WE DID not have kindergartens when I was a child, but long before the time when I could have been admitted to the new “after-the-sixth-birthday” school, I had acquired a goodly foundation for later study of history and literature. My grandmother was a great reader, and during the shut-in evenings of the long, snowy winters we children spent much time around her fire-box, listening to stories. In this way I became familiar, when very young, with our mythology, with the lives of Japan’s greatest historical personages and with the outline stories of many of our best novels. Also I learned much of the old classic dramas from Grandmother’s lips. My sister received the usual education for girls, but mine was planned along different lines for the reason that I was supposed to be destined for a priestess. I had been born with the navel cord looped around the neck like a priest’s rosary, and it was a common superstition in those days that this was a direct command from Buddha. Both my grandmother and my mother sincerely believed this, and since in a Japanese home the ruling of the house and the children is left to the women, my father silently bowed to the earnest wish of my grandmother to have me educated for a priestess. He, however, selected for my teacher a priest whom he knew—a very scholarly man, who spent little time in teaching me the forms of temple worship, but instructed me most conscientiously in the doctrine of Confucius. This was considered the foundation of all literary culture, and was believed by my father to be the highest moral teaching of the time.

My teacher always came on the days of threes and sevens—that is, the third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, and twenty-seventh. This was in accordance with our moon-calendar custom of dividing days into groups of tens instead of sevens, as is done by the sun calendar. I enjoyed my lessons very much. The stateliness of my teacher’s appearance, the ceremony of his manner, and the rigid obedience required of me appealed to my dramatic instinct. Then the surroundings were most impressive to my childish mind. The room was always made ready with especial care the day of my lessons, and when I entered, invariably I saw the same sight. I close my eyes now and all is as clear as if I had seen it but an hour ago.

The room was wide and light and was separated from the garden porch by a row of sliding paper doors crossed with slender bars of wood. The black-bordered straw mats were cream-coloured with time, but immaculate in their dustlessness. Books and desks were there, and in the sacred alcove hung a roll picture of Confucius. Before this was a little teakwood stand from which rose a curling mist of incense. On one side sat my teacher, his flowing gray robes lying in straight, dignified lines about his folded knees, a band of gold brocade across his shoulder, and a crystal rosary round his left wrist. His face was always pale, and his deep, earnest eyes beneath the priestly cap looked like wells of soft velvet. He was the gentlest and the saintliest man I ever saw. Years after, he proved that a holy heart and a progressive mind can climb together, for he was excommunicated from the orthodox temple for advocating a reform doctrine that united the beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity. Whether through accident or design, this broad-minded priest was the teacher chosen for me by my broad-minded though conservative father.

My studies were from books intended only for boys, as it was very unusual for a girl to study Chinese classics. My first lessons were from the “Four Books of Confucius.” These are: Daigaku—“Great Learning,” which teaches that the wise use of knowledge leads to virtue; Chuyo—“The Unchanging Centre,” which treats of the unalterableness of universal law; Rongo and Moshi—which consist of the autobiography, anecdotes, and sayings of Confucius, gathered by his disciples.

I was only six years old, and of course I got not one idea from this heavy reading. My mind was filled with many words in which were hidden grand thoughts, but they meant nothing to me then. Sometimes I would feel curious about a half-caught idea and ask my teacher the meaning. His reply invariably was:

“Meditation will untangle thoughts from words,” or “A hundred times reading reveals the meaning.” Once he said to me, “You are too young to comprehend the profoundly deep books of Confucius.”

This was undoubtedly true, but I loved my lessons. There was a certain rhythmic cadence in the meaningless words that was like music, and I learned readily page after page, until I knew perfectly all the important passages of the four books and could recite them as a child rattles off the senseless jingle of a counting-out game. Yet those busy hours were not wasted. In the years since, the splendid thoughts of the grand old philosopher have gradually dawned upon me; and sometimes when a well-remembered passage has drifted into my mind, the meaning has come flashing like a sudden ray of sunshine.

My priest-teacher taught these books with the same reverence that he taught his religion—that is, with all thought of worldly comfort put away. During my lesson he was obliged, despite the humble wish, to sit on the thick silk cushion the servant brought him, for cushions were our chairs, and the position of instructor was too greatly revered for him to be allowed to sit on a level with his pupil; but throughout my two-hour lesson he never moved the slightest fraction of an inch except with his hands and his lips. And I sat before him on the matting in an equally correct and unchanging position.

Once I moved. It was in the midst of a lesson. For some reason I was restless and swayed my body slightly, allowing my folded knee to slip a trifle from the proper angle. The faintest shade of surprise crossed my instructor’s face; then very quietly he closed his book, saying gently but with a stern air:

“Little Miss, it is evident that your mental attitude to-day is not suited for study. You should retire to your room and meditate.”

My little heart was almost killed with shame. There was nothing I could do. I humbly bowed to the picture of Confucius and then to my teacher, and backing respectfully from the room, I slowly went to my father to report, as I always did, at the close of my lesson. Father was surprised, as the time was not yet up, and his unconscious remark, “How quickly you have done your work!” was like a death knell. The memory of that moment hurts like a bruise to this very day.

Since absence of bodily comfort while studying was the custom for priests and teachers, of course all lesser people grew to feel that hardship of body meant inspiration of mind. For this reason my studies were purposely arranged so that the hardest lessons and longest hours came during the thirty days of midwinter, which the calendar calls the coldest of the year. The ninth day is considered the most severe, so we were expected to be especially earnest in our study on that day.

