Gateway to the Classics: A Boy of Old Japan by Robert van Bergen
A Boy of Old Japan by  Robert van Bergen

The Fifth Day of the Eleventh Month

The day broke calm and smiling. Japan, especially those parts around the Inland Sea, has a lovely climate. It is seldom that the sky is not of a deep blue color, and the days are few when children cannot play or walk in the streets. They are rarely kept in the house. Young babies are securely fastened upon the backs of children six or seven years old, and sent into the streets. There are no noisy games. Girls play sometimes battledore and shuttlecock, but the boys are too dignified. American boys would be surprised if they saw two Japanese school friends meet in the street. They do not approach with a hop, skip and jump, or clap each other on the shoulder. Oh no! They stop as soon as they meet, take off their caps, for all Japanese schoolboys wear now a sort of soldier cap, and then bow almost to the ground. Then they draw a deep breath, and each continues on his way.

The great difference between Japanese and American boys of the same age, is that all our boys are fond of fury and we are glad to see them have a good time, while a Japanese boy would not be able to understand what we call fun. Our boys would soon grow sick if there were not some time in the day when they could make all the noise they wished. If a Japanese boy should make even the slightest unnecessary noise at home, his parents would think that the world had turned topsy-turvy. From his earliest youth, the boy is trained not to show his feelings. In all the years of my life in Japan, I have never seen a boy of over six years old with tears in his eyes.

It is eleven o'clock, and the guests begin to arrive. They come mostly on foot, for they all live in the neighborhood; but there are a few who hold such a high rank that they can only leave their yashiki in a sedan chair, or on horseback. A servant brings a large bundle, carefully wrapped. It is taken to the back room which has been made much larger by the removal of several sho ji. Here Mr. Kano sits in hakama and haori, receiving each guest as he enters according to his rank in the clan. To some his bows are deeper and more prolonged, with others they are more simple, although at the entrance of every guest, his forehead touches his hands, spread out upon the floor before him. The visitors take their places about the room in the order of their rank, each saluting the host as he enters and thereafter the guests. Waitresses in a kneeling posture serve tea. At last a man of dignified bearing, clothed in rich silk, enters, and after saluting, sits down upon a cushion prepared for him near the master of the house. Kano is about to clap his hands, as a signal for his son to be brought in, when a man-servant opens a sho ji, and kneeling with his head almost touching the mats, crawls toward his master. He whispers:

"Mr. Sawa of Yedo desires to present his respects."

Kano slightly raises his eyebrows, but by a slight bending forward indicates that the new-comer shall he admitted. After a few moments the latest guest enters and prostrates himself before his host, who returns the compliment. Kano with a slight motion of the arm indicates the place which he intends him to occupy, and Sawa, crouching and bowing to the guests proceeds in that direction. It is between the seats of the councillors and those of the chief samurai, and, as it happens, next to that of Ito.

Not a single glance showed that the visitor was unwelcome. No expression of approval had escaped their lips upon the entrance of a popular member of the clan, and not a sign showed that Sawa's appearance at this time was resented. They sat unmoved, like the North American Indian chiefs. Kano clapped his hands, and the servant brought in a board, resembling one of our checkerboards; it was placed upon the mat near the father, facing the point of the compass which had been declared lucky by a fortune teller. The gentleman at Kano's side then clapped his hands, and another servant brought in the package which had been delivered before. It was unwrapped, and contained a Kimono of fine silk, with beautifully embroidered storks and tortoises, fir trees and bamboos. This was as it should be. Storks and tortoises promised long life to the boy; for the Japanese believed that the stork lives a thousand years, and the tortoise ten thousand. The fir tree never changes its color, therefore the child will possess an unchanging virtuous heart, and the bamboo, as it shoots up straight, will give him an upright mind.

The servant holds up the dress for the inspection of the guests, who, after looking at it, express their approval by bowing low, and a deep drawn sigh. Presently Mrs. Kano, who has been watching the ceremony from a near apartment through a convenient slit in the sho ji, enters leading the boy. Both kneel at the entrance and after touching the ground three times with the forehead, the child is brought to his father, who places him upon the checker-board facing the east, because that is the lucky point: The mother dresses him in the Kimono presented by the sponsor, and puts on the hakama; then the child receives an imitation sword and dirk, which are placed in his sash. Then sake is brought in and the sponsor and child exchange cups. This ends the ceremony which admits the three-year-old boy among the samurai of the clan.

