Sōseki on history

Natsume Sōseki on history, from his review of James Murdoch's History of Japan.

[...] Born as I was at the same time as the revolution that was the Restoration, the history of the Meiji period is, to me, my own history too. And just as my own history has unfolded naturally and spontaneously without any great trials, I cannot but think of the history of the Meiji period as forty years that proceeded properly and logically to the present day. One may object on the grounds that the treatment I receive and the critical reception of my work is atypical in some ways, but I have not the slightest inclination to wonder at the route, cause, or changes, for better or worse, that led to my becoming the person I have. I was born like so, I grew up like so, I was influenced by social changes like so, I became this person like so: I am aware only of this, and since nothing about this awareness is surprising, there is nothing to rouse my curiosity, or, therefore, my academic interest.

I am constrained by the logical conclusion of these facts, and in the same way I feel that a sense of what you might call obviousness permeates the history of the Meiji period in which I live. The navy has progressed, the army has grown mighty, industry has developed, learning has flourished: of these things I am aware, but along with my acceptance of this comes the sense that this was how things are meant to be, and I have never once thought to wonder how or why this might be so. In the end, we all live within a sort of current, and while we may be aware of being swept along, our muscles and nervous systems and brains all feel that is natural and accept it as such, and so there is simply no part of us left to find it queer or unusual.

Think of an insect that hides under leaves turning green to defeat a bird's gaze. The insect itself does not care whether it turns green or red. It accepts unquestioningly that changing color in the way it does is what should happen. The change of color is mysterious not to the insect but rather to the entomologist that studies it. Mr Murdoch's attitude towards us, the Japanese, is the same sort of amazement as that felt by entomologist towards an insect that suddenly changes color. He wonders at a people that, before the Restoration, had not progressed culturally beyond the level of Europe in the fourteenth century, yet in just fifty years have developed to a level comparable with that of the twentieth-century West. He thrills to the fact that we Japanese who were helpless before Perry and his mere five ships now have a navy that enjoys the greatest success in naval warfare since Trafalgar.

It seems that Mr Murdoch began from this sense of amazement, proceeded to curiosity, settled next into academic interest, and finally arrived at the publication of this weighty work. This is why in all of Japanese history the points that stimulated his interest most were how the Japanese first made contact with the West, and how the effects of this contact worked during the period before the arrival of the black ships to bring about the dramatic changes that occurred afterwards. [...]

Some of his analyses would never occur to a Japanese person. The theory that Westerners are surprised by Japanese culture because they [...] believed that anything non-homologous with Christian culture was not a civilization is one such example. Everyone knows that Western civilization is tightly linked with Christianity, but the idea that nothing except Christian culture could be called a civilization would never occur to an ordinary Japanese person. But one cannot but acknowledge this fact upon seeing it presented by Mr Murdoch as the opinion of the average Westerner. In this sense, this work not only has extreme merit as an introduction of Japan to foreign countries, but is also offers a great many insights into how foreigners with an academic interest in Japan perceive us. [...]

History is not born until we turn to look back at the past. How sad that today we find ourselves swept from instant to instant, unable to stop even for a moment to glance back at and ponder the path we have taken to get to where we are. For the sake of the future, our past is trampled as though it never existed. Like rootless upstarts, we are pushed along, forward, ever forward. When two peoples of widely disparate wealth, intelligence, strength, and morality first find themselves nose to nose, the weaker one abandons their past quite rapidly, driven by the fear that, regardless of their past, if they do not rise to the level of their rival they may lose their present. [...]

Popularity factor: 12


Small copyedit: "the opinion of the average Western" > "Westerner"?
Very interesting piece, though.


The point singled out by Soseki about the equivocation of civilization with Christendom is very good. Westerners were extremely confused by the appearance of a non-Christian "Great Power" and much of what was written about Japan from Meiji to the Pacific War had the undercurrent of determining how a race could become "civilized" without Christianity. This sparked the American academic theory of "State Shinto" which saw its height during the Occupation and was recently debunked by Hitoshi Nitta in 「現人神」「国家神道」という幻想. (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on this subject, but I'll spare you the details, as Nitta's work is probably more interesting.)


Natsume really did have a way with words. Excellent translation, too.


Civilized without Christianity is the "State Shinto" rhetoric? The earliest works I read in religious studies were "Shinto's fine, animism, cool, but this State Shinto, man! It's how it all went wrong!" (Dated to during the war, so in the same vein as That Famous Propaganda Film.)

But I'll admit that the earliest scholarship I was assigned was very concerned with the Reischauer question (as it were)--sometimes you can blame WW2 on Japan being too Confucian. Sometimes you can blame it on them not being Confucian enough!


Well, exactly. If "State Shinto" was a good thing then there'd be nothing wrong with Japanese culture and Americans wouldn't need to oppose it. Xenophobic writers today will sometimes say similar things about Japanese "collectivism".

