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

Young Kano Grows Up

While the Choshiu clan as well as the other clans of Japan, were anxiously watching the opening of Japan and the events which follow, Young Kano or Kano Ekichi was taken gradually out of his mother's hands and given to a faithful attendant of his father to he educated as a true samurai should he. Japanese boys are not baptized for there are few Japanese Christians, and in those days there were none; they have, therefore, no baptismal name. They have, however, given names, which are placed behind the family name instead of before it as we do. They would say, for instance, instead of Henry Jones, Jones Henry; they do the same with the words Mister, Master, Mistress or Miss, for all of which they have only one expression: San. If we should speak to master Ekichi Kano, we should say Kano Ekichi San. These given names can be changed without any difficulty. Sometimes the parents change them, at other times the owner of the name changes it himself, and again the Emperor or Tenshi Sama gives an officer a new name. But in that case, it is sure that the owner will keep it so long as he lives.

I can't say that Ekichi had a very pleasant time of it, although, of course, his father and mother loved him. Only they did not show it, as our parents do. As a little baby he was made to rest upon his knees, so that they might grow flexible, for the Japanese do not sit upon chairs, but squat upon their mats. When he rose in the morning from his futon or comforter which served him as a bed, there was no running to his father or mother, shouting good morning, and giving them a hug or a hearty kiss. When he did meet them, the first thing was to fall on his knees, spread his hands flat before him, and how until his head rested upon the back of his hands. His father and mother gravely returned the salutation in the same manner. When he took his meals, he was not permitted to say a word. He ate what was put before him, and it was every day the same. Asa meshi, hiru meshi, and ban meshi, or in English, morning rice, noon rice, and evening rice, there was no difference between breakfast, dinner, and supper. Until he was six years old, Ekichi spent most of his time with his attendant in the garden. They strolled around, and he asked questions which the man answered as well as he could. He was taught how to speak to a superior, to an equal, and to an inferior; how long he must remain prostrate before a daimiyo, before a councillor, and before a simple samurai. He was also taken to the grave of his grandfather, and told to kneel down and say his prayers. That was something he could not understand, and which his attendant could not explain; when he asked him, and he did often, the man would say: "It is so, but you should not ask why, because the gods only know." So, when Ekichi was tired and sat down on the sward, he would often think: What is the use of praying at the grave of a dead man. But he was careful not to express his thoughts to anybody.

He was trained not to show pain, distress, or grief. Whatever happened to him, his face must not betray it. Being constantly in the open air, he grew up healthy and strong, and when he was six years old, he was taken to a school for samurai boys.

Ekichi had been with his attendant beyond the gates of his yashiki, but after the first day, he was told to go and return by himself. He met his schoolfellows with the courtesy which he had been taught so carefully, and was treated by them in the same way. There was no playground. Indeed, I do not believe that any of those boys knew what the word "play" means. Many times, thirty years ago, I have seen samurai boys from eight to sixteen years old, during recess or after schooltime retire to their rooms to smoke their tiny pipes and carry on a quiet conversation; but I never saw them play. The government of Japan has found out that baseball, football, and cricket, are healthy games, and is encouraging these boys to indulge in them. But at that time, a samurai lad would have felt hurt at the thought that he could do such a thing as play.


It is really a day devoted to Hachiman, the god of war.

All Japanese boys are very quiet; they are brought up that way; but for the children of the people certain holidays are set apart. The fifth of May, or the fifth day of the fifth month is the boys' festival. It is really a day devoted to Hachiman, the god of war, but it is also called the Feast of Flags. A tall bamboo is erected near every house where a boy was born; for every son a fish, properly shaped and a very good imitation made of air-tight sacks is fastened, with its mouth wide open by means of bamboo hoops. The air enters and, besides inflating the body, causes it to squirm, flap, and dart, about the bamboo. They have other days, but the samurai boys do not observe them. There is still a wide distance between them and the children of the people.

At the time when Ekichi Pano went to school, the children squatted upon the mats, and learned the Japanese syllabary,—for there is no alphabet in Japan,—each vowel is connected with a consonant, and thus forms a syllable. The vowels are the same as with us:

a, i, u, e, o,
pron. ah, ee, oo, ay, oh.
and combined with the consonants
ka, ki, ku, ke, ko,
na, ni, nu, ne, no, etc.

Ekichi, like almost all Japanese boys of his class, learned very quickly, nor did the very difficult Chinese characters frighten him. Long before a Chinese boy could have mastered one-half of them, Ekichi could read and understand a book without much difficulty.

He was now growing used to the restraint which was imposed upon him. He began to understand that the word pleasure  can have no meaning for a Japanese boy, and then he was made to learn that a boy is better without comforts than with them, except when he is sick. He was taught that there can be and must be but one motive for every action, and that motive must be: duty. Ekichi was but a child, and small for his age; but no boy twice as old in America or Europe, could have shown an equal degree of self-control, and contempt of pain and death with this child.

Japan's laws were cruel, at this time, and most offenses were punished with death. The criminal was made to kneel down, a flash of the sharp sword, a blow, and the head lay severed from the body. Young as he was, Ekichi was often taken to these executions, to accustom him to the sight of blood. His face was closely watched to see if he showed any emotion, and when he came home from these disagreeable sights, he found his rice of the color of blood, for it had been colored on purpose with the juice of salted plums. He was expected to eat heartily of this dish, and, like other samurai boys, did so without the nauseous feelings which our boys would experience under the circumstances. Sometimes, at midnight, he was roused from a sound slumber, and ordered to go to the execution ground, and bring a head. There was no refusal possible. Whatever he might think privately of such an errand, there was hut one answer possible, a responsive hai!" yes," and immediate obedience. Thus Ekichi, as all other Japanese boys of his class, was indifferent to heat or cold, and forgot that there was such a thing as "fear." He was not quite twelve when he was given two real swords, sharp, keen blades, made for use and not for show. He was taught that "the sword is the soul of the samurai," or, in the words of the law as it then prevailed in Japan": "The girded sword is the living soul of the samurai. In the case of a samurai forgetting his sword, act as is appointed: it may not be forgiven."

The child never considered his swords as toys; to him they were objects of reverence; that little dirk, eight inches long, might at some time be used to end his own life. He learned how he should behave and act, if ever such a moment should come. There is an instance in Japanese history, when a samurai boy only seven years old, committed suicide that he might save his father. Such stories were told him constantly, and roused his enthusiasm. At no time, after he was twelve years old, would Ekichi have hesitated to take his own life, if he had thought it his duty.

At this age he divided his time between shooting with bow and arrow, riding, fencing and wrestling, and the study of Chinese. He learned to swim and to handle a boat, and as he grew stronger, all dainties and comforts were taken away. If, in winter, his hands became numb, he was told to rub them in snow or water to make them warm; but he was not allowed the use of a fire. The duty of implicit obedience had been planted in him. No Japanese boy would think of asking why? when ordered to do something. Last of all he became master of that exceeding courtesy, peculiar to Japanese gentlemen, and which we foreigners cannot appreciate.

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