True Man of No Rank

Recently I wrote about a general impression that foreigners have, that Japanese people tend to put everyone into some rank or relative position.  The rank or position determines what the person is.  I have heard a Japanese say (and have read similar remarks) that without all the personal connections and relations, “I should be no more than a pinpoint on a blank sheet of paper”.  When we think just of brothers, they think of elder brother and younger brother; in other words, there is a fine distinction between the ranks.  Of course in life, people can change their ranks, and when they do, Japanese society treats them differently.  Or so it seems to us.  Seniority seems to account for a very great deal in companies.   Japanese are supposed to like long-lasting relations; they want to stay in a company for life if possible.  All this is the familiar picture as seen by a foreigner.

But there are some of us who discover something very different in the Japanese character.   I think this may have something to do with the True Man Without Rank, though I believe that it has considerably altered the original idea.   In my personal experience, I came across it first when a Japanese had made a mistake.  Other Japanese, wanting to excuse him, would say: “But he is a very sincere.”   They seemed to think that if a sincere man made a mistake, it was somehow less a mistake than if an insincere man made the mistake.

I began to notice the same idea in much wider fields.   In London just before I set out for Japan I briefly met Shigemitsu Mamoru, who was then Japanese Ambassador in London.  He impressed me as being a cultivated gentleman with a quiet, strong character (this last much esteemed in Britain).  I noticed that he limped, and later learnt that a bomb had been thrown at him.  The attacker had been arrested, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  Much later, I read in a Japanese newspaper that when the bomb-thrower was finally released, a reporter asked Shigemitsu what were his feelings towards him.  To my surprise, Shigemitsu replied, “I have no feeling of resentment against him.  What he did was wrong, but he was sincere in his beliefs.”

This is very different from the British attitude, when the IRA terrorists attempted to blow up the headquarters of the Conservative Party.  They injured one cabinet minister, who said, “These are common criminals, whatever excuses they may claim for their acts.  They are cowards, who do not meet in fair fight, but hide bombs to kill innocent people as well as their targets.

Soon afterwards, a left-wing Member of Parliament tried to say that the IRA were not ordinary criminals but semi-idealists but there was a storm of  protest in the press and among the public generally.     Of course, Shigemitsu`s case was long ago.  I may add incidentally that he ought never to have been tried as a war criminal.  He was not on the original list.  The British tried to stop the prosecution, and I went personally to the House of Lords (as a BBC man, which gave me entry) to hear Lord Hankey trying to get the British Government to have the prosecution withdrawn.  It was not successful but Shigemitsu was in fact given a light sentence.  He was a man of fine character.

Since that time I have come across the same idea many times, and I asked several Japanese scholars about it.  They told me it probably comes from the last of the Chinese Confucian sages Wang Yang-ming, who left a very influential line of thought in Japan.  They told me to read something of Nakae Toju, Kumazawa Banzan, and Miwa Shissai.  I cannot say I read them in the original; as a Frenchman wittily said:”Classics are works that are widely read – by other people” but I read some pieces about them and about the Yo-mei-gaku tradition which they represented.  I came to see that there was a strong anti-Confucian trend in Japan, which emphasized sincerity and purity above rank and authority.

I read the story of Oshio Heihachiro.  But I did get the impression that the practice of the teaching had changed a bit during the centuries.  As far as I could make out, the founder Wang Yang-ming was an amazing genius in a number of different fields, a real traditional sage. He was absolutely fearless, but rational in his conduct.  It seemed to me that he was saying that if one can make the heart free from selfishness, then a sort of divine wisdom, which he called Liang-chi or in Japanese Ryo-chi, would spring up, and whatever that person did would be Right.  His action would never be wrong.  He would be absolutely fearless and able to die for it.

But in Japan, as I saw it, in later times at least, they changed the order.  The Japanese view seemed to have become: If you are willing to die for it, that shows your heart is pure, and that you have ryo-chi and must somehow be in the right.

It surprises us that Saigo Takamori, who rebelled against the Government which he had helped to set up, was still admired by Japanese.

That too is a long time ago, and people may say that modern Japanese do not think like that.  But in the student riots of 1968 there was the word “kaku-shin-han, which is almost impossible to translate into English.  It means, I suppose, a crime committed out of some conviction, not from selfish motives.  We do not have such a word in English, and most of us would call terrorists who blow themselves up in suicide bombings as just “fanatics”.  We think they are half mad.

But we can say that in both Japan and Britain there is an admiration for sincerity and straightforwardness.  This admiration does not mean that we always practice it.  When I first went to the Far East, I was amazed to hear that our nickname was “foxy old England” (Rokai Eikoku).  I could not believe some of the stories I was told about the British merchants in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.   When I checked with a British historian in Japan, he told me that many of them were true.  But they were not in our history books at school because we were not proud of them.

In the same way, one can find Japanese businessmen and politicians who are zuru-kashikoi which I suppose I would translate as “clever and cunning”.   On the personal level, when I looked at some Japanese books printed a hundred years ago, I sometimes found that there were pages missing.  One of them was a dictionary of Sosho caligraphy.  I was going to take it back to the bookshop but I happened to mention it to Japanese scholar.  He said, “There are no pages missing.  In Tokugawa times the number of pages in a book was sometimes a factor in determining the price.   The buyer would look to the end of the book to see how many pages there were and pay accordingly.  So some of the publishers made several jumps in the page numbering in the book”.

I think the real point is that although both Japanese and British can show this sort of “cleverness”, we do not admire it.  Perhaps I am prejudiced but I have the impression that Europeans and Americans do sometimes admire it, as we can see films and novels.

Is this island psychology?  I am not sure.

© Trevor Leggett

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