A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-4


I believe we had no afternoon session in the old-fashioned school; and the boys had two or three pet games to play in leisure hours. One of them was played in this manner: each one is provided with a number of pointed iron sticks a few inches long. The leader pitches one of his sticks in soft soil; the second follows suit, aiming to root out his predecessor's by the force of pitching in his own close to it; then the third, the fourth, and all around the company. Another of the games was played with square chips of wood, on which were painted heads of men, demons and all sorts of fanciful figures. A triangle was drawn on hard level ground and at a distance from its base a parallel line; from which line the boys each in turn threw a common lot of the chips, contributed by all, into the inside of the triangle. It must be done with the same nicety of aim and attitude as in throwing quoits. A habit established itself among us of the players coming down to the ground on all fours immediately after the act of throwing; it was the consequence of bending too far forward in order to get in all the chips at the peril of neglecting the centre of gravity. The chips that flew outside of the triangle were gathered by the next player and those in the inside allowed to be taken by the player, should he be able to throw a chip from his hand and lay it on them one by one. If he failed at any moment, the next player gathered together all the remaining chips and played his turn. A modification of this game consists in throwing the chips against a wall, and counting good those only that remain inside a straight line parallel with the foot of the wall, and turning over to the next player those on the outside. The game is played by girls as well as by boys, although they rarely play together.

We also used to play hide-and-seek, blind-man's-bluff and other games that are familiar in this country.

Later in my school days the government underwent great changes, and it adopted the common school system of the West. My father was to pay a school-tax and I to attend a new school, where instruction was not in penmanship alone but extended over various subjects. Text-books on arithmetic, Japanese geography and history had been compiled after the American pattern, but no grammar appeared; the educational department left the language to be taught by the purely inductive method. The fact is that the Japanese language has not been systematized; should one attempt it he would find it a tremendous task.

When I was on the point of leaving for America my brother put into my hand a Japanese grammar in two thin volumes, written by a literary man in Tokio, and said that it was being used in schools. I have them still by me and privately consider the attempt not a very great success. The gentleman tries to follow the steps of the European grammarian; he cleverly makes out "noun" and "pronoun," "verb" and "adverb"—even "article," (which, in good faith, I never in the slightest suspected our language was guilty of possessing) from the chaos. Upon the whole, the book has the effect of confusing instead of enlightening me; after my dabbling in languages, in Japanese I prefer to be taught like a babe.

Japanese dictionaries are for the purpose of hunting up Japanese meanings of Chinese letters, answering to your Latin and Greek lexicons. So much of Chinese has been introduced into our language in the course of centuries, that it is now impossible to read one line in a Japanese newspaper, for instance, without coming across Chinese characters. In books for women and children and in popular novels Japanese equivalents are written beside Chinese words. In getting lessons we made little use of the dictionaries; once learned by dictation from the teacher we relied on our memory and that of others; hence frequent review was needed to retain them. As the new school system took root, the school books began to have vocabularies and keys; and the Chinese classics pursued by advanced students their "pony."

Just at present a movement is on foot to simplify our tongue in its complication with Chinese. People generally suppose the two languages are alike; many of them have asked me if I could interpret to them what the down-town "washees" were so merrily babbling about over their flat-irons. It is a mistake; Japanese and Chinese are totally different, strange as it may appear. And yet I had to learn my Chinese in order to read our standard works. If the common people could understand Chinese as well as the learned persons, I believe we could get along very well with our language as it is; but they do not. It would be very inconvenient indeed if, for instance, in this country the "educated" people should use long words all the while, or employ French expressions freely in talking and writing. Just such a pedantry exists in my native country, and truly educated men are crying out for reformation. There are two parties. One party thinks it can do it by using unadulterated Japanese, while the other deems nothing short of the Romanization of the whole fabric—that is, the adoption of the Roman alphabet in spelling Japanese words—could accomplish the end. Opinion is equally divided between them; the second party may appear slightly stronger on account of its members for the greater part being students of other languages beside their own. Both these parties issue periodicals to advocate their theories and at the same time to carry their ideas into practice. These are worthy efforts; as yet they are experiments. We are told that the growth of a language is a matter of generations, that language has life like everything else, and that it must undergo changes despite feeble human efforts.

