THE large, well-cared-for house in which we had taken refuge that stormy night was crowded full of busy workers. With the exception of the living rooms of our host, his wife, and two daughters, the entire house was full of skeleton frames containing tiers and tiers of bamboo trays, each holding a network screen covered with silk worms. There must have been thousands and thousands of them. I had been accustomed to silkworms all my life. Ishi’s home had been in a weaving village, and my elder sister had many silk villages on her three-mountain estate; but I never before had spent a night in sound of the continual nibbling of the hungry little creatures. It filled the whole house with a gentle rustling, exactly like the patter of raindrops on dry leaves, and I dreamed all night of dripping eaves. The next morning I awakened with a depressed feeling that I was to have a day’s ride in a close-shut jinrikisha, and was surprised, when I pushed back one of the wooden panels at the porch edge, to find that the sun was shining.

While I was standing there, one of the daughters, about my age, came out carrying a straw mat of silkworm waste to throw on a pile in the yard for the mulberry stems and rice hulls of silkworm waste make the best fertilizer in the world—and she stopped to bow good-morning. Then she stood there in the June sunshine with her sleeves looped back and her bare feet in straw sandals, and I squatted on the edge of the porch in my home-dyed night kimono, and we got acquainted.

She told me that she took care of six trays of silkworms all by herself. She seemed to know everything about them, and she loved them.

“They’re clean,” she said, “and dainty about food, and intelligent about their own affairs—just like people.”

I was so interested in all the surprising things I heard that I was still listening when a girl came to fold away my bed cushions, and I had to hurry to get dressed.

“Well,” said Brother, after my room had been cleaned, and breakfast brought in, “how do you like living in a boarding house?”

“The boarders are very noisy,” I replied; “and, from what our hostess’s daughter told me, they are very particular. She says they cannot endure one particle of dust. Even a withered leaf will sometimes cause one to ‘tie on his blue neckerchief’ and creep to the outer edge of the tray.”

“Have you seen our host’s grandmother?” asked Brother.

“No, I didn’t know there was a grandmother.”

“She went early to her cushions last night; probably to escape the bustle and annoyance of our abrupt arrival. We will pay our respects to her before we leave.”

When breakfast was over, our host took us to the grandmother’s room. She was a very old lady with a reserved manner and a face of more than usual intelligence. As soon as she bowed I knew that she had been trained in a samurai house, and when I saw the crest of a naginata on the wall-rest above the shoji, I knew why Brother had wanted me to come to this room.

A naginata is a long, light spear with curved blade, which samurai women were taught to use, partly for exercise and partly for defence in case of necessity. This one bore the crest of one of our northern heroes. He was a traitor, but nevertheless he was a hero. When he was killed, his daughter was one of the group—three of them women—who defended the sorely pressed castle during the last desperate hours of hopeless struggle. The old lady told us, with modest pride, that she had been a humble attendant of the daughter and was with her at that dreadful time. The naginata was a memory gift from her honourable and beloved mistress.

Seeing that we were deeply interested, she brought out her other treasure—a slender, blunt knife called a kogai, which, with the throwing-dagger, forms part of the hilt of a samurai’s long sword. In very ancient days Japanese warfare was a science. Artistic skill was always displayed in the use of weapons, and no soldier was proud of having wounded an enemy in any other manner than the one established by strict samurai rule. The long sword had for its goal only four points: the top of the head, the wrist, the side, and the leg below the knee. The throwing-dagger must speed on its way, true as an arrow, direct to forehead, throat, or wrist. But the blunt little kogai had many uses. It was the key that locked the sword in its scabbard; when double it could be used as chopsticks by the marching soldier; it has been used on the battlefield, or in retreat, mercifully to pierce the ankle vein of a suffering and dying comrade, and it had the unique use in a clan feud, when found sticking upright in the ankle of a dead foe, of bearing the silent challenge, “I await thy return.” Its crest told to whom it belonged and, in time, it generally was returned—to its owner’s ankle. The kogai figures in many tales of romance and revenge of the Middle Ages.

I was glad to see Brother so interested, and was happy myself in watching the old lady’s face flush and light up with her memories; but her closing words made me feel sorry. To some remark of Brother’s she replied, “Youth is always listening eagerly for marching orders; but the aged can only look backward to sad memories and hopeless dreams.”

As I mounted my jinrikisha and bowed again to the entire group of family and servants bowing in the doorway, I could not help sending a thought farewell to the busy little boarders. I had learned more about silkworms during that short rustling visit than in my fourteen years of life in a silkworm district. As we rolled along over a smooth, monotonous road my mind was busy, and I believe that then and there I first began to realize—vaguely—that all creatures, however insignificant, were “intelligent about their own affairs—just like people.”

“Dear me!” I finally said to myself. “How much we learn when we travel!” and I pulled the jinrikisha robe over my lap and settled myself for the long ride ahead.

I think I must have gone to sleep, for I found myself crookedly but comfortably snuggled into almost a kinoji when I heard Brother’s voice.

We were entering a good-sized town and he was leaning back and pointing across the tiled roofs to a castle on the hill beyond.

