In the gardens of certain Buddhist temples there are trees which have been famous for centuries, - trees trained and clipped into extraordinary shapes. Some have the form of dragons; others have the form of pagodas, ships, umbrellas. Supposing that one of these trees were abandoned to its own natural tendencies, it would eventually lose the queer shape so long imposed upon it; but the outline would not be altered for a considerable time, as the new leafage would at first unfold only in the direction of least resistance: that is to say, within limits originally established by the shears and the pruning-knife. By sword and law the old Japanese society had been pruned and clipped, bent and bound, just like such a tree; and after the reconstructions of the Meiji period, - after the abolition of the daimiates, and the suppression of the military class, it still maintained its former shape, just as the tree would continue to do when first abandoned by the gardener. Though delivered from the bonds of feudal law, released from the shears of military rule, the great bulk of the social structure preserved its ancient aspect; and the rare spectacle bewildered and delighted and deluded the Western observer. Here indeed was Elf-land, - the strange, the beautiful, the grotesque, the very mysterious, - totally unlike aught of strange and attractive ever beheld elsewhere. It was not a world of the nineteenth century after Christ, but a world of many centuries before Christ: yet this fact - the wonder of wonders - remained unrecognized; and it remains unrecognized by most people even to this day.
Fortunate indeed were those privileged to enter this astonishing fairyland thirty odd years ago, before the period of superficial change, and to observe the unfamiliar aspects of its life: the universal urbanity, the smiling silence of crowds, the patient deliberation of toil, the absence of misery and struggle. Even yet, in those remoter districts where alien influence has wrought but little change, the charm of the old existence lingers and amazes; and the ordinary traveller can little understand what it means. That all are polite, that nobody quarrels, that everybody smiles, that pain and sorrow remain invisible, that the new police have nothing to do, would seem to prove a morally superior humanity. But for the trained sociologist it would prove something different, and suggest something very terrible. It would prove to him that this society had been moulded under immense coercion, and that the coercion must have been exerted uninterruptedly for thousands of years. He would immediately perceive that ethics and custom had not yet become dissociated, and that the conduct of each person was regulated by the will of the rest. He would know that personality could not develop in such a social medium, - that no individual superiority dare assert itself, that no competition would be tolerated. He would understand that the outward charm of this life - its softness, its smiling silence as of dreams - signified the rule of the dead. He would recognize that between those minds and the minds of his own epoch no kinship of thought, no community of sentiment, no sympathy whatever could exist, - that the separating gulf was not to be measured by thousands of leagues, but only by thousands of years, - that the psychological interval was hopeless as the distance from planet to planet. Yet this knowledge probably would not - certainly should not - blind him to the intrinsic charm of things. Not to feel the beauty of this archaic life is to prove oneself insensible to all beauty. Even that Greek world, for which our scholars and poets profess such loving admiration, must have been in many ways a world of the same kind, whose daily mental existence no modern mind could share.
Now that the great social tree, so wonderfully clipped and cared for during many centuries, is losing its fantastic shape, let us try to see how much of the original design can still be traced.
Under all the outward aspects of individual activity that modern Japan presents to the visitor's gaze, the ancient conditions really persist to an extent that no observation could reveal. Still the immemorial cult rules all the land. Still the family-law, the communal law, and (though in a more irregular manner) the clan-law, control every action of existence. I do not refer to any written law, but only to the old unwritten religious law, with its host of obligations deriving from ancestor-worship. It is true that many changes - and, in the opinion of the wise, too many changes - have been made in civil legislation; but the ancient proverb, "Government-laws are only seven-day laws," still represents popular sentiment in regard to hasty reforms. The old law, the law of the dead, is that by which the millions prefer to act and think. Though ancient social groupings have been officially abolished, re-groupings of a corresponding sort have been formed, instinctively, throughout the country districts. In theory the individual is free; in practice he is scarcely more free than were his forefathers. Old penalties for breach of custom have been abrogated; yet communal opinion is able to compel the ancient obedience. Legal enactments can nowhere effect immediate change of sentiment and long-established usage, - least of all among a people of such fixity of character as the Japanese. Young persons are no more at liberty now, than were their fathers and mothers under the Shogunate, to marry at will, to invest their means and efforts in undertakings not sanctioned by family approval, to consider themselves in any way enfranchised from family authority; and it is probably better for the present that they are not. No man is yet complete master of his activities, his time, or his means.