virtue constituted nearly all the moral code of the commoner in Japan. The conversion of the islands to Christianity was made almost impossible by the Biblical command that a man should leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife,80

Other virtues than obedience and loyalty were less emphasized than in contemporary Europe. Chastity was desirable, and some higher-class women killed themselves when their virginity was threatened;81 but a single lapse was not synonymous with ruin. The most famous of Japanese novels, the Genji Monogatari, is an epic of aristocratic seduction; and the most famous of Japanese essays, the Pillow Sketches of the Lady Sei Shonagon, reads in places like a treatise on the etiquette of sin.82 The desires of the flesh were looked upon as natural, like hunger and thirst, and thousands of men, many of them respectable husbands, crowded, at night, the Yoshiwara, or “Flower District,” of Tokyo. There, in the most orderly disorderly houses in the world, fifteen thousand trained and licensed courtesans sat of an evening behind their lattices, gorgeously attired and powder-white, ready to provide song, dance and venery for unmated or ill-mated men.83

The best educated of the courtesans were the geisha girls, whose very name indicated that they were persons (sha) capable of an artistic performance (gei). Like the hetairai of Greece they affected literature as well as love, and seasoned their promiscuity with poetry. The Shogun Iyenari (1787-1836), who had already (1791) forbidden mixed bathing as occasionally encouraging immorality,84 issued a rigorous edict against the geisha in 1822, describing her as “a female singer who, magnificently appareled, hires herself out to amuse guests at restaurants, ostensibly by dancing and singing, but really by practices of a very different character.”85 These women were henceforth to be classed as prostitutes, along with those “numberless wenches” who, in Kaempfer’s day, filled every tea-shop in the village and every inn on the road.86 Nevertheless, parties and families continued to invite the geisha to provide entertainment at social affairs; finishing schools were established where older geisha trained young apprentices in their varied arts; and periodically, at the Kaburenjo, teachers and pupils served ceremonial tea, and gave a public performance of their more presentable accomplishments. Parents hard put to support their daughters sometimes, with their manipulated “consent,” apprenticed them to the geisha for a consideration; and a thousand Japanese novels have told tales of girls who sold themselves to the trade to save their families from starvation.87

These customs, however startling, do not differ essentially from the habits and institutions of the Occident, except perhaps in candor, refinement and grace. The vast majority of Japanese girls, we are assured, remained as chaste as the virgins of the West.88Despite such frank arrangements the Japanese managed to live lives of comparative order and decency, and though they did not often allow love to determine marriage for life, they were capable of the tenderest affection for the objects of their desire. Instances are frequent, in the current history as well as in the imaginative literature of Japan, where young men and women have killed themselves in the hope of enjoying in eternity the unity forbidden them by their parents on earth.89 Love is not the major theme of Japanese poetry, but here and there its note is struck with unmatched simplicity, sincerity and depth.

Oh! that the white waves far out

On the Sea of Ise

Were but flowers,

That I might gather them

And bring them as a gift to my love.90

And, again with characteristic mingling of nature and feeling, the great Tsurayuki tells in four lines the story of his rejected love:

Naught is so fleeting as the cherry-flower,

You say . . . yet I remember well the hour

When life’s bloom withered at one spoken word—

And not a breath of wind had stirred.91

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