BROTHER had been at home a year when the letters from his friend in America began coming more frequently. After each one Grandmother, Brother, and Mother would have long talks, and not all of them were happy ones. In a vague way I sometimes thought these discussions had something to do with me; and one day was a little troubled when a long conference ended by Brother’s abruptly coming out of the room with only a short bow that was almost rude. He started swiftly toward the door, then turning, came back and stood by my side, looking steadily at me for a moment. But he went on without saying a word.

Several weeks later a thick, heavy letter came, one with many stamps; and after another talk in Grandmother’s room, Brother sent Jiya out with the long lacquer box tied with a cord which I knew held a “rounding letter” for all the relatives. Jiya would wait at each place for it to be read before carrying it on to the next place. That afternoon I noticed Mother was very thoughtful and quiet; and Grandmother sat by her fire-box, silent and stern, with her long, slender pipe in her hand. The tiny bowl held only three puffs, and, after refilling it twice, she always put it away, but she seemed to have forgotten it that day and sat holding it a long time.

The next day there was a meeting of the family council.

It has always been a Japanese custom to decide important family problems by calling an assembly of the older relatives. There had been family councils ever since I could remember, but, being the youngest of the family, and a girl, I was not concerned in them, and I never gave more than a passing thought as to whether this time it would mean the selling of another piece of land or of one of our roll pictures. We had been selling things all my life. Sister and I were so accustomed to seeing the second-hand man go into the big plaster storehouse with old Jiya that we made a practice of playing a guessing game as to whether he would come out with a small package in his hand or a big bundle on his shoulders. Mother used to look troubled when a group of men came to look at things, but Father would laugh and say, “Useless beauty had a place in the old life, but the new asks only for ugly usefulness.”

But one thing Father never laughed about. Whenever negotiations were pending in regard to land he was always watchful. The outside limits of our once large estate had gradually been withdrawn within the wall, and year by year they were closing in nearer to the house; but Father would never part with any portion of the garden over looked by Grandmother’s room. After his death Brother was equally considerate; so as long as she lived, Grandmother could gaze out upon the garden, the stream, and the little slope of azaleas against the background of feathery bamboo just as she had done for years.

This family council was the largest that had been held since Father’s death. Two gray-haired uncles were there with the aunts, besides two other aunts, and a young uncle who had come all the way from Tokyo on purpose for this meeting. They had been in the room a long time, and I was busy writing at my desk when I heard a soft “Allow me to speak!” behind me, and there was Toshi at the door, looking rather excited.

“Little Mistress,” she said with an unusually deep bow, “your honourable mother asks you to go to the room where the guests are.”

I entered the big room. Brother was sitting by the tokonoma, and next to him were two gray-haired uncles and the young uncle from Tokyo. Opposite sat Honourable Grandmother, the four aunts, and Mother. Tea had been served and all had cups before them or in their hands. As I pushed back the door they looked up and gazed at me as if they had never seen me before. I was a little startled, but of course I made a low, ceremonious bow. Mother motioned to me, and I slipped over beside her on the mat.

“Etsu-ko,” Mother said very gently, “the gods have been kind to you, and your destiny as a bride has been decided. Your honourable brother and your venerable kindred have given much thought to your future. It is proper that you should express your gratitude to the Honourable All.”

I made a long, low bow, touching my forehead to the floor. Then I went out and returned to my desk and my writing. I had no thought of asking, “Who is it?” I did not think of my engagement as a personal matter at all. It was a family affair. Like every Japanese girl, I had known from babyhood that sometime, as a matter of course, I should marry, but that was a far-away necessity to be considered when the time came. I did not look forward to it. I did not dread it. I did not think of it at all. The fact that I was not quite thirteen had nothing to do with it. That was the attitude of all girls.

The formal ceremony of the betrothal took place some months later. It was not an elaborate affair, like a wedding, but was very important; for in old-fashioned families the betrothal was considered as sacred as the marriage itself, and indeed it could not be nearly so easily broken as might be the marriage tie.

There was an air of quiet excitement in the whole house that day. The servants, who always felt a personal interest in everything that happened in the family, had hung weather dolls of folded paper on the nanten bush near the porch, to insure sunshine, and were jubilant over the result; and even Mother, who always seemed more calm when she was excited, went around giving unnecessary directions to various maids. “Be careful in powdering Etsu-ko Sama’s face,” I heard her say to Ishi. “Get the paint smooth.” And when the hairdresser arrived Mother made a second trip to the room to give a special order that Etsu-ko Sama’s hair must be pulled straight.

As soon as I was dressed, I went to Grandmother’s room for morning greetings. Her kindly smile was more gentle than usual, and we had a pleasant talk before breakfast was announced. As we were leaving the room she reminded me that it was the Day of the Bird.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “A betrothal ceremony always takes place on the Day of the Bird. Honourable Grandmother, why is it?”

