ANOTHER happy year I spent in school. Then I returned to Nagaoka, realizing, myself, how little I knew, but in the eyes of my friends, an educated woman. This was an unenviable reputation—one which I knew I should have to live down if I wanted to stand well in the eyes of my old friends during these last months before I started for my new home in America. Each vacation I had had the same experience; for Nagaoka minds, although simple, loving, and true, were also stubborn; and no year could I begin where I had left off the year previous. My friends all loved me and they had become somewhat reconciled to my change of faith, but they could not help thinking, that, after all, I must be peculiar-minded to enjoy being so unlike other women. So again I had to accommodate myself to the discomfort of being received formally, and again patiently watch the gradual melting away of outward reserve until I could once more reach the faithful hearts beneath.

But finally I found myself settled into the old life, only now with the added excitement of my preparations for going to America.

As a Japanese marriage is a family matter it is not the custom for outsiders to present gifts; but the circumstances connected with mine were so unusual that many Nagaoka families sent large mochi cakes of red and white, most of them in the shape of storks or twin love-birds—emblems of congratulation and happy long life. Distant relatives, old retainers, and family servants, even those married and living at some distance, remembered me with weaves of silk and rolls of red and white mawata—the light, soft silk floss, so useful in every Japanese family as interlining for cloaks and dresses and for various delicate household purposes.

Most of these homely gifts were wholly inappropriate for life in America, but they expressed so much personal interest in me and loyalty to my father’s family that I was deeply touched. And the dinners were many—most of them from relatives—where I, always seated next to Mother, in the place of honour, was served red rice and red snapper, head and all, and soup with seven, nine, or eleven vegetables.

All this was exciting in a quiet way; but the real excitement came when Brother, whose home was now in Tokyo, came up to be with us for my last weeks at home. He brought a letter from Matsuo, saying that a kind American lady, for the sake of a Japanese girl of my school in whom she was interested, had asked Matsuo to take me to her home when I arrived, and that we were to be married there. Mother read the letter with bowed head, and when she looked up, I was astonished to see the shadow of tears in her eyes. Poor Mother! Almost six years she had held, deep hidden in her heart, the shadowy dread that had assailed her when we first heard of Matsuo’s decision to remain in America; for it was absolutely without precedent in Japanese life that a bride should go to a husband who had no mother or elder sister to guide and instruct the young wife in her new duties. This message was like a whisper of welcome from the thoughtful heart of a stranger; and that the stranger was a woman brought to Mother a feeling of safe, warm comfort. Lifting the letter to her forehead, she bowed in the ordinary form of expressing thanks, but said nothing, and not one of us realized that beneath her quiet manner a flood of grateful relief was sweeping away the anxiety of years. That night, as I passed her open door, I caught the fragrance of incense. The shrine was open. Matsuo’s letter had been placed within, and before it the curling incense was carrying upward the deep thanks of a mother’s heart.

Brother watched some of the preparations for my departure with evident disapproval.

“Those things are all right for a bride who is to live in Japan,” he said, “but all nonsense for Etsu-bo. What will she do with a long crest-curtain and a doll festival set? Matsuo, being a merchant, will have to pay a big duty, and they’re useless in America anyway.”

At first. Honourable Grandmother and Mother listened in silence, but one day Mother gently but firmly protested.

“They may be useless,” she said. “Of Etsu-ko’s future I know nothing. But now she is a Japanese bride, going from her home to her husband. It is my duty to see that she goes as well prepared as is possible, according to the custom of her family. So it is decided.”

Brother grumbled, but it is the women in a Japanese family who decide all things in connection with the “great interior,” so the preparations went on according to rule. Mother, however, conceded some things to Brother’s superior knowledge of America, and the rolls of silk and crêpe-brocade which came arranged in the shape of storks, pine trees, and the many beautiful emblems for a happy life, were given to sisters and other relatives; and my doll festival set, which every girl takes with her to her husband’s home, was left behind.

The question of my personal trousseau was so important that a family council was called. Brother’s ideas were positively startling. Most of the relatives were too honest to offer guessing suggestions, and none were well enough informed to make practical ones. Matters were in a rather puzzling and still undecided state when the Tokyo uncle, whose opinion the majority of the relatives looked upon with respect, sided with Brother in favouring the American costume.

