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7 September 2021

From the NS archive: Old wine in new skins

10 May 1913: A tale of poverty and tragedy in modernising Japan.

By Chute Collum

In this piece of fictional reportage, Chute Collum (full name Vera Christina Chute Collum), a remarkable woman – journalist, suffragist, anthropologist and radiographer – imagined the sad demise of an elderly man in a Japanese farming village. Japan’s wars and its rapid industrialisation, its burgeoning new class of officials and its lurch into the modern world had laid a burden of taxation on poor agriculturalists, which had impoverished innumerable country villages. Collum’s central character was one of its victims, a man of noble stock reduced to subsistence farming and the prospect of further decline. In her potent story the pressures of traditional mores and modern impecuniousness have a tragic denouement. Collum used her small and personal tale to stand for the wider changes and challenges facing a whole class as Japan rolled into the 20th century.


The peculiar stillness of frost hung over the wide flat valley, so that the snow-clad mountains, rising abruptly from it and hemming it in, and the low now-burdened houses that broke the even surface of the rice-fields at its western end, looked like some old print by Hokusai or Hiroshige, until there appeared on the scored track that told of a road cutting the valley in two a little running figure emerging from a gap in the apparently solid wall of hills. He was clad in the dark blue cloth jacket and knickerbocker of modern Japanese officialdom and his peaked cap, his satchel, and his sturdy legs swathed in cotton puttees and shod with frayed straw sandals pronounced him to be a postman. Swinging along at an even, springy pace, he had trotted unconcernedly from the small town at the far eastern end of the chain of valleys that formed his district, and in his bag he carried one letter for the little hamlet nestling under the wooded flanks of the western hills.

This hamlet comprised about a score of low-roofed and heavily thatched houses, only separated from one another by little paths beaten in the snow. They were all farmers’ dwellings, home of the hard-working, patient peasant farmers of Japan, who can, if they will but stint themselves enough, save the princely sum of £3 sterling every year.

The sun had already slipped over the top of the western rampart of white hills when the postman came through the eastern gap of the valley, and in the woods on the lower slope of the mountains the village women were tying up their great bundles of firewood preparatory to going home; and in the houses the farmers and their sons were beginning to think with comfortable anticipation of the approaching evening meal as they toiled at the matting-weaving and basket-making by which they helped to keep their bare homes together and to lay aside a few yen towards that magnificent three pounds per annum. But in one house there was no work going on. Most of the rooms were shuttered, partly because no one ever used them, partly in order to hide the poverty within. Only in one room was there sign of a living creature. Here an old man sat huddled up by a charcoal brazier, over whose meagre embers no kettle hissed invitingly with suggestions of warm food and tea. The quilted coat in which he was wrapped was shabby and worn, though it was made of the best material and wadded with floss-silk. He had a fine, beautifully chiselled face, and his white hair and beard gave him an aristocratic look that accorded ill with his poor surroundings. Under the quilted coat, at his belt, there hung a slender pipe and a little empty pouch. Tobacco, like tea, had long been given up in order to provide the fees for his son’s higher education.

The old man was one of Japan’s landed proprietors, descended from good samurai stock, of a small, poor clan; and now, like most of the working farmers, he was living in a condition that in other lands would be called semi-starvation; in Japan he was only held to be doing his little part towards paying for a costly war, a rapidly growing army and navy, a system which protected infant manufacturing industries at his expense, a government which necessitated an incredibly large organisation of officials – paying dearly, in short, for the upkeep of a modern empire which had forgotten to consult or consider its agriculturists when framing its policy and constitution.

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His wife, also a descendant of samurai, was out in the woods, cutting and carrying timber; his two eldest sons lay buried on a Manchurian battlefield; his only daughter had married and gone to live in another part of Japan, with new parents to care for and new duties to be done. His youngest son was in an office in Tokyo, already earning his two pound ten per month – for the old man knew better than to let him try to make a living on the land, with fresh taxation every year and the price of commodities steadily going up. He would have liked him to become an official, since in a country like Japan officials have a status all their own, and huge numbers of them are needed to govern their voteless fellow-men and to administer the laws; but an old friend and fellow-clansman had found the youth an opening in a city office, and the old man felt that it would be both churlish and unwise to refuse a definite opportunity.

