It may well be questioned whether, in the course of a like period of time, any country has ever undergone greater transitions, or made more rapid strides along the path of civilization than has Japan during the last quarter of a century. A group of numerous islands, situated on the high-road and thoroughfare of maritime traffic across the Pacific, between the Eastern and Western hemispheres, and in area considerably exceeding Great Britain and Ireland,—Japan, until thirty years ago, was a terra incognita to the rest of the world; exceeding even China in its conservatism and exclusiveness. And now, within a space of some five-and-twenty years, such changes have come about as to have given birth to the expression,—“the transformation of Japan.” The more conspicuous of these changes are summed up by a recent writer in the following words:—“New and enlightened criminal codes have been enacted; the methods of judicial procedure have been entirely changed; thoroughly efficient systems of police, of posts, of telegraphs, and of national education have been organized; an army and a navy modelled after Western patterns have been formed; the finances of the Empire have been placed on a sound basis; railways, roads, and harbours have been constructed; an efficient mercantile marine has sprung into existence; the jail system has been radically improved; an extensive scheme of local government has been put into operation; a competitive civil service has been organized; the whole fiscal system has been revised; an influential and widely-read newspaper press has grown up with extraordinary rapidity; and government by parliament has been substituted for monarchical absolutism.” At the present day, an Englishman travelling in Japan is constantly meeting numbers of his countrymen, intent on either business or pleasure; while at all the principal cities and places of resort, handsome new hotels, fitted in Western style, are to be found. The Mikado may be seen driving through his Capital in a carriage that would not be out of place in the Parks of London or Paris; and at Court ceremonies European dress is de rigueur. English is taught in all the better-class schools, and at the Universities the works of such authors as Bacon, Locke, Macaulay, Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, are in constant request with the students. In short, on every side evidence is afforded, that be it for better or for worse, the old order is fast changing and giving place to new.
The circumstances which have brought about these wonderful changes can only be very briefly indicated here. It was towards the middle of the sixteenth century that Japan first came into contact with the Western world; the first traders to arrive being the Portuguese, who were followed some sixty years later by the Dutch, and in 1613 by a few English ships. To all of these alike a hospitable reception appears to have been accorded; nor is there any doubt that Japanese exclusiveness was a thing of subsequent growth, and that it was based only on a sincere conviction that the nation's well-being and happiness would be best consulted by refusing to have dealings with the outer world. And indeed, that the Japanese should have arrived at this decision is by no means to be wondered at; their first experience of foreign intercourse having been singularly unfortunate. The unhappy breach, which eventually led to Japan entirely closing her ports to foreign traffic, was, it would seem, due partly to the attitude of harsh intolerance and general interference adopted by certain of the Roman Catholic missionaries, who by this time had arrived in the country: and partly to the insinuations made by the Dutch that the Portuguese were aiming at territorial aggrandizement. Anyhow, in 1624, Japan was entirely closed to foreign trade, save for some concessions,—accompanied by the severest restrictions,—permitted to the Dutch; no foreigners were allowed to enter, and no natives to leave, the empire; the missionaries were expelled, and Christianity was prohibited under pain of death. The Japanese, as has been said, “suspected everybody and shut out the world.” Previous to this crisis the English had retired; but when, in 1673, our country sought to resume friendly relations, the connexion existing between the English and Portuguese courts proved an insuperable obstacle. Subsequent overtures made in 1849, were courteously but firmly rejected; though the period of Japan's isolation was, as later events proved, almost at an end. In 1853, the Government of the United States despatched a fleet across the Pacific, under the command of Commodore Perry, to insist upon the surrender of a policy which, it was urged, no one nation of the world had a right to adopt towards the rest. Whether the arguments with which this position was advanced would of themselves have prevailed, is impossible to say; but since it was evident that should words fail, sterner measures would be resorted to, Japan had no choice but to submit. Treaties were accordingly concluded, first with the United States, and subsequently with England and other European powers; by virtue of which a few ports were grudgingly opened, and Japanese subjects permitted to engage in commercial transactions with the outside world. For the first few years, it is certain that a strong feeling of suspicion and dislike towards foreigners was rife; but in 1868 events occurred which brought about a complete change in the whole situation. For some six hundred years a dual system of government had existed in Japan. On the one hand, was the Mikado, supposed to trace a lineage of unbroken descent from the gods, and accorded a veneration semi-divine, but living in seclusion at the city of Kyoto, with such powers of administration as he still retained confined to matters of religion and education. On the other hand, was the Shogun, or Tycoon, the acknowledged head of a feudalism, which, while nominally recognizing the Mikado's authority, had usurped the sovereign power, and really governed the country. But in 1868, the altered circumstances in which Japan found herself brought about a revolution. The ancient nobility were filled with indignation and disgust at the Tycoon so far violating Japanese tradition as to enter into treaties with foreign countries; and, as a consequence of this rupture, the Shogunate, whose power had for some time been waning, completely collapsed. The Mikado was restored to imperial power, and at once entered upon a policy which has been consistently adhered to, and received with favour by the people generally, who had grown impatient of the restraint which environed them. That policy may be termed the Europeanization of the Empire; and in it we have the explanation of the Japan of to-day.
It is not surprising that the interest excited in England, with regard to a country which has experienced such remarkable changes, should be of the greatest—especially when it is remembered in how large a degree English influence has contributed to produce them. We may be certain, also, that the still further developments the future has in store, will be followed in our own country with a close attention. Equally natural is it that, in these days of so great fashion and facility for travelling, increasing numbers of English people should avail themselves of the opportunity of exploring a country so entirely unique, and so rich in its attractions of nature and of art. These circumstances have combined to call into existence a large number of books on Japan, from which any, who are unable to visit it in person, may obtain as good an idea as is possible by reading of the country, its people, and its customs. Indeed it is by no means easy for any writer now to fasten upon an aspect of the subject, in which he does not find himself forestalled. That, however, on which, so far as I understand, least has been written, is precisely that towards which my own main attention was directed from the time of my leaving England, and throughout the period of my visit to the country,—namely, the religious aspect. That the following pages must be very imperfect in the statement they supply, I am well aware; and that, despite my efforts to obtain trustworthy information, they will not prove free from inaccuracy or mistake is extremely probable. But I was induced to enter upon their preparation by a series of circumstances that appeared to favour such a task, and need not be specified here. For the material supplied to me, however, by one kind friend in particular, without whose assistance these articles would never have been attempted, I must express my special obligation. I would gladly refer to him by name, did I feel at liberty to do so without obtaining his permission, which I have not, at the time of writing, the opportunity of asking. Also, among the books I have consulted on the subject, I must acknowledge my great indebtedness to Messrs. Chamberlain and Mason's excellent Handbook for Japan (Murray, 1891); and to a copy of Dr. E. J. Eitel's Lectures on Buddhism (Trübner, 1871), given me by the author, at the close of a most interesting day spent under his guidance. The sketch Map of Japan is inserted by the kind permission of the “Guild of St. Paul.”