“Among European people,” he said, “it is considered extreme discourtesy to expose the body. Even men, whose liberty is of course greater than that of women, have to wear high collars and stiff cuffs. The Japanese dress, being low in the neck and scanty of skirt, is improper for wear among the European people.”

Since most of my relatives knew almost nothing of foreign customs my uncle’s statement made a great impression. Mother looked very anxious, for this was a new aspect of the subject, but Honourable Grandmother’s loyal heart was wounded and aroused. To her, Japan was the land of the gods, and the customs of its people ought not to be criticized. Very quietly but with great dignity she protested.

“According to pictures,” she said, “the pipe-shaped sleeves of the European costume lack grace. They are like the coats our coolies wear. It grieves me to think a time has come when my posterity are willing to humiliate themselves to the level of humble coolies.”

Honourable Grandmother, being the most honoured one in the council, her opinion carried weight, and it was finally decided to prepare Japanese dress only, leaving my European clothes to be selected after I reached America. Brother had arranged that I should travel in the care of Mr. Holmes, an English tea merchant, a business friend of my uncle’s, who, with his family, was returning to Europe by way of America.

At last the day came when all arrangements were complete, all farewells said, and Brother and I had again started together on a trip to Tokyo. But by this time the puffing land-steamer had, step by step, advanced over, and through, the mountains, and our former journey of eight days was now reduced to eighteen hours of jolting, rattling discomfort. We did not talk much, but sometimes at large stations we would get out for a few minutes of rest and change. At Takasaki we had just returned to our seats after a brisk walk up and down the platform when Brother anxiously stuck his head out of the window.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I am looking to see if you left your wooden clogs on the platform again,” he replied with the old twinkle in his eye.

We both laughed, and the remainder of the trip was a pleasant three hours which I like to remember.

In Tokyo there were more dinners of red rice and whole fish, more useless, loving gifts, more farewells with warm heart throbs within and cool formal bows without, and then I found myself standing on the deck of a big steamer, with my brother by my side, and, on the water below, a waiting launch to take ashore the last friends of the passengers.

The third long, hoarse blast of the warning whistle sounded, and with an odd tightness in my throat I bent in a deep, long bow. Brother stood close to my sleeve.

“Little Etsu-bo,” he said, with a strange tenderness in his voice, “I have been a poor brother, in whom you could not take pride; but I have never known an unselfish person—except you.”

I saw his shadow bow, but when I lifted my head, he was in the crowd pressing toward the ship steps, his head held high and his laughing face lifted in a shout of farewell to Mr. Holmes.

After the first few days the voyage was pleasant, but Mrs. Holmes, who was not very strong, was ill most of the way over and her maid was busy with the care of the baby; so I spent much time on the deck alone, either gazing quietly out over the water or reading one of several Japanese magazines that had been given me just as I started. Mr. Holmes was most kind and attentive, but I was not used to men, and was so silent that he, knowing Japanese people, must have understood; for after the first day he would see me comfortably settled in my deck chair, then go away, leaving his own chair, next to mine, vacant except for the plate of fruit or cup of tea which he would have occasionally sent to me.

Because of my dress and the magazine, the passengers concluded that I could not understand English; and remarks about me or about Japanese were frequently made within my hearing by persons sitting near me. They were not unkind, but it seemed discourteous to be listening to words not meant for my ears, so one morning I took an English book up to the deck with me and was reading it when a lady, walking by, paused.

“I see you understand English,” she said pleasantly, and remained for a little chat. She must have passed the news around, for after that I not only heard no more remarks about “the quiet little Jap,” but, at various times, several ladies stopped for a short conversation. My place at the table was beside Mrs. Holmes. She rarely came, but I never felt alone, for the other passengers, seeming to feel responsible for the American lady’s charge, were unceasingly kind in their attentions. Indeed there was an atmosphere of free action and cheerful speech among the passengers that was as refreshing as the salty, breezy air. Everyone said “Good-morning” to everyone else, friends or strangers, no one seemed to care. One day I saw two well-dressed ladies greet each other with a merry “Hello! Wonderful morning, isn’t it? Let’s take our constitutional together,” and swinging into step, they marched off like a couple of soldier comrades. No bowing—no formal words. Everything was free and cordial. This lack of formality was very surprising, but it was most interesting, and it held a certain charm.

