From Sea to Sea

Letter XX

by Rudyard Kipling

And the Duke said, ‘Let there be cavalry,’ and there were cavalry. And he said, ‘Let them be slow,’ and they were slow, d—d slow, and the Japanese Imperial Horse called he them.

I was wrong. I know it. I ought to have clamoured at the doors of the Legation for a pass to see the Imperial Palace. I ought to have investigated Tokio and called upon some of the political leaders of the Liberal and Radical parties. There are a hundred things which I ought to have done, but somehow or other the bugles began to blare through the chill of the morning, and I heard the tramp of armed men under my window. The parade-ground was within a stone’s throw of the Tokio hotel; the Imperial troops were going on parade. Would you have bothered your head about politics or temples? I ran after them.

It is rather difficult to get accurate information about the Japanese army. It seems to be in perpetual throes of reorganisation. At present, so far as one can gather, it is about one hundred and seventy thousand strong. Everybody has to serve for three years, but payment of one hundred dollars will shorten the term of service by one year at least. This is what a man who had gone through the mill told me. He capped his information with this verdict: ‘English Army no use. Only Navy any good. Have seen two hundred English Army. No use.’

On the parade-ground they had a company of foot and a wing of what, for the sake of brevity, I will call cavalry under instruction. The former were being put through some simple evolutions in close order; the latter were variously and singularly employed. To the former I took off the hat of respect; at the latter I am ashamed to say I pointed the finger of derision. But let me try to describe what I saw. The likeness of the Jap infantryman to the Gurkha grows when you see him in bulk. Thanks to their wholesale system of conscription the quality of conscripts varies immensely. I have seen scores of persons with spectacles whom it were base flattery to call soldiers, and who I hope were in the medical or commissariat departments. Again I have seen dozens of bull-necked, deep-chested, flat-backed, thin-flanked little men who were as good as a colonel commanding could desire. There was a man of the 2nd Infantry whom I met at an up-country railway station. He carried just the proper amount of insolent swagger that a soldier should, refused to answer any questions of mine, and parted the crowd round him without ceremony. A Gurkha of the Prince of Wales’ Own could not have been trimmer. In the crush of a ticket-collecting—we both got out together—I managed to run my hand over that small man’s forearm and chest. They must have a very complete system of gymnastics in the Japanese army, and I would have given much to have stripped my friend and seen how he peeled. If the 2nd Infantry are equal to sample, they are good.

The men on parade at Tokio belonged either to the 4th or the 9th, and turned out with their cowskin valises strapped, but I think not packed. Under full kit, such as I saw on the sentry at Osaka Castle, they ought to be much too heavily burdened. Their officers were as miserable a set of men as Japan could furnish—spectacled, undersized even for Japan, hollow-backed and hump-shouldered. They squeaked their words of command and had to trot by the side of their men to keep up with them. The Jap soldier has the long stride of the Gurkha, and he doubles with the easy lope of the ’rickshaw coolie. Throughout the three hours that I watched them they never changed formation but once, when they doubled in pairs across the plain, their rifles at the carry. Their step and intervals were as good as those of our native regiments, but they wheeled rather promiscuously, and were not checked for this by their officers. So far as my limited experience goes, their formation was not Ours, but Continental. The words of command were as beautifully unintelligible as anything our parade-grounds produce; and between them the officers of each half-company vehemently harangued their men, and shook their swords at ’em in distinctly unmilitary style. The precision of their movements was beyond praise. They enjoyed three hours of steady drill, and in the rare intervals when they stood easy to draw breath I looked for slackness all down the ranks, inasmuch as ‘standing easy’ is the crucial test of men after the first smartness of the morning has worn off. They stood ‘easy,’ neither more nor less, but never a hand went to a shoe or stock or button while they were so standing. When they knelt, still in this queer column of company, I understood the mystery of the long sword-bayonet which has puzzled me sorely. I had expected to see the little fellows lifted into the air as the bayonet-sheath took ground; but they were not. They kicked it sideways as they dropped. All the same, the authorities tie men to the bayonets instead of bayonets to the men. When at the double there was no grabbing at the cartridge-pouch with one-hand or steadying the bayonet with the other, as may be seen any day at runningfiring on Indian ranges. They ran cleanly—as our Gurkhas run.

It was an unchristian thought, but I would have given a good deal to see that company being blooded on an equal number of Our native infantry just to know how they would work. If they have pluck, and there is not much in their past record to show that they have not, they ought to be first-class enemies. Under British officers instead of the little anatomies at present provided, and with a better rifle, they should be as good as any troops recruited east of Suez. I speak here only for the handy little men I saw. The worst of conscription is that it sweeps in such a mass of fourth and fifth-rate citizens who, though they may carry a gun, are likely, by their own excusable ineptitude, to do harm to the morale and set-up of a regiment. In their walks abroad the soldiery never dream of keeping step. They tie things to their side-arms, they carry bundles, they slouch, and dirty their uniforms.

