ON THE first day of Ura Bon, when I was twelve years old, Ishi brought a new ornament for my hair and placed it just in front of my big, stand-up bow-knot. It was a silver shield set in a mass of small, loose silver flowers, and looked very beautiful against the shiny black background.

“It was sent to you by Honourable Yedo Grand mother,” she said. “She had it made from melted ancient coins, and it is very wonderful.”

I turned my face in the direction of Tokyo and bowed a silent “Thank you” to the kind invisible donor. Just who Honourable Yedo Grandmother was I did not know. Each year, ever since I could remember, I had received a beautiful gift from her for our midsummer festival of Ura Bon, and, in a vague way, I was conscious that our family had some close connection with her; but I gave it no thought. All little girls had grandmothers. Some had two and some still more. Of course, grandmothers on the mother’s side lived elsewhere, but it was not unusual for a father to have both his mother and grandmother living in his home. Old people were always welcome, their presence giving dignity to the family. The house of a son who had the care of three generations of parents was called “the honoured seat of the aged.”

Ura Bon—(A Welcome to Souls Returned)—was our festival to celebrate the annual visit of O Shorai Sama, a term used to represent the combined spirits of all our ancestors. It was the most dearly loved of our festivals, for we believed that our ancestors never lost their loving interest in us, and this yearly visit kept fresh in all our hearts a cheerful and affectionate nearness to the dear ones gone.

In preparing for the arrival of O Shorai Sama the only standards were cleanliness and simplicity; everything being done in an odd primitive fashion, not elaborated, even in the slightest degree, from Bon festivals of the most ancient time.

For several days everyone had been busy. Jiya and another man had trimmed the trees and hedges, had swept all the ground, even under the house, and had carefully washed off the stepping stones in the garden. The floor mats were taken out and whipped dustless with bamboo switches, Kin and Toshi, in the meantime, making the air resound with the “pata-pata-pata” of paper dusters against the shoji, and the long-drawn-out “see-wee-is-shi” of steaming hot padded cloths pushed up and down the polished porch floors. All the woodwork in the house—the broad ceiling boards, the hundreds of tiny white bars crossing the paper doors, the carved ventilators, and the mirror-like post and platform of the tokonomas—was wiped off with hot water; then every little broken place in the rice-paper shoji was mended, and finally the entire house, from thatch to the under-floor ice-box, was as fresh and clean as rain-water falling from the sky.

Mother brought from the godown a rare old kakemono, one of Father’s treasures, and after it was hung Kin placed beneath it our handsomest bronze vase holding a big loose bunch of the seven grasses of autumn—althea, pampas, convolvulus, wild pink, and three kinds of asters, purple, yellow, and white. These are mostly flowers, but Japanese designate all plants that grow from the ground in slender, blade-like leaves, as grasses.

The shrine was, of course, the most important of all, as it was there the spirit guest lived during the days of the visit. Jiya had gone to the pond before dawn to get lotus blossoms, for it is only with the first rays of sunrise that the “puff” comes, which opens the pale green buds into snowy beauty. Before he returned, the shrine had been emptied and cleaned, and the bronze Buddha reverentially dusted and returned to his place on the gilded lotus. The tablet holding the ancestors’ names, and Father’s picture, which Mother always kept in the shrine, were wiped off carefully, the brass open-work “everlasting light” lantern filled afresh with rape-seed oil, the incense burner, the candle stands, the sacred books, and our rosaries, all arranged in place, and the ugly fish-mouth wooden drum, which is typical of woman’s submissive position, rubbed until the worn place on the red lacquer was a shiny brown. Then Jiya covered the floor before the shrine with a fresh, rudely woven mat of pampas grass and placed on either side a vase holding bunches of the seven grasses of autumn.

