J.M. W. Silver.

Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs online

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With regard to education, it is rare to meet with a Japanese who
cannot read, write, and cipher; and in buying and selling they use
computing slides like the Chinese, by the aid of which they quickly
settle the amount to be paid. They do not, except in the higher
classes, receive what we understand by a general or scientific
education, the members of each trade or profession being only
instructed in what pertains to their own affairs - a fact the inquiring
stranger soon discovers.



The Government of Japan consists of an oligarchy of feudal princes,
called Daimios, wielding absolute authority in their respective
provinces, but subject to the general control of one of their number,
(selected from one of three great families), called the 'Tycoon,' who,
assisted by a 'Gorogio,' or 'Great Council,' presides over the affairs
of the state in the name of the 'Mikado,' or 'Spiritual Emperor,' its
supreme head.

The office of Mikado is apparently the cause of most of the
disturbances which agitate the country. Its temporal importance lies
in possessing the power of issuing decrees, bestowing titles, and
delegating authority to others; and princes discontented with the
Tycoon are constantly intriguing against his legitimate influence with
the Mikado. For instance: an attempt was made in 1864 by a powerful
coalition, headed by Choisiu, prince of Nangato, to obtain possession
of the Mikado's person. This was only prevented after a severe
struggle by the bravery of the Tycoon's guard, to whose care the
palace and its inmates were entrusted. During the conflict a large
portion of the sacred city of Miako was burnt.


The Tycoon only leaves Yeddo when affairs of state require his
presence elsewhere. His palace is situated in the heart of the city,
and is surrounded by grounds several miles in circumference, and
enclosed by a deep moat. It is there that he receives the compulsory
visits of the grandees of the empire, one of whom, on the point of
being ushered into the audience-chamber, is shown opposite, in his
robes of ceremony, and attended by a sword-bearer, in token of his
high rank. The bonze, or priest, who precedes him, does not impart any
religious signification to the visit, as priests commonly act in the
double capacity of spy and master of the ceremonies. The screen, which
forms the background of the illustration is worthy of attention, as
its subject is taken from the Japanese mythology, and represents the
great sun-god from whom Ten-zio-dai-zin, the patron goddess of the
empire, sprang.

In public, these oligarchical princes are invariably surrounded by all
the pomp of feudal state, and when they travel are escorted by large
bodies of retainers. At Kanagawa, which adjoins the settlement of
Yokohama, the foreigner has frequent opportunities of witnessing their
processions as they pass to and fro along the 'tokaido,' or 'great
public road,' when they are going on their compulsory visits to Yeddo
from their own country palaces. Nor is much danger attached to this,
as the passing of Daimios whom it would be dangerous to meet on the
tokaido, is always notified by the authorities to the consul. On
witnessing a Daimio's procession for the first time, it is hard to
realise that it is not a scene from some gorgeous pantomime, ao
brilliant and varied are the costumes of the retainers, and so totally
different is it from anything which European eyes are accustomed to
gaze upon. But should anything excite the risible faculties of the
observer, his hallucinations are likely to be quickly scattered by the
scowls of the resolute-looking fellows passing by with 'hand on
sword,' needing but little encouragement to 'set a glory' to it, 'by
giving it the worship of revenge,' as they are extremely jealous of
the honour of their prince, and regard the presence of foreigners on
the tokaido at such times as an insult. This circumstance is also
rendered more galling by foreigners sitting coolly on their horses by
the road-side as the great man passes, generally in a low norimon, on
which they must necessarily look down - in contradiction to Japanese
etiquette, which permits no inferior to look down upon a
superior - while the people of the country are either abjectly
kowtowing to him or patiently waiting in their closed houses until his
passing shall set them once more at liberty.

