IN MY Nagaoka home, notwithstanding the love and care that surrounded me, my mind was always filled with unanswered questions. My education as a priestess had developed my mind, but it had grown in cramped silence; for, liberal as was my father in his views regarding my training, I was influenced by the home atmosphere of conservatism, and rarely spoke, even to him, of my inmost thoughts.

But occasionally this reserve was broken. Once, just after I had made many bows of farewell to the departing guests of the three-hundredth death celebration of an ancestor, I asked:

“Honourable Father, who is the first, the away-back, the very beginning of our ancestors?”

“Little daughter,” Father gravely answered, “that is a presumptuous question for a well-bred girl to ask; but I will be honest and tell you that I do not know. Our great Confucius replied to his disciple concerning that very question, ‘We know not life.’ ”

I was very young, but I well understood that I must in the future be more demure and womanly in my inquiries, and not ask questions with the freedom of a boy.

The influence of my school life in Tokyo had been subtle. Unconsciously I had expanded, until gradually I became convinced that asking questions was only a part of normal development. Then, for the first time in my life, I attempted to put into words some of the secret thoughts of my heart. This was gently encouraged by my tactful teachers; and, as time passed on, I realized more and more that they were wonderfully wise for women, and my confidence in them grew. Not only this, but their effortless influence to inspire happiness changed my entire outlook on life. My childhood had been happy, but it had never known one throb of what may be called joyousness. I used to gaze at the full moon sailing in the deep sky, with all the poetic ecstasy of the Japanese heart, but always, like a shadow, came the thought, “It will grow less from to-night.” Our flower viewings were a delight to me, but invariably, as I travelled homeward, I sighed to myself: “The lovely blossoms will fall before the winds of to-morrow.” So it was with everything. In the midst of gladness I unconsciously sent out a heart search for a thread of sadness. I ascribe this morbid tendency to the Buddhist teaching of my childhood; for there is a strain of hopeless sadness in all Buddhist thought.

But my life at school blew into my heart a breath of healthful cheerfulness. As the restraint which had held me like a vise began to relax, so also there melted within me the tendency to melancholy. It could not be otherwise; for the teachers, whether working, playing, laughing, or even reproving, were a continual surprise. In my home, surprises had been infrequent. People bowed, walked, talked, and smiled exactly as they had bowed, walked, talked, and smiled yesterday, and the day before, and in all past time. But these astonishing teachers were never the same. They changed so unexpectedly in voice and manner with each person to whom they spoke, that their very changeableness was a refreshing attraction. They reminded me of cherry blossoms.

Japanese people love flowers for what they mean. I was taught from babyhood that the plum, bravely pushing its blossoms through the snows of early spring, is our bridal flower because it is an emblem of duty through hardship. The cherry is beautiful and it never fades, for the lightest breeze scatters the still fresh and fragrant petals into another beauty of tinted, floating clouds; which again changes to a carpet of delicate white-and-pink shells—like my teachers, always changing and always beautiful.

Although I now know that my first impressions of American womanhood were exaggerated, I have never regretted this idealization; for through it I came to realize the tragic truth that the Japanese woman—like the plum blossom, modest, gentle, and bearing unjust hardship without complaint—is often little else than a useless sacrifice; while the American woman—self-respecting, untrammelled, changing with quick adaptability to new conditions—carries inspiration to every heart, because her life, like the blossom of the cherry, blooms in freedom and naturalness.

This realization was of slow growth, and it brought with it much silent questioning.

From childhood I had known, as did all Japanese people, that woman is greatly inferior to man. This I never questioned. It was fate. But as I grew older I so constantly saw that fate brings inconvenience and humiliation to blameless people that I fell into a habit of puzzling, in a crude, childish way, over this great unkind Power. At last a day came when my heart broke into open rebellion.

Ever since the hard days before the Restoration, my mother had been subject to occasional attacks of asthma, which we all were sincere in believing was due to some unknown wrong committed by her in a previous existence. Once when, after a breathless struggle, I heard her gasp, “It is fate and must be borne,” I ran to Ishi and asked indignantly why fate made my mother suffer.

“It cannot be helped,” she replied, with pitying tears in her eyes. “It is because of the unworthiness of woman. But you must be calm, Etsu-bo Sama. The Honourable Mistress does not complain. She is proud to bear silently.”

I was too young to understand, but, with my heart pounding in hot rebellion against the powerful, mysterious injustice, I pulled myself into Ishi’s lap and, convulsively clinging to her, begged her to tell me a story—quick—of clashing swords, and flying arrows, and heroes who fought and won.

Japanese children were not taught that rebellious thoughts, if unexpressed, are a wrong to the gods, so the resentment in my heart grew. But as it grew there slowly drifted into, and curiously blended with it, a blind wonder why my mother and Ishi, when hardship came for which they were not to blame, should submit to it, not only dutifully and patiently—that, of course, it was their place, as women, to do—but with pride. Something within me cried out that, however dutiful they might be in act, their hearts ought to rebel; yet I had known both unnecessarily to accept a humiliating blame that they knew was not theirs! That those two noble women should encourage self-humiliation I resented more bitterly than I did the hard decrees of fate.