Mother and son, after repeating their salutations, leave the room and refreshments are served. Gradually the sense of ceremony disappears, and conversation becomes more general. Kano, apparently deeply engaged in talking with the sponsor, keeps a watchful eye over his guests, and frequently casts a glance toward the spot occupied by Sawa. The sponsor, an elderly gentleman of dignified bearing, at last notices his host's looks, and says:

"Who is that gentleman? He is a stranger to me, and I cannot distinguish his coat of arms."

"He bears the Tokugawa crest, your lordship," replies Kano, "and is the new O Metsuké, whom the Council at Yedo have kindly sent to report upon our model clan."

The old gentleman did not notice the sarcasm. "When did he arrive, and why was his arrival not made known to me?" he inquired in a slightly offended tone. Kano bowed, and replied:

"Mr. Sawa arrived yesterday afternoon, and presented his letter at the castle, where Councillor Hattori was ordered to receive him. As we had not been notified by the Go rojiu of their intention to send us a metsuké, Mr. Hattori thought that the letter should be submitted to the council of the clan. I have noticed that he has spoken to the councillors, who will wait here until the other guests have withdrawn. If it please your lordship, we shall be glad to have the benefit of your advice."

"No, I cannot spare the time, and the matter is of no great importance;" declared his lordship, continuing his repast. Presently they were joined by Hattori, for whom a cushion was brought, and who, after the prescribed bows of respect, took no further notice of Mori's cousin.

"I think, friend Kano," he said. "that you may as well keep an eye upon your honored guest, Mr. Sawa. The fellow seems to think that he is at Yedo, instead of in a gentleman's yashiki and that he can do as he pleases. He has filled his sake cup quite often, and has been offensive, to judge by the looks of Ito."

"I have perceived it," replied Kano, "but Ito will, I am sure, keep his temper, and settle with the intruder upon a more favorable occasion. I am more afraid of the young fellows who seem to have heard some insulting remarks. Pray, entertain his lordship, while I dismiss the guests." Without waiting for a reply, Kano rose and, bowing before each guest, advanced toward Sawa. There he knelt down and performed the usual salutations somewhat stiffly. Sawa returned them as well as he could.

When they had regained their upright positions, Kano addressed his self-invited guest, and said in a tone loud enough for some young samurai close by to hear:

"I am deeply grateful to the Go rojiu for remembering me on this occasion. I do not know how I deserved this honor."

Sawa had some difficulty to hide a grin. Did this country bumpkin really fancy that the great Council of the Tokugawa cared anything about him or his family. Amused at the thought, he bowed, and said:

"The Go rojiu no doubt, if it had only known of the event, would have been glad to honor his host upon this occasion. It was known," he added more soberly and looking sharply at Kano, "that the Choshiu clan was directed almost entirely by the wisdom of his entertainer, and the question had been discussed to secure his services for the Council. Unfortunately the law of Iyeyasu forbade it. Only members of the Tokugawa clan were permitted to serve the Shogun. But this did not prevent the Council from profiting by the wisdom of Kano the Councillor, and it was to secure this benefit that he, Sawa, had been directed to reside in the clan."

Kano bowed, and replied. "It is a very great honor, indeed, and, no doubt, well deserved by such an able man as my guest. Pray, make yourself at home in the clan. You will find every Choshiu gentleman glad to receive a samurai from the capital, where he has advantages to learn manners which we in the country do not possess. But every samurai is glad to excel in chivalry, and we of Choshiu no less than those of other clans."

Again they bowed, and Sawa resumed:

"I understand that this joyful event will be followed by a meeting of the Honorable Council?"

"The regular meeting is to-morrow," replied Kano. "I have received no notice of any extra meeting, nor have I sent out any. It seems to me that you are misinformed."

"Forgive me, my host. Who is that young man, who happened to be my neighbor during the most interesting ceremony? I fancy that I have seen him at Yedo."

"That is probably so. Indeed, it may have been very recently, for he arrived yesterday. Choshiu's yashiki seems to have suffered severely from the last earthquake, and expensive repairs are necessary. Our officer in charge thought it necessary to send a special messenger, but why he did not commission an older man, is beyond my comprehension."

Sawa began to perceive that this country bumpkin was quite able to parry his thrusts; he did not want to give offense, and besides began to feel sleepy. He therefore informed his host of his intention to return to his inn. Kano raised no objection, and after the usual leave taking, escorted his guest to the door, and saw him leave the gate. Calling a young samurai, he bade him see that Sawa did not return to the yashiki, whereupon he re-entered the room. The other guests, seeing that the councillors lingered, withdrew all except Ito, who was asked to wait as he might be wanted.

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