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THE MEIJI PERIOD
1850 TO THE PRESENT DAY
THE Meiji period begins formally with the accession in 1868 of the present Emperor, under whose august direction a new ordeal, unlike any in the annals of our country, has had to be faced.
That constant play of colour which distinguishes the religious and artistic life of the nation, as we have described it in the preceding pages — now gleaming in the amber twilight of idealistic Nara, now glowing with the crimson autumn of Fujiwara, again losing itself in the green sea waves of Kamakura, or shimmering in the silver moonshine of Ashikaga — returns upon us here in all its glory, like the fresh verdure of a rain-swept summer. Yet the vicissitudes of this new age, whose thirty-four years have passed, bringing each moment some new and greater programme, surround us with a labyrinth of contradictions, amongst which it becomes extremely difficult to abstract and unify the underlying idea.
And indeed the critic who speaks of contemporary art is always in danger of treading merely on his own shadow, lingering in wonder over those gigantic, or may be grotesque, figures which the slanting rays of sunset cast on the ground behind him. There are to-day two mighty chains of forces which enthral the Japanese mind, entwining dragon-like upon their own coils, each struggling to become sole master of the jewel of life, both lost now and again in an ocean of ferment. One is the Asiatic ideal, replete with grand visions of the universal sweeping through the concrete and particular, and the other European science, with her organised culture, armed in all its array of differentiated knowledge, and keen with the edge of competitive energy.
The two rival movements awoke to consciousness almost simultaneously, a century and a half ago. The first began in an attempt to recall Japan to a sense of that unity which the various waves of Chinese and Indian culture — however much colour and strength they might bring — had tended to obscure.
Japanese national life is centred in the throne, over which broods in transcendent purity the glory of a succession unbroken from eternity. But our curious isolation and long-standing lack of foreign intercourse had deprived us of all occasion for self-recognition. And in politics the vision of our sacred organic unity had been somewhat screened by the succession of the Fujiwara aristocracy, giving place in turn to the military dictatorship of the Shogunate under the Minamotos, the Ashikagas, and the Tokugawas.
Amongst the various causes which contributed to arouse us from this torpor of centuries may be mentioned, firstly, the Confucian revival of the Ming scholars, as reflected in the learning of the early Tokugawa period. The first Emperor of Ming who overthrew the Mongol dynasty in China was himself a Buddhist monk. Yet he considered the Neo-Confucianism of the Sung scholars — with its individualism based on Indian ideas — as dangerous to the unification of a grand Empire. He therefore discouraged this Neo-Confucianism, and sought also to sweep away the maze of Thibetan Tantrikism, which the Mongols had brought to China, before attempting the regeneration of the native political supremacy. Since Neo-Confucianism is Confucianism under Buddhist interpretation, this means that the Emperor tried to revert to pure Confucianism. Thus the Ming scholars returned to the Hang commentators, and an age of archeological research was begun which attained its culmination in the gigantic works of the present Manchu dynasty under Kanhi and Kenliu.
Japanese scholarship, following this great precedent, turned its gaze backwards over its ancient history. Fine historical works appeared written in Chinese, amongst them Dainihonshi, or "The History of Mighty Japan," compiled by the order of Prince Mito, two hundred years ago. Such books gave expression to a passionate worship of those heroic personifications of loyalty who had perished, like Masashige, in glorious self-sacrifice, at the close of the Kamakura period, and the reader was already stirred to long for the revindication of the imperial power.
A significant dialogue of this period is that in which an eminent scholar, noted for his reverence towards the Indian and Chinese sages, was asked by an antagonist, "What would you do — you with your overpowering love for these great masters — if an army were to invade Japan, with Buddha as its generalissimo, and Confucius as his lieutenant?" He answered without hesitation, "Strike off the head of Sakya-Muni, and steep the flesh of Confucius in brine!"
It was this torch that burned in the hand of Sannyo, when he, a century later, wrought out that epic narrative of the country from whose poetic pages the youth of Japan still learn the intensity of the raging fever that moved their grandfathers to the revolution.
A study of purely Japanese ancient literature came into vogue, led by the master-minds of Motoori and Harumi, to whose colossal works on grammar and philology modem scholars find little to add.
This led very naturally to the revival of Shintoism, that pure form of ancestor-worship extant in Japan before Buddhism, but covered long since, especially by the genius of Kukai, with Buddhist interpretations. This element in the national religion centres always in the person of the Emperor, as the descendant of the Godhead. Its revival, therefore, must always mean an accession of patriotic self-consciousness.
