Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 23

“A Plague of Immoderate Rain”— A Confidential Servant — Ito’s Diary — Ito’s Excellences — Ito’s Faults — Prophecy of the Future of Japan — Curious Queries — Superfine English — Economical Travelling — The Japanese Pack-horse again.

KUBOTA, July 24.

I am here still, not altogether because the town is fascinating, but because the rain is so ceaseless as to be truly “a plague of immoderate rain and waters.” Travellers keep coming in with stories of the impassability of the roads and the carrying away of bridges. Ito amuses me very much by his remarks. He thinks that my visit to the school and hospital must have raised Japan in my estimation, and he is talking rather big. He asked me if I noticed that all the students kept their mouths shut like educated men and residents of Tokiyo, and that all country people keep theirs open. I have said little about him for some time, but I daily feel more dependent on him, not only for all information, but actually for getting on. At night he has my watch, passport, and half my money, and I often wonder what would become of me if he absconded before morning. He is not a good boy. He has no moral sense, according to our notions; he dislikes foreigners; his manner is often very disagreeable; and yet I doubt whether I could have obtained a more valuable servant and interpreter. When we left Tokiyo he spoke fairly good English, but by practice and industrious study he now speaks better than any official interpreter that I have seen, and his vocabulary is daily increasing. He never uses a word inaccurately when he has once got hold of its meaning, and his memory never fails. He keeps a diary both in English and Japanese, and it shows much painstaking observation. He reads it to me sometimes, and it is interesting to hear what a young man who has travelled as much as he has regards as novel in this northern region. He has made a hotel book and a transport book, in which all the bills and receipts are written, and he daily transliterates the names of all places into English letters, and puts down the distances and the sums paid for transport and hotels on each bill.

He inquires the number of houses in each place from the police or Transport Agent, and the special trade of each town, and notes them down for me. He takes great pains to be accurate, and occasionally remarks about some piece of information that he is not quite certain about, “If it’s not true, it’s not worth having.” He is never late, never dawdles, never goes out in the evening except on errands for me, never touches sake, is never disobedient, never requires to be told the same thing twice, is always within hearing, has a good deal of tact as to what he repeats, and all with an undisguised view to his own interest. He sends most of his wages to his mother, who is a widow —“It’s the custom of the country”— and seems to spend the remainder on sweetmeats, tobacco, and the luxury of frequent shampooing.

That he would tell a lie if it served his purpose, and would “squeeze” up to the limits of extortion, if he could do it unobserved, I have not the slightest doubt. He seems to have but little heart, or any idea of any but vicious pleasures. He has no religion of any kind; he has been too much with foreigners for that. His frankness is something startling. He has no idea of reticence on any subject; but probably I learn more about things as they really are from this very defect. In virtue in man or woman, except in that of his former master, he has little, if any belief. He thinks that Japan is right in availing herself of the discoveries made by foreigners, that they have as much to learn from her, and that she will outstrip them in the race, because she takes all that is worth having, and rejects the incubus of Christianity. Patriotism is, I think, his strongest feeling, and I never met with such a boastful display of it, except in a Scotchman or an American. He despises the uneducated, as he can read and write both the syllabaries. For foreign rank or position he has not an atom of reverence or value, but a great deal of both for Japanese officialdom. He despises the intellects of women, but flirts in a town-bred fashion with the simple tea-house girls.

He is anxious to speak the very best English, and to say that a word is slangy or common interdicts its use. Sometimes, when the weather is fine and things go smoothly, he is in an excellent and communicative humour, and talks a good deal as we travel. A few days ago I remarked, “What a beautiful day this is!” and soon after, note-book in hand, he said, “You say ‘a beautiful day.’ Is that better English than ‘a devilish fine day,’ which most foreigners say?” I replied that it was “common,” and “beautiful” has been brought out frequently since. Again, “When you ask a question you never say, ‘What the d-l is it?’ as other foreigners do. Is it proper for men to say it and not for women?” I told him it was proper for neither, it was a very “common” word, and I saw that he erased it from his note-book. At first he always used fellows for men, as, “Will you have one or two FELLOWS for your kuruma?” “FELLOWS and women.” At last he called the Chief Physician of the hospital here a FELLOW, on which I told him that it was slightly slangy, and at least “colloquial,” and for two days he has scrupulously spoken of man and men. To-day he brought a boy with very sore eyes to see me, on which I exclaimed, “Poor little fellow!” and this evening he said, “You called that boy a fellow, I thought it was a bad word!” The habits of many of the Yokohama foreigners have helped to obliterate any distinctions between right and wrong, if he ever made any. If he wishes to tell me that he has seen a very tipsy man, he always says he has seen “a fellow as drunk as an Englishman.” At Nikko I asked him how many legal wives a man could have in Japan, and he replied, “Only one lawful one, but as many others (mekake) as he can support, just as Englishmen have.” He never forgets a correction. Till I told him it was slangy he always spoke of inebriated people as “tight,” and when I gave him the words “tipsy,” “drunk,” “intoxicated,” he asked me which one would use in writing good English, and since then he has always spoken of people as “intoxicated.”

He naturally likes large towns, and tries to deter me from taking the “unbeaten tracks,” which I prefer — but when he finds me immovable, always concludes his arguments with the same formula, “Well, of course you can do as you like; it’s all the same to me.” I do not think he cheats me to any extent. Board, lodging, and travelling expenses for us both are about 6s. 6d. a day, and about 2s. 6d. when we are stationary, and this includes all gratuities and extras. True, the board and lodging consist of tea, rice, and eggs, a copper basin of water, an andon and an empty room, for, though there are plenty of chickens in all the villages, the people won’t be bribed to sell them for killing, though they would gladly part with them if they were to be kept to lay eggs. Ito amuses me nearly every night with stories of his unsuccessful attempts to provide me with animal food.

The travelling is the nearest approach to “a ride on a rail” that I have ever made. I have now ridden, or rather sat, upon seventy-six horses, all horrible. They all stumble. The loins of some are higher than their shoulders, so that one slips forwards, and the back-bones of all are ridgy. Their hind feet grow into points which turn up, and their hind legs all turn outwards, like those of a cat, from carrying heavy burdens at an early age. The same thing gives them a roll in their gait, which is increased by their awkward shoes. In summer they feed chiefly on leaves, supplemented with mashes of bruised beans, and instead of straw they sleep on beds of leaves. In their stalls their heads are tied “where their tails should be,” and their fodder is placed not in a manger, but in a swinging bucket. Those used in this part of Japan are worth from 15 to 30 yen. I have not seen any overloading or ill-treatment; they are neither kicked, nor beaten, nor threatened in rough tones, and when they die they are decently buried, and have stones placed over their graves. It might be well if the end of a worn-out horse were somewhat accelerated, but this is mainly a Buddhist region, and the aversion to taking animal life is very strong.

I. L. B.

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