THE day before Nagaoka’s last “Castle Sinking Celebration,” Kin took me to walk along the edge of the old castle moat. Years before, part of it had been levelled up, and was now occupied by neat little rice farms; but most of it was still only a marshy waste that was gradually being filled with rubbish from the town. In one place an angle of the wall projected out pretty far, forming a protected pond where was clustered a crowded mass of velvety lotus leaves. Kin said that the water of the moat used to be very deep and as clear as a mirror; and that, here and there, were large patches of lotus leaves, which, in the blooming season, looked like unevenly woven brocade with a raised pattern of white-and-pink blossoms.

“What did the castle look like, Kin? I want to hear again,” I said, looking across the dykes to the ruined walls and piles of heaped-up stones on the top of the hill.

“Like all castles, Etsu-bo Sama,” she replied, “except that this was ours.”

It was not often that Kin’s gay spirits were sobered, but she stood gazing gravely across at the ruins, saying nothing more.

I turned my face toward the hill and closed my eyes, trying to see, in my mind, the picture so often painted for me by the loyal lips of Jiya or Ishi. A great square mass of stone and plaster with narrow, white-barred windows and tiers of curving roofs artistically zig-zagging over each other in such a manner that an object thrown from any corner would find an unobstructed path to the ground; and high above the deep eaves and many-pointed roofs, on each end of the curving roof-ridge, a bronze fish with up-lifted tail shining rich and dark in the sunshine. Below, at the base of the pine-topped dykes, slept in dark quietude the waters of the moat—called “the bottomless” by simple-hearted people—whose clear waters reflected the six-sided stones of the “tortoise-back” wall.

“Come, Etsu-bo Sama, we must go.”

I opened my eyes with a jerk. Nothing of the picture was there except the dykes that once formed a protection from flying arrows and shooting spears, and now were only hilly, peaceful vegetable gardens.

“All of this ground beyond,” said Kin, with a wide sweep of her hand as we started toward home, “was once covered with beautiful gardens of noble retainers whose mansions were gathered about the outer wall of the castle. Now all that beauty is crushed into hundreds of plain little farms; and some of them, like ours, are ploughed by the unused hands of vassals of the ‘ancient glorious’!”

Kin was quiet all the way home, and I walked soberly by her side, with my bright anticipations for the morrow’s celebration somewhat dampened.

“Castle Sinking” is a term used in Japanese literature to describe the sublime desolation of the useless castle of a conquered people. The new government was both wise and generous in its endeavour to help its subjects adjust themselves to the puzzling situation which confronted them at the close of the war, but Nagaoka people were slow to forget. Many still believed that to have dragged the god-descended Emperor from his palace of holiness and peace, only to plunge him into a material world of sordid duties, was sacrilege; and that the failure of the shogun power to march steadily on its rightful way was a sorrowful thing for Japan.

I was many years younger than the time of the Restoration, but its memories were with me all through my childhood, for I was born not so long after those years of desolation and bitterness but that the everyday talk of the town was of the awful days that had left so many homes without a master. In my babyhood I heard war-songs as frequently as lullabies, and half of my childhood stories were tales of heroes on the battlefield. From the gateway of my home could be seen the ruined walls and half-filled moat of the castle, our godowns were filled to the roof with weapons and belongings of my father’s retainers, and I scarcely ever went on to the street that I did not meet some old person who, as I passed, would stand humbly aside, bowing and bowing, with respectful and tearful murmurings of the “glories of the past.” Ah me! Death had stepped many times between the strain of those days and the hesitating progress of my childhood’s time, and yet the old spirit of dutiful loyalty to the overlord was not yet quenched.

May 7, 1869, was the day on which all power was removed from Nagaoka castle by the new Government, and after the bitterness of the first few years had passed, the anniversary of that day was always observed by the samurai families of the town. To the newcomers and to the tradespeople, the celebration was only an interesting episode, but to those who took part it was a tribute to the dying spirit of chivalry. The morning after my walk with Kin by the castle moat, I wakened with an excited feeling that something was going to happen. And indeed, it was a day of busy happenings! For breakfast everybody ate black rice—rice husked but not whitened, such as is used by soldiers during the haste of battle marches—and in the afternoon a sham battle was held on Yukuzan plain back of the shrine dedicated to the Nagaoka daimios.