“This is Komoro,” he called, “and there’s where the foot-high dolls came from.”

I smiled as my mind flew back to the Nagaoka home and pictured two enormous dolls of the festival set brought by our Komoro great-great-grandmother with her wedding dowry. In her day the Government permitted only the daughter of a daimio to own dolls a foot high, and her entire set must have been wondrously handsome. But in my time, when our living came principally from the visits of the second-hand man to our godown, the wonderful Komoro dolls, with their miniature furniture of gold and lacquer—the perfection of Japanese art of the Middle Ages—gradually found new homes. They went, I know, to no godown of Japan, but, through some shrewd dealer, into foreign hands and foreign lands and probably to-day are calmly resting in widely scattered homes and museums of Europe or America.

Two of the dolls had become defaced in someway, and thus, being unsaleable, they were placed as ornaments on the high tokonoma shelf in my room. I was very fond of acting out scenes of the stories that were told me, and I used to take down the dolls and use them as an audience while I strutted around the room representing an ancient samurai with some fearful duty to perform. The dolls’ heads were movable, and thus supplied a splendid opportunity for a favourite revenge story of mine. Many a time I have placed my hand on one of the enamelled heads and, with my ivory paper knife as a sword, have struck fiercely at the doll, at the same instant lifting out the head from its collar of rich brocade; then, with stern, set face, I would hurriedly wrap the head in a purple square of crêpe and, tucking it under my arm, stride boldly off to an imaginary courtroom.

I suspect my father knew of this barbarous game of mine, for I always borrowed his purple crêpe fukusa for this purpose, feeling that something belonging to him would give dignity to the occasion; but I never heard Honourable Grandmother’s step on the porch that I did not quickly restore the head to its brocade nest in order to save her another anxious fear that I was growing too bold and rough ever to find a husband.

As our jinrikishas rolled through the town I looked up at the castle with interest. And this was the home from which our Komoro grandmother had gone forth on her wedding journey to Nagaoka! Half buried in trees it stood, the gray, tipped-up corners of many roofs peeping through the branches. It looked like a broad, low pagoda towering above a slanting wall of six-sided stones—the “tortoise back” of all Japanese castles.

From Komoro to Nagaoka! It must have seemed a long trip to the young girl in the teetering bridal kago! I thought of what Honourable Grandmother had told me of her own month-long bridal trip. And then I looked ahead. The Idzumo gods, who plan all marriages, had decreed the same fate for many brides of our family, and, so far as my own future was planned, I seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors.

At one place where we had to take kagos I disgraced myself. I dreaded a kago. The big basket swinging from the shoulders of the trotting coolies always made me dizzy and faint, but that day it was raining hard and the mountain path was too rough for a jinrikisha. I stood things as bravely as I could, but finally I became so sick that Brother had the baggage taken off the horse and, wedging me in between cushions on its back, covered me with a tent made of a straw mat and, disdaining comfort for himself, walked all the way up the mountain beside me, the coolie following with the two kagos.

At the top the sun was shining, and when I peeped out from my tent Brother was shaking himself as my poor Shiro used to do when drenched with rain. I ventured to apologize in a shamed voice.

“Kago sickness is a great absorber of pride, Etsu-bo. I’m afraid you have lost your right to be called your father’s ‘brave son.’ ”

I laughed, but my cheeks were hot.

As he helped me to the ground, Brother pointed toward a wide-spreading cloud of smoke floating lazily above a cone-shaped mountain.

“That’s the signpost for the Robber Station,” he said. “Do you remember?”

Indeed I did. Many times I had heard Father tell the story of the small hotel at the top of a mountain where the rates were so high that people called it the ‘Robber Station.’ I was a big girl before I learned that it was a very respectable stopping place and not a den of thieves where money was extorted from travellers as tribute.

We walked down the mountain, passing several cave shrines. In one I caught the twinkle of a burning lamp. It reminded me of the hermit caves of Echigo. This was my first long trip from home, and it was full of strange new experiences. Yet there seemed to be familiar memories connected with everything. I wondered vaguely if I should find it so in America.

One day, after a shower, as the man stopped to lower the top of my jinrikisha, a sudden burst of sunshine showed me, high up on the mountain-side, pressed flat against the green, an immense white dai, the Japanese character meaning “great.” It looked as if it had been painted with a brush, but Jiya, who had once been there, had told me that it was made of strips of bamboo covered thickly with paper prayers tied on by pilgrim visitors to the temple on top of the mountain.

Near by was the rude little village where Miyo lived. She was Jiya’s sister, and we spent the night in her house. It was a queer place, a sort of cheap hotel for country people. Miyo, with her son and his wife, met us at the door with deep bows and many a “Maa! Maa!” of surprise and pleasure. The wide entrance opened into a big room having a clay floor. Several casks bound with hoops of twisted bamboo were piled in one corner, and from the smoky ceiling hung a bulging bag of grain, bunches of mochi cakes and dried fish, and bamboo baskets containing provisions of various kinds.