But the most interesting time of all came when Honourable Grandmother and I sat down before the shrine to prepare the decorations of welcome. I always loved to help her do this. Ishi and Toshi brought us some odd-shaped vegetables they had found in the garden, a handful of dried hemp stems from which the bark had been removed, and yards and yards of somen—a sort of soft, pliable macaroni. Honourable Grandmother took a crooked-necked cucumber, one end of which was shaped something like a lifted head, and made it into a horse, using corn silk for mane and tail and hemp stems for stiff little legs. Of a small, plump eggplant she made a water buffalo, with horns and legs of hemp stems, and twisting some half-dried somen into harness for both little animals, she placed them in the shrine. I made several horses and buffaloes too. While we were working, Jiya came in with some small lotus leaves, the edges of which were beginning to dry and turn up like little curved dishes, and a few very small yellow and red balls, a new kind of fruit, which I now know were tomatoes.

After Ishi had filled the lotus-leaf dishes with vegetables and every kind of fruit except the furry peach, Honourable Grandmother looped the somen across the top of the shrine in a series of graceful festoons, hanging on it at intervals small purple eggplants and the tiny yellow and red tomatoes.

Then Ishi brought the kitchen “row-of-steps,” and climbing up, hung the white Bon lantern high above everything. It was only a white paper cube, twisted about with a braid of paper having loose ends; but when it was lighted the heat made it constantly whirl, and the many ends of paper rising, falling, and waving looked like a flock of tiny fluttering birds. It was very beautiful.

The meaning of the decorations and the queer little vegetable animals has been lost in the mist of past years, but the lotus-leaf shape of the dishes was because the lotus is a sacred flower. The Buddhist bible tells this story of Buddha’s time of temptation when he was living as a hermit on the Mount of Snow.

One day, at the hour of dawn, he was sitting in meditation, when he heard a strange, sweet song. As he listened wonder and joy crept into his heart, for in the notes of the melody was slowly unfolding the plan of salvation. Suddenly it ceased. In vain he waited. All was silence. Hurrying to the edge of a precipice he peered into the mists of the valley and there saw a horrible demon who turned a taunting face toward the disappointed and anxious prophet. Earnestly the Buddha begged for the remainder of the song, but the demon said that he could sing no more until his hunger was satisfied with human flesh and his thirst with human blood. Then would he sing the mystic plan, until the knowledge of salvation had reached all humankind.

The Buddha’s dearest vision that he himself should bring the message to the world faded into nothingness, and eagerly he cried, “Satisfy thy hunger with my flesh, and quench thy thirst with my blood; but continue thy song until every soul is saved!” and casting off his robe he sprang from the rock. A sudden gleam of sunshine lighted the valley and touched the waters of a pool where was floating a lotus with spreading leaves and one unopened bud. As the holy prophet fell through the air, the bud burst suddenly into bloom, and on its snowy petals softly sank the one who was to give to more than one third of the world a faith far better than any they had known.

The raised centre of the lotus, even now, is called utena, which means “seat,” and lotus blossoms, either natural or artificial, are always before every Buddhist shrine.

Just before sunset we were all ready, for twilight was the hour of welcome. O Shorai Sama was always spoken of as a vague, impersonal figure who came riding on a snow-white steed from “the land of darkness, the shores of the unknown, the place of the dead.”

Like all children I had always looked forward with pleasure to the visit of the ancestors, but after Father’s death, I felt a deep personal interest, and my heart was beating with excitement, as the family met at the shrine. Each one, even the servants, wore a new dress—simple and inexpensive, but new. As twilight deepened, the shrine lantern was lighted, the shoji pushed back, and the entrance doors opened; thus leaving a free path from the outside road all the way to the shrine.

Then we started, walking two by two through the open door, across the hall, down the step of the “shoe-off” place and along the stone walk to the big entrance gates, which were open wide. In the centre of the gateway Jiya had criss-crossed a little pile of hemp stems—just thirteen—around a tiny heap of fluffy dried grass. When we reached this we parted, Jiya and Yoshita going on one side of the path, and on the other, Honourable Grandmother, Mother, myself, and Ishi, Kin, and Toshi. Then, all respectfully stooping, we bowed our heads and waited. Brother was in Tokyo, so Honourable Grandmother, with Ishi’s help, struck the fire of purity with flint and steel, and the dropping sparks lighted the hemp stems into a blaze of welcome.

