WHEN I came to America I expected to learn many things, but I had no thought that I was going to learn anything about Japan. Yet our neighbours, by their questions and remarks, were teaching me every day new ways of looking at my own country.

My closest friend was the daughter of a retired statesman, the General, we called him, who lived just across the steep little ravine which divided our grounds from his. Our side was bordered by a hedge of purple lilacs, broken, opposite the path to the well, by a rustic drawbridge. One autumn afternoon I was sitting on the shady step of the bridge with a many-stamped package in my lap, watching for the postman. Just about that hour his funny little wagon, looking, with its open side-doors, like a high, stiff kago, would be passing on its return trip down the hill, and I was anxious to hurry off my package of white cotton brocade and ribbons of various patterns and colours—the most prized gifts I could send to Japan.

Suddenly I heard a gay voice behind me reciting in a high sing-song:

Open your mouth and shut your eyes
And I’ll give you something to make you wise.”

I looked up at a charming picture. My bright-eyed friend, in a white dress and big lacy hat, was standing on the bridge, holding in her cupped hands three or four grape leaves pinned together with thorns. On this rustic plate were piled some bunches of luscious purple grapes.

“Oh, how pretty!” I exclaimed. “That is just the way Japanese serve fruit.”

“And this is the way they carry flowers,” she said, putting down the grapes on the step and releasing a big bunch of long-stemmed tiger lilies from under her arm. “Why do Japanese always carry flowers upside-down?”

I laughed and said, “It looked very odd to me, when I first came, to see everybody carrying flowers with the tops up. Why do you?”

“Why—why—they look prettier so; and that’s the way they grow.”

That was true, and yet I had never before thought of any one’s caring for the appearance of flowers that were being carried. We Japanese have a way of considering a thing invisible until it is settled in its proper place.

“Japanese seldom carry flowers,” I said, “except to the temple or to graves. We get flowers for the house from flower-venders who go from door to door with baskets swung from shoulder poles, but we do not send flowers as gifts; and we never wear them.”

“Why?” asked Miss Helen.

“Because they wither and fade. And so, to send flowers to a sick friend would be the worst omen in the world.”

“Oh, what a lot of pleasure your poor invalids in hospitals are losing!” said Miss Helen. “And Japan is the land of flowers!”

Surprised and thoughtful, I sat silent; but in a moment was aroused by a question. “What were you thinking of when I came—sitting here so quietly with that big bundle on your lap? You looked like a lovely, dainty, picturesque little peddler.”

“My thoughts were very unlike those of a peddler,” I replied. “As I sat here watching the dangling end of the bridge chain I was thinking of a Japanese lover of long ago who crossed a drawbridge ninety-nine times to win his ladylove, and the one hundredth time, in a blinding snow-storm, he failed to see that it was lifted, and so fell to his death in the moat below.”

“How tragic!” exclaimed Miss Helen. “What did the poor lady do?”

“It was her fault,” I said. “She was vain and ambitious, and when she saw a chance to win the love of a high official at court, she changed her mind about her lover and commanded her attendants not to lower the bridge the day he expected to come triumphant.”

“You don’t mean that the cold-blooded creature actually planned his death?”

“It was the storm that caused his death,” I said. “She was fickle, but not wicked. She thought that when he found the bridge lifted he would know her answer and go away.”

“Well, sometimes our girls over here are fickle enough, dear knows,” said Miss Helen, “but no American woman would ever do a thing like that. She was actually a murderess.”

I was shocked at such a practical way of looking at my romantic tale, and hastened to add that remorseful Lady Komachi became a nun and spent her life in making pilgrimages to various temples to pray for the dead. At last she partially lost her mind, and, as a wandering beggar, lived and died among the humble villagers on the slopes of Mount Fuji. “Her fate is held up by priests,” I concluded, “as a warning to all fickle-minded maidens.”

“Well,” said Miss Helen, drawing a deep breath, “I think she paid pretty dearly for her foolishness, don’t you?”

“Why—well, perhaps,” I replied, rather surprised at the question, “but we are taught that if a woman so loses her gentle modesty that she can treat with scorn and disrespect the plea of a loyal lover, she is no longer a worthy woman.”

“Suppose a man jilts a maid, what then?” quickly asked Miss Helen. “Is he no longer considered a worthy man?”

I did not know how to reply. Instinctively I upheld to myself the teachings of my childhood that man is the protector and guide and woman the helper—the self-respecting, but nevertheless, uncritical, dutiful helper. Often afterward Miss Helen and I had heart-to-heart talks in which her questions and remarks surprised and some times disturbed me. Many of our customs I had taken for granted, accepting the ways of our ancestors without any thought except that thus they had been and still were. When I began to question myself about things which had always seemed simple and right because they were in accordance with laws made by our wise rulers, sometimes I was puzzled and sometimes I was frightened.

