MY BROTHER’S coming introduced an entirely new and exciting element into our home. This was the letters which he occasionally received from friends in America. The letters were dull, for they told of nothing but people and business; so after the first few I lost all interest in them. But the big, odd-shaped envelopes and the short pages of thick paper covered with faint pen-writing held a wonderful fascination. None of us had even seen a pen or any kind of writing-paper except our rolls of thin paper with the narrow envelopes. We could write a letter of any length, sometimes several feet, on that paper. We began at the right side and, using a brush, wrote in vertical lines, unrolling from the left as we wrote. The graceful black characters standing out against a back ground all white, but shaded by the varying thickness of the paper into a mass of delicate, misty blossoms, were very artistic. In later years we had flowered paper in colours, but when I was a child only white was considered dignified.

Brother always used the large, odd-shaped envelopes for letters to America; so I supposed that kind was necessary. One day he asked me to hand to the postman a letter enclosed in one of our narrow envelopes, embossed with a graceful branch of maple leaves. I was greatly surprised when I saw that it had an expensive stamp on the corner and was addressed to America.

“Honourable Brother,” I hesitatingly asked, “will Government allow this letter to go?”

“Why not?”

“I thought only big envelopes could be used for letters to America.”

“Nonsense!” he said crossly. And then he added in a kind tone, “I haven’t any more, and those I sent for to Tokyo, haven’t come.”

And so the delicate maple leaves went to America and my girlish heart was pleased. It was the first pleasant bond between the two countries of which I had known.

There was nothing definite in my mind against America, but I was so constantly hearing allusions to the disagreeable experiences of almost all persons who had dealings with foreigners that I had a vague feeling of distaste for the unknown land. This impression was strengthened by odd stories told by servants of “red-faced, light-haired barbarians who had no heels and had to prop up their shoes with artificial blocks.”

It was said that animals were eaten whole by these strange people, and that the master of a lordly house often entertained his guests by cutting up a cooked eagle in their presence. It was also rumoured that the cheap red blankets extensively imported at that time were dyed with the blood of stolen infants. One report, which was widespread, in city and country alike, was that the peculiar animal odour of foreigners was caused by the eating of flesh. This probably originated from the unfamiliar odour of wool noticed in the damp clothing of foreign sailors. Since we had neither sheep nor woollen cloth in Japan, the unfamiliar odour was naturally associated with the person who carried the scent about with him. The name has clung, and even yet it is not uncommon for country people, inquiring in a store for woollen cloth, to ask for “animal-smelling goods.”

Brother denied very few of these tales. I think many of them he believed, even after having lived in America. Apparently he had met while there very few people except those engaged in buying and selling. Once Grandmother said, with a sigh, “Your honourable brother seems to have learned only the ways of tradesmen in far-away America. But,” she added thoughtfully, “perhaps it is a land where only tradesmen live.”

He had been to America, but we did not realize that he had seen only one small portion of one coast city in that great land.

As time passed on, Brother seemed to withdraw from our family life, and yet he did not fall into the life of the people of Nagaoka. He was different from everybody. Sometimes he looked troubled and anxious, but more often he was only restless and dissatisfied. At such times he frequently came and sat beside me as I sewed or studied, and I think he talked more freely to me than to any one else. Occasionally, though not often, he spoke of himself, and gradually I learned much of what his life had been since he left home.

His going to America was due to the craze for foreign business which had struck Tokyo so forcefully about the time Brother left the army. Many young men, confident of rapid and brilliant success, were launching out in various directions, and someone induced Brother to invest all he had in what was represented to be a large export company having offices in America. He was offered a partnership if he would take charge of the business there. Like most men of his rank, he had no realization of his own ignorance of business methods; so he accepted and set sail for America. On reaching his destination he found that he had been defrauded. The export company was only a small toy-shop situated in a crowded Japanese district and kept by the wife of a workman who knew nothing of the promised partnership.

