Read CHAPTER IV - THE CHINESE ETHICAL SYSTEM IN JAPAN of The Religions of Japan From the Dawn of History to the Era of Meiji, free online book, by William Elliot Griffis, on

Confucius a Historical Character.

“Things being investigated, knowledge became complete; knowledge being complete, thoughts were sincere; thoughts being sincere, hearts were rectified; hearts being rectified, persons were cultivated; persons being cultivated, families were regulated; families being regulated, states were rightly governed; states being rightly governed, the whole nation was made tranquil and happy.”

“When you know a thing to hold that you know it; and when you do
not know a thing to allow that you do not know it; this is

“Old age sometimes becomes second childhood; why should not
filial piety become parental love?”

“The superior man accords with the course of the mean. Though he may be all unknown, unregarded by the world, he feels no regret. He is only the sage who is able for this.”-­Sayings of Confucius.

“There is, in a word, no bringing down of God to men in Confucianism in order to lift them up to Him. Their moral shortcomings, when brought home to them, may produce a feeling of shame, but hardly a conviction of guilt.”-­James Legge.

“Do not to others what you would not have them do to you.”-­The
Silver Rule.

“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye
even so to them.”-­The Golden Rule.

“In respect to revenging injury done to master or father, it is granted by the wise and virtuous (Confucius) that you and the injurer cannot live together under the canopy of heaven.”-­Legacy of Iyeyas[)u], Cap. iii, Lowder’s translation.

“But I say unto you forgive your enemies.”-­Jesus.

“Thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer, thy name is from

If the greatness of a teacher is to be determined by the number of his disciples, or to be measured by the extent and diversity of his influence, then the foremost place among all the teachers of mankind must be awarded to The Master Kung (or Confucius, as the Jesuit scholars of the seventeenth century Latinized the name). Certainly, he of all truly historic personages is to-day, and for twenty-three centuries has been, honored by the largest number of followers.

Of the many systems of religion in the world, but few are based upon the teachings of one person. The reputed founders of some of them are not known in history with any certainty, and of others-­as in the case of Buddhism-­have become almost as shadows among a great throng of imaginary Buddhas or other beings which have sprung from the fancies of the brain and become incorporated into the systems, although the original teachers may indeed have been historical.

Confucius is a clear and distinct historic person. His parentage, place of birth, public life, offices, work and teaching, are well known and properly authenticated. He used the pen freely, and not only compiled, edited and transmitted the writings of his predecessors, but composed an historical and interpretative book. He originated nothing, however, but on the contrary disowned any purpose of introducing new ideas, or of expressing thoughts of his own not based upon or in perfect harmony with the teaching of the ancients. He was not an original thinker. He was a compiler, an editor, a defender and reproclaimer of the ancient religion, and an exemplar of the wisdom and writings of the Chinese fathers. He felt that his duty was exactly that which some Christian theologians of to-day conscientiously feel to be theirs-­to receive intact a certain “deposit” or “system” and, adding nothing to it, simply to teach, illuminate, defend, enforce and strongly maintain it as “the truth.” He gloried in absolute freedom from all novelty, anticipating in this respect a certain illustrious American who made it a matter for boasting, that his school had never originated a new idea. Whether or not the Master Kung did nevertheless, either consciously or unconsciously, modify the ancient system by abbreviating or enlarging it, we cannot now inquire.

Confucius wan born into the world in the year 551 B.C., during that wonderful century of religious revival which saw the birth of Ezra, Gautama, and Lao Tsze, and in boyhood he displayed an unusually sedate temperament which made him seem to be what we would now call an “old-fashioned child.” The period during which he lived was that of feudal China. From the ago of twenty-two, while holding an office in the state of Lu within the modern province of Shan-Tung, he gathered around him young men as pupils with whom, like Socrates, he conversed in question and answer. He made the teachings of the ancients the subjects of his research, and he was at all times a diligent student of the primeval records. These sacred books are called King, or Kio in Japanese, and are: Shu King, a collection of historic documents; Shih King, or Book of Odes; Hsiao King, or Classic of Filial Piety, and Yi King, or Book of Changes. This division of the old sacred canon, resembles the Christian or non-Jewish arrangement of the Old Testament scriptures in the four parts of Law, History, Poetry and Prophesy, though in the Chinese we have History, Poetry, Ethics and Divination.

His own table-talk, conversations, discussions and notes were compiled by his pupils, and are preserved in the work entitled in English, “The Confucian Analects,” which is one of the four books constituting the most sacred portion of Chinese philosophy and instruction. He also wrote a work named “Spring and Autumn, or Chronicles of his Native State of Lu from 722 B.C., to 481 B.C.” He “changed his world,” as the Buddhists say, in the year 478 B.C., having lived seventy-three years.

Primitive Chinese Faith.