The Buddhistic sects, weakened as they had been by the peaceful and worldly attitude of the Shogunate, which had granted them hereditary privileges, were quite unable to assimilate this awakened energy of Shintoism, and to this fact we owe the sad destruction and scattering of the treasures of the Buddhist temples and monasteries, when the monks and priests were forced to turn Shinto by threats of instant annihilation. Indeed the zeal of the new converts themselves often added the torch of destruction to this funeral pyre of forced conversion.
The second cause of the national reawakening was undoubtedly that portentous danger with which Western encroachments on Asiatic soil threatened our national independence. Through the Dutch merchants who kept us informed of the current events of the outside world, we knew of the mighty arm of conquest which Europe extended towards the East.
We saw India, the holy land of our most sacred memories, losing her independence through her political apathy, lack of organisation, and the petty jealousies of rival interests — a sad lesson, which made us keenly alive to the necessity of unity at any cost. The opium war in China, and the gradual succumbing of Eastern nations, one by one, to the subtle magical force which the black ships brought over the seas, brought back the dread image of the Tartar Armada, calling women to pray and men to polish their swords, now groaning in the rust of three centuries of peace. There is a short but significant sonnet by Komeitenno — the august father of the present Majesty, to whose far-sighted penetration Japan owes much of her modern greatness — which says, "To the utmost of thy soul's power do thy best. Then kneel alone, and pray for the divine wind of Isé, that drove back the Tartar fleet," full of the self-reliant manhood of the nation. The beautiful bells of temples, accustomed to vibrate the music of repose and love, were torn from their time-honoured belfries to cast the cannon to defend the coasts. Women flung their mirrors into the same burning furnace, seething with patriotic fire. Yet the powerful holders of the ropes at the helm of the state were well aware of the dangers which awaited the country, were it plunged rashly or unequipped into warlike defiance of the so-called Western barbarians. It was their part to struggle and stem slowly the maddening torrent of Samurai enthusiasm, while attempting nevertheless to open the country to Western intercourse. Many, like Iikamon, sacrificed their lives in the declaration that the nation was not ready for foolhardy self-assertion. Lasting gratitude is due to these, as well as to the armed embassy of America, whose national policy opened our doors in a spirit of enlightenment that was not self-aggrandisement.
Another and third impetus was given by the southern daimyos, who, as descendants of the aristocracy of Hideyoshi and comrades of Iyeyasu, had been constantly fretted by the absolutism of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had almost reduced them to the position of hereditary vassals. The princes of Satsuma and of Choshu, of Hizen and of Tosa, had always kept alive the sense of their past grandeur, and had afforded shelter to the refugees who escaped to them from the wrath of the court of Yedo. It was in their territories, therefore, that the new spirit of revolution could breathe with freedom. It was in their territories that the mighty statesmen who rebuilt the new Japan were born; to the lands within their bounds that the great spirits who rule her to the present day must trace their lineage. These strong clans furnished the generals and soldiers who overturned the Shogunate, though honour is due also to the princely house of Mito and to Echizen of the Shogunate itself, who united to bring a speedy peace to the Empire, and to make that great renunciation in which all the daimyos and Samurai joined, sacrificing their time-honoured fiefs to the throne, and becoming equal before the law, as fellow-citizens with the meanest peasant in the land.
So the Meiji restoration glows with the fire of patriotism, a great rebirth of the national religion of loyalty, with the transfigured halo of the Mikado in the centre. The educational system of the Tokugawas, which had spread the knowledge of reading and writing to all boys and girls alike, studying in the village schools under the resident village priests, had laid the foundation of that compulsory elementary education which was amongst the first acts of the present reign. Thus high and low became one in the great new energy that thrilled the nation, making the humblest conscript in the army glory in death, like a Samurai. In spite of political squabbles — natural-unnatural children of a constitutional system such as was freely bestowed by the monarch in 1892 — a word from the throne will still conciliate the Government and Opposition, hushing both to mute reverence, even during their most violent dissensions.
The Code of Morality, the keystone of Japanese ethics as taught in the schools, was given by an imperial mandate, when all other suggestions failed to strike the note of that all-embracing veneration that was needed.
On the other hand, the wonders of modern science, since more than a century ago, had been dawning on the amazed minds of the students at Nagasaki, the only port where the Dutch traders came. The knowledge of geography which they gleaned from this source opened out new vistas of humanity. Western medicine and botany were studied at first under the greatest difficulties. European methods of warfare, which the Samurai naturally wished to acquire, led them into serious dangers, as the Shogunate considered all such attempts to be directed against their supremacy. It is heart-rending to read the history of those pioneers of Western science, who devoted themselves in secrecy to deciphering the Dutch lexicon, even as archeologists unravelled the mysteries of ancient civilisations, through the Rosetta Stone.
