WE HAD a large stone church in our suburb which was not quite paid for, and a society of church-women called “The Ladies’ Aid” occasionally gave a fair or concert and sometimes a play with local talent, in order to obtain money to add to the fund.

One evening Mother, Matsuo, and I attended one of these concerts. On the programme was a vocal solo of some classic selection. The singer was the gifted daughter of a wealthy citizen and had received her musical education in Europe. I knew her as a rather quiet young woman with a gentle voice and dignified manner; therefore I was surprised, when the music began, to see her step forward briskly and informally, bow smilingly to the audience, right and left, and then, with much facial expression, give a vocal exhibition of high, clear trills and echoes that to my untrained ears was a strange and marvellous discord, but the most wonderful thing that I had ever heard in my life.

The effect left on my mind was of brightness, quick motion, and high-pitched sound. In strong contrast is our classic music, which always suggests subdued colours, slow movement, and deep, mellow tones. Also, like most Japanese art, our music requires listening eyes as well as ears. Otherwise its appeal is lost.

Our classic stage is always the same. The entire back is one solid board of natural cedar wood, on which is painted a gigantic dwarf pine. The floor is of camphor wood and is bare. On this the singers, who, of course, are always men, sit as motionless as dolls. Their dress is the old-fashioned, soft-hued garment of ceremony. Each one, before beginning to sing, makes a slow, deep bow, and, with studied deliberation, places his fan horizontally before him on the floor. Then, with his hands on his knees, palms down, and sitting very erect and motionless, he tells in song, and with incredible elocutionary power, some wonderful tale of war and romance; but wholly without movement of body or change of facial expression.

At the close the singer’s face is often flushed with feel ing, but, with no change of expression, he bows, then gently takes up his fan and resumes his former impassive attitude. The audience sits in profound silence. The listeners may be touched to tears or raised to the highest pitch of excitement, but this can be detected only by the sound of subdued sniffling or the catch of a quick sigh. For centuries repression has been the keynote of everything of a high character, and the greatest tribute that can be paid to a singer or an actor of classic drama is to be received in deep silence.

One thing in America, to which I could not grow accustomed, was the joking attitude in regard to women and money. From men and women of all classes, from newspapers, novels, lecturers, and once even from the pulpit, I heard allusions to amusing stories of women secreting money in odd places, coaxing it from their husbands, borrowing it from a friend, or saving it secretly for some private purpose. There was never anything dishonourable implied in this. Perhaps the money was saved to get new curtains for the parlour, or even a birthday present for the husband. These jokes were a puzzle to me—and a constantly growing one; for as time passed on, I myself saw things which made me realize that probably a foundation of serious truth might lie beneath some of the amusing stories.

Our suburb was small and we were all interested in each other’s affairs, so I was acquainted with almost everybody. I knew the ladies to be women of education and culture, yet there seemed to be among them a universal and openly confessed lack of responsibility about money. They all dressed, well and seemed to have money for specific purposes, but no open purse to use with free and responsible judgment. Once, at a church fair, where I had a table, several ladies, after walking around the hall and examining the various booths, had bought some small, cheap articles, but left the expensive ones, saying, “My husband will be here later on and I’ll get him to buy it,” or “When the gentlemen come those high-priced things will sell.” I had never known a Japanese man to buy any thing for his home, or be expected to.

Once, when I was shopping with a friend, she stopped at her husband’s office to ask him for money. I thought that was strange enough, but a still more curious thing happened when I went with Mother to a meeting of the church ladies where they were raising a certain amount for some unusual purpose. The Ladies’ Aid had recently made a great many calls on the husbands’ purses, and so this time each member had pledged herself to bring five dollars which she must obtain without asking her husband for it. The meeting I attended was the one where the money was handed in, each lady telling, as she gave it, how she had succeeded in getting her five dollars. Most had saved it in various ways, a little at a time. One said that she had made a real sacrifice and returned to her milliner a new hat—paid for, but not worn—receiving in exchange one that was five dollars less in price. Another had sold two theatre tickets which had been given her. Still another told, in very witty rhyme, how she, a poor Ladies’ Aid lady, had spent most of her leisure time for a week, and had pledged herself for a week longer, in darning stockings for the children of her neighbour, a rich non-Ladies’ Aid lady.

