ONE day the servants returned from temple service talking excitedly about a fire at Kyoto which had destroyed the great Hongwanji. As this was the prince temple of Shin, the sect most popular among the masses, interest in its rebuilding was widespread, and donations were being sent from every part of the Empire. The Buddhist exiles of ancient time had left their impress upon Echigo to such an extent that it soon excelled all other provinces in eagerness to give, and Nagaoka was the very centre of the enthusiasm.

The first and the fifteenth of each month, being workmen’s holidays, were favourite times for collecting; and as our gifts were mostly of our own products, it was interesting to watch the people who thronged the streets on these days. Besides our own townsfolk, each one carrying a basket or bundle, groups kept coming each hour of the day from the mountains and from neighbouring villages. There were men laden with bunches of hemp and coils of rope, or with bundles of bamboo poles, the long ends trailing on the ground as they walked; women from weaving villages weighted down with bolts of silk or cotton; and farmers pulling long carts piled high with bales of “the five grains”—rice, millet, wheat, oats, and beans—with the farmer’s wife (frequently with a baby on her back) pushing at the end. All these gifts were taken to a large building put up on purpose for them, and every day the collection grew.

One day Ishi and I were standing just within our big gateway, watching the people go by. I noticed that almost every woman had her head wrapped in the blue-and-white towel that servants wear when dusting or working in the kitchen.

“Why does everybody wear tenugui on the streets?” I asked.

“Those women have cut their hair, Etsu-bo Sama,” Ishi replied.

“Are they all widows?” I asked in astonishment; for it was the custom for a widow to cut off her hair at the neck and bury half of it with her husband, the other half being kept until her own death.

I thought I had never seen so many widows in my life, but I soon learned that these women had cut off most of their hair that it might be braided into a huge rope to be used in drawing the lumber for the important centre beam of the new temple. Our own servants had cut big bunches from their heads, but, with more moderate enthusiasm than that of the peasant class, they had retained enough to dress it so as to cover their bald crowns. One of the maids, however, in religious fervour, had cut off so much that she had to postpone her marriage for three years; for no girl could marry with short hair. Not a man of those days would be brave enough to risk the ill omen of taking a bride with the cut hair of a widow.

Our family did not belong to the Shin sect of Buddhists, but every woman, of whatever sect, wanted to have a part in the holy cause, so each of us added a few strands. The hair was taken to the building where the donations were kept and braided into long, thick ropes; then, just before the removal to Kyoto, all the gifts were dedicated with an elaborate religious ceremony.

It seemed to my childish mind that almost everybody in the world came to Nagaoka that day. Most certainly the near-by country district and all the neighbouring villages had emptied themselves into the narrow streets through which Ishi took me on our way to the temple. But at last we were stationed in a safe place and I stood holding tight to her hand and looking up wonderingly at the great shrine of gold-and-black lacquer which was placed high on an ox-cart just in front of the temple entrance. The curving doors were wide open, showing the calm-faced Buddha standing with folded hands. Surrounding the base of the shrine, gradually widening and spreading above it, was a delicate framework representing the “five-coloured clouds of Paradise.” Many, many lotus blossoms of gold and silver, pink, purple, and orange twisted through the carved clouds and seemed to float in the air. It was wondrously beautiful. The two oxen, loaned by proud farmers for this occasion, were almost covered with strips of bright-coloured silk dangling in long, fluttering streamers from horns and harness.

Suddenly there was a moment’s hush. Then with the returning sound of a multitude of voices mingled the beating of gongs and the shrill piping of temple music.

“Look, Etsu-bo Sama!” said Ishi. “The sacred Buddha is starting on the tour of appreciation. It is the first time in many years that the Holy One has come forth from the temple altar. To-day is a great day!”

As the oxen strained and pushed against the big wooden yoke and the shrine with the gilded Buddha began to move, a low murmur of “Namu Amida Butsu!” (Hail, Great Buddha!) breathed through the air. With deep reverence I bowed my head, and folding my hands together, I, too, whispered the holy words.

Two long twisted ropes of cloth, purple and white, were fastened to the front of the broad cart and reached far past the oxen to the chanting priests in front. These ropes were held by the eager hands of many men and boys, women and girls, some with babies on their backs, and little children of all ages. I saw a playmate.