Astonished and disappointed, Brother made his way to a near-by hotel—a pretty poor place, he said—where many Japanese men were talking and playing games. They were mostly workmen or cheap clerks of a humble class with almost no education. But they were most respectful to him, and, though the surroundings were uncongenial, he knew no other place to go. In a short time he had spent all his money, and, knowing nothing of any kind of work, and almost nothing of the English language, he easily drifted downward into the life of those around him.

Some men would have pushed up through the mud and found light, but my brother knew little of foreigners, he had no ambitions regarding them, and what he saw of them where he was only repelled him.

Sometimes he left the crowded district where he lived and strolled through wide streets where there were tall buildings and big stores. There he saw foreign people, but they either paid no attention to him or looked at him as he himself would look at a coolie at home. This amused him; for, to him, the strange-looking men who hurried by him, talking in loud voices and smoking large, ill-smelling tobacco rolls, or chewing horrible stuff that they blew out of their mouths on to the street, were wholly disgusting. The women were queerly dressed creatures who stared, and laughed with their mouths open. Nothing seemed delicate or refined, only big and strong and coarse. Everything repelled his artistic soul; so he drifted back to his uncongenial—but understandable—surroundings.

Then Fate stepped in. My brother was hurt by an accidental blow on the head, which sent him to a hospital for three blessed, cool, clean weeks. The day he was dismissed and, sick at heart, was slowly walking toward the only place he knew to go—his old quarters—he turned a corner and suddenly came face to face with a young man, vigorous and brisk, walking with a quick step. The man laughed aloud as both abruptly came to a standstill; then, seeing how pale and ill Brother looked, he turned and walked with him.

However shabbily my brother might be dressed, he always had the bearing of a gentleman, and recognizing this, the young man, whose name was Matsuo, insisted on taking Brother to his own room. A few days later he found a place for him in a store where he himself was foreman, and the acquaintance thus begun ripened into a warm and lasting friendship.

Had this help been given when Brother first reached America, the high-bred, delicately reared youth, although over-indulged and unwisely trained for practical life, might have won his puzzling way through all the strangeness; but it was now too late. That accidental blow on the head had caused a damage, which, though not apparent at first, gradually developed into a trouble that unfitted him for steady work; and my poor brother was never the same again. But Matsuo was steadfastly kind.

Then came a message from Major Sato in Tokyo, saying Father was ill and wanted his son to return home. Of what was in my brother’s heart then I know nothing, but for many weeks he delayed his reply. Then he came.

That autumn our year of mourning was over, and Brother, being home to take the place of Father, Sister’s marriage was planned for harvest time. The season, however, was early. Rice patches throughout Echigo were bowing with rich promise early in October, but of course, nobody was ever married in the no-god month, so the first good-luck day in November was chosen.

It is during October that the marriage gods all meet in Idzumo temple to join the names of those who are to wed. One of the favourite stories for grandmothers and nurses to tell little girls is about a youth of olden time who was so unfortunate as to have no parents or elder brother. There being no one to arrange a marriage for him, he grew to the age of twenty and was still a bachelor.

One October day he decided to visit Idzumo temple to see if his name was coupled with that of any maiden. So, taking with him, as a gift, the first rice-sheaf of his harvest, he started on his long day’s journey. As he approached the temple steps he heard voices. Names were being called like counting: “He; she.” “He; she.” He recognized the name of a young man he knew; then another, and another—each paired off with the name of a young woman.

Maa! Maa!” whispered the astonished youth, “I have intruded upon a meeting of the gods.”

But his interest was too great to allow him to retreat. Creeping between the ornamental posts that supported the floor, he listened, guiltily, but with anxious hope.

Another two names! Another! “He; she.” “ He; she”—but alas! not his own.

Finally a voice of authority announced, “These are planned. Our last day is almost gone and our work for the year is ended.”

“Wait a moment,” said another voice. “There is Taro. Again he is left. Cannot we find a maiden for him?”

The youth’s heart gave a bound, for he was Taro.

“Oh, troublesome!” impatiently cried a god. “Again comes that name!”

