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Japanese Homes and their Surroundings
WITHIN twenty years there has gradually appeared in our country a variety of Japanese objects conspicuous for their novelty and beauty, — lacquers, pottery and porcelain, forms in wood and metal, curious shaped boxes, quaint ivory carvings, fabrics in cloth and paper, and a number of other objects as perplexing in their purpose as the inscriptions which they often bore. Most of these presented technicalities in their work as enigmatical as were their designs, strange caprices in their ornamentation which, though violating our hitherto recognized proprieties of decoration, surprised and yet delighted us. The utility of many of the objects we were at loss to understand; yet somehow they gradually found lodgment in our rooms, even displacing certain other objects which we had been wont to regard as decorative, and our rooms looked all the prettier for their substitution. We found it difficult to formulate the principles upon which such art was based, and yet were compelled to recognize its merit. Violations of perspective, and colors in juxtaposition or coalescing that before we had regarded as inharmonious, were continually reminding us of Japan and her curious people. Slowly our methods of decoration became imbued with these ways so new to us, and yet so many centuries old to the people among whom these arts had originated. Gradually yet surely, these arts, at first so little understood, modified our own methods of ornamentation, until frescos and wall-papers, wood-work and carpets, dishes and table-cloths, metal work and book-covers, Christmas cards and even railroad advertisements were decorated, modelled, and designed after the Japanese style.
It was not to be wondered at that many of our best artists, — men like Coleman, Vedder, Lafarge, and others, — had long before recognized the transcendent merit of Japanese decorative art. It was however somewhat remarkable that the public at large should come so universally to recognize it, and in so short a time. Not only our own commercial nation, but art-loving France, musical Germany, and even conservative England yielded to this invasion. Not that new designs were evolved by us; on the contrary, we were content to adopt Japanese designs outright, oftentimes with a mixture of incongruities that would have driven a Japanese decorator stark mad. Designs appropriate for the metal mounting of a sword blazed out on our ceilings; motives from a heavy bronze formed the theme for the decoration of friable pottery; and suggestions from light crape were woven into hot carpets to be trodden upon. Even with this mongrel admixture, it was a relief by any means to have driven out of our dwelling the nightmares and horrors of design we had before endured so meekly, — such objects, for example, as a child in dead brass, kneeling in perpetual supplication on a dead brass cushion, while adroitly balancing on its head a receptacle for kerosene oil; and a whole regiment of shapes equally monstrous. Our walls no longer assailed us with designs that wearied our eyes and exasperated our brains by their inanities. We were no longer doomed to wipe our feet on cupids, horns of plenty, restless tigers, or scrolls of architectural magnitudes. Under the benign influence of this new spirit it came to be realized that it was not always necessary to tear a flower in bits to recognize its decorative value; and that the simplest objects in Nature — a spray of bamboo, a pine cone, a cherry blossom — in the right place were quite sufficient to satisfy our craving for the beautiful.
The Japanese exhibit at the Centennial exposition in Philadelphia came to us as a new revelation; and the charming onslaught of that unrivalled display completed the victory. It was then that the Japanese craze took firm hold of us. Books on Japan rapidly multiplied, especially books on decorative art; but it was found that such rare art could be properly represented only in the most costly fashion, and with plates of marvellous elaboration. What the Japanese were able to do with their primitive methods of block-printing and a few colors, required the highest genius of our artists and chromo-lithographers; and even then the subtile spirit which the artist sought for could not be caught.
The more intelligent among our collectors soon recognized that the objects from Japan divided themselves into two groups, — the one represented by a few objects having great intrinsic merit, with a refinement and reserve of decoration; the other group, characterized by a more florid display and less delicacy of treatment, forming by far the larger number, consisting chiefly of forms in pottery, porcelain, lacquer and metal work. These last were made by the Japanese expressly for the foreign market, many of them having no place in their economy, and with few exceptions being altogether too gaudy and violent to suit the Japanese taste. Our country became flooded with them; even the village grocery displayed them side by side with articles manufactured at home for the same class of customers, and equally out of place in the greater marts of the country. To us, however, these objects were always pretty, and were moreover so much cheaper, with all their high duties and importer's profits, than the stuff to which we had been accustomed, that they helped us out amazingly at every recurring Christmas. of the better class of objects, nearly all of them were originally intended either for personal use or adornment, — such as metal clasps, little ivory carvings, sectional lacquer-boxes, fans, etc.; or mere objects of household use, such as hanging flower-holders, bronze and pottery vases, incense burners, lacquer cabinets, dishes, etc.
