Memories of Silk and Straw (田舎町の肖像)

I am fascinated with time and am acutely aware of how quickly it passes. I enjoy reading about the past and try to imagine myself in that time. History books are limiting in that most only tell you what happened. I want to know how people felt, and what their thoughts were from their first person perspectives. This is what makes the past come alive for me.

Growing up I didn’t think much about ‘old people’ or their pasts. It was ‘old’ and boring. I was completely wrong. As I’m now older myself I’ve come to understand they were young once, they had lives and were much like me, except born at a different point in time.

I think about the nature of universe and how the greatest scientists tell us time is an illusion. From a normal perspective time seems to go in a straight line but I’m told this isn’t correct. I wonder if the ‘past’ is really past and what the nature of time is. Were the events of the ‘past’ recorded? Are there ‘pasts’ that are happening now in realms we cannot perceive? I realize my senses are limited and so the best way that I can live in the past is to read about the experiences of those that lived through those times. This book is excellent as it gives me a glimpse into Japan’s past from those that were there.

Here are my notes and comments:

But it is economic growth and today’s level of relative affluence that set the world of silk and straw so much apart from our world of polyester and plastics. Poverty is the dominant, recurring theme of these memories of a rural Japan where even horses and carts were a rarity and most goods were transported to the rivers, and increasingly the railway stations, on the backs of ponies or of men and women.

In our world of affluence many do not understand that almost all of our ancestors came from poverty. Go far back enough everyone’s ancestor was a farmer somewhere along the family tree, a serf working the land, part of a tribe hoping not to get massacred by some other tribe. Using my virtual reality headset I can walk through modern villages in poor countries and see that same poverty still exists in much of the world. It is sobering.

In the memories of the old people in this book lies the story of the hardships Japan had to go through to reach its present position as an economic superpower. But amid all the poverty and unhappiness of those days, there also existed a strange kind of serenity which today seems to have been lost entirely.

Nostalgia for the past, I think everyone experiences this eventually, especially as we age. I reminisce about the ’80s, the pre-internet days. Yes, the internet is amazing but it has made time speed up and has distracted much of humanity. Just look around and see how many people have their noses in phones these days. Time is precious and much of humanity is wasting that precious time on internet garbage, garbage which is only accelerating. In that sense the past seems quite serene but the reality is life was harder. For those that didn’t have to work all the time it was probably filled with a lot of boredom. I think the ’80s were a great time to be alive since we had video games, a bit of fun distraction but not too much. We still participated in the real world more than in virtual settings. Even when computers and the internet when mainstream, the ‘internet’ was a destination, a place you sat down to and allocated a little time. These days we cannot get away from the internet, the damn smart phone is always pinging us with notifications on the most useless things. It takes a real effort to get away from it.

Because everyone was so hard up around here, “thinning out” the newborn was quite widely practiced. The number of children killed just depended, I’m told, on how strict the local policeman was. An officious and bloddy-minded cop might well notice that a woman, whom he’d previously seen several months pregnant, no longer was, but there weren’t any new babies around. If he’d started poking around for reasons, it would have caused all sorts of trouble for the villagers. So with this sort of man in the neighborhood there was nothing for it but to let an unwanted baby live. On the other hand, if a slack new policeman was appointed to the area, the “thinning out” rate would rapidly increase. The situation was so bad that the number of kids in each grade of the primary school varied a good deal, depending on who’d been the local constable at the time they were born.

I’ve come to realize that much in history is gruesome, things that don’t seem appropriate for school children’s history books. The practice of infanticide is certainly one of those things. Something else I learned that didn’t make the history books is that samurai often had sex with each other. They weren’t ‘gay’ but spent so much time out on campaigns that it became standard practice. This is one aspect of the modern senpai / kohai relationship in Japan that is no longer practiced but is part of the story.

Returning to infanticide I also read about this practice with the Romans. So from Japan to Rome, I can only assume that this was probably not uncommon all throughout human history no matter the tribe / location. It is a part of the human story we’d rather skip over.

