A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-10


I was generally happy in my childish days in Japan. I cannot put my finger on any particular thing as my chief happiness, but I think holidays made me as happy as anything. We have a number of holidays, among which the first and the greatest is New Year's Day.

The first three days of January! I shall never forget them. But like most celebrations New Year pleasure must be chiefly felt in a few preparatory days. In Japan full vigor is preserved among children for Happy New Year; here in America Merry Christmas, with its Santa Claus and his stockingful of presents, takes away the zest from children before New Year comes. The merriment of the season is materially heightened by the making of the mochi. The mochi, which I have referred to once before, is a glutinous cake made of rice; it is as peculiarly indispensable in the New Year feast as is turkey in the New England Thanksgiving dinner. It is generally no larger than a man's palm, therefore one family makes a great number of them. Many are stuffed with the an. The an is not necessarily sweet; some people like it flavored with salt. A large number of the mochis are not stuffed; they are suffered to dry and harden, so that they can be stored away for future enjoyment. At any time during the year you may get them out and steam or toast them. In our town there are men who make it their business to visit houses and help them in mochi-making. Just before New Year the professional mochi-makers work hard day after day. They could not always come in the daytime and made arrangements to visit us in the early morning. Then my sisters and I could hardly go to sleep in the great anticipation of joy. When the morning came, our house was thrown open, illuminated (for it was yet dark) brightly and cheerfully, and the whole household were up doing something with willing hand and heart. I cannot describe how happy I was in this scene. I tried, half in play, to help them and got in everybody's way. You know the holiday feelings are very difficult to reproduce with pen and ink.

Along the house on the street the men arranged a row of small earthen cooking stoves, which they had brought with them, each carrying two. The mode of carrying in this case, as well as in the transportation of any heavy load, is to use the shoulder as fulcrum and, laying on it an elastic wooden pole from whose ends hangs the burden, walk in steady balance, presenting the appearance of a pair of scales. Over the stoves were placed vessels of boiling water, over the vessels tubs with holes in the bottom and straw covers on top, in the vessels were heaps of rice washed perfectly white. The rice used in mochi-making is different from ordinary dinner rice; it is more glutinous when cooked and easily made into paste; it is a distinct variety selected in the beginning for the express purpose. The stoves are short hollow cylinders, open at the top and in the front; the top receives the bottom of the vessel, and the front opening or mouth ejects smoke and allows the feeding of fuel. They seemed on this occasion to blaze more brightly; we children went out and watched the dancing flames; they made our faces glow with their reflection.

When the rice was steamed long enough, it was transferred and made into paste in an utensil, like which I have seen nothing in this country. It is simply a stout trunk of a felled tree a few feet in height with its upper end scooped out. With it is a cylindrical block with a handle, a sort of pestle to press and strike upon the steamed rice. There was something joyous about the dull thumps when heard in the neighborhood, perhaps not to a foreign ear but to one brought up amongst customs associated with New Year holidays. And never at other times was our house so overflowing with hilarity as at this climax of domestic enjoyment. When the rice lost its granular appearance and became a uniform sticky mass, then it was placed upon a large board spread with rice flour. There it lay steaming, milk-white, this luxury of New Year,—luxurious even to the touch! The entire household flocked around it and made numerous round cakes. While our hands were busy, we interchanged many innocent jokes and merry laughs; the old people gave in to our sway, displaying a quiet humor in their looks.

We set up the New Year tree. It is a drooping willow tree thickly studded with rice-paste and hung with ornate cotton balls, painted cards, etc. Throughout the month of January it is to be seen in the parlor of every house nailed against the wall.

After nightfall on the last day of the old year a curious ceremony is performed. The worthy head of the family goes the round of his house with a box of hard burnt beans. Within every chamber he stands upright and throws a handful of the same, exclaiming at the top of his voice,—"Welcome Good Luck! Away with the Devil!" Now, the box used provisionally for a receptacle is a rice measure called măsu, which sounds like the verb meaning increase; and the beans are mămĕ, which is the same as the noun meaning health, although written and accented differently. Putting them together we have a supplication in a play upon words,—"Increase health," or "May health increase!" Odd and fantastic as the notion appears, however, it is a hallowed custom and scrupulously observed. My father formerly performed the ceremony in our house; but when my eldest brother had grown up, he was assigned to the office, which he discharged with a comic gravity that I cannot forget.

The Japanese looks upon certain periods—I forget which—of his life as evil years. To avert hovering ill influences or to "drop" the years as they put it, the people take of the beans as many as their years, put them in paper bags together with a few pence and drop them at some cross-roads, taking care not to be seen. In this manner I have dropped several of my earlier bad years; I should have been wrecked a long time since, for life, but for the bags of beans!

In the same evening tradesmen desire to collect old bills and clear up the accounts of the passing year; and in order to do it they call at the houses of their debtors, lighting their way with lanterns which bear the signs of their commercial establishments. So general is this idea, and so customary has this proceeding become in time, that everybody expects it as a matter of course at the end of each year; debtors, too, are easily dunned. A consequence is one of the grandest displays of lanterns. What a delight it was to me to stand before my house and watch the countless lights move up and down the street! When I was older I was appointed lantern-bearer before the collector for my father, who instructed his man to give me points, incidentally, in business.