A review given the by two ministers for foreign affairs to Sir
Rutherford Alcock, shortly before his departure, was a very imposing
spectacle. The approach of the ministers was announced by the beating
of drums (which are sometimes carried on the shoulder and struck by
the palm of the hand) and the blowing of conch-shells, each instrument
being sounded three times in succession, at short intervals. Men in
armour carrying banners, bearing the Tycoon's crest, headed the
procession. They were followed by a large drum in a square case,
carried by two men, and the conch-blowers; then came a number of
spearmen in armour; officers on horseback immediately preceding the
ministers. On arriving at the ground they dismounted, and were
received by Sir Rutherford Alcock, the remainder of their retinue
passing on and forming in rear of the others, to the left of the
English garrison, consisting of the second battalion of the 20th
Regiment, the Royal Marine battalion, and detachments of Royal
Artillery, of the 67th Regiment, and Beloochees, who were drawn up in
brigade in honour of the occasion. At the request of the ministers the
garrison marched past and performed a few manoeuvres, concluding with
discharging blank cartridge in squares and in skirmishing order. The
rapidity of the fire appeared to make a great impression on them. This
over, the Japanese performance commenced; which was a representation
of their ancient order of battle, the retainers dividing and forming
in lines opposite one another, and about one hundred yards apart. The
proceedings were conducted by two marshals on foot; they began by
forming the spearmen in line, with emphatic guttural commands,
stamping of the feet, and flourishing of gilt batons, to the end of
which wisps of paper were attached. All were habited in magnificent
armour: some wore complete suits of mail; others chain armour, lined
with gorgeous silks. Broad lacquered hats were here and there
substituted for helmets; or both were dispensed with, and the temples
of the combatants bound with linen cloth, which is their usual
headdress in action. Presently a signal was given, on which the
opposing lines commenced simultaneously to 'mark line double.' At a
second signal they faced into Indian file, and the marshals, placing
themselves at their head, led them off at a swinging trot, the whole
party flinging up their heels like boys playing at 'follow my leader,'
until startling guttural shouts from the marshals caused the
glittering lines to halt and face each other. The horsemen, who had
hitherto taken no part in the pageant, were now stationed in rear of
the centre of the respective lines, and added greatly to the effect by
their crested helmets, their richly gilt armour, and the heraldic
banners, which were attached to the back of the cuirass and floated
about two feet over their heads. As soon as the horsemen were
stationed the exciting part of the sham-fight began, by the lines
being wheeled backwards and forwards in wings from the centre, and
into zigzag formations from central points, with a slow 'stamp-and-go'
march, the spears being flourished with each motion and pointed high
and low, and right and left, as in our bayonet exercise. The marshals
regulated the movements of their respective lines with great accuracy,
the one being retired directly the other advanced, so that the
relative distance was never altered. After a time both parties
suddenly assumed a sitting posture and exchanged howls of defiance,
which grew fiercer and fiercer, until a simultaneous rush, as if to
engage, finished the performance from which the representatives of
barbaric warfare retired amid the hearty cheers of the representatives
of the bayonet and rifle.

[Illustration: A Daimio Retainer. (Native Drawing.)]

Though most of the Daimios have enormous revenues, and are surrounded
by men devotedly attached to them, the policy of the country so
trammels their actions with formalities and espionage as to keep them
in considerable subjection to the Tycoon; nor is even the privacy of
their houses respected, for their families are retained in Yeddo, as
hostages for their good behaviour, while they are absent in their
principalities. As an occasional relaxation from the cares attendant
on their high position, they avail themselves of a privilege called
'naiboen,' which enables them to share incognito in the pleasures and
amusements of their countrymen. Those drawings and coloured
representations of scenes connected with the higher classes which so
largely engross the attention of Japanese artists, generally depict
naiboen intrigues and adventures: these convey, however, a very
exaggerated idea of the manner in which the Daimios conduct themselves
on these occasions.

[Illustration: Coolies carrying Norimon. (From Native Drawing.)]