The pre-Confucian or primitive faith was monotheistic, the forefathers of the Chinese nation having been believers in one Supreme Spiritual Being. There is an almost universal agreement among scholars in translating the term “Shang Ti” as God, and in reading from these classics that the forefathers “in the ceremonies at the altars of Heaven and earth ... served God.” Concurrently with the worship of one Supreme God there was also a belief in subordinate spirits and in the idea of revelation or the communication of God with men. This restricted worship of God was accompanied by reverence for ancestors and the honoring of spirits by prayers and sacrifices, which resulted, however, neither in deification nor polytheism. But, as the European mediaeval schoolmen have done with the Bible, so, after the death of Confucius the Chinese scholastics by metaphysical reasoning and commentary, created systems of interpretation which greatly altered the apparent form and contents of his own and of the ancient texts. Thus, the original monotheism of the pre-Confucian documents has been completely obscured by the later webs of sophistry which have been woven about the original scriptures. The ancient simplicity of doctrine has been lost in the mountains of commentary which were piled upon the primitive texts. Throughout the centuries, the Confucian system has been conditioned and greatly modified by Taoism, Buddhism and the speculations of the Chinese wise men.

Confucius, however, did not change or seriously modify the ancient religion except that, as is more than probable, he may have laid unnecessary emphasis upon social and political duties, and may not have been sufficiently interested in the honor to be paid to Shang Ti or God. He practically ignored the God-ward side of man’s duties. His teachings relate chiefly to duties between man and man, to propriety and etiquette, and to ceremony and usage. He said that “To give one’s self to the duties due to men and while respecting spiritual beings to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom."

We think that Confucius cut the tap-root of all true progress, and therefore is largely responsible for the arrested development of China. He avoided the personal term, God (Ti), and instead, made use of the abstract term, Heaven (Tien). His teaching, which is so often quoted by Japanese gentlemen, was, “Honor the Gods and keep them far from you.” His image stands in thousands of temples and in every school, in China, but he is only revered and never deified.

China has for ages suffered from agnosticism; for no normal Confucianist can love God, though he may learn to reverence him. The Emperor periodically worships for his people, at the great marble altar to Heaven in Peking, with vast holocausts, and the prayers which are offered may possibly amount to this: “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name.” But there, as it seems to a Christian, Chinese imperial worship stops. The people at large, cut off by this restricted worship from direct access to God, have wandered away into every sort of polytheism and idolatry, while the religion of the educated Chinese is a mediaeval philosophy based upon Confucianism, of which we shall speak hereafter.

The Confucian system as a religion, like a giant with a child’s head, is exaggerated on its moral and ceremonial side as compared with its spiritual development. Some deny that it is a religion at all, and call it only a code. However, let us examine the Confucian ethics which formed the basis and norm of all government in the family and nation, and are summed up in the doctrine of the “Five Relations.” These are: Sovereign and Minister; Father and Son; Husband and Wife; Elder Brother and Younger Brother; and Friends. The relation being stated, the correlative duty arises at once. It may perhaps be truly said by Christians that Confucius might have made a religion of his system of ethics, by adding a sixth and supreme relation-­that between God and man. This he declined to do, and so left his people without any aspiration toward the Infinite. By setting before them only a finite goal he sapped the principles of progress.

Vicissitudes of Confucianism.

After the death of Confucius (478 B.C.) the teachings of the great master were neglected, but still later they were re-enforced and expounded in the time (372-289 B.C.) of Meng Ko, or Mencius (as the name has been Latinized) who was likewise a native of the State of Lu. At one time a Chinese Emperor attempted in vain to destroy not only the writings of Confucius but also the ancient classics. Taoism increased as a power in the religion of China, especially after the fall of its feudal system. The doctrine of ancestral worship as commended by the sage had in it much of good, both for kings and nobles. The common people, however, found that Taoism was more satisfying. About the beginning of the Christian era Buddhism entered the Middle Kingdom, and, rapidly becoming popular, supplied needs for which simple Confucianism was not adequate. It may be said that in the sixth century-­which concerns us especially-­although Confucianism continued to be highly esteemed, Buddhism had become supreme in China-­that venerable State which is the mother of civilization in all Asia cast of the Ganges, and the Middle Kingdom among pupil nations.

Confucianism overflowed from China into Korea, where to this day it is predominant even over Buddhism. Thence, it was carried beyond sea to the Japanese Archipelago, where for possibly fifteen hundred years it has shaped and moulded the character of a brave and chivalrous people. Let us now turn from China and trace its influence and modifications in the Land of the Rising Sun.

It must be remembered that in the sixth century of the Christian Era, Confucianism was by no means the fully developed philosophy that it is now and has been for five hundred years. In former times, the system of Confucius had been received in China not only as a praiseworthy compendium of ceremonial observances, but also as an inheritance from the ancients, illumined by the discourses of the great sage and illustrated by his life and example. It was, however, very far from being what it is at present-­the religion of the educated men of the nation, and, by excellence, the religion of Chinese Asia. But in those early centuries it did not fully satisfy the Chinese mind, which turned to the philosophy of Taoism and to the teachings of the Buddhist for intellectual food, for comfort and for inspiration.