The next morning dawns, and the first day of the New Year is with us. Everybody seems happy, kind-hearted and filled with better feelings. Shopping housewives, grocers and hucksters of all sorts of holiday market goods have disappeared from the streets; the change is like that of Sunday morning from Saturday afternoon in an American city. All the houses are carefully swept and put in good order, and the people have on their best apparel. A kind of arch is erected in front of each dwelling. But it is not round, it is square. Two young pine trees are planted for the pillars, and cross-pieces of green bamboo are tied to them. On this frame-work are placed the traditional simple ornaments; straw fringes, sea-weeds, ferns, a red lobster-shell, a lemon, dried persimmons, dried sardines and charcoal. These articles stand for many auspicious ideas; reflect a moment and they will come home clear to your mind. The pines, bamboos, sea-weeds and ferns are evergreens, fit emblems of constancy; the straw fringes are for excluding evil agencies—the lamb's blood on the door; the lobster by its bent form is indicative of old age or long life; the lemon is dăi-dăi—"generation after generation;" the dried persimmons are sweets long and well preserved; the sardines from their always swimming in a swarm denote the wish for a large family; and lastly, the stick of charcoal is an imperishable substance.

When the morning sun rises gloriously or snow-flakes happen to fall (for we have snow in Japan), children leap out from under the arches, salute one another and begin to indulge in outdoor holiday games.

To speak about breakfast may be trespassing upon hospitality, but the Japanese New Year breakfast is something unique. The mochi makes up the main part. The unstuffed rice-cakes are cooked with various articles; potatoes, fish, turnips and everything palatable from land and sea is found with them. A person of ordinary capacity can scarcely take more than a few bowlfuls of the dish, but there are people brave enough to dispatch twenty or thirty at a time! For weeks after whenever idlers of the town come together there is always a warm discussion concerning their comparative merits in this respect. I have noticed that the good people of this republic also look upon Thanksgiving and Christmas as the days on which to indulge their best appetite; and I have heard persons telling the wonders of their stomachs and seeking opinions of the wise men around them, who are likewise dreaming over their pipes again of the turkeys, chicken-pies and plum-puddings that are gone by.

As the day advances, good towns-people in decorous antique garb appear in all directions, making New Year calls. Upon meeting their acquaintances they have not much to say, the chief thing being to keep the head going up and down with great formality,—a bow it is intended to be, yet a great deal more than that. It is almost an impossible act for one not trained so to do, unless he goes at it with the spirit of martyrdom. Of course, the parlor reception by ladies in white is something unheard of in the far East. Ladies are to be good and remain in the back parlor, except when their presence is desired by the gentlemen who do the honor of receiving; you often detect the bright eyes directed upon you through crannies.

The dinner is not so splendid an affair as the breakfast, but has many customary dishes to be served. The fact will strangely strike the reader, who associates in his mind such a sumptuous board as that of Christmas with the term dinner. In that figurative sense in which we frequently use it, it must properly be applied to the breakfast. I must mention here that in the New Year meals we put aside our crockery ware and take out from the store-room wooden bowls, japanned red inside and jet black outside with our family crest in gold. The children's are rendered more attractive with the pictures of flying cranes on the covers, and tortoises with wide-fringed tails among the waves on the exterior of the bowls, all in gold. A casual sight of them at other times, in my rummaging for things, was sufficient to awake in me a pleasant train of thoughts relative to the holidays. Oh, and that tremendous big fish, I must tell you about that!—Every family provides itself for New Year with a huge buri—Japanese name of course, I am ignorant of its proper zoological term; I obtained my first idea of the whale from this monstrous fish. It hangs in the kitchen from one of the rafters throughout the holidays; the cook cuts meat from it, and the family feasts upon it until it is reduced to a downright skeleton. My impression is that the fish is caught in some of the provinces bordering on the Pacific Ocean (Imabari looks on the inland sea) and sent to our town: certain it is, the article we procure is always salted. The rush for the buri in the market before New Year is just like the turkey bargaining before Thanksgiving in this country; the difference is that the buri is more expensive, and it is not everybody that can afford to buy one.

Taking advantage of the last evening's ceremony, in the course of the day female beggars appear in the mask of the Goddess Good Luck, and sing and dance for alms. That is tolerable. But a host more of strong male beggars, personating the devils with rattling bamboo bars and with hideously painted faces, plant themselves before the houses and demand in a strident authoritative voice a propitiation with hard coin. Some of them paint themselves with cheap red paint, representing the "red devils;" others smear themselves with the still more economical scrapings from the sides of the chimney, becoming thereby the "black devils." The idea of the devils of different colors came from the Buddhist's pictorial representation of Hell, wherein the demons are seen serving out punishment to the sinners,—throwing them into a sulphurous flame, a lake of blood, a huge boiling caldron and to dragon-snakes; giving them a free ride on a chariot of fire; driving them up a mountain beset with needles; pulling out the tongues of the liars; mashing the bodies as you do potatoes; and so forth. The pictures, by the bye, with many others of saints and martyrs, are the same in nature as the religious paintings of Rome and equally grand and magnificent. The bean ceremony, to conclude, although it might have banished imaginary devils, after all, has drawn together the very next morning an army of the flesh-and-blood devils that want to eat and drink.

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