A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-11


Among the recreations most fondly indulged in on the New Year holidays is kite-flying. This is so well known here that I have often been overwhelmed with questions regarding it by little Americans. Our kites are mostly rectangular, with heroes or monsters painted on them in most glaring colors. A wind instrument looking like a bow is sometimes fastened to the kite, and when the kite is in the air the wind strikes the string and makes a humming noise. At a kite fight the combatants bring their flying kites in juxtaposition and strive to cut the string by friction. Now and then an unfortunate, hero or monster, is seen tossed about at the disposal of the wind, finding its fate upon the water, the tree-tops, or I know not where. At the height of kite-flying even those with more discretion enter into the full spirit of the young and build prodigious kites. I have actually seen one so large that, when flown high up on a fair windy day, the combined efforts of several men could scarcely hold it. It was a hard-fought tug-of-war; after much ado, with the aid of wrestlers and athletes, I remember, the monster was at length secured to the main front oaken pillar of a great building. The string fastened to such a kite is a strong twine hundreds of yards long, yet it often gives way. And to fly such a kite on the streets of a city is next to an impossibility; it will bump hard at houses and rake down the tiles (our houses are roofed with tiles) over the heads of passers-by; for which reason, it is always taken out to the open country and afterwards brought into town when it has gone well up in the air. What a mass of curious children surge beside the men who hold the kite by the string as they walk home!

I have sat many an afternoon after school whittling the bamboo frame for a modest kite. It was my most interesting employment; my father calls me into another room to run on an errand for him; I hear him plainly, but pretend otherwise and make him call repeatedly—ungrateful son! Upon hearing him approach and perceiving longer delay to be impossible, I break away from the agreeable occupation and emerge as cheerfully as I can, "Yes, sir, father." He inquires what I was about, reproves me for not answering him quickly and gives me to know that if I do not heed his behest he will surely throw my kite into the fire. After such interruptions, however, the important frame-work is done. Oh, what satisfaction I feel over it! Then I go to the kitchen and wheedle Osan into giving me a bit of boiled rice, which I make into paste on a piece of board with a bamboo spatula. With the paste I put white paper on the frame and leave it to dry. There are many little technical points in kite construction, but those I refrain from entering into in detail. When it is dry, I write on the kite confidentially with my own hand some appropriate word, say, Zephyr, in lieu of picture. I now tie the string and try its flight; it dashes at the eaves this way, pitches into the latticed windows that way, twirls in mid-air like a tumbler-pigeon, and in general behaves badly. Thereupon I take it down, add weight to the lighter side, attach a tail and do all to insure balance and equilibrium, and, then try it again.

Since coming to this country, the request has been put to me more than once by little friends that I should make them a genuine Japanese kite. But the want of tenacious paper and bamboo has always prevented me from complying with their wish.

As I write on, by the association of ideas I call to mind an event which greatly provoked me. I was fond of poking into and turning over old things up in the garret, as I hinted before, or I had archæological taste, to give it a dignified name. One day, much to my surprise, I came upon an old kite frame perhaps six feet by five, good for further use. I found it hidden behind a worm-eaten chest of drawers; it was constructed, I discovered, when my uncle was a boy; everybody in the house had forgotten all about it. I was instantly possessed with the desire to boast of a big kite, now that the frame was ready; and as if to help out my plan, some one recollected that the reel of string that went with the kite was put away in one of the drawers. This I immediately sought and found. These relics I guarded with great care until a visit from my uncle, who resided in the same town, when I produced them and got him to tell me about his kite. I could not have done a better thing; his old playthings before him put my uncle in mind of his boyhood; they created in him the wish to see them restored once more to their former usefulness; and he promised me he would attend to them himself.

Attend to them himself he did in a few days, taking as lively an interest as I did. Having papered the frame, we carried it to a man who painted show-bills. He painted on it a squatting Daruma in scarlet canonical robe, holding the high-priest's mace, a staff with a long tuft of white hair at one end, while the white untouched margin left by this large figure was stained blue. It was a glorious kite; the picture of Daruma, who was a great light of Buddhism, the founder of a new sect, who sat and thought through his whole life, suffering no disturbance from matters temporal—hence his papier-mâché image on a hemisphere of lead for the toy "tumbler;" Daruma, I started to say, looked out from our kite with a pair of immense goggle eyes, shaded by prominent shaggy eyebrows; a furrow ran down on either cheek from the side of his nose toward the corners of his mouth; large Hindoostanee ear-rings hung from the enlarged lobes of his ears; and I may here add that, notwithstanding his reputed sedentary habits, he is always drawn as a holy man of strong physical features.