“I am afraid that I am growing very bold and man like,” I would think to myself, “but God gave me a brain to use, else why do I have it?” All my childhood I had hidden my deepest feelings. Now again it was the same. My American mother would have understood, but I did not know; and so, repressing all outward signs, I puzzled my way alone, in search of higher ideals—not for myself, but for Japan.

Miss Helen’s father was ninety years old when I knew him. He was a wonderful man, tall, with broad shoulders just a trifle stooped and with thick iron-gray hair and bushy eyebrows. A strong face he had, but gentle and humorous when he talked. I looked upon him as an encyclopedia of American history. I had always loved the study of history, in childhood and at school, but I had learned little of the details of America’s part in the world; and would sit with the General and his invalid wife listening by the hour while he told stories of early American life. Knowing that incidents of personal history especially appealed to me, he once told me that his own large estate was bought by his father from an Indian chief in exchange for one chair, a gun, and a pouch of tobacco; and that Mother’s large home was once an Indian village of bark tents and was purchased for half-a-dozen split-seated kitchen chairs. These incidents seemed to me almost pre-historic; for I had never known any one whose home did not date back into a far past.

When America was a still youthful nation the General had represented his country as a diplomat in Europe, and, with his beautiful young wife, had taken part in the foreign social life in Paris and later in Washington. My first glimpse of American life abroad, I received through the word pictures of this gracious lady, and through her experiences I began to understand, with sympathy, something of the problem in Japan of Americans trying to understand the Japanese, which heretofore I had looked upon only as the problem of Japanese trying to understand Americans.

From childhood until I met the General the word “ancient” had commanded my reverence. I had been conscious that the Inagaki family tree was rooted in a history centuries old, and that our plots in the cemetery were the oldest in Nagaoka. It had seemed an unquestioned necessity that we should follow the same customs that our ancestors had observed for hundreds of years, and it was my pride that they were the customs of a dynasty which was among the very oldest in the world.

After I became acquainted with the General and heard him talk of the wonderful development of a nation much younger than my own family tree, the word “ancient” lost some of its value. Even the General’s own lifetime—the years of only one man’s life—represented such a marvellous advance in national growth that sometimes I looked upon him almost with awe, wondering how much real value should be attached to antiquity. “Perhaps,” I sometimes said to myself, “it would be better not to look back with such pride to a glorious past; but instead, to look forward to a glorious future. One means quiet satisfaction; the other, ambitious work.”

One evening, after Matsuo and I had been over to call on the General, Miss Helen walked back with us across the drawbridge. Matsuo went on to join Mother on the porch, and Miss Helen and I sat down on the step of the bridge, as we often did, to talk.

“When Father told that story about Molly Pitcher,” said Miss Helen, “I wondered if you were thinking about Japanese women.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well,” she replied hesitatingly, “several times I’ve heard you say that American women are like Japanese. I don’t see that Molly Pitcher is much of a Japanese specimen.”

“Oh, you don’t know Japanese history,” I exclaimed. “We have many women heroes in Japan.”

“Yes, of course,” said Miss Helen quickly. “In every country there are heroic women who rise to noble sacrifice on occasion. But they are exceptions. Books and travellers all speak of Japanese women as being quiet, soft-spoken, gentle, and meek. That picture doesn’t apply to the American type of women.”

“The training is different,” I said, “but I think that at heart they are much the same.”

“Well,” said Miss Helen, “when it becomes the fashion for us to wear our hearts on our sleeves, perhaps we will appear gentle and meek. But,” she added as she rose to go, “I don’t believe that Japanese men think as you do. To-night, when I spoke of the book on Japan that I have been reading, and said that I believed the author was right when he declared that ‘for modesty and gentle worth, Japanese women lead the world,’ your husband smiled and said, ‘Thank you,’ as if he thought so too.”

“Miss Helen,” I said earnestly, “although our women are pictured as gentle and meek, and although Japanese men will not contradict it, nevertheless it is true that, beneath all the gentle meekness, Japanese women are like—like—volcanoes.”

Miss Helen laughed.

“You are the only Japanese woman that I ever saw—except at the Exposition,” she said, “and I cannot imagine your being like a volcano. However, I’ll give in to your superior knowledge. You have had Molly Pitchers among your women, and flirts—that Lady What’s-her-name whom you told me about the other day: she was a flirt, with a vengeance!—and now you say that you have volcanoes. Your demure-appearing countrywomen sees to have surprising possibilities. The next time I come over I’m going to challenge you to give me a specimen of a Japanese genuine woman’s-rights woman.”

