Joseph I. C. Clarke

The Soul of Nippon
A Midæval Legend of Japan (1908)

At winter dusk upon the hillside cold,
While shivering trees made moan,
Went Hojo Tokiyori all alone.
Free of his Regent robes and zone of gold,
Free of all trappings of imperial state,
Plain garbed as Buddhist priest, he bent his head
Before the icy winds that beat
Upon him as he upward strode.
Rough and stony was the road;
Across the rim of waters Fuji’s crest
Rose dim and blue against the paling West.
Bare lay the frosted valley at his feet,
And faint and far upon the plain below,
The lights of Kamakura shed their glow.
He turned and gazed and grimly said,—

“No royal palace is the house of truth,
So now I dare what every mortal fears—
The judgment of a man by his compeers—
The test that men still flinch from till they die.
For if I’d still hold rule supreme, be great
Of deed and mind,
Myself must learn what man ’tis guards my gate;
Must learn what man am I.
And haply in the hollows of the wind,
The mighty soul of Nippon I shall find.”

Closer he drew his robe of ashen gray,
And faced once more the darkening, upward way.
On, on he trod ’neath cloud-veiled stars till dawn,
His spirit to the soul’s high levels drawn,
And begged for food or sleeping place
From poor and rich, from good and base.
And ever learned he more from friend and foe
The subtle things that dynasts seek to know
Of wit or warning against overthrow.
Often in lordly hall or peasant’s cot,
In words of praise or slight,
With deepened shadows or excess of light,
Saw his own picture drawn, and knew it not.
“Yea, words are plenty: wisdom rare,” said he.
“My name of common tongues the sport,
The shuttlecock of good and ill report;
Yet in it all no sunrise-ray there be.
O Soul of Nippon, speak thou unto me!”

From fruitless searchings by the Eastern strands,
Through winter days, and toiling sore,
Back by Shinano’s wild volcanic lands
The weary Tokiyori bore,
Till lost in Kozeki on an eve of storm,
It seemed he could no farther go.

The night had fall’n, and with it came the snow,
In blinding flakes and dancing whirls of white,
And numb his hands and feet began to grow,
When, as through tattered shojis, came a gleam—
Dim as a blurred star in a dream—
And groping toward it painfully,
He paused, and cried, “Pray shelter me.”

Back slid the shoji, and a gaunt old man
Came out, and looked upon the farer’s face.
His smile of welcome died, and in its place
Came awe and shame; then, halting, he began,
“Most reverend—and noble—we are poor;
A famine-hut that dogs would not endure.
Cross yonder hill, and richer folk you’ll find.”

And Tokiyori silent faced the wind.

Now came the aged good wife raging forth,
Her anger rising more and more.
“Sano gan Zymo,” she said, “where’s the worth
Of being born a samurai,
Thus to debase the honor of your door?
On night like this to turn a man away
When we should open to a beast?”
“Before him, wife, a lordlike priest,”
Old Sano muttered, “we should die of shame.”

“Were he the Regent,” cried the dame,
“You should not let him go
To die amid the wind and snow.
Who knows but this our life of bitter need
Comes from God’s finger, pointing to no deed
Of godlike charity to light our path?
We little have: the strange priest nothing hath.
Run: bid him back, my lord, to warmth and rest.
Say: ‘Come, most reverend, we’ll share our best!’”

Within the hut around the little fire,
Sat Tokiyori with the man and wife,
Sharing their scanty millet dish,
And, ever as the embers ’gan expire,
A little tree flung on them gave them life—
Three little trees with large and fair good-wish.

First ’twas a dwarfish pine tree long of days,
And next a tiny plum tree kings would praise,
And last a dainty cherry fed the blaze.

Said Tokiyori, “You are poor indeed,
Yet you are burning trees you’ve grown in jars
Which only the rich can afford.”
And Sano, stooping still the flames to feed,
Made answer smiling, “Truly, Reverend lord,
Not with my low estate do they accord:
But in these scarecrow tatters you behold
One brave among the samurai of old,
And one from whom, while in the Shogun’s wars,
His tyrant neighbors took his lands by force
And left him but this hut, his battle-horse,
And these three little trees.
Yet grieve not, priest, their tender beauty fled,
For where can costly wood the better burn
Than on the hearth where warms man’s love for man?
And flower and leaf return to God the best
In lighting up the welcome of a guest;
Yea, since it is the gift of God to live,
The greatest joy in living is to give.”

