MY FIRST year in America was a puzzling, hurried push from one partially comprehended thought to another. Nevertheless it was a happy year. No Japanese bride is ever homesick. She has known from babyhood that fate has another home waiting for her, and that there her destiny is to be fulfilled. Every girl accepts this in the same matter-of-course way that she accepts going to school. In marriage, she does not expect happiness without hardship any more than she expects school to be a playground with no study.

So I drifted on from week to week, occasionally having to remind myself that, even in America, the “eyelids of a samurai know not moisture,” but, on the whole, finding the days full of new and pleasing experiences. I soon learned to like everything about my home, although, at first, the curtained windows, the heavy, dark furniture, the large pictures and the carpeted floors seemed to hem me in.

But I revelled in our wide porches and the broad lawn which swept in a graceful slope, between curving paths, down to the low stone wall. The battlemented top was like an elongated castle turret, and the big stone posts of the iron gates, half hidden from the porch by tall evergreens, seemed to me to have a protecting air. Then there was one big, crooked pine and an icho tree, standing side by side, which when the moon was just right, made a perfect picture of an old Japanese poem:

Between bent branches, a silver sickle swings aloft in youthful incompleteness, unknowing of its coming day of glory.”

Oh, I did love all the outdoors of that home, from the very first moment that I saw it!

Much of my time was spent on one or the other of our three big porches, for Mother loved them almost as much as I did, and we used to go out the first thing after breakfast, she with her sewing and I with the newspaper. In order to improve my English I read the paper every day, and I found it very interesting. I always turned first to the list of divorces in the court news. It was such a surprising thing to me that more women than men should be seeking for freedom. One day I told Mother that I felt sorry for the husbands.

“Why?” she asked. “It is as often the fault of the husband as the wife, I think. Isn’t it so in Japan?”

“But after choosing for herself it must be hard for her wifely pride to acknowledge failure,” I replied.

“How about the man?” said Mother.

He sees, and wants, and beckons;
She blushes, and smiles, and comes—

or not, as she pleases. That is her part: to come or not to come.”

“Why, I thought it was the custom in American marriages for the woman to select,” I said, somewhat surprised; for I, with most Japanese people of that day, so interpreted the constant references in books and papers to the American custom of “women choosing their own husbands.” It was one of many exaggerated ideas that we had of the dominant spirit of American women and the submissive attitude of American men. In the conversation that followed I heard for the first time that in this country the custom is for the worded request always to come from the man.

“It is like the folk tale that tells of the origin of our race,” I said.

“That sounds as if it might be more interesting than the court items in the newspaper,” laughed Mother. “Suppose you tell me about it.”

“It’s rather a long story from the beginning,” I said; “but the important part is that a god and goddess named Izanagi and Izanami—our Adam and Eve—came from Heaven on a floating bridge and formed the islands of Japan. Then they decided to remain and build themselves a home. So they went to the Heavenly Post for the ceremony of marriage. The bride starting from the right and the bridegroom from the left, they walked around the Heavenly Post. When they met on the other side, the goddess exclaimed:

“ ‘Thou beautiful god!’

“The god was displeased and said the bride had spoiled the ceremony, as it was his place to speak first. So they had to begin again. The goddess started again from the right of the Heavenly Post, and the god from the left; but this time, when they met, the goddess did not speak until she was spoken to.

“ ‘Thou beautiful goddess!’ Izanagi said.

“ ‘Thou beautiful god!’ replied Izanami.

“As this time the ceremony was properly performed, the husband and the wife built themselves a home, and from them came the nation of Japan.”

“So it seems that Japanese and American marriages were originally not so unlike, after all,” said Mother.

One of the most surprising things in America to me was the difficulty and often impossibility of my being able to do, as a wife, the very things for which I had been especially trained. Matsuo had come to this country when he was a boy in his teens, and was as unfamiliar with many Japanese customs as I was with those of America; so, with no realization on his part of my problems, I had many puzzling experiences connected with wifely duty. Some of these were tragic and some amusing.

