I WAS about eight years old when I had my first taste of meat. For twelve centuries, following the introduction of the Buddhist religion, which forbids the killing of animals, the Japanese people were vegetarians. In late years, however, both belief and custom have changed considerably, and now, though meat is not universally eaten, it can be found in all restaurants and hotels. But when I was a child it was looked upon with horror and loathing.

How well I remember one day when I came home from school and found the entire household wrapped in gloom. I felt a sense of depression as soon as I stepped from the “shoe-off” entrance, and heard my mother, in low, solemn tones, giving directions to a maid. A group of servants at the end of the hall seemed excited, but they also were talking in hushed voices. Of course, since I had not yet greeted the family, I did not ask any questions, but I had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, and it was very hard for me to walk calmly and unhurriedly down the long hall to my grandmother’s room.

“Honourable Grandmother, I have returned,” I murmured, as I sank to the floor with my usual salutation. She returned my bow with a gentle smile, but she was graver than usual. She and a maid were sitting before the black-and-gold cabinet of the family shrine. They had a large lacquer tray with rolls of white paper on it and the maid was pasting paper over the gilded doors of the shrine.

Like almost every Japanese home, ours had two shrines. In time of sickness or death, the plain wooden Shinto shrine, which honours the Sun goddess, the Emperor, and the nation, was sealed with white paper to guard it from pollution. But the gilded Buddhist shrine was kept wide open at such a time; for Buddhist gods give comfort to the sorrowing and guide the dead on their heavenward journey. I had never known the gold shrine to be sealed; and besides, this was the very hour for it to be lighted in readiness for the evening meal. That was always the pleasantest part of the day; for after the first helping of our food had been placed on a tiny lacquer table before the shrine, we all seated ourselves at our separate tables, and ate, talked and laughed, feeling that the loving hearts of the ancestors were also with us. But the shrine was closed. What could it mean?

I remember that my voice trembled a little as I asked, “Honourable Grandmother, is—is anybody going to die?” I can see now how she looked—half amused and half shocked.

“Little Etsu-ko,” she said, “you talk too freely, like a boy. A girl should never speak with abrupt unceremony.”

“Pardon me, Honourable Grandmother,” I persisted anxiously; “but is not the shrine being sealed with the pure paper of protection?”

“Yes,” she answered with a little sigh, and said nothing more.

I did not speak again but sat watching her bent shoulders as she leaned over, unrolling the paper for the maid. My heart was greatly troubled.

Presently she straightened up and turned toward me.

“Your honourable father has ordered his household to eat flesh,” she said very slowly. “The wise physician who follows the path of the Western barbarians has told him that the flesh of animals will bring strength to his weak body, and also will make the children robust and clever like the people of the Western sea. The ox flesh is to be brought into the house in another hour and our duty is to protect the holy shrine from pollution.

That evening we ate a solemn dinner with meat in our soup; but no friendly spirits were with us, for both shrines were sealed. Grandmother did not join us. She always occupied the seat of honour, and the vacant place looked strange and lonely. That night I asked her why she had not come.

“I would rather not grow as strong as a Westerner—nor as clever,” she answered sadly. “It is more becoming for me to follow the path of our ancestors.”

My sister and I confided to each other that we liked the taste of meat. But neither of us mentioned this to any one else; for we both loved Grandmother, and we knew our disloyalty would sadden her heart.

The introduction of foreign food helped greatly to break down the wall of tradition which shut our people away from the world of the West, but sometimes the change was made at a great cost. This could not be otherwise; for after the Restoration many samurai suddenly found themselves not only poor and at the same time separated entirely from the system that had given them support; but also, bound as firmly as ever by the code of ethics that for centuries had taught them utter contempt for money. The land was flooded, during those first years, with business failures; for many of these men were young, ambitious, and eager to experiment with new customs.

Such a one was Mr. Toda, a friend and neighbour, who often came to shoot on our archery grounds with my father, or to take horseback rides with him in the mountains. I liked Mr. Toda very much, and could not understand why Grandmother seemed to feel that his ideas were too progressive and informal.

One day when he and Father were having a game of archery, they stopped to argue about some business plan. I was near by, trying to ride on the back of my father’s big white dog, Shiro. After I had had a more severe tumble than usual, Mr. Toda picked me up and stood me very near the grassy bank against which was placed the large round target with its broad rings of black and white. Putting the big bow in front of me, he held my arms while I shot. The arrow struck the target.

“Best done!” he shouted. “You will make a great warrior, Little Mistress! You are your father’s son, after all!”

My father laughed as he told the story that night. I felt very proud, but Mother looked thoughtful and Grandmother shook her head sadly.

“Your honourable father trains you in so boy-like a manner,” she said turning to me, “that I fear fate must search long for your unfound husband. No genteel family wants an ungentle bride.”

And so, even in our pleasant family, there was a continual hidden battle between the old and the new.

Mr. Toda was a man of independent thought, and after several vain attempts to adjust himself to new conditions and at the same time retain his dignity, he decided to throw dignity aside and engage in some business that would bring material results. This was just at the beginning of the talk about the strength-giving properties of foreign food. Since Mr. Toda owned a good-sized estate which at that time nobody would accept even as a gift, he converted it into a grass farm and sent to a far-away coast for some cattle. Then, with a few experienced men as assistants, he once more ventured into the business world; this time as a dairy man and a butcher.

The aristocratic family of Mr. Toda did not approve at all of this new occupation; for in the old days, only eta (the outcast class) ever handled bodies from which life had gone. For a while almost everyone looked upon him with a sort of curious horror, but gradually faith in meat as a strengthening food gained ground, and the families who used it on their tables grew steadily in number. So the business prospered.