But to return. Happily our former schoolmaster was hired by the new organization and still took charge of us. He was a gifted young gentleman, a writer of lucid sentences and also something of a poet. He encouraged us greatly in polishing our Japanese-Chinese composition. It was his custom to select the best composition from the class, on a given subject, copy it on the blackboard and point out before the class what elegant epithets could be substituted for vulgar ones. It was a pleasure with him to do this, whereas in mathematics he did not show much zeal. Above all, he inherited from his father the art of fine penmanship. His brother, too, had a well-formed hand quite like our teacher's; evidently it was a case of hereditary genius.

At times our beloved master voluntarily offered to recite to us records of famous battles and heroes that adorn the pages of Japanese history. He did this from the love of telling them; the boys were as fond of hearing as he was of telling. He had in hand no book to help him; the gallant exploits of the brave and handsome, the rescuing of the virtuous fair, the crash, dash and rush of horses, lances and swords he called up from memory and decked with his teeming imagination. On such an occasion his language was prolific, his voice modulated according to the shifting shades of the subject matter; in short, his whole man, heart and soul, went to the making of the story. His eyes and expression! they often told half his story. Many a time the bells surprised us at the midst of his soul-stirring recital, and suddenly called us back to the unromantic light of modern day and to the homely exercises of school. The stories were told to us serially, in the hours of intermission and were a sort of optional course. They were so popular that very few were found playing about the grounds when the eloquent romancer proceeded in his narrative.

Yet he was not a man of weak indulgence toward the boys; his sense of duty was equally strong. If a youngster was seen undertaking to do anything naughty he would give him a stern look, his cheeks were inflated, his eyes showed the white plainly. The whole room was then silent as a tomb. But if a fun-loving fellow ventured, perhaps, to thrust out his little tongue roguishly or let out a giggle behind his hand, then the teacher irresistibly relaxed the corners of his mouth, and in another moment the hall rang with the hilarious laughter of reconciliation and good-fellowship.

Later I came under the instruction of different masters, but he it was who led me in infancy so carefully by the hand, as it were, to the first step of the ladder of knowledge, and he it will be who shall remain the longest in my memory.

At school the common mode of punishment was to let the culprit stand erect a whole hour together, facing his own class or a class in an adjoining room. Although no dunce-cap was on his head, a roomful of staring eyes struck a burning shame into his soul. Nevertheless, urchins there were who considered it a supreme delight to be taken off the troublesome exercises and carried to the next room on a visit, where they had made many acquaintances at a previous banishment. Indeed, they had become so inured to it that they thought nothing of it afterward.

Once the whole school, except a few good children, incurred the teachers' displeasure. I have forgotten what the offence was; all were prevented from going home after school and ordered to stand up till dark, each with a bowl full of water. There they stood like a regiment of begging saints with the bowls in the outstretched arms, which if they moved the water ran over the brim, and the delinquents would have been whipped. At first we thought it capital fun, because so many were in company to commiserate; we laughed aloud, bobbed and courtesied to the teachers in mockery; but in time we had to change our minds. The result of standing still like a statue began to tell upon us; our limbs began to ache and feel stiff; the jolliest member gave a cowardly sob; and the patient fellow in the corner, hitherto unnoticed, attracted public attention by dropping the burden. The china went to pieces. He blubbered out, as if that was sufficient apology. Through the intercession of some kindly folk we finally came home to supper and comfort.

We were continually threatened with another method of punishment, though I doubt if the teachers would have inflicted it on its. It was an intolerably cruel one: the offender was compelled to stand up with a lighted bundle of senkoes until it burned down close to his hand. The senko is a slender incense stick burned before the shrine of Buddha and of our ancestors, and manufactured by kneading a certain aromatic powder to a paste and squeezing it out into innumerable very slim, extremely fragile, brownish rods. When dry, these are gathered into good-sized bundles and put in the market. A few cents will buy you more senkoes than you need. As the bundle burns away slowly—slowly to prolong the agony, the fire encroaches on the skin and the flesh. Unless the offender surrenders himself to the heartless will of his pedagogue he must suffer injury from the heat. This punishment was actually in practice in old days when the tyrannical masters had their way, but went out of fashion at the dawn of civilization.

Our teachers carried flexible sticks, which they played with while teaching, or used in pointing at the maps; they never whipped anybody with them to my knowledge; but in going their rounds among the pupils, if any were engaged in conversation or in any way inattentive, flogged the table before them in such a manner as to cause the poor fellows to jump into the air.

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