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


Thirty-seven years have passed since this story opened. It is in the month of May, 1895, and two men are sitting at a hibachi in an upper room in Shinagawa, formerly a suburb of Yedo, now a part of the city of Tokyo. The men were hale and hearty, but their gray hair, bordering on white, showed that they were beyond middle age. Their hair was cut after our fashion, but one wore a straggling beard, while the other's snow-white moustache showed off to advantage his small mouth.

The room where they were sitting was at the back of the second story of a house, which, apparently at least was of our cottage style of architecture. If one had pressed the electric bell, and entered it, he would not have seen anything except what might be expected in the home of a well-to-do American or European. He might have noticed the taste displayed by the owner, and the quiet, unobstrusive elegance, but it would not have caused him to suspect that he was in the house of a Japanese.

The whole of the lower floor, except the kitchen and servants' rooms, was such as one might have expected in an opulent American or English city. The upper story, however, retained the native simplicity, save that walls, instead of the light, airy sho ji, helped to support the roof. The prospect from every side was lovely, for the house stood on one of the bluffs, bordering the former Tokaido. That highway was there still, but its glory has departed. Every hour, and sometimes more frequently, trains run between Yokohama and Tokyo, and thousands of passengers mingle daily in the large waiting-rooms and in the depot at Shinbashi. There the former daimiyo comes in actual contact with the ninzoku, and the kugé of old stands by the side of the merchant.

The front of the house gives a view of the bay, lovely at high tide but disagreeable when the ebb exposes mud-banks extending three miles from the shore. It will not be long before the government will perceive the value of this land, and the eyesore will disappear. If Rome could have been built in a day, these Japanese would have done it.

If Ito looks from the windows on the right, toward Shinagawa, his eye must fall upon the handsome residence of Mori, where the son of his former lord now leads a life of quiet elegance. He is well satisfied with it. When Ito, now higher in rank than his former lord, calls to pay his respects as he often does, the same relation seems to exist as in former days. Again Ito is the simple samurai, his lord the daimiyo, and in both there is a secret longing for the days that are past. But when they look about them that longing ceases, and they are glad and proud of what they see.

From the windows in the left, Ito looks upon Tokyo, now grown into one of the world cities. Has it changed in these thirty-seven years? To be sure it has, but not oppressively. As we walk through the streets where dwell the people, we notice that they are wider and cleaner; but the houses are still as they were before, although there is evidence of greater prosperity. In Ginza, the street of the large shops, we see a mixture of the occident and orient, not altogether pleasant; houses built in foreign style, divided into Japanese rooms or Japanese houses with imitation foreign stores. Still it is all Japanese, that is, we can not, even for a moment, lose sight of the fact that we are in Japan.


But the houses are still as they were before.

But it is within the former castle grounds that a great change is noticeable; especially at Sakura, near the spot where Ii Naosuke paid with his head the hatred of Mito. Where his yashiki stood is an elegantly built edifice of brick, a girls' school, formerly the polytechnic, and facing the moat are a number of villas. In the first of these dwelt Sanjo during his life; next to it is the house once occupied by Shimadzu, the head of the Satsuma clan, and up the hill is the palace of Arisugawa, now in mourning, for its head died some months ago.

It is quite evident that two strong forces are working in Japan. The leaders of the people are sincere in their desire to conform more and more to occidental ideals, whereas the people are striving strenuously to return to their former habits and customs in domestic life. Both parties are impelled by the same motive, love of country. But the leaders have more experience and a wider horizon. They have been abroad, and judge occidental life, with all its virtues and vices by the results which they produced. The people know nothing of foreigners, except of such with whom they come into contact, and they have no love for them.

Thus, as an old friend expressed it to me, all our modern improvements such as tend toward enhancing the nation's greatness and wealth, have been assimilated. Japan, to-day, could no more do without railroads, than we could do without them. It is the same with telegraph and telephone and other inventions where steam or electricity are the motive. The army and navy have been organized according to the highest standards, and will keep pace with the best of the world. Industries have been and are being organized, and receive careful protection from the government. But in the home life, the Japanese have turned back.

"The luxury of your homes," said my friend, "tends toward enervating the race. We do not need your furniture; it is expensive and inelegant. We sleep upon our futon as well as you do upon your spring mattress. In your clothing you are the slaves of a thing you call fashion, and every year or oftener you are called upon to pay tribute to it. Who ever heard of anything so foolish? Our clothing keeps us cool in summer, and hot in winter. It is inexpensive, becoming, and leaves our limbs to their natural action; what more do we want? As to your food, I acknowledge that a meat diet is more strengthening than our usual bill of fare, and most of us indulge in it once a day. But to prepare dishes merely to tickle the palate, is both foolish and wicked. We want no waste. That is the reason why I prefer dressing in haori, hakama, and Kimono, and why I prefer to live in a Japanese house. If I, or any other Japanese, visit your country, we conform with your customs and habits, because we do not wish to give offense. When you come here, you bring your customs and habits with you, and parade them before us, regardless if you give offense or not. I think in doing so, you act wrongly or at least in bad taste."

"You believe in doing at Rome as the Romans do," I said smiling. "But surely one can not always do so. Excuse me, but most of your dishes are absolutely repugnant to me."

