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

The Old Yashiki

Great preparations for receiving guests were being made in the Kano Yashiki at Nagato. To-morrow would he the fifth day of the eleventh month of the fourth year of the oldest son and heir, and the boy would be invested with the hakama of the samurai.

There would be a great gathering of the Choshiu clan, for the Kano family had been great in the council, and was trusted by daimiyo and samurai alike. The history of the Mori family was as much the history of that of Kano, at least ever since Kano Shimpei had tried to keep his lord from fighting Iyeyasu. The Mori of that time had refused to heed his knight's advice, and sent him away in disgrace. But Kano would not desert his master. He had followed him to Osaka, and when the battle was lost, had saved his lord by continuing to fight until Mori was rescued by a small band of devoted samurai. Kano himself died covered with wounds. The Daimiyo of Choshiu had never forgotten the advice nor the heroic death of Kano Shimpei. They had honored his descendants, and every Kano had tried to show his great loyalty to his lord.

The Kano Yashiki stood within the outer moat of Choshiu's castle. A massive gateway faced the street. On each side was a high, plastered wall covered with tiles. This wall surrounded the yashiki and its grounds, and gave it the shape of a perfect square. The doors of the gate were of heavy wood, plated with iron and studded with huge iron bolts. They swung inward on hinges, but were opened only for the daimiyo, if he should honor his samurai with a visit, or for a knight of equal rank of the owner. For all other callers there was a little gate by the side, where the guard could examine all that entered or left.

A short but broad road, composed of pulverized shells mixed with soft white sand, led from the gate to the samurai residence. It was a fine two story building, with verandahs running round the house. It was built upon posts about two feet high and resting upon stones so that, if an earthquake should happen, the building could move with the wave of the earth. The verandahs were made of kayaki wood, and polished until it shone like a mirror. The building was really a large and strong shed, with thick posts upholding the roof with its heavy tiles. There were no walls. Paper sho ji, or sliding doors, set loosely in grooves, took their place. They could be easily taken out, to allow fresh air. These grooves were so arranged that the whole floor could easily be changed into several apartments or rooms. The upper story had a balcony at the back, over-looking the spacious and beautifully kept gardens, with ponds, little hills, and copses of trees. At the end of the balcony as well as on the verandahs were closets, holding the ame, or rain doors. These were slid into deep grooves along the outer edges of the verandahs and balcony at night or when a storm arose.

The owner of the house was sitting in one of the rooms at the back of the house. He was a man of about thirty, of middle size, but strongly built. His hibachi stood before him, but he was evidently in deep thought. He did not expect any visitors, for he had taken off his hakama, and was sitting in his simple cotton kimono, or gown.

Suddenly he clapped his hands three times. The sound of: hai, hai! came from a distance, and presently one of the sho ji was slid aside, and Mrs. Kano appeared dutifully on hands and knees. She could not be seen very well, as she bowed her head upon her hands, as a salute to her master and husband, but when he remained silent, she raised her head and asked softly:

"Did you call?"

She could be seen now. Mrs. Kano was perhaps eighteen, certainly not more than nineteen years old. Her jet black hair was done up in a matronly coil and glistening with patchouli or oil from the cactus plant. Her forehead was fair, but eye-brows she had none, for a Japanese wife, before her marriage, was compelled to pull them out. Her teeth were of a shining jet, another custom of married ladies. But, disfigured as she was, her soft and gentle voice showed that Mrs. Kano had been taught the Onna Daigaku, or the Greater Learning for Women, and that she was willing to try to please her husband.

When he heard his wife's voice, Kano looked at her, bowed slightly, and said:

"Have all preparations been made for to-morrow's reception?"

"Yes," she replied. "all your orders have been obeyed."

"Very well," he said, and she withdrew.

Kano was thinking of his son. He remembered the death of his father, when he was only eighteen years old. How he had looked up to him! How gently, and yet how firmly had his father trained him in the manly exercises of the samurai, hardening his body to despise luxury and ready to bear cold or heat at any time. How he had taught him the family history, with its fine record of loyalty and self sacrifice, and how he had commanded him to follow in the same path. Kano felt that he had done so. He remembered the illness which had struck the strong man so suddenly and with fatal ending, and which caused the son such a deep pain. His father's last words: "The wise man of China says that the greatest disrespect to a father is not to have any son," had caused him to marry as soon as the time of mourning was over. And now he was a father himself, and the time had come that he must begin to train the child.