The family in the house-boat witnessing a pyrotechnic display in the
bay of Yeddo, may be regarded as a faithful representation of a
Daimio's party enjoying the naiboen. The great man in his light summer
robe has apparently cast aside the cares of office, and seems
thoroughly to enjoy the cool evening breeze and the society of his
wives, only one of whom has a legal claim to that title, by right of
which she takes precedence of the others. Of the two bonzes, or
priests, in the stem of the boat, one, probably, is a member of the
family, and the other its spy, for even naiboen excursions are not
exempted from espionage: indeed the Japanese are so habituated to this
custom that they generally regard it as a necessary check upon
themselves. Naiboen excursions to the tea-houses are very frequent,
notice being sent previously in order to insure proper accommodation
and privacy: the latter precaution being principally taken on account
of the ladies of the family, who never go beyond the palace except in
a norimon guarded by armed retainers.


In their homes, the aristocracy are as simple in their habits as the
rest of the people. They are much given to study, the favourite
subjects being poetry,[3] history, astronomy, and logic. The children
are usually taught the rudiments of education by their mothers, and as
they advance in years, are either privately instructed by masters or
sent to the great schools at Miako, which are said to be attended by
upwards of four thousand scholars.

[Footnote 3: A very interesting volume of translations of Japanese
Lyrical Odes has lately been published by F.V. Dickins, Esq. M.B.:
Smith, Elder, & Co.]



The spiritual Emperor of Japan is supposed to be a direct descendant
of the gods, and as such enjoys the adoration, as well as the fealty
of his subjects. Unfortunately, his divine attributes deprive him of
the free exercise of his human functions, as his feet are never
permitted to touch the ground out of doors; nor is he allowed to cut
his hair, beard, or nails, or to expose himself to the rays of the
sun, which, would detract from the excellency of his person. His
principal titles are, 'Zen Zi' - 'Son of Heaven;' 'Mikado,' - 'Emperor;'
and 'Dairi,' or 'Kinrai,' - 'Grand Interior:' the latter denoting the
perpetual seclusion of his person. It is said that his ancestry can be
traced in an unbroken line from nearly 700 years before the Christian

The Mikado never goes beyond the precincts of the Imperial residence,
which occupies a large portion of the city of Miako, comprising
numerous palaces and gardens; and connected with it are the schools
alluded to in the last chapter, which are established on the plan of a
university, and are much resorted to by the children of the nobility.


Whenever this great personage wishes to take an airing, he is carried
by fourteen men in a large norimon with latticed windows, through
which he is able to see without being seen; and even when granting an
audience he is said to be concealed from view by bamboo screen-work.
His court consists of the members of his own family and certain great
officers of State appointed by the Tycoon, who nominally receive and
promulgate his commands; but, in ordinary times, he has no real power
in the temporal affairs of the empire, and only refuses to confer
legality on the acts of his lieutenant under the pressure of intrigue,
or of undue family influence.

To relieve the wearisome monotony of his life, as well as to prevent
the possibility of the sacred race becoming extinct, he is allowed
twelve wives, who are chosen from the most beautiful daughters of the
chief princes of the empire. These ladies occupy separate palaces in
the immediate vicinity of his, where they are attended by their own
retainers; but only one of them enjoys the rank of empress, although
they are all treated with the deference due to royalty. He is also
said to have an unlimited number of concubines, who reside within the
bounds of the Imperial establishment.

The distinctive mark of the members of the Mikado's court and of the
ladies of his family consists of two black patches placed on the
forehead, and in the arrangement of the hair, which is gathered up in
a long cue and curved over the head by one sex, and worn dishevelled
and without any kind of ornament by the other. Though the Mikado has
little influence in the secular affairs of state, his authority in
religious questions is supreme; but it is doubtful if he personally
takes any part in the solemnities which are constantly occurring at

The subject of illustration represents one of these sacred
observances: the procession is coming from the Mikado's palace, which,
properly speaking, is a temple, being full of idols and effigies of
the 'Kamis,' or 'canonised saints.' The principal figure is the third
minister of state, and from this circumstance the white dresses worn
by the 'Kargardhee,' or 'fire-bearers,' and the presence of some of
the Imperial children, it is probably a midnight pilgrimage to some
neighbouring shrine, in honour of the manes of a departed member of
the family.