The girls had a hard life. They had to find a customer every night or they dot into trouble. If no one had come along asking for her by nine o’clock, the girl would have to hang around in the street trying to persuade passersby to come inside. She was expected to stand out there till midnight or even later. You can imagine how nasty it was in the winter: the girls had to wait outside dressed only in thin kimono – they got frozen to the marrow. They were so desperate they’d even grab some drunk who just happened to be passing, and wouldn’t let him go until he primised to come in. There was even one time, apparently, when a woman taking her sick husband to the doctor was stopped by them; she had a terrible struggle to keep him from being dragged inside. It was no joke. When they did manage to get a customer, the owner of the brothel kept seven-tenths of the money and the girl only got what little was left. So even if she worked all night she couldn’t earn more than fifteen sen – it was a hell of a rough way to make a living.

Prostitution is another prevalent aspect of history that doesn’t make the schoolbooks. In the USA, we have a very strong strain of puritanism which persists to this day. This is part of the reason prostitution is outlawed. Another reason to our modern and progressive minds is that we believe those women are exploited. Who in their right mind would want to do that profession given a choice? Is it not poverty which forces the women to enter into it? I’ve come to understand that the country I grew up in is mostly Christian and prostitution is forbidden, just as it is in many religious societies. But religion aside is it inherently wrong if one chooses to enter into it if poverty or being forced were not the reasons? I do not know the answer, I’m just surprised that no matter where I look in history prostitution is always there.

And one of the reasons why they built a cinema, rather than some more practical building, you know, was to entertain the ghosts of the men executed there. Bored ghosts can become spiteful, it’s said. But all those bones – God knows how many people must have been killed on that site.

Scientists are still discovering when the ‘dawn of humanity’ began. Artificial Intelligence tells me that is may be 2 million years ago. That is an incredibly long time that is difficult to comprehend. Therefore, what land isn’t a graveyard? Here in the USA I’m sure that if bones didn’t decay then they would be as prevalent as arrow heads, found everywhere.

Even if we know the grave is there, it does not stop time and change. This is apparent to me when walking into ancient churches in Toledo Spain that have long ceased to be used as houses of worship and converted to other uses. In one museum you walk right over the graves of many people that are clearly marked and mostly forgotten. Trying to learn who they were aren’t as easy as just going on the internet, I imagine there might be only a few scraps of information in a the dusty stacks of some library in Madrid that nobody visits. Those in those graves would have been rich, now how about the millions more that lie in unmarked graves. They would be everywhere!

both farmers and fishermen went barefoot all year round. It was only after the war that country people started wearing shoes.

I found an interesting video on YouTube that spoke about the way people would have walked in England during the middle ages. They wouldn’t have shoes either and if they did, it wouldn’t be the comfortable protective shoes we have today but more likely just a wrapping of cloth. I think most of us would imagine they would at least wear sandals like Roman soldiers but this wasn’t the case. And so in the YouTube video it explained they walk with their toes touching first with the rest of the foot slowly descending so as not to step forcefully on something unpleasant. It was a delicate walk unlike the clod hopping we do today with very heavy footfalls rarely paying attention to what we step on as our shoes protect our feet.

There wasn’t any soap or shampoo either; women used to wash their hair in clay.

No ‘basic necessities.’ I’m always curious to how those people achieved the basics in life without our modern conveniences. What did they do for toilet paper? How often did they wash themselves or their plates and cups? How did they deal with the coldest winters to keep fires burning if they kept fires at all? If we could go back in time and live just one week during winter I’m sure it would seem like camping and we’d be very glad when we could return to our modern luxuries.

You see, children in those days were treated rather differently from kids today: from the age of twelve or thirteen we were expected to be able to manage any job an adult could do.

My own son is now 13. I can’t imagine anyone his age having to take on the responsibilities of an adult although they are most likely physically able. Then I remember I live in the first world and many children in the third world do take on the responsibilities of adults even in our modern times.

the young lads from the shop who took the stuff down to Utsunomiya often stopped off in Tsukuba on the way back and spent the night with a woman.