The time when Chinese learning entered Japan, by the way of Korea, has not been precisely ascertained. It is possible that letters and writings were known in some parts of the country as early as the fourth century, but it is nearly certain, that, outside the Court of the Emperor, there was scarcely even a sporadic knowledge of the literature of China until the Korean missionaries of Buddhism had obtained a lodgement in the Mikado’s capital. Buddhism was the real purveyor of the foreign learning and became the vehicle by means of which Confucianism, or the Chinese ethical principles, reached the common people of Japan. The first missionaries in Japan were heartily in sympathy with the Confucian ethics, from which no effort was made to alienate them. They were close allies, and for a thousand years wrought as one force in the national life. They were not estranged until the introduction, in the seventeenth century, of the metaphysical and scholastic forms given to the ancient system by the Chinese schoolmen of the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960-1333).

Japanese Confucianism and Feudalism Contemporary.

The intellectual history of the Japanese prior to their recent contact with Christendom, may be divided into three eras:

1. The period of early insular or purely native thought, from before the Christian era until the eighth century; by which time, Shinto, or the indigenous system of worship-­its ritual, poetry and legend having been committed to writing and its life absorbed in Buddhism-­had been, as a system, relegated from the nation and the people to a small circle of scholars and archaeologists.

2. The period from 800 A.D. to the beginning of the seventeenth century; during which time Buddhism furnished to the nation its religion, philosophy and culture.

3. From about 1630 A.D. until the present time; during which period the developed Confucian philosophy, as set forth by Chu Hi in the twelfth century, has been the creed of a majority of the educated men of Japan.

The political history of the Japanese may also be divided into three eras:

1. The first extends from the dawn of history until the seventh century. During this period the system of government was that of rude feudalism. The conquering tribe of Yamato, having gradually obtained a rather imperfect supremacy over the other tribes in the middle and southern portions of the country now called the Empire of Japan, ruled them in the name of the Mikado.

2. The second period begins in the seventh century, when the Japanese, copying the Chinese model, adopted a system of centralization. The country was divided into provinces and was ruled through boards or ministries at the capital, with governors sent out from Kioto for stated periods, directly from the emperor. During this time literature was chiefly the work of the Buddhist priests and of the women of the imperial court.

While armies in the field brought into subjection the outlying tribes and certain noble families rose to prominence at the court, there was being formed that remarkable class of men called the Samurai, or servants of the Mikado, which for more than ten centuries has exercised a profound influence upon the development of Japan.

In China, the pen and the sword have been kept apart; the civilian and the soldier, the man of letters and the man of arms, have been distinct and separate. This was also true in old Loo Choo (now Riu Kiu), that part of Japan most like China. In Japan, however, the pen and the sword, letters and arms, the civilian and the soldier, have intermingled. The unique product of this union is seen in the Samurai, or servant of the Mikado. Military-literati, are unknown in China, but in Japan they carried the sword and the pen in the same girdle.

3. This class of men had become fully formed by the end of the twelfth century, and then began the new feudal system, which lasted until the epochal year 1868 A.D.-­a year of several revolutions, rather than of restoration pure and simple. After nearly seven hundred years of feudalism, supreme magistracy, with power vastly increased beyond that possessed in ancient times, was restored to the emperor. Then also was abolished the duarchy of Throne and Camp, of Mikado and Shogun, and of the two capitals Kioto and Yedo, with the fountain of honor and authority in one and the fountain of power and execution in the other. Thereupon, Japan once more presented to the world, unity.

Practically, therefore, the period of the prevalence of the Confucian ethics and their universal acceptance by the people of Japan nearly coincides with the period of Japanese feudalism or the dominance of the military classes.

Although the same ideograph, or rather logogram, was used to designate the Chinese scholar and the Japanese warrior as well, yet the former was man of the pen only, while the latter was man of the pen and of two swords. This historical fact, more than any other, accounts for the striking differences between Chinese and Japanese Confucianism. Under this state of things the ethical system of the sage of China suffered a change, as does almost everything that is imported into Japan and borrowed by the islanders, but whether for the better or for the worse we shall not inquire too carefully. The point upon which we now lay emphasis is this: that, although the Chinese teacher had made filial piety the basis of his system, the Japanese gradually but surely made loyalty (Kun-Shin), that is, the allied relations of sovereign and minister, of lord and retainer, and of master and servant, not only first in order but the chief of all. They also infused into this term ideas and associations which are foreign to the Chinese mind. In the place of filial piety was Kun-shin, that new growth in the garden of Japanese ethics, out of which arose the white flower of loyalty that blooms perennial in history.

In Japan, Loyalty Displaces Filial Piety.

This slow but sure adaptation of the exotic to its new environment, took place during the centuries previous to the seventeenth of the Christian era. The completed product presented a growth so strikingly different from the original as to compel the wonder of those Chinese refugee scholars, who, at Mito and Yedo, taught the later dogmas which are orthodox but not historically Confucian.

