A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-2


CHAPTER II.

The earliest recollection I have of my school life is my entrance with a number of playmates into a private gentleman's school. At that time the common school system which now exists in Japan had not been adopted; some gentlemen of the town kept private schools, in which exercises consisted mainly of penmanship; for arithmetic we had to go somewhere else. In Imabari there lived a keen-eyed little man who was wonderfully quick at figures, and to him we repaired for instruction in mathematics. We worked, not with slate and pencil, but with a rectangular wooden frame set with beads, resembling an abacus. It is called soroban; you find it in every store in Japan. I like it better than slate and pencil, for the fundamental operations of arithmetic, but cannot use it in higher mathematics. I remember seeing a young man of my acquaintance perform algebraic calculations, of which we had some knowledge before the influx of Western learning, with a number of little black and white blocks called the "mathematical blocks." A knowledge of penmanship and arithmetic is all that is required of a man of business, but a learned man is expected to read Chinese.

My schoolmaster was a kind of priest, not of Buddhism nor of Shintoism, but one of those who go by the name of Yamabushi; he let his hair grow instead of shaving it off as the Buddhist priest does, wore high clogs and the peculiar robe of his religion. He simply followed his father in the vocation; he was a young man of high promise and manifested more ardor in letters than at the prayers for the sick or for the prosperity of the people. His house was on the fourth block of the main street, set back a little from the street and with an open yard between the tall, elaborate gate and the mansion. The front of the residence was taken up by the shrine; the school was kept in the back part of the house. When we first entered the school we were known as the "newcomers" among the older boys, and though bullying was not altogether absent, we had no ordeal to go through as the Freshmen have in American colleges.

The pupil's equipment in one of these old-fashioned schools consisted of a low table, a cushion to squat upon, and a chest for the following articles: white paper, copy-books and a small box containing a stone ink-vessel, a cake of india ink, an earthen water-bottle and brushes. A little water is poured in the hollow of the stone vessel, the india ink rubbed on it for a while, and when the water becomes sufficiently black the brush is dipped in it. Then looking at model characters written down for us in a separate book by the teacher, we try to trace the same on our copy-books, paying close attention to every particular. The first that we must learn is our alphabet of forty-eight letters.

I recall vividly the trials in making the alphabetical figures. I tried time and again, but to fail; the sorrow gathered thickly in my mind and soon the grief overpowered all my strenuous efforts not to weep, then the master would send one of the older boys to help me. He stands behind me while I sit, grasps my hand which holds the brush, and to my heart's content traces figures like the master's in perfection.

The copy-book is made of the tenacious soft Japanese paper, many sheets of which are bound together. Each of the forty-eight characters is studied separately; it is written large so that the learner may see where a bold stroke is required and where a mild touch. After the alphabet we learn to write Chinese characters. The copy-books become black after a while, being dried and used again; therefore they need not be perfectly white at first; usually they are made of the sheets of an old ledger. I used to see on the pages of the copy-books made for me by my father, old debts and credits, and the names of the parties concerned in them, dating back to grandfather's time; they disappeared collectively under my wild dash and sweep of india ink. What an act of generosity to wipe out the remembrance of former money complications! After a day's work all the copy-books are literally drenched with the black fluid; they are moist and heavy. They must be dried. Every patch of sunshine about the school is improved, every breezy corner turned to account. At home the kitchen is spread with them at night, so as to have them dry by the morning. Copy-books that have done long service are coated with a smooth, shining incrustation of carbon—shining if good ink has been used, but dull if ink is of cheap quality. The quality of an india ink cake is not only judged by its lustre, but also by its hardness and odor; a good one is hard and pleasant and the bad soft and unpleasant. After we have practised writing the letters for some time, we finally write them on white papers and present them to our teacher, who with red ink makes further necessary corrections. If the final copy is satisfactory, he sets us at work on a next portion.

Every morning, after breakfast, I gathered together dried copy-books and went after or waited for some boys to come along. We strolled up the street toward the schoolmaster's, calling on other boys as we went. The first task in school upon our arrival was to set the tables in order, get the things out of the chests and go after some water for making the ink. It was no comfortable occupation, cold winter mornings, to get the water from the well in the windy, open yard in the rear of the house, and dip our hand and the drip-bottle together and keep them in it until all the air escaped by bubbles, and the bottle was full. A bottle though I called it, the receptacle is a hollow, square china vessel, with two small holes on the flat surface—one in the centre and the other in one of the corners.

We sit in a house where there is practically no arrangement for heating and where we are poorly protected from the gusts from without. The Japanese house is built opening widely into the external air; it has but a few segments of external walls around it; therefore one can select no breezier abode during the warm months, but in the dead of winter—the mere thought of it makes me shiver. Those immense open spaces could be closed, to be sure, at night with solid pine-board sliding doors; but in the daytime the question of light comes in. To meet this difficulty our ingenious forefathers had contrived a frame-work of wood pasted with paper. You must know they had no idea of glass. We can scarcely call it a happy solution of the problem, for the paper is soon punched through and lets in the biting wind. Too much active ventilation takes place, whistling through the holes; and then when a storm strikes us, the whole frail work shakes in the grooves wherein its two ends are fitted, like the chattering of the teeth. This sliding paper partition is called shoji, and of late has been somewhat replaced by the more expensive glass windows. Since the introduction of glass I have seen the shoji partly covered with it and partly with paper, the Japanese thinking it very convenient to see through the partition without being at the pains of pushing it aside or making a hole in the paper. Had paper been entirely discarded and glass alone been used the Japanese house would be much brighter and warmer.

Such a building is a poor place to hold a school in, but the boys were used to it and they behaved so—quarreling, weeping, laughing, shrieking—that there was little time left for them to feel the cold in their young warm blood.

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