From Sea to Sea

Letter XXI

by Rudyard Kipling

Very sadly did we leave it, but we gave our hearts in pledge
To the pine above the city, to the blossoms by the hedge,
To the cherry and the maple and the plum tree and the peach,
And the babies—Oh, the babies!—romping fatly under each.
Eastward ho! Across the water see the black bow drives and swings
From the land of Little Children, where the Babies are the Kings.

THE Professor discovered me in meditation amid tea-girls at the back of the Ueno Park in the heart of Tokio. My ’rickshaw coolie sat by my side drinking tea from daintiest china, and eating macaroons. I thought of Sterne’s donkey and smiled vacuously into the blue above the trees. The tea-girls giggled. One of them captured my spectacles, perched them on her own snubby chubby nose, and ran about among her cackling fellows.

‘And lose your fingers in the tresses of The cypress-slender minister of wine,’ quoted the Professor, coming round a booth suddenly. ‘Why aren’t you at the Mikado’s garden-party?’

‘Because he didn’t invite me, and, anyhow, he wears Europe clothes—so does the Empress—so do all the Court people. Let’s sit down and consider things. This people puzzles me.’

And I told my story of the interview with the Editor of the Tokio Public Opinion. The Professor had been making investigation into the Educational Department. ‘And further,’ said he at the end of the tale, ‘the ambition of the educated student is to get a place under Government. Therefore he comes to Tokio: will accept any situation at Tokio that he may be near to his chance.’

‘Whose son is that student?’

‘Son of the peasant, yeoman-farmer, and shopkeeper, ryot, tehsildar, and bunnia. While he waits he imbibes Republican leanings on account of the nearness of Japan to America. He talks and writes and debates, and is convinced he can manage the Empire better than the Mikado.’

‘Does he go away and start newspapers to prove that?’

‘He may; but it seems to be unwholesome work. A paper can be suspended without reason given under the present laws; and I’m told that one enterprising editor has just got three years’ simple imprisonment for caricaturing the Mikado.’

‘Then there is yet hope for Japan. I can’t quite understand how a people with a taste for fighting and quick artistic perceptions can care for the things that delight our friends in Bengal.’

‘You make the mistake of looking on the Bengali as unique. So he is in his own peculiar style; but I take it that the drunkenness of Western wine affects all Oriental folk in much the same way. What misleads you is that very likeness. Followest thou? Because a Jap struggles with problems beyond his grip in much the same phraseology as a Calcutta University student, and discusses Administration with a capital A, you lump Jap and Chatterjee together.’

‘No, I don’t. Chatterjee doesn’t sink his money in railway companies, or sit down and provide for the proper sanitation of his own city, or of his own notion cultivate the graces of life, as the Jap does. He is like the Tokio Public Opinion—“purely political.” He has no art whatever, he has no weapons, and there is no power of manual labour in him. Yet he is like the Jap in the pathos of his politics. Have you ever studied Pathetic Politics? Why is he like the Jap?’

‘Both drunk, I suppose,’ said the Professor. ‘Get that girl to give back your gig-lamps, and you will be able to see more clearly into the soul of the Far East.’

‘The “Far East” hasn’t got a soul. She swapped it for a Constitution on the Eleventh of February last. Can any Constitution make up for the wearing of Europe clothes? I saw a Jap lady just now in full afternoon calling-kit. She looked atrocious. Have you seen the later Japanese art—the pictures on the fans and in the shop windows? They are faithful reproductions of the changed life—telegraph-poles down the streets; conventionalised tram-lines, top-hats, and carpetbags in the hands of the men. The artists can make those things almost passable, but when it comes to conventionalising a Europe dress, the effect is horrible.’

‘Japan wishes to take her place among civilised nations,’ said the Professor.