Herein lies the difference between Chinese and Japanese ethical philosophy. In old Japan, loyalty was above filial obedience, and the man who deserted parents, wife and children for the feudal lord, received unstinted praise. The corner-stone of the Japanese edifice of personal righteousness and public weal, is loyalty. On the other hand, filial piety is the basis of Chinese order and the secret of the amazing national longevity, which is one of the moral wonders of the world, and sure proof of the fulfilment of that promise which was made on Sinai and wrapped up in the fourth commandment.

This master passion of the typical Samurai of old Japan made him regard life as infinitely less than nothing, whenever duty demanded a display of the virtue of loyalty. “The doctrines of Koshi and Moshi” (Confucius and Mencius) formed, and possibly even yet form, the gospel and the quintessence of all wordly wisdom to the Japanese gentleman; they became the basis of his education and the ideal which inspired his conceptions of duty and honor; but, crowning all his doctrines and aspirations was his desire to be loyal. There might abide loyal, marital, filial, fraternal and various other relations, but the greatest of all these was loyalty. Hence the Japanese calendar of saints is not filled with reformers, alms-givers and founders of hospitals or orphanages, but is over-crowded with canonized suicides and committers of hara-kiri. Even today, no man more quickly wins the popular regard during his life or more surely draws homage to his tomb, securing even apotheosis, than the suicide, though he may have committed a crime. In this era of Meiji or enlightened peace, most appalling is the list of assassinations beginning with the murder in Kioto of Yokoi Heishiro, who was slain for recommending the toleration of Christianity, down to the last cabinet minister who has been knifed or dynamited. Yet in every case the murderers considered themselves consecrated men and ministers of Heaven’s righteous vengeance. For centuries, and until constitutional times, the government of Japan was “despotism tempered by assassination.” The old-fashioned way of moving a vote of censure upon the king’s ministers was to take off their heads. Now, however, election by ballot has been substituted for this, and two million swords have become bric-a-brac.

A thousand years of training in the ethics of Confucius-­which always admirably lends itself to the possessors of absolute power, whether emperors, feudal lords, masters, fathers, or older brothers-­have so tinged and colored every conception of the Japanese mind, so dominated their avenues of understanding and shaped their modes of thought, that to-day, notwithstanding the recent marvellous development of their language, which within the last two decades has made it almost a new tongue, it is impossible with perfect accuracy to translate into English the ordinary Japanese terms which are congregated under the general idea of Kun-shin.

Herein may be seen the great benefit of carefully studying the minds of those whom we seek to convert. The Christian preacher in Japan who uses our terms “heaven,” “home,” “mother,” “father,” “family,” “wife,” “people,” “love,” “reverence,” “virtue,” “chastity,” etc., will find that his hearers may indeed receive them, but not at all with the same mental images and associations, nor with the same proportion and depth, that these words command in western thought and hearing. One must be exceedingly careful, not only in translating terms which have been used by Confucius in the Chinese texts, but also in selecting and rendering the current expressions of the Japanese teachers and philosophers. In order to understand each other, Orientals and Occidentals need a great deal of mutual intellectual drilling, without which there will be waste of money, of time, of brains and of life.

The Five Relations.

Let us now glance at the fundamentals of the Confucian ethics-­the Five Relations-­as they were taught in the comparatively simple system which prevailed before the new orthodoxy was proclaimed by Sung schoolmen.

First. Although each of the Chinese and Japanese emperors is supposed to be, and is called, “father of the people,” yet it would be entirely wrong to imagine that the phrase implies any such relation, as that of William the Silent to the Dutch, or of Washington to the American nation. In order to see how far the emperor was removed from the people during a thousand years, one needs but to look upon a brilliant painting of the Yamato-Tosa school, in which the Mikado is represented as sitting behind a cloud of gold or a thick curtain of fine bamboo, with no one before the matting-throne but his prime ministers or the empress and his concubines. For centuries, it was supposed that the Mikado did not touch the ground with his feet. He went abroad in a curtained car; and he was not only as mysterious and invisible to the public eye as a dragon, but he was called such. The attributes of that monster with many powers and functions, were applied to him, with an amazing wealth of rhetoric and vocabulary. As well might the common folks to-day presume to pray unto one of the transcendent Buddhas, between whom and the needy suppliant there may be hosts upon hosts of interlopers or mediators, as for an ordinary subject to petition the emperor or even to gaze upon his dragon countenance. The change in the constitutional Japan of our day is seen in the fact that the term “Mikado” is now obsolete. This description of the relation of sovereign and minister (inaccurately characterised by some writers on Confucianism as that of “King and subject,” a phrase which might almost fit the constitutional monarchy of to-day) shows the relation, as it did exist for nearly a thousand years of Japanese history. We find the same imitation of procedure, even when imperialism became only a shadow in the government and the great Shogun who called himself “Tycoon,” the ruler in Yedo, aping the majesty of Kioto, became so powerful as to be also a dragon. Between the Yedo Shogun and the people rose a great staircase of numberless subordinates, and should a subject attempt to offer a petition in person he must pay for it by crucifixion.