The meeting was intensely interesting. It reminded me of our poem-making parties, only of course this was gayer and these stories were on an undignified subject. I enjoyed it all until a pretty, bright, and beautifully dressed woman rose and said that she didn’t know how to save money and she didn’t know how to earn it. She had promised not to cheat in her charge account at the store, and she had promised not to ask her husband for the five dollars, so she had done the only thing that was left for her to do: she had stolen it from her husband’s pocket when he was asleep.

This report caused a great deal of merriment, but I was saddened. All the reports seemed tragic after she said, “That was the only thing left to do.” It seemed incredible, here in America, where women are free and commanding, that a woman of dignity and culture, the mistress of a home, the mother of children, should be forced either to ask her husband for money, or be placed in a humiliating position.

When I left home, Japan, at large, was still following the old custom of educating a girl to be responsible for the well-being of her entire family—husband included. The husband was the lord of the family; but the wife was mistress of the home and, according to her own judgment, controlled all its expenses—the house, the food, the children’s clothing and education; all social and charitable responsibilities, and her own dress, the material and style of which were expected to conform to her husband’s position.

Where did she get the money? The husband’s income was for his family, and his wife was the banker. When he wanted money for himself he asked her for it, and it was her pride to manage so that she could allow him the amount suitable for a man of his standing. As to what the requirements of his position might be, there was little question, for to know this was part of the wife’s education. The husband might shrug his shoulders and say, “It’s very inconvenient,” but the entire house and its standing were his pride, and any disarrangement that would mar the whole was his loss. Therefore the needs of the home came first. A man married, primarily, as a duty to the gods and to his ancestors; secondarily, to obtain a mistress for his home who would guide it in such a manner that it and his family might be a credit to him. If she managed well, he was complimented by his friends. If she failed, he was pitied.

This was true of all classes except lords of large estates or financial kings of business. In these cases there was a home treasurer, but he was at the call of the mistress, and her judgment as to her needs was supreme. The treasurer’s only power of protest lay in the right to say, with many apologies, “The Honourable Mistress is about to overdraw her account.” The hint was generally sufficient, for a Japanese woman, like everyone in a responsible position, desired to do her duty creditably.

Conventional forms are losing in rigidity year by year, but even yet the people are considerably influenced by rules which in the past were uniform and recognized by all. Any marked deviation from these is still considered bad form.

The standards of my own and my adopted country differed so widely in some ways, and my love for both lands was so sincere, that sometimes I had an odd feeling of standing upon a cloud in space, and gazing with measuring eyes upon two separate worlds. At first I was continually trying to explain, by Japanese standards, all the queer things that came every day before my surprised eyes; for no one seemed to know the origin or significance of even the most familiar customs, nor why they existed and were followed. To me, coming from a land where there is an unforgotten reason for every fashion of dress, for every motion in etiquette—indeed, for almost every trivial act of life—this indifference of Americans seemed very singular.

Mother was a wonderful source of information, but I felt a hesitation about asking too many questions, for my curiosity was so frequently about odd, trifling, unimportant things, such as why ladies kept on their hats in church while men took theirs off; what was the use of the china plates which I saw hanging on the walls of some beautiful houses; why guests are taken to the privacy of a bedroom and asked to put their hats and cloaks on the bed—a place that suggested sleep or sickness; why people make social calls in the evening—the time of leisure in Japan; what originated the merriment and nonsense of Hallowe’en and April Fool’s days, and why such a curious custom exists as the putting of gifts in stockings—stockings, the very humblest of all the garments that are worn.

It seemed strange to me that there should never be any hint or allusion to these customs in conversation, in books, or in newspapers. In Japan, tradition, folklore, and symbolism are before one all the time. The dress of the people on the streets; the trade-mark on the swinging curtains of the shops; the decorations on chinaware; the call of the street vender; the cap of the soldier; the pleated skirt of the schoolgirl: each points back to some well known tale of how or why. Even the narrow blue-and white towel of the jinrikisha man and the layer lunch-box of the workman bear designs suggesting an ancient poem or a bit of folklore, as familiar to every Japanese child as are the melodies of Mother Goose to the children of America.

One afternoon, at a small reception, a lady spoke pleasantly to me of the healthfulness to the foot of a shoe like my sandal and then referred with disapproval to the high heels and pointed toes then in vogue.

“Why are these shapes worn?” I asked. “What started them?”

“Oh, for no reason,” she replied. “Just a fashion; like—well, like your folding your dress over left-handed.”

