Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 10

Peaceful Monotony — A Japanese School — A Dismal Ditty — Punishment — A Children’s Party — A Juvenile Belle — Female Names — A Juvenile Drama — Needlework — Calligraphy — Arranging Flowers — Kanaya — Daily Routine —— An Evening’s Entertainment — Planning Routes — The God-shelf.

IRIMICHI, Nikko, June 23.

My peacefully monotonous life here is nearly at an end. The people are so quiet and kindly, though almost too still, and I have learned to know something of the externals of village life, and have become quite fond of the place.

The village of Irimichi, which epitomises for me at present the village life of Japan, consists of about three hundred houses built along three roads, across which steps in fours and threes are placed at intervals. Down the middle of each a rapid stream runs in a stone channel, and this gives endless amusement to the children, specially to the boys, who devise many ingenious models and mechanical toys, which are put in motion by water-wheels. But at 7 a.m. a drum beats to summon the children to a school whose buildings would not discredit any school-board at home. Too much Europeanised I thought it, and the children looked very uncomfortable sitting on high benches in front of desks, instead of squatting, native fashion. The school apparatus is very good, and there are fine maps on the walls. The teacher, a man about twenty-five, made very free use of the black-board, and questioned his pupils with much rapidity. The best answer moved its giver to the head of the class, as with us. Obedience is the foundation of the Japanese social order, and with children accustomed to unquestioning obedience at home the teacher has no trouble in securing quietness, attention, and docility. There was almost a painful earnestness in the old-fashioned faces which pored over the school-books; even such a rare event as the entrance of a foreigner failed to distract these childish students. The younger pupils were taught chiefly by object lessons, and the older were exercised in reading geographical and historical books aloud, a very high key being adopted, and a most disagreeable tone, both with the Chinese and Japanese pronunciation. Arithmetic and the elements of some of the branches of natural philosophy are also taught. The children recited a verse of poetry which I understood contained the whole of the simple syllabary. It has been translated thus:-

“Colour and perfume vanish away. What can be lasting in this world? To-day disappears in the abyss of nothingness; It is but the passing image of a dream, and causes only a slight trouble.”

It is the echo of the wearied sensualist’s cry, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” and indicates the singular Oriental distaste for life, but is a dismal ditty for young children to learn. The Chinese classics, formerly the basis of Japanese education, are now mainly taught as a vehicle for conveying a knowledge of the Chinese character, in acquiring even a moderate acquaintance with which the children undergo a great deal of useless toil.

The penalties for bad conduct used to be a few blows with a switch on the front of the leg, or a slight burn with the moxa on the forefinger — still a common punishment in households; but I understood the teacher to say that detention in the school-house is the only punishment now resorted to, and he expressed great disapprobation of our plan of imposing an added task. When twelve o’clock came the children marched in orderly fashion out of the school grounds, the boys in one division and the girls in another, after which they quietly dispersed.

On going home the children dine, and in the evening in nearly every house you hear the monotonous hum of the preparation of lessons. After dinner they are liberated for play, but the girls often hang about the house with babies on their backs the whole afternoon nursing dolls. One evening I met a procession of sixty boys and girls, all carrying white flags with black balls, except the leader, who carried a white flag with a gilded ball, and they sang, or rather howled, as they walked; but the other amusements have been of a most sedentary kind. The mechanical toys, worked by water-wheels in the stream, are most fascinating.