Naturally great curiosity was awakened to know more about the social life of this remarkable people; and particularly was it desirable to know the nature of the house that sheltered such singular and beautiful works of art. In response to the popular demand, book after book appeared; but with some noteworthy exceptions they repeated the same information, usually prefaced by an account of the more than special privileges accorded to their authors by the Japanese government, followed by a history of the Japanese empire from its first emperor down to the present time, — apparently concise enough, but interminable with its mythologies, wars, decays, restorations, etc. Then we had the record of an itinerary of a few weeks at some treaty port, or of a brief sojourn in the country, where, to illustrate the bravery of the author, imaginary dangers were conjured up; a wild guess at the ethnical enigma, erroneous conceptions of Japanese character and customs, — the whole illustrated by sketches derived from previous works on the same subject, or from Japanese sources, often without due credit being given; and finally we were given a forecast of the future of Japan, with an account of the progress its public were making in adopting outside customs, with no warning of the acts of harakiri their arts would be compelled to perform in the presence of so many influences alien to their nature. As an illustration of this, could the force of absurdity go further than the attempt to introduce the Italian school of painting, — and this in the land of a Kano; or the melancholy act of a foreign employé of one of the colleges in Tokio, in inducing or compelling all its pupils to wear hot woollen Scotch caps, — converting a lot of handsome dark-haired boys, with graceful and picturesque dress, into a mob of ridiculous monkeys?
In these books on Japan we look in vain for any but the most general description of what a Japanese home really is; even Rein's work, so apparently monographic, dismisses the house and garden in a few pages.1 The present work is an attempt to fill this deficiency, by describing not only the variety of dwellings seen in Japan, but by specializing more in detail the variety of structure seen within the building.
In the following pages occasion has often led to criticism and comparison. Aside from any question of justice, it would seem as if criticism, to be of any value, should be comparative; that is to say, in any running commentary on Japanese ways and conditions the parallel ways and conditions of one's own people should be as frankly, pointed out, or at least recognized. When one enters your city, — which is fairly clean and tidy, — and complains of its filthy streets, the assumption is that the streets of his own city are clean; and when these are found to be dirty beyond measure, the value of the complaint or criticism is at once lost, and the author immediately set down as a wilful maligner. Either we should follow the dictum of the great moral Teacher, and hesitate to behold the mote in others' eyes, or else in so doing we should consider the beam in our own.
This duty, however, even to fair and unprejudiced minds, becomes a matter of great difficulty. It is extraordinary how blind one may be to the faults and crimes of his own people, and how reluctant to admit them. We sing heroic soldier-songs with energy and enthusiasm, and are amazed to find numbers in a Japanese audience disapproving, because of the bloody deeds celebrated in such an exultant way. We read daily in our papers the details of the most blood-curdling crimes, and often of the most abhorrent and unnatural ones; and yet we make no special reflections on the conditions of society where such things are possible, or put ourselves much out of the way to arouse the people to a due sense of the degradation and stain on the community at large because of such things. But we go to another country and perhaps find a new species of vice; its novelty at once arrests our attention, and forthwith we howl at the enormity of the crime and the degradation of the nation in which such a crime could originate, send home the most exaggerated accounts, malign the people without stint, and then prate to them about Christian charity!
In the study of another people one should if possible look through colorless glasses; though if one is to err in this respect, it were better that his spectacles should be rose-colored than grimed with the smoke of prejudice. The student of Ethnology as a matter of policy, if he can put himself in no more generous attitude, had better err in looking kindly and favorably at a people whose habits and customs he is about to study. It is human nature the world over to resist adverse criticism; and when one is prowling about with his eyes darkened by the opaquest of uncorrected provincial glasses, he is repelled on all sides; nothing is accessible to him; he can rarely get more than a superficial glance at matters. Whereas, if he tries honestly to seek out the better attributes of a people, he is only too welcome to proceed with any investigation he wishes to make; even customs and ways that appear offensive are freely revealed to him, knowing that he will not wilfully distort and render more painful what is at the outset admitted on all hands to be bad.
We repeat that such investigation must be approached in a spirit of sympathy, otherwise much is lost or misunderstood. This is not only true as to social customs, but also as to studies in other lines of research as well. Professor Fenollosa, the greatest authority on Japanese pictorial art, says most truthfully that "it is not enough to approach these delicate children of the spirit with the eye of mere curiosity, or the cold rigid standard of an alien school. One's heart must be large enough to learn to love, as the Japanese artist loves, before the veil can be lifted to the full splendor of their hidden beauties."