At one time, for several evenings in succession, business detained Matsuo until a late hour. I was not well and Mother objected to my sitting up to await his return. This troubled me greatly; for in Japan it is considered lazy and disgraceful for a wife to sleep while her husband is working. Night after night I lay with wide-open eyes, wondering whom it was my duty to obey–my far-away mother who knew Japanese customs, or the honoured new mother, who was teaching me the ways of America.

I had another puzzling time when Mother was called away for a week by the death of a relative. Our maid, Clara, had heard Japan spoken of as “the land of cherry blossoms,” and, thinking to please me, she made a cherry pie one night for dinner. In Japan cherry trees are cultivated for the blossoms only, just as roses are in America, and I had never seen cherry fruit; but the odour of the pie was delicious as it was placed before me to cut and serve.

“What is that?” asked Matsuo. “Oh, cherry pie! It’s too acid. I don’t care for it.”

No Japanese bride is so disrespectful as to eat a dainty her husband cannot enjoy, so I gave orders for that beautiful pie to be eaten in the kitchen. But my heart followed it, and no pie that I have ever seen since has seemed worthy to compare with that juicily delicious memory.

Clara was always doing kind things for me, and one day I asked Matsuo what I could give her as a present. He said that in America money was always welcome; so I selected a new bill and, as we do in Japan, wrapped it in white paper and wrote on the outside, “This is cake.”

How Matsuo did laugh!

“It’s all right in America to give naked money,” he said.

“But that is only for beggars,” I replied , really troubled.

“Nonsense!” said Matsuo. “Americans consider money an equivalent for service. There is no spiritual value in money.”

I meditated a good deal over that; for to a Japanese the expression of thanks, however deceitful the form it takes, is a heart-throb.

I liked our servants, but they were a never-ending surprise to me. Mother was kindness itself to the maid and to the man who worked on the place; but she had no vital interest in them, and they had no unselfish interest in us. In my home in Japan the servants were minor members of the family, rejoicing and sorrowing with us and receiving in return our cordial interest in their affairs. But this did not mean undue familiarity. There always existed an invisible line “at the doorsill,” and I never knew a servant to overstep it or wish to; for a Japanese servant takes pride in the responsibility of his position. Clara attended to her duties properly, but her pleasures were outside the home; and on the days of her “afternoon out,” she worked with such astonishing energy that it suggested no thought of anything but getting through. I could not help contrasting her with gentle, polite Toshi and her dignified bows of farewell.

But, on the other hand, Clara voluntarily did things for us which I should never have expected from any maid in Japan except my own nurse. One day I cringed with a feeling akin to horror when I heard Matsuo carelessly call out, “Clara, won’t you take these shoes to the kitchen porch for William to clean?”

Such a request of a Japanese servant, other than the one whose duty it was to care for the sandals, would be considered an insult; but Clara picked up the shoes and carried them away, singing cheerily as she went. Life in America was very puzzling.

All Japanese girls are trained in housework, so naturally I was much interested in watching how everything was done in my American home. Mother encouraged my curiosity, saying that the inquiring mind is the one that learns; and Clara was always patient in explaining to “that sweet little Mrs. Sugarmoter.” I was interested in the kitchen most of all, but the things to work with were so heavy, and were hung so high, and the shelves were so far up, that when I attempted to do anything there I found myself at a serious disadvantage. For the first time I sympathized with foreigners in Tokyo, who, it was said, frequently complained of the inconvenient “littleness” of everything. One of the schoolgirls used to tell us amusing tales about a foreign family to whom her father had rented his house. The man had to bow his head every time he passed through a doorway, and his wife thought it dreadful that the servant wanted to cut vegetables on a table six inches from the floor and to wash dishes without soap.

All the schoolgirls thought that that woman must have a peculiar mind, for we understood that foreigners used soap as we did a bran-bag—for bathing only. But after seeing how lavishly Clara used boiling water and soap in the kitchen, I realized that it was necessary, because so much grease and oil are used in American cooking. Our Japanese food was mostly vegetables. For fish we had special dishes and washed them with charcoal ashes.

One Friday, which was our cleaning day, I went into my room and was surprised to find Clara rubbing my bureau with an oiled cloth.