All the town was silent and dusky except for hundreds of tiny fires, for one was blazing at every gateway. As I bowed, my longing heart seemed to pull my father to me. Through the distance I could hear the sound of soft, galloping feet, and I knew the snow-white steed was nearing. The moment’s blaze of the hemp-stem fire was dying, a faint breath of warm August wind struck my cheek, and peace crept into my heart. Slowly we rose and with bowed heads walked back, on the outside edges of the path, two by two—but wide apart—leaving the sacred space of the walk between. When we reached the shrine Mother struck the gong and we all bowed with the dignified cheerfulness of our usual greeting to a welcome guest. We seemed so few since even the year before, and how cordially our hearts welcomed the presence which we knew would bring into our home cheerful companionship for the happy and helpful comfort for the sorrowful.

The next two days the town was full of lanterns. Everybody carried one, every house was decorated with them, every street was lined with them, and at night the cemeteries were filled with glow-worm lights; for every grave had above it a tiny white lantern swinging from an arch made from stems of pampas grass. It was a happy time for all Japan, and the one day in the year when no life was taken of fish, fowl, or even insect. The fishermen idly wandered about arrayed in holiday garments, the chickens cackled and crowed in their bamboo cages, and the little crickets, which children love to keep in tiny cages, sang their shrill song in the trees without the approach of a single sticky-topped pole. And charity extended loving arms to the farthest limit. No priest passed with an empty begging bowl; pampas-woven baskets of food were hidden beneath lotus leaves on the graves, waiting for the poor to carry away when the Bon lights had burned out; and even the sinners in hell, if their hearts longed for salvation, were given another chance during the merciful days of Bon.

Our home was filled with an atmosphere of pleasant thoughts, unselfish acts, and happy laughter; for we felt that our kind guests enjoyed our simple pleasures of new clothes, company courtesies, and our daily feasts with them of the shrine food consisting of fruits, vegetables, and rice dumplings. Honourable Grandmother’s face grew more peaceful each hour, Mother’s beamed with calm content, the servants were chattering and smiling all the time, and my heart was full of quiet joy.

In the shadows before sunrise of the fourth day, Jiya went for lotus blossoms, and Mother placed fresh food before the shrine. When the brightening air outside began to quarrel with the soft white lantern inside we gathered for the farewell.

The past days had been happy ones and I think we all felt sad when, after the last deep bows, Mother rose and lifted the pampas mat from before the shrine. She doubled and flattened it, then tied the ends with grass, thus forming a rude little canoe, and fixed a hemp-stem arch in the centre. The lotus-leaf dishes of food were placed within, and some balls of rice and uncooked dough added, as O Shorai Sama’s gift to the birds. Then the little vegetable animals and all the decorations of the shrine were put in, the white fluttering lantern was swung from the arch, and, with Jiya carrying the little canoe, Mother and I, followed by Ishi and Toshi, went to the river.

Morning was just dawning, but the streets were full of people and the air crowded with circling birds who seemed to know that a treat was before them. When we reached the bank, all except Jiya took their places on the bridge and watched him make his way down the slippery steps cut in the bank, and join the throng below. Each person was holding a little canoe with its burden of food and tiny swinging lantern.

“Look,” whispered Ishi, as Jiya lifted his hands to strike the flint and steel to light our little lantern, “our honourable ancestors will embark on the first tide warmed by the sunrise.”

The silence was unbroken except for the loud cries of the birds, then a sudden ray of sunlight shot across a distant mountain and hundreds of figures stooped and launched the little canoes. All stood watching as they whirled and drifted along in the midst of the storm of darting birds screaming their thanks. One upset.

“My O Shorai Sama has stepped off and is now in the unknown land!” said an old lady, and waiting no longer, she climbed the bank and contentedly made her way home.

As daylight brightened we could see the little boats far in the distance rising and falling, the tiny white lanterns swinging back and forth. We waited until the sun broke into brilliance; then, as the light came racing down the mountain-side, a soft, deep murmur rose from the bowing figures all along the shores.