“But there is a reason for that,” I said. “It is only on a corpse that the kimono is folded over from the right.”

That interested her, and we had a short talk on the peculiarity of Japanese always honouring the left above the right in everything, from the Imperial throne to the tying of a knot. Then, lightly touching the back of my sash, she asked, “Would you mind telling me what this bundle is for? Is it to carry the babies on?”

“Oh, no,” I replied, “it is my sash, and is only an ornament. A baby is carried in a hammock-like scarf swung from the nurse’s shoulders.”

“This material of your sash is very beautiful,” she said. “May I ask why you arrange it in that flat pad instead of spreading it out, so that the design can be seen?”

Since she seemed really interested, I willingly explained the various styles of tying a sash for persons differing in rank, age, and occupation; and for different occasions. Then came the final question, “Why do you have so much goods in it?”

That pleased me, for to a Japanese the material beauty of an article is always secondary to its symbolism. I told her of the original meaning of the twelve-inch width and twelve-foot length, and explained how it represented much of the mythology and astrology of ancient Oriental belief.

“This is very interesting,” she said as she turned to go, “especially about the signs of the zodiac and all that; but it’s a shame to hide so much of that magnificent brocade by folding it in. And don’t you think, yourself, little lady,” and she gave me a merry smile, “that it’s positively wicked to buy so many yards of lovely goods just to be wasted and useless?”

And she walked away with a long train of expensive velvet trailing behind her on the floor.

Mother’s furniture, which was of beautiful wood and some of it carved, at first made me feel as if I were in a museum; but when I went into other homes, I found that none were simple and plain. Many reminded me of godowns, so crowded were they with, not only chairs, tables, and pictures, but numbers of little things—small statues, empty vases, shells, and framed photographs, as well as really rare and costly ornaments; all scattered about with utter disregard, according to Japanese standards, of order or appropriateness. It was several months before I could overcome the impression that the disarranged profusion of articles was a temporary convenience, and that very soon they would be returned to the godown. Most of these objects were beautiful, but some of them were the shape of a shoe or of the sole of the foot. This seemed to be a favourite design, or else my unwilling eyes always spied it out, for in almost every house I entered I would see it in a paper-weight, a vase, or some other small article. Once I even saw a little wooden shoe used as a holder for toothpicks.

Generations of prejudice made this very objectionable to me, for in Japan the feet are the least honoured part of the body; and the most beautiful or costly gift would lose all value if it had the shape of footwear.

And Japanese curios! They were everywhere, and in the most astonishingly inappropriate surroundings. Lunch boxes and rice-bowls on parlour tables, cheap roll pictures hanging on elegant walls; shrine gongs used for dining-room table bells; sword-guards for paper-weights; ink-boxes for handkerchiefs and letter-boxes for gloves; marriage-cups for pin-trays, and even little bamboo spittoons I have seen used to hold flowers.

In time my stubborn mind learned, to some extent, to separate an article from its surroundings; and then I began to see its artistic worth with the eyes of an American. Also I acquired the habit, whenever I saw absurd things here which evidently arose from little knowledge of Japan, of trying to recall a similar absurdity in Japan regarding foreign things. And I never failed to find more than one to offset each single instance here. One time a recollection was forced upon me by an innocent question from a young lady who told me, in a tone of disbelief, that she had heard in a lecture on Japan that elegantly dressed Japanese ladies sometimes wore ordinary, cheap chenille table covers around their shoulders in place of scarfs. I could only laugh and acknowledge that, a few years before, that had been a popular fashion. Imported articles were rare and expensive, and since we never used table covers ourselves, we had no thought of their being anything but beautiful shawls. I had not the courage to tell her that I had worn one myself, but I did tell her, however, of something that occurred at my home in Nagaoka when I was a child.

On my father’s return from one of his visits to the capital he brought Ishi and Kin each a large turkish towel with a coloured border and a deep fringe. The maids, their hearts swelling with pride, went to temple service wearing the towels around their shoulders. I can see them yet as they walked proudly out of the gateway, the white lengths spread evenly over their best dresses and the fringe dangling in its stiff newness above their long Japanese sleeves. It would be a funny sight to me now, but then I was lost in admiration; and it seemed perfectly natural that they should be, as they were, the envy of all beholders.

