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

Yokohama in 1859

The junk had a fair voyage. The passengers who had not been on the ocean before, had suffered from seasickness, but, since the junk generally followed the coast, and often passed through smooth water, they had quickly recovered. The voyage up Yedo Bay had been very pleasant. But they met the tide when they were off Kanagawa, and as there was but little wind, the master had anchored.

If they had known it, they would have looked behind them with some interest, for there was the spot where Commodore Perry had anchored, and with his fire ships, had battered down the door of Japan's isolation. That was five years ago. These five years had brought serious trouble upon their country, and there promised to be graver disturbances; for, as there was restlessness in their clan, so there was restlessness everywhere.

As Kano stood thinking thus, he heard Inouye ask the master of the junk how long it would be before they reached Yedo. The answer was that they must wait six hours before the tide turned, and that then it would take many hours unless the breeze freshened.

"But," he continued, "if your honor is in a hurry, I can call a sampan (row boat) and you may be set ashore at Kanagawa. Then you can follow the Tokaido, and reach Yedo to-night."

Kano turned toward the master, and said briefly: "Do so!" A little while after a sampan passed within hailing distance, and soon the two rônin were speeding toward the shore.

Kano and his friend made their way to a quiet yadoya at Doge hill, where they could he sure not to he disturbed by the trains of daimiyo passing to and from the capital, and would he free from impertinent questions. After they had secured accommodations and refreshed themselves with a bath, they took their dinner. Neither spoke of the subject uppermost in his mind, their future plan of action. They were now in the Tokugawa country, and every man might be a spy. Besides, there was no privacy in a house where the walls consisted of sho ji, and even a whisper could he plainly heard in the next room. Therefore, when they had finished their dinner, Kano proposed a stroll. They set forth, and walked in the direction of Yedo. They were sure to he unobserved, since the Tokaido was crowded with travelers of all classes, and samurai were not likely to be questioned after they had passed the barrier.

When they had reached a part of the road where they could talk without danger of being overheard, Kano said:

"We have arrived at the first stage of our journey. Have you thought of any plan to attain our end?"

"I have been thinking, of course," replied Inouye, "but I have no doubt that you have conceived an excellent scheme."

"No, I have not. Every plan I thought of, when I came to work it out, offered some very serious obstacle. I feel as if I am running my head against a stone wall. We may go into Yokohama, and if we are asked who we are, we may answer that we are rônin. But if they ask what we are doing, and we reply that we are curious to see the barbarians, they will say: Very well, you have seen them now, so you had better go about your business. From that time we shall be beset with spies, or we must leave. This is a difficulty which I had not foreseen."

"Your idea is to study the barbarians, is it not?" said Inouye thoughtfully.

"Yes. Our clan must not act blindly. We must know what is the purpose of those men in coming here; but that is not all. We must also know their strength and their weakness."

"There is but one way in which that may be done," muttered Inouye, as if speaking to himself.

"Then that way must be chosen." said Kano.

"What is it? You do not hesitate on account of the danger, I hope?"

"No; but I do hesitate on account of the humiliation. Look here, Mr. Kano, I will give you my views frankly. If I were alone, that is, if I had been commissioned by you, I would have left my swords behind, and offered my services to these barbarians in any capacity. I would have entered into such employment as promised the best opportunity to watch them when they were among themselves and off their guard."

"But how would you understand their speech. You do not suppose that they converse in our language, do you?"

"No," replied Inouye, smiling, "but our Japanese interpreters at Nagasaki tell me that it does not take long to learn that tongue, and I do not suppose that there is much difference in the languages spoken by these barbarians."

"Well," said Kano. "I admire your scheme and like it. But such a step requires consideration. Let us return to our yadoya and think it over. To-morrow morning we can decide upon our future action."

When they arrived in their room, the two friends sat down before the hibachi, smoking and sipping their tea. After some time Kano stretched himself on the mats, and was soon sound asleep. Inouye noiselessly opened a sho ji and slipped through, closing it in the same manner. He then went down to the lower floor, and entered the front part of the house which serves as office, kitchen, and as refreshment hall for transient wayfarers of the poorer class.