The memory of the Jesuit encroachment of the seventeenth century, ending in the terrible massacre of the Christian population of Shimabara, had brought about the prohibition against building seafaring vessels above a certain tonnage, and caused the penalty of death to threaten any one who, not being an official appointed to treat with the Hollanders, might dare to hold communication with foreigners. This shut off the Western world, as though behind an iron wall, so that it required the greatest self-sacrifice and heroism to make the adventurous youth seek passage in those stray European vessels which chanced now and then to touch our coasts.
But the thirst for knowledge was not to be quenched. The task of preparing for the civil war which was to engage the rival powers of the Shogunate and the southern daimyos gave occasion for the introduction of French officers, instigated as this was by the ambition of the French in their scheme for checking the Asiatic expansion of the English.
The advent of the American Commodore Perry finally opened the flood-gates of Western knowledge, which burst over the country so as almost to sweep away the landmarks of its history. At this moment Japan, in the re-awakened consciousness of her national life, was eager to clothe herself in new garb, discarding the raiment of her ancient past. To cut away those fetters of Chinese and Indian culture which bound her in the maya of Orientalism, so dangerous to national independence, seemed like a paramount duty to the organisers of the new Japan. Not only in their armaments, industry, and science, but also in philosophy and religion, they sought the new ideals of the West, blazing as that was with a wonderful lustre to their inexperienced eyes, as yet indiscriminating of its lights and shadows. Christianity was embraced with the same enthusiasm which welcomed the steam engine; the Western costume was adopted as they adopted the machine gun. Political theories and social reforms, worn out in the land of their birth, were hailed here with the same new delight with which they took to the stale and old-fashioned goods of Manchester.
The voices of great statesmen like Iwakura and Okubo were not slow to condemn the wholesale ravages which this frenzied love of European institutions was committing on the ancient customs of the country. But even they considered no sacrifice too great if the nation were to be made efficient for the new contest. Thus modem Japan holds a unique position in history, having solved a problem not comparable perhaps to any, save that which faced the vigorous activity of the Italian mind in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For at that point in its development the West also had to grapple with the double task of assimilating, on the one hand the Greco-Roman culture precipitated upon it by the rise of the Ottoman Turks, and on the other the new spirit of science and liberalism which, in the discovery of a new world, the birth of a reformed faith, and the rise of the idea of liberty, was helping to uplift from it the cloud of mediævalism.. And this twofold assimilation it was that constituted the Renaissance.
Like the great days of the small Italian Republics, when each struggled to find a new solution of life, and burst to the surface only to be swept away by the winds of contention, so this Meiji era, foaming with its bubbles of would-be assertiveness, teems with an unparalleled interest for the world, though tinged at once by the pathetic and the ridiculous.
The wild whirlpool of individualism, seeking ever to make its own stormy will its law, now rending the skies in its agonies of destruction, again lashing itself into furious welcome of any new scrap of Western religion and polity, would have dashed the nation to pieces in its seething turmoil, had not the solid rock of adamantine loyalty formed its immovable base.
The strange tenacity of the race, nurtured in the shadow of a sovereignty unbroken from its beginning, that very tenacity which preserves the Chinese and Indian ideals in all their purity amongst us, even where they were long since cast away by the hands that created them, that tenacity which delights in the delicacy of Fujiwara culture, and revels at the same time in the martial ardour of Kamakura, which tolerates the gorgeous pageantry of Toyotomi, even while it loves the austere purity of the Ashikagas, holds Japan to-day intact, in spite of this sudden incomprehensible influx of Western ideas. To remain true to herself, notwithstanding the new colour which the life of a modern nation forces her to assume, is, naturally, the fundamental imperative of that Adwaita idea to which she was trained by her ancestors. To the instinctive eclecticism of Eastern culture she owes the maturity of judgment which made her select from various sources those elements of contemporary European civilisation that she required. The Chinese War, which revealed our supremacy in the Eastern waters, and which has yet drawn us closer than ever in mutual friendship, was a natural outgrowth of the new national vigour, which has been working to express itself for a century and a half. It had also been foreseen in all its bearings by the remarkable insight of the older statesmen of the period, and arouses us now to the grand problems and responsibilities which await us as the new Asiatic Power. Not only to return to our own past ideals, but also to feel and revivify the dormant life of the old Asiatic unity, becomes our mission. The sad problems of Western society turn us to seek a higher solution in Indian religion and Chinese ethics. The very trend of Europe itself, in German philosophy and Russian spirituality, in its latest developments, towards the East, assists us in the recovery of those subtler and nobler visions of human life which drew these nations themselves nearer to the stars in the night of their material oblivion.
