The Spectator

From the archive: the nature of Japan

From the archive: the nature of Japan
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From ‘The rule of taste’, Anthony Thwaite, 6 March 1959: The society of aristocrats, connoisseurs, wise men and heroes which was the Japan of Yeats’s imagination did exist. It was capable of moments which combine, in the true spirit of Zen, extraordinary aesthetic perception with what looks like plain flippancy. This is revealed, for example, in the anecdote which Sir George [Sansom] tells about the Emperor Shirakawa, who had summoned a stricken old campaigner to the Palace to tell the story of his campaigns. ‘The old soldier began, “Once when Yoshiiye had left the Defence Headquarters for the fortress at Akita, a light snow was falling and the men…” at which point His Majesty broke in and said: “Stop there! It is a most elegant and striking picture. Nothing more is needed.” He gave the old man a handsome present and sent him away.’ Such a story may seem a long way from the spirit of Bushido or the Rape of Nanking; but it tells one something equally important — indeed, more important — about the nature of Japan.