The First European Description of Japan, 1585|
3 Concerning children and their customs
This chapter reflects the fact that the education of children was absolutely central to the Jesuit program for directed culture change, be it in Asia, the Americas, or Europe itself. If the Jesuits were to transform Japanese society it was imperative that European Jesuits understand how Japanese children were reared.
In paintings such as “Saint Francis Xavier Preaching,” Portuguese artist André Reinoso clearly depicted boys with hair that was off the ears. Recall that Europeans equated long hair with virility and thus it was more appropriate for adult men.
In Japan a baby boy’s head was shaven four to five times a month until age three, when there was a ceremony called “hair placing” (kami-oki). Henceforth the boy’s hair was allowed to grow until age five, when it was trimmed neatly around the edges in the manner of a bowl-cut. The child’s hair was not cut again until the boy’s coming of age, roughly between the age of eleven and sixteen. The hair was not, however, allowed to hang freely, for a shock of loose hair was considered to be the mark of an outlaw or a vengeful ghost. It was generally bound in a ponytail until adulthood, at which point the front of the pate was shaven and the remaining hair bound and set as described previously in Chapter 1, #6.
It was common in Europe to swaddle infants, that is, to keep them tightly wrapped in cloth or linen for upwards of nine months (if not too restrictive, the swaddling seems to comfort babies). With respect to Japan, Frois is correct that the robe worn by infants was similar to adult robes. However, the Japanese would say the infant is put into ubugi or ubuginu, which literally translates as “birth-robe.” These robes often were decorated with auspicious motifs appropriate to the infant’s sex and are fastened from behind by two ribbons. At age three, the child changes to a kimono with a girdle-like obi.
Manuscripts from the Middle Ages describe a three-wheeled walker that was used in Europe to teach infants to walk. One of these “baby walkers” is depicted on a tapestry dating to 1390. The Japanese did not have “walkers“and used cocoon-like wicker baskets instead of cradles. Today, Euro-American style cribs are common in Japan and are called by the descriptive term beibi-sahkuru, or “baby circles.” Note, however, that at night Japanese infants ordinarily sleep with their parents, not in a crib. Japanese parents do not feel obliged to teach their children to sleep alone, nor do they worry about infants being suffocated or otherwise hurt in a family bed. (The American belief that infants and young children should sleep by themselves is unusual, as cultures go).
Here Frois contrasts commoners; the nobility in both Japan and Europe generally had grown nursemaids who looked after infants. According to Bacon, there was even a particular village in Japan of large, extremely fit, red-cheeked women who performed this service as a hereditary calling for the Emperors’ children. Be that as it may, Frois makes two generally valid contrasts in one: 1) the different manner of carrying the baby, and 2) the different age of the carrier. Although today in Japan one rarely sees siblings carrying tiny tots on their backs, one does occasionally see infants being carried on their mother’s or, more commonly, grandmother’s back.
One might think the knot uncomfortable, but the Japanese did not have chairs to lean back against, and back-ties made sense for those who carried infants (the knots did not come between the child and its mother or older sister). Although Frois’ usage—“a ton”—prosaically conveys the number and size of the knots, they came undone in an instant because they were tied in a bow.
6. Among us, a four-year old child still does not know how to eat with his own hands; in Japan a three-year old already eats by himself using chopsticks.
Frois’ contemporary, the Spanish merchant Bernardino de Avila Giron, noted with amazement that a Japanese child of four could remove the bones of a sardine with chopsticks. In the economic “bubble” days, when Ezra Vogel’s (1980) Japan as Number One: Lessons for America was still selling like hotcakes, Morita Akio, the head of Sony, suggested that because chopsticks were more difficult to use than Western silverware, Asian minds were better developed, hence the success of the Far East.
Daily life in sixteenth-century Europe was filled with danger. Many parents viewed corporal punishment as a Biblically-sanctioned means of insuring that children did not repeat behavior that might get them killed by a horse, burned by a fire, or run over by a cart. The Jesuits were amazed that Japanese parents disciplined their children solely with words, spoken to a child of six as if he or she was a seventy year-old. Even today visitors and researchers alike remark on how Japanese mothers squat down and explain things at length to children, rather than simply demand obedience.
8. Among us, one learns to read and write from secular teachers; in Japan, they all learn at the temple-schools of the Buddhist monks.
