The restoration of the emperor in 1868 heralded a period of stupendous change, during which Japan was transformed from an isolated assemblage of feudal fiefdoms under threat of colonization by the West, into a powerful modern nation. The Meiji Restoration commenced with a coup executed by a group of samurai and nobles, who removed the Tokugawa shogunate, which had been in control during the Edo period (aka Tokugawa period) of 1603 – 1867.
Imperial lineage extended back into a legendary epoch. Jimmu Tenno, the inaugural emperor (660 BCE), was believed to be the great-great-grandson of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu.
Imperial political power began to fade during the ninth century. When the Tokugawa regime assumed power in the seventeenth century, the role of emperor was reduced to a symbolic one. An important function of the symbolism was, however, to validate the shogun spiritually, through the emperor’s status as a living kami, or god.
After the initial coup, Japan was run by an oligarchy, with the emperor as figurehead. How much power the 16-year-old Emperor Mutsuhito actually wielded is debatable, though his was the official signature behind many transformative political and social measures.
As importantly, the traditional symbolism underlying the imperial institution empowered the Meiji Emperor as a unifying figure. Given the widespread acceptance of Confucian ideology and ancestor worship, the population was conditioned to perceive and revere him as the national paterfamilias.
Mutsuhito named his reign “Meiji,” meaning “enlightened rule.” He became known as the Meiji Emperor posthumously.
In The Good Natured Man, Jibun describes his uncle as a count of the Exalted Lineage (or kazoku) — he travels to the town of Kofu to visit a viscount. In the Meiji period, the kazoku — the Meiji version of a royal family — had been designed to revivify the imperial line from centuries past. Incorporating nobles from the defunct shogunate, the kazoku buttressed the imperial institution. Common families were perceived by the populace to dovetail harmoniously into the national hierarchy of families, melding with aristocratic and divine national origins. (The common noun for the word “family” is also articulated as “kazoku.”)
The Meiji government needed to reform the feudal structure of society. Prior to Meiji, for example, common people had no need for family names, becauses they existed merely as the vassals of a daimyo, or lord. Meiji edicts from 1870 first enabled, then required, the use of family names by “commoners.”
Furthermore, the social strata were reorganized, and “untouchable” outcaste groups previously known by labels such as hinin (“non-humans”) and eta (“abundance of filth”) were emancipated and given the same formal status as commoners. Unfortunately, the prejudices held against such groups persisted.
Hence, in The Good Natured Man, when Jibun’s uncle wants to embarrass the innkeeper whom he feels gave him poor service, he signs the register as “Shinheimin”, or “New Commoner.” This was a born-again prejudicial epithet that actually referred to a previously “untouchable” caste. He is accusing the innkeeper of having treated him as he might the lowest of the low.
On the evening of February 15, I heard from my mother that my maternal uncle was suffering from cancer. My uncle, a good-natured person, was an unconventional man who enjoyed being stubborn, and was a count, of the Exalted Lineage of the Japanese Empire. He and my father were close friends because they both enjoyed making fun of the world.
My uncle was an extraordinary eccentric. I still remember going to Miura-Misaki with my family for a summer vacation, and my uncle went strolling around in the nude. I was twelve years old, and went with him one morning before breakfast to the master fisherman’s house. He was stark naked, without even a fundoshi, and strode along as if unaware of being naked. If he saw someone he knew, he greeted them as a matter of course. When we arrived at the master fisherman’s, my uncle announced that he had come in his formal attire today, walked calmly into the room and started conversing. Strange to think back now that I was also quite at ease accompanying him. He used to bathe in cold water, and when he went to the beach he would swim out into the ocean. He also drank a lot of alcohol. These things seemed very grand, during that era when I worshipped this eccentric man.
One day, my uncle went to Kofu. It was before the steam train was in service, and he stayed at an inn on his way there. He was unhappy with the way he was treated, so he signed “Shinheimin” — “New Commoner” — in the register.
He was welcomed in Kofu by a viscount. When for some reason the police saw the derogatory name “New Commoner” written in the inn’s register, they were astonished, and reprimanded the innkeeper for his poor service. My uncle said he was sorry to hear that, and went back and stayed at the inn again.
He told me stories about his failed efforts to start up a company one time, and how he was followed around by a detective after having a love affair with a Chinese revolutionary.
I never knew him to suffer from any illness. He had a strong, lean body, and everyone took it for granted that he was at the peak of fitness. He played and drank a lot. Three years earlier, a doctor told my aunt that my uncle had the look of a man with alcohol poisoning, and that he ought to be careful.
My uncle had still been walking around for a couple of months, when his colour changed dramatically and he started to lose weight. Understandably, he got worried and went to visit a doctor, who could not work out what was wrong. Both my aunt and uncle suspected he might have cancer. We also had our concerns, though no one ever said so publicly. The doctors did not believe it was cancer, since he was eating and defecating well. But he was clearly ill. His pallor worsened, and even his ears lost their colour. Everyone was secretly worried. My father and mother talked about how he might have been stricken with a deadly disease.
