OUR time in school was supposed to be equally divided between Japanese and English, but since I had been already carefully drilled in Japanese studies, I was able to put my best efforts on English. My knowledge of that language was very limited. I could read and write a little, but my spoken English was scarcely understandable. I had, however, read a number of translations of English books and—more valuable than all else—I possessed a supply of scattered knowledge obtained from a little set of books that my father had brought me from the capital when I was only a child. They were translations, compiled from various sources and published by one of the progressive book houses of Tokyo.

I do not know whose idea it was to translate and publish those ten little paper volumes, but whoever it was holds my lasting gratitude. They brought the first shafts of light that opened to my eager mind the wonders of the Western world, and from them I was led to countless other friends and companions who, in the years since, have brought to me such a wealth of knowledge and happiness that I cannot think what life would have been without them. How well I remember the day they came! Father had gone to Tokyo on one of his “window toward growing days” trips.

That was always an important event in our lives, for he brought back with him, not only wonderful stories of his journey, but also gifts of strange and beautiful things. Mother had said that he would be home at the close of the day, and I spent the afternoon sitting on the porch step watching the slow-lengthening shadows of the garden trees. I had placed my high wooden clogs on a stepping-stone just at the edge of the longest shadow, and as the sun crept farther I moved them from stone to stone, following the sunshine. I think I must have had a vague feeling that I could thus hasten the slanting shadow into the long straight line which would mean sunset.

At last—at last—and before the shadow had quite straightened, I hurriedly snatched up the clogs and clattered across the stones, for I had heard the jinrikisha man’s cry of “Okaeri!” just outside the gate. I could scarcely bear my joy, and I have a bit of guilt in my heart yet when I recall how crookedly I pushed those clogs into the neat box of shelves in the “shoe-off” alcove of the vestibule.

The next moment the men, perspiring and laughing, came trotting up to the door where we, servants and all, were gathered, our heads bowed to the floor, all in a quiver of excitement and delight, but of course everybody gravely saying the proper words of greeting. Then, my duty done, I was caught up in my father’s arms and we went to Honourable Grandmother, who was the only one of the household who might wait in her room for the coming of the master of the house.

That day was one of the “memory stones” of my life, for among all the wonderful and beautiful things which were taken from the willow-wood boxes straddled over the shoulders of the servants was the set of books for me. I can see them now. Ten small volumes of tough Japanese paper, tied together with silk cord and marked, “Tales of the Western Seas.” They held extracts from “Peter Parley’s World History,” “National Reader,” “Wilson’s Readers,” and many short poems and tales from classic authors in English literature.

The charm of delight that rare things give came to me during days and weeks—even months and years—from those books. I can recite whole pages of them now. There was a most interesting story of Christopher Columbus. It was not translated literally, but adapted so that the Japanese mind would readily grasp the thought with out being buried in a puzzling mass of strange customs. All facts of the wonderful discovery were stated truthfully, but Columbus was pictured as a fisher lad, and somewhere in the story there figured a lacquer bowl and a pair of chopsticks.

These books had been my inspiration during all my years of childhood, and when, in my study of English at school, my clumsy mind began to grasp the fact that, hidden beneath the puzzling words were continuations of stories I knew, and of ideas similar to those I had found in the old familiar books that I had loved so well, my delight was unbounded. Then I began to read eagerly. I would bend over my desk, hurrying, guessing, skipping whole lines, stumbling along—my dictionary wide open beside me, but I not having time—to look and yet, in some marvellous way, catching ideas. And I never wearied. The fascination was like that of a moon-gazing party, where, while we watched from the hillside platform, a floating cloud would sail across the glorious disk , and we—silent, trembling with excitement—would wait for the glory of the coming moment. In the same way, a half-hidden thought—elusive, tantalizing—would fill me with a breathless hope that the next moment light would come. Another thing about English books was that, as I read, I was constantly discovering shadowy replies to the unanswered questions of my childhood. Oh, English books were a source of deepest joy!

I am afraid that I should not have been so persistent, or so successful in my English studies, could I have readily obtained translations of the books I was so eager to read. Tokyo bookshops, at that time, were beginning to be flooded with translations of English, French, German, and Russian books; and these generally, if not scientific treatises, were classics translated, as a rule, by our best scholars; but they were expensive to purchase and difficult for me to obtain in any other way. To read, even stumblingly, in the original, the books in the school library was my only resource, and it became one of my greatest pleasures.

Excepting English, of all my studies history was the favourite; and I liked and understood best the historical books of the Old Testament. The figurative language was something like Japanese; the old heroes had the same virtues and the same weaknesses of our ancient samurai; the patriarchal form of government was like ours, and the family system based upon it pictured so plainly our own homes that the meaning of many questioned passages was far less puzzling to me than were the explanations of the foreign teachers.