Cities and towns in Europe, particularly in northern or Protestant Europe, often established neighborhood schools (gymnasia, ludi litterarii) where the children (particularly boys) of commoners and the petty bourgeoisie received a basic education. Frois may overstate the extent to which schools were staffed by secular teachers, as elementary education in sixteenth-century Europe often fell to priests or religious. Indeed, during the sixteenth century (albeit after Frois left Portugal in 1548) the Jesuits became largely a teaching order, establishing schools throughout Catholic Europe as well as Asia and Latin America
Some stay at the monasteries for their studies, but others return home daily if the monastery is near their homes. These monasteries of the bonzes also serve as universities for those who study philosophy and the sciences and want to follow an ecclesiastical career. In the district of Bando, in the kingdom of Shiomonotsuke, there is a university called Ashikaga, whither students flock from all over Japan in order to study all the sciences which are taught there gratis.
Japanese children did indeed write Chinese characters before they could read them. Because most Chinese characters have multiple pronunciations in Japanese, mastering the various possibilities, that is, reading, does indeed take much more time than writing (excepting a significant number of very complex characters, which most Japanese learn to read but never learn to write). Today the Japanese still are big on memorizing by writing. The thick, brushed line seemingly impresses the visual memory, and it is important to learn the order of the strokes. Moreover, such writing can be art. The calligraphy of elementary school children (usually just one or two large brushed characters) frequently is on exhibit in Japanese rail and subway stations.
10. Our instructors teach our children the catechism, [the lives of] the saints, and virtuous habits; the bonzes teach the children to play music, sing, play games, fence and carry out their abominations with them.
The catechism and lives of the saints were a major component of primary education in Europe, which, as noted, often was in the hands of clergy and religious orders such as the Jesuits. Frois’ allusion to pederasty (“their abominations”) hints at his less-than-objective attitude toward Buddhist temple-schools. The mastery of hundreds of Chinese characters clearly occupied most student’s time. And yet Frois is correct in suggesting that pederasty was a part of temple-school life (see Chapter 4). Indeed, judging from the literature, which goes back a thousand years, there was rather intense competition among temple-schools to recruit attractive boys. Although pederasty was not uncommon in Europe, particularly in school settings, Europeans ignored it or made a great show of horror when it was discovered.
This contrast, like others in this chapter (e.g. #6, #13, #14) show that Frois is not just following an agenda to idealize Europe. Nowadays, the “messenger boy” is an anachronism; so, too, is his skill at recalling details of a message or supplying contextual information that would clarify or amplify a hastily penned dispatch. Not long ago in both Japan and the West messenger boys were crucial to the functioning of any town or city. The English verb “to page” testifies to this fact, as does the Japanese term for message, kojo, which literally means “mouth-above.”
12. Among us, a man can reach the age of twenty and still not carry a sword; in Japan, twelve- and thirteen-year old boys carry a sword and dagger.
As noted in Chapter 1, Europeans during the sixteenth century increasingly equated privilege with education, rather than martial prowess. Soldiering, in fact, became a profession and many a European army was made up of mercenaries. Correspondingly, young boys of the middle and upper class were raised to appreciate rather than pursue military service.
Frois was certainly not exaggerating the situation in Japan. Others (e.g., Alvarez and Gago) claimed that boys of eight or ten carried arms. In a letter from 1565, Frois noted that Japanese boys slept with their swords and daggers next to their pillow. What neither Frois nor his European contemporaries pointed out was that it was primarily Japanese boys of the buke or samurai class who donned swords and daggers at an early age, although even little commoners as well as their parents could wear a single sword if they so wished. Until the modernization of Japan in the late nineteenth century, tykes far younger than twelve or thirteen wore the standard “big and little” sword set.
This contrast reflects both the utterly martial orientation of the Japanese gentry and the same precocious self-control suggested by other contrasts. The young Japanese who could be entrusted with a message could also be entrusted with a lethal weapon. Why? For one thing, Japanese children quarreled infrequently, and this is largely true even up to the present day. There was a downside, however, to armed precocity. Frois’ Jesuit superior, Valignano, noted that it sometimes happened that small children would have a temper tantrum and commit hara-kiri by slitting open their stomachs.
13. Our children have little command and excellence in their manners; children in Japan are exceedingly thorough in their manners, so much so that they are amazing.
Western visitors from Frois’ day to the present have been amazed by the polite manners of Japanese children. By contrast, authors such as Keith Thomas have written about children in early modern England who ran wild, peeing in the aisles of churches to make ice to skate on.