Formal children’s parties have been given in this house, for which formal invitations, in the name of the house-child, a girl of twelve, are sent out. About 3 p.m. the guests arrive, frequently attended by servants; and this child, Haru, receives them at the top of the stone steps, and conducts each into the reception room, where they are arranged according to some well-understood rules of precedence. Haru’s hair is drawn back, raised in front, and gathered into a double loop, in which some scarlet crepe is twisted. Her face and throat are much whitened, the paint terminating in three points at the back of the neck, from which all the short hair has been carefully extracted with pincers. Her lips are slightly touched with red paint, and her face looks like that of a cheap doll. She wears a blue, flowered silk kimono, with sleeves touching the ground, a blue girdle lined with scarlet, and a fold of scarlet crepe lies between her painted neck and her kimono. On her little feet she wears white tabi, socks of cotton cloth, with a separate place for the great toe, so as to allow the scarlet-covered thongs of the finely lacquered clogs, which she puts on when she stands on the stone steps to receive her guests, to pass between it and the smaller toes. All the other little ladies were dressed in the same style, and all looked like ill-executed dolls. She met them with very formal but graceful bows.

When they were all assembled, she and her very graceful mother, squatting before each, presented tea and sweetmeats on lacquer trays, and then they played at very quiet and polite games till dusk. They addressed each other by their names with the honorific prefix O, only used in the case of women, and the respectful affix San; thus Haru becomes O-Haru–San, which is equivalent to “Miss.” A mistress of a house is addressed as O-Kami–San, and O-Kusuma — something like “my lady”— is used to married ladies. Women have no surnames; thus you do not speak of Mrs. Saguchi, but of the wife of Saguchi San; and you would address her as O-Kusuma. Among the children’s names were Haru, Spring; Yuki, Snow; Hana, Blossom; Kiku, Chrysanthemum; Gin, Silver.

One of their games was most amusing, and was played with some spirit and much dignity. It consisted in one child feigning sickness and another playing the doctor, and the pompousness and gravity of the latter, and the distress and weakness of the former, were most successfully imitated. Unfortunately the doctor killed his patient, who counterfeited the death-sleep very effectively with her whitened face; and then followed the funeral and the mourning. They dramatise thus weddings, dinner-parties, and many other of the events of life. The dignity and self-possession of these children are wonderful. The fact is that their initiation into all that is required by the rules of Japanese etiquette begins as soon as they can speak, so that by the time they are ten years old they know exactly what to do and avoid under all possible circumstances. Before they went away tea and sweetmeats were again handed round, and, as it is neither etiquette to refuse them or to leave anything behind that you have once taken, several of the small ladies slipped the residue into their capacious sleeves. On departing the same formal courtesies were used as on arriving.

Yuki, Haru’s mother, speaks, acts, and moves with a charming gracefulness. Except at night, and when friends drop in to afternoon tea, as they often do, she is always either at domestic avocations, such as cleaning, sewing, or cooking, or planting vegetables, or weeding them. All Japanese girls learn to sew and to make their own clothes, but there are none of the mysteries and difficulties which make the sewing lesson a thing of dread with us. The kimono, haori, and girdle, and even the long hanging sleeves, have only parallel seams, and these are only tacked or basted, as the garments, when washed, are taken to pieces, and each piece, after being very slightly stiffened, is stretched upon a board to dry. There is no underclothing, with its bands, frills, gussets, and button-holes; the poorer women wear none, and those above them wear, like Yuki, an under-dress of a frothy-looking silk crepe, as simply made as the upper one. There are circulating libraries here, as in most villages, and in the evening both Yuki and Haru read love stories, or accounts of ancient heroes and heroines, dressed up to suit the popular taste, written in the easiest possible style. Ito has about ten volumes of novels in his room, and spends half the night in reading them.

Yuki’s son, a lad of thirteen, often comes to my room to display his skill in writing the Chinese character. He is a very bright boy, and shows considerable talent for drawing. Indeed, it is only a short step from writing to drawing. Giotto’s O hardly involved more breadth and vigour of touch than some of these characters. They are written with a camel’s-hair brush dipped in Indian ink, instead of a pen, and this boy, with two or three vigorous touches, produces characters a foot long, such as are mounted and hung as tablets outside the different shops. Yuki plays the samisen, which may be regarded as the national female instrument, and Haru goes to a teacher daily for lessons on the same.