‘That’s where the pathos comes in. It’s enough to make you weep to watch this misdirected effort—this wallowing in unloveliness for the sake of recognition at the hands of men who paint their ceilings white, their grates black, their mantelpieces French grey, and their carriages yellow and red. The Mikado wears blue and gold and red, his guards wear orange breeches with a stone-blue stripe down them; the American missionary teaches the Japanese girl to wear bangs—“shingled bangs”—on her forehead, plait her hair into a pigtail, and to tie it up with magenta and cobalt ribbons. The German sells them the offensive chromos of his own country and the labels of his beer-bottles. Allen and Ginter devastate Tokio with their blood-red and grass-green tobacco-tins. And in the face of all these things the country wishes to progress toward civilisation! I have read the entire Constitution of Japan, and it is dearly bought at the price of one of the kaleidoscope omnibuses plying in the street there.’

‘Are you going to inflict all that nonsense on them at home?’ said the Professor.

‘I am. For this reason. In the years to come, when Japan has sold her birthright for the privilege of being cheated on equal terms by her neighbours; when she has so heavily run into debt for her railways and public works that the financial assistance of England and annexation is her only help; when the Daimios through poverty have sold the treasures of their houses to the curio-dealer, and the dealer has sold them to the English collector; when all the people wear slop-trousers and ready-made petticoats, and the Americans have established soap factories on the rivers and a boarding-house on the top of Fujiyama, some one will turn up the files of the Pioneer and say: “This thing was prophesied.” Then they will be sorry that they began tampering with the great sausage-machine of civilisation. What is put into the receiver must come out at the spout; but it must come out mincemeat. Dixi! And now let us go to the tomb of the Forty-Seven Romans.’

‘It has been said some time ago, and much better than you can say it,’ said the Professor, apropos of nothing that I could see.

Distances are calculated by the hour in Tokio. Forty minutes in a ’rickshaw, running at full speed, will take you a little way into the city; two hours from the U eno Park brings you to the tomb of the famous Forty-Seven, passing on the way the very splendid temples of Shiba, which are all fully described in the guide-books. Lacquer, gold-inlaid bronzework, and crystals carved with the words ‘Om’ and ‘Shri’ are fine things to behold, but they do not admit of very varied treatment in print. In one tomb of one of the temples was a room of lacquer panels overlaid with goldleaf. An animal of the name of V. Gay had seen fit to scratch his entirely uninteresting name on the gold. Posterity will take note that V. Gay never cut his fingernails, and ought not to have been trusted with anything prettier than a hogtrough.

‘It is the handwriting upon the wall,’ I said.

‘Presently there will be neither gold nor lacquer—nothing but the finger-marks of foreigners. Let us pray for the soul of V. Gay all the same. Perhaps he was a missionary.’

.     .     .     .     .

The Japanese papers occasionally contain, sandwiched between notes of railway, mining, and tram concessions, announcements like the following:
‘Dr. —— committed hara-kiri last night at his private residence in such and such a street. Family complications are assigned as the reason of the act.’ Nor does hara-kiri merely mean suicide by any method. Hara-kiri is hara-kiri, and the private performance is even more ghastly than the official one. It is curious to think that any one of the dapper little men with top-hats and reticules who have a Constitution of their own, may, in time of mental stress, strip to the waist, shake their hair over their brows, and, after prayer, rip themselves open. When you come to Japan, look at Farsari’s hara-kiri pictures and his photos of the last crucifixion (twenty years ago) in Japan. Then at Deakin’s, inquire for the modelled head of a gentleman who was not long ago executed in Tokio. There is a grim fidelity in the latter work of art that will make you uncomfortable. The Japanese, in common with the rest of the East, have a strain of blood-thirstiness in their compositions. It is very carefully veiled now, but some of Hokusai’s pictures show it, and show that not long ago the people revelled in its outward expression. Yet they are tender to all children beyond the tenderness of the West, courteous to each other beyond the courtesy of the English, and polite to the foreigner alike in the big towns and in the Mofussil. What they will be after their Constitution has been working for three generations the Providence that made them what they are alone knows!

