A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-14


In describing a distant view of Imabari I made mention of a sea-god's shrine jutting out into the sea: the festival of that god as well as of one situated on the harbor and of another on the bank of a river takes place in the summer. The people go worshiping in the evening. A myriad of lights twinkle in the air and are reflected on the water below; refreshment stands line the approaches to the shrine, and their vociferous proprietors assert their articles to be the very best; the crackers go off like pop-corn and scintillating fireworks dart upward now here, now there and everywhere, ending in resplendent showers of sparks; drums are beating incessantly; the people jostle each other in getting on and off the steps of the shrine; along the beach are seated a multitude cooling in the breeze, the children amusing themselves by digging pits in the sand and making ducks and drakes upon the water. These are the salient features of the midsummer nights' festivities. The last but not the least attraction is the reviving breeze along the shore; the worshipers generally go through the offering of pennies, clapping of hands, bowing and murmuring of prescribed, short prayers as hastily as practicable, that they may have more time on the beach.

On the fifteenth of August a great festival takes place every year in my native town. It is in honor of a patron deity. Everybody is up with the dawn, children especially are up ever so early in the morning. Paper lanterns hoisted high in the air on long bamboo sticks are moving toward the shrine. It is yet dark, but the people forget sleepiness in the bracing air of the daybreak and in the expected joy. Every store is cleared of its merchandise and has a temporary home-shrine erected, the god being a scroll with the deity's name written on it. Two earthen bottles of saké are invariably offered.

When the day is fully come, the procession starts from the permanent abode of the gods. A huge drum comes foremost, then a number of men in red masks with peaked noses, representing fabulous servants of the gods. Then come two portable shrines built like a sedan chair, and the rear is brought up by yagura-daiko. This last is a large frame-work of varnished wood carried by men. On the top of it a large bass-drum is placed, and with four boys around it. The boys are dressed in fancy costumes and beat time for the songs of the men below. The men are all dressed in white and seem at first to keep the presence of their gods in mind; but soon they get drunk, being treated with wine in every house, and spatter their garments with mud.

As the shrines pass, the men get into the houses, seize the earthen bottles of saké and pour the contents over them. These men also get tipsy and treat the beautiful shrines rudely, turning them wildly and throwing them hard on the ground; so that, at the end of the day, there is nothing left of them but their trunks. This rude usage became an established custom, and the portable shrines are built very strong.

A few days previous to the festival, boys prepare for it by constructing jumonji. Two slender elastic timbers are tied together in the form of a cross; one boy mounts it, and his comrades lift him up by applying their shoulders to the four ends. They march up and down the streets, singing festal songs, and challenge boys of other streets to come forth and have a "rush."

Not far from my native town there stands a high peak called Stone-hammer. It is customary for older boys to scale the lofty mountain and pay tribute to the deity on the top of it. They get somebody who has been there before for their leader. The preparation for the holy hazardous journey is rigorous. They bathe in cold water for months previously, live on plain diet, and pass the time in prayers and penances. Were their hearts and bodies unclean, it is reported that, on their ascent to the shrine, the gods' messengers—creatures half man, half eagle—would grasp them by the hair and fly away among the clouds and often kill them by letting them fall upon the crags and down into the valleys.

When a set of the hardy youths start out for the venturesome pilgrimage, they are dressed in white cotton clothes, shod with straw sandals, and have their long hair thoroughly washed and hanging loose. Each carries a pole with a tablet nailed on one end, on which is written the name of the mountain god. They shout a short prayer in unison, blowing a horn at intervals. My elder brother who went with one of these bands told me that the journey is very toilsome and dangerous. There are three chains to help in climbing three perpendicular heights. At times he was above the clouds, heard the peals of thunder beneath his feet and felt extremely cold. The leader sometimes holds a wayward youth on the verge of a precipice by way of discipline and demands whether he will reform or whether his body shall be cast into the gorge below.

The pilgrims bring home for souvenirs the leaves and branches of sacred trees and distribute them among their friends and relatives. The friends and relatives, for their part, wait for them at the outskirts of the town. At an appointed hour the spreads are awaiting the weary worshipers. Little brothers and sisters strain their ears to catch the faintest echoes of the horns and shouts. When the youthful travelers are back and fully established again in their homes, marvelous are the stories that they deal out to their friends.