Of all my experiences in trying to see Japanese things with American eyes, one particularly inharmonious combination was a foolishly annoying trial to me for many months. The first time I called on Mrs. Hoyt, the hostess of an especially beautiful home, my eyes were drawn to a lovely carved magonote—“hand of grandchild,” it is called in Japan, but in America it has the practical name, “scratch-my-back”—which was hanging by its silk cord on the cover of an ebony cabinet. Beside it, thrown carelessly over the same cord, was a rosary of crystal and coral beads. The little ivory finger-rake was exquisitely carved, and the rosary was of rare pink coral and flawless crystal; but to the eye of an Oriental all beauty was ruined by the strange arrangement. It was like putting the Bible and a toothbrush side by side on a parlour table.

I did not criticize the judgment of the hostess. Her superior taste in all things artistic was beyond question, and in America the magonote was an object of art only. From that viewpoint it was properly placed. I realized this, and yet, whenever afterward I entered that room, I persistently kept my eyes turned away from the ebony cabinet. It was only after two years of close friendship with the hostess that I had the courage to tell her of my shocked first visit to her home. She laughs at me even yet, and I laugh too; but there is a warm feeling of satisfaction in my heart this moment as I remember that the rosary and the magonote no longer hang side by side.

There was another thing in Mrs. Hoyt’s home which was removed at the same time the rosary and the “hand of grandchild” parted company. It was a large coloured photograph of a scene in Japan—not an ancient print, but a modern photograph. It was an attractive picture in graceful arrangement and delicate colouring, and my hostess had placed it in a conspicuous place. Her ignorant eyes beheld only its artistic beauty, but my heart turned sick with shame. That picture would never have been allowed in any respectable house in Japan, for it was the photograph of a well-known courtesan of Tokyo taken at the door of her professional home. “Oh, why do Japanese sell those things?” I shudderingly asked myself; but immediately came the puzzling response, “Why do Americans want to buy?”

One day I went into the city with a friend to do some shopping. We were on a street car when my attention was attracted by a little girl sitting opposite us who was eating something. Children in Japan do not eat on the street or in a public place, and I did not know then that it is not the custom in America as it is with us never to eat except at a table.

My friend and I were busy talking, so for a while I did not notice the child, but when I chanced to glance at her again, I was surprised to see that she was still eating. Two or three times afterward I looked at her, and finally I turned to my friend.

“I wonder what that child is eating,” I said.

“She is not eating anything,” my friend replied. “She is chewing gum.”

Again I looked at the child. She was sitting, drooped and weary, her loose hands lying in her lap, and her feet spread around her bundle in a very awkward and difficult position. As I watched her tired face, suddenly I remembered something that had happened on the train on my trip across the continent.

“Is she sick?” I asked,

“No, I think not. Why do you ask?”

“I think I took that medicine on the train,” I replied.

“Oh, no!” my friend said, laughing. “Chewing gum is not medicine. It’s a sort of wax, just to chew.”

“Why does she do it?” I asked.

“Oh, most children of her class chew gum, more or less. It’s not an elegant thing to do. I don’t allow my children to touch it.”

I said nothing more, but a partial light began to dawn upon my experience on the train. I had been uncomfortably car-sick, and Mrs. Holmes had given me a small, flat block of fragrant medicine which she said would cure nausea. I put it in my mouth and chewed a long time, but I could not swallow it. After a while I got tired, but Mrs. Holmes was still eating hers, so, concluding that it must be a medicine possessing wonderful merit, as it would not dissolve, I wrapped it carefully in a piece of white tissue paper and put it in the little mirror case that I wore in my sash.

I never heard what originated this peculiar custom, but I think I never found anything odd in America for which I could not find an equivalent in Japan. Gum-chewing reminded me of hodzuki-blowing, a habit common among some Japanese children; and also much practised by tea house girls and women of humble class. The hodzuki is made from a little red berry having a smooth, tough peeling. The core is very soft and with proper care can be squeezed out leaving the unbroken peeling in the shape of a tiny round lantern. This little ball is elastic and though it has no special taste, children love to hold it in the mouth and by gently blowing the hollow shell make what they call “mouth music.” It sounds somewhat like the soft, distant croaking of a pond frog. Hodzuki-blowing is not beautiful music, nor is it a pretty custom, but it is neither harmful nor unclean. The worst that can be said of it is what many a nurse calls to her charge:

“Take that squeaky thing out of your mouth. It will make your lips pouty and ugly.”


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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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