“What are you doing, Clara?” I asked.

“Oh, just cleanin’ up a bit, Mrs. Sugarmoter,” she replied .

To put something sticky on a thing to make it clean was incomprehensible. But when I examined my bureau later and found that it was dry and shiny, and clean, I was still more surprised. None of the wood of Japanese houses, outside or in, was ever varnished, oiled, or painted; and nothing was ever put on furniture except lacquer to preserve, or hot water to cleanse. Taki and Kin wiped the entire woodwork of the house every day with a cloth wrung out of hot water; and our porches were cleaned, morning and evening, by a servant, who, stooping over and pushing a steaming pad of folded cloth before her, ran quickly back and forth, from one end of the porch to the other, carefully following the line of the boards. The porches had gradually become so dark and polished that they reflected distinctly any person walking on them, and since they never were stepped on with outside shoes, they kept their satiny polish for years.

I was always interested in housework, but an exciting interest came at the time of house-cleaning. Then I wandered from room to room, watching with amazement and delight while William and Clara worked. I had never dreamed that the heavy cloth which covered the floors, fitting so neatly into each corner and around the projections, was nailed down and could be lifted up in one immense piece and carried out to be cleaned. Two men were required to do the work. Our floors in Japan were covered with mats that pushed together as tight as the pieces in a box of dominoes, but each mat was only six feet by three in size, and Jiya could easily handle them alone.

Matsuo and I had adjoining rooms, and when I went upstairs to see if the cloth had been taken from his floor also, I saw that the large mahogany closet, which I had supposed was a part of the house, had been pulled out bodily into the middle of the room. I was too surprised for words. And its back—and indeed the backs of all our beautiful furniture—was only rough boards; just such as I had seen in Japan on a cart being taken to the shop of a carpenter. It was most astonishing. I had never before seen any furniture that was not planed and polished all over—outside, inside, top, bottom, and back.

Mother explained that this American deceit originated in the practical idea of saving time and work. Thus I received my first insight into the labour problem.

It was during house-cleaning that Mother and I had our first heart-to-heart talk. She was looking over some trunks of clothing in the attic, and I was sitting near, holding a big cake of camphor, from which I broke off small pieces and wrapped them in tissue paper for her to place between the folds of the garments. She was showing me an army coat which her grandfather had worn in the War of 1812. The open trunks, the disarranged clothing, the familiar odour of camphor in the air, reminded me of the airing-days at home. I could see so well Grandmother’s room where Father and I always went to get away from the ropes of swaying garments and the confusion of busy servants brushing and folding.

“What are you thinking of, Etsu?” asked Mother, with a smile. “Your eyes look as if they were seeing things five thousand miles away.”

“More than that,” I answered, “for they are looking into a past before I was born.”

I leaned over and stroked the big collar of the old army coat on Mother’s lap. In some way it seemed, just then, the nearest to my heart of anything in America.

“In our godown also, Mother,” I said, “are sacred mementoes to which war memories cling. There is a pile of thin-leaved books written in my father’s hand, which are dear treasures to us all. You do not know, Mother, but my father was a prisoner once—held as hostage for a long time in an army camp. His surroundings were very different from what the word suggests here in America. The camp was located in a temple grove, and the part of the temple where the priests lived was given over to the officials and their high-rank prisoner; and although Father was alone among enemies, he was treated as an honoured guest.

“His faithful attendant was separated from him, but instead, were youthful samurai, who with respectful attention cared for every want. For recreation they had trials in art defencing and various samurai sports; and sometimes, as was the social custom among samurai, they would spend hours together in poem competition or in singing classic songs of Old Japan. He had every physical comfort and mental recreation, but he was outside the world. Even his books were poems and prose of fine old literature which held no word of present life. At the close of each monotonous day he would lay his head upon his pillow and his restless mind would wonder—wonder: Had the Imperialist army reached Echigo? Who was in charge of Nagaoka Castle? What was the unknown fate of his retainers? of his son? of his wife and daughters?

“There was a beautiful garden where he walked daily. Perhaps there were guards outside the gate. He did not know. He saw nothing to tell him that he was not free, and probably there was nothing, for his guardians knew that he was held by chains stronger than any that could be forged—the spirit of samurai honour.