We passed through a mob of chattering pilgrims who had just come down from the mountain, and, crossing the stones of a crude little garden, reached the rooms where Miyo lived. Everything was clean, but the paper doors were patched, the mats yellow with age, and the cloth bindings worn almost through. Miyo must have had a rather hard time in the past; for she was an independent character who, in violation of all tradition, had cast off a worthless husband and brought up her four children herself. Of course it was very low class to do a thing like that, but she was as brave as a man, and, since her husband had no parents, she had been able legally to keep the children herself.

Miyo had been a servant in our house when Brother was a child, and her delight in seeing the “Young Master” was pathetic. Her bare feet went pattering over the mats, slipping quickly into her sandals each time she crossed the door-sill to the kitchen. She hurried here and there, bringing us the best she had and offering everything with bows and apologies. One thing troubled her very much. She had only wooden trays with no feet, and she had never known my brother to eat off a low tray. In the days when she lived at our house, even an informal serving of cake was presented to him on a high lacquer stand, just as it was to Father. But she was ingenious, and presently she brought in a brassbound rice-bucket and with many bows and an anxious “Please grant your honourable pardon!” placed the tray on it before Brother. He laughed heartily and said that even a shogun had never received a similar honour.

We sat up very late and had a most interesting time. Brother talked of past days and of many things about our home, so little known to me that I felt as if I were reading some old, half-familiar book. I had never known him to be so free and merry as he was that evening. And Miyo, half laughter and half tears, talked rapidly, asking many questions and interrupting herself continually. She was reminding him of some incident of his childhood, when he abruptly asked: “What became of your ‘own-choice’ husband, Miyo?”

I thought that question was too cruel, but Miyo calmly replied: “Young Master, ‘The rust of one’s own sword can be brightened only by one’s own effort.’ I am still paying the penalty of my life mistake.”

Very gravely she went across the room to a big chest and took out a small, flat package. It was a square of purple crêpe bearing our crest. With a serious face she unfolded it, showing a brocade charm bag such as we children used to wear to hold the paper blessing of the priest. The gold threads were a little ravelled and the heavy scarlet cord mellowed with age.

Miyo lifted it reverently to her forehead.

“The Honourable Mistress gave it to me,” she said to Brother, “the night she let my lover and me through the water gate. It held square silver coins—all that I needed.”

“Ah!” Brother exclaimed excitedly, “I know! I was a little boy. It was dark and I saw her coming back alone, carrying a lantern. But I never understood what it meant.”

Miyo hesitated a moment; then she told us.

When she was employed in our house, she was very young, and because she was the sister of Father’s faithful Jiya, she was allowed much freedom. A youthful servant, also of our house, fell in love with her. For young people to become lovers without the sanction of proper formalities was a grave offence in any class, but in a samurai house hold it was a black disgrace to the house. The penalty was exile through the water gate—a gate of brush built over a stream and never used except by one of the eta, or outcast, class. The departure was public, and the culprits were ever after shunned by everyone. The penalty was unspeakably cruel, but in the old days severe measures were used as a preventive of law-breaking.

Mother always rigidly obeyed every law of the household, but she saved Miyo from public disgrace by taking the lovers quietly, at midnight, and herself opening the big swinging gate for them to pass. No one ever knew the truth.

“It is said,” concluded Miyo sadly, “that the hearts of those who pass the water gate are purified by the gods; but even so, the penalty of a law-breaker can never be evaded. In secret I have paid the penalty, and my children were saved from disgrace by the heavenly kindness of the Honourable Mistress of the Inagaki.”

We all sat quiet for a moment. Then Brother said bitterly:

“The Honourable Mistress of the Inagaki was many times more merciful to the servants of her household than to her one and only son.”

Impatiently he pushed his cushion aside and abruptly said good-night.

The next morning our road wound along the side of a mountain stream awkwardly threading its way through a series of angular gullies, finally ending abruptly in a swift, sloping leap into a wide, shallow river, which we crossed on a boat poled by coolies. This river was the scene of one of Jiya’s most exciting stories. Father, on one of his hurried trips to Tokyo, had found it flooded and had ordered his coolies to place his palanquin on a platform and carry it on their heads through the whirling waves to the opposite shore. One man was drowned.

As our jinrikishas rolled along I thought of how often Father had gone over that road amidst the state and pomp of old Japan; and now his two dear ones—his eldest and his youngest—were following the same path in rented jinrikishas, simply garbed and with no attendants except a wheezy old coolie with a baggage horse. How strange it seemed.

At last we reached Takasaki—the place from which the celebrated “land steamer” started on its puffing way to Tokyo. That was the first time that I ever saw a railway train. It looked to me like a long row of little rooms, each with a narrow door opening on to the platform.

It was late in the afternoon, and I was so weary that I have little recollection of anything except a scolding from Brother, because I, feeling that I was entering some kind of a house, stepped out of my wooden shoes, leaving them on the platform. Just before the train started, they were handed in at the window by an official whose special duty it was to gather all the shoes from the platform before the starting of every train. I went to sleep at once, and the next thing I knew we were in Tokyo.


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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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