And so much for a raw opinion on Japanese infantry. The cavalry were having a picnic on the other side of the parade-ground—circling right and left by sections, trying to do something with a troop, and so forth. I would fain believe that the gentlemen I saw were recruits. But they wore all their arms, and their officers were just as clever as themselves. Half of them were in white fatigue-dress and flat cap,—and wore half-boots of brown leather with short hunting-spurs and black straps; no chains. They carried carbine and sword—the sword fixed to the man, and the carbine slung over the back. No martingales, but breastplates and crupper, a huge, heavy saddle, with single hidegirth, over two numdahs, completed the equipment which a thirteen-hand pony, all mane and tail, was trying to get rid of. When you thrust a two-pound bit and bridoon into a small pony’s mouth, you hurt his feelings. When the riders wear, as did my friends, white worsted gloves, they cannot take a proper hold of the reins. When they ride with both hands, sitting well on the mount’s neck, knuckles level with its ears and the stirrup leathers as short as they can be, the chances of the pony getting rid of the rider are manifestly increased. Never have I seen such a wild dream of equitation as the Tokio parade-ground showed. Do you remember the picture in Alice in Wonderland, just before Alice found the Lion and the Unicorn; when she met the armed men coming through the woods? I thought of that, and I thought of the White Knight in the same classic, and I laughed aloud. Here were a set of very fair ponies, surefooted as goats, mostly entires, and full of go. Under Japanese weights they would have made very thorough mounted infantry. And here was this blindly imitative nation trying to turn them into heavy cavalry. As long as the little beasts were gravely trotting in circles they did not mind their work. But when it came to slashing at the Turk’s head they objected very much indeed. I affiliated myself to a section who, armed with long wooden swords, were enjoying some Turk’s-heading. Out started a pony at the gentlest of canters, while the rider bundled all the reins into one hand, and held his sword like a lance. Then the pony shied a little shy, shook his shaggy head, and began to passage round the Turk’s head. There was no pressure of knee or rein to tell him what was wanted. The man on top began kicking with the spurs from shoulder to rump, and shaking up the iron-mongery in the poor brute’s mouth. The pony could neither rear, nor kick, nor buck; but it shook itself free of the incubus who slid off. Three times I saw this happen. The catastrophe didn’t rise to the dignity of a fall. It was the blundering collapse of incompetence plus worsted gloves, two-handed riding, and a haystack of equipment. Very often the pony went at the post, and the man delivered a back-handed cut at the Turk’s head which nearly brought him out of his world-too-wide saddle. Again and again this solemn performance was repeated. I can honestly say that the ponies are very willing to break rank and leave their companions, which is what an English troop-horse fails in; but I fancy this is more due to the urgent private affairs of the pony than any skill in training. The troops charged once or twice in a terrifying canter. When the men wished to stop they leaned back and tugged, and the pony put his head to the ground, and bored all he knew. They charged me, but I was merciful, and forbore to empty half the saddles, as I assuredly could have done by throwing up my arms and yelling ‘Hi!’ The saddest thing of all was the painful conscientiousness displayed by all the performers in the circus. They had to turn these rats into cavalry. They knew nothing about riding, and what they did know was wrong; but the rats must be made troop-horses. Why wouldn’t the scheme work? There was a patient, pathetic wonder on the faces of the men that made me long to take one of them in my arms and try to explain things to him—bridles, for instance, and the futility of hanging on by the spurs. Just when the parade was over, and the troops were ambling off, Providence sent diagonally across the parade ground, at a gallop, a big, rawboned man on a lathy-red American horse. The brute cracked his nostrils, and switched his flag abroad, and romped across the plain, while his rider dropped one hand and sat still, swaying lightly from the hips. The two served to scale the surroundings. Some one really ought to tell the Mikado that ponies were never intended for dragoons.

If the changes and chances of military service ever send you against Japanese troops, be tender with their cavalry. They mean no harm. Put some fusees down for the horses to step on, and send a fatigue-party out to pick up the remnants. But if you meet Japanese infantry, led by a Continental officer, commence firing early and often and at the longest ranges compatible with getting at them. They are bad little men who know too much.