Okada believes that the Japanese side of the contrast refers specifically to children of the samurai class and child actors in No drama (see Chapter 13). Frois may nevertheless describe a more general trait, for the ease with which the Japanese of all ages perform in front of audiences is still apparent today and is by no means restricted to drama. In formal or public situations, it is the Western man or woman who is far more likely to blush when asked to give a speech at a wedding or to sing a song in front of colleagues. Many, if not most, Japanese do so with the aplomb of an old pro. They seem to find what is essentially role-playing (acting out a public persona) less stressful than informal conversations, which most Westerners find relaxing rather than stressful. In informal situations, or when asked for their opinions, Japanese individuals above the age of eight tend to be more uptight than Americans and, possibly, most Western peoples. Indeed, the Japanese see themselves as extremely bashful and even lacking in self-expression compared to “outgoing and brave” foreigners. Lacking the unstated agreement to disagree found in much of the West, lively discussion in much of Japan seems all but impossible in many contexts.
Here “Children in Europe” refers to the offspring of the nobility and the emerging bourgeoisie. The vast majority of European children (i.e. the children of peasants and townspeople) were too busy working for their parents or outside the home to be pampered. Okada quotes a Japanese period book of instruction for child rearing that states that it was best for small children to be “starved by a third and frozen by a tenth.” This was thought to be good for long-term health and character. Such advice was doubtlessly for the upper classes and wealthy townsmen. As was the case in Europe, the majority of Japanese children (i.e. the sons and daughters of farmers and townspeople) received these “benefits” automatically. In both early modern Japan and Europe the vast majority of children were not simply dependents but were important contributors to the preservation and prosperity of households.
As for gifts and treats, the Japanese had no tradition of lavishing affection on a child’s birthday. Children received gifts of money and new clothing only on New Year’s Day. Still, young children enjoyed festivals on what today are referred to as “Girl’s Day” and “Boy’s Day,” as well as visits to local shrines or temples where there were booths selling fun things or offering challenges for children. One of the most common booths today is the kingyo-ya, where children use paper spatulas to catch (and take home) goldfish. It is pretty tricky catching a fish before the wet paper breaks, but the seller always gives the smaller children a hand when necessary, so that nearly everyone gets something.
The Jesuits as a whole were struck by Japanese reluctance to discuss important matters face to face and their reliance on third parties. Although Okada has suggested that maintaining distance between parents and children was specific to the samurai class, reliance on surrogates seems to have been a more general phenomenon that has persisted into modern times. Anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra has noted that the Japanese make use of surrogates (migawari) in various social contexts, and she suggests that letting another act in one’s place is consistent with the Japanese understanding of self, which is “dividual” (rather than individual) and integrally related to a particular kin group. Today, as in the past, the Japanese hate confrontation; even when they talk face to face, it was, and still is, generally not eye to eye, but with the eyes facing down, off to the side, or past one another.
17. Among us, one acquires godparents at baptism or confirmation; in Japan, this occurs when a youth once again girds his sword and takes on a new name.
The Christian sacraments of baptism and confirmation entail the acquisition of fictive kin or “godparents” who assist with the rearing of a child. In Portugal, boys at baptism generally acquired two men and one woman as godparents; girls received two women and one man.
At the Japanese coming-of-age ceremony called genbuku, the youth wears a “crow-hat” (a tall, black, phallic-looking thing) and acquires a “crow-hat-parent.” The youth at the same time drops his birth name and takes a new name, usually a character from the name of the crow-hat-parent. This coming-of-age ceremony was adopted from China in the Heian era (794–1185) and is delightfully translated in Kenkyusha’s Japanese-English dictionary as “assuming the toga virilis.” This was also the time when a youth assumed an adult hairstyle and clothing and acquired a valuable sword. The ceremony was held when a boy was between twelve and sixteen. Girls of the same age had a simpler genbuku, during which their hair was put up in an adult hairdo for the first time. As a Chinese-derived ceremony, genbuku might be called Confucian, but as was the case for most celebratory rituals in Japan, it probably was informed by Shinto.
As was noted in Chapter 2 (#34, #35), European women, particularly of the middle and upper classes, were thought to require male guidance or protection; sons who accompanied their mothers out in public presumably discouraged unwanted advances from adult males. The fact that Japanese boys did not accompany their mothers may reflect the fact that Japanese women usually accompanied each other in public. Also, as discussed in Chapter 2, Japanese women could venture out in public without fear of harassment.