What a gay assemblage there was that day! Most of the aristocracy were poor and much of their valuable armour had been disposed of, but everybody had retained some, and each one appeared in what he had. I can even now see the procession as it started, with my father as leader. He sat very straight on his horse, and, to my childish eyes, looked very grand in his cloth garment with close-wrist sleeves and bloomer-like skirt, over which rattled and clanged the lacquer-scaled breastplate with its cross-stitching of silk cord and its great gold crest. Of course, his own horse was gone, as well as its elaborate trappings, but Mother’s ingenuity had decorated a plain harness with cords and tassels twisted from strips of silk, thus transforming a tenant’s farm horse into somewhat the appearance of a war steed; and in place of the swords Father was no longer allowed to carry, he wore two sharpened bamboos stuck through his sash. A great crowd of people gathered by the stone bridge at the end of the town to see the little army start out. The spectators had clothed themselves as far as they could in ancient dress, and as they waited, the men all sitting with crossed legs in warrior fashion, they made a courageous-looking company.

Then the drum sounded, and my father raised his saihai—a stick with dangling papers which his ancestors had carried to guide their followers—and rode away, followed by a long train of men in armour as for war. They crossed the fields, climbed the mountain, and, after each warrior had made salutation at the temple, they gathered on the plain for the battle, following it with an exhibition in archery, fencing, spear-throwing, and athletic sports of various kinds.

Our men servants went to Yukuzan plain to watch the sports, but the women were busy all day preparing for the home-coming. Straw mats were spread on the grass and many fires were kindled in the garden over which, tied to a tripod of strong branches, swung large iron kettles holding game seasoned with miso, which with bran-rice forms the food of soldiers in camp. About twilight the little army came riding back. We children, dressed in our best attire, ran out to the big gateway and waited between the two tall lantern stands with the welcoming lights. When Father saw us he opened his iron war-fan and swung it back and forth, as one would wave a handkerchief in greeting, and we bowed and bowed in reply.

“Your honourable father looks to-day as he used to look in the prosperous time,” said Mother, half sadly, “and I am thankful that you, his daughter, have seen him so.”

The men piled their heavy regalia in a corner of the garden, and sat around the kettles, eating and laughing with the freedom of camp life. Father did not change his clothes, except to throw back his war hat, where it hung by its silk cord, encasing him, front and back, in two Inagaki crests; “thus boldly identifying myself to both friends and enemies,” he said, laughing. Then, sitting on a high garden stone, he told war stories to us children, as we crowded close to each other on a straw mat before him.

That was our last celebration in memory of the castle sinking of Nagaoka. On the next May 7th the plain was flooded from a drenching downpour, and the year following, Father was in ill health. The men did not care for the sports without their old lord as leader, so the celebration was postponed to a day that never came.

Father never entirely recovered from the effects of the hard years of the Restoration. Each one as it passed left him looking less like the sturdy, ambitious youth—for he was only thirty at that time—who had held the reins of excited Nagaoka during those desperate days, but his brave, cheerful spirit remained unchanged. Even through the first erratic years of Japan’s struggle to gain a foothold in the new world, when people were recklessly throwing off the old and madly reaching out for the new, Father had gone on his way, calm and unexcited. He held, with the most progressive men of his day, a strong belief in the ultimate success of Japan’s future, but—and in this he received little sympathy—he also retained a deep reverence for the past. Father, however, was much liked, and he generally could turn aside undesirable comments or lengthy arguments by the aid of a keen sense of humour, which had a way of breaking through his stateliness and dignity like a gleam of unexpected sunshine; and so, without title or power, he held, as of old, his place as leader.

One autumn day, Father’s physician, who was a very progressive man and as much friend as physician, suggested that Father should go to Tokyo and consult some doctors of a new hospital renowned for its successful use of Western methods. Father decided to go, and of course he took Jiya with him.

With Father and Jiya both gone, I was desolate. I still feel the heart-pull of those lonely days. Sister was preparing for her marriage, which was to take place in the fall, and her time was taken up with many things. I don’t know what I should have done but for my good Shiro, who was equally lonely with me. Shiro really belonged to me, but of course I never called him mine, for it was considered rough and unladylike for a girl to own a dog. But I was allowed to play with him, and every day, as soon as my lessons were over, we would wander around together. One day we had visited the archery ground and were on the long walk where Father liked to trudge up and down for exercise, when suddenly Shiro galloped away from me toward a little house just within the gateway, where Jiya lived alone. Jiya’s wife had died before I could remember, but he was a capable housekeeper, and any afternoon during the summer that I might go to his neat porch I would find a square lacquer box holding the most delicious things that a little girl could possibly want to eat between meals—a sweet potato baked in ashes and sprinkled with salt; or some big, brown chestnuts baked until their jackets had burst, disclosing the creamy richness of the dainty that was waiting for my fingers.