The art of arranging flowers is taught in manuals, the study of which forms part of a girl’s education, and there is scarcely a day in which my room is not newly decorated. It is an education to me; I am beginning to appreciate the extreme beauty of solitude in decoration. In the alcove hangs a kakemono of exquisite beauty, a single blossoming branch of the cherry. On one panel of a folding screen there is a single iris. The vases which hang so gracefully on the polished posts contain each a single peony, a single iris, a single azalea, stalk, leaves, and corolla — all displayed in their full beauty. Can anything be more grotesque and barbarous than our “florists’ bouquets,” a series of concentric rings of flowers of divers colours, bordered by maidenhair and a piece of stiff lace paper, in which stems, leaves, and even petals are brutally crushed, and the grace and individuality of each flower systematically destroyed?

Kanaya is the chief man in this village, besides being the leader of the dissonant squeaks and discords which represent music at the Shinto festivals, and in some mysterious back region he compounds and sells drugs. Since I have been here the beautification of his garden has been his chief object, and he has made a very respectable waterfall, a rushing stream, a small lake, a rustic bamboo bridge, and several grass banks, and has transplanted several large trees. He kindly goes out with me a good deal, and, as he is very intelligent, and Ito is proving an excellent, and, I think, a faithful interpreter, I find it very pleasant to be here.

They rise at daylight, fold up the wadded quilts or futons on and under which they have slept, and put them and the wooden pillows, much like stereoscopes in shape, with little rolls of paper or wadding on the top, into a press with a sliding door, sweep the mats carefully, dust all the woodwork and the verandahs, open the amado — wooden shutters which, by sliding in a groove along the edge of the verandah, box in the whole house at night, and retire into an ornamental projection in the day — and throw the paper windows back. Breakfast follows, then domestic avocations, dinner at one, and sewing, gardening, and visiting till six, when they take the evening meal.

Visitors usually arrive soon afterwards, and stay till eleven or twelve. Japanese chess, story-telling, and the samisen fill up the early part of the evening, but later, an agonising performance, which they call singing, begins, which sounds like the very essence of heathenishness, and consists mainly in a prolonged vibrating “No.” As soon as I hear it I feel as if I were among savages. Sake, or rice beer, is always passed round before the visitors leave, in little cups with the gods of luck at the bottom of them. Sake, when heated, mounts readily to the head, and a single small cup excites the half-witted man-servant to some very foolish musical performances. I am sorry to write it, but his master and mistress take great pleasure in seeing him make a fool of himself, and Ito, who is from policy a total abstainer, goes into convulsions of laughter.

One evening I was invited to join the family, and they entertained me by showing me picture and guide books. Most Japanese provinces have their guide-books, illustrated by wood-cuts of the most striking objects, and giving itineraries, names of yadoyas, and other local information. One volume of pictures, very finely executed on silk, was more than a century old. Old gold lacquer and china, and some pieces of antique embroidered silk, were also produced for my benefit, and some musical instruments of great beauty, said to be more than two centuries old. None of these treasures are kept in the house, but in the kura, or fireproof storehouse, close by. The rooms are not encumbered by ornaments; a single kakemono, or fine piece of lacquer or china, appears for a few days and then makes way for something else; so they have variety as well as simplicity, and each object is enjoyed in its turn without distraction.

Kanaya and his sister often pay me an evening visit, and, with Brunton’s map on the floor, we project astonishing routes to Niigata, which are usually abruptly abandoned on finding a mountain-chain in the way with never a road over it. The life of these people seems to pass easily enough, but Kanaya deplores the want of money; he would like to be rich, and intends to build a hotel for foreigners.

The only vestige of religion in his house is the kamidana, or god-shelf, on which stands a wooden shrine like a Shinto temple, which contains the memorial tablets to deceased relations. Each morning a sprig of evergreen and a little rice and sake are placed before it, and every evening a lighted lamp.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31