In this spirit I have endeavored to give an account of Japanese homes and their surroundings. I might have dealt only with the huts of the poorest, with the squalor of their inmates, and given a meagre picture of Japanese life; or a study might have been made of the homes of the wealthy exclusively, which would have been equally one-sided. It seemed to me, however, that a description of the homes of the middle classes, with occasional reference to those of the higher and lower types, would perhaps give a fairer picture of the character and structure of Japanese homes and houses, than had I pursued either of the other courses. I may have erred in looking through spectacles tinted with rose; but if so, I have no apology to make. Living for some time among a people with whom I have had only the most friendly relations, and to whom I still owe a thousand debts of gratitude, it would be only a contemptible and jaundiced temperament that could under such circumstances write otherwise than kindly, or fail to make generous allowance for what appear to others as grave faults and omissions.
In regard to Japanese houses, there are many features not to my liking; and in the ordinary language of travellers I might speak of these houses as huts and hovels, cold and cheerless, etc., and give such a generic description of them as would include under one category all the houses on the Pacific coast from Kamtchatka to Java. Faults these houses have; and in criticising them I have endeavored to make my reflections comparative; and I have held up for comparison much that is objectionable in our own houses, as well as the work done by our own artisans. But judging from the rage and disgust expressed in certain English publications, where one writer speaks of "much of the work for wage as positively despicable," and another of the miseries entailed by the unscientific builder, my comparison may legitimately extend to England also.2
In the present volume the attempt has been made to describe the Japanese house and its immediate surroundings in general and in detail. No one realizes better than the author the meagreness in certain portions of this work. It is believed, however, that with the many illustrations, and the classification of the subject-matter, much will be made clear that before was vague. The figures are in every case facsimiles by one of the relief processes of the author's pen-and-ink drawings, and with few exceptions are from his own sketches made on the spot; so that whatever they lack in artistic merit, they make up in being more or less accurate drawings of the objects and features depicted. The material has been gleaned from an illustrated daily journal, kept by the author during three successive residences in that delightful country, embracing travels by land from the northwest coast of Yezo to the southernmost parts of Satsuma.
The openness and accessibility of the Japanese house are a distinguishing feature of Japan; and no foreigner visits that country without bringing away delightful memories of the peculiarly characteristic dwellings of the Japanese.
On the occasion of the author's last visit to Japan he also visited China, Anam, Singapore, and Java, and made studies of the houses of these various countries, with special reference to the Japanese house and its possible affinities elsewhere.
1 It may be well to state here that most of the good and reliable contributions upon Japan are to be found in the Transactions of the English and German Asiatic Societies published in Yokohama; also in the pages of the Japan "Mail," in the now extinct Tokio "Times," and in a most excellent but now defunct magazine called the "Chrysanthemum," whose circulation becoming vitiated by the theological sap in its tissues, finally broke down altogether from the dead weight of its dogmatic leaves.
Among the many valuable papers published in these Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, is one by Thomas R. H. McClatchie, Esq., on "The Feudal Mansions of Yedo," vol. vii. part iii. p. 157, which gives many important facts concerning a class of buildings that is rapidly disappearing, and to which only the slightest allusion has been made in the present work. The reader is also referred to a Paper in the same publication by George Cawley, Esq., entitled "Some Remarks on Constructions in Brick and Wood, and their Relative Suitability for Japan," vol. vi. part ii. p. 291; and also to a Paper by R. H. Brunton, Esq., on "Constructive Art in Japan," vol. ii. p. 64; vol. iii. part ii. p. 20.
Professor Huxley has said in one of his lectures, that if all the books in the world were destroyed, with the exception of the Philosophical Transactions, "it is safe to say that the foundations of Physical Science would remain unshaken, and that the vast intellectual progress of the last two centuries would be largely though incompletely recorded." In a similar way it might almost be said of the Japan "Mail," that if all the books which have been written by foreigners upon Japan were destroyed, and files of the Japan "Mail" alone preserved, we should possess about all of value that has been recorded by foreigners concerning that country. This journal not only includes the scholarly productions of its editor, Capt. F. Brinkley, as well as an immense mass of material from its correspondents, but has also published the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan in advance of the Society's own publications.
2 Still another English writer says: "It is unpleasant to live within ugly walls; it is still more unpleasant to live within unstable walls: but to be obliged to live in a tenement which is both unstable and ugly is disagreeable in a tenfold degree." He thinks it is quite time to evoke legislation to remedy these evils, and says: "An Englishman's house was formerly said to be his castle; but in the hands of the speculating builder and advertising tradesman, we may be grateful that it does not oftener become his tomb."