Depicting seven ages of Japan

In 1854 Commodore Perry opened Japan to the puzzled gaze of Westerners, who long continued to scrutinize it as a quaint box of curios. In 1894 curiosity deepened into wonder as young Japan proved able to cope with huge China after such a brief session of Western schooling. In 1904 wonder became amazement as the infant prodigy came to grips with Russia, then known as the Colossus of the North, and, by winning this second war in a decade, won also a place as a world power.”

The 1904 Russo-Japanese war, often referred to as World War Zero, not only asserted Japan’s political position in Asia but also changed the chemistry of world politics and sowed the seeds of the two world wars.

But “back of such power of achievement lies a story of unique fascination” and author James AB Scherer narrates that in his book The Romance of Japan Through the Ages.

Director Wanphrang Diengdoh stumbled upon the book exactly a year ago but “I was saving it to read when I had a bit of free time”.

“I just finished editing Lorni and I’m starting to research material for my next project about the resistance of the Khasis during the arrival of the Missionaries. I was looking at the transitions of South East Asian societies during the 1800s and came across the book in a second hand book shop while I was in Brighton last year,” Diengdoh, who is currently reading the book, told Sunday Shillong.

Diengdoh said he grew an interest in Japan after watching Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which is about the Jesuits and their encounters in Japan. Also, movies by Akira Kurosawa and animations by Hayao Miyazaki and Samurai Champloo “have been quite instrumental in shaping the filmmaker that I am today”.

About his discovery of the book, Diengdoh said he found it in pieces with missing pages and coffee stains and even notes made on the side. “I like that kind of stuff. You leave a lot to the imagination.”

The book deals with the transformation or evolution of Japan from a feudal society into a modern nation. It was first published in 1926 and addresses how the Damiyos (Japanese feudal lords) came forward to surrender their privileges and agreed to merge themselves in the common mass of the people. The Hemin (common-folk) and the Eta (outcastes) demanded the transformation of this feudal society and its rigid class composition into a modern nation with equality of citizenship. The Damiyos and even the Samurais eventually came forward to surrender their privileges and agreed to merge themselves with the common mass.

“There is a beautiful memorandum submitted to the Emperor mentioned in the book and I quote ‘The place where we live is the Emperor’s land. The food that we eat is grown by the Emperor’s men. How then can we claim any property as our own? We now reverently offer up our possessions and also our followers — the Samurais, with the prayer that the Emperor will take good measure for rewarding those to whom reward is due and for fining those who do not deserve reward’. Isn’t that beautiful,” Diengdoh said.

The late Scherer was an American author who first went to Japan in 1892 as a young school teacher. He wrote several important books on the history, economics and political evolution of that country. He had spent five years in Japan studying the people and their arts. The insider-outsider position on the matter meant that he could objectively acknowledge the information he had gathered so as to eventually arrive in a gripping documentation about the historical-political atmosphere in Japan that has led to what it is today.

Scherer then spent 20 years in California where immigration was becoming a huge concern and his proximity to Japanese immigrants there would mean he could revisit and rework his research material often.

In 1923-24, he visited Japan again, and “saw for myself not only the many changes of the new century, but the reaction of the people to the great earthquake and then to the American immigration act.” He would also visit the birthplace of the Buddha and retrace the historical and geographic journey of Buddhism “following its long and brilliant course of conquest toward and into Japan, with a view to the better understanding of a people whose character and institutions”.

The book is divided into seven chapters titled ‘The Seven Ages of Japan’ and each chapter chronicles the natural evolution of the Asian country.

This, however, is not that natural categorisation of Japanese history and has been adopted by the author for the sake of simplicity and convenience.

“It’s a good read especially if one wishes to let go of that curious gaze at South East Asian society and be part of the people. Class structure in South East Asian society is quite different from how class in Europe is traditionally organised. I’m glad that it (the book) also throws more light into the research material for my next project,” asserted Diengdoh, who believes “every book or story or film or music or even a work of art finds you when you are looking for something in life”.

The director and poet admitted that he has not read a lot of books on Japan. “I am almost done with the book. I don’t think the book leaves any particular emotion per se. Instead, it offers quite a bit to reflect and introspect,” he concluded.


(As told to Nabamita Mitra)


Reading suggestions

for the week:

  1. The Cost of Living

by Deborah Levy

  1. The Republic of Rhetoric: Free Speech and the
    Constitution of India by
    Abhinav Chandrachud


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