Of course I watched the dresses of these foreign ladies with the greatest interest. My uncle’s remarks regarding the low neck and scanty skirt of the Japanese dress had astonished and troubled me very much, and since I was the only Japanese woman on the ship among some fifty or sixty American ladies, I felt responsible not to disgrace my nation. The Japanese dress is so made that it can be properly worn only when put on in one certain way, but I, inspired with a combination of girlish modesty and loyal patriotism, tried to pull the embroidered folds at the neck close up to my chin; and I remained seated as much as possible so my scanty skirt would not be noticed.

The weather was unpleasant at the beginning of the voyage, and few ladies came on deck, but it was not long before the promenading commenced, and then I began to suspect that my uncle’s opinion might not be wholly correct; but it was not until an evening entertainment where there was dancing that I entirely lost faith in his judgment. There the high collar and stiff cuffs of the gentlemen were to be seen, just as he had said; but I found that most of the ladies’ dresses were neither high in the neck nor full in the skirt, and I saw many other things which mystified and shocked me. The thin waists made of lawn and dainty lace were to me most indelicate, more so, I think, unreasonable though it seemed, than even the bare neck. I have seen a Japanese servant in the midst of heavy work in a hot kitchen, with her kimono slipped down, displaying one entire shoulder; and I have seen a woman nursing her baby in the street, or a naked woman in a hotel bath, but until that evening on the steamer I had never seen a woman publicly displaying bare skin just for the purpose of having it seen. For a while I tried hard to pretend to myself that I was not embarrassed, but finally, with my cheeks flaming with shame, I slipped away and crept into my cabin berth wondering greatly over the strange civilization of which I was so soon to be a part.

I have no spirit of criticism in writing this. Indeed, after years of residence in this country I have so changed that I can look back with surprised amusement at my first impressions. The customs of all countries are strange to untrained eyes, and one of the most interesting mysteries of my life here is my own gradual but inevitable mental evolution. Now I can go to a dinner or a dance and watch the ladies in evening dress with pleasure. To me the scene is frequently as artistic and beautiful as a lovely painting, and I know those happy-faced women walking with the courteous gentlemen or swinging to the time of gay music are just as innocent and sweet of heart as are the gentle and hushed women of my own country over the sea.

My experiences in San Francisco were strange and puzzling, but delightful in their novelty. The astonishing little room at the Palace Hotel which we had no sooner entered than it began to rise upward, finally depositing us in a large apartment where we had a view as vast as from a mountain-top; the smooth white bathtub which could be filled with hot water without fuel or delay; the locked doors everywhere, for in Japan we never had a lock; all of these strange things, combined with the bewildering sense of the bigness of everything, was almost overpowering.

This sense of the enormous size of things—wide streets, tall buildings, great trees—was also pronounced inside the hotel. The ceilings were lofty, the furniture was large, the chairs were high and the sofas were wide, with the back far from the front. Everything seemed made for a race of giants; which, after all, is not so far from the truth, for that is what Americans are—a great people, with nothing cramped or repressed about them; both admirable and faulty in a giant way; with large person, generous purse, broad mind, strong heart, and free soul. My first impression has never changed.

We were in San Francisco only a few days, but everything was so hurried, so noisy, and so strange that my brain settled into a half-numb condition of non-expectancy. Then something happened. So simple, so homely a thing it was, that it stands out in my memory clear and separate from all else connected with my short stay in that wonderful city. A gentle, white-haired old minister, who had lived in Japan, came to make a friendly call. After the words of greeting he unwrapped a white box and placed it in my hand.

“I thought you would like a bit of home after your long trip,” he said. “Look inside and see what it is.” I lifted the cover and what was my surprise to see real Japanese food, fresh and delicious. I must, long before, have heard my brother say that Japanese food could be obtained in America, but it had made no impression upon me, and I was as astonished as if I had expected never again to behold Japanese food.

I looked up gratefully, and when I saw the humorous twinkle in his eye and kindliness in every feature of his smiling face, the strangeness of my surroundings melted away and there came my first throb of homesickness; for behind the gentle smile I saw the heart of my father. Years before, just after my father’s death, Ishi had taken me to the Temple of the Five Hundred Buddhas, where stood row after row of big, carved images of stone or gilded wood. Every face was gentle, calm, and peaceful, and my lonely little heart searched each one, hoping to find my father’s, for he too was now a Buddha. I did not know then that a longing heart will recognize its own reflection in only a trifle; and when at last I saw a face—gentle, dignified, and with a kindly smile, I felt that it pictured my father’s heart, and I was satisfied. Just so I saw my father in the face of the old man whose kind heart had prompted the homely gift. I love to remember that smile as my welcome to the strange new country, which ever after was to be linked in my heart so closely to my own.

