The Construction of a Modern Japanese Identity: A Comparison of Bushido and The Book of Tea

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1 The Construction of a Modern Japanese Identity: A Comparison of Bushido and The Book of Tea Nicolas Marro From its inception in 1868, the Meiji State was confronted with the challenge of defining its national identity. In the previous fragmented political system under the Tokugawa, identity was focused exclusively on provincial and daimyo loyalty; the concept of Japaneseness was never even introduced as a serious issue until external pressure forced it to be. In terms of international sovereignty, Western powers began demanding what constituted the political boundaries of the modern Japanese state; but in terms of internal identity, Meiji intellectuals were consequently tasked with developing a medium of cultural expression that would answer the question, What is Japaneseness? Okakura Kakuzo s The Book of Tea and Nitobe Inazo s Bushido: The Soul of Japan, two Japanese classics celebrated for their depictions of cultural expression and pursuit of the construction of a national identity under the Meiji regime, sought to answer this question. However, each text examines Japaneseness in a starkly different context Bushido s interpretation of Japaneseness focuses on the rigid, hierarchal aspects of the samurai warrior code that brought order to an otherwise chaotic society, while The Book of Tea examines this identity within an orientalist framework, highlighting the aesthetics of Japanese society as manifested in the nuances of the tea ceremony. But what fundamentally unites the texts, in addition to the fact that both texts were written in English and with a Western audience in mind, is that both authors have systematically chosen to ignore certain aspects of Japanese history in their quest to define a national narrative. This paper seeks to explore what these omissions were and why they transpired in the course of defining the Meiji identity, as well as how NICOLAS MARRO is a senior at the University of Virginia majoring in Foreign Affairs and Chinese Language and Literature. He would like to thank Professor Robert Stolz for his assistance with this work.

2 58 The Monitor - Winter 2011 we can learn from the choices these authors made in constructing a response to what is Japaneseness? I also explore how (if at all) we can reconcile their texts with concrete Japanese history. Nitobe s Bushido proposes a definition of Japaneseness by examining the martial spirit embodied in the Samurai tradition. By comparing bushido, which he breaks down as Military Knight Ways, (N. 4) to the chivalry of Western knights, Nitobe allows the Japanese identity to be accessible and, most importantly, equal to familiar Western concepts. Writing in English and for a Western audience, Nitobe needed to construct concepts that were not simply familiar enough for English speaking readers to compare their own values to, but were also held in high esteem. To do this, Nitobe chronicles bushido s development starting in the Twelfth century under the Yoritomo ascension, which coincided with the Norman Conquest of England (N. 6). Choosing this date to begin his exposé is relevant in several ways, but it particularly provides the Western reader with a point familiar in his own history; the Norman Conquest is, after all, considered the starting point of English political feudalism and court culture. Nitobe proposes that bushido, despite not taking root until the Twelfth century, was found in the framework of Confucian relationships (N. 16). As we will also see with Okakura, Nitobe relates bushido back to ancient Chinese ideology, trying to legitimize it through its links to classical thought while simultaneously implying its cultivation as a unique part of Japanese identity. Nitobe can thereby account for the time before the Kamakura Shogunate, implying that bushido existed informally before samurai status was formalized. He thus is able to characterize bushido as a pre-existing unity that transcends temporal boundaries and has always held a sense of importance throughout Japanese history. In fact, the question and idea of unity is a main theme for Nitobe, centered heavily around the concepts of loyalty and Confucian piety (N. 88). He draws a stark comparison of the West s individualism against the group and family-oriented bonds of the East, arguing that within bushido thought, life [is] regarded as the means whereby to serve [one s] master (N. 98). It is from these notions of loyalty that all Japanese regardless of social status were unified in loyal service to the state, the ultimate master. In Nitobe s eyes, bushido thus became the channel through which

3 A Comparison of Bushido and The Book of Tea 59 the individual related to Japan, in essence thereby creating and subjugating the individual to the collective culture. It is this unifying force that gives Japan its distinct culture of supreme loyalty, a characteristic that stemmed directly from the practices inherent in bushido. Indeed, Nitobe argues that no social class or caste can resist the diffusive power of moral influence, (N. 166) or the moral guidelines set forth by the bushido code. The Japanese people thus had a medium in which to relate and unify with each other, an idea that directly appealed to Western readers already sensitive to the contemporary societal and class issues brought by industrialization. The samurai then set a moral standard [for the populace] and guided them by their example, (N. 167) growing to become the beau ideal of the whole race (N. 168); among the stories of warriors passed down from generation to generation, there was no channel of human activity, no avenue of thought, which did not receive in some measure an impetus from bushido (N. 169). Nitobe argues that the development of otokodaté, or the leaders of democracy, is an example of how pervasive the bushido spirit was, and continues to be, in Japanese society; it filtered down from the social class where it originated [the samurai] and acted as a leaven among the masses, furnishing a moral standard for the whole people [it] became in time an aspiration and inspiration to the nation at large (N ). Nitobe s main argument is therefore dependent on the assumption that bushido ideals trickled down from the samurai into the lives and practices of the farmers, artisans, and merchants beneath them. Rather than denying the existence of a class hierarchy, he seeks to reconcile it with an image favorable to Western perceptions namely, de jure segregation coupled with de facto integration through shared ideals, values, and moral guidelines. Japaneseness is therefore defined through the promulgation of the samurai spirit among the Japanese people, a spirit that had been in development before the Kamakura Shogunate and had its roots in classical Chinese thought. By comparing the ideals of the samurai to those of the knights and heroes of medieval Europe, Nitobe seeks to familiarize the West with Japan through mutually important ideas, and almost a shared commonality of the standards and concepts morality, loyalty, and honor.