I will remember a certain “ninth day” when my sister was about fourteen years old. She was preparing to be married, therefore the task selected for her was sewing. Mine was penmanship. In those days penmanship was considered one of the most important studies for culture. This was not so much for its art—although it is true that practising Japanese penmanship holds the same intense artistic fascination as does the painting of pictures—but it was believed that the highest training in mental control came from patient practice in the complicated brush strokes of character-writing. A careless or perturbed state of mind always betrays itself in the intricate shading of ideographs, for each one requires absolute steadiness and accuracy of touch. Thus, in careful guidance of the hand were we children taught to hold in leash the mind.

With the first gleam of sunrise on this “ninth day,” Ishi came to wake me. It was bitterly cold. She helped me dress, then I gathered together the materials for my work, arranging the big sheets of paper in a pile on my desk and carefully wiping every article in my ink-box with a square of silk. Reverence for learning was so strong in Japan at that time that even the tools we used were considered almost sacred. I was supposed to do every-thing for myself on this day, but my kind Ishi hovered around me, helping in every way she could without actually doing the work herself. Finally we went to the porch overlooking the garden. The snow was deep everywhere. I remember how the bamboo grove looked with its feathery tops so snow-laden that they were like wide-spread umbrellas. Once or twice a sharp crack and a great soft fluff of spurting snow against the gray sky told that a trunk had snapped under its too heavy burden. Ishi took me on her back and, pushing her feet into her snow-boots, slowly waded to where I could reach the low branch of a tree, from which I lifted a handful of perfectly pure, untouched snow, just from the sky. This I melted to mix for my penmanship study. I ought to have waded to get the snow myself, but—Ishi did it.

Since the absence of bodily comfort meant inspiration of mind, of course I wrote in a room without a fire. Our architecture is of tropical origin; so the lack of the little brazier of glowing charcoal brought the temperature down to that of outside. Japanese picture-writing is slow and careful work. I froze my fingers that morning without knowing it until I looked back and saw my good nurse softly crying as she watched my purple hand. The training of children, even of my age, was strict in those days, and neither she nor I moved until I had finished my task. Then Ishi wrapped me in a big padded kimono that had been warmed and hurried me into my grandmother’s room. There I found a bowl of warm, sweet rice-gruel made by my grandmother’s own hands. Tucking my chilled knees beneath the soft, padded quilt that covered the sunken fire-box I drank the gruel, while Ishi rubbed my stiff hand with snow.

Of course, the necessity of this rigid discipline was never questioned by any one, but I think that, because I was a delicate child, it sometimes caused my mother uneasiness. Once I came into the room where she and Father were talking.

“Honorable Husband,” she was saying, “I am sometimes so bold as to wonder if Etsu-bo’s studies are not a little severe for a not-too-strong child.”

My father drew me over to his cushion and rested his hand gently on my shoulder.

“We must not forget, Wife,” he replies, “the teaching of a samurai home. The lioness pushes her young over the cliff and watches it climb slowly back from the valley without one sign of pity, though her heart aches for the little creature. So only can it gain strength for its life work.”

Because I was having the training and studies of a boy was one of the reasons my family got in the habit of calling me Etsu-bo, the termination bo being used for a boy’s name, as ko is for a girl’s. But my lessons were not confined to those for a boy. I also learned all the domestic accomplishments taught my sisters—sewing, weaving, embroidery, cooking, flower-arranging, and the complicated etiquette of ceremonial tea.

Nevertheless my life was not all lessons. I spent many happy hours in play. With the conventional order of old Japan, we children had certain games for each season—the warm, damp days of early spring, the twilight evenings of summer, the crisp, fragrant harvest time, or the clear, cold, snow-shoe days of winter. And I believe I enjoyed every game we ever played—from the simple winter-evening pastime of throwing a threaded needle at a pile of rice-cakes, to see how many each of us could gather on her string, to the exciting memory contests with our various games of poem cards.

We had boisterous games, too, in which a group—all girls, of course—would gather in some large garden or on a quiet street where the houses were hemmed in behind hedges of bamboo and evergreen. Then we would race and whirl in “The Fox Woman from the Mountain” or “Hunting for Hidden Treasure”; we would shout and scream as we tottered around on stilts in the forbidden boy-game of “Riding the High-stepping Bamboo Horse” or the hopping game of “The One-legged Cripples.”

But no outdoor play of our short summers nor any indoor game of our long winters was so dear to me as were stories. The servants knew numberless priest tales and odd jingles that had come down by word of mouth from past generations, and Ishi, who had the best memory and the readiest tongue of them all, possessed an unending fund of simple old legends. I don’t remember ever going to sleep without stories from her untiring lips. The dignified tales of Honourable Grandmother were wonderful, and the happy hours I spent sitting, with primly folded hands, on the mat before her—for I never used a cushion when Grandmother was talking to me—have left lasting and beautiful memories. But with Ishi’s stories everything was different. I listened to them, all warm and comfortable, snuggled up crookedly in the soft cushions of my bed, giggling and interrupting and begging for “just one more” until the unwelcome time would arrive when, Ishi, laughing but stern, would reach over to my night lantern, push one wick down into the oil, straighten the other, and drop the paper panel. Then, at last, surrounded by the pale, soft light of the shaded room, I had to say good-night and settle myself into the kinoji, which was the proper sleeping position for every samurai girl.


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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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