As, under the emperor there were court ministers, heads of departments, governors and functionaries of all kinds before the people were reached, so, under the Shogun in the feudal days, there were the Daimios or great lords and the Shomios or small lords with their retainers in graduated subordination, and below these were the servants and general humanity. Even after the status of man was reached, there were gradations and degradations through fractions down to ciphers and indeed to minus quantities, for there existed in the Country of Brave Warriors some tens of thousands of human beings bearing the names of eta (pariah) and h[=i]-nin (non-human), who were far below the pale of humanity.

The Paramount Idea of Loyalty.

The one idea which dominated all of these classes,-­in Old Japan there were no masses but only many classes-­was that of loyalty. As the Japanese language shows, every faculty of man was subordinated to this idea. Confucianism even conditioned the development of Japanese grammar, as it also did that of the Koreans, by multiplying honorary prefixes and suffixes and building up all sociable and polite speech on perpendicular lines. Personality was next to nothing and individuality was in a certain sense unknown. In European languages, the pronoun shows how clearly the ideas of personality and of individuality have been developed; but in the Japanese language there really are no pronouns, in the sense of the word as used by the Germanic nations, at least, although there are hundreds of impersonal and topographical substitutes for them. The mirror, of the language itself, reflects more truth upon this point of inquiry than do patriotic assertions, or the protests of those who in the days of this Meiji era so handsomely employ the Japanese language as the medium of thought. Strictly speaking, the ego disappears in ordinary conversation and action, and instead, it is the servant speaking reverently to his master; or it is the master condescending to the object which is “before his hand” or “to the side” or “below” where his inferior kneels; or it is the “honorable right” addressing the “esteemed left.”

All the terms which a foreigner might use in speaking of the duties of sovereign and minister, of lord and retainer and of master and servant, are comprehended in the Japanese word, Kun-shin, in which is crystallized but one thought, though it may relate to three grades of society. The testimony of history and of the language shows, that the feelings which we call loyalty and reverence are always directed upward, while those which we term benevolence and love invariably look downward.

Note herein the difference between the teachings of Christ and those of the Chinese sage. According to the latter, if there be love in the relation of the master and servant, it is the master who loves, and not the servant who may only reverence. It would be inharmonious for the Japanese servant to love his master; he never even talks of it. And in family life, while the parent may love the child, the child is not expected to love the parent but rather to reverence him. So also the Japanese wife, as in our old scriptural versions, is to “see that she reverence her husband.” Love (not agape, but éros) is indeed a theme of the poets and of that part of life and of literature which is, strictly speaking, outside of the marriage relation, but the thought that dominates in marital life, is reverence from the wife and benevolence from the husband. The Christian conception, which requires that a woman should love her husband, does not strictly accord with the Confucian idea.

Christianity has taught us that when a man loves a woman purely and makes her his wife, he should also have reverence for her, and that this element should be an integral part of his love. Christianity also teaches a reverence for children; and Wordsworth has but followed the spirit of his great master, Christ, when expressing this beautiful sentiment in his melodious numbers. Such ideas as these, however, are discords in Japanese social life of the old order. So also the Christian preaching of love to God, sounds outlandish to the men of Chinese mind in the middle or the pupil kingdom, who seem to think that it can only come from the lips of those who have not been properly trained. To “love God” appears to them as being an unwarrantable patronage of, and familiarity with “Heaven,” or the King of Kings. The same difficulty, which to-day troubles Christian preachers and translators, existed among the Roman Catholic missionaries three centuries ago. The moulds of thought were not then, nor are they even now, entirely ready for the full truth of Christian revelation.

Suicide Made Honorable.

In the long story of the Honorable Country, there are to be found many shining examples of loyalty, which is the one theme oftenest illustrated in popular fiction and romance. Its well-attested instances on the crimson thread of Japanese history are more numerous than the beads on many rosaries. The most famous of all, perhaps, is the episode of the Forty-Seven Ronins, which is a constant favorite in the theatres, and has been so graphically narrated or pictured by scores of native poets, authors, artists, sculptors and dramatists, and told in English by Mitford, Dickens and Grecy.