The double nature of the Meiji restoration is manifest in the field of art, which is struggling, like the political consciousness, to attain its higher rounds. The spirit of historical inquiry and the revival of ancient letters led art back to the pre-Tokugawa schools, transcending the popular democratic notion of the Ukioye, and returning at once to the methods of the Tosas in the heroic Kamakura period. Historical painting, enriched in material by the archæological research of the scholars, became the vogue. Tameyasu and To-tsugen were the pioneers of this Kamakura revival, which laid its hand upon the naturalistic school of Kyoto through the works of Yosai, and was even reflected by the popular brush of Hokusai. A parallel movement occurred at the same time in fiction and the drama.
The downfall of the sanctity of Buddhist monasteries and the dispersion of the daimyos' treasures, through that apathy to art which considered it as a luxury, fatal in a moment of supreme patriotic sacrifice, opened the artistic mind to a hitherto unknown side of ancient art, just as Greco-Roman masterpieces were revealed to the early Italians of the Renaissance. Thus the first reconstructive movement of the Meiji period was the preservation and imitation of the ancient masters, led by the Bijitsu Kyo-Kai Art Association. This society, made up of the aristocracy and connoisseurs, opened annual exhibitions of old chefs d'oeuvres, and conducted competitive salons in a spirit of conservatism which naturally drops by degrees into formalism and meaningless reiteration, on the other hand, that study of Western realistic art which had slowly gained ground under the late Tokugawa, a study in which the attempts of Shibakokan and Ayodo are conspicuous, now found an opportunity for unrestricted growth. That eagerness and profound admiration for Western knowledge which confounded beauty with science, and culture with industry, did not hesitate to welcome the meanest chromos as specimens of great art ideals.
The art which reached us was European at its lowest ebb — before the fin-de-siècle æstheticism had redeemed its atrocities, before Delacroix had uplifted the veil of hardened academic chiaro-oscuro, before Millet and the Barbizons brought their message of light and colour, before Ruskin had interpreted the purity of pre-Raphaelite nobleness. Thus the Japanese attempt at Western imitation which was inaugurated in the Government School of Art — where Italian teachers were appointed to teach — grovelled in darkness from its infancy, and yet succeeded, even at its inception, in imposing that hard crust of mannerism which impedes its progress to the present day. But the active individualism of Meiji, teeming with life in other cycles of thought, could not be content to move in those fixed grooves which orthodox conservatism or radical Europeanisation imposed on art. When the first decade of the era was passed, and recovery from the effects of civil war was more Or less complete, a band of earnest workers strove to found a third belt of art-expression, which, by a higher realisation of the possibilities of ancient Japanese art, and aiming at a love and knowledge of the most sympathetic movements in Western art-creations, tried to reconstruct the national art on a now basis, whose keynote should be "Life true to Self." This movement resulted in the establishment of a Government Art School at Ueno, Tokyo, and, since the disintegration of the faculty in 1897, is represented by the Nippon Bijitsuin at Yanaka, in the suburbs of the city, whose biennial exhibitions reveal, it is hoped, the vital element in the contemporary art activity of the country.
According to this school, freedom is the greatest privilege of an artist, but freedom always in the sense of evolutional self-development. Art is neither the ideal nor the real. Imitation, whether of nature, of the old masters, or above all of self, is suicidal to the realisation of individuality, which rejoices always to play an original part, be it of tragedy or comedy, in the grand drama of life, of man, and of nature.
To this school, again, the old art of Asia is more valid than that of any modern school, inasmuch as the process of idealism, and not of imitation, is the raison d'être of the art-impulse. The stream of ideas is the real: facts are mere incidents. Not the thing as it was, but the infinitude it suggested to him, is what we demand of the artist. It follows that the feeling for line, chiaro-oscuro as beauty, and colour as the embodiment of emotion, are regarded as strength, and that to every criticism of the naturalesque, the search after beauty, the demonstration of the ideal, is deemed a sufficient answer.
Fragments of nature in her decorative aspects; clouds black with sleeping thunder; the mighty silence of pine forests; the immovable serenity of the sword; the ethereal purity of the lotus rising out of darkened waters; the breath of star-like plum flowers; the stains of heroic blood on the robes of maidenhood; the tears that may be shed in his old age by the hero; the mingled terror and pathos of war; or the waning light of some great splendour — such are the moods and symbols into which the artistic consciousness sinks, before it touches with revealing hands that mask under which the universal hides.
