AT THE broad corner where our front and side porches joined was where my hammock swung. It was shaded by a big apple tree, and I used to put in a big cushion and sit Japanese fashion while I read. I could never get used to lying in it, as Mother sometimes did, but I liked to imagine that I was in an open kago—a quiet, not a swaying one—and watch for glimpses between the trees of carriages and country teams that passed occasionally on the road beyond the big evergreens and the stone wall.

From there, too, I could look across a little stretch of green, and on, through the break made in the lilac hedge by the drawbridge, to the home of our nearest neighbour. We did not have many close neighbours, for our suburb was a wide-spreading one with the houses far apart, each set in the midst of its own stretch of lawn and shrubbery. Many of these lawns were separated from each other by only a narrow gravelled path or a carriage road.

I loved these fenceless homes. In Japan I had never known of a home not inclosed by walls of stone or plaster. Even humble village huts had hedges of brushwood or bamboo. One of the odd fancies of my childhood was to imagine how wonderful it would be if, without warning, all hedges should fall and the hidden gardens be suddenly revealed to every passerby. In my American home I felt that my childhood wish had come true. The fences were all down and the flowers and grass free for all to see and enjoy. Then my mind drifted to the gardens of Japan where was shut-in beauty for the few.

I was thinking all this one pleasant afternoon as I sat in the hammock, sewing, while Mother was tying up the crimson rambler that covered part of the porch with a curtain of green.

“Mother,” I said suddenly, as a new thought came to me, “did you ever think of a Japanese woman as being in prison with the key to her cell in her pocket; and not unlocking the door because it would not be a polite thing to do?”

“Why—no!” said Mother, surprised. “What are you thinking, Etsu?”

“That idea came to me the day I went to my first afternoon tea. Do you remember?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Mother, smiling. “You looked like a drooping blossom as you came up the path with Miss Helen. She said that everyone was there and that you were the ‘belle of the ball’; and then you sat down on the porch step and quietly remarked that people here were just like their lawns. I never quite understood what you meant.”

“I shall never forget that day,” I said. “All the time I was dressing to go, I pictured how the ladies would look, sitting in Mrs. Anderson’s parlour in their pretty dresses and wavy hair, talking pleasantly the way they do when we make calls. But they did not sit at all. It was like being in the street, for they all kept on their hats and gloves, and stood in groups or walked around the crowded rooms, all talking at once. I was so confused by the buzz of voices that my head was really dizzy, but it was all intensely interesting, and not exactly undignified. People asked me queer questions, but everyone was kind and everyone was happy.”

“Was it the noise and the excitement that tired you so?” asked Mother.

“Oh, no, I liked it. It was a happy noise. I liked everything. But on the way home, Miss Helen asked me to tell her about our ladies’ receptions in Japan. I could see in my mind just how everyone used to look at an anniversary celebration in my home at Nagaoka; Mother sitting so gentle and stately, and all the ladies in their ceremonial dresses, having a quietly nice time and expressing every emotion, in a kind of suppressed way, by smiles and bows and a few gestures; for at a formal gathering in Japan it is rude to laugh aloud or to move too much.”

“It is beautiful and restful,” said Mother.

“But it is not nature!” I cried, sitting upright in my excitement. “I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Our conventionality is too extreme. It is narrowing to the soul. I hate to be so happy here—and all those patient, subdued women sitting hushed in their quiet homes. Our lives in Japan—a man’s as well as a woman’s—are like our tied-down trees, our shut-in gardens, our——

I stopped abruptly; then added slowly, “I am growing too outspoken and American-like. It does not suit my training.”

“You want to pull the fences down too suddenly, dear,” said Mother gently. “The flowers of Japan have blossomed in a shadowy garden, and a sudden, bright sunlight might kill their beauty and develop them into strong, coarse weeds. It is only morning there, now. The blossoms will grow with the light, and by noon the fences will have fallen. Don’t pull them down too suddenly.”

Mother leaned over the hammock and, for the first time, kissed me softly on the brow.