If you read the books by D.C. Holtom, the primary religious scholar/missionary, it's something like "Japan is running their country on a primitive faith from Roman times, which drives them towards idolatrous Emperor-worship." Confucianism, which is the closest thing to a real explanation for the imperial cult, is scarcely mentioned. His imagined solution was that the entire country would join Tenrikyo (most people don't even know what that is today) and a beautiful American individualism would blossom. A lovely fantasy, fit for sci-fi maybe, but the consistent negative attitude towards 新宗教 from 1830 to today shows how very wrong it was. Anyway the Occupation thought he was a genius, so Yasukuni was privatized, then taken over by a military families association, war criminals enshrined, you know the rest.


Thanks for the tip, anonymous, I fixed it.

Avery, can you summarize Nitta's thesis for those of us who (cough cough) haven't got around to reading his work? The use of 幻想 looks like an intentionally provocative way to deny that "state Shinto" even existed.


Well, the ways in which it didn't exist are much more important than the ways in which it did exist. To attempt to reconnect this tangent to the blog, Soseki is expressing confusion over why civilization is being connected to religion at all. Japan considered the Shrine Shinto system part of a secular society; the concept of "religion" legally played no part. Even today, if you ask a Japanese person roughly half will tell you that shrines are not "religious" at all. Now, this secularity was partially a Meiji invention (what isn't?) but the distinction was made on purpose and carried out thoughtfully: shrine attendants were prevented from conducting funerals, because this was a private religious activity for Buddhists and Christians, while 教派神道 [Religious Shinto] churches were prevented from using torii, as this was a public symbol. The missionaries even came to acknowledge part of Japanese customs around 1900 when there was a brief scandal over "Caesar-worship" of the Imperial portrait, which was resolved by an analogy to the American flag.

Nitta's book is certainly provocative, because he is an outspoken conservative, but considering the indisputable fact that Japanese society was legally /re-secularized/ in the wake of the Occupation, I don't think we can take his argument lightly. Neither country's "secular" was the One True Version, but they simply reflected in law the local conceptions of normal, civil behavior.

Now I've explained a complicated point which is almost irrelevant to modern Japan. I didn't mean to make a federal case out of it, I just continue to see echoes of this unresolved problem everywhere. Well, I guess the point I'm really trying to make here is that /Tonari no Totoro/ should not be misread as endorsing a religion.


It's all cool -- if people wanted to read stuff directly relevant to modern Japan, they wouldn't be in the comments section of a post about Soseki on an outdated English history of the place.

So is Nitta's argument just that State Shinto wasn't a religion per se, and even though there was a new power apparatus taking advantage of existing supernatural beliefs to encourage people to live and die as instructed for transcendental ideals, it wasn't any crazier or more fanatical than nationalisms elsewhere at the time (or even now)?


P.S. The reason this review caught my attention, which I really should have put in the post, was the insect analogy. We see exactly the same phenomenon now about China. You very rarely find a Chinese commentator saying "Wow, this is totally crazy, how did we get this lucky?" The general consensus is that this is what China deserves for being moral and working hard for so long. On the other hand, from the English-speaking point of view, there's all kinds of books examining -- or seeking to debunk -- this bizarre trick that the country has pulled off, i.e. becoming prosperous without being a free-market democracy (the religion-synonymous-with-civilization of our times, surely).


Well, when Arlington National Cemetery was founded in the U.S., we didn't think of it as "taking advantage of supernatural beliefs", and the wreaths and flowers left at graves there today are not taken as evidence of persistent ancestor worship or idolatry.

Granted, there were a lot of strange things going on in the Japanese colonies that require more investigation (e.g., for some reason which doesn't come intuitively to my mind, they subsidized Christian missionaries in Micronesia), but the best way to think about it IMHO is that the only "faith" being employed in Japan proper was common custom and invented tradition. According to Nitta, there was a real issue with occultists misrepresenting these customs.


"Religion" is sort of a bad category, I do have to note. For one, no definition really fits with all of the commonly recognized "religions" (although the question "Is Buddhism a religion? Why or why not?" makes for great classroom discussion). Grapard, talking about the pre-modern stuff, has argued for doing away with the term "religion" all together and just using "Japanese tradition"--this, because it's hard to separate out things religious from secular easily.

Hardacre has some nice comments about some State Shinto-trained up priests who come to profess about the miraculous power of the deities of their shrine, although officially you were not supposed to use talismans as if they had real magical power.

But belief, supernatural, occult... these are all hard terms (Lopez, a Buddhologist, says, I think "Belief is what you ascribe to other people"). I guess I'm saying ultimately everything seems to go back to the Rites Controversy from Ming China. Or so it seems to me.


I didn't know about this fella Allan G. Grapard; thanks for mentioning him. I will have to add him to my list of favorite people, alongside Timothy Fitzgerald and Tomoko Masuzawa.

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