WHEN the weary sight of tumbling and tossing waves was past and I was once again in Japan, I found myself in th e midst of surroundings almost as strange as those I had met when I landed in America.

The provinces and classes in Japan had for so many centuries held steadfast, each to its own customs, that even yet there were only occasional evidences to be seen of their slow yielding to the equalizing influences of modern life; and I had gone at once to Matsuo’s home in western Japan, where standards of dress and etiquette, ideals, and even idioms of speech were entirely different from those of either Nagaoka or Tokyo.

We were met on our arrival by a crowd of Matsuo’s relatives, all in ceremonial dress, for we had brought the sacred ashes with us; and from then until the forty-nine days of ceremonies for the dead were over, I was treated as an honoured messenger-guest. After that my position was very humble, for a son’s widow is an unimportant person in Japan, and, virtually, that is what I was, Matsuo having been, until he decided to remain in America, the adopted son of Uncle Otani.

I was very anxious about my little girls; for in Japan children belong to the family—not to the parents. Hanano, on the death of her father, had become the head of our little family, but we were only a branch of the main family of which Uncle Otani was the head. So it had been taken for granted by all relatives, my own as well as Matsuo’s, that the children and I would make our home with Uncle Otani. He would have made room for me in his handsome house and would have supplied me with beautiful clothes, but I should have had no authority, even over my own children. This might not have been so bad under some circumstances; for Uncle Otani would have been generous in giving the children every advantage that he considered proper for them to have. But with all his kindness—and a kinder man never lived—I could not forget that he belonged to the old-fashioned merchant class that considered education beyond the grammar school undesirable for girls.

The situation was difficult; for, from my humble position, I could not say a word. But I had one hope. Hanano, although legal head of our family, was a minor; and her mother, as present regent, held a certain power. Exerting this, I asked for a consultation with Uncle Otani. I explained to him that Matsuo had expressed in his will a desire that, since he had no son, his daughters should receive the liberal education that had been planned for them in America. Then I boldly asked, in Hanano’s name and by the power of her father’s request, that I should be allowed the privilege of guiding their studies.

Uncle Otani was astonished at such an unheard-of request, but the situation was unusual and a family council was summoned at once. In the case of a consultation concerning a widow, it is customary for her family to be represented; and Brother being unable to be present, Mother sent in his place my progressive Tokyo uncle—the one who had taken so vigorous a part in our council meetings before my marriage. It was necessary for Hanano, as official head of her family, to be present, but of course she was to speak only through me.

Since she had not yet learned to wear Japanese dress properly, I put on her best white dress, trimmed with lace and ruffles. I arranged everything so that it would be very loose; for it is difficult to sit quietly in Japanese fashion while wearing American clothing, and yet it is inexcusably rude at a ceremonial gathering to move—however slightly—the lower part of the body. I explained this to Hanano, and told her how her grandfather, when two years younger than she, had held the seat seat of state in the formidable political meetings before the Restoration. “Honourable Grandmother told me he always sat very straight and was dignified,” I said, “and you must be like him.” Then we went in to the meeting.

I could not help being uneasy about the way my bold request might be received. To most of the council I was nothing but a widowed dependant of my daughter—a woman with advanced and peculiar notions—and they had the power, if three voices of the council disapproved of me and my ideas, not only to refuse my request, but to separate me from my children entirely. I should be well provided for, in my present home, if I chose, or elsewhere, but the children would remain with their father’s people; and no law of Heaven or earth was powerful enough in Japan to prevent it. Matsuo’s family had no desire to do any unjust thing; nor did I suspect that they had, but—they held the power.

The conference, which was long, consisted of a series of polite suggestions and earnest, but never excited, arguments. I listened with my head bowed, occasionally—but not too often—glancing toward my little anxious-eyed daughter, sitting erect and motionless in the midst of the dignified row of elders. For two hours she did not move. Then one poor, cramped little leg jerked, her fluffy dress spread out, and with a quick catching at her knee, she gasped, “Oh!”

Not a face turned toward her, but with an anguished clutch in my throat I bowed to the floor, saying, “I humbly pray the honourable council to pardon the rudeness of my foreign-trained child, and permit her to retire with me from the august assembly.”

Uncle Otani, without moving, gave a grunt of assent.

As I made my last bow at the sliding door and slipped it back in place, my Tokyo uncle tapped his pipe carefully against the rim of the tobacco box by his side.

“It is fortunate that O Etsu San seems a reliable woman,” he said slowly; “for surely it would be a puzzling venture for any of us to take into our family two rough American children with their untrained feet, their flouncing garments, and their abrupt speech.”

Whether that remark was intended to be kind or cruel, I never knew; and whether or not it had influence, I never knew; but after another hour of slow, careful, earnest, and perfectly fair discussion, the council decided that on account of Matsuo’s request, combined with the fact that his widow appeared to be a trustworthy person, consent was given to a temporary trial of the experiment.

That night I pulled my cushions in between my children’s beds—close, close—and crept beneath the covers, faint with relief and gratitude.


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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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