The early education of the Mikado's children is entrusted to the
ladies of the court: the sons, while still young, are sent to
different religious fraternities; and the daughters, on attaining a
suitable age, are bestowed in marriage on the nobles of the country,
except the eldest, who is appointed chief priestess of the temple of
the Sun at Issie, which contains the shrine of Ten-zio-dai-zin, to
which all Japanese are supposed to make a pilgrimage once in their

The Mikado is said to spend the greatest portion of his time in the
society of his wives, who contribute to his amusement by singing,
dancing, and theatrical entertainments. The latter sometimes take
place in the open air, as in the scene depicted opposite; on which the
'Grand Interior' and a select party are supposed to be looking down
through the jalousies of the palace. The vocal, instrumental, and
theatrical talents of the performers, are here called into play, the
arena for the latter being the 'Mekoshee,' or movable stage, in which
a female figure may be noticed declaiming her part. The long-handled,
fantastically-coloured umbrellas, belong to the Imperial attendants
taking part in the theatricals, whose hair, it will be noticed, is
arranged according to court etiquette.

[Illustration: A Begging Criminal. (Native Drawing.)]

The men whose features are concealed by their broad hats are
'Ninsokee,' or 'public singers.' Generally speaking they belong to the
aristocratic class, and are reduced to earn their livelihood in this
manner in consequence of some misdemeanour, on account of which their
property has been forfeited to the state. Their occupation is in
itself a punishment, as Japanese gentlemen never sing, regarding that
accomplishment as derogatory to their dignity. A certain class of
criminals also wear a disguise of this nature, as shown in the



The band here represented is much stronger than those that generally
figure in Japanese orchestral and theatrical entertainments. Music is
not used, as with us, to fill the interval between the pieces, but
accompanies the performers throughout; the louder instruments being
energetically struck as the singing becomes impassioned or the actors

The butterfly dance is another specimen of the amusements with which
the ladies of the Mikado's court while away their monotonous
existence. As here shown, it is a private performance, of which the
Empress and her principal attendants are the only spectators. The
insects are personated by two of her ladies, who mimic their motions
and sing praises of the different flowers they pretend to alight upon,
to the accompaniment of a band of fair musicians. But the most
interesting part of the affair is a spirited dialogue, in which they
cleverly criticise, under floral appellations, the different ladies of
the court, in a manner equally gratifying and flattering to their
royal mistress.

[Illustration: Lady waiting on the Mikado. (from Photograph.)]

The Mikado is always waited upon by the ladies of his court, and is
said never to eat twice from the same vessels, which are broken to
pieces as they are removed. An intelligent yaconin, however, on
being questioned about this point, was much amused; and, though he
professed ignorance of the subject, was evidently very sceptical on
the matter of the dishes.



Although we have long been aware of the existence of this peculiar
mode of suicide, the exclusive policy of the Japanese has placed
insuperable difficulties in the way of obtaining accurate information
concerning it.

A more enlightened policy is now gaining ground in the country. The
chromo-lithographs that illustrate these 'Sketches' are fac-similes of
paintings by native artists, selected from a series lately published
at Yeddo, and sold to foreigners with the connivance, if not by
permission, of the authorities; for the spy system in Japan is so
perfect, that illicit dealings are next to impossible.

As Japanese punishments entail disgrace on every member of the
culprit's family, the 'Hara Kiru,' or 'happy dispatch,' which is the
only exception, is regarded as a great privilege by the classes
entitled to avail themselves of it These consist of the nobility,
military, and official of a certain rank holding civil appointments.

It seems to be a prevalent idea that this sacrifice is reserved for
political offences; but this is not the case, as crimes of all
descriptions are condoned by it.

A simple act of suicide does not constitute the 'Hara Kiru.' To render
the act legal, and to ensure the heir and family of the person
performing it against disgrace and loss of property, an order for its
performance must be issued by the Tycoon, or by the suzerain prince of
the culprit.


The Japanese, being a high-spirited and patriotic people, consider
that death under any circumstances is preferable to dishonour; and the
privileged classes always carry about with them when they travel the
paraphernalia used at the performance of the 'Hara Kiru,' in token of
their readiness to prove their patriotism, or to die rather than
disgrace their family.