Having thoroughly settled the military side of the nation exactly as my Japanese friend at the beginning of this letter settled Us,—on the strength of two hundred men caught at random,—I devoted myself to a consideration of Tokio. I am wearied of temples. Their monotony of splendour makes my head ache. You also will weary of temples unless you are an artist, and then you will be disgusted with yourself. Some folk say that Tokio covers an area equal to London. Some folk say that it is not more than ten miles long and eight miles broad. There are a good many ways of solving the question. I found a tea-garden situated on a green plateau far up a flight of steps, with pretty girls smiling on every step. From this elevation I looked forth over the city, and it stretched away from the sea, as far as the eye could reach—one grey expanse of packed house-roof, the perspective marked by numberless factory chimneys. Then I went several miles away and found a park, another eminence, and some more tea-girls prettier than the last; and, looking again, the city stretched out in a new direction as far as the eye could reach. Taking the scope of the eye on a clear day at eighteen miles, I make Tokio thirty-six miles long by thirty-six miles broad exactly; and there may be some more which I missed. The place roared with life through all its quarters. Double lines of trams ran down the main streets for mile on mile, rows of omnibuses stood at the principal railway station, and the ‘Compagnie General des Omnibus de Tokio’ paraded the streets with gold and vermilion cars. All the trams were full, all the private and public omnibuses were full, and the streets were full of ’rickshaws. From the seashore to the shady green park, from the park to the dim distance, the land pullulated with people.

Here you saw how western civilisation had eaten into them. Every tenth man was attired in Europe clothes from hat to boots. It is a queer race. It can parody every type of humanity to be met in a large English town. Fat and prosperous merchant with mutton-chop whiskers; mild-eyed, long-haired professor of science, his clothes baggy about him; schoolboy in Eton jacket, broadcloth trousers; young clerk, member of the Clapham Athletic Club, in tennis flannels; artisans in sorely worn tweeds; top-hatted lawyer with clean-shaven upper lip and black leather bag; sailor out of work; and counter-jumper; all these and many, many more you shall find in the streets of Tokio in half an hour’s walk. But when you come to speak to the imitation, behold it can only talk Japanese. You touch it, and it is not what you thought. I fluctuated down the streets addressing myself to the most English-looking folk I saw. They were polite with a graciousness that in no way accorded with their raiment, but they knew not a word of my tongue. One small boy in the uniform of the Naval College said suddenly: ‘I spik Englees,’ and collapsed. The rest of the people in our clothes poured their own vernacular upon my head. Yet the shop-signs were English, the tramway under my feet was English gauge, the commodities sold were English, and the notices on the streets were in English. It was like walking in a dream. I reflected. Far away from Tokio and off the line of rail I had met men like these men in the streets. Perfectly dressed Englishmen to the outer eye, but dumb. The country must be full of their likes.

‘Good gracious! Here is Japan going to run its own civilisation without learning a language in which you can say Damn satisfactorily. I must inquire into this.’

Chance had brought me opposite the office of a newspaper, and I ran in demanding an editor. He came—the Editor of the Tokio Public Opinion, a young man in a black frock-coat. There are not many editors in other parts of the world who would offer you tea and a cigarette ere beginning a conversation. My friend had but little English. His paper, though the name was printed in English, was Japanese. But he knew his business. Almost before I had explained my errand, which was the pursuit of miscellaneous information, he began: ‘You are English? How you think now the American Revision Treaty?’ Out came a note-book and I sweated cold. It was not in the bargain that he should interview me.

‘There’s a great deal,’ I answered, remembering Sir Roger, of blessed memory,—‘a great deal to be said on both sides. The American Revision Treaty—h’m—demands an enormous amount of matured consideration and may safely be referred—’

‘But we of Japan are now civilised.’

Japan says that she is now civilised. That is the crux of the whole matter so far as I understand it. ‘Let us have done with the idiotic system of treaty-ports and passports for the foreigner who steps beyond them,’ says Japan in effect. ‘Give us our place among the civilised nations of the earth, come among us, trade with us, hold land in our midst. Only be subject to our jurisdiction and submit to our—tariffs.’ Now since one or two of the foreign nations have won special tariffs for their goods in the usual way, they are not overanxious to become just ordinary folk. The effect of accepting Japan’s views would be excellent for the individual who wanted to go up-country and make his money, but bad for the nation. For Our nation in particular.

All the same I was not prepared to have my ignorance of a burning question put down in any note-book save my own. I Gladstoned about the matter with the longest words I could. My friend recorded them much after the manner of Count Smorltork. Then I attacked him on the subject of civilisation—speaking very slowly because he had a knack of running two words of mine together, and turning them into something new.

‘You are right,’ said he. ‘We are becoming civilised. But not too quick, for that is bad. Now there are two parties in the State—the Liberal and the Radical: one Count he lead one, one Count lead the other. The Radical say that we should swiftly become all English. The Liberal he says not so quick, because that nation which too swiftly adopt other people’s customs he decay. That question of civilisation and the American Revision Treaty he occupied our chief attentions. Now we are not so zealous to become civilised as we were two—three years gone. Not so quick—that is our watchword. Yes.’