One time I went with some lady friends to see Ellen Terry in “The Merchant of Venice.” It was an afternoon performance, and after the play we went to some place and had tea. The ladies were all enthusiastic in their praise of the great actress, but I could say nothing, for that afternoon was one of the great disappointments of my life. I had been quite excited over seeing for the first time a Western actress of world-wide fame, and had formed a picture in my mind of a modest young doctor of laws, who would walk across the stage with slow-moving ceremony and with grave dignity deliver the wonderful monologue. Of course, I unconsciously pictured the Japanese ideal.

Instead, a tall figure in scarlet gown and cap, which reminded me of the dress of a Japanese clown, swept on to the stage with the freedom and naturalness that belong only to common-class people in Japan. Portia talked too loud and fast for a lady of elegance and culture, even in disguise. And the gestures—oh, most of all, the vigorous, manlike gestures! I had no impression but one of shocked surprise.

The beautiful moonlight scene where Jessica meets her lover, and also the last act, where the two husbands recognize their wives, were full of too many kisses and seemed to be most indelicate. I wished I was not there to see.

In the midst of the conversation, one of the ladies, who had watched me rather curiously during the last scene, turned to me.

“Do you have love scenes on the Japanese stage?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” I answered. “Our stage shows life as it is, and Japanese are just like other people.”

“But your face got crimson, little lady, and you looked as if you had never seen a lover before,” she said smilingly.

I explained as well as I could that for generations we have been taught that strong emotional expression is not consistent with elegance and dignity. That does not mean that we try to repress our feelings; only that public expression of them is bad form. Therefore on our stage the love scenes are generally so demure and quiet that an American audience would not be thrilled at all. But the dignified bearing of our actors has a strong effect on Japanese people, for they understand the feeling that is not shown.”

“What do lovers do when they are—well—very enthusiastic?” asked a young lady.

“They gently turn their backs to each other,” I replied.

“Turn their backs to each other! My stars!” was the very peculiar exclamation of the young lady.

In a moment she turned to me again.

“Is it really true,” she asked, “that in Japan there is no kissing—even between husband and wife?”

“There is bowing, you know,” I replied. “That is our mode of heart expression.”

“But you don’t mean that your mother never kissed you!” exclaimed the young lady. “What did she do when you came to America?”

“Only bowed,” I replied, “and then she said very gently, ‘A safe journey for you, my daughter.’ ”

I had not been here long enough then to understand the odd expression that came over the faces of the ladies, nor the moment’s silence that followed before the conversation drifted into other channels.

Bowing is not only bending the body; it has a spiritual side also. One does not bow exactly the same to father, younger sister, friend, servant, and child. My mother’s long, dignified bow and gentle-voiced farewell held no lack of deep love. I felt keenly each heart-throb, and every other person present also recognized the depth of hidden emotion.

Japanese people are not demonstrative. Until late years the repression of strong emotion was carefully drilled into the mind and life of every Japanese child of the better class. There is much more freedom now than formerly, but the influence of past training is seen everywhere—in art, in literature, and in the customs of daily life. With all the cheerful friendliness of everyday intercourse there is a certain stiffness of etiquette which holds in check all exuberance of expression. It dictates the ceremonies of birth and the ceremonies of death, and guides everything between—working, playing, eating, sleeping, walking, running, laughing, crying. Every motion is chained—and by one’s own wish—with the shackles of politeness. A merry girl will laugh softly behind her sleeve. A hurt child chokes back his tears and sobs out, “I am not crying!” A stricken mother will smile as she tells you that her child is dying. A distressed servant will giggle as she confesses having broken your treasured piece of china. This is most mystifying to a foreigner, but it means only an effort to keep in the background. A display of one’s own feelings would be rudeness.

When American people judge the degree of affection between Japanese husband and wife by their conduct to each other, they make a great mistake. It would be as bad form for a man to express approval of his wife or children as it would be for him to praise any other part of himself; and every wife takes pride in conducting herself according to the rigid rules of etiquette, which recognize dignity and humility as the virtues that reflect greatest glory on the home of which she is mistress.

