MY TOKYO relatives had arranged for me to live with them and attend a celebrated school for girls, where English was taught by a man who had studied in England. This I did for several months, but my brother was not satisfied. The girls were required to give much attention to etiquette and womanly accomplishments; and since my uncle lived in a stately mansion, a great part of my time at home was occupied with trifling formalities. Brother said that I was receiving the same useless training that had been given him, and, since I was to live in America, I must have a more practical education.

Once more my poor brother was totally misunderstood by our kindred on account of his stubborn opposition to all advice; but finally Father’s old friend, Major Sato, suggested a mission school that his wife had attended and which bore the reputation of being the best girls’ school for English in Japan. This pleased Brother and, since it was a rule of the school that each pupil should have a resident guardian, Major Sato accepted the responsibility and it was arranged that, until the beginning of the next term, some weeks away, I should be a member of the Sato household. Major Sato’s wife was a quiet, gentle lady, unassuming in manner, but with a hidden strength of character most unusual. Having no daughter, she accepted me as her own and in numberless kind ways taught me things of lasting value.

It was a five-mile walk to school from the Sato house. In very bad weather I was sent in Mrs. Sato’s jinrikisha, but, true to my dear priest-teacher’s training, I felt that it was almost a disgrace to consider bodily comfort when on the road to learning, so I usually walked.

Starting immediately after an early breakfast, I went down the hill and along an old temple road until I reached the broad street passing the palace of His Imperial Majesty. I always walked slowly there. The clear water of the moat, reflecting every stone of the sloping wall and the crooked pine trees above, formed a picture of calm, unhurried peace. It was the only place I had seen in Tokyo that gave me the familiar feeling of ceremonious dignity. I loved it. From there I came out upon the wide, sunshiny parade ground. There was a solitary tree standing just in the centre, where I always rested a few minutes; for beyond was a long climb through a series of narrow, crooked, up-hill streets crowded with children, almost every one having a baby on its back. These city children did not have the care-free manner of the street children of Nagaoka. They were older and graver, and although all were busy, some playing games, some chattering in groups, and some jogging along on errands, there was little noise except the “gata-gata” of their wooden clogs.

At the top of the hill was my school. It stood behind a long mound-wall topped with a thorn hedge. A big gateway opened into spacious grounds, where, in the midst of several trees, stood a long, two-storied wooden house with a tiled roof and glass windows divided into large squares by strips of wood. In that building I spent four happy years, and learned some of the most useful lessons of my life.

I liked my school from the first, but some of my experiences were very puzzling. Had it not been for the constant sympathy and wise advice of kind Mrs. Sato, my life might have been difficult; for I was only a simple country girl alone in a new world, looking about me with very eager, but very ignorant, eyes, and stubbornly judging everything by my own unreasonably high standards of conservative opinion.

All our studies, except English and Bible, were taught by Japanese men—not priests, but professors. Since they came only for their classes, we saw little of them. The foreign teachers were all women. I had seen one foreign man in Nagaoka, but, until I came to this school, I had never seen a foreign woman. These teachers were all young, lively, most interesting and beautiful. Their strange dress, the tight black shoes, the fair skin untouched by the cosmetics which we considered a necessary part of dressing, and the various colours of hair arranged in loose coils and rolls, were suggestive of dim visions I had had about fairyland. I admired them greatly, but their lack of ceremony surprised me. The girls, most of whom were from Tokyo, where living was less formal than in my old-fashioned home, made very short bows and had most astonishing manners in talking with one another; nevertheless, I had a certain interest in watching them. But the free actions of the teachers with the pupils and the careless conduct of the girls in the presence of the teachers shocked me. I had been taught such precepts as “Step not on even the shadow of thy teacher, but walk reverently three steps behind,” and every day I saw familiar greetings and heard informal conversations that seemed to me most undignified on the part of the teacher and lacking in respect on the part of the pupil.

