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JAPAN, fifty years ago, had not emerged from a social state which recalls that of the Middle Ages. The Daimyos divided up the empire into a few great hereditary fiefs. Between them and the peasants was a warrior caste, the Samurai, and a priestly caste, the Buddhist monks. Above was the Emperor, whom no one perceived, the mysterious intermediary between Heaven and men—and the Shogun, the real chief of the political and military organization, having powers of life and death. To bind the whole fabric together was the steady aim of the Japanese. Here, then, is our mediaeval society in its entirety—less sincere and better policed.
[It is this mediaeval character, retained by social and political Japan until the end of the nineteenth century, which decided me to place this entire chapter, as also all the others treating of the non-European arts, in the volume devoted to the Middle Ages, which should be looked upon as a state of mind rather than as a historical period. It is to be observed, however, that Japanese individualism tends, from the fifteenth century onward, as in the Occident, to detach itself from the religious and philosophic synthesis which characterizes the mediaeval spirit.]

When the revolution of 1868 caused the feudal system to fall like a piece of stage setting which had concealed from Western eyes the true nature of Japan, the Occident was astonished at the speed with which Japan assimilated the external form of the European civilizations. At a bound it covered the road that we had taken four hundred years to travel. The Occident could not understand. It thought the effort disproportionate to the means and destined to failure. It took for servile imitation the borrowing of a method whose practical value Japan could appreciate before she utilized it, because old habits of artistic and metaphysical abstraction had prepared the mind of the people for Western ideas. Under her new armament of machines, of ships, and of cannons, Japan retained the essentials of what had constituted and what still constitutes her strength —her faith in herself, her controlled passion, her spirit of analysis and reconstruction.

The reproach addressed to Europeanized Japan is not new. She had been accused of acquiring from China —and through China from India—her religion, her philosophy, her art, and her political institutions, whereas she had transformed everything, recast everything in the mold of a savagely original mind. If one were to go back to the sources of history, one would not find a single people, outside of primitive tribes, to which another people had not transmitted the essentials of its acquirements. It is the wonder and the consolation of our human nature. By this solidarity, which rises victorious above all the wars, all the disasters, and all the silences, everyone who bears the name of man understands the language of man. Chaldea fructified Assyria; Assyria transmitted Chaldea to Persia and, through Persia, stretched forth its hand to India and to Islam. Egypt educated Greece, Greece animated Italy and, across the Middle Ages, guided the modern Occident. The Middle Ages of Europe rejoined the Arabs, through Byzantium and the Orient. China, which had felt the contact—by way of India—of Egypt, of Assyria, and especially of Greece—China carried over all these mingling forces to Japan that the latter might make such disposition of them as the teachings of her soil and her passion should dictate.

When, at about the time of Europe's conversion to Christianity, Korea transmitted Buddhism to Japan and with it the philosophy and the art of the Chinese and the Indians, the island empire occupied the same position that Dorian Greece did in relation to Egypt and western Asia. Silent, as early Greece had been, Japan did not know, any more than Greece, that she would have found the traces of her ancient life if she had sought the formless statuettes in her tombs. Although Shintoism deified the forces of nature, it had proscribed images. This was doubtless a matter of dogma that was foreign to the soil of Japan and that came, like Buddhism, from one of those ethnic elements —Mongol, Malay, or Ainu—which contributed to the formation of the race. It is certain that Japan accepted it only half-heartedly. As soon as Buddhism had opened its sanctuaries to all the Shinto gods, and fixed their look in bronze and wood, the Japanese recognized the image of their real desires in them.

But so long as the original materials of the race cohered, its artists did not free themselves from the need of Korea, from the immemorial will of the Hindus and the Chinese. The seated gods with the lowered eyes and the open hands are like a block, round and pure and modeled by the light. The spirit that inhabits them flows from everywhere and envelops them in solitude and silence. One feels them as bound up with space, and from all points they seem to gather its vibrations into their fluid surfaces. Are they Japanese, Hindu, or Chinese? They are Buddhist. It is but very slightly that religious sculpture begins, in the eighth century, to reveal the silent germination of the true national sentiment. The development is seen in the work of Kobo Daishi, the old statue maker. In his statues of warrior gods, so radiant with energy, there is something of arrested gentleness and of arrested violence which is already purely Japanese. He will not surrender his self-control. Whatever his fervor, his anger, and the impulse of his heart, the Japanese, when he has attained his true nature, will dominate the expression of these feelings.

Even when men think they are the masters of those decisions which seem freest, it is their general and unreasoned needs which dictate those decisions. When Japan closed her ports, at the hour when the Fujiwara came into power, it was because she wanted to grasp in herself the meaning of her own effort, amid the merging currents of the military migrations and maritime exchange. This people does not barter either its power of withdrawing into itself or its power of expansion. As soon as it perceives that it is too much cut off from the world or that it has been too active, it bends all its strength to dissipate rapidly the need for repose that had succeeded action, or of the need for action which it gathered from repose. It starts out on new roads with such a frenzy that it must suddenly stop to retrace its steps and, turning its back on the horizon, take an inventory of its conquests. In the ninth and the seventeenth centuries, it forbade the foreigner to enter its harbors, once in order to assimilate Buddhism and again to study in itself the deep echoes of the Mongol invasions and the first incursions of the Occidental navigators. And it arrives at the decisive stages of its creative genius at a moment about equally distant from the time when it closed itself in and the time when it reopened.

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