Had he done his duty, according to the laws and custom of the samurai? Why, certainly. On the seventy-fifth day after its birth, the child had left off its baby-linen. On the hundred and twentieth day it had been weaned. Every ceremony had been observed as it should be by a gentleman of Kano's family. Kano's own brother had fed the child, and My Lord's cousin had acted as sponsor. He had taken the child on his left knee and as weaning father had taken of the sacred rice which had been offered to the gods. He had dipped his chop-sticks three times in it, and then placed them in the mouth of the child as if giving it some of the rice juice. He had followed the honored custom to feed the child three times from the five cakes made of rice meal. When the three cups of sake were brought on the tray, the sponsor drank them and offered one to the child, now restored to his guardian. The boy pretended to drink two cups, and the sponsor had produced his present. Every ceremony had been observed, and the feast which followed had shown that Kano intended to follow in the footsteps of his fathers, in honoring the customs of Old Japan.

Again on the fifteenth day of the eleventh month, when the boy's hair was allowed to grow, not a single ceremony was neglected; and to-morrow Kano would prove once more that he loved the customs of his father and was willing to abide by them.

Again a sho ji slid open, but this time it attracted Kano's attention. A servant girl kneeling on the door sill was waiting until her master should speak.

"What is it?" he asked.

With a deep drawn breath, as if overwhelmed at the honor of being spoken to, she replied:

"Mr. Hattori wishes to speak to your honor."

Kano rose hastily and, opening a cupboard, seized his hakama and slipped it on over his kimono. Thus prepared to receive his old-time friend, he ordered the girl to admit him. A moment later, and the visitor entered with a shuffling gait, and, falling upon his knees, three times touched his head to the ground. Kano replied in the same manner, each in turn repeating the same ceremonious phrases, which custom demanded of men of their rank.

At last Hattori was seated upon the cushion which the servant had placed for him, and tea was brought in. When the servant had withdrawn, the two men smoked in silence, until Hattori knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and asked:

"Have you seen him?"

Kano raised his brows slightly, and answered:

"I do not understand you. Do you mean the sponsor? Certainly, I have seen him."

"Ah! you are thinking of to-morrow! No, I do not mean the sponsor or any one connected with your family. Bah! I mean the new guest we must entertain, and who will offer you his congratulations."

"A new guest!" exclaimed Kano. "Surely. I must be growing dull, for I fail to catch your meaning."

"Well, then," said Hattori, cautiously looking into the garden, another metsuké arrived this afternoon from Yedo, and was bold enough to come to the castle and demand to he admitted. I was ordered to receive him and find out what he wanted. When I came into the room where he was waiting, he introduced himself by handing me a letter from the Go rojiu, to the clan. There were enough councillors present to open it, so I excused myself and called our friends. It was very brief and to the point. The Go rojiu desires to mention our clan as a model for Japan, and has therefore sent this fellow to report."

"What is his name?"


"Sawa, Sawa," repeated Kano slowly. "I think I know the name. How old is he, do you think?"

"He must be forty at least, and he seems cut out for his work. His oily talk is disgusting; and while he flatters you, his eyes are restlessly peeping in every nook and corner."

"What have you done with him?"

"The usual thing. We accepted the letter and told him that we would deliberate carefully about it, and let him have an answer in a couple of days. He bowed himself out and was carried in his norimono to the hotel. But I hear he has sent his servants to find out if he can not rent a vacant yashiki. So, you see, he intends to remain sometime, and send in a full report."

Kano was silent. He was evidently displeased; suddenly his attention as well as that of his friend was drawn to a soft footstep on the gravel walk of the garden, and presently a young man appeared at the steps leading from the verandah to the path. He faced the room and bowed low. Both returned the salutation, but Kano muttered between his teeth: "Ito! What on earth brings him here?"

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