In my study of English literature, it seems odd that, of all the treasures that I gathered, the one which has been most lasting as a vivid picture is that of Tennyson’s “Dora.” Probably this was because of its having been used by a famous Japanese writer as the foundation of a novel called “Tanima no Himeyuri”—Lily of the Valley. The story of Dora, being a tale of the first-born of an aristocratic family disinherited because he loved a rustic lass of humble class; and the subsequent tragedy resulting from the difference in training of different social circles, was a tale familiar and understandable to us. It was skilfully handled, the author, with wonderful word pictures, adapting Western life and thought to Japanese conditions.

“The Lily of the Valley” appeared at just the time when the young mind of Japan, both high and humble, was beginning to seek emancipation from the stoic philosophy, which for centuries had been the core of our well-bred training, and it touched the heart of the public. The book rushed with a storm of popularity all through the land and was read by all classes; and—which was unusual—by both men and women. It is said that Her Imperial Majesty became so interested in reading it that she sat up all one night while her court ladies, sitting silent in the next room, wearily waited.

I think it was my third year in school that a wave of excitement over love stories struck Tokyo. All the schoolgirls were wildly interested. When translations were to be had we passed them from hand to hand through the school; but mostly we had to struggle along in English, picking out love scenes from the novels and poems in our school library. Enoch Arden was our hero. We were familiar with loyalty and sacrifice on the part of a wife, and understood perfectly why Annie should have so long withstood the advances of Philip, but the unselfishness of the faithful Enoch was so rare as to be much appreciated.

The hearts of Japanese girls are no different from those of girls of other countries, but for centuries, especially in samurai homes, we had been strictly trained to regard duty, not feeling, as the standard of relations between man and woman. Thus our unguided reading sometimes gave us warped ideas on this unknown subject. The impression I received was that love as pictured in Western books was interesting and pleasant, sometimes beautiful in sacrifice like that of Enoch Arden; but not to be compared in strength, nobility, or loftiness of spirit to the affection of parent for child, or the loyalty between lord and vassal.

Had my opinion been allowed to remain wordless, it probably would never have caused me annoyance, but it was destined to see the light. We had a very interesting literature society which held an occasional special meeting, to which we invited the teachers as guests. With an anxious pride to have a fine entertainment, we frequently planned our programme first and afterward selected the girls for the various tasks. The result was that sometimes the subject chosen was beyond the capacity of the girl to handle. At one time this rule brought disaster to me, for we never shirked any duty to which we were assigned.

On this occasion I was asked to prepare a three-page essay in English, having one of the cardinal virtues for a subject. I puzzled over which to select of Faith, Hope, Charity, Love, Prudence, and Patience; but recalling that our Bible teacher frequently quoted “God is Love,” I felt that there I had a foundation, and so chose as my topic, “Love.” I began with the love of the Divine Father, then, under the influence of my late reading, I drifted along, rather vaguely, I fear, on the effect of love on the lives of celebrated characters in history and poetry. But I did not know how to handle so awkward a subject, and reached my limit in both knowledge and vocabulary before the three pages were filled. Faithfulness to duty, however, still held firm, and I wrote on, finally concluding with these words: “Love is like a powerful medicine. When properly used it will prove a pleasant tonic, and some times may even preserve life; but when misused, it can ruin nations, as seen in the lives of Cleopatra and the beloved Empress of the Emperor Genso of Great China.”

At the close of my reading one teacher remarked, “This is almost desecration.”

It was years before I understood what the criticism meant.

For a while my great interest in English reading filled all my hours of leisure, but there came a time when my heart longed for the dear old stories of Japan, and I wrote to my mother asking her to send me some books from home. Among others she selected a popular classic called “Hakkenden,” which I especially loved. It is the longest novel ever written in the Japanese language, and our copy, Japanese-bound and elaborately illustrated, consisted of 180 volumes. With great effort Mother succeeded in obtaining a foreign-bound copy in two thick volumes. I welcomed these books with joy, and was amazed when one of the teachers, seeing them in my bookcase, took them away, saying they were not proper books for me to read.

To me, “Hakkenden,” with its wonderful symbolism, was one of the most inspiring books I had ever read. It was written in the 18th Century by Bakin, our great philosopher-novelist, and so musical is the literature, and so lofty the ideals, that frequently it has been compared, by Japanese of learning, to Milton’sParadise Lost” and the “Divine Comedy” of Dante. The author was a strong believer in the unusual theory of spiritual transmigration, and his story is based on that belief.

