In the preceding pages I have endeavoured to suggest a general idea of the social history of Japan, and a general idea of the nature of those forces which shaped and tempered the character of her people. Certainly this attempt leaves much to be desired: the time is yet far away at which a satisfactory work upon the subject can be prepared. But the fact that Japan can be understood only through the study of her religious and social evolution has been, I trust, sufficiently indicated. She affords us the amazing spectacle of an Eastern society maintaining all the outward forms of Western civilization; using, with unquestionable efficiency, the applied science of the Occident; accomplishing, by prodigious effort, the work of centuries within the time of three decades, - yet sociologically remaining at a stage corresponding to that which, in ancient Europe, preceded the Christian era by hundreds of years.
But no suggestion of origins and causes should diminish the pleasure of contemplating this curious world, psychologically still so far away from us in the course of human evolution. The wonder and the beauty of what remains of the Old Japan cannot be lessened by any knowledge of the conditions that produced them. The old kindliness and grace of manners need not cease to charm us because we know that such manners were cultivated, for a thousand years, under the edge of the sword. The common politeness which appeared, but a few years ago, to be almost universal, and the rarity of quarrels, should not prove less agreeable because we have learned that, for generations and generations, all quarrels among the people were punished with extraordinary rigour; and that the custom of the vendetta, which rendered necessary such repression, also made everybody cautious of word and deed. The popular smile should not seem less winning because we have been told of a period, in the past of the subject-classes, when not to smile in the teeth of pain might cost life itself. And the Japanese woman, as cultivated by the old home-training, is not less sweet a being because she represents the moral ideal of a vanishing world, and because we can faintly surmise the cost, - the incalculable cost in pain, - of producing her.
No: what remains of this elder civilization is full of charm, - charm unspeakable, - and to witness its gradual destruction must be a grief for whomsoever has felt that charm. However intolerable may seem, to the mind of the artist or poet, those countless restrictions which once ruled all this fairy-world and shaped the soul of it, he cannot but admire and love their best results: the simplicity of old custom, - the amiability of manners, - the daintiness of habits, - the delicate tact displayed in pleasure-giving, - the strange power of presenting outwardly, under any circumstances, only the best and brightest aspects of character. What emotional poetry, for even the least believing, in the ancient home-religion, - in the lamplet nightly kindled before the names of the dead, the tiny offerings of food and drink, the welcome-fires lighted to guide the visiting ghosts, the little ships prepared to bear - them back to their rest! And this immemorial doctrine of filial piety, - exacting all that is noble, not less than all that is terrible, in duty, in gratitude, in self-denial, - what strange appeal does it make to our lingering religious instincts; and how close to the divine appear to us the finer natures forged by it! What queer weird attraction in those parish-temple festivals, with their happy mingling of merriment and devotion in the presence of the gods! What a universe of romance in that Buddhist art which has left its impress upon almost every product of industry, from the toy of a child to the heirloom of a prince; - which has peopled the solitudes with statues, and chiselled the wayside rocks with texts of sutras! Who can forget the soft enchantment of this Buddhist atmosphere? - the deep music of the great bells? - the green peace of gardens haunted by fearless things, doves that flutter down at call, fishes rising to be fed? ... Despite our incapacity to enter into the soul-life of this ancient East, - despite the certainty that one might as well hope to remount the River of Time and share the vanished existence of some old Greek city, as to share the thoughts and the emotions of Old Japan, - we find ourselves bewitched forever by the vision, like those wanderers of folk-tale who rashly visited Elf-land.
We know that there is illusion, - not as to the reality of the visible, but as to its meanings, - very much illusion. Yet why should this illusion attract us, like some glimpse of Paradise? - why should we feel obliged to confess the ethical glamour of a civilization as far away from us in thought as the Egypt of Ramses? Are we really charmed by the results of a social discipline that refused to recognize the individual? - enamoured of a cult that exacted the suppression of personality?
No: the charm is made by the fact that this vision of the past represents to us much more than past or present, - that it foreshadows the possibilities of some higher future, in a world of Perfect sympathy. After many a thousand years there may be developed a humanity able to achieve, with never a shadow of illusion, those ethical conditions prefigured by the ideals of Old Japan: instinctive unselfishness, a common desire to find the joy of life in making happiness for others, a universal sense of moral beauty. And whenever men shall have so far gained upon the present as to need no other code than the teaching of their own hearts, then indeed the ancient ideal of Shinto will find its supreme realization.