These forty-seven men hated wife, child, society, name, fame, food and comfort for the sake of avenging the death of their master. In a certain sense, they ceased to be persons in order to become the impersonal instruments of Heaven’s retribution. They gave up every thing-­houses, lands, kinsmen-­that they might have in this life the hundred-fold reward of vengeance, and in the world-life of humanity throughout the centuries, fame and honor. Feeding the hunger of their hearts upon the hope of glutting that hunger with the life-blood of their victim, they waited long years. When once their swords had drunk the consecrated blood, they laid the severed head upon their master’s tomb and then gladly, even rapturously, delivered themselves up, and ripping open their bowels they died by that judicially ordered seppuku which cleansed their memory from every stain, and gave to them the martyr’s fame and crown forever. The tombs of these men, on the hillside overlooking the Bay of Yedo, are to this day ever fragrant with fresh flowers, and to the cemetery where their ashes lie and their memorials stand, thousands of pilgrims annually wend their way. No dramas are more permanently popular on the stage than those which display the virtues of these heroes, who are commonly spoken of as “The righteous Samurai.” Their tombs have stood for two centuries, as mighty magnets drawing others to self-impalement on the sword-­as multipliers of suicides.

Yet this alphabetic number, this i-ro-ha of self-murder, is but one of a thousand instances in the Land of Noble Suicides. From the pre-historic days when the custom of Jun-shi, or dying with the master, required the interment of the living retainers with the dead lord, down through all the ages to the Revolution of 1868, when at Sendai and Aidzu scores of men and boys opened their bowels, and mothers slew their infant sons and cut their own throats, there has been flowing through Japanese history a river of suicides’ blood having its springs in the devotion of retainers to masters, and of soldiers to a lost cause as represented by the feudal superior. Shigemori, the son of the prime minister Kiyomori, who protected the emperor even against his own father, is a model of that Japanese kun-shin which placed fidelity to the sovereign above filial obedience; though even yet Shigemori’s name is the synonym of both virtues. Kusunoki Masashige, the white flower of Japanese chivalry, is but one, typical not only of a thousand but of thousands of thousands of soldiers, who hated parents, wife, child, friend in order to be disciple to the supreme loyalty. He sealed his creed by emptying his own veins. Kiyomori, like King David of Israel, on his dying bed ordered the assassination of his personal enemy.

The common Japanese novels read like records of slaughter-houses. No Moloch or Shiva has won more victims to his shrine than has this idea of Japanese loyalty which is so beautiful in theory and so hideous in practice. Despite the military clamps and frightful despotism of Yedo, which for two hundred and fifty years gave to the world a delusive idea of profound quiet in the Country of Peaceful Shores, there was in fact a chronic unrest which amounted at many times and in many places to anarchy. The calm of despotism was, indeed, rudely broken by the aliens in the “black ships” with the “flowery flag”; but, without regarding influences from the West, the indications of history as now read, pointed in 1850 toward the bloodiest of Japan’s many civil wars. Could the statistics of the suicides during this long period be collected, their publication would excite in Christendom the utmost incredulity.

Nevertheless, this qualifying statement should be made. A study of the origin and development of the national method of self-destruction shows that suicide by seppuku, or opening of the abdomen, was first a custom, and then a privilege. It took, among men of honor, the place of the public executions, the massacres in battle and siege, decimation of rebels and similar means of killing at the hands of others, which so often mar the historical records of western nations. Undoubtedly, therefore, in the minds of most Japanese, there are many instances of hara-kiri which should not be classed as suicide, but technically as execution of judicial sentence. And yet no sentence or process of death known in western lands had such influence in glorifying the victim, as had seppuku in Japan.

The Family Idea.

The Second Relation is that of father and son, thus preceding what we should suppose to be the first of human relations-­husband and wife-­but the arrangement entirely accords with the Oriental conception that the family, the house, is more important than the individual. In Old Japan the paramount idea in marriage, was not that of love or companionship, or of mutual assistance with children, but was almost wholly that of offspring, and of maintaining the family line. The individual might perish but the house must live on.

Very different from the family of Christendom, is the family in Old Japan, in which we find elements that would not be recognized where monogamy prevails and children are born in the home and not in the herd. Instead of father, mother and children, there are father, wife, concubines, and various sorts of children who are born of the wife or of the concubine, or have been adopted into the family. With us, adoption is the exception, but in Japan it is the invariable rule whenever either convenience or necessity requires it of the house. Indeed it is rare to find a set of brothers bearing the same family name. Adoption and concubinage keep the house unbroken. It is the house, the name, which must continue, although not necessarily by a blood line. The name, a social trade-mark, lives on for ages. The line of Japanese emperors, which, in the Constitution of 1889, by adding mythology to history is said to rule “unbroken from ages eternal,” is not one of fathers and sons, but has been made continuous by concubinage and adoption. In this view, it is possibly as old as the line of the popes.

It is very evident that our terms and usages do not have in such a home the place or meaning which one not familiar with the real life of Old Japan would suppose. The father is an absolute ruler. There is in Old Japan hardly any such thing as “parents,” for practically there is only one parent, as the woman counts for little. The wife is honored if she becomes a mother, but if childless she is very probably neglected. Our idea of fatherhood implies that the child has rights and that he should love as well as be loved. Our customs excite not only the merriment but even the contempt of the old-school Japanese. The kiss and the embrace, the linking of the child’s arm around its father’s neck, the address on letters “My dear Wife” or “My beloved Mother” seem to them like caricatures of propriety. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly true that in reverence toward parents-­or at least toward one of the parents-­a Japanese child is apt to excel the one born even in a Christian home.