On February 6, he went to the Red Cross Hospital to be examined, but became too weak even to move, and had to be hospitalized. After a blood and stool analysis, it was determined that he had cancer of the kidneys.
My mother said to my father, “When you have cancer, there is no hope.” My father echoed pensively, “No hope.” Dejected, I thought the same. My uncle was only forty-five or forty-six years old.
On the 16th, my mother paid him a casual visit. She came back and told me he might not last until the next month. On the morning of the 18th, I went to visit him, taking some tangerines and apples. He still did not know he had cancer.
I took the train to Aoyama and changed to the one bound for Akabanebashi at Aoyama 1-chome station. The weather was unusually warm, and I thought to myself, “Spring is almost here.” When I boarded the Akabanebashi train, there was just one empty seat. I sat down and as I did so, took a close look at the woman opposite. She was about 30 years of age but had already lost her bloom, with dark circles around the eyes. She appeared to have had led a rough life. Yet she was not unattractive. Her eyebrows were beautifully arched above her big eyes. Her tightly closed mouth was also appealing. I was a little troubled by the gourd-like shape of her face, but concluded she must have been very beautiful five or six years ago. Looking at her, I felt my lips drawn to hers. I knew the sweetness of a kiss from my dreams — knew it only to the extent that a hungry child imagines the sweetest persimmon in someone else’s garden. Even if Tsuru did not exist, though, I would never dream of wanting to marry such a woman.
I had come to visit my dying uncle, yet I was still thinking such foolish thoughts. I got off the train and hurried to the hospital.
As I passed through the corridors, the fragrance of medicine and the white figures of the nurses brought it home where I was. I was still thinking about my uncle’s illness, but could not imagine him sleeping in his hospital room. I could only think of intangible things such as illness and death.
My aunt was away on business. An attendant gave me permission to enter the room.
My uncle looked much thinner than he had a few weeks before. He lay on his back in pain. His face was bony, his colour yellowish.
He was clearly dying. He looked up at me and thanked me for coming.
Then, extending his hand, he pinched some of his flabby skin and showed me, laughing at how skinny he had become.
At that moment, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich came to my mind. I recalled that, when Ilyich had fallen ill and was dying, the comforting words people spoke only distressed him. A young servant gave given him some comfort by telling him the truth. I was ashamed that I could not love my uncle with the same sincerity as that young servant, but had no choice other than try as best I could to say something to ease his mind.
“If only the weather would improve,” I said, “I’m sure you would be able to recover your lost weight in no time.”
He said, “I don’t mind being thin, but it is dreadful not wanting to eat anything.”
He must have realized he was probably going to die. However, he must also have fancied he would go on living. It was unbearable to watch.
Overcome with compassion, I wished there was something I could do for him. I felt the closeness of death even now. I too would die one day. It was hard to remain there for so long, saying things to ease his mind. Each time my uncle said something hopeful, I felt ashamed.
“When the cherry blossoms bloom, let’s celebrate my recovery and make some noise, eh!” he said cheerfully, with a wry smile. Then looked at me as if waiting for a reply. He was trying to work out if I believed his words or not.
I only laughed and said “Yes.” Forcing something more would only make it worse.
I stayed for about thirty minutes, then farewelled him cheerfully and left the room. It was unendurable.
I knew the fear of death from my dreams. There is nothing in the world more hateful than that fear. Nothing is more horrifying than death. My uncle had to face this dreadful, dreadful thing day after day, which is an unbearable thought. Yet even at the moment of death, we are given the power to fantasize about the possibility of survival. Fancies may be shattered by the real world. But new ones arise like the heads of a hydra, cut after cut. This is often the only place to which to retreat. My uncle would probably sometimes escape to this hiding place. At least I tried to do everything in my power that day to help him find refuge.
By the time I left the hospital gate and turned right, the sunlight and scent of early spring filled me with contentment. My heart, which had been contracted by the visit with my uncle, began to feel more relaxed. As a moralist, I felt compassion for him, but reasoned that it was the work of nature.
I wanted to be nursed by Tsuru when it was my time to die. Then it would not be so bad even to die young.
What was going to happen about Tsuru? I did not know if things between her and me would turn out well, though I was hopeful. I pictured my uncle. Even worse than the distress this thought stirred in my heart, it would be ill-omened to think about Tsuru at the moment.
(My uncle passed away on the 20th of March.)
Notes, References, Further Reading
- Photograph of man wearing fundoshi (loincloth): Count Nogi Maresuke (1849 – 1912). General in the Japanese imperial army, governor-general of Taiwan.
- Image of ukiyoe print: “Head of an old man”, Edo period, Katsushika Hokusai.
IIes, Stuart. “Should the Meiji Restoration be considered a revolution? What were its consequences?” Japanese History and Culture. Research website (2021).
Mori, Koichi. “The Emperor of Japan: A Historical Study in Religious Symbolism,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6.4 (Dec, 1979), 522-565.
NA. “Japan’s Hidden Caste of Untouchables.” BBC News (23 October, 2015, accessed 7 May, 2022).
English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Omedetakihito (1910) by Michael Guest © 2022
Categories: Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man