Symbolism on the Fuji Express
The Fuji Express, roaring through rural Japan, was like an ugly foreign intruder disturbing the peace of a primitive existence. The views which I had from the car window, as well as the surroundings and episodes within the car itself, were like a review of my stay in this strange land. They provided, in fact, a capsulized summary of this tiny nation. I was surrounded by the five major elements in Japanese life.
In the seat right opposite me was one of Japan’s most noted actors, Umpei Yokayama. As a personality, he was not outstanding. Removing his shoes, he spent most of the day curled up in his seat, asleep. But, in the language of symbolism, he represented the arts of Japan. I thought of the operas I had seen in Tokyo—a strange intermixture of the East and the West. I recalled the Noe plays and Kabuki dramas I had attended in Kyoto, and the examples of silk weaving, ceramic art, and flower arrangement which I had enjoyed—all part of the artistic expression of this nation.
Just two seats down from me was Tokyo’s most famous geisha girl. She might be taken to symbolize pleasure.
The status of the geisha girl is undergoing change. In former times, she had a higher education in the classics, dancing, etiquette, flower decoration, and music than almost any other class in Japan. She was an entertainer, but of the highest type, and her strict training often took years to acquire. When an individual or a group wanted to engage a geisha girl, she charged four or five dollars an hour to grace the party with her dances, her music, and her charm. Because of her superior education, she lived an aristocratic life, far removed from that of the ordinary girl.
Then dancing by couples was introduced to Japan. And the flapper made her appearance. Men found they enjoyed the entertainment of a flapper more than that of a geisha. And the flapper wasn’t under the necessity of spending nearly so much on her education. With her superior position being undermined by less exacting competition, the geisha’s status is changing. Even deteriorating.
Visible out the windows as we roared through the cities were examples of the growing industrial might of this nation. This third symbol of Japanese life I had not been able to photograph, due to the extreme security restrictions.
But out the windows, also, I saw the fourth symbol—scenes of some of the most painstaking agricultural development on earth. I had previously recorded many of those agricultural scenes on film in my camera as I had forayed—along with my interpreter and government agent—out into the rural areas, especially in the region of Fujiyama. Whatever one may think of Japan as a nation, it would be hard not to register admiration for the Japanese farmers.
In a country no larger than California, with one-fifth of its area amble at all, they raise the food for seventy-five million persons. The answer to such an apparent paradox is intensive agriculture.
Terraces everywhere. For the one-fifth of the land that is arable is not conveniently located or ready for the plow. Much of it is on mountainsides.
From the car window I located the general area—near Mt. Fuji—where I had done some of my filming, and these scenes and experiences passed in review through my mind.
It was harvest time and the workers had been busy with the wheat. Their fields were like toy farms. The larger wheat fields in the lowlands were the size of tennis courts. From that they dwindled down to plots containing only three rows, crowded in, perhaps, along a ditch. Step on step, such fields as these marched up the mountainsides. The average terrace was but a few feet wide, which thus became the width of the field in those places.
Intensive agriculture. That wheat had all been planted by hand. The rows were as symmetrical as lines on a writing tablet. Each row was cultivated many times by hand. Soil and space were too precious to allow weeds to spring up. Manpower—and womanpower—was cheap, but space for growing wheat was more precious than life itself
Planted by hand, now in harvest time it was being sickled by hand. The women mainly did this, while men would carry the bundles of felled grain over to the threshing device—scarcely larger than a sewing machine—which was treaded by foot as the stalks of grain were fed in.
Few farmers possessed modern threshers such as this. Most of them flailed the grain with a heavy wooden mallet, or a wooden rod swung from the end of a rope.
Intensive agriculture. Wherever I went on my picture-taking expeditions in the countryside, the signs of it never escaped me. Japan is a land of abundant rain but, with a whole nation to feed, the farmer cannot depend on caprices of nature. He irrigates in case nature fails. Small ditches and streams of water were trickling down the terraces, each drop of water being used many times.