“We need not haste. He has no one to arrange for him,” said another.

“His name must go uncoupled for another year,” came from a distant corner. “There is no maiden left.”

“Wait!” spoke the first voice. “In Chestnut Village a girl has just been born in the house of the village master. The family is of higher class, but let us give her to Taro. Then our work will be done.”

“Yes! yes!” cried all the gods. “Put the names together and we will hasten to the duties of our own shrines.”

“Our work for the year is ended,” spoke the voice of authority.

The youth crept away, excited and indignant, and sorely diappointed.

As he trudged slowly along the road on his homeward way, both disappointment and indignation grew, but when he came in sight of Chestnut Village and saw the comfort able house of the village master with its thick thatch and large screen heavy with drying sheafs of rice, his anger lessened and he thought, “After all, it is not so bad!” He walked slowly by the open door. A child’s bed of cushions was just within. He saw a baby’s face and a tiny close-shut hand.

“Twelve years, at least, to wait!” he suddenly cried. “I will not have it so! I will defy the gods!” On the tokonoma was a sword-rest holding the single sword of a humble vassal. Grasping it, he made a quick thrust through the cushions, and bounding through the door, he hurried on his way.

Years passed. Fate was kind and Taro prospered, but no bride could he find. More years passed. At last, patiently accepting bachelorhood as a punishment for his defiance of the gods, he became resigned.

Then a surprising thing happened. A go-between called with the offer of a bride—beautiful, industrious, dutiful. Taro was delighted. Negotiations were carried through; the bride came; the marriage took place and the young wife proved all that the happy Taro could wish. One warm day, when she was sewing on the porch, she loosened her collar folds and Taro saw an odd curving scar on her neck.

“What is it?” he asked.

“That is a strange mystery,” said the bride, smiling. “When I was only a babe, my grandmother heard me cry, and coming, found my father’s sword on the floor and I with this curving cut across my neck and shoulder. No one was near, and it was never learned how it happened. My grandmother said that I was marked by the gods for some wise purpose. And so it must be,” concluded the wife as she leaned again over her sewing.

Taro walked thoughtfully away. Again he saw the baby face and the tiny close-shut hand; and he realized how hopeless it is to try to thwart the decree of the gods.

When Ishi told us this story, she always closed with, “And so you see it is useless not to accept gratefully the will of the gods. What is planned must be obeyed.”

When the day of Sister’s wedding came, we were all greatly excited; but the real excitement of a Japanese marriage is at the house of the bridegroom, as it is there that the wedding takes place. However, the ceremony of leaving home is always elaborate, and for several days our entire house was filled with the sound of people ordering and people obeying. Then came a day when Taki, Ishi, and Toshi were busy for hours, all three folding bedding and packing bridal chests; and the next day the procession of bridal belongings went swinging out of our gateway and on over the mountain to Sister’s home-to-be.

Two days later Sister went away. The hairdresser came very early that morning, for the bride’s hair had to be arranged in the elaborate married style with wonderful ornaments of tortoise-shell and coral. Then her face and neck were covered with thick white powder and she was dressed in a robe and sash of white—the death colour—because marriage means the bride’s death to her father’s family. Beneath this was a garment of scarlet, the dress of a new-born babe, typical of her birth into her husband’s family. Mother had on her beautiful crest dress, and Brother looked like Father in the ceremonious pleated linen skirt and stiff shoulder-piece of the kamishimo. I was so glad to see him look like Father.

Just as the bridal palanquin was brought to the door, we all went to the shrine for Sister to say farewell to the spirit of our ancestors, for, after marriage, she would belong no longer to our family, but to her husband’s. She bowed alone before the shrine. Then Mother slipped over the mat to her side and presented her with a beautiful mirror-case, the kind that all Japanese ladies wear with ceremonial dress. Sister’s was beautiful mosaic-work of crêpe in a pattern of pine, bamboo, and plum. It had been made by our great-grandmother’s own hands. Inside it was a small mirror. A brocade-covered crystal hung from it on a silk cord and, on the edge of the case, slipped under the band, was a long silver hairpin. In olden days this was a dagger. These are emblematic of the mirror, the jewel, and the sword of the Imperial regalia.