Art thus becomes the moment's repose of religion, or the instant when love stops, half-unconscious, on her pilgrimage in search of the Infinite, lingering to gaze on the accomplished past and dimly-seen future — a dream of suggestion, nothing more fixed — but a suggestion of the spirit, nothing less noble.
Technique is thus but the weapon of the artistic warfare; scientific knowledge of anatomy and perspective, the commissariat that sustains the army. These Japanese art may safely accept from the West, without detracting from its own nature. Ideals, in turn, are the modes in which the artistic mind moves, a plan of campaign which the nature of the country imposes on war. Within and behind them lies always the sovereign-general, immovable and self-contained, nodding peace or destruction from his brow.
Both the range of subjects and the method of their expression grow wider under this new conception of artistic freedom. The lamented Kano Hogai, Hashimoto Gaho, the greatest living master of the age, and the numerous geniuses who follow in their track, are not only noted for their versatility of technique, but for their enlarged notion of the subject-matter of art. These two masters, themselves renowned professors of the chief Kano academy at the close of the Shogunate, inaugurated the revival of the Ashikaga and Sung masters in their ancient purity, together with the study of Tosa and the Korin colourists, without at the same time losing the delicate naturalism of the Kyoto School.
The ancient spirit of race-myths and historic chronicles has breathed upon these painters, as at every great epoch of revival in art, from the time of Æschylus to that of Wagner and the Northern European poets, and their pictures give new fire and meaning to these great themes.
The last masterpiece of Kano Hogai represents Kwannon, the Universal Mother, in her aspect of human maternity. She stands in mid-air, her triple halo lost in the sky of golden purity, and holds in her hand a crystal vase, out of which is dropping the water of creation. A single drop, as it falls, becomes a babe, which, wrapped in its birth-mantle like a nimbus, lifts unconscious eyes to her, as it is wafted downwards to the rugged snow-peaks of the earth rising from a mist of blue darkness far below. In this picture a power of colour like that of the Fujiwara epoch joins with the grace of Maruyama, to afford expression to an interpretation of nature as mystic and reverent as it is passionate and realistic.
Gaho's picture of Chokaro combines the strong style of Sesshu with the broad massing of Sotatsu. It takes up and re-expresses the obsolete Taoist idea, of the magician who watches with wistful smiles the donkey that he has just projected from his gourd, an image of the playful attitude of fatalism.
Kanzan's "Funeral Pyre of Buddha" recalls to us the grand composition of the Heian period, enriched by the strongly accentuated outlines of the early Sung, and a modelling equal to the Italian artists. It represents the great Arhats and Boddhi-Sattvas around the burning pyre watching with mysterious awe the ethereal flame which breaks over that mystic coffin, destined one day to fill the world with, its light of supreme renunciation.
Taikan brings into the field his wild imagery and tempestuous conceptions, as shown in his "Kutsugen Wandering on the Barren Hills" amongst wind-blown narcissus — the flower of silent purity — feeling the raging storm that gathers in his soul.
The epic heroes of Kamakura are painted to-day with a deeper insight into human nature. Mythology is interpreted in its solar significance, and the ancient ballads also, both of China and Japan, open up to us an area hitherto unexplored.
Sculpture and other arts follow closely on this road. The wonderful glaze of Kozan is not only reviving the lost secrets of early Chinese ceramics, but creating new Korin-like dreams in colour.
Lacquer is emancipated from the delicate finesse of the later Tokugawas, and loves to revel in a wider range of colour and materials, and the sister-arts of embroidery and tapestry, of cloisonné and metal-work, are breathing new life throughout their wide domains. Thus art, in spite of its new conditions of patronage and the dreadful grind of mechanical industry, is striving to attain to a higher life, which shall express the contemporary vitality of our national aspirations. But the time is not yet ripe for an exhaustive summary. Each day opens up fresh elements of possibility and hope, calling out for a place in the scheme of reawakened nationalisation. China and India, not to speak of the artistic activity of the West, which is also struggling for a new expression, present their grand ideal vistas, yet to be trodden by the explorers of the future.
Sannyo. — Writer of the Nippon-Gaishi and the Nippon-Seiki, and noted also for his poems on historical and patriotic subjects. He lived at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and spent many years in wandering about the country in search of the materials for his history, which were rendered difficult to obtain by the eagerness of the Tokugawas to suppress the national consciousness.
Adwaita idea. — The word adwaita means the state of not being two, and is the name applied to the great Indian doctrine that all which exists, though apparently manifold, is really one. Hence all truth must be discoverable in any single differentiation, the whole universe involved in every detail. All thus becomes equally precious.