Sunday, February 20, 2011

'The Japanese Empire' (Part Three)

This is third 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 princes, commonly called rono-sama, differ in their rank and power, and have little authority out of their own principalities. Those of Kaga and Satsuma are now among the most powerful, but all of these were so reduced in 1600 by Taiko-sama, that they have never since attempted to throw off the control of the siogoun, nor is mention made of any internal broils resulting in actual hostilities. They were then obliged to conform to an order to spend half the year at Yeddo, and the periods were so arranged that adjacent principalities seldom enjoy the presence of their own rulers at the same time. The same system of surveillance is in force in all these petty palatinates, (as they might be called,) and the siogoun has also his own spies, who in some of them are exposed to risk in exercising their functions. In Satsuma it is said to be not very safe to be an imperial spy.

There are eight hereditary classes recognized in Japanese society, three of them can wear swords, viz., daimio and sai-uno, who are the princes; the hi-min or the noblemen; and the samurai or military men. Those who are called princes, in the treaties, are merely kani, or titular noblemen, raised to that honor by the siogoun or entitled to it by birth, and having no territory. Judging by the characters used for their titles, the term marquts, i.e., a guardian of the marches, is much nearer to the rank than prince, which last appellation corresponds better to the meaning of sama.

The priests, gentry, merchants, artisans, and serfs constitute the remaining classes, except tanners, who are regarded as outcasts and obliged to live on the outskirts of towns. The principle on hereditary descent runs through Japanese society more completely perhaps than any other country; though not to the extent, probably, which has been stated, viz., that no man can ever follow any other occupation than that of his ancestors.

The dress of the Japanese of both sexes is very simple, consisting chiefly of long robes like nightgowns, worn one over the other. In summer the laboring men go as nearly naked as decency permits, and the women generally uncovered down to the waist. The material of apparel is usually cotton, the rich wear crape and other silk, some of them of very fine texture. The men shave the top of their heads almost daily, tying the hair on the crown into a queue, an inch or two long. The socks of both sexes have a separate place for the great toe, in order to allow it to close upon the clasp which retiss the straw sandal on the feet. Leggings are worn, but no trowsers. Large girdles confine the gowns, -and a capacious bosom is thus made, in which the wearer carries a variety of articles. In other cases, the mouth of the wide sleeves are sewed half way, so as to form a pocket, in which light things are placed, and a reservoir for the nose-papers which are used instead of handkerchiefs.

The common dress of females is confined by a broad girdle on the outside, which is tied behind in an immense knot. Their hair is bound up in a tuft on the back of the head, somewhat like that of Chinese women; in front its jet black color is relieved by by gay hairpins of silver or glass, by a flower, or by a bow of crimson or blue crape. A dozen or more of these hairpins are sometimes stuck in sideways, giving the head a strange bristling aspect. On the birth of a child a married woman shaves her eyebrows and blackens her teeth, -a custom, though not so painful and discomposing as the Chinese fashion of crippling the feet, is more repulsive to a stranger and disfigures their faces in a way that must be seen to appreciated.

Their marriage ceremonies resemble those of China in many particulars, such as the employment of a go-between to arrange the match, the worship of ancestral tablets, &c. The sexes are not separated to the degree known in China; but I do not think that the relative position or influence of females is higher than it is among the Chinese. Polygamy is legal in both countries, and its consequences are the same. Instruction in embroidery, and other kinds of needlework, skill in playing on the shamisen or guitar, and singing, with book learning enough to enable them to write a letter or cast up an account seem to be their principle accomplishments. The most educated women of the common people are said to be courtesans, who are however, often honorably married.

At the marriage ceremony a singular contrast to our own ideas as to the meaning of the same dress is noticeable; the bride is nearly concealed in a white robe, which is among these islanders emblematical of her shroud, meaning that she henceforth is dead to her own ancestors and has become incorporated with the family of her husband.

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