“The greatest joy is giving,” Tokiyori said.
“And love is giving all,” said Sano’s dame.

“Love,” smiled old Sano, “is life’s fire and flame,
And evermore my heart grows warm and light
That when I bade you forth in wind and snow,
My goodwife breathed the voice of Bushido,
That teaches when a stranger’s at the door
The face that looks thereout should aye be bright,
Nor poor need be the welcome of the poor.
‘Were he the Regent, take him in,’ she cried.”

“And if he were?” asked Tokiyori low.

“Ah, for the Shogun,” Sano cried aloud,
“I hold my life when all is lost beside.
My old white horse still lives to bear me proud
To battle at my lord the Shogun’s call.
My two-hand sword, tho’ rusty, hangs him there,
Ready when forth my horse and I shall fare
For Tokiyori, greatest lord of all.”

And Tokiyori smiled: “Lo, now I know.”

From Kamakura soon came the call to war,
The war-drums rattling loud through all the ways.
And warriors trooped from near and far—
Veterans many from old fields hard-won,
And youths who yet no shining deed had done.
And all in clanking panoply of fight,
From cot and castle, and from field and town,
Came lightfoot o’er the hills before the night,
And poured through all the valleys to the plain,
With cries and cheers,
Till morning flared its red-gold arrows down
Upon a hundred thousand swaying spears.

Sat Tokiyori on his battle-steed,
His great soul shining in his searching eyes.
About him daimios, armed and spurred,
And shomios ready to strike or bleed,
Or challenge death in any noble guise,
All watchful waiting for his word.

Them as the silent waters break
With sudden wind-stroke into sweltering sound,
He spake:—

“Now know I that Nippon hath but one great soul.
That soul hath answered to its Shogun’s call,
And whither hence the tide of war shall roll.
Before it every soul must fall.
Long did I seek what now I know.
It came to me mid wind and snow,
And in this host the proof shall stand forth clear:—
A gaunt old man upon an old white horse,
His sword two handed, and his eyes like flame,
His armor rusty and his garments coarse.
Sano gan Zymo is his name:
Find him, and bring him here.”

Lo, from far off, amid the silent host,
Came Sano with his tottering beast,
His heart scarce beating, eyes in wonder lost,
The old horse trailing at his bridle rein.
“Salute the Shogun: bow!” But Sano muttered fain.
“This is no Shogun, but a reverend priest.”

“Nay, soul of Nippon,” answered Tokiyori low,
“You sheltered me from wind and snow.
For me you burned your costly trees in jars,
And pledged your life unto the Shogun’s wars.
’Twas Tokiyori warmed him in your room,
And saw the soul of Nippon in your eyes.
Your stolen lands I solemnly restore,
And ere we march, I give to you a prize:
Reign lord of Sakurai where cherries bloom,
Of Matsuida where the pine tree grows,
And fair Umeda where the plum tree blows.”

“Sano, Meditashi!” Hark, a storm of cheers,
“Hojo, banzai! live, lord, ten thousand years.”
And kneeling spellbound, answering through tears
That still would flow,
Old Sano faltering said,
“Great fighting lord, until this gray old head
Is laid in earth, command my arm, my life,
And never shall I swerve.
I did but what is law of Bushido
To give, to love, to serve.
Praise be the Shogun! — honored, too, my wife!”

And Tokiyori rode to battle with a smile.

Clarke’s note:

Under the title Trees in Jars, this legend forms the basis of a chant used in the classic Japanese No dance, which, with its Chorus, robed actors and musicians, strikingly suggests the beginnings of the Greek drama. Tokiyori was a Shikkin, or Regent, of the Hojo family, real rulers of Japan under the sacred but secluded and powerless Mikado. They flourished in the thirteenth century A.D. The Regent was Shogun, or chief general, as well, unless he delegated that power.

After immigrating to the United States from Ireland in 1868 by way of a brush with British authorities, Joseph Ignatius Constantine Clarke (1846-1925) became a noted journalist and playwright. He was managing editor of Albert Pulitzer’s Morning Journal (1883-1895), editor of the Criterion (1898-1900), Sunday editor of the New York Herald (1903-1906), and author of Lady Godiva (1902) and other successful stage plays. His tour of Japan in 1914 resulted in the widely-read travelogue Japan at First Hand (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1918). ‘The Soul of Nippon’ appeared in the Atlantic Monthly 102 (Nov. 1908), p. 621.

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