This so-called filial “piety” becomes in practice, however, a horrible outrage upon humanity and especially upon womanhood. During centuries the despotic power of the father enabled him to put an end to the life of his child, whether boy or girl.

Under this abominable despotism there is no protection for the daughter, who is bound to sell her body, while youth or beauty last or perhaps for life, to help pay her father’s debts, to support an aged parent or even to gratify his mere caprice. In hundreds of Japanese romances the daughter, who for the sake of her parents has sold herself to shame, is made the theme of the story and an object of praise. In the minds of the people there may be indeed a feeling of pity that the girl has been obliged to give up her home life for the brothel, but no one ever thinks of questioning the right of the parent to make the sale of the girl’s body, any more than he would allow the daughter to rebel against it. This idea still lingers and the institution remains, although the system has received stunning blows from the teaching of Christian ethics, the preaching of a better gospel and the improvements in the law of the land.

The Marital Relation.

The Third Relation is that of husband and wife. The meaning of these words, however, is not the same with the Japanese as with us. In Confucius there is not only male and female, but also superior and inferior, master and servant. Without any love-making or courtship by those most interested, a marriage between two young people is arranged by their parents through the medium of what is called a “go-between.” The bride leaves her father’s house forever-­that is, when she is not to be subsequently divorced-­and entering into that of her husband must be subordinate not only to him but also to his parents, and must obey them as her own father and mother. Having all her life under her father’s roof reverenced her superiors, she is expected to bring reverence to her new domicile, but not love. She must always obey but never be jealous. She must not be angry, no matter whom her husband may introduce into his household. She must wait upon him at his meals and must walk behind him, but not with him. When she dies her children go to her funeral, but not her husband.

A foreigner, hearing the Japanese translate our word chastity by the term teiso or misao, may imagine that the latter represents mutual obligation and personal purity for man and wife alike, but on looking into the dictionary he will find that teiso means “Womanly duties.” A circumlocution is needed to express the idea of a chaste man.

Jealousy is a horrible sin, but is always supposed to be a womanish fault, and so an exhibition of folly and weakness. Therefore, to apply such a term to God-­to say “a jealous God”-­outrages the good sense of a Confucianist, almost as much as the statement that God “cannot lie” did that of the Pundit, who wondered how God could be Omnipotent if He could not lie.

How great the need in Japanese social life of some purifying principle higher than Confucianism can afford, is shown in the little book entitled “The Japanese Bride," written by a native, and scarcely less in the storm of native criticism it called forth. Under the system which has ruled Japan for a millennium and a half, divorce has been almost entirely in the hands of the husband, and the document of separation, entitled in common parlance the “three lines and a half,” was invariably written by the man. A woman might indeed nominally obtain a divorce from her husband, but not actually; for the severance of the marital tie would be the work of the house or relatives, rather than the act of the wife, who was not “a person” in the case. Indeed, in the olden time a woman was not a person in the eye of the law, but rather a chattel. The case is somewhat different under the new codes, but the looseness of the marriage tie is still a scandal to thinking Japanese. Since the breaking up of the feudal system and the disarrangement of the old social and moral standards, the statistics made annually from the official census show that the ratio of divorce to marriage is very nearly as one to three.

The Elder and the Younger Brother.

The Fourth Relation is that of Elder Brother and Younger Brother. As we have said, foreigners in translating some of the Chinese and Japanese terms used in the system of Confucius are often led into errors by supposing that the Christian conception of family life prevails also in Chinese Asia. By many writers this relation is translated “brother to brother;” but really in the Japanese language there is no term meaning simply “brother” or “sister," and a circumlocution is necessary to express the ideas which we convey by these words. It is always “older brother” or “younger brother,” and “older sister” or “younger sister”-­the male or female “kiyodai” as the case may be. With us-­excepting in lands where the law of primogeniture still prevails-­all the brothers are practically equal, and it would be considered a violation of Christian righteousness for a parent to show more favor to one child than to another. In this respect the “wisdom that cometh from above” is “without partiality.” The Chinese ethical system, however, disregards the principle of mutual rights and duties, and builds up the family on the theory of the subordination of the younger brother to the elder brother, the predominant idea being not mutual love, but, far more than in the Christian household, that of rank and order. The attitude of the heir of the family toward the other children is one of condescension, and they, as well as the widowed mother, regard the oldest son with reverence. It is as though the commandment given on Sinai should read, “Honor thy father and thy elder brother.”