“Farewell, O Shorai Sama,” we all gently called. “Come again next year. We will be waiting to welcome you!”

The crowd scattered, and with satisfied faces, made their way homeward.

Mother and I walked happily along, with Ishi, Toshi, and Jiya chatting pleasantly behind us. The anxious look that Mother’s face had lost during the last few days did nor come back, and I felt that Father had really been with us bringing comfort and help to us all; and now he had gone, leaving behind him, not loneliness, but peace.

That afternoon, as Ishi was putting away my flower hair-ornament, she pointed to the shield of polished silver set in the midst of the flowers. A crest was carved deeply in it, and the cut edges sparkled like jewels.

“It is not the Inagaki crest,” I said.

“No, it is the birth crest of Honourable Yedo Grandmother,” said she, closing the little box and putting it away. “It is very wonderful work. Everything Honourable Yedo Grandmother has ever given you is especially beautiful or rare.”

“Honourable Yedo Grandmother never sends a gift to my father or to my mother,” I said.

“No. To no one but you,” Ishi replied. “She always remembers you on the festival to welcome and honour the ancestors of the Inagaki.”

I remembered long afterward that a faint wonder passed through my mind at that time that I should be the one member of the family who ever received a gift from Honourable Yedo Grandmother, but it lasted only a moment. A Japanese child rarely asked what was not told, and there were so many taken-for-granted things in Japanese life, anyway, that I gave the matter no further thought.

Not until I was grown did I learn that Honourable Yedo Grandmother was my father’s own mother, and that my dear Honourable Grandmother, to whom I owed so much, was in reality my great-grandmother.

When my grandfather died suddenly, leaving Father, at the age of seven, as his heir, Honourable Grandmother became the mistress of her dead son’s home and the mother of his child. That the young widow, Father’s mother, did not remain in her own home, was one of the tragedies of our family system, which, wise as it was when made, has resulted in many wrongs, as must always be the case when the world moves too swiftly and customs slowly lag behind.

The Restoration of 1868 was not a sudden event. There had been political agitation for years, in which the world of Japan was divided into two factions—those who believed that the Imperial power should include both sacred and secular duties, and those who believed the shogun, as military ruler, should take all national burdens from the shoulders of the sacred Emperor.

My grandfather believed in the restoration of Imperial power, but his wife’s father, being a hatamoto—body-guard of the shogun—was, of course, a strong advocate of the opposing party. Personally, the two men were friends, but each was strongly loyal to his own principles and to his overlord.

Grandfather’s death took place very suddenly when he was in Tokyo (then called Yedo) on official duty. It is said that he was taken violently and mysteriously ill just after being elaborately entertained at the mansion of his father-in-law. At the feast were present a number of ardent politicians. That my grandfather understood the political significance of the gathering was shown, when, after his death, it was discovered that he had gone to the feast wearing beneath his usual ceremonial dress his white death robe.

In those days, when the heart of Japan was beating violently and she was pushing hard against the set, but questioned, control of ages, such an event was not so unusual; nor was my grandfather’s quiet acceptance of his fate so rare. It was only samurai loyalty to a cause, and samurai bravery in accepting defeat. Standards differ in different countries, but everywhere we are expected to be loyal and to be brave.

But the tragedy of it came to the girl wife—my grandmother, who was little more than twenty years old when she became a widow. Under ordinary circumstances she would have been the honoured widow-mother of the seven-year-old heir—my father; but because of the well-understood though outwardly ignored situation, there was but one thing for this proud, deeply humiliated woman to do. Whether she was the sacrifice of her father’s ambition, or of his loyalty, I do not know, but she “humbly abdicated” from her husband’s family, and changing her name Inagaki to the death name, returned to her former home. According to the ideals of that time, this was the most dishonoured position that any samurai woman could hold. It was scorned as would be that of a soldier who goes bravely to the battlefield and cowardly returns home before fighting has begun.