“Ishi! Ishi!” I cried, so excited that I almost tore her sleeve. “There is Sadako San holding the rope! Oh, may I walk beside her and hold the rope too? Oh, may I?”

“Hush, little Mistress. You must not forget to be gentle. Yes, I will walk with you. Your little hands shall help the holy Buddha.”

And so we walked in the procession—Ishi and I. Never in my life, perhaps, shall I experience an hour more exalted than when we passed through these narrow streets behind the solemn, chanting priests, my hand clasped about the pulling cord of the great swaying, creaking cart, and my heart filled with awe and reverence.

The services of dedication I recall very mistily. The new building was crowded with huge pyramids of donations of every kind. The shrine was carried in and placed before a purple curtain with a big swastika crest on it. There were marching, chanting priests in gorgeous robes with crystal rosaries around their folded hands. There was the fragrance of incense, the sound of soft temple drums, and everywhere low murmurs of “Namu Amida Butsu!

Only one thing in the great room stands clear in my memory. On a platform in front of the altar, with the holy Buddha just above, was the huge coil of jet-black rope—made of the hair of thousands of women. My mind went back to the day when I thought I was seeing so many widows in the street, and to our servants with their scanty hair dressed over bald crowns, and then, with a pang of humiliation, I recalled the day our own offering was sent; for beside the long, glossy straight wisps of my sister’s hair lay a shorter strand that curved into ugly mortifying waves.

Even after all these years I feel a bit of pity for the little girl who was myself when I remember how many bitter trials she had to endure because of her wavy hair. Curly hair was not admired in Japan, so although I was younger than my sisters, on hairdressing day, which came three times in ten days, I was placed in the care of the hairdresser as soon as she came into the house. This was unusual, for the eldest should always be attended to first. Immediately after the shampoo, she saturated my hair with almost boiling hot tea mixed with some kind of stiffening oil. Then she pulled the hair back as tight as possible and tied it. Thus I was left while she dressed the hair of my sisters. By that time my whole head was stiff and my eyebrows pulled upward, but my hair was straight for the time being, and could easily be arranged in the two shining loops tied with polished cord, which was the proper style for me. From the time I can remember I was always careful about lying quiet on my little wooden pillow at night, but by the next morning there was sure to be little twists at my neck and a suspicious curve in the loops on top of the head. How I envied the long, straight locks of the court ladies in the roll picture hanging in my room!

One time I rebelled and used return words to my nurse, who was trying to comfort me during one of my “gluing-up” experiences. Kind old Ishi forgave me at once, but my mother overheard and called me to her room. I was a little sullen, I remember, as I bowed and seated myself before her cushion, and she looked at me severely as she spoke.

“Etsu-ko,” she said, “do you not know that curly hair is like animal’s hair? A samurai’s daughter should not be willing to resemble a beast.”

I was greatly mortified and never again complained of the discomfort of hot tea and scented oil.

On the day of my “seventh-year” celebration I experienced a humiliation so deep that it still aches me to think of it. This celebration is a very important event in the life of a Japanese girl—as much so as her début party is to an American young lady. All our woman relatives were invited to a great feast, where I, in a beautiful new gown, occupied the place of honour. My hair had been elaborately arranged, but the day was rainy and I suppose some persistent small strands had escaped their stiff prison, for I overheard one of my aunts say, “It’s a shameful waste to put a beautiful dress on Etsu. It only attracts attention to her ugly, twisty hair.”

How deeply a child can feel! I wanted to shrivel to nothingness inside the gown of which I had been so proud, but I looked straight ahead and did not move. The next moment, when Ishi came in with some rice and looked at me, I saw the pain in her eyes and I knew that she had heard.

That night when she came to undress me she had not removed the little blue-and-white towel that all Japanese servants wear over the hair when at work. I was surprised, for it is not polite to appear before a superior with the head covered, and Ishi was always courteous. I soon found out the truth. She had gone to the temple as soon as the dinner was over, and cutting off her splendid straight hair, had placed it before the shrine, praying the gods to transfer her hair to me. My good Ishi! My heart thanks her yet for her loving sacrifice.

Who shall say that God did not pity the simple soul’s ignorant, loving effort to save from humiliation the child she loved? At any rate, her prayer was answered when in later years the hand of fate turned my steps toward a land where my curly hair no longer caused me either sorrow or shame.


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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