One might think that erosion would result, especially on those steep mountainsides. But erosion is too expensive a luxury. The terraces were sodded, or in places even built with stone. The more gentle slopes were bedded down with straw to stop washout. Heavy baskets of soil were being carried up some of the hillsides. It all represents grueling labor but, as a result, the Japanese farmer has retrieved many acres from the mountainsides. And, doing all his work by hand, he produces fifty bushels of wheat to the equivalent of an acre. Unbelievable as it seems, the nation exports more food than it imports and cannot be starved in event of war.
Intensive agriculture. Midst the scenes of the wheat harvest, I saw dozens of other crops in various stages from planting to harvest. For there must be constant crop rotation if soil is to remain virile after two thousand years of use. Constant fertilization too—which was all too obvious to the passerby with a sensitive nose.
I had photographed a scene of a husband and wife planting an oily bean. Trenches were made with a stick, then filled with fertilizer. After the seeds were dropped, the two of them would cover them up, and tamp each seed by foot. But their perspiring leathery faces glowed as they worked. All this was a labor of love; they were producing food for the nation.
Art, pleasure, industry, intensive agriculture—all of these important ingredients of Japanese life were symbolized by my surroundings, both inside and outside the train.
And the fifth ingredient, now beginning to overshadow all the others—there it was, exemplified by an army officer sitting just across the aisle of my Fuji railroad car.
He was the MILITARY, spelled not with a capital “M” alone, but with capitals throughout. The MILITARY has that relative relationship in Japan’s present-day scheme of things.
Several officers, in fact, were riding in our car. As the train had departed from Tokyo there had been great cheering and profuse bowing of those who had come to say good-bye. This officer across the aisle was accompanied by his family, going to Shimonoseke, port of embarkation for the “China incident.”
There were his wife and three small children, one a little baby. This soldier had the stern features of the true military type, so different from the faces of many of the Japanese. In a few days he would be in China, facing death. Or at least directing his soldiers in the spread of death among the Chinese.
All of that would come next week. But now he was just a father. The baby fell from the car seat and bumped its head. Naturally the wee one began crying. Gently the army officer picked it up and bounced it affectionately on his knee. Soon it was laughing once more.
Removing his coat and shoes, loosening his collar, hanging his shining sword on the hat hook, the officer began playing with the child in earnest. Again the infant fell, but this time only onto the seat. Struggling to get up, the baby reached for the dangling sword and bit its brilliant sheath between its tender gums. Both baby and father laughed.
Thus soothed and amused, the child soon fell asleep. Gently the officer took it in his arms and made a bed on an adjoining seat. Then he began to play with his other youngsters. The Japanese love for children and for family life is excelled by that of few other peoples.
My attention was on that sword which the officer had hung from the hat hook. Every Japanese officer has one.
“How useless in modern warfare!” Such is the casual verdict of the foreigner. But how wrong that casual foreigner proves to be.
For that sword is a symbol. A symbol of honor and of the military spirit. The samurai of old carried swords. The shimmering steel of its blade reflects all the past glory and greatness of Japan. The importance to the soldier of such historical connotation is incalculable.
The clank and rattle of its chain signify the strength of the modern military machine. What comforting power in such a thought. And that razor edge—that needlelike point. These are to be used as a means of voluntary exit from life, in case the soldier faces capture or feels that otherwise he might die of dishonor.
Therein lies the secret of the Japanese soldier’s hideous fighting ability. He prefers death to the slightest hint of dishonor. And that sword always at his side is constant reminder that his choice is easy to obtain.
The father continued to play with the youngsters while the sword rattled and swayed from the hat hook. Soon the baby would waken again and could play with it once more. That sword is a symbol. The language of symbolism never spoke to me more clearly than when I watched the baby use it for a teething ring.
My experiences and observations in Japan convinced me that, beyond much doubt, this little nation and my own would eventually be at war. Japan is spending half of her budget for the military. If each country could only understand the other’s problems, aspirations, and needs, hostilities might possibly be averted. I was seized with an intense desire to go back at once to the United States, and see if I could not make contact with President Roosevelt or some other high officials, asking them to try to head off the conflict.
I guess it seemed useless. At Kyoto, I transferred to another train, bound for Shimonoseki’s port of Moji, for departure to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Japan’s 2600th Birthday
Italy’s entry into the war caught me on a Japanese ship in the dirty little coaling city of Moji, the port of Shimonoseki, Japan.
