1. The Language.—2. The Religion.—3. The Literature. Influence of Women.—4. History.—5. The Drama and Poetry.—6. Geography. Newspapers. Novels. Medical Science.—7. Position of Woman.
1. THE LANGUAGE.—The Japanese is considered as belonging to the isolated languages, as philologists have thus far failed to classify it. It is agglutinative in its syntax, each word consisting of an unchangeable root and one or several suffixes. Before the art of writing was known, poems, odes to the gods, and other fragments which still exist had been composed in this tongue, and it is probable that a much larger literature existed. During the first centuries of writing in Japan, the spoken and written language was identical, but with the study of the Chinese literature and the composition of native works almost exclusively in that language, there grew up differences between the colloquial and literary idiom, and the infusion of Chinese words steadily increased. In writing, the Chinese characters occupy the most important place. But all those words which express the wants, feelings, and concerns of everyday life, all that is deepest in the human heart, are for the most part native. If we would trace the fountains of the musical and beautiful language of Japan, we must seek them in the hearts and hear them flow from the lips of the mothers of the Island Empire. Among the anomalies with which Japan has surprised and delighted the world may be claimed that of woman's achievements in the domain of letters. It was woman's services, not man's, that made the Japanese a literary language, and under her influence the mobile forms of speech crystallized into perennial beauty.
The written language has heretofore consisted mainly of characters borrowed from the Chinese, each character representing an idea of its own, so that in order to read and write the student must make himself acquainted with several thousand characters, and years are required to gain proficiency in these elementary arts. There also exists in Japan a syllabary alphabet of forty-seven characters, used at present as an auxiliary to the Chinese. Within a very recent period, since the acquisition of knowledge has become a necessity in Japan, a society has been formed by the most prominent men of the empire, for the purpose of assimilating the spoken and written language, taking the forty-seven native characters as the basis.
2. RELIGION.—The two great religions of Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. The chief characteristic of the Shinto religion is the worship of ancestors, the deification of emperors, heroes, and scholars, and the adoration of the personified forces of nature. It lays down no precepts, teaches no morals or doctrines, and prescribes no ritual.
The number of Shinto deities is enormous. In its higher form the chief object of the Shinto faith is to enjoy this life; in its lower forms it consists in a blind obedience to governmental and priestly dictates.
On the recent accession of the Mikado to his former supreme power, an attempt was made to restore this ancient faith, but it failed, and Japan continues as it has been for ten centuries in the Buddhist faith.
The religion of Buddha was introduced into Japan 581 A.D., and has exerted a most potent influence in forming the Japanese character.
The Protestants of Japanese Buddhism are the followers of Shinran, 1262 A.D., who have wielded a vast influence in the religious development of the people both for good and evil. In this creed prayer, purity, and earnestness of life are insisted upon. The Scriptures of other sects are written in Sanskrit and Chinese which only the learned are able to read, those of the Shin sect are in the vernacular Japanese idiom. After the death of Shinran, Rennio, who died in 1500 A.D., produced sacred writings now daily read by the disciples of this denomination.
Though greatly persecuted, the Shin sect have continually increased in numbers, wealth, and power, and now lead all in intelligence and influence. Of late they have organized their theological schools on the model of foreign countries that their young men may be trained to resist the Shinto and Christian faiths.
3. THE LITERATURE. INFLUENCE OF WOMEN.—Previous to the fourteenth century learning in Japan was confined to the court circle. The fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries are the dark ages when military domination put a stop to all learning except with, a few priests. With the seventeenth century begins the modern period of general culture. The people are all fond of reading, and it is very common to see circulating libraries carried from house to house on the backs of men.
As early as the tenth century, while the learned affected a pedantic style so interlarded with Chinese as to be unintelligible, the cultivation of the native tongue was left to the ladies of the court, a task which they nobly discharged. It is a remarkable fact, without parallel in the history of letters, that a very large proportion of the best writings of the best ages was the work of women, and their achievement in the domain of letters is one of the anomalies with which Japan has surprised and delighted the world. It was their genius that made the Japanese a literary language. The names and works of these authoresses are quoted at the present day.