The simpler part of his work—the selling of milk—was also successful, but it also had serious drawbacks. Most of the common people believed that cow’s milk would influence the nature of those who drank it, and on this subject they gossiped much. We children heard from servants that Mrs. Toda’s new-born baby had a tiny horn on its forehead and that its fingers were clubbed together like cows’ hoofs. These tales were not true, of course. But fear has a strong influence on our lives for happiness or misery, and in the Toda household there was real and desperate anxiety about many trifling things.

The majority of intellectual men of that day, though broad thinkers themselves, allowed the women of their families to remain narrow and ignorant; and so it was that the constant friction between the old and new ideas ended finally in a tragedy. The proud old grandmother of the Toda house, feeling keenly what in her eyes was disgrace to the family name, chose the only way to right a wrong that a helpless Japanese knows—sacrifice. If one must die for a principle, it is not hard to find a way; so one day the grandmother was laid to rest with the ancestors whose honour she had died to uphold.

Mr. Toda was an unflinching man, who honestly believed that he was right in carrying out his progressive ideas, but to his mother’s silent protest he yielded. He sold his business to a wealthy fish dealer, who steadily became wealthier, for the use of meat and milk constantly increased.

The spacious grounds where Mr. Toda’s cattle had leisurely browsed were left vacant a long time. We children on our way home from school used to peep fearfully through the cracks in the black board fence and talk in whispers as we gazed at the desolate land covered with coarse grass and tall weeds. We always, in some way, associated that lonely place with the wandering soul of Mrs. Toda, who by going on the unknown journey had accomplished what here she was helpless to do.

One day my father came home and told us that Mr. Toda was now guard to a farmer landlord in an adjacent province. His good fortune was due to the fact that, for several years after the Restoration, the new government had much trouble in handling its numerous, previously separately governed provinces, and there was much lawlessness everywhere. To the landlord of many small farms the Restoration was not the tragedy it was to the samurai, for Echigo was famous for its abundant rice crops, and farmer storehouses were often filled with treasure. But it was a common thing for desperate robbers to raid these storehouses and sometimes even to murder the owners. Wealthy farmers had to be guarded, and since the restrictions of feudal days, which had rigidly regulated the style of living of the various classes, no longer existed, those farmers could enjoy their riches with out interference from the Government, and it became the fashion for them to hire ex-samurai—once their superiors—as guards. Partly on account of the dignity of their former station, which everyone of less honourable rank respected, and partly because of their skilled military training, the samurai were well fitted for this duty.

In his new business Mr. Toda was treated as a sort of honourable policeman-guest. He received a good salary, always formally presented folded in white paper and labelled: “An appreciation tribute.” Of course, this position could not be permanent; for government authority gradually penetrated even to our remote district and made the farmers safe.

We next heard that Mr. Toda had become a teacher in a test school of the newly organized public-school system. His associate teachers were mostly young men proud to be called progressive, and affecting a lofty disdain for the old culture of Japan. The old samurai was sadly out of place, but being of philosophical bent and not without a sense of humour, he got along very well until the Department of Education made a rule that no one should be accepted as a teacher unless he held a normal-school diploma. To go through the required schooling and be examined by those whom he considered only conceited youths of shallow brain would have been too humiliating to a man of Mr. Toda’s age, learning, and culture. He refused and turned his attention to one of his most elegant accomplishments—penmanship. He made beautiful ideographs for the trade-marks so frequently seen on the curtains that hang from the eaves of Japanese shops. He also copied Chinese poems for folding-screens and roll pictures and even wrote inscriptions for the banners of Shinto shrines.

Changes came to our family which separated us from the Todas, and it was several years before I learned that they had moved to Tokyo, Mr. Toda trusting with brave confidence that the new capital, with its advanced ideas, would treat him fairly. But, after all, he was a gentleman of feudal days, and the capital was overflowing with wild enthusiasm for everything new and supreme contempt for everything old. There was nowhere a place for him.

One day, years after, while I was a schoolgirl in Tokyo, I was passing through a crowded street when my eyes were caught by a beautifully written sign: “Instructor in the Cultural Game of Go.” Between the strips of the lattice door I saw Mr. Toda, sitting very straight with samurai dignity, teaching go, a sort of chess, to a number of new rich tradesmen. They were men who had retired, as our older people do, leaving their business to sons or heirs and devoting their time to practice in go, tea ceremony, or other cultural occupation. Mr. Toda looked aged and poor, but he still had his undaunted air and half-humorous smile. Had I been a man I should have gone in, but for a young girl to intrude on his game would have been too rude, so I passed on.

Once more did I see him a few years later. Early one morning when I was waiting for a horse-car on a corner near an office building there passed an old man who had the slight droop of the left shoulder that always marks the man who once wore two swords. He went into the building, in a moment reappearing in the cap and coat of a uniform, and taking his stand at the door, opened and closed it for the people passing in and out. It was Mr. Toda. A number of supercilious young clerks in smart European dress pushed hastily by without even a nod of thanks. It was the new foreign way assumed by so-called progressive youths.

It is well for the world to advance, but I could not help thinking how, less than a generation before, the fathers of these same youths would have had to bow with their foreheads to the ground when Mr. Toda, sitting erect on his horse, galloped by. The door swung to and fro, and he stood with his head held high and on his lips the same half humorous smile. Brave, unconquered Mr. Toda! He represented thousands of men of the past, who, having nothing to offer the new world except the wonderful but unwanted culture of the old, accepted with calm dignity the fate of failure—but they were all heroes!


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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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