“Be not ambitious to be vain!” she said, smiling and resting her arm on my shoulder as we walked down the porch. “This day was chosen by your relatives with the kind wish that good fortune will bless your life with silks and brocades as plentiful as are the feathers of the birds.”

Matsuo’s aged uncle, Mr. Omori, had arrived from Kyoto a few days before and had been entertained at the home of the go-between. The ceremony had to take place in the waxing rather than the waning of the day; so about the middle of the forenoon, when I went into the best room, I found the others already assembled. Matsuo’s uncle was seated on a cushion near the tokonoma. He sat very straight and had a pleasant face. I liked him. Grandmother, Brother, Mother, and the two go-betweens were there, and I sat beside Mother. The woman go-between brought to me a small white table with a square of crêpe over it, on which was Matsuo’s crest. It was the engagement gift from his family, and I was looking for the first time upon the crest that I should have to wear all my life; but I did not seriously realize it. Another tray held other gifts, the most important of which was a pair of folding fans, signifying a wish for constantly widening happiness.

Then Toshi brought into the room two trays and set them before Mr. Omori. It was my family’s gift to Matsuo.

Of course, I had been told exactly what to do; so I lifted the square of crêpe from my table, displaying a roll of magnificent brocade for a sash. On Mr. Omori’s tables were the essential pair of fans and a wide-pleated silk skirt called hakama—the regulation dress for a Japanese gentleman. These have been the betrothal gifts from time immemorial.

I bowed most formal thanks, and Mr. Omori did the same. Then the gifts were placed on the tokonoma, and everybody, even Grandmother, made a slight bow and murmured, “Congratulations!”

Soon after, the maids brought the small tables for our dinner, placing those for the gentlemen on one side of the room and those for the ladies on the other. Then Toshi, with her tray, took her place in the open space at the end of the two lines, each person made a slight bow, and the dinner commenced. The conversation was general and the guests seemed to have a pleasant time, but, of course, I was very quiet and dignified.

The most interesting part of the day to me came after everyone had gone and Ishi was taking off my dress. She eyed my head very closely. “Maa! Maa! Etsu-bo Sama,” she said. “It was such luck that to-day was cold and dry. Your hair has not one bit of a crinkle!”

For once my unruly hair had not disgraced my family, and giving a sigh of relief, I placed my head carefully upon my little wooden pillow and went contentedly to sleep.

After my betrothal my life was a sort of make-believe game, for my education as a wife began that very day. I had already received the usual training in cooking, sewing, and various household duties, as well as flower-arranging, tea-serving, and other womanly accomplishments; but now I had to put these things into practice as if I were already in my husband’s home. I was expected to select without assistance the proper flowers, the suitable roll picture and tokonoma ornament, and see that the house was always arranged according to certain established rules.

Every moment my life was filled with training and preparation. The object was not explained to me, for this education was a taken-for-granted part of every betrothal; and it happened in my case that no special explanation was necessary other than that I had to be careful not in any way to show disrespect to wood-sorrel since Matsuo’s crest was conventionalized wood-sorrel. Except that I had to learn to like tuna, which was a favourite dish of Matsuo’s and which I had never cared for, my diet was not affected at all by my betrothal. Sister had a long training, for she had been betrothed five years, including the year of postponement on account of Father’s death. As her expected husband’s crest was conventionalized plum, she never, during the five years, tasted plum, even in jelly. It would have been disrespectful.

The hardest thing I did that year was to learn how to make a sleeping cushion. I loved to sew and was rather skillful with the needle, but I had never made anything by myself. Ishi or Toshi had always helped me. But every Japanese housewife had to know how to make cushions, for they were our chairs and our beds; so Mother said that I must make a sleeping-cushion entirely alone. This was a difficult thing for any one to do, and my sleeves were wet with foolish tears when for the fourth time I pulled out the threads and turned the immense cushion inside out, in order to refit the corners, which, in spite of my persistent efforts, would stay twisted.

Another of my duties was the preparation, on anniversaries and at festival times, of a shadow table for my absent fiancé. On these days I myself cooked the food which Brother told us Matsuo especially liked. His table was placed next to mine and I arranged for it to be always served before my own. Thus I learned to be watchful for the comfort of my prospective husband. Grandmother and Mother always spoke as if Matsuo were present, and I was as careful of my dress and conduct as if he had really been in the room. Thus I grew to respect him and to respect my own position as his wife.

Most of the memories of that time are like faint heart-throb phantoms now, but one always stands out clear and strong. That has to do with a birthday. Japanese people do not, as a rule, observe individual birthdays. Instead, it is the custom to celebrate New Year as a birthday for each person of the nation. This gives a double meaning to the day and makes New Year the most joyously celebrated of any festival of the year. But in our house one especial birthday was always honoured. That was Matsuo’s. This was not on my account. From the time Mother had learned of his kindness to Brother, never did a January 8th pass that we did not have an elaborate dinner with a table for Matsuo in the place of honour as our guest. Mother always kept up this custom, and in later years, when in a far-distant land, I have thought with a mist in my eyes of the birthday table in my mother’s home in the mountains of Japan.

