Preface

In the Introduction to his charming Tales of Old Japan, Mr. Mitford wrote in 1871:

'The books which have been written of late years about Japan have either been compiled from official records, or have contained the sketchy impressions of passing travellers. Of the inner life of the Japanese the world at large knows but little: their religion, their superstitions, their ways of thought, the hidden springs by which they move - all these are as yet mysteries.'

This invisible life referred to by Mr. Mitford is the Unfamiliar Japan of which I have been able to obtain a few glimpses. The reader may, perhaps, be disappointed by their rarity; for a residence of little more than four years among the people - even by one who tries to adopt their habits and customs - scarcely suffices to enable the foreigner to begin to feel at home in this world of strangeness. None can feel more than the author himself how little has been accomplished in these volumes, and how much remains to do.

The popular religious ideas - especially the ideas derived from Buddhism - and the curious superstitions touched upon in these sketches are little shared by the educated classes of New Japan. Except as regards his characteristic indifference toward abstract ideas in general and metaphysical speculation in particular, the Occidentalised Japanese of to-day stands almost on the intellectual plane of the cultivated Parisian or Bostonian. But he is inclined to treat with undue contempt all conceptions of the supernatural; and toward the great religious questions of the hour his attitude is one of perfect apathy. Rarely does his university training in modern philosophy impel him to attempt any independent study of relations, either sociological or psychological. For him, superstitions are simply superstitions; their relation to the emotional nature of the people interests him not at all. [1] And this not only because he thoroughly understands that people, but because the class to which he belongs is still unreasoningly, though quite naturally, ashamed of its older beliefs. Most of us who now call ourselves agnostics can recollect the feelings with which, in the period of our fresh emancipation from a faith far more irrational than Buddhism, we looked back upon the gloomy theology of our fathers. Intellectual Japan has become agnostic within only a few decades; and the suddenness of this mental revolution sufficiently explains the principal, though not perhaps all the causes of the present attitude of the superior class toward Buddhism. For the time being it certainly borders upon intolerance; and while such is the feeling even to religion as distinguished from superstition, the feeling toward superstition as distinguished from religion must be something stronger still.

But the rare charm of Japanese life, so different from that of all other lands, is not to be found in its Europeanised circles. It is to be found among the great common people, who represent in Japan, as in all countries, the national virtues, and who still cling to their delightful old customs, their picturesque dresses, their Buddhist images, their household shrines, their beautiful and touching worship of ancestors. This is the life of which a foreign observer can never weary, if fortunate and sympathetic enough to enter into it - the life that forces him sometimes to doubt whether the course of our boasted Western progress is really in the direction of moral development. Each day, while the years pass, there will be revealed to him some strange and unsuspected beauty in it. Like other life, it has its darker side; yet even this is brightness compared with the darker side of Western existence. It has its foibles, its follies, its vices, its cruelties; yet the more one sees of it, the more one marvels at its extraordinary goodness, its miraculous patience, its never-failing courtesy, its simplicity of heart, its intuitive charity. And to our own larger Occidental comprehension, its commonest superstitions, however condemned at Tokyo have rarest value as fragments of the unwritten literature of its hopes, its fears, its experience with right and wrong - its primitive efforts to find solutions for the riddle of the Unseen flow much the lighter and kindlier superstitions of the people add to the charm of Japanese life can, indeed, be understood only by one who has long resided in the interior. A few of their beliefs are sinister - such as that in demon-foxes, which public education is rapidly dissipating; but a large number are comparable for beauty of fancy even to those Greek myths in which our noblest poets of today still find inspiration; while many others, which encourage kindness to the unfortunate and kindness to animals, can never have produced any but the happiest moral results. The amusing presumption of domestic animals, and the comparative fearlessness of many wild creatures in the presence of man; the white clouds of gulls that hover about each incoming steamer in expectation of an alms of crumbs; the whirring of doves from temple- eaves to pick up the rice scattered for them by pilgrims; the familiar storks of ancient public gardens; the deer of holy shrines, awaiting cakes and caresses; the fish which raise their heads from sacred lotus- ponds when the stranger's shadow falls upon the water - these and a hundred other pretty sights are due to fancies which, though called superstitious, inculcate in simplest form the sublime truth of the Unity of Life. And even when considering beliefs less attractive than these,- superstitions of which the grotesqueness may provoke a smile - the impartial observer would do well to bear in mind the words of Lecky: