Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 28 —(Continued)

Scanty Resources — Japanese Children — Children’s Games — A Sagacious Example — A Kite Competition — Personal Privations.

IKARIGASEKI.

I have well-nigh exhausted the resources of this place. They are to go out three times a day to see how much the river has fallen; to talk with the house-master and Kocho; to watch the children’s games and the making of shingles; to buy toys and sweetmeats and give them away; to apply zinc lotion to a number of sore eyes three times daily, under which treatment, during three days, there has been a wonderful amendment; to watch the cooking, spinning, and other domestic processes in the daidokoro; to see the horses, which are also actually in it, making meals of green leaves of trees instead of hay; to see the lepers, who are here for some waters which are supposed to arrest, if not to cure, their terrible malady; to lie on my stretcher and sew, and read the papers of the Asiatic Society, and to go over all possible routes to Aomori. The people have become very friendly in consequence of the eye lotion, and bring many diseases for my inspection, most of which would never have arisen had cleanliness of clothing and person been attended to. The absence of soap, the infrequency with which clothing is washed, and the absence of linen next the skin, cause various cutaneous diseases, which are aggravated by the bites and stings of insects. Scald-head affects nearly half the children here.

I am very fond of Japanese children. I have never yet heard a baby cry, and I have never seen a child troublesome or disobedient. Filial piety is the leading virtue in Japan, and unquestioning obedience is the habit of centuries. The arts and threats by which English mothers cajole or frighten children into unwilling obedience appear unknown. I admire the way in which children are taught to be independent in their amusements. Part of the home education is the learning of the rules of the different games, which are absolute, and when there is a doubt, instead of a quarrelsome suspension of the game, the fiat of a senior child decides the matter. They play by themselves, and don’t bother adults at every turn. I usually carry sweeties with me, and give them to the children, but not one has ever received them without first obtaining permission from the father or mother. When that is gained they smile and bow profoundly, and hand the sweeties to those present before eating any themselves. They are gentle creatures, but too formal and precocious.

They have no special dress. This is so queer that I cannot repeat it too often. At three they put on the kimono and girdle, which are as inconvenient to them as to their parents, and childish play in this garb is grotesque. I have, however, never seen what we call child’s play — that general abandonment to miscellaneous impulses, which consists in struggling, slapping, rolling, jumping, kicking, shouting, laughing, and quarrelling! Two fine boys are very clever in harnessing paper carts to the backs of beetles with gummed traces, so that eight of them draw a load of rice up an inclined plane. You can imagine what the fate of such a load and team would be at home among a number of snatching hands. Here a number of infants watch the performance with motionless interest, and never need the adjuration, “Don’t touch.” In most of the houses there are bamboo cages for “the shrill-voiced Katydid,” and the children amuse themselves with feeding these vociferous grasshoppers. The channels of swift water in the street turn a number of toy water-wheels, which set in motion most ingenious mechanical toys, of which a model of the automatic rice-husker is the commonest, and the boys spend much time in devising and watching these, which are really very fascinating. It is the holidays, but “holiday tasks” are given, and in the evenings you hear the hum of lessons all along the street for about an hour. The school examination is at the re-opening of the school after the holidays, instead of at the end of the session — an arrangement which shows an honest desire to discern the permanent gain made by the scholars.

This afternoon has been fine and windy, and the boys have been flying kites, made of tough paper on a bamboo frame, all of a rectangular shape, some of them five feet square, and nearly all decorated with huge faces of historical heroes. Some of them have a humming arrangement made of whale-bone. There was a very interesting contest between two great kites, and it brought out the whole population. The string of each kite, for 30 feet or more below the frame, was covered with pounded glass, made to adhere very closely by means of tenacious glue, and for two hours the kite-fighters tried to get their kites into a proper position for sawing the adversary’s string in two. At last one was successful, and the severed kite became his property, upon which victor and vanquished exchanged three low bows. Silently as the people watched and received the destruction of their bridge, so silently they watched this exciting contest. The boys also flew their kites while walking on stilts — a most dexterous performance, in which few were able to take part — and then a larger number gave a stilt race. The most striking out-of-door games are played at fixed seasons of the year, and are not to be seen now.

There are twelve children in this yadoya, and after dark they regularly play at a game which Ito says “is played in the winter in every house in Japan.” The children sit in a circle, and the adults look on eagerly, child-worship being more common in Japan than in America, and, to my thinking, the Japanese form is the best.

From proverbial philosophy to personal privation is rather a descent, but owing to the many detentions on the journey my small stock of foreign food is exhausted, and I have been living here on rice, cucumbers, and salt salmon — so salt that, after being boiled in two waters, it produces a most distressing thirst. Even this has failed today, as communication with the coast has been stopped for some time, and the village is suffering under the calamity of its stock of salt-fish being completely exhausted. There are no eggs, and rice and cucumbers are very like the “light food” which the Israelites “loathed.” I had an omelette one day, but it was much like musty leather. The Italian minister said to me in Tokiyo, “No question in Japan is so solemn as that of food,” and many others echoed what I thought at the time a most unworthy sentiment. I recognised its truth today when I opened my last resort, a box of Brand’s meat lozenges, and found them a mass of mouldiness. One can only dry clothes here by hanging them in the wood smoke, so I prefer to let them mildew on the walls, and have bought a straw rain-coat, which is more reliable than the paper waterproofs. I hear the hum of the children at their lessons for the last time, for the waters are falling fast, and we shall leave in the morning.

I. L. B.

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