How little they knew of the world! How acutely they felt their lack of knowledge and yearned to know more!
It was impossible. The pursuit of knowledge – unless Confucius taught it, or his official Japanese interpreters said so – was criminal. It involved criticism of the government – a crime punishable by death.
This is the strange state of things in early and mid-19th century Japan. Fearing Christian imperialism, the nation two centuries earlier had locked itself away. The “closed country” is the dominant theme of the Edo period (1603-1868). No foreigners inside, no Japanese outside, on pain of death.
It spawned a vibrant culture – pop culture. Merchants grew rich; the samurai lord sank into poverty. For the first time in its life, Japan was having fun. Kabuki plays, cheap novels, exuberant street entertainment, licensed pleasure quarters that elevated commercial sex to an art – these are the joyous rewards of peace, wealth and the safety of isolation. . Who cared that the ruling Tokugawa shogunate was a dictatorship that tolerated no dissent and even punished suspicion of it with death? Very little – at first.
For 200 years, no one bothered Japan. The only Europeans in the country were a handful of Dutch traders confined to a small, claustrophobic island off the coast of Nagasaki. The outside world has disappeared from consciousness. Out of sight, out of mind.
It was there, however, and busy. Britain colonized India and brought China to its knees. Coal and iron forged an industrial revolution. American whalers have entered Asian waters. Russia has expanded eastward. Japan barely noticed – at first.
The year 1808 was something of a turning point. How many Japanese would have heard of Napoleon and the world war he started? At its height, in 1808, the British frigate HMS Phaeton sailed into Nagasaki harbor. Holland having been annexed by Napoleonic France, Dutch shipping was fair game. This is what the Phaeton was looking for. In Nagasaki he showed his weapons and demanded food, water and fuel. The initial response from the highest local Japanese official was to order the intruder shot. It was hardly realistic. Japanese weapons were old. Samurai and vaunted swords Yamato-damashii (the Japanese spirit) were no match for modern technological military might. The Phaeton, its request for supplies satisfied, sets off again, leaving Japan to its thoughts.
They take time to crystallize, to the great despair of a handful of men, no more than a hundred, who devote themselves, more or less secretly, to rangaku (Dutch Studies), so called because the Dutch of Nagasaki, and the Dutch language that some of the rangaku scholars managed to learn, was Japan’s only access to Western science, which they believed alone could save Japan from the fate of India and China. .
Their very existence was subversive. National defense was an official, unscholarly affair. Let scholars study Confucius – or risk imprisonment or death.
It is a setting worthy of an absurd theatre. Watanabe Kazan – samurai, Confucianist, artist, rangaku scholar – deserved fate better than being born there.
He’s a tragic hero – a tragic hero in an absurd drama. He was born in 1793 in Edo (now Tokyo), where most of his life was spent, but the area to which he belonged, Tahara (in present-day Aichi Prefecture), was poor, and he also, despite his high rank as a samurai. From early childhood, he was the sole support of many brothers and sisters and of the mother whom he revered – as required by Confucian filial piety. Very early on, he discovered a talent for drawing and became a hack artist, painting on demand for a few pennies. He kept starvation at bay.
Did he sense the genius in himself? It was there, germinating – slowly. As a scholar too, he was gifted, steeped in the Confucian teachings that were central to samurai education. He remained a staunch Confucianist all his life.
But other currents circulated within him. What first attracted him to rangaku? Possibly Western art – he became the first Japanese to paint Western-style portraits, using light and shadow, depicting individuals, not types. Perhaps western medicine. A stomach ache led him to consult a Japanese doctor who pioneered Western medicine, with results that belied the Confucianist rejection of foreigners as “barbarians”.
Or maybe it was just something in the air, an all-pervading, contagious restlessness. Ten years before Kazan was born in 1783, a rangaku scholar named Otsuki Gentaki had written, “Hidden Confucians… have no idea of the vastness of the world. Forty years later, Kazan himself wrote of Confucian scholars: “They have superficial aspirations and choose the small, not the great. … Since this is so, I wonder how long we will continue to wait, arms crossed, for the arrival of the invader?
He was appalled at his own audacity. It was going too far. Confucius and “the vastness of the world” were arguing within him. Confucius won. He did not publish. It didn’t matter. There were spies everywhere. The word is out. He was stopped. It was 1837. He had four years left to live.
Kazan portraiture is magnificent. (It can be sampled in Donald Keene’s 2006 biography, “Frog in the Well: Portraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793-1841.”) Never before in Japanese art had subjects been so sharply individualized. The Confucian scholar, eyes turned inward, seems lost in Confucian thought. The different samurai are human first, then samurai. One is over seven feet tall; his expression suggests someone searching in vain for a place to hide. Another is sick, posing stiff and weak as against death itself. A third – wonder of wonders – smiles: “not smiling quietly like Mona Lisa, but showing teeth in a smile”, comments Keene, himself surprised by this unexpected levity in defiance of the sinister conventions of samurai conduct.
In 1821, 28-year-old Kazan accompanied his domain lord on a journey that included a stopover in Kamakura, from where the party crossed to the small island of Enoshima. Kazan gazed at the sea. “Wonderful! How wonderful!” he exclaimed. “From here to the southeast is what Westerners call the Pacific Ocean and the American States!” They must be very close!
They were closer than he thought, though he wouldn’t live long enough to see their incursion and the end of the Japan he knew, loved and against which, almost against his will, he had rebelled.
This is the first of three parts on the Yamato-damashii. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History”.
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