The room grew darker and darker – almost suddenly; for once the sun has slipped beyond the western hills it grows dark apace in these shut-in valleys. In order to save the oil, the lamp would not be lighted until the woman of the house returned from the woodcutting in time to prepare the evening meal of warmed-up foreign rice. The old man nodded over the hibachi, his thin hands clutching his pointed elbows, his white beard trailing perilously near the two or three glowing embers hoarded in the midst of the desert of grey ash. He did not hear the postman’s feet padding up the path of beaten snow outside, but he awoke with a start as the man pushed back the sliding wooden door with hearty violence, and, flinging the long, flimsy, pink envelope on the mats, genially shouted “Yubin!” (“Post”).

It was a dreary-looking house, and to the postman’s eye the room seemed empty, so he slid the door back with a rattle and trotted off again with a cheery grimace of disappointment. The old man groped for matches, struck one, and looked at the name and address of the sender on the back of the envelope. The letter was from his son’s employer. Could the boy be ill? Hastily, and with trembling fingers, he lighted the lamp and set it down close to the brazier. He tore open the long envelope and glanced over the single businesslike sheet folded inside. Something he saw there seemed to turn the old man to stone. He sat quite still for a long time, staring at the black characters on the flimsy sheet. He was an old man, but in those quickly passing moments his shoulders grew more bent, his features more peaked and lined, his eyes more dim. At last he rose with a deep sigh, and crossing over to a little lacquer cabinet that stood in a corner, took from it a writing brush, inkstone, and a roll of paper. His hand did not tremble as he rubbed the stick of charcoal in water and then on the inkstone, nor when, the ink being prepared, he began to write slowly with the brush of badger’s hair.

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It was a short letter. He affixed his seal, folded the paper, and enclosed it in anenvelope; then stamped it, and laid it, superscription uppermost, on the mats beside the other letter, close to the lamp. It was addressed to his son’s employer. Then he went into an adjoining room for a few moments, and returned, dressed in his best clothes, with a dirk, wrapped in a folded sheet of white paper, in his hand. He sat down, facing the Buddhist god-shelf in the best room, next door, and then quietly and deliberately cut his throat.


In the cold and cheerless court room there was a painful hush. The trial was over, and the young man who had embezzled his employer’s money stood with bent head, awaiting the judge’s verdict. At that moment a stout elderly man forced his way into the court room, pushing aside the policeman who tried to bar his progress, and, flourishing a letter in his hand, tried to approach the judge. The judge recognised in the intruder the prisoner’s employer, and beckoned to him.

Speaking in an excited whisper, the stout man prayed that the prisoner might be forgiven, and then handed the judge the letter, adding something in a low voice which the prisoner could not hear. There was a dried blood stain on the envelope, and the judge pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows as he drew out the letter and read it in silence. Then he motioned to the stout man to stand down, and, turning to the prisoner, pronounced judgment upon him. The young man bowed. Then the judge added, in a kinder voice: “Your employer is anxious to have you acquitted altogether, and it is owing to his mediation that I have not sentenced you more severely. But you have already been punished far more severely by a Higher Authority than mine. Learning of your crime, your father wrote this letter to your employer” – the youth in the dock looked up with a haggard, expectant face – “apologising for your dishonourable conduct. Then” – the judge glanced at the letter again – “in order to make expiation for your fault he killed himself.”

For 20 seconds not a sound could be heard in the court. Everyone looked shocked or astonished according to his sympathies. Then the young man in the dock collapsed on a chair and began to sob. The judge put his papers together, and people began to whisper and look and point. The stout man blew his nose vigorously and moved his great shoulders impatiently, and then two policemen with impassive faces came forward and led the young man, still crying bitterly, from the dock.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).