For a few years the young widow lived a quiet life in her father’s home devoting her time to classic literature and cultural attainments; then she was offered an important position as lady official in the mansion of the daimio of Satsuma.

This was just the time when Satsuma was playing a conspicuous part in history. It was this daimiate which, single-handed, challenged the entire British Eastern Squadron, after the young samurai of the clan had killed Mr. Richardson, a British merchant who boldly crossed the ceremonial procession of their overlord. Satsuma was the most powerful daimio in Japan and his home, like all high-rank houses during feudal days, was divided into two distinct departments: the State and the Home. The government of the Home Department was entirely under lady officials; and in large mansions with many retainers these lady officers had to be as efficient as the officials of the State Department. Among these able retainers my grandmother occupied an honoured place.

Very soon her special gifts were recognized and she was chosen as governess to the little girl-princess, a position which she held until her charge became a bride-elect and required teachers for wifehood training. Then my grandmother, generously pensioned for life, was “honourably released,” this farewell being poetically worded “the regretted disappearance of the full moon behind folds of cloud, leaving in her wake soft, wide spreading shafts of light, to remain with us always, as gentle and lasting memories.”

I never saw Honourable Yedo Grandmother with my human eyes, but I can see her always when I look into my heart. Living in the largest daimio mansion in Japan, surrounded by wealth and luxury, in the midst of daily expressed appreciation of her culture and her natural gifts and with the respect and affection of her much-loved young princess always with her, yet her thoughts turned to the little granddaughter whom she never saw. It was not altogether the call of love, though I like to think that that was there also.

Her life work, through no fault or neglect of her own, had been taken from her, but her broken duty she held firmly in her heart; and unflinchingly reaching out—as is the samurai way—she, as long as she lived, faithfully sent each year one of her closest personal possessions to the little granddaughter who was said to resemble her, even to her curly hair, to be worn in a welcome greeting to the spirits of the Inagaki family to whom she could no longer bow, but to whom her duty was due. Her helplessness was tragedy. Her efforts were pathos. But to her best, and to the last, she was true.

Standards of duty differ on opposite sides of the world, but Japanese people never finch at its call. Many a boy and girl not yet in their teens, many a man and woman at the time of brightest promise, many of the aged have gone alone to a distant province, and among strangers have become of them—body, brain, and spirit. But even among beautiful surroundings, if duty lies behind, undone, nothing, while life lasts, can break the heart pull, the brain planning, the soul prayer to reach, even partially, the lost goal. Such is the deep-hidden soul of Japan.

When the young princess bade farewell to my grand mother, she presented her, as the highest token of grateful and affectionate appreciation, something which she herself had worn—a dress bearing her own crest. Many years afterward, for the Bon festival when I was ten years old, my grandmother sent this choice treasure to me. I well remember that day. Ishi had taken me to my room to dress for the evening of welcome. Hanging over one of the large lacquer frames on which we spread our clothing to air or to wait until we were ready, was a beautiful summer dress of pale blue linen decorated with an exquisite design of the seven grasses of autumn. It seemed to me the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen in my life.

“Oh, Ishi,” I cried, “is this beautiful dress for me?”

“Yes, Etsu-bo Sama. Honourable Yedo Grandmother has sent it to you for the festival.”

It was too large for me and Toshi had to take deep tucks at the shoulders and waist. When I dressed I went to show myself to Honourable Grandmother and Mother, then I went to Father’s room.

“I have come!” I announced, kneeling outside the closed door, ready to open it.

“Enter!” came the response from within.

I pushed back the shoji. Father was reading. He looked up with a smile; then what was my surprise to see him, after one glance at me, quickly slip from his cushion and with slow dignity dramatically announce, “Enter the Princess of Satsuma!”

Then he made a deep bow.

Of course my own little head was down to the floor in an instant, and though when I lifted it he was laughing, still I felt, in some subtle way, that there was something deeper beneath his smile than just his humorous obeisance to the crest of a superior clan: a combined pride and grief, and perhaps pain also—like the cruel ache in the heart of a strong man whose sword arm is helpless.


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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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