Sunday, February 20, 2011

'The Japanese Empire' (Part Four Conclusion)

This is fourth and final part of the published excerpts of a lecture by S. Wells Williams delivered in Shanghai on October 26, 1858 to the Royal Asiatic Society. These were subsequently published in Honolulu’s Pacific Commercial Advertiser under the headline ‘The Japanese Empire’ in its March 22, 1860 edition. For the sake of historical authenticity original spellings featured have been retained.

The Japanese are a social people, and contrive to have many public festivals and holidays as well as private feasts and merry-making. Every town has its annual matsuri or patron saint day, at which the whole assist. The day of the worship of the graves is a grand occasion and if the night be pleasant, a beautiful sight is exhibited at such a place as Nagasaki, in the various fire-works and illuminated boats which are sent out to float away in the water.

It is one part of the polite education to learn how to send presents properly to different grades of people. Every present should be accompanied by a strip of dried fish or sea-weed enclosed in a piece of paper and tied loosely with a red and white string. The meaning of this has been explained by some, that the giver hopes that his friend is in good health and able to eat as usual; while others, with perhaps more reason, say it refers to the humble origin of the Japanese whose ancestors were simple fishermen. To omit this accompaniment of any occasion would be highly indecorous, as an incident will illustrate. The day before leaving Hakodadi, I was conversing with Yendo, the deputy bunglo, while waiting for a shopman to bring in some pictures on silk I had engaged of him. Yendo looked at them as I turned the parcel over to see if all was right, and seeing me about to pay for them, insisted on giving them to me as his parting remembrance, their cost being a mere trifle. I agreed to all the proposition, -but before he could or would hand them to me, he sent a servant to buy the usual sea-weed to accompany them.

Rice and fish form the staple articles of food with all classes. The former grows throughout the southern parts of the country, some of it upland rice, which does not need much water. Wheat, barley, buckwheat, and millet are also largely cultivated. Broccoli, sweet-potatoes, eggplant, ripe-cabbage, and other culinary vegetables increase the list of plants used as food. Everything from the sea or river, fish, shellfish, sea-weed, muscles, &c., are all eaten; indeed, fish is to a Japanese, what roast-beef is to an Englishman, or sauerkraut to a German; he regards it is necessary to a meal, and the seas around him bring it forth abundantly.

Tea and saki are their only beverages. The finer sorts of the former are described as equaling the best descriptions of Chinese leaf, and the plant grows in most parts of the southern islands; near Sinoda and Kanagawa it is a common hedge shrub. Saki is the native name for the spirits distilled from rice, and is like arrack or samshod, its taste not being very agreeable to those who are uninitiated. The best comes from Liwchew.

The dwellings of the Japanese are chiefly constructed of wood, unpainted and without chimneys or windows. They are built so that, in case of an earthquake, the outer frame-work and the inner partitions and moveable panels will fall as one mass and not crumble in beneath the roof; for in such a case the inmates could better escape fro under the ruins than from a mass of brick. The roofs of dwellings generally project beyond the walls, increasing the darkness of the rooms; they are of brick tiling, neatly laid in mortar and guttered; the eaves are furnished with troughs to collect the rain. Sliding panels, covered with thin paper, form the substitute for windows. Poor houses are covered with with a turf or straw thatch, about a foot in thickness, which renders them dangerous in case of fires; and this is a calamity which very often occurs in Japan. While one of the Dutch embassies was in Yeddo, a fire occurred which destroyed more than half of the city, and owed its ravages, in a great measure, to the number of these thick inflammable thatches.

The floors are raised about two feet above the ground, in common houses and shops, and are covered with mats, on which the family sleep, and by day carry on the business of the shop. No chairs, tables, bedsteads, couches, or any of the numerous articles of furniture which fill up apartments in western lands are seen in them. They are warmed by braziers, placed in the middle of the room, filled with burning coal or charcoal.

When Commodore Perry gave to the Japanese Commissioners, at Yokohama, the various presents which had been intrusted to him by the American Government, he told them that among the return presents he would be happy to receive the entire furniture of a room, in order that he might fit up an apartment in the White House in good Japanese style. The assented, and when their articles in exchange were brought in, showed him a pile of a hundred fine mats as the fulfillment of his wish.

These mats are kept scrumptiously clean, all being cheap are easily renewed when worn out. The remarkable cleanliness of the Japanese is somewhat to be ascribed to their usage of sitting on the floor, for it must be kept tidy, if it is to serve successfully, for table, bed, and parlor, during every twenty-four hours, or else the house would soon become intolerable. The habit of leaving the sandals at the door and shaking the feet clean before stepping on the mats, promotes general cleanliness. The contrast between the appearance of Nagasaki and Shanghai, in this respect, must be seen to be fully understood.

In the rear of the house there is usually a courtyard, where a few plants in pots, a pond for gold fish, a tree or two, and sometimes a shrine for an idol, are all neatly arranged, pleasantly exhibiting the taste of the homeholders. Near the house, in which the headman of Yokohama lived, there was a pretty ornament of a crafted fir and pine tree, which had been dwarfed and trained to spread over the ground, for a rod or more, , a few feet above it and covering a little fish pond. Many year careful culture had been expended to bring it to that condition. A mile or two from it, was another larger tree, a pine, which had been trained to form an umbrella-like arbor on the bank of a rivulet; it was near a hamlet whose inhabitants could thus refresh themselves in the heat of the day, and evidently did so from the seats placed underneath its shade. The top of this tree was as nearly level as possible and measured over 200 square feet.

The streets in Japanese towns are wider than in Chinese. In Nagasaki, the gutters run underneath a granite pavement in the center, each side being more of a composition exceedingly hard and smooth. Other streets are made like macadamized roads, but not so hard. In Hakodadi the streets are nearly all made in this way. Many of them in both places are swept and watered almost daily. In all towns substantial wood gates divide the streets into neighborhoods from each other, and near them are the police stations. These gates, among other cases, prevent the rush or the assemblage of crowds and mobs, and thus assist the authorities in maintaining order. Near them are to be seen charms and prayers of various sorts, exhibiting the superstition of the people. It was remarked that in Simoda, the things which we did not see made a curious catalogue, as showing its contrast with American towns. There were no bricks, no window-glass, the fire-places, no pigs, no sheep, and no beggars, -the last item being the most surprising of all after seeing their numbers wherever one goes in China.

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