The tale is of the daimio Satomi, who, with his almost starving retainers, was holding his castle against a besieging army. Knowing that the strength of the enemy lay alone in their able general, he desperately offered everything he possessed, even to his precious daughter, to any one brave enough to destroy his enemy. Satomi’s faithful dog, a handsome wolf-hound named Yatsubusa, bounded away, and the next morning appeared before his master, carrying by its long hair the head of Satomi’s foe. With their leader gone the enemy was thrown into confusion, and Satomi’s warriors, with a mighty rush, put them to flight. Thus was the province restored to peace and prosperity. Then, so bitterly did Satomi regret his promise that he was enraged at the very sight of the faithful animal to whom he owed his good fortune. But his beautiful daughter, the Princess Fuse, pitied the wronged animal.

“The word of a samurai, once uttered, cannot be recalled,” she said. “It is my duty to uphold the honour of my father’s word.”

So the filial daughter went with Yatsubusa to a mountain cave where she spent her time in praying to the gods that a soul might be given to the brave animal; and with every murmured prayer the noble nature of the dumb Yatsubusa drew nearer to the border line of human intelligence.

One day there came to the mountain a loyal retainer of Satomi. He saw, just within the cave, the Princess Fuse sitting before the shrine holding an open book. Before her, like a faithful vassal, Yatsubusa listened with bowed head to the holy reading. Believing he was doing a noble deed, the retainer lifted his gun and fired. The bullet, swift and strong, was guided by fate. It passed directly through the body of Yatsubusa and on, piercing the heart of the Princess Fuse.

At that instant the freed spirit of the Princess, as eight shining stars in a floating mist, rose from her body and floated softly through the sky to the eight corners of the world. Each star was a virtue: Loyalty, Sincerity, Filial Piety, Friendship, Charity, Righteousness, Courtesy, and Wisdom.

Fate guided each star to a human home, and in course of time, into each of these homes a son was born. As they blossomed into manhood, Fate brought the youths together, and the reunited eight virtues become heroic vassals, through whom came glory to the name of Satomi. So the spirit of the filial daughter brought honour to her father’s name.

I could not understand why this miracle-story, filled with lofty symbolism, could be more objectionable than the many fables and fairy tales of personified animals that I had read in English literature. But, after much pondering, I concluded that thoughts, like the language, on one side of the world are straightforward and literal; and on the other, vague, mystical, and visionary.

At the end of my school life my beloved books were returned to me. I have them now—battered, loose-leafed, and worn—and I still love them.

As time passed on, I learned to like almost everything about my school—even many of the things which at first I had found most trying; but there was one thing which from the very first I had enjoyed with my whole heart. The school building was surrounded by large grounds with tall trees. A small lawn near the principal doorway was well cared for, but beyond was an extensive stretch of weedy grass and untrained shrubbery. There were no stone lanterns, no pond with darting gold-fish, and no curving bridge; just big trees with unbound branches, uncut grass, and—freedom to grow.

At my home there was one part of the garden that was supposed to be wild. The trees were twisted like wind-blown mountain pines; the stepping-stones marked an irregular path across ground covered with pine needles; the fence was of growing cedar peeping between uneven rods of split bamboo, and the gate was of brushwood tied with rough twine. But someone was always busy trimming the pines or cutting the hedge, and every morning Jiya wiped off the stepping-stones and, after sweeping beneath the pine trees, carefully scattered fresh pine needles gathered from the forest. There the wildness was only constant repression, but here at the school everything was filled with the uplifting freshness of unrestrained freedom. This I enjoyed with a happiness so great that the very fact that such happiness could exist in the human heart was a surprise to me.

One section of this wild ground the teachers divided into small gardens, giving one to each of the girls and providing any kind of flower seeds we wanted. This was a new delight. I already loved the free growth of the trees, and the grass on which I could walk even in my shoes; but this “plant-what-you-please” garden gave me a wholly new feeling of personal right. I, with no violation of tradition, no stain on the family name, no shock to parent, teacher, or townspeople, no harm to anything in the world, was free to act. So instead of having a low bamboo fence around my garden, as most of the girls had, I went to the kitchen and coaxed the cook to give me some dried branches used for kindling. Then I made a rustic hedge, and, in my garden, instead of flowers, I planted—potatoes.

No one knows the sense of reckless freedom which this absurd act gave me—nor the consequences to which it led. It had unloosed my soul, and I stood listening, while from a strange tangle of unconventional smiles and informal acts, of outspoken words and unhidden thoughts, of growing trees and untouched grass, the spirit of freedom came knocking at my door.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book