4. HISTORY.—The earliest extant Japanese record is a work entitled “Kojiki,” or book of ancient traditions. It treats of the creation, the gods and goddesses of the mythological period, and gives the history of the Mikados from the accession of Jimmu, year 1 (660 B.C.), to 1288 of the Japanese year. It was supposed to date from the first half of the eighth century, and another work “Nihonghi,” a little later, also treats of the mythological period. It abounds in traces of Chinese influence, and in a measure supersedes the “Kojiki.” These are the oldest books in the language. They are the chief exponents of the Shinto faith, and form the bases of many commentaries and subsequent works.
The “History of Great Japan,” composed in the latter part of the seventeenth century, by the Lord of Mito (died 1700), is the standard history of the present day. The external history of Japan, in twenty-two volumes, by Rai Sanyo (died 1832), composed in classical Chinese, is most widely read by men of education.
The Japanese are intensely proud of their history and take great care in making and preserving records. Memorial stones are among the most striking sights on the highways and in the towns, villages, and temple yards, in honor of some noted scholar, ruler, or benefactor. Few people are more thoroughly informed as to their own history. Every city, town, and village has its annals. Family records are faithfully copied from generation to generation. Almost every province has its encyclopaedic history, and every high-road its itineraries and guide-books, in which famous places and events are noted. In the large cities professional story-tellers and readers gain a lucrative livelihood by narrating both legendary and classical history, and the theatre is often the most faithful mirror of actual history. There are hundreds of child's histories in Japan. Many of the standard works are profusely illustrated, are models of style and eloquence, and parents delight to instruct their children in the national laws and traditions.
5. THE DRAMA.—The theatre is a favorite amusement, especially among the lower classes; the pieces represented are of a popular character and written in colloquial language, and generally founded on national history and tradition, or on the lives and adventures of the heroes and gods; and the scene is always laid in Japan. The play begins in the morning and lasts all day, spectators bringing their food with them. No classical dramatic author is known.
Poetry has always been a favorite study with the Japanese. The most ancient poetical fragment, called a “Collection of Myriad Leaves,” dates from the eighth century. The collection of “One Hundred Persons" is much later, and contains many poems written by the emperors themselves. The Japanese possess no great epic or didactic poems, although some of their lyrics are happy examples of quaint modes of thought and expression. It is difficult to translate them into a foreign tongue.
6. GEOGRAPHY. NEWSPAPERS AND NOVELS.—The largest section of Japanese literature is that treating of the local geography of the country itself. These works are minute in detail and of great length, describing events and monuments of historic interest.
Before the recent revolution bat one newspaper existed in Japan, but at present the list numbers several hundred. Freedom of the press is unknown, and fines and imprisonment for violation of the stringent laws are very frequent.
Novels constitute a large section of Japanese literature. Fairy tales and story books abound. Many of them are translated into English; “The Royal Ronans” and other works have recently been published in New York.
Medical science was borrowed from China, but upon this, as upon other matters, the Japanese improved. Acupuncture, or the introduction of needles into the living tissues for remedial purposes, was invented by the Japanese, as was the moxa, or the burning of the flesh for the same purpose.
7. POSITION OF WOMAN.—Women in Japan are treated with far more respect and consideration than elsewhere in the East. According to Japanese history the women of the early centuries were possessed of more intellectual and physical vigor, filling the offices of state and religion, and reaching a high plane of social dignity and honor. Of the one hundred and twenty-three Japanese sovereigns, nine have been women. The great heroine of Japanese history and tradition was the Empress Jingu, renowned for her beauty, piety, intelligence, and martial valor, who, about 200 A.D., invaded and conquered Corea.
The female children of the lower classes receive tuition in private schools so generally established during the last two centuries throughout the country, and those of the higher classes at the hands of private tutors or governesses; and in every household may be found a great number of books exclusively on the duties of women.