“During this lonely time Father’s dearest hours were those he spent with his writing brushes and in games of go with the commander-general—a man of superior culture, who often came to talk with him. The two men had similar tastes and an equal sense of honour—differing only in that they were loyal to different masters—and those months together formed and sealed the friendship of a lifetime. Both were fond of playing go and both played well and earnestly. Neither spoke his secret thought, but, long afterward, Father confided to Mother that he was conscious that in every game they played each in his own heart was fighting for his own cause. Sometimes one would win, sometimes the other; oftener still there was a draw; but always the vanquished gravely congratulated the victor, and as gravely received his formal thanks in reply.

“So passed the days, and weeks, and months, and more months and more, until he dreaded to think back and count. And not a word or look or hint had come to him of any world outside the temple walls.

“Late one beautiful spring afternoon he was sitting quietly in his room overlooking the garden. A priestly chanting was faintly heard from distant rooms. There was a breeze, and falling cherry blossoms were drifting across the garden, their fragrant petals slipping and catching in tinted drifts against the uneven stepping-stones. A young moon was chasing shadows in the pine branches. It was a picture Father never forgot.

“A young attendant approached, and in his usual deferential manner, but with grave face, announced, ‘Honourable Guest, the evening meal is served.’

“Father bowed his head and the little lacquer table was brought and placed before him on the mat.

“At last the expected message had come. The rice bowl was on the right, the soup was on the left; the chop-sticks were standing upright as if to place before a shrine, and the browned fish in the oval dish was without a head. It was the silent command from a samurai to a samurai.

“Father ate his dinner as usual. When the time came for his bath, the attendant was ready. His hair was washed, and the queue, no longer needed to bear the helmet’s weight, was left unoiled and loose, to be tied with a paper cord. He donned his white linen death-robe and over it placed the soft-tinted kamishimo of the samurai who goes to death. Then quietly he waited for the midnight hour.

“The commander-general entered, and greeted him with the soldierly stiffness that hides deep feeling.

“ ‘I come not as an official of the State,’ he said ,‘but as a friend, to ask you to honour me with a message.’

“ ‘I thank you deeply,’ Father replied, ‘for this and other kindness. I left my home to return no more. I gave instructions then. I have no message.’

“But he asked that the Commander would care for his attendant who, by Father’s death, would become a masterless man. The General assured him that this should be done; and also told him that his own highest retainer would be Father’s attendant at the last. Thanks were bowed and formal courtesies exchanged, then these two men, who had grown to know and respect each other deeply, parted with no other word. It seems cold to an American; but it was the samurai way, and each knew the other’s heart.

“The hour came. Father held the highest rank of the seven who waited for the midnight hour; so, first and alone, clothed in his death-robe and with the pride of centuries in his bearing, he walked toward the temple yard. As he entered the enclosure, the others on the opposite side, white-robed and silent, were waiting. One was a child with an attendant close behind. Father saw—saw without looking—the gray face and strained eyes of Minoto, his own little son’s guardian.

“The child made a motion, so slight it was scarcely more than a quiver. Minoto clutched the boy’s sleeves. Father strode on. The quiver passed, the boy sat erect, his eyes looking straight forward. It was my brother. Oh, whatever he has been since, in this new world so unfamiliar to him, there, in his own world—the world which by inheritance and environment he understood—he was a samurai! My father took his place with calm and dignified bearing with his head upright and his eyes looking straight forward—unseeing. But in his heart—— Oh, why could not the God he did not know pity him?” And I clutched the big collar of the old army coat and buried my coward face within its folds—for I had lost my samurai spirit. America had been too good to me, and part of me had died. I felt Mother’s hand upon my shoulder but I dared not lift my head and shame my father, for moisture was on the face of his un-brave daughter.

“Oh, my little girl! My dear little girl! But he did not die! He did not die!”

I lifted my head, but I did not wipe my eyes.

“The war had ended, and the new Government had pardoned all political prisoners,” I said, calm again. “The decision was already known to the officials, and the messengers were on the way; but, until they came, the forms had to be carried out to the very end.”