I hurried after Shiro and found him pushed close against the porch, his tail wagging and his nose eagerly sniffing in the corner where the lacquer box used to stand.

“Oh, no, no, Shiro!” I mournfully said. “The lacquer box is gone. Jiya is gone. Everybody is gone.”

I sat down on the edge of the porch and Shiro snuggled his cold nose into my long sleeve. We were two as disconsolate creatures as could be found, and as I buried my hand in his rough white fur, I had to struggle hard to remember that a samurai’s daughter does not cry.

Suddenly I recalled the saying, “To unreasonably relax is cowardice.” I bounded up. I talked to Shiro. I played with him. I even ran races with him in the garden. When at last I returned to the house I had reason to suspect that the family felt disapproval of my wild conduct, but because I was all dearness to my father I escaped reproof for his sake. Everyone had a tender heart in those days; for the heaviness of dread was upon us all.

One day Shiro fell sick, and would eat nothing I put into his bowl. I had a childish feeling that if he would eat he would get well, but that day happened to be the death anniversary of an ancestor, and was therefore a day of fasting. We had only vegetables for dinner, and so there were no good scraps for Shiro. As always when in trouble, I went to Ishi. She knew we ought not to handle fish on a fast day, but she pitied my anxiety and smuggled me some fish bones from somewhere. I took them to a distant part of the garden and crushed them between two flat stones. Then I mixed them with bean soup from the kitchen and took them to the kindling shed where Shiro was lying on his straw mat. Poor Shiro looked grateful, but he would not get up; and thinking that perhaps he was cold, I ran to my room and brought my crêpe cushion to cover him.

When this became known to my grandmother, she sent for me to come to her room. The moment I lifted my face after bowing I knew this was not one of the times when I was to be entertained with sweet bean-cake.

“Little Etsu-ko,” she said (she always called me “Etsu-ko” when she spoke sternly), “I must speak to you of something very important. I am told that you wrapped Shiro with your silk cushion.”

Startled at her tone, I meekly bowed.

“Do you not know,” she went on, “that you are guilty of the utmost unkindness to Shiro when you do inappropriate things for him?”

I must have looked shocked and puzzled, for she spoke very gently after that, explaining that since white dogs belong to the order next lower than that of human beings, my kindness might postpone for another lifetime Shiro’s being born in human shape.

According to transmigration belief, the boundary line between the orders of creation must be strictly maintained. If we place an animal above its proper position we may prevent its advance in the next incarnation. Every devout Buddhist is absolutely submissive to Fate , for he is taught that hardship in his present life is either the atonement for sins committed in the last existence, or the education necessary to prepare him for a higher place in the life to come. This belief has held Japan’s labouring class in cheerful resignation through ages of hardship, but also it has taught us to look with such indifference upon the sufferings of creatures below us in the order of creation that we have become, as a nation, almost sympathy-blind.

As quickly as possible to be polite, I thanked my grandmother and hurried to beg Shiro’s pardon. I found him covered very comfortably with a matting of soft rice-straw suitable to his station. Out in the garden two coolies were engaged in burning the crêpe cushion. Their faces were very grave.

Poor Shiro! He had the best care we could give him, but the next morning his body was asleep under the straw matting and his spirit had passed on to the next state, which I pray was not lower because of my kindly meant mistake. He was buried in the sunniest corner of the garden beneath a big chestnut tree where many an autumn morning he and I had happily tossed and caught the fallen brown nuts. It would never have done for Shiro’s grave to be publicly marked, but over it my father quietly placed, on his return, a small gray stone, in memory of his little girl’s most faithful vassal.

Alas! Before the chestnut burrs were spilling their brown nuts over Shiro’s grave, my dear father had been laid to rest in the family burial ground at Chokoji, and one more tablet had been placed in the gilded shrine before which every morning and evening we bowed in love and reverence.


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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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