As Mother handed the mirror-case to Sister, she said the same words that every mother says to a bride. She told her that now she was to go forth bravely to her new life, just as a soldier goes to battle. “Look in the mirror every day,” she said, “for if scars of selfishness or pride are in the heart, they will grow into the lines of the face. Watch closely. Be strong like the pine, yield in gentle obedience like the swaying bamboo, and yet, like the fragrant plum blossoming beneath the snow, never lose the gentle perseverance of loyal womanhood.”

I never saw my mother so moved, but poor Sister looked only blank and expressionless beneath the stiff white powder.

We all bowed deeply at the door. Sister entered the palanquin and the next moment was hidden behind the reed screen of the little window. Her own nurse, who should have come next, had married and gone far away, so Ishi took her place and entered the first jinrikisha. The go-between and his wife were in the next two, and then came Brother and Mother. The procession started, Toshi sprinkled salt on the doorstep just as if a corpse had been carried out, and mingling with the sound of rolling wheels and the soft thud of trotting feet came Grandmother’s trembly old voice singing the farewell part of the wedding-song:

From the shore
A boat with lifted sail
Rides toward the rising moon.
On waves of ebbing tide it sails,
The shadow of the land falls backward,
And the boat sails farther—farther——”

So ended Sister’s life as an Inagaki; for however often she might visit us after this, and however lovingly and informally she might be treated, she would never again be anything but a guest.

Long afterward Sister told me of her trip to her new home. It was only a few hours long, but she had to go over a mountain, and the palanquin jolted fearfully. She said her greatest anxiety was to keep her head, laden with the heavy shell bars, from bumping against the cushions and disarranging her elaborately dressed hair. Finally the carriers were trotting along evenly on a smooth road, then they came to a stop and Ishi pushed up the reed screen of the window.

“Young Mistress,” she said, “we have reached the halting place where we are to rest before presenting ourselves to the house of the honourable bridegroom.”

Mother and Ishi helped Sister out, and they all went into a good-sized but simple farmhouse. They were received most graciously by the hostess, who was a distant relative of the bridegroom’s family. There they had dinner, each person being served with red rice and a small fish, head and all—meaning Congratulation. Ishi freshened up Sister’s dress, looked over her sash, examined her hair, and retouched her powdered face. Then the procession moved slowly on, up a long sloping hill. At the top they were met by the “seven-and-a-half-times” courier and soon reached the big gateway with its crest banner and lanterns of welcome. She was conscious of being on a stone path when the carriers placed the palanquin to the ground. She could see nothing, but she knew that in a moment the little window in the front would be opened and the bridegroom’s face would appear. Then he would strike the top of the palanquin with his fan, which would mean Welcome.

There was usually no delay, but this bridegroom was a bashful youth, only seventeen, and they had to go for him. Sister said that in those few minutes of waiting, she, for the first time, was frightened. Then she heard swift footsteps and the next moment the little reed screen was jerked open. She ought to have sat quietly, with her eyes cast modestly down, but she was startled and gave one quick glance upward. In that instant’s time she saw a pale, pock-marked face with a broad low brow and close-pressed lips.

Down went the screen and, without a second’s pause, “clap! clap!” came a nervous slap of the fan above her head.

The palanquin was lifted and carried to the door. Sister, within, sat strangely calm, for in that instant of lifted screen her fright had slipped away—for ever.

The door was reached. The palanquin was lowered to the ground. Sister was helped out, and as she entered her life home, two old voices completed the wedding-song with the words of welcome:

On the sea
A boat with lifted sail
Rides toward the rising moon.
On the waves of the flowing tide it comes.
The shadow of the past lies far behind,
And the boat sails nearer—nearer
To the shore called Happy Life.”


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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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