Frois is again referring 1to Japanese men at relatively high levels of Japanese society. Three or four name changes probably were more the norm in Japan: a childhood name, the name received at adulthood, occasionally a name to reflect a new station in life, and one for retirement. Commoners generally did not share in this plethora of name changes, but men active in administration who changed posts could enjoy upwards of a half-dozen names. Names were a sort of title granted by superiors to inferiors to show they had achieved a higher rank. João Rodrigues counted ten categories of names. François Caron noted a contrast that was so obvious that Frois must have imagined that he had already made it, when, in fact, he had not:
The surnames are first pronounced, for being their parents were before them, they think it but reasonable that their names should likewise preceed.
As noted in Chapter 2 (#36), the Japanese do not feel compelled to maintain strong family ties to blood relatives. It is perhaps not surprising that an Iberian Jesuit like Frois would be struck by this, particularly as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins were, and are, an important part of an individual’s life in Mediterranean Europe.
21. In Europe, children inherit upon the death of their parents; in Japan, parents relinquish their estate early in life in order to hand over the inheritance to their children.
This contrast can be interpreted in different ways. One is that wealthy Japanese parents do not selfishly (and often with disastrous consequences, especially when they begin to lose their judgment) hold on to the family fortune, but share it early enough to improve the lives of their loved ones, and probably improve the family business. However, it is also possible to say that by handing over the business and retiring, the Japanese parents are selfishly getting out of work and onto the dole while they still are well enough to really enjoy themselves. Both interpretations are perhaps equally true.
So why has the West behaved differently? Bacon thought that, at least in the case of America, it was because of a dread of dependence on others. But how times and people change. Today, the Japanese are notoriously bad at retiring. Like many Western men and women, work is everything to them. This was not true a hundred or four hundred years ago. Then retirement was a quasi-religious experience: a retreat into a world of leisure, a world of writing provided by the bottomless well of Chinese characters, pilgrimages along narrow roads to mountain shrines, and the game of go.
As discussed in Chapter 9 (#2, #3), educated doctors in Europe often used “bleeding” to prevent and treat sickness, which was thought to result from an imbalance of various bodily humors (e.g., phlegm and blood). Scarification is a less invasive form of bleeding that involved making small puncture wounds rather than actually opening a vein and draining off copious amounts of blood (venesection).
The expression “buds of flame” refers to moxibustion, which involves placing a pinch of burning moxa (mugwort leaf) on a particular part of the body or skin (again, see Chapter 9). Medical practitioners in China and Japan theorized about where on the body the moxa should be placed to achieve the best effect. According to Okada, a pellet of moxa was ritually burnt on the three-day old infant’s head and on the end of the navel cord to prevent future illness. There was also an annual treatment ritual that functioned in the manner of a “booster shot,” supplementing the initial moxibustion. Children in Japan did not like this any more than children in the West like getting shots. In one of his haiku, Issa relates how a naked child fled from his “medicine,” despite it being the coldest part of the year. In partial contradiction of #7 above, while Japanese children were not whipped, they were sometimes threatened with corporal punishment in the form of moxibustion.
23. Among us, only women use rouge and face powder; in Japan, some of the sons of nobles, up to the age of ten, also wear makeup when they go out.
Although European men would one day powder their wigs, Frois is correct that men of his time used no powder or make-up. In Japan, make-up was essentially restricted to boys from the samurai class or nobility. As noted in Chapter 1, #46, noblemen spent a lot of time on their toilette. Thus, boys were only aping their fathers. Okada cites a Chinese report of “barbarian (i.e., Japanese) boys made up with thick powder like women,” which suggests that this idea arose in Japan.
In the 1990s, Japanese youth began to wear makeup at a faster rate than their Western counterparts. Male tarento (minor television personalities who only last until the proverbial bloom is off their adolescent cheeks) pluck and darken their eyebrows and use eyeliner, which was even advertised on TV in at least the Tokyo area. This use of make-up is not necessarily or normally equated with femininity, but with looking attractive.
24. Among us, children’s clothing has sleeves that are narrow, with the seams sewn closed [all the way] around the shoulders; in Japan, the sleeves are very loose and under the arms they are open from front to back.
The young Japanese samurai who toured Europe at the time Frois wrote his Tratado were delighted when they encountered youth in Evora, Portugal who wore clothing with broad sleeves like the ambassadors’ kimonos. This delight suggests that such sleeves were unusual in Europe and that Frois’ observation was, on the whole, valid. Open underarm seams still are found in some traditional Japanese garments, perhaps because they are very cooling in sultry weather.
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