All the world seems ready to proffer them advice. Colonel Olcott is wandering up and down the country now, telling them that the Buddhist religion needs reformation, offering to reform it, and eating with ostentation rice-gruel which is served to him in cups by admiring handmaidens. A wanderer from Kioto tells me that in the Chion-in, loveliest of all the temples, he saw only three days ago the Colonel mixed up with a procession of Buddhist priests, just such a procession as the one I tried vainly to describe, and ‘tramping about as if the whole show belonged to him.’ You cannot appreciate the solemnity of this until you have seen the Colonel and the Chion-in temple. The two are built on entirely different lines, and they don’t seem to harmonise. It only needs now Madame Blavatsky, cigarette in mouth, under the cryptomerias of Nikko, and the return of Mr. Caine, M.P., to preach the sin of drinking saki, and the menagerie would be full.

Something should be done to America. There are many American missionaries in Japan, and some of them construct clapboard churches and chapels for whose ugliness no creed could compensate. They further instil into the Japanese mind wicked ideas of ‘Progress,’ and teach that it is well to go ahead of your neighbour, to improve your situation, and generally to thresh yourself to pieces in the battle of existence. They do not mean to do this; but their own restless energy enforces the lesson. The American is objectionable. And yet—this is written from Yokohama—how pleasant in every way is a nice American whose tongue is cleansed of ‘right there,’ ‘all the time,’ ‘noos,’, ‘revoo,’ ‘around,’ and the Falling Cadence. I have met such an one even now—a Californian ripened in Spain, matured in England, polished in Paris, and yet always a Californian. His voice and manners were soft alike, temperate were his judgments and temperately expressed, wide was his range of experience, genuine his humour, and fresh from the mint of his mind his reflections. It was only at the end of the conversation that he startled me a little.

‘I understand that you are going to stay some time in California. Do you mind my giving you a little advice? I am speaking now of towns that are still rather brusque in their manners. When a man offers you a drink accept at once, and then stand drinks all round. I don’t say that the second part of the programme is as necessary as the first, but it puts you on a perfectly safe footing. Above all, remember that where you are going you must never carry anything. The men you move among will do that for you. They have been accustomed to it. It is in some places, unluckily, a matter of life and death as well as daily practice to draw first. I have known really lamentable accidents occur from a man carrying a revolver when he did not know what to do with it. Do you understand anything about revolvers? ‘

‘N-no,’ I stammered, ‘of course not.’

‘Do you think of carrying one?’

‘Of course not. I don’t want to kill myself.’

‘Then you are safe. But remember you will be moving among men who go heeled, and you will hear a good deal of talk about the thing and a great many tall stories. You may listen to the yarns, but you must not conform to the custom however much you may feel tempted. You invite your own death if you lay your hand on a weapon you don’t understand. No man flourishes a revolver in a bad place. It is produced for one specified purpose and produced before you can wink.’

‘But surely if you draw first you have an advantage over the other man,’ said I valorously.

‘You think so? Let me show you. I have no use for any weapon, but I believe I have one about me somewhere. An ounce of demonstration is worth a ton of theory. Your pipe-case is on the table. My hands are on the table too. Use that pipe-case as a revolver and as quickly as you can.’

I used it in the approved style of the penny dreadful—pointed it with a stiff arm at my friend’s head. Before I knew how it came about the pipe-case had quitted my hand, which was caught close to the funny-bone and tingled horribly. I heard four persuasive clicks under the table almost before I knew that my arm was useless. The gentleman from California had jerked out his pistol from its pocket and drawn the trigger four times, his hand resting on his hip while I was lifting my right arm.

‘Now, do you believe? ‘he said. ‘Only an Englishman or an Eastern man fires from the shoulder in that melodramatic manner. I had you safe before your arm went out, merely because I happened to know the trick; and there are men out yonder who in a trouble could hold me as safe as I held you. They don’t reach round for their revolver, as novelists say. It’s here in front, close to the second right brace-button, and it is fired, without aim, at the other man’s stomach. You will understand now why in the event of a dispute you should show very clearly that you are unarmed. You needn’t hold up your hands ostentatiously; keep them out of your pockets, or somewhere where your friend can see them. No man will touch you then. Or if he does, he is pretty sure to be shot by the general sense of the room.’