"What does that prove, but that you are a slave to your stomach. Do you remember when we first met? It is a long time ago, but I shall never forget it. The impression of that day is still vivid within me. I had heard that a barbarian had come to live in our next door yashiki and I wondered what sort of an animal he was. My father had told me I must be very civil when I should see you, and, of course, there was nothing for it but to mind. I had come from school when I heard steps behind me and then somebody grabbed me and I saw you. It was well that I did not wear my swords at that time, or we should not be talking here, and Japan would have paid another indemnity. You don't know the fury you raised in me at your unceremonious introduction. Well, you dragged me in your yashiki, and placed bread, butter and sugar before me. Do you remember that, when your kadzukai came in, I asked him what those things were, and what you wanted me to do with them? He told me they were bread, oil from the cow, (niku no abura), and sugar, and were there for me to eat. Talk of repugnant! It was nauseous to me to think of such a thing as eating "oil from the cow." But when I am in America now, I enjoy my butter and sometimes help myself twice."

"That may be," I replied, "but for the life of me, I could not eat your raw fish, and many other dishes."

"Pshaw! It is on account of an imagination which we call prejudice. You don't possess the nerve to try them, and if you did from some reason, for instance false shame, they would probably upset your stomach. You could not turn my stomach in those days, child though I was, but sometimes you tried me pretty severely. When I came home that first evening, I told my father all about you, and if you had heard my description, I do not think that you would have felt flattered. But he told me to cultivate your acquaintance, and his word was law.

"It took me sometime to grow accustomed to—to—, well, I shall draw it mild, to your lack of manners and of good breeding. But then, as my father explained to me, you were only a barbarian, and without any education; and you were, or tried to be, kind; I appreciated that. So you taught me English, and I taught you Japanese, and you tested my self-control by the funny mistakes you made. Let me see how long is that ago? Twenty six years? How long will it be before you can speak Japanese, do you think?

"Come, that is rather rough on me," I laughed. "I find I can get along very well."

"Yes? I always did admire my fellow-countrymen. They have now another claim to my regard. I speak in Japanese with you for the sake of old times; but, do you know that I sometimes need all my equanimity to bear with the way in which you murder our language. Sometimes you use expressions as if I were your superior in rank; that is all right and proper; but when, a moment late, you hurl a word at my head fit only for a coolie or a servant, I admire the perfect control I have of my temper. No!" he continued slowly and looking thoughtfully at me. "I don't think you will ever learn Japanese."

"I am satisfied with what I know," I replied, "but if my use of your tongue shocks your ear, I am willing to converse in English, and I promise you that I shall not criticize either your pronunciation or grammar."

He bowed ceremoniously and replied: "No, thank you! When I am in the United States, or in England, I speak English and try to act as regardless of the feelings of others as your fellow Anglo-Saxons act. As soon as I begin to think in English, it seems as if I forget that I am a Japanese gentleman."

"You must have mastered our language better than I have yours, then, for when I speak in Japanese I can never bring myself to use those elegant circumlocutions which we call by a name which to us has an ugly sound."

This time it was my friend's turn to laugh. "Do you remember when poor Kato first came to see you? We were at our lessons, and he to do you honor had spent a few days in learning the phrases: 'I have heard of your famous name,' and 'I am happy to see your face.' He came in and recited those two sentences in very fair English, I thought. I see you jumping up yet. What a spitfire you were! Poor Kato! He did not know what to make of it. You roared: Now, what is the use of talking that way? You never heard of my name, for it is not famous, and you don't care about my face any more than I care about yours.' Kato's stock of English was exhausted, and he politely requested me to come to his assistance. Well, I had manners if you had not, so I told him that you were overpowered at the honor of his call, and that this was your manner to invite him to make himself at home."

"So that was the reason that fellow bored me until eleven o'clock. I owe you one for that!"

"Yes? We paid you foreigners well in those days, more than we could really afford, but most of you were worth the money. Not on account of the duties you performed, not always satisfactorily but generally to the best of your ability, but on account of the never failing amusement you afforded us. At a time when you thought yourself a fair Japanese scholar I have heard you criticized right before you, and you were as unconscious as a babe."

"Don't you think that you show by what you say the real difference between you and our race. By your own confession. I showed you kindness, and, my memory deceives me badly, or you reciprocated to some extent my friend ship for you. Yet you could stand by and patiently listen to an adverse criticism of one who was your friend, and, instead of resenting it, as I would have done in a similar case, you could be amused by it."

"Ah! but you forget. At that time you were still an object of suspicion to us. Shimonoseki and Kagoshima were recent recollections, and we were eating humble-pie. It is different now. We know your strength and your weakness and we know also our own strength, and we can magnanimously condescend to treat you as our equals. At that time the whole nation dissembled; we hated you and every foreigner, although we treated you so as to flatter your conceit. It does not raise a people in its own eyes when it forces itself to discard, even for a time, its national pride, and pretend to honor those whom it despises and hates. I tell you, my old friend, I am proud of my country and of my people. We passed through a fiery ordeal, and came out purified. But I acknowledge also that the fire has left scars which only time can heal. We are growing better, not worse. The fact that we two still find pleasure in each other's company proves that we are better able to appreciate each other's good qualities, and that is a type of the feeling of Japan toward foreign nations."

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