WHEN Hanano was fifteen, the family council brought up the subject I had been most dreading. According to Japanese custom, when there are only daughters in a family, a son is adopted, who takes the family name and marries the eldest daughter. Thus the name is perpetuated. The question of the selection of a son for me, I had dealt with in as tactful a manner as possible, but after having refused two or three offers, I saw that I was expected to give a positive decision soon.

It is never wise for a Japanese woman, if she wishes to retain a position of influence and dignity, to say much on any subject. Actions, not words, are her most successful means of expression; but the time came when I saw that I must speak. With a letter of wise suggestions from my ever-faithful American mother in my hand, I went before the council and asked to be allowed to take the children back to my former home for a few years more of study. This request caused excited discussions; but I now had friends in the council, both of Matsuo’s family and of my own, and my past faithful adherence to their wishes brought a glorious reward. Again my petition was granted, and, with my heart weighted with gratitude and my soul singing with joy, I began my preparations to return to America.

With Chiyo, our going was a question of whether to be glad or sad. Leaving her little friends and her loved school, to go back to a vagueness in which only “Grandma” stood out vividly was a serious thing. But Hanano’s joy was profound. She was quiet, but busy every moment, going about with light, quick steps and singing softly all the while; and I never glanced at her that I did not meet a bright smile. Many times during the weeks of preparation, as I watched her happy face, the thought came to me that if—if—such a cruel thing could happen as that she would never reach the land of her heart’s love, I should always be grateful, anyway, for the quiet, overflowing joy of this season of hope. Nothing could ever take away that happy memory.

The busy weeks flew by, and at last there came a morning when the children, who had been turning down their fingers to count the days, gleefully announced that only two wide-spread hands were left. Ten days! We were almost ready, but however well one may plan, there always seem to be some unfinished things that are pushed away until the last crowded days.

The children had never been to Nagaoka. Many times I had planned to go, but life was full for us and something had always interfered. But I could not allow them to leave Japan without a visit to the place where their grandmother lay beside her husband among the graves of our ancestors; so early one spring morning we started.

How different was this trip from the one of years before which I took with my brother when on my way to school in Tokyo! Instead of a journey of several days, spent, sometimes perched upon a high wooden saddle, sometimes tucked snugly into a swinging kago and sometimes rolled and jolted along the rough path in a jinrikisha, this was only fourteen hours of comfortable riding on a brisk little narrow-gauge train, that wound its puffing way up the mountains, through twenty-six tunnels that represented some of the world’s finest engineering. Between these dashes of darkness were welcome glimpses of sunny hillsides terraced with ricefields, and a narrow, winding road that I remembered well. Just at twilight we found ourselves on the station platform of a busy town having a background of hills bristling with the skeleton towers of multitudinous oil wells. I had been told of these changes, but my slow mind had failed to realize how entirely my Nagaoka was a dream of the past.

I was glad that the children’s first sight of the town was in cherry-blossom time; for, even to me, the buildings looked smaller and the streets narrower than I had pictured them in my stories. Everything might have proved a disappointment to them had it not been for the glow and freshness that peeped over the plaster walls, glorified the temple yard, and showed from the tinted branches of the trees lining every street. There was a faint breeze on our first morning, and as our slow jinrikishas jogged along the strangely unfamiliar road to Chokoji the air was filled with fragrance from the pink, shell-like petals that were continually dropping, or lying in drifts on the sloping roofs of the snow-sheds which hung over the sidewalks.

“How we love these fruitless, beautiful trees—emblem of our dying knighthood!” I thought with a sigh; and then I looked toward the hill where the castle used to stand, and an amused gleam of satisfaction came to me. The old spirit of protection still dwelt amidst the ruins, for on the foundation rocks rose a huge fire-tower with its high platform and warning gong.

The old house was no more. I had hoped that Brother would decide to return, in time, and spend his old age in the home of his youth; for the gentle little wife that he had taken in late middle life had lived only long enough to bring an heir to the Inagaki family and then had drifted out of life as gently as she had lived in it during her scant score of quiet years. But all Brother’s interests were in a distant city amidst the progressive whir of factories and modern life, and he would listen to no plans beyond the education of his son.

