Chapter Eleven. The Japanese Smile


THOSE whose ideas of the world and its wonders have been formed chiefly by novels and romance still indulge a vague belief that the East is more serious than the West. Those who judge things from a higher standpoint argue, on the contrary, that, under present conditions, the West must be more serious than the East; and also that gravity, or even something resembling its converse, may exist only as a fashion. But the fact is that in this, as in all other questions, no rule susceptible of application to either half of humanity can be accurately framed. Scientifically, we can do no more just now than study certain contrasts in a general way, without hoping to explain satisfactorily the highly complex causes which produced them. One such contrast, of particular interest, is that afforded by the English and the Japanese.

It is a commonplace to say that the English are a serious people - not superficially serious, but serious all the way down to the bed-rock of the race character. It is almost equally safe to say that the Japanese are not very serious, either above or below the surface, even as compared with races much less serious than our own. And in the same proportion, at least, that they are less serious, they are more happy: they still, perhaps, remain the happiest people in the civilised world. We serious folk of the West cannot call ourselves very happy. Indeed, we do not yet fully know how serious we are; and it would probably frighten us to learn how much more serious we are likely to become under the ever-swelling pressure of industrial life. It is, possibly, by long sojourn among a people less gravely disposed that we can best learn our own temperament. This conviction came to me very strongly when, after having lived for nearly three years in the interior of Japan, I returned to English life for a few days at the open port of Kobe. To hear English once more spoken by Englishmen touched me more than I could have believed possible; but this feeling lasted only for a moment. My object was to make some necessary purchases. Accompanying me was a Japanese friend, to whom all that foreign life was utterly new and wonderful, and who asked me this curious question: 'Why is it that the foreigners never smile? You smile and bow when you speak to them; but they never smile. Why?'

The fact was, I had fallen altogether into Japanese habits and ways, and had got out of touch with Western life; and my companion's question first made me aware that I had been acting somewhat curiously. It also seemed to me a fair illustration of the difficulty of mutual comprehension between the two races - each quite naturally, though quite erroneously, estimating the manners and motives of the other by its own. If the Japanese are puzzled by English gravity, the English are, to say the least, equally puzzled by Japanese levity. The Japanese speak of the 'angry faces' of the foreigners. The foreigners speak with strong contempt of the Japanese smile: they suspect it to signify insincerity; indeed, some declare it cannot possibly signify anything else. Only a few of the more observant have recognised it as an enigma worth studying. One of my Yokohama friends - a thoroughly lovable man, who had passed more than half his life in the open ports of the East - said to me, just before my departure for the interior: 'Since you are going to study Japanese life, perhaps you will be able to find out something for me. I can't understand the Japanese smile. Let me tell you one experience out of many. One day, as I was driving down from the Bluff, I saw an empty kuruma coming up on the wrong side of the curve. I could not have pulled up in time if I had tried; but I didn't try, because I didn't think there was any particular danger. I only yelled to the man in Japanese to get to the other side of the road; instead of which he simply backed his kuruma against a wall on the lower side of the curve, with the shafts outwards. At the rate I was going, there wasn't room even to swerve; and the next minute one of the shafts of that kuruma was in my horse's shoulder. The man wasn't hurt at all. When I saw the way my horse was bleeding, I quite lost my temper, and struck the man over the head with the butt of my whip. He looked right into my face and smiled, and then bowed. I can see that smile now. I felt as if I had been knocked down. The smile utterly nonplussed me - killed all my anger instantly. Mind you, it was a polite smile. But what did it mean? Why the devil did the man smile? I can't understand it.'

Neither, at that time, could I; but the meaning of much more mysterious smiles has since been revealed to me. A Japanese can smile in the teeth of death, and usually does. But he then smiles for the same reason that he smiles at other times. There is neither defiance nor hypocrisy in the smile; nor is it to be confounded with that smile of sickly resignation which we are apt to associate with weakness of character. It is an elaborate and long-cultivated etiquette. It is also a silent language. But any effort to interpret it according to Western notions of physiognomical expression would be just about as successful as an attempt to interpret Chinese ideographs by their real or fancied resemblance to shapes of familiar things.