Gateway to the Classics: A Boy of Old Japan by Robert van Bergen
A Boy of Old Japan by  Robert van Bergen

Japan Asleep

Japan had been asleep for more than two hundred years. About the time when the Pilgrim fathers landed in what is now known as the New England States, the man who ruled over Japan had made up his mind that he would have nothing more to do with the people of Europe, and he gave orders that no more foreigners should be admitted. He made one exception in favor of the people of Holland, but on condition that only a very small number of them should reside in Japan at a time; and they must be satisfied with the tiny island of Deshima in the harbor of Nagasaki, and promise that they would obey the governor of that city.

It was not many years before this time, when the Japanese had been glad to receive every European, but they had found out that the Portuguese and Spaniards wished to he masters of their country, and so their kindness had changed first into dislike and afterwards into hate. The Portuguese had taught many Japanese about our Lord, and a number of them had become Christians. But the Shogun ordered that all Christians must be killed, and thousands of them were put to death. He gave also orders that all large ships must he destroyed, and that thereafter only small vessels could be built. Besides, he threatened to put to death any Japanese who should return to his country after having been abroad, even if he had been carried away against his will. No foreigner could come to Japan and no Japanese could leave his country. They could, therefore, learn nothing from other people. That is why I said that Japan had been asleep for more than two hundred years.

In all that long time there had been no change. Just as Japan was in 1621, so it was in 1853. The houses were still built in exactly the same way, the men and boys dressed exactly as their ancestors had done before, and so did the women and girls, and they lived in the same manner.

The people worked hard from early in the morning until late at night. The merchants, mechanics, and farmers, toiled from the beginning of the year to the end, without any Sundays or holidays, except on New Year's day, and perhaps a few days later. They had nothing to say in the government, and belonged to the Lord on whose estate they were living. The whole of Japan was divided into about three hundred of such estates; some of them very large and others again very small. Over each of these estates was a daimiyo, or lord, who was assisted by as many samurai, or knights, as the estate could support. These knights were the civil officers of the estate while there was peace; but as soon as war broke out they were soldiers, always ready to go into battle, and to die for their lord.

The greatest of all the daimiyo was the Shogun, or Commander-in-chief, who resided in his large castle at Yedo. It was he who made the laws for all the Japanese, and he had so many samurai that not even the greatest daimiyo dared disobey him. But, although he had as much power as any emperor, still he was not the real Emperor of Japan. Many, many years before there was any Shogun, the country had been governed by the ancestors of a man who was living quietly in Kyoto.His house was shaped like a temple, and stood in the most beautiful grounds that can be imagined. When the people spoke of him, they whispered: Tenshi Sama, for he was to them the Child of Heaven, the descendant, as they thought, of the gods who created Japan.

But Tenshi Sama, they believed, was too mighty and too great to care about such a small thing as governing the people. All he had to do was to pray to the gods to take care of Japan, and they would surely hear his prayers. Since the first Shogun ruled over Japan, there had been many wars and much bloodshed, because many daimiyo wanted larger estates than they possessed. All these wars ceased in the year 1600, when the Daimiyo of Tokugawa, named Iyeyasu, defeated his rivals at Sekigahara, and caused the Tenshi Sama to make him Shogun.


Peace reigned over the country.

Iyeyasu was such a brave general, and besides an able as well as a generous man, that the country began to enjoy peace. The great daimiyo tried once more to shake off his rule, but they could not do it. In 1615 the last battle was fought, and the daimiyo were defeated so badly that they gave in. Iyeyasu punished some of them very severely. He took a very large part of the estate of Lord Mori, the Daimiyo of Choshiu, and divided it among two of his sons. Mori henceforth was the enemy of Tokugawa, and so were all the great daimiyo who had suffered defeat. But Iyeyasu ordered them to build yashiki, or mansions, in Yedo, and to live there half of the year. Iyemitsu, the grandson of Iyeyasu and the third Tokugawa Shogun, commanded them to leave their wives and children at Yedo, where he held them in his power. He made laws for the people, the samurai, and the daimiyo, and, since he had an army of 80,000 samurai on his own estates, he was strong enough to make the daimiyo obey him.

Thus all war ceased in Japan and peace reigned over the country. The merchant plied his trade, the mechanic worked at his craft, and the peasant toiled in his field, as their fathers had done before them, and they brought up their sons to do as they had been taught. There was, therefore, no progress; and there was very little liberty.

The only people who really did have something to say, were the samurai or knights. They did not work, but were paid by the daimiyo whom they served. They were very proud of being gentlemen, and never failed to speak and act as they believed was right. Thus Japan continued until the year 1853. Then a number of "fire-ships," their smoke stacks belching forth a dense smoke, steamed up Yedo Bay. The cliffs echoed the throbbing of the engines. In vain did the Shogun's guard boats warn them to go back. They did not heed these commands any more than when the tide turned, and the current tried to stop their progress. On, on they went toward the capital of the Shogun, until the shoaling water warned them to cast anchor. Their commander was notified that he must leave, but he replied that he carried a letter for the Shogun, and would not go before he had delivered it. The government at Yedo did not know what to do. The Japanese are very shrewd, and understood quite well that the samurai, armed with bow and arrow and in old fashioned lacquered armor, were no match for guns and cannon. The government was afraid to refuse  to receive the letter, and a year later it signed a treaty, because it was afraid  to enter upon war with these strangers. The officers of the government knew the strength of the foreigners, but the samurai of the other daimiyo did not; and when they heard that the Shogun had entered into a treaty, because he was afraid, they became angry and excited. From that time it was certain that the Tokugawa princes would be Shogun no longer. The anger of the samurai increased when a new treaty was made, in 1858, between the government of Japan and that of the United States through Mr. Townsend Harris. For the following ten years there was trouble in Japan, and the samurai began to think that Tenshi Sama should drive the foreigners into the ocean. That was easier said than done, but the samurai did succeed in taking the government away from the Tokugawa, and Tenshi Sama became emperor indeed, and he is so still.

Mutsuhito, the Emperor of Japan, was only a boy of fifteen when he was taken out of his beautiful palace in 1867. He is now (1900) forty-eight years old, and has seen Japan grow from a poor little country into a great and strong empire. Our story begins in the year 1858, and will show how a Japanese samurai boy was brought up.

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