So the gods of Utility and Commerce had taken charge, and all that were left of our worthless treasures were removed to Sister’s godown. Then Jiya and Ishi had gone to distant homes; and now, in place of the great rambling house with its sagging thatch and tender memories, stood the ugly foreign buildings of “The Normal School for Girls.” The old chestnut tree beneath which was Shiro’s grave, and the archery field, where so often I had seen Father and Mr. Toda, each with his right sleeve slipped from a bare shoulder, in a strenuous, but laughing, game of competition, was lost in a wide gravelled campus, where modern schoolgirls marched and drilled in pleated skirts and foreign shoes. Strange indeed it seemed—and full of heart-ache for me! I realized that these changes pointed toward a future of usefulness and hope, and I would not have retarded them for the world; but all the quiet pleasures and picturesque life of the past had been merged into a present that looked cheap and sordid. It was hard for me, during my few days in the old town, to keep my memories of beautiful old customs and ideals from completely overshadowing the new, progressive path that I was striving to follow.

When our duty of love and honour to the dear ones was over, we went with Sister, who had come to Nagaoka to meet us, to her home on a mountain a few hours’ jinrikisha ride distant. It was an odd little village where she lived. So narrow was the ledge upon which it stretched its one-street length that, from the valley below, it looked as if a toy town of plaster walls and thatched roofs had been pinned up against the green side of the mountain.

We left the valley, each with tandem pullers and a pusher behind. It was a steep climb up a winding path from which reached out, on either side, long, even lines of scrubby trees. Occasionally the men would stop and, bracing themselves, would rest the shafts against their hips and wipe their hot faces.

“It’s a breathless climb,” said one, as he smiled and pointed down into the valley, “but it’s worth the labour just to see yon terraces of green against the great brown rocks, and the sunny blue of the sky reflected brokenly in the rippling stream below.”

Hai,” said another, “so it is. The city fellows see naught but level streets and dusty roofs peeping above walls or fences of wood. I pity them.”

Then on they went—panting but content.

“What are all these low, twisted bushes with the gray trunks and so many little fresh buds?”’ asked Hanano, in one of these pauses.

“Mulberry trees,” replied Sister. “This 1s a silk-culture district, and the mountain is covered with cocoon villages. Almost every house here has wooden frames filled with trays of silkworms, and on a quiet day you can hear the rustle of their feeding as you walk along the street.”

That sounded interesting indeed to the children and as we went on, they shouted questions and exclamations to each other about silkworms and their mulberry-leaf diet, until the long climb ended in a short, steep pull and an abrupt turn into a broad street of low, wide-eaved houses. At the farther end stood the large house of the village—Sister’s home. Its brownish-yellow thatch rose above a wall of rounded stones topped with a wooden fence, so like the one surrounding my old home in Nagaoka that the sight brought a shadow-ache of homesickness to my heart.

With cordial country manners, the servants had come out to the big wooden gateway, and as our jinrikishas rolled between the two lines of bowing figures, I caught murmurs of the familiar, old-fashioned greeting, “O kaeri asobase!”—“Your return is welcome!”

The quiet house seemed very restful after our long, jolting ride, and the hot bath which is always ready in old-fashioned Japan for the expected visitor refreshed us wonderfully. The children and I had just returned to the living room, where, settling ourselves comfortably on soft cushions, we were gazing across the porch straight out into the blue sky, for the valley and the world were far below us, when two maids appeared bringing in the dainty little tables for luncheon.

“You’ll have to do without meat up here,” said Sister apologetically, as she came hurrying in. “We have only chickens and vegetables from my farm, and fish from the mountain streams. We cannot get meat or bread.”

“That matters nothing,” I replied. “The children are fond of fish and rice; and you know that I always liked everything green that grows. Don’t you remember the ‘white cow’?”

Sister laughed; and Hanano, always on the alert for a story, asked, “What is it about a white cow?”

So, as we ate, Sister told a story of my childhood which dated back so far that my knowledge of it was only what others told me.