During these months Mother and I came closer to each other than we had ever been before. She did not confide in me—that was not Mother’s way—but it seemed that an invisible cord of sympathy was drawing our hearts together. I had always greatly admired my mother, but there was a little awe mixed with my admiration. Father had been my comrade and my friend as well as my wise adviser; and my whole heart was filled with tender love for my dear, patient, unselfish Ishi. But Mother was aloft, like the sun, flawless and steady, filling the home with life-giving warmth, yet too far away to be treated familiarly. So I was surprised one day, when she came quietly to my room and told me there was something she wanted to speak to me about before she told Grandmother. Our house had received word from the go-between that Matsuo had removed to a city in the eastern part of America, and had gone into business for himself. On this account he had decided not to return to Japan for several years, and asked that I be sent to him there.

Mother always accepted inevitable circumstances with calm resignation, but this was a very unusual and puzzling situation. For generations Japanese mothers, believing that the destined home for every girl is settled by the gods, have sent their daughters as brides to distant provinces; so my going to America was not a matter of deep concern. But for a bride to go into a home where there was neither mother-in-law nor an elder sister of wisdom-age to train her in the ways of the new household, was a serious problem. And this was not a case that could be referred to the family council; for I was as much bound to Matsuo as if I were already married, and in his affairs the Inagaki family had no authority. In this strange situation Mother turned to me, and for the first time in my life I was consulted in a family matter. I think I changed from girl to woman in that hour of conversation with my mother.

We decided that, at least for the present, there was but one problem for us to face. That was how to prepare for an unknown life in a strange land. In this my relatives could take no part. Of course, all were excited and each one volunteered advice; but the only practical suggestion came from Brother. He said I must have an English education. That meant that I should have to be sent to school in Tokyo.

All that winter the household was busy getting me ready for school. The pathos of these preparations I did not realize; nor, I think, did any of us. Mother spent evening after evening bending her stately head over wonderful embroidered garments, ripping out, stitch by stitch, the exquisite work of hands folded in rest generations ago. Then Ishi would dye the silk and make it into plain garments suitable for my school life.

And many things were sold. Grandmother and Mother consented to any sacrifice, though sometimes their faces were sad; but Brother seemed to have lost all feeling for the precious old belongings and would part with them without one expression of regret.

“Treasures are a useless care,” he often said. “In a poor house like ours there is no need to keep dozens of chests of retainers’ armour. They had their place in the past, but hereafter the sons of our ancestors must fight on the battlefield of commerce. Business is the key to wealth, and in this new world wealth is the only power.”

I thought little of it then, but now it aches me to remember the sword-hilt ornaments of exquisite workmanship in gold and silver and bronze that were sold for almost nothing; and I can see, even now, how the great scales of the dealer in old iron tipped heavily with the weight of swords that once were the pride of our humblest retainers.

One cold evening I went into Grandmother’s room and snuggled down beside her cushion, close to the fire-box, just as I used to do in the days which were beginning to seem to me far in the past. We had grown somewhat apart that year. I was no longer the little child she could make happy with sweets, could train in politeness and teach useful lessons by means of fairy lore; and I felt that, much as she loved me, the new conditions that my future faced were beyond her old-fashioned comprehension. But I learned that night, while I talked with her, that samurai training will prepare one for any future.

As we sat in the quiet room, lighted only by the soft glow of the charcoal fire, she told me how, that very day sixty years before, she, as a bride, had left her home in a distant province to come to her husband in Nagaoka. Most brides of her rank revisited their homes each year in a long procession of grandeur, but, though messengers were sent with inquiries and gifts every New Year and summer-festival season, Grandmother never, after she entered the marriage palanquin, saw her home or her people again. In those days of slow travel, distance was counted by time rather than miles, and hers was a long trip. She left home on the night of a full moon, and another full moon was in the sky when she was carried through the entrance gate of her husband’s home.

“I was just your age—fourteen,” she said, “and sometimes as the procession passed through strange provinces, climbing over mountains and crossing wide rivers, I wondered many things. It was farther than Kyoto that I came, and at the gateway of each province there were long waits while the officials of the procession exchanged papers and received permission for us to pass. At these times my nurse always came and remained beside my palanquin, and the spear-retainers and ‘six-shoulders’ of coolie carriers were with us; so I did not fear. But the world seemed very strange and large to me. And the people I came to live among were very different from my own. The customs were new; even the language had an accent and idioms that seemed peculiar. It was like a foreign land. And so, of late, I have thought much of you and the unknown country to which your fate is taking you. Remember, Etsu-bo,” and her voice was strangely tender, “where you live is a small matter. The life of a samurai, man or woman, is just the same: loyalty to the overlord; bravery in defence of his honour. In your distant, destined home, remember Grandmother’s words: loyalty to your husband; bravery in defence of his honour. It will bring you peace.”


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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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