4 60 The Monitor - Winter 2011 Like Nitobe, Okakura seeks to answer the question, What is Japaneseness? but his answer contrasts with Nitobe s focus on the warrior spirit. Okakura s The Book of Tea approaches the question of Japanese identity through an orientalist vein, highlighting the virtues of aestheticism rather than shared military practices. Okakura uses tea and the notion of Teaism not only to chronicle the development of Japanese cultural forms, but goes further to examine the refinement of traditional Chinese culture that developed within Japanese borders as well. This culture was manifested in the Japanese tea ceremony and the almost supernatural reverence that the Japanese seem to give to it. This aesthetic view of Japaneseness differs from bushido in the way it binds Japan to the West; while Nitobe constructed an identity based on traditional Japanese warrior spirit, chivalry, and other martial values, Okakura elevates Japanese culture to a pedestal that actually supersedes Western and other Asian cultures. Okakura begins his thesis by using this idea of Teaism to address shifting Western attitudes towards the Japanese in Commenting on the military aspects of Japanese culture that had been recently examined in Nitobe s text (O. 20), he notes that scarcely any attention has been drawn to Teaism, which represents so much of our Art of Life. (O. 20) Teaism, he argues, is itself a religion of aestheticism a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence it represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting our very literature all have been subject to its influence (O. 18). He portrays Teaism as ennobled (O. 18) into such a highly esteemed cultural form in Japan by the fifteenth century, even though it was originally imported from China. In his introduction, Okakura contrasts this aestheticism by asking when will the West understand, or try to understand, the East? (O. 20). He also comments that the Western attitude is unfavorable to understanding of the East [ ] European imperialism, which does not disdain to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realize that Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster. (O )

5 A Comparison of Bushido and The Book of Tea 61 It is important to note that his mention of a Yellow Peril highlights a point relevant in the contemporary discussions of the time: in the course of the Russo-Japanese war, Japanese military prowess proved itself not only equal but potentially superior to that of the West, sparking serious debate among Western powers over the potential threats of Japan s power. In a sense then, Okakura s The Book of Tea is not simply a literary response to Nitobe s Bushido, but also an attempt to quell continuing fears over Japan s place in the international order. He proposes that Japanese culture transcends Bushido s focus on a permeating sense of martial spirit and self-sacrifice; instead, Teaism embodies Japan s strive towards the harmony between man and nature (O. 39). While Okakura uses Teaism as a starting point to subject Western cultural forms to Eastern expressions for instance, he notes the wanton waste of flowers among Western communities and contrasts them with the practice of ikebana and its fundamental basis in Teaism (O. 84) he simultaneously makes a distinction between Japaneseness and Asianness. In many ways, Okakura seeks to use Teaism as the model for a perfect expression of traditionally Asian culture. In contrast to the Hegelian view of Oriental Despotism and a state without a history, Okakura redefines Asia as one historical entity, its states linked by Teaism with Japan at the forefront. He manages this through his chronicle of tea seemingly a stand-in for general Japanese culture and its spread and development throughout Asia. He voices this concept in his argument that the Japanese tea ceremony [is] the culmination of tea-ideals. [Japan s] successful resistance of the Mongol invasion in 1281 allowed [them] to carry on the Sung movement Tea with us became more than an idealization of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life a subtle philosophy lay behind it all. Teaism was Taosim in disguise (O ). Furthermore, this latter link between Taoism and Teaism was constructed and reinforced through Japanese Zen Buddhism, the medium through which Okakura argues made the aesthetic ideals of Taoism practical (O. 52). Finally, in a spirit echoing the message of unity espoused by Bushido, Okakura argues that Teaism offers unification to the Japanese, tying into the idea of Eastern Democracy and linking Teaism with the overall theme of a superior society unburdened by problems of class

