Psychology of Modern Japan

A Nation of Compromisers Which Has Lost Its Standards

By Yone Noguchi
Special to The Trans-Pacific

    Believe me that I am not one who takes a pleasure in looking over the matter with cold blood or sarcasm.  But when I think about how the psychology of the present Japanese mind is working, I cannot help pointing out, first of all the shortness of spiritual vitality; talking about it with my friend, I said to him often with passion: "Look at the faces of the present Japanese, only eager to conciliate and compromise, glad to make concessions!  Is it unfair to say that they are the faces of street-stallmen on a fete day at worst, and of secretaries or clerks at best?  Is it untrue to say that they only know how to appreciate material things?"  People who lay stress on materialism, I should say, belong to a third-rate nation; although I do not know where to find first-class people who look far ahead, searching into the truth beyond materialism to the point in which it yields to reality, I know that the Japanese of present day, using the words of Tennyson's "Morte D'Arthur," "either from lust of gold, or like a girl valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes," have lost power to focus their glasses on an object, spiritual as well as material.  Shortly, they have become people who cannot resolve the superficial compound into its elements.  Their minds are rattling, their souls are lukewarm.

Avoid Compromise

    For the past twenty years I have been lecturing to my home people on the importance of real life, absolute but not compromising, created out of freedom; I did not know how otherwise we could make a first class country out of Japan.  But when I seek in vain today for a face with wild and glad eyes, with an expression of anger or prayer, such a face as Carlyle's, a face at which stones or shouts of Banzai are sometimes thrown, I cannot help calling Japan a country of street-stallmen or secretaries.  In the past, at least at the Restoration days or the beginning time of New Japan, there were Japanese, prophetic because they lighted the darkness with their own lamps of truth, however small these lamps might have been, they were real because they saved the others at the same time as they saved themselves.  How often I advised the Japanese of present day not to be afraid of standing in the painful forefront of reality, and to set hope on the future, not merely on the present.  How often I said that while being ignorant and narrow-minded in the modern sense, the Japanese of the past walked on life's highway, simple and straight, that led them into idealism.  When they did not know how to compromise with the others, their homogeneity was a dominant force that adjusted their own kingdom.

Old Traditions Lost

    But how have the present Japanese become people of compromise, superficially clever and inwardly weak-minded?  When the so-called modern education deprived Japan of her old tradition, it should take a great part of responsibility for the spiritual languidness from which we are suffering.  Although I am not a curser of modern civilization, I often think that when it was imported into Japan as an "imitative education," it caused us to lose [our sense of vision], because the Western civilization dazzled and charmed us, first of all, with its catalogues and theories, and then made us miserable talking machines, led by other people.  There is nothing more sad than to become a tributary province; and that is the spiritual condition of present Japan.
    Quite natural for the talking machine, we present Japanese take a pleasure in speech, in spite of tragedy in which the dignity of speech is lost.   Talking on Carlyle who managed to escape from madness through his gift of speech, I always say that the respect of silence makes speech more effective; if there is no austerity of silence behind it, that becomes action in actual life, speech would be a ripple of life's water, a mere touching of the surface of things or life.  Speech is today a sort of banjo or guitar which a secretary or clerk, not qualified with the seriousness of a madman, plays for amusement.  When I Insist on the returning of speech to its original power, I am emphasizing the importance of spiritual honesty, since it is a fountain-head which freedom, introspection and many of the best human qualities spring forth like soul-gladdening water out of a valley.  Japan of the present day, I regret to say, lacks spiritual honesty.

Copying the West's Worst

    I cannot blame Japan, when I consider the circumstances under which she is situated, that she models herself on the likeness of Western countries, and the Japanese, one and all, from a cabinet minister down to shopkeepers or street pedlars, are far more interested in their worst aspects than their best, because the vulgarity of the former is more attractive than the virtue of the latter.  The trouble is, I always say, that our country began the new regime by copying only the last chapter of the record of Western civilization, and had no time to investigate how such a result had been reached there.  Besides, the geographical situation should be taken into account, because Japan, being situated at the furthest eastern end of the world, is something like a pool or puddle, safely apart from the rushing current of a main stream, into which all sorts of Western phenomena, spiritual as well as material, find their own way, and expect to stay till they die their own natural death.  In truth there is no country in the world like this country where the adjustment is impossible, and discrimination has neither rule nor measure; from another point of view in which Japan, as a subject state of the west, has to buy any thing or everything that the west commands, she is another instance which proves that poor countries live more expensively than wealthy.

Back to Paganism

    I always think that under such a condition it is foolish to talk here about democracy of Western origin, because it is sometimes interpreted as a kind of socialism from which idealism has been out, or even as a sort of communism without a theory that asserts itself.  Not only in the question of democracy but all the other matters, spiritual or material, our interpretations are frighteningly various only to suit ro our sentimentalism or whim; in the long history of Japan, there is no time as today when such confusing weakness distracts Japanese minds.  If there is the thing that might save us from mental ruin, it would be paganism; the propagation of paganism might reduce all heterogeneous absurdities into element, and pull back my country into its own original senses.
    If I am mistaken for a conservative, I say nothing against it, because my conservatism is only progressionism that becomes serious; and if I am criticised, patriotism only begins when the naked truth is plainly told.