So far, so good. My uncle, as might be anticipated, wanted to see how our kite would fly. Accordingly, we got a big boy to hold it up for us against the wind, and my uncle at a distance hold the string ready to dash at a run. The signal was given, and away my uncle ran, and up rose the kite. Breathlessly I was watching. But it no sooner rose than it pitched sidewise and struck on the spikes upon the fences of the Mayor's house. I lost my heart! I did not cry just yet; the catastrophe was too big for utterance and too sudden: there was no time to weigh the calamity. The men pulled at the kite, which, I say, had stuck fast on the pointed black wooden bars bristling unmannerly in all possible directions. I bore the spikes an inveterate enmity ever after, till one day they were every one of them pulled down with the house, at which I felt extreme satisfaction. The tearing noise of the kite, however, rent my breast then; and the men, being persuaded at last of the futility of their proceeding, brought forward a ladder, and my uncle mounted it deliberately. I could not contain myself any longer; I ran into the house, threw myself on the floor and wept bitterly. After that I turned over the whole affair in my mind at leisure, lying on my back, studying the ceiling and sucking my finger in baby fashion. The phantom of the broken kite rose before me; I swallowed down my grief with difficulty. Who brought it about? Nobody else but uncle; yes, if uncle had not wished to try the kite it would not have happened. I whimpered afresh at the painful thought; I now reproached my uncle as much as I formerly thanked him. After a considerable lapse of time my uncle came in, crestfallen, with the tattered kite. But in dudgeon I would not speak to him or look at him: he very awkwardly endeavored to console me and with difficulty coaxed me to accept his atonement in patching the rents. The moisture of the glue, nevertheless, scattered the original colors and disfigured the beautiful picture. I forget how I forgave him that.

But to resume the holiday games. Boys play a sort of ball—the "pass and catch" part—with a good-sized dai-dai (lemon); we call it dai-dai rolling. We give each other the "grounder" repeatedly, so that even the hard-rinded Japanese fruit gets ruptured in a little time; then our business is to beat about for a supply of the new balls, which we invariably accomplish by knocking down the fruit from the unguarded arches. The people generally take the prank in good part.

Girls play out-of-doors with battledore and shuttlecock; they also play with cotton-balls, which they toss with their dainty hands against hard floors. They keep the ball bounding rhythmically between the palm of their hand and the floor, and hum songs in time with it.

At home and in the evening we play cards and other games. The favorite game of cards consists in giving out the first lines of couplets and endeavoring to pick out from the confusion of cards, in competition with others of the company, the particular cards on which are written the following lines; the one with the largest number of cards in the end is declared the winner. This game has the commendable feature of impressing on the mind celebrated poems; it is not merely time thrown away. Japanese poems, I remark in passing, are short and pithy; the classic "a Hundred Poems from a Hundred Poets" are characteristic and are consequently printed for the purpose of the game. The selected poems of the Tō dynasty, which in the annals of Chinese literature correspond to the English Elizabethan period. I mean in development and not in chronology, are substituted by scholars for the Japanese poems. We also play a kind of parchesi and a form of the game of authors, but whist, poker, casino, euchre, cribbage, etc., we know nothing of. Chess and checkers the Japanese are expert in, but they are not New Year games.

Fireside conversation, kind words and hearts constitute the quiet enjoyment and sunshine of the holidays. All things conspire to produce in us serene and tranquil pleasure, but nothing worth recording occurs in the remaining days. Some business-like briskness is manifested in the early hours of the second morning, for tradesmen observe the ancient custom of inaugurating the commerce of the opening year and give out presents to their customers.

Later in the spring—I forget the exact date—all the straw ornaments, withering wreaths and the like used in the decoration are brought together and burnt up with religious care on a broad sandy river flat just beyond the town. The day appointed for the rite is another gala-day of the calendar, at least in Imabari. For some time previous to the occasion, the straw relics of all the houses of a street are carefully collected in one spot, and then such as are artists exercise ingenuity to produce some recognizable shape out of the heap that may catch the eye of spectators, on its way to the place of combustion. Street vies with street in originality in fashioning the straw stack and takes care not to divulge what it is constructing until the day of display, then it ostentatiously raises the finished work, whatever it may be, on a high movable platform or pedestal on wheels, which takes its position in the line of march with those of the other streets. The whole town is curious to know what is in the parade and rushes out to behold.

I recall only one among many things which my own street produced on such occasions; it was a military cap and a trumpet joined together. Innumerable sheets of gilt paper were wasted in giving the monstrous form of a trumpet the appearance of bright, shining brass; the cap, too, was wonderfully like the real imported thing. These barbarian outlandish articles, having been adopted by the Japanese government at the time, were exciting the attention and comments of the people; hence, the striking reproduction of them on a greatly magnified scale made everybody utter a little cry of surprise and admiration. I forget to which of us the inspiration came.

The pedestal or platform has two large massive iron rings in front, to which are tied stout ropes: the younger part of the inhabitants of the street hang together in two rows and haul the decorated burden. Song and chorus, and the heavy wheels creak onward a short distance, then stop: song again and chorus; then another pause. Among the crowd we occasionally meet a man carrying a bamboo stick, one end of which is split and holds half-a-dozen hardened mochis. He intends to scorch the cakes in the flames of the relics and, upon returning home, to divide them among his family and eat them for the miraculous power they are then believed to possess.

This is, in short, the manner in which we observe and end our great national holiday of New Year. Of late, it is to be regretted, many of the old customs are omitted by the people who have got modern notions into their heads. Innovations of the latter days not very desirable or in good taste are fast gaining ground. A few years more, and, I fear, the neglect of time-honored observances will be complete in Japan.

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