Of course, this thought was not clear in my mind at that time. Then and for years after my idea of fate—for in fate I firmly believed—was of a vague, floating, stupendous power, for which I felt only resentful wonder.

Another puzzle came one midsummer airing day. It seems odd that it should have happened then, for airing days were the most care-free, happy time of the year for me. Then the godowns were emptied and long ropes stretched in the sunshine, on which were hung torn banners bearing our crest, old field-curtains used in the camps of our ancestors, ancient regalia of house officers, and many odd-shaped garments belonging to what Ishi’s fairy tales called “the olden, olden time.” Beneath the low eaves were piles of clumsy horse armour bound with faded ropes of twisted silk; and old war weapons—spears, battle-axes, bows, and sheaves of arrows—stood in out-of-the-way corners of the garden. All available space was utilized; even the bridge-posts and the stone lanterns were decorated with chain-silk armour and lacquer helmets with fearful masks.

The confusion was delightful. I loved it. And Father would walk around with me, showing me things and explaining their use, until, all perspiring and with eyes dazzled by the sun, we would go indoors and stumble through the cluttered-up halls to Honourable Grandmother’s room. That seemed to be the only place in the house in order. Everywhere else were busy servants brushing, folding, or carrying, and at the same time all chattering gayly; for airing days, although bringing hard work, were a happy diversion in our rather monotonous household and always cordially welcomed by the servants.

When Father and I reached Honourable Grandmother’s room we found ourselves suddenly shut away from all the turmoil into a place cool and quiet. I can see Father now, as, with a sigh of satisfaction, he closed the door behind him and, pushing aside the proffered cushion, bowed his thanks to Honourable Grandmother and seated himself on the cool straw mat beside the open doors overlooking the shady “wild garden.” There he would sit, fanning himself and talking with Honourable Grandmother of old times.

Once, just after the noon meal of hot whale soup and eggplant, which was always served on airing days, Father went directly to his room. I was hurrying after him when I saw Jiya and another manservant in their stiff crestdresses crossing the garden from the godown. They were carrying, reverentially, a whitewood chest shaped like a temple box for sacred books. On the front, very large, was our crest, and around it was tied a straw rope with dangling Shinto papers. Many times I had seen that chest in the godown, standing alone on a whitewood platform. It held family heirlooms, some of them centuries old. The men were on their way to a certain room which Mother had prepared, where the chest would be opened in silence, and the sacred articles carefully examined by men in ceremonial garments.

I sat down listlessly on the edge of the porch, for I knew that Father, dressed in his stately kamishimo garments, would soon go to the room where the heirloom chest had been taken, and I should see him no more that afternoon. On airing days I generally followed him wherever he went, but across the threshold of that room I should not be allowed to step. I did not wonder why. It had always been so.

But as I sat alone on the porch I began to think, and after a while I hunted up Ishi.

“Ishi,” I said, “I go everywhere else with Father. Why cannot I be with him in the room where they are airing the sacred things?”

“Etsu-bo Sama,” she replied in the most matter-of-fact tone, as she shook out the long fringe of an old-fashioned incense ball, “it is because you were born a daughter to your father instead of a son.”

I felt that her words were a personal reproach, and with the age-old, patient submission of the Japanese woman, I walked slowly toward Honourable Grandmother’s room. It was comforting to turn my mind toward my stately, noble grandmother, to whom the entire household, even Father, looked up with reverence. Then, suddenly, like a breath of cold wind, came the thought that even my saintly grandmother would not dare touch the sacred things that were used to honour the Shinto gods. She always attended to the Buddhist shrine, but it was Father’s duty to care for the white Shinto shrine. During his absence, Jiya or another manservant took his place, for no woman was worthy to handle such holy things, And yet the great god of Shinto was a woman—the Sun goddess!

That night I was bold enough to ask my father if his honourable mother was an unworthy woman like all others.

“What do you think, little Daughter?” he asked, after a moment’s hesitation.

“It cannot be,” I replied. “You honour her too greatly for it to be true.”

He smiled and tenderly touched my head with his hand.

“Continue to believe so, little Daughter,” he said gently. “And yet do not forget the stern teachings of your childhood. They form the current of a crystal stream that, as it flows through the ages, keeps Japanese women worthy—like your grandmother.”

It was not until long, long afterward, when the knowledge of later years had broadened my mind, that I comprehended his hidden meaning that a woman may quietly harbour independent thought if she does not allow it to destroy her gentle womanhood. The night that this thought came to me I wrote in my diary: “Useless sacrifice leads to—only a sigh. Self-respect leads to—freedom and hope.”

