Foreign Correspondence



TOKIO, April 2.

A highly interesting question has recently come up in the revival of the late General Count Nogi's family by the Imperial appointment of Mr. Motosato Mori to succeed that extinct family with a newly bestowed countship; the social aspect of the question was deepened and dignified by its having a spiritual or religious, that is, Shintoic, reference at its base. As people in the West may know, we have a strange family system, certainly unheard of in the Western countries, in "adoption," the raison d'etre of which is principally to prevent the extinction of families and the consequent neglect of the spirits of the departed; and we should adhere faithfully to it so long as we endorse ancestor-worship in the hope of being protected, as we believed in the olden days, from any evil or misfortune by its virtue. Now our General Count Nogi, one of the greatest heroes that brighten the pages of the Russo-Japanese War, who took his own life at the moment of national grief in the late Mikado's death, not believing in the system of adoption, which he called unnatural and even unreasonable, left his will to the effect that his distinguished family should become extinct for lack of an heir, as his two sons had died on the bloody fleld of Manchuria. Did he deny, one may ask, the Shintoism which rises and falls with the important doctrine of ancestor-worship? And to whose hand did he wish to entrust the observance of the festivals of his own ancestors and the keeping of their graves free from grasses? As a strong believer in insular independence of nationalism, the General Count Nogi's action, at least in denying "adoption," was certainly inconsistent; he left perhaps in spite of himself a proof of his disapproval of Shintoism. But, on the other hand, we have a powerful reason for refusing to sanction the appointment of a person (although he be a younger brother of Viscount Mori, of whose family the late General Count was a retainer in feudal days) to revive the famous warrior's family, even though it was spoken augustly by the Emperor.

The essence of ancestor worship should be, of course, in the very beauty of the personal communication with the spirits of the departed; their protection is transcendentally divine while it keeps, on the other hand, a human actuality. Indeed, ancestor-worship reveals its living power in our belief that the worldly aspect of the ancestral spirits, though invisible, will be kept as in their lives. And the spirit of the late undaunted fighter of Port Arthur fame lives in our Japanese mind as real as yesterday; what will he say, we wonder, when his spirit sees an unwelcome successor stepping over his threshold? Surely, it is not far from wrong to say that he would not justify any person, even the young son of his former master's family, as, a successor, when he laughed over and criticised the system of "adoption" in his life; to respect the belief of the departed and to act accordingly would be the true meaning of adherence to Shintoism. It seems that the Imperial Japanese House, of course with good intention, in appointing a successor to the Nogi family acted rather carelessly; with the late General, who, we might say, acted against the Shintoic conception, it also violated the true meaning of Shintoism. And we have in this case an evidence of the general confusion in the conception of ancestor-worship in present Japan.

As the world knows, the religion of the Imperial Japanese House (supposing it has any religion) is Shintoism, or the belief in the "Way of the Gods," and it is true to say that it is, in fact, the real personification of that Shintoism, since the first powerful goddess it recognized was, the grandmother of the Deity Ninigi, whose son or grandson in Jimmu was the first human Emperor of Japan. Therefore the Imperial House, even of the present time, is supposed to be the direct descendant of the ancient goddess. To pay homage to the gods or to the departed ancestors of the Imperial family is, needless to say, the most important precept of Shintoism, which has neither moral code nor sacred book like any other religion of the world; the mere worshipping of the ancestors for the divine protection is said to be sufficient for the innate perfection of Japanese humanity, whose wisdom is pleased to obviate the necessity of outward props in ritual or thought. Whenever the Imperial House happens to keep a festival or celebration, as in the recent Coronation or Ascension Ceremony, it will at once appear with all the revived dignities of Shintoism and make us forget, temporarily, the fact that we have been embracing in other days some other religion, Christianity or Buddhism. It is both right and wise for the Imperial House to remind us that it is the very descendant of the ancient god or goddess; certainly this is the strongest self-protection it could find. So long as our Japanese minds do not wholly depart from the belief in Shintoism, the Imperial House will be kept up, I believe, as the Japanese centre of devotion or patriotism. But there is unmistakable evidence of agitation in the general conception of Shintoism or ancestor-worship in the Japanese minds of to-day, and one wonders how the belief in Shintoism, simple and archaic, can harmonize with modern education, how the conception of ancestor-worship can keep its compactness against the changing conditions of our lives in present Japan.

The fact that modern civilization is driving away people from the birthplaces of their own ancestors is certainly weakening the conception of ancestor-worship in that it deprives them of opportunities for observing the religious rites towards departed spirits, Again, the atmosphere of a city, exciting and unpoetically scientific, does not tend to cherish the somewhat ghostly and shadowy sense of ancestor-worship. Of those who move to a foreign country, for instance to America, where there is more stress on the living communities than on those of the spirits, it is not too much to say that they will be glad to make a fresh start in life by forgetting the past ages and departed spirits. A good example of this was Viscount Mori, then the Minister of Education, who was stabbed by Nishino on the day of the proclamation of the Constitution in 1889, when the question arose whether the Japanese would lose their belief in Shintoism or ancestor-worship from a long foreign residence. It is said that Viscount Mori, who was extraordinarily "freethinking" for Japan of that time, stepped into the old shrine at Isé, where the divine looking-glass of the goddess Amatorasu [sic] is enshrined, wearing foreign boots, and raised a sacred curtain of the shrine with his stick. His act cost him his life, which was snatched away by Nishino, a fervent Shintoist.

Furthermore, the main families in the old patriarchal system are already dying out in present Japan, and a branch family cannot be expected to be so devotional to the thought of the ancestors. There are also the modern tendency of individualism and the evolutional theory, which incline to encourage the idea of regarding the descendants as superior to and greater than the ancestors themselves. A more important factor in weakening the sense of ancestor-worship is, I should say, the expression of the ancestral spirits itself; I mean that the conception of ancestor-worship would be more harshly wounded by the inner destitution than by the outward menace. When the ancestral spirits cannot reveal their worldly action as in their lives, bestowing on us physical prosperity and peace, our modern minds, more or less touched by science and philosophy, would only recognize them through our emotion; such a sense will be real and true as far as the imaginative reality goes. Indeed, such a sense of emotional feeling towards the ancestors might be heightened and intensified, when a rare occasion demands, so as to become a mysterious consciousness of religion. It is far from my mind to say that the Shintoism realized by an emotional sense is less effective; what I dare say here is that the ancestor-worship as a religion is a sort of religion, even when it is highly encouraged by the Imperial House, that is becoming a thing of the past.

If the sense of ancestor-worship as a religious consciousness loses its own power, the next question we must think of is what will be the effect on the so-called Japanese Patriotism or devotion to the Imperial House; if the religious devotion should become even a moral consciousness, our world-famous loyalty to the Throne, if we still keep it then, should be understood differently. But it is too early now to discuss this matter as an actual question. What I want to emphasize in this short article is that even the Imperial House would be powerless against our changing conception of ancestor-worship. The spiritual insularity which once has been broken cannot be so easily mended.