And there was another thing which troubled me greatly. Friendly smiles and small attentions from teachers seemed to be liked by these city girls, but I shrank indescribably from personal advances made to myself. My rigid training held me back from being even mildly responsive to either teachers or schoolmates, and it was a long time before the strangeness wore away and I found myself joining with the girls in their games and beginning to feel acquainted with my teachers. This was helped along greatly by certain democratic rules in the school, which, though not enforced, were encouraged, and became the fashion. One of these was giving up the use of the honorific “Sama” and substituting the less formal prefix, “O”; thus placing the girls on a plane of social equality. Another, which greatly interested me, was the universal agreement to give up arranging the hair in Japanese style. All wore it alike, pulled back from the face and hanging in a long braid behind. This change was a mixed pleasure. I was no longer a martyr to the “gluing-up process” of scented oil and hot tea, but as I was the only curly-haired girl in the school I could not escape a certain amount of good-natured ridicule.

These things I accepted with ease, but my my shoes were a real annoyance. All my life I had been accustomed to leave my shoes at the door whenever I stepped inside a house, but here, in the school, we wore our sandals all the time, except in the straw-matted dormitory. I was slow to adapt myself to this, and it was months before I conquered the impulse to slip back my toes from the cord when I reached the door of the class room. The girls used to wait outside, just to laugh at my moment’s hesitation.

These changes in my life-long habits, combined with the merry ridicule of the girls, made me feel that I was one of them, and that Etsu-bo had slipped entirely out of the old life and was now fitted happily into the new. Nevertheless, there were times when, aroused from deep study by someone suddenly calling, “O Etsu San!” and, after a dazed moment of adjusting myself to the new name, I would hurry down the hall, my sandals sounding a noisy “clap-clap” on the floor, and my head feeling light with the cool looseness of unbound hair, I would be vaguely conscious, somewhere within me, of an odd fear that Etsu-bo was nowhere.

However, this feeling could never last long; for there was a dreaded something which constantly reminded me that I was still a daughter of Echigo. My pronunciation of certain sounds, which was different from that of Tokyo, caused considerable amusement among the girls. Also, I suppose I used rather stately and stilted language, which, combined with the odd Echigo accent, must have sounded very funny to city-bred ears. The girls were so good-natured in their mimicry that I could not feel resentment, but it was a real trial to me, for it touched my deep loyalty to my own province. Since I did not quite understand where the difficulty lay, I was helpless, and gradually got in the habit of confining my conversation to few remarks and making my sentences as short as possible.

Mrs. Sato noticed that I was growing more and more silent, and by tactful questioning she discovered the trouble. Then she quietly prepared a little notebook with a diagram of the troublesome sounds and, in the kindest way in the world, explained them to me.

Brother was there that evening, and he laughed.

“Etsu-bo,” he said, looking at me rather critically, “there is not such good reason to be shamed by the accent of an honourable province as over your countrified dress. I must get you some different clothes.”

I had already grown suspicious of the glances which my schoolmates had been casting at the sash that Toshi had so painstakingly made me of a piece of newly imported cloth called a-ra-pac-ca, so I was glad to accept the garments which Brother brought the next day. They were surprisingly gay, and the sash, with one side of black satin, reminded me of the restaurant waiters of Nagaoka, but the girls all said they had a “Tokyo air,” so I wore them with a pride and satisfaction greater than I ever had felt about clothes—except once. That was many years before, when my father, on one of his visits to the capital, had seen in a store foreign clothes for a child and had brought them home for me. They were of dark blue cloth and very peculiar in shape. None of us knew they were clothes for a little boy. Ishi dressed me and I strutted about, cramped into a straitjacket of cold, tight, scratchy discomfort. But the family admired me the, servants watched me with in-drawn breaths of awe, and I was as proud as the “bird of many eyes,” which is our symbol of vanity.

The more I saw of my teachers, the more I admired them. I had lost my feeling of repulsion at their lack of ceremony when I learned to understand the hidden dignity that lay beneath their individual differences, and finally it began to dawn upon me that the honourable position of instructor was not inconsistent with being merry and gay. My Japanese teachers had been pleasantly courteous, but always lofty and distant in manner; while these smiling, swift-moving creatures ran with us in the gymnasium, played battledore and shuttlecock with us, and took turns in eating with us in our own dining room where Japanese food was served on trays as it was on our small tables at home.