Here he found the landlord, squatting behind his tiny desk. As Inouye approached, the landlord bowed low, since, although the guest was now dressed in kimono only, and had left his swords upstairs, he remembered having seen him enter as a samurai. Inouye sat down within easy reach of the landlord, and asked: "How far is it from here to Yokohama?"

"That depends, your honor, upon the way you may choose. Across the new causeway it is about two miles, but it is further by sampan."

"Are there any guards?"

"There were, your honor, but the barbarians made so much fuss about them, that they were withdrawn."

"Then anybody may go in there without any impertinent questions being asked?"

"Oh yes, your honor. The barbarians do not seem to care as to who comes."

"Have you been there?"

"Yes, I have been there twice. When the first barbarians landed I thought that I would go and see how they looked. I was disgusted! Not one of them possessed any manners. They shouted at the top of their voices, pushed and crowded each other, and acted as if they were possessed of demons. It was horrible."

"Then why did you go again?"

"My little son was very sick, and some traveler told me that these barbarians possessed powerful charms. Every physician said that the boy must die, and I thought that I would try to obtain a charm that would save the child's life. So I went to the gate at the causeway and asked where I could purchase those charms. He told me that he did not know, but when he knew what I wanted them for, he advised me to go to an American physician who lives in Kanayawa near the causeway. I did so, and found him at home. He was a tall, powerful man, but very kind. There was a Japanese in his house who could understand me, and when the physician knew what was wanted, he and the Japanese gentleman went with me. When we came home, he asked some questions, examined the child tenderly, and gave it some medicine. He and his friend remained three hours, and only when the child was sleeping peacefully, did he leave. The next day he came again, and the next, and the next, and now the child is as well as ever. And he would not accept any money. All barbarians are not bad men, that is sure, but most of them are very rude."

"Do you know how they live in their homes?"

"No. I have heard some young good-for-nothings of this place who had served them as kodz'kai (attendant, servant) speak about them, but you can not believe what they say. Decent men will not enter their service. Only a few days ago the good physician asked me to get him an honest man, but, although I have tried hard and the wages are high, nobody cares to take the risk."

"Is there any chance to secure work from them in Yokohama?"

"Oh! there is plenty of work, and the pay is good. But our people do not like it much. They have to work too hard. They are not allowed to rest a minute, and when one of them should smoke a pipe for a moment, and he is seen, he receives his pay up to that time, and is sent about his business. It they treat our people in that manner, it will not be long before they will have to do the work themselves."

Inouye agreed with the landlord, and, while that worthy was giving change to a servant girl, he slipped upstairs. He found Kano still asleep, and sat down before his hibachi thinking deeply. There was absolute silence in the room, save when he knocked the ashes out of his pipe.

It was quite dark when Kano awoke. "What, is it so late!" he said as he looked out on the balcony, and saw the lights of the ships in Yokohama harbor. "I thought I would sleep for an hour or so, and here I have taken a whole afternoon!"

"I am glad of it," replied Inouye. "After supper we must stroll to the beach, for I have much to tell you. I do not think that there will be so very much difficulty in carrying out our plans. But it is best not to speak of them here."

Kano nodded, and clapped his hands as a signal to serve up supper. They spoke about the food, and joked with the servants. After having satisfied their appetites, they strolled to the beach.

It was a calm, bright night; the only noises disturbing the almost oppressive silence, came from the ships in harbor, or from the shrill whistle of the blind shampooer, as he offered his services in the way peculiar to that trade. Kano led the way until they came to a little hillock where they could notice the approach of strangers. He sat down, and courteously motioned Inouye to take a seat by his side. Inouye did so, and at Kano's request related his conversation with their landlord.

He then suggested that Kano should apply for the position of house servant of the barbarian physician, while he, Inouye, would try to secure work at Yokohama. But Kano would not hear of this. "No!" he said. "This physician seems to be a good man you must go there, and I shall mingle with those rude people at Yokohama. But on ichi-roku nichi we must meet here at eight o'clock, and communicate each other's experiences. But what shall we do with our swords? They would betray us at once?"

"That, certainly, is a difficulty, but not a serious one. Let us think it over, we are sure to find some way out of it."

The two samurai then returned to their inn and retired.

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