6 62 The Monitor - Winter 2011 conflict and social inequality (so commonplace throughout the West). As Okakura says, In the seventeenth century, after the strict formalism of the Tokugawa rule had been developed before a great work of art there was no distinction between daimyo, samurai, and commoner (O. 68). On the surface, this depiction of a culturally unified, aesthetically emphasized Teaist way of life among the Japanese would appear to be a convincing argument for how construction of Japanese identity was constructed. Like Nitobe s work, Okakura s beautiful chronicle of this aestheticism s transformation into a religion, and then into a way of life, parallels Nitobe s own description of bushido s blanket of cultural expression. And yet, just as Bushido did before it, The Book of Tea accomplishes this by accepting only what it sees as valid hallmarks of Japanese culture. How, then, was validity judged by these two texts? In order to fully understand this problem, we must detach ourselves from the narratives constructed by both authors, and examine the situation from a historical perspective. Perhaps most crucially in dealing with both texts, we must first remember that Japan did not exist as an actual entity until at least 1868, and struggles over what it meant to be Japanese continued until at least the early 20 th century; the dates of publication for both texts stand testament to that. Both books, claiming to represent the true Japanese identity, are based on a perceived cultural unity that supposedly existed for centuries, and which lead to what constitutes Japaneseness. But can we truly define Japaneseness before the founding of the actual Japanese state? Under the Tokugawa, a period on which both of these books place such heavy emphasis, there was a relatively strong central government which commanded the allegiance of the various daimyo and han; yet Bushido acknowledges the strong sense of loyalty to one s own daimyo and one s own family even at a time of a strong central Government. How does this translate to unified loyalty to the state? In essence, Bushido s own admission of loyalty toward one s lord, analyzed from a historical perspective, suggests political fragmentation rather than any overarching obedience to the state a problem especially pertinent because the Japanese state itself did not yet exist. Bushido and The Book of Tea both rely on describing the past while simultaneously twisting portions of it to fit their respective premises. The nation and its history are thus falsely linked through

7 A Comparison of Bushido and The Book of Tea 63 constructed narratives that serve only to bolster and reinforce the illusion of its identity. Neither Okakura Kakuzo nor Nitobe Inazo ever begin to subject the past to thorough analysis, but rather make it conform to their arguments, most notably when explaining the origins of their theses. Bushido is explained as having Confucian roots, while Teaism is seen as a refined and superior version of Taoism; in both cases, traditional Chinese culture is acknowledged but minimized in relation to Japanese culture. Both contend that while the Chinese were subject to interruptions of imperial rule by barbarian invasions and internal strife, Japan was able to preserve and refine the pure, original ideas of Bushido and Teaism which the ancient Chinese sages had practiced and spread. However, this actually creates a false origin that, once properly analyzed, threatens to undo the entire ideological framework (whether Bushido or Teaism), and moreover sets the stage for a claimed cultural superiority on broader terms. Much of the justification for imperialism rested on the concept of extending civilization to savages that lack it; the perceived inferiority of one s neighbors makes it much easier to promote imperialistic practices, ironic given the colonial fever gripping other world powers at both of these books dates of publication. Finally, both texts rely on the concept of pre-existing [Japanese] unity and similarly both support the idea of a Confucian, classical Chinese source. However, in doing so both authors selectively draw very limited examples from history that serve to mask the reality of life in the pre-modern Era; perhaps the most egregious of crimes and omissions that both authors commit in their constructs is the ignorange of the extremely rigid shi-no-ko-sho Japanese class system. Bushido attempts to reconcile this incontestable social stratification with the idea that the samurai code has trickled down from the top tier of society into the moral structure of those on the bottom, separating the hierarchy down to the individual level and erasing all other mediums that would otherwise block social cohesiveness. The Book of Tea engages in this idea of trickle-down socialization even more explicitly by linking the aesthetics of Teaism to anyone worthy enough to understand and appreciate it; indeed, as mentioned, before a great work of art there was no distinction between daimyo, samurai, and commoner

8 64 The Monitor - Winter 2011 (O. 68). However, historical evidence suggests one cannot accurately and convincingly argue that these class distinctions were truly bridged by a common set of moral values and aestheticism. If Japan had no class distinctions as claimed, why did activists such as Ueki Emori feel the need to champion popular rights? What spawned the Jiyu Minken movement and its populist ideals? What sparked the Ikki movements during the Sengoku Jidai and Tokugawa periods, and what led to the Jiken in the Meiji era? And if every Japanese person was already equal in name and in practice, why was there a need for a Constitution guaranteeing the rights of the citizen? Both Okakura Kakuzo and Nitobe Inazo, despite the lasting impression of their works and the real earnestness of their approach to the subject matter, engaged in the process of creating a fictive ethnicity. In their attempt to answer the question, What is Japaneseness? they ultimately proved the fluidity and subjectivity of the term. Bushido and The Book of Tea not only stand in stark contrast in terms of the ideas they were formed around martial spirit vs. harmony with nature, chivalry vs. aestheticism they also demonstrate the competing ideologies of their time in the struggle to define what it meant to be Japanese. The external borders of the nation that is, where the limits of Japanese sovereignty stopped and the borders of Chinese or Russian sovereignty began proved a challenge to the Tokugawa, leaving the problem unanswered until the capitulation of the Shogunate and the formation of the Imperial Meiji state. But while these questions eventually were answered, the problems of defining inner sovereignty that is, how to define Japanese culture in the wake of so many competing ideas and ideologies, and even taking into consideration groups that had not been previously seen as existing in the realm (tenka) such as the Ryukyuans or the Ainu continued to be hotly contested throughout the Meiji Era. Authors like Okakura and Nitobe did not construct these narratives out of any malicious desire to rewrite history or ignore unfavorable aspects of the past, but that does not alter the need to recognize that, despite their admirable endeavors, questions of identity cannot be fully answered without a proper orientation of the true historical patterns that define it.

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