The dress consists of a robe and 'harakama,' or 'winged official
dress,' of coarse white cloth - white being the funeral colour of the
country - which is undistinguished by the crest or any sign of the rank
of the owner. There is also the disembowelling knife, the blade of
which is about eight inches long, and very sharp.

When the sentence of the 'Hara Kiru' is awarded, or the humble request
of a defeated politician to perform it is acceded to, a formal
document is made out and duly signed by the competent authorities. It
is then delivered to two commissioners, by whom it is conveyed to the

Should the proposed victim be a Daimio of importance, and sufficiently
powerful to set the Tycoon at defiance, the delivery of the imperial
mandate is likely to be attended with unpleasant results, as the
bearers are sometimes waylaid and murdered by retainers of the doomed
prince, and have frequently to resort to stratagem to accomplish their
task. But when once the mandate is delivered, the prince must submit,
or he would lose caste even with his own followers, so strongly are
the Japanese imbued with respect for the ancient customs of their

The accompanying illustrations represent the different formalities
that are observed at the performance of the 'Hara Kiru' by a Daimio.

On receiving the official intimation of his sentence, he orders the
necessary preparations to be made, and informs his friends and
relatives of it, inviting them to share in a parting carouse with him.

On the appointed day, after taking a private farewell of his family,
he receives his friends. He is habited in his white robes, and
supported by two of his relatives or ministers, similarly attired.
When the time arrives (which is previously arranged with the
commissioners) he takes leave of the guests, as on any ordinary
occasion, and enters the screened enclosure, accompanied by his
supporters. It will be noticed, that the retainers guarding the
exterior and entrance are barefooted, which is a mark of respect in
honour of the rank of the culprit, and of the solemnity of the

The Tycoon's messengers then read the imperial mandate, which
proclaims that, in accordance with the ancient custom of the country,
the Daimio is permitted honourably to sacrifice himself for its
benefit, and thus to expiate in his own person the crime or offence he
has committed against the welfare of the state. In the illustration,
the two officials charged with this disagreeable office are sitting
opposite the Daimio and his friends, reading the fatal document, their
suite surrounding them in respectful attitudes.

The whole party wear the official dress, which intimates at once the
respect due to the victim and the official nature of the ceremony.

The second scene shows the Daimio on the point of performing the
sacrificial ceremony. His forelock is reversed, as a sign of
submission to his fate, and to assist the executioner, who, as soon as
his master goes through the form of disembowelling himself with the
knife on the stand, will, with one blow of his razor-edged sword,
complete the sacrifice by decapitation. Only the two chief
commissioners appointed by the Tycoon, and the sorely-tasked
supporters of the victim, remain to witness the last act of the drama.
The rest of the party await its completion in the adjoining
compartment of the enclosure, which is expressly constructed for that

The funeral procession, which is the subject of the next scene, is
accompanied by all the pomp indicative of the high position of the
deceased. The mourners wear robes of white cloth, and all the feudal
paraphernalia are draped with the same material; which, as before
mentioned, is used in Japanese mourning. The coffin is carried near
the head of the procession; it is a square box of resinous wood,
covered over with white, and the body is placed in it in a sitting

[Illustration: THE SACRIFICE.]

[Illustration: A DAIMIO'S FUNERAL.]

[Illustration: CREMATION OF THE BODY.]


All the members of the family attend the funeral, either on foot or
in norimons. If the wife and the heir be absent in Yeddo, they are
represented by the nearest relations. In this instance both are
present, from which it may be inferred that the sacrificial act has
taken place in the neighbourhood of Yeddo.

Although the Japanese sometimes bury their dead, they generally
practise cremation. Repulsive as this custom is to European ideas, it
must be remembered that the Japanese are not singular in preferring
it, as several of the most civilised nations of antiquity considered
it the most honourable mode of disposing of the bodies of the dead.

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Online LibraryJ.M. W. SilverSketches of Japanese Manners and Customs → online text (page 2 of 4)