One other thing may explain some seeming peculiarities. The Japanese language has no pronouns, their place being taken by adjectives. A humble or derogatory adjective means “my” and a complimentary one means “your.” A husband will introduce his wife with some such words as these: “Pray bestow honourable glance upon foolish wife.” By this he simply means, “I want you to meet my wife.” A father will speak of his children as “ignorant son” or “untrained daughter” when his heart is overflowing with pride and tenderness.

I shall never forget my first experience in sees kissing between man and woman. It was on my trip across the continent when I came from Japan. A seat near me was occupied by a young lady, very prettily dressed and with gentle, almost timid, manners. She was a young married woman returning from her first visit to her parents. I was much attracted by her free, yet modest, actions and planned how I would try to imitate her. One morning I noticed that she was dressed with unusual care, and it was evident that she was nearing the end of her journey. Finally the train began to slow down and she watched out of the window with eager interest. The train had barely come to a stand when in rushed a young man, who threw his arms around that modest, sweet girl and kissed her several times. And she did not mind it, but blushed and laughed, and they went off together. I cannot express my feelings, but I could not help recalling what my mother said to me just before I started for America: “I have heard, my daughter, that it is the custom for foreign people to lick each other as dogs do.”

There was no criticism in my mother’s heart—nothing but wonder. I repeat her words only as an illustration of how an unfamiliar custom may appear to the eyes of a stranger. Years of residence in this country have taught me that the American mode of heart expression has its spiritual side, just as bowing has. I now understand that a kiss expresses kindness or gratitude, friendship or love; each of which is a sacred whisper from heart to heart.

Matsuo was very fond of Mother, and often, when he had received a new assignment of goods from Japan, he would select something especially pretty or appropriate and bring to her. Once he gave her a small lacquer box which looked something like an old-fashioned medicine case hung from the sash by people of ancient time. The outside was marked with lines corresponding to the partitions in a medicine case, but when I opened it, I saw that instead of being a succession of layers, it was an open box divided into two upright partitions to hold playing cards. The lacquer was poor and the work roughly done, but it was an ingenious idea to make a box to hold a means of pleasure in imitation of a case to hold a cure for pain.

“What original people Americans are!” I said. “But I didn’t know that lacquer was made here.”

Matsuo turned the little box over, and, on the bottom, I saw a label, “Made in Japan.”

A few days after, I went down to Matsuo’s store and he showed me whole shelves of articles called Japanese, the sight of which would have filled any inhabitant of Japan with a puzzled wonder as to what the strange European articles could be. They were all marked, “Made in Japan.” Matsuo said that they had been designed by Americans, in shapes suitable for use in this country, then made to order in Japanese factories and shipped direct to America, without having been seen in Japan outside the factory. That troubled me, but Matsuo shrugged his shoulders.

“As long as Americans want them, design them, order them, and are satisfied, there will be merchants to supply,” he said.

“But they are not Japanese things.”

“No,” he replied. “But genuine things do not sell. People think they are too frail and not gay enough.” Then he added slowly, “The only remedy is in education; and that will have to begin here.”

That night I lay awake a long time, thinking. Of course, artistic, appreciative persons are few in comparison to the masses who like heavy vases of green and gold, boxes of cheap lacquer, and gay fans with pictures of a laughing girl with flower hairpins. “But if Japan lowers her artistic standards,” I sighed, “what can she hope for from the world? All that she has, or is, comes from her art ideals and her pride. Ambition, workmanship, courtesy—all are folded within those two words.”

I once knew a workman—one who was paid by the job, not the hour—to voluntarily undo half a day’s work, at the cost of much heavy lifting, just to alter, by a few inches, the position of a stepping-stone in a garden. After it was placed to his satisfaction, he wiped the perspiration from his face, then took out his tiny pipe and squatted down, near by, to waste still more unpaid-for-time in gazing at the re-set stone, with pleasure and satisfaction in every line of his kindly old face.

As I thought of the old man, I wondered if it was worth while to exchange the delight of heart-pride in one’s work for—anything. My mind mounted from the gardener to workman, teacher, statesman. It is the same with all. To degrade one’s pride—to loose one’s hold on the best, after having had it—is death to the soul growth of man or nation.


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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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