“That is easy,” I said, laughing in my turn. “A genuine woman’s-rights woman is not one who wants her rights, but one who has them. And if that means the right to do men’s work, I can easily give you a specimen. We have a whole island of women who do men’s work from planting rice to making laws.”

“What do the men do?”

“Cook, keep house, take care of the children, and do the family washing.”

“You don’t mean it!” exclaimed Miss Helen, and she sat down again.

But I did mean it, and I told her of Hachijo, a little island about a hundred miles off the coast of Japan, where the women, tall, handsome, and straight, with their splendid hair coiled in an odd knot on top of the head, and wearing long, loose gowns bound by a narrow sash tied in front, work in the ricefields, make oil from camellia seeds, spin and weave a peculiar yellow silk which they carry in bundles on their heads over the mountains, at the same time driving tiny oxen, not much larger than dogs, also laden with rolls of silk to be sent to the mainland to be sold. And in addition to all this they make some of the best laws we have and see that they are properly carried out. In the meantime, the older men of the community, with babies strapped to their backs, go on errands or stand on the street gossiping and swaying to a sing-song lullaby; and the younger ones wash sweet potatoes, cut vegetables, and cook dinner; or, in big aprons and with sleeves looped back, splash, rub, and wring out clothes at the edge of a stream.

The beginning of this unusual state of things dates back several centuries, to a time when the husbands and sons were forced to go to another island about forty miles away, for fishing, very little of which could be done near Hachijo. When silk proved more profitable than fish, the men returned to the island, but the Government was in capable hands which have never given up their hold.

I told all this to Miss Helen, and closed by saying, “A subject for your meditation is the fact that with these women rulers, both men and women are healthy and happy; and the social life there is more strictly moral than it is in any other community of equal intelligence in Japan.”

“You had better join the Equal Suffrage party,” said Miss Helen, “and go on the lecture platform with that story. It has a list toward moral uplift and might win voters for the cause. Well,” and again she rose to go, “your women are such unexpected creatures that I am more than ever convinced that American women are not like Japanese. We talk so much and are so noisily interested in public affairs that we are expected to do almost anything. Whatever happens, we cannot surprise the world. But for one of your timid, shrinking kind suddenly to burst out into a bold, strong act, like lifting drawbridges and that sort of thing, completely upsets our preconceived ideas. And then to hear of its being quietly but effectively done en masse, like those island women, is rather—disconcerting.”

She ran over the bridge, calling back, “Anyway, although you are the sweetest little lady that ever walked on sandals, you haven’t convinced me. American women are not like Japanese women—more’s the pity!”

With this absurd compliment from my extravagantly partial friend ringing in my ears, I started to walk toward the porch, when suddenly a voice called from the dusky shadows across the bridge, “Oh, I didn’t think of Mrs. Newton! I’ll give up. She is like a Japanese woman. Good-night.”

I smiled as I walked on toward the porch, for I was thinking of something Mother had told me that very morning about Mrs. Newton. She was our nearest neighbour on the opposite side of our place from Miss Helen’s home, and I knew her very well. She was a gentle woman, soft-voiced and shy, who loved birds and had little box-houses for them in her trees. I understood why Miss Helen should say that she was like a Japanese woman, but I had never thought that she was. Her ideas were so very sensible and practical; and she allowed her husband to be too attentive to her. He carried her cloak and umbrella for her; and once, in the carriage, I saw him lean over and fasten her slipper strap.

What Mother had told me was that, a few days before, Mrs. Newton was sitting by the window sewing, when she heard a frightened chirping and saw a large snake reaching up the trunk of a tree to one of her bird-boxes on a low branch. She dropped her sewing, and running to a drawer where her husband kept a gun, she shot through the open window, right into the snake’s head, and her little bird family was saved.

“How could she do it?” I said to Mother. “I never would have believed that frail, delicate Mrs. Newton would dare even touch a gun. She is afraid of every dog on the street, and she starts and flushes if you speak to her unexpectedly. And then, anyway, how could she ever hit it?”

Mother smiled.

“Mrs. Newton can do many things that you don’t know about,” she said. “When she was first married she lived for several years on a lonely ranch out West. One stormy night, when her husband was gone, she strapped that same gun around her waist and walked six miles through darkness and danger to bring help to an injured workman.”

I recalled Mrs. Newton’s soft voice and gentle, almost timid manner. “After all,” I said to myself, “she is like a Japanese woman!”


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