After having boarded the vessel, for take off to Shanghai, we had been anchored in Moji’s hot, congested harbor for half a day, much of the time watching the endless chain of Japanese laborers—both men and women—passing up the coal in tiny reed baskets from the lighters to the ship. Four thousand tons of the black fuel they handed up in that fashion.
It was revealing, too, while we waited, to watch the troop ships set off for China, and to see the hospital ships returning with their human cargoes of crippled and wounded. For the MojiShimonoseki harbor is the port of entry and departure for the war in China. Ambulances were at the wharves to receive the most urgent hospital cases.
At 11:00 A.M. , while our ship was being coaled, every whistle of ship and factory in harbor and port began to blow. Bells rang. Even the swarms of tiny tugs lent their bombastic blasts to the din. We knew that the Japanese emperor was at that instant praying at the sacred shrine of Ise, far distant, off near Kyoto, and that he was even then reporting to the ancestors of the nation that Japan had reached her 2600th birthday. Every whistle in the land, we also knew, was being blasted at the moment the prayers were offered. There were these things to do and hear in Moji, but little else, and all on board were glad when the coal barges pulled away and we prepared to weigh anchor at 2:00 P.M. Just then a rumor started to spread. Mussolini had taken the leap; Italy had come into the war.
It didn’t seem possible that this could affect us—twelve thousand miles away. But at 3:00 P.M. our vessel did not move.
An American sea captain—an old timer, owner of the famous “Sea Captain’s Shop” in Shanghai—was among our passengers. He and I had become good friends because I found that he had been born in Finland and had visited it last year. He knew some of my acquaintances there. The old captain came up to me and said: “Look at those winches. Look at that bridge. No activity. This ship isn’t going to sail. I’ll be damned if it is.”
Four, five o’clock came, and no activity. The captain was right. Then we realized this vessel was bound for Liverpool via Mediterranean ports. A rumor spread around that the Japanese admiralty was issuing orders to our captain.
Next morning, before sunup, I was awakened by the sound of the winches. Peering out, I saw that boxes marked “Naples, ” “Port Said,” etc. , were being jerked out of the hold. All our Mediterranean cargo and mail was being unloaded. At breakfast, word passed around that our ship had been rerouted around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope. At 11:00 A.M. we finally put out through the Shimonoseki Straits for the Yellow Sea. The effects of war are far-reaching.
Repercussions were felt in other parts of the Orient as well. In Shanghai, a week later, I found a most awkward relationship existing between the French and the Italians in the International Settlement. The mother countries of these French and Italian emigrants were now at war with each other. The International Settlement belongs to neither one nation nor the other, and both nationalities have to live there without either having the upper hand.
Street signs bearing the name of Italy’s king were pulled down in the night, but French authorities saw that they were replaced. The Italian consul decreed that no business relations should henceforth take place between the Italians and the French, and declared all Italian debts owing to French individuals and concerns to be null and void.
In Hong Kong I found the situation was different, this being a British colony. Immediately upon Italian declaration of war, all Italian firms had closed shop or been forcibly locked. The 22,000 British inhabitants in this tiny island colony of the Empire, with its 1,200,000 population of Chinese, were fully cognizant of the perils they were facing. Their fear is of Japan.
The women and children were being evacuated. The harbor was strung with mines. The verdant hills flanking the city were studded with forts and guns.
Hong Kong, within fishing pole reach of Japanese-threatened West China, is Britain’s most perilously located Pacific possession. She is strong for Empire.
It was in Hong Kong that I received news of the probability of French surrender to Germany. During the next week, while steaming down to Singapore on a Japanese vessel, snatches of news and bits of rumor reached us from various sources. An element of interest was added by the fact that an armed cruiser was following us, just visible on the horizon. The frserst officer told me he didn’t know its nationality.
It is a travesty of civilization to realize that, although we aren’t supposed to have a complete World War as yet, every inch of the seven thousand miles I have traveled thus far has been on ships or through territory of nations at war; Canada, Japan, China, Shanghai, Hong Kong—every one a belligerent. Next I go to Singapore, then on to the Dutch East Indies and by Dutch ship to Manila. And of course those Indies, as yet undefeated offspring of defeated Holland, are in a state of belligerency. Not until I reach the Philippines will there be any signs of peace.