The mother is an instrument rather than a person in the life of the house, and the older brother is the one on whom rests the responsibility of continuing the family line. The younger brothers serve as subjects for adoption into other families, especially those where there are daughters to be married and family names to be continued. In a word, the name belongs to the house and not to the individual. The habit of naming children after relatives or friends of the parents, or illustrious men and women, is unknown in Old Japan, though an approach to this common custom among us is made by conferring or making use of part of a name, usually by the transferrence of one ideograph forming the name-word. Such a practice lays stress upon personality, and so has no place in the country without pronouns, where the idea of continuing the personal house or semi-personal family, is predominant. The customs prevalent in life are strong even in death, and the elder brother or sister, in some provinces, did not go to the funeral of the younger. This state of affairs is reflected in Japanese literature, and produces in romance as well as in history many situations and episodes which seem almost incredible to the Western mind.

In the lands ruled by Confucius the grown-up children usually live under the parental roof, and there are few independent homes as we understand them. The so-called family is composed both of the living and of the dead, and constitutes the unit of society.

Friendship and Humanity.

The Fifth Relation-­Friends. Here, again, a mistake is often made by those who import ideas of Christendom into the terms used in Chinese Asia, and who strive to make exact equivalent in exchanging the coins of speech. Occidental writers are prone to translate the term for the fifth relation into the English phrase “man to man,” which leads the Western reader to suppose that Confucius taught that universal love for man, as man, which was instilled and exemplified by Jesus Christ. In translating Confucius they often make the same mistake that some have done who read in Terence’s “Self-Tormentor” the line, “I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me," and imagine that this is the sentiment of an enlightened Christian, although the context shows that it is only the boast of a busybody and parasite. What Confucius taught under the fifth relation is not universality, and, as compared to the teachings of Jesus, is moonlight, not sunlight. The doctrine of the sage is clearly expressed in the Analects, and amounts only to courtesy and propriety. He taught, indeed, that the stranger is to be treated as a friend; and although in both Chinese and Japanese history there are illustrious proofs that Confucius had interpreters nobler than himself, yet it is probable that the doctrine of the stranger’s receiving treatment as a friend, does not extend to the foreigner. Confucius framed something like the Golden Rule-­though it were better called a Silver Rule, or possibly a Gilded Rule, since it is in the negative instead of being definitely placed in the positive and indicative form. One may search his writings in vain for anything approaching the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the words of Him who commended Elijah for replenishing the cruse and barrel of the widow of Sarepta, and Elisha for healing Naaman the Syrian leper, and Jonah for preaching the good news of God to the Assyrians who had been aliens and oppressors. Lao Tsze, however, went so far as to teach “return good for evil.” When one of the pupils of Confucius interrogated his Master concerning this, the sage answered; “What then will you return for good? Recompense injury with justice, and return good for good.”

But if we do good only to those who do good to us, what thanks have we? Do not the publicans the same? Behold how the Heavenly Father does good alike unto all, sending rain upon the just and unjust!

How Old Japan treated the foreigner is seen in the repeated repulse, with powder and ball, of the relief ships which, under the friendly stars and stripes, attempted to bring back to her shores the shipwrecked natives of Nippon. Granted that this action may have been purely political and the Government alone responsible for it-­just as our un-Christian anti-Chinese legislation is similarly explained-­yet it is certain that the sentiment of the only men in Japan who made public opinion,-­the Samurai of that day,-­was in favor of this method of meeting the alien.

In 1852 the American expedition was despatched to Japan for the purpose of opening a lucrative trade and of extending American influence and glory, but also unquestionably with the idea of restoring shipwrecked Japanese as well as securing kind treatment for shipwrecked American sailors, thereby promoting the cause of humanity and international courtesy; in short, with motives that were manifestly mixed. In the treaty pavilion there ensued an interesting discussion between Commodore Perry and Professor Hayashi upon this very subject.

Perry truthfully complained that the dictates of humanity had not been followed by the Japanese, that unnecessary cruelty had been used against shipwrecked men, and that Japan’s attitude toward her neighbors and the whole world was that of an enemy and not of a friend.

Hayashi, who was then probably the leading Confucianist in Japan, warmly defended his countrymen and superiors against the charge of intentional cruelty, and denounced the lawless character of many of the foreign sailors. Like most Japanese of his school and age, he wound up with panegyrics on the pre-eminence in virtue and humanity, above all nations, of the Country Ruled by a Theocratic Dynasty, and on the glory and goodness of the great Tokugawa family, which had given peace to the land during two centuries or more.

It is manifest, however, that so far as this hostility to foreigners, and this blind bigotry of “patriotism” were based on Chinese codes of morals, as officially taught in Yedo, they belonged as much to the old Confucianism as to the new. Wherever the narrow philosophy of the sage has dominated, it has made Asia Chinese and nations hermits. As a rule, the only way in which foreigners could come peacefully into China or the countries which she intellectually dominated was as vassals, tribute-bearers, or “barbarians.” The mental attitude of China, Korea, Annam and Japan has for ages been that of the Jews in Herodian times, who set up, between the Court of Israel and the Court of the Gentiles, their graven stones of warning which read:

“No foreigner to proceed within the partition wall and enclosure
around the sanctuary; whoever is caught in the same will on that
account be liable to incur death.”