‘That must be a singular consolation to the corpse,’ I said.

‘I see I’ve misled you. Don’t fancy that any part in America is as free and easy as my lecture shows. Only in a few really tough towns do you require not to own a revolver. Elsewhere you are all right. Most Americans of my acquaintance have got into the habit of carrying something; but it’s only a habit. They’d never dream of using it unless they are hard pressed. It’s the man who draws to enforce a proposition about canning peaches, orange-culture, or town lots or water-rights that’s a nuisance.’

‘Thank you,’ I said faintly. ‘I purpose to investigate these things later on. I’m much obliged to you for your advice.’

When he had departed it struck me that, in the language of the East, ‘he might have been pulling my leg.’ But there remained no doubt whatever as to his skill with the weapon he excused so tenderly.

I put the case before the Professor. ‘We will go to America before you forejudge it altogether,’ said he. ‘To America in an American ship will we go, and say good-bye to Japan.’ That night we counted the gain of our sojourn in the Land of Little Children more closely than many men count their silver. Nagasaki with the grey temples, green hills, and all the wonder of a first-seen shore; the Inland Sea, a thirty-hour panorama of passing islets drawn in grey and buff and silver for our delight; Kobé, where we fed well and went to a theatre; Osaka of the canals and the peach blossom; Kioto—happy, lazy, sumptuous Kioto, and the blue rapids and innocent delights of Arashima; Otzu on the shoreless, rainy lake; Myanoshita in the hills; Kamakura by the tumbling Pacific, where the great god Buddha sits and equably hears the centuries and the seas murmur in his ears; Nikko, fairest of all places under the sun; Tokio, the two-thirds civilised and altogether progressive warren of humanity; and composite Franco-American Yokohama; we renewed them all, sorting out and putting aside our special treasures of memory. If we stayed longer, we might be disillusioned, and yet—surely, that would be impossible.

‘What sort of mental impression do you carry away?’ said the Professor.

‘A tea-girl in fawn-coloured crepe under a cherry tree all blossom. Behind her, green pines, two babies, and a hogbacked bridge spanning a bottle-green river running over blue boulders. In the foreground a little policeman in badly-fitting Europe clothes drinking tea from blue and white china on a black lacquered stand. Fleecy white clouds above and a cold wind up the street,’ I said, summarising hastily.

‘Mine is a little different. A Japanese boy in a flat-headed German cap and baggy Eton jacket; a King taken out of a toyshop, a railway taken out of a toyshop, hundreds of little Noah’s Ark trees and fields made of green-painted wood. The whole neatly packed in a camphor-wood box with an explanatory book called the Constitution—price twenty cents.’

‘You looked on the darker side of things. But what’s the good of writing impressions? Every man has to get his own at first hand. Suppose I give an itinerary of what we saw?’

‘You couldn’t do it,’ said the Professor blandly. ‘Besides, by the time the next Anglo-Indian comes this way there will be a hundred more miles of railway and all the local arrangements will have changed. Write that a man should come to Japan without any plans. The guide-books will tell him a little, and the men he meets will tell him ten times more. Let him get first a good guide at Kobé, and the rest will come easily enough. An itinerary is only a fresh manifestation of that unbridled egoism which——’

‘I shall write that a man can do himself well from Calcutta to Yokohama, stopping at Rangoon, Moulmein, Penang, Singapur, Hong-Kong, Canton, and taking a month in Japan, for about sixty pounds—rather less than more. But if he begins to buy curios, that man is lost. Five hundred rupees cover his month in Japan and allow him every luxury. Above all, he should bring with him thousands of cheroots—enough to serve him till he reaches ’Frisco. Singapur is the last place on the line where you can buy Burmas. Beyond that point wicked men sell Manila cigars with fancy names for ten, and Havanas for thirty-five, cents. No one inspects your boxes till you reach ’Frisco. Bring, therefore, at least one thousand cheroots.’

‘Do you know, it seems to me you have a very queer sense of proportion?’

And that was the last word the Professor spoke on Japanese soil.