Often on Friday evenings we were allowed to arrange a Japanese programme of entertainment. We would bring out our bright undergarments, which are the gayest part of Japanese dress, and hang them across the room, where they swayed in long curves suggesting the broad-striped and crest curtains stretched by ancient warriors in camp. Then we would borrow things of each other to make costumes for tableaux or character sketches of celebrated people. Sometimes a daring girl would select a teacher—but always a favourite—and pleasantly caricature her. Occasionally we gave a pantomime of an old historic drama, but we never acted with words. That would have been too bold and unladylike. Even in theatres, women’s parts were taken by men, for our stage was not yet far removed from the time when actors were called “beggars on the shore.”

The teachers were always present on these occasions, laughing, applauding, and praising our efforts as freely and happily as if they were girls of our own age. And at the same time, they were all busy knitting and sewing, or—most interesting of all the things in that wonderful school—darning stockings.

But in spite of my steadily increasing contentment there was one thing that was a constant ache to me. Neither at school nor near the Sato home was there a shrine. Of course, there were prayers at morning service in the school chapel, and they were very beautiful and solemn. I always felt as if I were in a temple. But they lacked the warm homeliness of our family gathering in Honourable Grandmother’s quiet room with the lighted candles and curling incense of the open shrine; and the consciousness of the near-by protecting presence of the ancestors. This I missed more than anything else. And an added grief was that I could have no part in the service held on the twenty-ninth of each month in memory of my father’s death-day.

Before I left home Mother had given me a very sacred thing. It was my father’s death-name written on a certain kind of paper by my revered priest-teacher. Preciously I had carried this with me wherever I went, but after I became a boarder in the school I had a vague feeling that for me to keep it there permanently would be disloyal to the sacred name and also discourteous to the school; for it would be intruding something of the old into an atmosphere which belonged only to the new. I felt I could not keep it, and yet I could not part with it. I was sorely puzzled.

One week-end I went to visit Mrs. Sato. It was the twenty-ninth day of the month. We were sewing, and our cushions were drawn close to the open doors over looking the garden. I had dropped my work and was thinking, my unseeing eyes gazing out at a path of stepping-stones that ran between two little hills and around a big stone lantern before disappearing in a group of small trees.

“What are you thinking, O Etsu San San?” asked Mrs. Sato. “You look worried.”

Turning, I saw real concern in her face. Perhaps under the influence of the school my reserve was beginning to melt. At any rate, I told her of my trouble.

At once she was all sympathy.

“I am ashamed that we have no shrine,” she said; “for we have not even the excuse of being Christians. We are nothing. It is the fashion lately to adopt the Western way, and we have no house shrine. But there is one in the nun’s house at the end of the garden.”

“The nun’s house at the end of the garden!” I repeated in great astonishment.

She explained that the land on which they lived had once belonged to an old temple where priestesses were in charge, which, on account of the changing times, had grown very poor. The property had been sold to Major Sato on condition that a little thatched hut, once belonging to a temple servitor, should be allowed to remain as the home of a very old and very holy nun, who wished to spend her life in this much-loved spot.

That evening we went to see her, walking over the stepping-stones between the little hills and around the stone lantern to where, through the foliage, I could see a small house surrounded by a low brush fence. Faint candlelight twinkled through the paper doors, and I heard the gentle, familiar “ton-ton, ton-ton” of the soft wooden drum and the low chanting of Buddhist words. I bowed my head, and in the darkness homesick tears came to my eyes.

Mrs. Sato opened the humble bamboo gate.

“Pardon. May we enter?” she called gently.

The chanting ceased. The door slid back, and a kindly looking, very aged nun in a gray cotton robe welcomed us most cordially.

The room was simply furnished except that on one side stood a very beautiful temple shrine of gilded lacquer. It was darkened by age and constant incense smoke. Before the gilded Buddha lay a pile of worn chanting-books and the small wooden drum we had heard.

The nun was gentle and sweet like my grandmother, and it was easy for me to explain my trouble and show her the paper holding the sacred name. Lifting it to her forehead, she took it to the shrine and reverently placed it before the Buddha. Then we had a simple service, such as we used to have in Honourable Grandmother’s room at home, and when I came away I left the precious paper in the safe keeping of her shrine. After that, on the last Friday of every month, I used to visit the holy nun and listen to her soft voice chant the service in memory of Father’s death-day.


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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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