If matured deliberation be the wholesale adoption of imperfectly understood arrangements, I should dearly like to see Japan in a hurry. We discussed comparative civilisations for a short time, and I protested feebly against the defilement of the streets of Tokio by rows of houses built after glaring European models. Surely there is no need to discard your own architecture, I said.

‘Ha,’ snorted the chief of the Public Opinion. ‘You call it picturesque. I call it too. Wait till he light up—incendiate. A Japanese house then is one only fire-box. That is why we think good to build in European fashion. I tell you, and you must believe, that we take up no change without thinking upon it. Truth, indeed, it is not because we are curious children, wanting new things, as some people have said. We have done with that season of picking up things and throwing them down again. You see?’

‘Where did you pick up your Constitution, then?’

I did not know what the question would bring forth, yet I ought to have been wise. The first question that a Japanese on the railway asks an Englishman is: ‘Have you got the English translation of our Constitution?’ All the bookstalls sell it in English and Japanese, and all the papers discuss it. The child is not yet three months old.

‘Our Constitution?—That was promised to us—promised twenty years ago. Fourteen years ago the provinces they have been allowed to elect their big men—their heads. Three years ago they have been allowed to have assemblies, and thus Civil Liberty was assured.’

I was baffled here for some time. In the end I thought I made out that the municipalities had been given certain control over police funds and the appointment of district officials. I may have been entirely wrong, but the editor bore me along on a torrent of words, his body rocking and his arms waving with the double agony of twisting a foreign tongue to his service and explaining the to-be-taken-seriouslyness of Japan. Whack came the little hand on the little table, and the little tea-cups jumped again.

‘Truly, and indeed, this Constitution of ours has not come too soon. It proceeded step-by. You understand that? Now your Constitution, the Constitutions of the foreign nations, are all bloody—bloody Constitutions. Ours has come step-by. We did not fight as the barons fought with King John at Runnymede.’

This was a quotation from a speech delivered at Otsu, a few days previously, by a member of the Government. I grinned at the brotherhood of editors all the world over. Up went the hand anew.

‘We shall be happy with this Constitution and a people civilised among civilisations!’

‘Of course. But what will you actually do with it? A Constitution is rather a monotonous thing to work after the fun of sending members to Parliament has died out. You have a Parliament, have you not?’

‘Oh yes, with parties—Liberal and Radical.’

‘Then they will both tell lies to you and to each other. Then they will pass bills, and spend their time fighting each other. Then all the foreign governments will discover that you have no fixed policy.’

‘Ah, yes. But the Constitution.’ The little hands were crossed in his lap. The cigarette hung limply from his mouth.

‘No fixed policy. Then, when you have sufficiently disgusted the foreign Powers, they will wait until the Liberals and Radicals are fighting very hard, and then they will blow you out of the water.’

‘You are not making fun? I do not quite understand,’ said he. ‘Your Constitutions are all so bloody.’

‘Yes. That is exactly what they are. You are very much in earnest about yours, are you not?

‘Oh yes, we all talk politics now.’

‘And write politics, of course. By the way, under what—h’m, arrangements with the Government is a Japanese paper published? I mean, must you pay anything before starting a press?’

‘Literary, scientific, and religious papers—no. Quite free. All purely political papers pay five hundred yen—give to the Government to keep, or else some man says he will pay.’

‘You must give security, you mean?’

‘I do not know, but sometimes the Government can keep the money. We are purely political.’

Then he asked questions about India, and appeared astonished to find that the natives there possessed considerable political power, and controlled districts.

‘But have you a Constitution in India?’

‘I am afraid that we have not.’


He crushed me there, and I left very humbly, but cheered by the promise that the Tokio Public Opinion would contain an account of my words. Mercifully, that respectable journal is printed in Japanese, so the hash will not be served up to a large table. I would give a good deal to discover what meaning he attached to my forecast of Constitutional government in Japan.

‘We all talk politics now.’ That was the sentence which remained to me. It was true talk. Men of the Educational Department in Tokio told me that the students would ‘talk politics’ by the hour if you allowed them. At present they were talking in the abstract about their new plaything, the Constitution, with its Upper House and its Lower House, its committees, its questions of supply, its rules of procedure, and all the other skittles we have played with for six hundred years.

Japan is the second Oriental country which has made it impossible for a strong man to govern alone. This she has done of her own free will. India, on the other hand, has been forcibly ravished by the Secretary of State and the English M.P.

Japan is luckier than India.