Beyond the wall on one side of our school was a rough path leading past several small villages, with ricefields and patches of clover scattered between. One day, when a teacher was taking a group of us girls for a walk, we came upon a dry ricefield dotted with wild flowers. We were gathering them with merry chattering and laughter when two village farmers passed by, walking slowly and watching us curiously.

“What is the world coming to,” said one, “when workable-age young misses waste time wandering about through bushes and wild grass?”

“They are grasshoppers trying to climb the mountain,” the other replied, “but the sun will scorch them with scorn. There can be only pity for the young man who takes one of those for his bride.”

The men were rough and ignorant, but they were men; and though we all laughed, not one of the girls was far enough from the shackles of her mother’s day not to feel a shadow of discomfort as we walked homeward.

The teacher paused as we came to the moss-covered stone wall of an old shrine and pointed to a near-by cherry tree, young and thrifty, growing out of the hollow of another tree whose fallen trunk was so old and twisted that it looked like a rough-scaled dragon. Beside it was one of the wooden standards so often seen in an artistic or noted spot. On the tablet was inscribed the poem:

“The blossoms of to-day draw strength from the roots of a thousand years ago.”

“This tree is like you girls,” said the teacher, with a smile. “Japan’s beautiful old civilization has given its strength to you young women of to-day. Now it is your duty to grow bravely and give to new Japan, in return, a greater strength and beauty than even the old possessed. Do not forget!”

We walked on homeward. Just as we reached our gate in the hedge wall one of the girls, who had been rather quiet, turned to me.

“Nevertheless,” she said, defiantly, “the grasshoppers are climbing the mountain into the sunlight.”

As I learned to value womanhood, I realized more and more that my love of freedom and my belief in my right to grow toward it meant more than freedom to act, to talk, to think. Freedom also claimed a spiritual right to grow.

I do not know exactly how I became a Christian. It was not a sudden thing. It seems to have been a natural spiritual development—so natural that only a few puzzles stand out clearly as I look back along the path. As I read, and thought, and felt, my soul reached out into the unknown; and gradually, easily, almost unconsciously, I drifted out of a faith of philosophy, mysticism, and resignation into one of high ideals, freedom, cheerfulness, and hope.

Of the wonder and glory of what I consider the greatest faith of the world I do not speak. Of that many know. And the selfish gain to me is beyond all words of all languages.

When I was sent to the mission school the fact that the teachers were of another religion was not considered at all. They were thought of only as teachers of the language and manners of America; so when I wrote to Mother, asking her consent to my becoming a Christian, I know she was greatly surprised. But she was a wise woman. She replied, “My daughter, this is an important thing. I think it will be best for you to wait until vacation. Then we will talk of it.”

So I postponed being baptized, and when vacation came, I went to Nagaoka. The people there knew little of Christianity. The only impression most of them had was that it was a curious belief lacking in ceremony, whose converts were required to trample upon sacred things. There existed, especially among the old, a strong distaste against Jakyo, the evil sect, but it held no vital, forceful bitterness. The people of Nagaoka looked upon the stories of Japan’s Christian martyrs as a distant and pitiful thing; but they had none of the shuddering horror felt in some communities of southern Japan, whose memories of the tragedies of four centuries ago had reason to live.

My mother, who had learned from Father to be tolerant of the opinions of others, had no prejudice against the new religion; but she believed that the great duty in life for sons and daughters consisted in a rigid observance of the ritual for ancestor-worship and the ceremonies in memory of the dead. When I first reached home her heart was heavy with dread, but when she learned that my new faith did not require disrespect to ancestors, her relief and gratitude were pathetic, and she readily gave her consent.

But Honourable Grandmother! My proud, loyal grandmother! It was impossible for her to understand, and I think my becoming a heretic was to her a lifelong sorrow. Her grief was my heaviest cross.

It was hard, too, to visit my relatives and friends. They looked upon me as a curiosity, and my mother was in a continual state of explanation and apology. One old aunt closed the doors of her shrine and pasted white paper over them that the ancestors might be spared the knowledge of my “peculiarity.”

Another aunt, who invited me out to dinner, served no fish, feeling that, since I was so puzzlingly removed from ordinary life, I could not be feasted in the usual way. After discarding one plan after another, she finally concluded it would be both harmless and respectful for her to treat me as a priest.

All these things among the friends that I had known from babyhood hurt me. I could bravely have borne persecution, but to be set apart as something strange almost broke my heart. How I longed for my father! He would have understood, but I was alone in the midst of kindly ignorance. Everybody loved me, but they all looked at me in helpless pity.

At first I was unhappy, but my three months at home changed everything, both for my friends and for myself. When I returned to school I carried with me all the respect and love of the home friends that had always been mine, and—which—thank God I have kept until now.

I think I am a true Christian. At least my belief has given me untold comfort and a perfect heart-satisfaction, but it has never separated me from my Buddhist friends. They have respect for this strange belief of mine; for they feel that, although I am loyal to the Christian God, I still keep the utmost reverence for my fathers and respect for the faith that was the highest and holiest thing they knew.


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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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