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  • The Meaning of Japan (1937)
  • W. E. Burghardt Du Bois (bio)

1. I have thought that it might be instructive to turn from our own race problem to one of the great problems of the world and to consider the meaning of Japan in modern civilization. I do this the more gladly because Japan is a colored nation and thus exemplifies one of the color problems of the world.

2. The physical aspect of Japan as one sails across the China sea from Shanghai is that of slim brown mountains rising suddenly from the water.1 The vegetation is sparse, only 15% of the whole of Japan being cultivable.2 And yet the green of trees, the struggle of the crop, and the blooming of flowers gives a singular aspect of beauty and charm to the busy industry on the three islands that stretch northeast from Korea to Sakhalin.

3. Japan is a small country, smaller than Texas and but twice the size of Great Britain; but it is thickly settled with 70 millions of people.3 They came east ward to these islands from China and Korea, and northwest from the darker [End Page 233] Malay lands and from India and form a mixed people, short of stature, yellow and brown in color with coarse straight hair.4

4. Here on these little islands the drama of their life has been played for 2½ thousand years. The beginnings are swathed in myth with the first clear openings centering in strife with Korea, which was the geographic center of the extension of Japan from the mainland to the sea, and which the inland Japanese conquered in the second century.5 From Korea and China came books and scholars, and upon this foundation Japanese civilization began to expand in the fifth and sixth centuries. Buddhism came from India at the same time that Christianity came to France and Great Britain.6 And in 710 the first permanent Japanese capital was erected at Nara. I was in Nara last fall and later in Kyoto, which became the second capital in 794. Here one can still see the subtler expressions of Japanese life; the beauty of architecture; the spread of poetry and painting; the growth of Shinto, the religion of honor and sacrifice, paralleling the more ceremonious Buddhism; and building up that pattern of Japanese civilization that has so captured the imagination of the world. The Toshogu Temple of Nikko, known to the world for the three monkeys who see, hear and speak no evil, is a characteristic gem of building. It is small and built of wood, colored white and red and brown, old and hard as stone. It rises against a hillside of tall and ancient trees, immense with leaf and gloom. It is perhaps over elaborate with intricate carving and symbolic ornamentation, but its roofs climbing on roofs, its dark tile, its carved beams and panels, its steps and statues made a thing of never to be forgotten beauty.7

4. One other link of Japan with America and the American Negro might be mentioned. The same impulse which after the war [American Civil War] sent teachers into the South to establish higher schools for Negroes, sent teachers and missionaries into Japan. Japanese higher education, in its Western aspect, began then at the same time that Atlanta,8 Fisk,9 Talladega,10 and Howard11 were established in the United States. Waseda12 and Doshisha13 are the Japanese equivalents of our schools. The role of the mission university in Japan was singular. It became the gate way through which Western [End Page 234] education and Western ideas poured into Japan and it attracted some of the finest of the young Japanese students. The history of these schools differs naturally from ours. The graduates stood high in the industrial, educational, and political life of the new Japan. They were able to supply endowment and government support. On the other hand, representing Christianity, a religion of the West, they encountered some difficulties and have been superseded in many respects today by the great imperial universities scattered over the land.14 They retain, however, their influence in the affection of the Japanese...


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