“Your mother was not a very strong child,” she began, “yet she was never really sick, either. At that time many of the Nagaoka people, when they were puzzled and helpless about a really serious matter, used to consult the priestess of a small Shinto shrine just outside the town; and Honourable Grandmother asked Father to send for the holy woman. For two days before she came, Etsu-bo was not allowed to eat whale-meat soup, or onion, or any food with an odour; and she was carefully instructed to be extremely good, both in behaviour and in thought.

“Early on the important morning Ishi sprinkled her with cold water. Then she dressed her in her crest dress and took her to Honourable Grandmother’s room. All the family were there, and several women relatives. I remember how Etsu-bo looked as she toddled in, holding on to Mother’s hand. She bowed to everyone, and Mother seated her on the mat beside Honourable Grandmother, just a little in front of the rest of us. The tokonoma was covered with straw matting and decorated with all the sacred Shinto emblems. Of course the priestess was in the most honoured seat of all. She was dressed in pure white, and her black hair was hanging down her back, tied behind the shoulders with a band of rice-straw, from which dangled strips of white, zigzag-cut Shinto paper. When Mother and Etsu-bo were seated, the holy priestess prostrated herself two or three times; then she lifted from the tokonoma a whitewood rod that had on the end a bunch of long streamers of holy paper. She waved it above Etsu-bo’s head, murmuring some religious ritual. We all sat very quiet with bowed heads. After a moment of silence the priestess announced that she had just learned from the gods that Etsu-bo, in a previous existence, had been a small white cow used in drawing lumber for the building of a Shinto shrine on the top of a mountain. The message said that the little creature had toiled up the rocky path so patiently and faithfully day after day, and had lent its strength so willingly for the holy duty, that the gods had hastened the slow steps of transmigration and allowed the soul of the white cow to enter at once into the present life as a human being.

“Do you mean that my mamma was that white cow?” asked Hanano, with wide-open, astonished eyes; while Chiyo stopped eating and looked at me with alarm.

“Father didn’t believe the priestess,” added Sister, smiling; “nevertheless, to please Honourable Grandmother, he made a generous gift to the shrine. But he always said it was not so much a gift of gratitude to the gods as it was a token of satisfaction that he could now account for Etsu-bo’s exceeding fondness for all green vegetables and her little liking for fish. Now, whether it was really true or not, doesn’t matter any more than any other fairy story; but it’s lucky for you children that your honourable mother is a faithful and a patient puller, for she has climbed over a rocky path of obstacles and at last is ready to pull you all the way over to America.”

And she nodded merrily at the children as she served me another generous helping of bamboo shoots and greens.

A few days later one of Sister’s neighbours, whose son was a successful oil merchant in Tokyo, came to see us. Meeting her recalled to both Hanano and me a very amusing incident connected with a call from the son’s wife soon after we had gone to Tokyo to live. She was a lady of the new-rich aristocracy—progressive, wealthy, and altogether “highkara”—a recently coined word which implied the very essence of what was stylish and up-to-date. She was beautifully attired, in Japanese dress of course, for even the most progressive women had not reached the stage where European dress was worn on elegant occasions.

After a long, ceremonious bow and the usual complimentary inquiries regarding the health of family and relatives, and also a few tactful remarks in praise of the flowers arranged on the tokonoma, she leaned forward and unwrapped a square of beautiful crêpe exquisitely dyed and embroidered. It is an age-old Japanese custom, when calling upon a friend, to take a gift, and my guest lifted out and presented, modestly but with evident pride, a large imported paper box on which was printed in fancy English letters:


A Foreign Delicacy Possessing the Fragrance of Flowers!
Used by Ladies and Gentlemen
in the
Cultured Society of Europe and America

It was a large, wholesale package of ordinary chewing gum. The elaborate, ceremonious manner of my guest, every movement being in accordance with the strictest etiquette, made the unexpected appearance of that plebeian package a most incongruous and amusing thing. Yet this was a perfectly natural gift for her to make. It was not easy to choose a suitable present for a person who had lived for several years in America, and who was believed to be foreign in her tastes; so my guest had gone to a store where foreign things were sold and, with considerable care, had selected this as being an especially appropriate gift for me.