During the long ride across the continent I was reminded constantly of the revolving lanterns which were so fascinating to me as a child. The rapidly changing views from the train were like the gay scenes on the lantern panels that flitted by too quickly to permit of a clear image; their very vagueness being the secret of their charm.

Mr. and Mrs. Holmes came as far as a large city near my future home where they placed me in charge of a lady schoolteacher, a friend of Mrs. Holmes. Then they said good-bye and slipped out of my life, probably for ever. But they left a memory of kindness and consideration which will remain with me always.

When I was whirled into the dusky station of the city of my destination, I peered rather curiously from the car window. I was not anxious. I had always been taken care of, and it did not trouble me that I was to meet one I had never known before. On the crowded platform I saw a young Japanese man, erect, alert, watching. eagerly each person who stepped from the train. It was Matsuo. He wore a gray suit and a straw hat, and to me looked modern, progressive, foreign in everything except his face. Of course, he knew who I was at once but to my astonishment, his first words were, “Why did you wear Japanese dress?” There flashed into my mind a picture of the grave faces of the family council and my grandmother’s words regarding pipe-sleeves. Yet here was I in a land of pipe-sleeves, gazing upon my future husband, a pipe-sleeved man. I laugh about it now, but then I was only a lonely, loose-sleeved, reproved little girl. Matsuo’s disappointment in my dress was mostly on account of a much-honoured friend, Mrs. Wilson, the kind lady about whom Matsuo had written in the letter which for years was kept in Mother’s shrine. With thoughtful kindness she had sent Matsuo in her carriage to meet me, and he, anxious that I should appear well in her eyes, was disgusted not to find me very up-to-date and progressive.

I silently took my place beside Matsuo in the shining carriage with its prancing black horses and uniformed coachman, and in absolute silence we rolled along the busy streets and up the long, sloping hill to a beautiful suburban home. I did not realize that the situation was perhaps as trying to him as to me; for I had never been so close to a man in my life, except my father, and I almost died on that trip.

The carriage turned into a road that circled a spacious lawn and stopped before a large gray house with a wide, many-columned porch. Outside the door stood a stately lady and a tall white-haired gentleman. The lady greeted me with outstretched hands and cordial words of welcome. I was too grateful to reply, and when I looked up into the noble, kindly face of the white-haired gentleman beside her, peace crept into my heart, for, behind his gentle smile, again I saw the heart of my father.

Those two good people will never know until they stand within the shining gates where heavenly knowledge clears our eyes how much their kindness, both before and after our wedding, meant to Matsuo and to me.

For ten restful days I was made welcome in that beautiful home; then came the second of “The Three Inevitables”—for, in Old Japan, marriage held its place equally with birth and death. My wedding took place on a beautiful day in June. The sun shone, the soft wind murmured through the branches of the grand old trees on the lawn, the reception room, with its treasures of art gathered from all lands, was fragrant with blossoms, and before a wonderful inlaid console table were two crossed flags—American and Japanese. There Matsuo and Etsu stood while the Christian words were spoken which made them one. By Matsuo’s side was his business partner, a good kind man, and beside me stood one who ever since has proved my best and truest friend. So we were married. Everyone said it was a beautiful wedding. To me the room was filled with a blur of strange things and people, all throbbing with the spirit of a great kindness; and vaguely, mistily, I realized that there had been fulfilled a sacred vow that the gods had made long before I was born.

Our friend, Mrs. Wilson, was always kind to me, and I have been a happy and grateful guest in her beautiful home many, many times; but my permanent home was in an adjoining suburb, in a large, old-fashioned frame house set on a hill in the midst of big trees and lawns cut with winding gravel paths. The mistress of this house was a widowed relative of Mrs. Wilson, a woman in whom was united the stern, high-principled stock of New England with the gentle Virginia aristocracy. She invited us for a visit at first, because she loved Japan. But we were all so happy together that we decided not to separate; so for many years our home was there with “Mother,” as we learned to call her. Close to my own mother in my heart of hearts stands my American mother—one of the noblest, sweetest women that God ever made.

From the love and sympathy and wisdom of this pleasant home I looked forth upon America at its best, and learned to gather with understanding and appreciation the knowledge that had been denied my poor brother in his narrow life in this same land.


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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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