I have been consuming a good deal of time and space in describing amusements and holidays; it is high time to revert to studies. I had been going to school all this time. The spirit of rivalry at school was fostered to such an extent that we felt obliged to go to the teachers in the evenings for private instruction. The teacher sits with a small, low table before and an andon beside him. The andon is the native lamp, cylindrical in shape, perhaps five feet in height and a foot in diameter; the frame is made of light wood, and rice-paper is pasted round it. In the inside is suspended a brass saucer, sometimes swinging from a cross-piece at the top and sometimes resting on a cross-bar in the middle; the vessel holds the rush-wick and vegetable oil extracted from the seed of a Crucifer. The andon gives but feeble light and is now entirely displaced by the kerosene lamp. In lighting a lamp, prior to the importation of matches, we struck sparks with flint and steel on a material inflammable as gun cotton, called nikusa, and from it secured light with sulphur-tipped shavings called tsukegi (lighting-chips).

Close to the andon the pupils, one at a time, in the order of their arrival, bring their books and sit vis-à-vis with the teacher. The latter first hears the pupil read the last lesson and then, after it has been thoroughly reviewed, reads for him the next lesson. He does it looking at the pupil's book from the top; the learner follows him aloud, pointing out every word he reads with a stick. This is repeated until the scholar has nearly learned the text. The scholar then returns home to go over the lesson by himself. In this manner I have torn my Japanese and Chinese authors, just as an American boy blots his Cæsar and Virgil; and certain passages come up even now as spontaneously as the translation of "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres."

In school an examination was held at the end of each month; how hard we used to work for it! It decided one's standing in class, and all through the following month he had to remain in a given seat. Everybody wished to be at the head and that bred strong emulation. The night before the examination I would study and read aloud all the evening; as it became late my eyelids tended to droop and my voice to falter; my father would bid me not to be over-anxious and retire. The next morning he would wake me early in compliance with my request, and light me a lamp to study by. It was a bad habit, I grant; but if I work half as conscientiously now as I did then I shall be the wiser for it.

My class was composed of about six members; we met in each other's houses outside of school hours to go over our reviews together. One of the boys was a carpenter's son and possessed with a mechanical craze. Whenever we gathered in his house he would offer, unsolicited, to explain and exhibit a gimcrack he had made with his father's tools, and we did scarcely any studying. Another of our schoolmates was a farmer's son, a big shame-faced lad sent to our beloved master's to be educated in the city; he boarded with him. Country-fellow as we called him, he acquired his preceptor's hand in writing so well that nobody in school chose to pick a quarrel with him on the question of brush handling. But no mortal man is without a peccadillo—our boy was always observed to be moving his jaws and chewing more candies than were good for him. The third was a staid druggist's son, sedate as his father and as particular in trifling matters; he was "awfully smart," as the phrase is, in his studies, having pursued them conscientiously; and besides, he belonged as a matter of course to the category of "good boys." I used to sleep with him in his house sometimes and study arithmetic with him.

Here parenthetically I must describe the Japanese bed. It is a very simple affair: a thick quilt is taken out of a closet and spread directly on the floor; you lie down on it and pull another quilt over yourself, and you have the bed. There is no bedstead; therefore, fleas have a picnic at your expense if the room is not well swept. In the morning you fold the quilts and put them back in the closet, and space is given for the day. Our pillow is no comfort to a weary head, it being simply a hard block of wood; often it is a box with a drawer at the end. The use of this kind of pillow or support was formerly imperative for the men and is still to the women for the protection of the head-dress from ruin and the bedclothes from the bandoline. The sterner sex of our population now-a-days crop their hair after the fashion of their European brothers, and have in great part given up the wooden block for a soft pillow.

My schooling was continued for some time with satisfactory results, and I advanced grade after grade well-nigh to the end of the common school instruction, when my father saw fit to remove me and put me in a store so that I could be a credit to myself as a business-man's son. I was an apprentice in two trades at different times and yet unsettled in mind and anxious to go back to school. I might go on telling all about the period of my apprenticeship, and things I learned and people I observed during that time: how I finally carried the day and returned to my studies; how I studied Chinese and how I struck out in English; how I went to Kioto and struggled through five years' academic training; and how a few years ago I borrowed money and sailed for America. But that would be writing a real autobiography, which would be disagreeable to me as well as distasteful to the reader. In the story told so far I ought to have, perhaps, prudently suppressed everything personal and brought forward only those experiences that the generality of Japanese boys are destined to undergo. Neither have I exhausted by any means the incidents of my own childhood; at this moment I am conscious of things of more importance than those set down on the foregoing pages welling up in the fountain of memory. But I have written enough to try the patience of my indulgent reader, and I myself have grown weary of my own performance; it is therefore excusable, I hope, to draw this narrative abruptly to an end.

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