Hanano and Chiyo had been in the room when the box was presented. Chiyo looked with grave interest upon the foreign lettering. Of course she could not read it, but Hanano’s first careless glance, as we all bowed slightly in acknowledgment of the kindness, was followed instantly by another quick look; then, with a strange contortion of countenance, she bowed a deep “Excuse me” and slipped quickly from the room.

As soon as the caller had gone she hurried in to me.

“Oh, Mamma,” she cried, gleefully, “just to think that Nakayama Sama should select that gift for you! What would she think if she could only know how you scolded me that time in America when I came home from school chewing a piece of gum? And how you made me wash my mouth and told me that if I were in Japan Ishi would say that I looked like the Buddhist pictures of a starving soul in the Hell of Hunger!”

Sister was very much interested in this story.

“It seems a peculiar custom,” she said, “but it is not so harmful as the one from which originated our blackening the teeth.”

“What did start that, Sister?” I asked. “Several people in America asked me, and I could only tell them that ridiculous old story of the homely wife who stained her teeth by mistake, and it made her so beautiful that she won devotion from her husband and envy from all other wives.”

“There are many stories as absurd as that, about all our old customs,” said Sister. ‘When I made my first visit home with black teeth, I heard Father and Mr. Toda talking about our ancestors once having had a fashion of chewing something. But the story that Honourable Grandmother told me was this:

“Long ago, when everybody had white teeth, there lived a young wife whose jealous husband accused her of smiling to show her beautiful teeth. That day when cutting eggplant for dinner she took some thin peelings and put them over her teeth. The husband returned and, seeing how beautifully the purple colour contrasted with his wife’s olive skin and scarlet lips, angrily asked why she had decorated herself. She told him she had tried to cover her teeth so that they would not show. Recognizing her modest worth, the husband was jealous no longer. Thus, more attractive than ever, she became a model to imitate, and in time, the added beauty of blackened teeth came to be the emblem of a trusted and dutiful wife. That is the story that Honourable Grandmother was told when she married.”

What Sister had heard Father and Mr. Toda talking about was probably the theory which is considered the most reasonable explanation of our custom of blackening the teeth. It is an historical fact that the first conquerors of Japan, who no doubt came originally from the hot shores of Central Asia, planted betel orchards in the warm islands of South Japan where they first landed; but on account of difference in soil and climate it was almost impossible to make the trees grow. So, in a few years the habit of betel chewing became necessarily confined to those who represented wealth and rank. An ancient Imperial coach used by an Emperor who reigned more than a thousand years ago, and which is now in the Art Museum of Tokyo, was roofed with a thatch made of the husks of betel nuts. This speaks of the rarity of the betel trees at that time, for of course the Imperial cart was the most costly vehicle in the land.

When the time came that only people of the highest class had betel-stained teeth, imitations became the fashion and substitutes were found. During the Middle Ages, long after the nuts were extinct in Japan, both men and women of high rank blackened their teeth with a powder made from a wild nut from the mountains. The Imperial courtiers kept up this custom to 1868. At that time even Meiji Tenno, the Emperor of the Restoration, had blackened teeth. The samurai never stained their teeth. They took pride in scorning any fashion that spoke more of luxury and ease than of strength and power of arms. After the Restoration this emblem of vanity faded before the advancing light of Western life; but, suggestive as it was of artistic beauty and high-class leisure, it remained with the women, and all classes adopted it as the marriage emblem. From then on, they blackened their teeth on their wedding day and kept them black ever after.

The fashion is not an ugly one. When blackened every morning, the teeth look like polished ebony, and the gleam of shining black behind coral lips brings out the clear olive of the skin and looks as beautiful to Japanese eyes as did, to the eyes of a European, the dot of black courtplaster on the ivory skin of a maiden in the days of colonial America. The custom is now dying out, but it is still seen everywhere in rural districts. Even in large cities, almost all old ladies of very high rank and of very humble station still cling to the custom. The middle class of Japan always leads the way in progress.


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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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