“Yes, I have known of things like that in the days when messages were carried by galloping horses and running men,” said Mother sadly. “And no one was to blame. If laws could be changed by unproved knowledge, the country would soon be guided by guesswork. And that would never do! That would never do!”

I looked at Mother in surprise, for with red cheeks and misty eyes she was clutching tight the army coat on her lap and looking straight at me.

“How close together are the countries of the world,” she went on. “Your old nurse was right, Etsu, when she said that the earth is flat and you are on the other side of the plate, not far away, but out of sight.”

Then we both smiled, but Mother’s lips were trembling. She put her arm around me gently, and—I’ve loved Mother ever since!

Another “memory stone” in my life was the day that I entertained the club. Mother belonged to a literary society the members of which studied about different countries and wrote essays. The meetings were held at the homes of the members, and early on the morning of the very day that it was Mother’s turn to entertain she received a message calling her to the city for a “between trains” visit with a dear friend who was passing through the city on her way to a distant land. Mother would be back before the meeting was over, but I was dismayed to be left with the responsibility of arranging the rooms and receiving the guests.

“There is nothing for you to be worried about,” said Matsuo who was just starting to his business. “I heard Mother tell William to bring more chairs from upstairs and you have only to see that he places them like in a church. Clara knows how.”

“But Mother meant to have flowers, and she said something about a little table for the president and—Oh, the piano has to be pushed back! Mother said so. I do wish she were here!” I cried, in real anxiety and distress.

“Don’t make a mountain out of a mole-hill! Clara is equal to anything”; and Matsuo ran across the lawn in response to the waving hand of a neighbour who was waiting in his buggy at the iron gates.

I knew he was right, for Clara had cleaned the rooms the day before, and everything really necessary had been done; but, nevertheless, I felt lost and helpless.

In the midst of my hour of woe I saw walking up the path around the lawn an old lady of the neighbourhood who sometimes came in for an informal chat with Mother. I ran out and welcomed her most cordially, eager to ask her advice.

“The piano is not in the way,” she said. “These rooms are large enough as they are, even if everyone comes. You won’t have to do a thing except put in more chairs. “But”—and she looked around the big double parlours with the lace-curtained windows and the long mirror with gilded frame—“the rooms do look empty with the centre table taken out. Why don’t you scatter about some of those Japanese trinkets that you have upstairs? They would add wonderfully to the general effect.”

As soon as she was gone I brought down several Japanese things and placed them here and there about the room. Then I arranged a few iris blossoms in a vase according to the graceful, but rigid, rules of Japanese flower arrangement, and stepped back to view the effect.

From the flowers my eyes went slowly around the room. I was disappointed. What was wrong? The Japanese articles were each one of rare workmanship, and the vase of blossoms was beautiful; but for some mysterious reason Mother’s parlours never before had looked so unattractive. Suddenly my eye fell on a little bronze incense burner, which had been given me in my childhood, by one of the Toda children, for my doll festival set. It looked oddly out of place on top of the American bookcase; and when, lifting my eyes, I saw above it an etching of a dancing faun, I almost hysterically snatched it away. With lightning swiftness my mind flew to the cool, light rooms of my Nagaoka home—to the few ornaments, each in the place designed for it—and I began to understand. My Japanese treasures would be beautiful in their proper surroundings, but here they were neither beautiful themselves, nor did they add to the attractiveness of our stately rooms. They were only odd, grotesque curios. Hurriedly putting them away and removing my carefully arranged vase of iris to the kitchen, I ran to a field back of our carriage house and gathered an armful of daisies and feathery grasses. Soon I had all the vases in the house, regardless of shape or hue, loosely filled with the fresh, wild blossoms. The rooms looked beautiful, and they were in perfect harmony with the broad lawn outside, stretching in rolling waves of green down to the gray stone wall.

“West is West, and East is East,” I said, as I sank on a sofa with a sigh of relief. “I think while I’m here I’ll forget the conventional standard of beauty; for only the charm of naturalness is suited to these big, free, homelike rooms of Mother’s.”


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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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