Now days ‘young lads’ spend their free time and money with video games. What a huge difference with the past.

So a spot of food poisoning was no great surprise to anyone in those days; it was actually very common. The trouble was that people would quite happily eat even fish that tasted off. When the stuff made you ill, you’d probably just make a joke about it, like “I should have had a servant try it first!”

I do have experience with this living in Mexico and Vietnam. My body isn’t used to what the natives have grown up with and so I got food poisoning quite a bit even when I was careful to not drink the water. It was a fact of life but luckily medication was available or any foreigner in those countries will have a rough time.

It really is something that nowadays you can eat raw fish safely anytime, even in the middle of the summer.

I think nothing about raw fish having lived in Japan. I’ve even had raw meat. But then I remember that to most Americans, especially pre-1990s sushi would be suspect and not something most would be willing to try.

after the feudal domains were abolished in 1868, the lords and samurai found it difficult to make ends meet and started selling off their family heirlooms: swords, armor, lances, and hanging scrolls.

I wonder where all of this has gone. I imagine much of it sat in dusty old rooms nobody visits. In fact, entire houses and villages are now abandoned as the young move to the big cities such as Tokyo. I imagine a good percentage of the above eventually ended up in landfills which is very disappointing.

I suppose we might have been in the wrong, helping people when we knew full well they were about to run off without paying their debts, but the family needed every penny they could get; for them it was a matter of life and death.

It is good to have some sort of social safety net. It is with that safety net and support that most in my country will never face what the people above did, even if they are what we consider extremely poor. Poor to us is a dilapidated house without cable. Poor to these people often meant no food at all and death.

Try and tell people today how much poverty there was back then and they just won’t believe it.

You know, I often think poor people today are as well dressed as the richest classes were when I was young. The poor, fifty years ago, had to wear the same clothes 365 days a year, both in bed and at work.

There it is, what I was trying to describe with my comment above. Our definition of poor and theirs are not the same. This is correct, I cannot imagine what poverty must have been like back then. I doubt any modern person could survive even one week without serious mental effects.

In fact, if you asked me generally what it was like back then, I’d have to say that most of us spent our whole lives doing nothing but working and sleeping.

This contrasts somewhat with the thought of a “serene past,” mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this book. If you’re not working you look for diversions such as gambling or visiting brothels but that is only if you had money. If you were lucky to have a bit of free time I imagine it could be very boring most of the time.

In television dramas you quite often see samurai chatting to their servants; but this is rubbish – it would never have happened. in the feudal period the difference in status between the various classes was extreme, and although these distinctions broke down quite a lot toward the end of the nineteenth century, something of them survived for a long time afterward. Even those distinctions that lasted up until the war would seem quite strange to most people today.
Let me give you an example. One of our maids, a girl called Otsune, left us to marry a man in Tajuku. One day, when I was walking along with my grandmother, we happened to bump into Otsune. She noticed us, looked slightly shocked for a moment, then fell quickly to her knees and bowed with her forehead touching the ground. But no passerby, whether he’d known who my grandmother was or not, would have been particularly surprised at this spectacle. Grandmother looked down at the girl, who was still kneeling there, said “I hear you are well,” and walked on as though she’d already put Otsune completely out of her mind. Only a person born and brought up in the feudal period could have behaved like that.

This is something we in the USA have trouble imagining. I think that perhaps in England those class divisions still exist and I hear that they certainly exist in India. The class lines aren’t as visible in the USA just being out in the street. You can see them visiting different neighborhoods but I don’t believe the class divisions have ever been as stark as in Japan or England, in modern times in the USA.

These days any married woman, the wife of a small shopkeeper or even a laborer, is referred to as an okusan [“mistress of the house”]; but in my day, ordinary married women were called okamisan [“the missus”] and only the wives of wealthy shopkeepers or landowners were called okusan or, even more politely, okusama. And these ladies lived in exactly the way the word suggests.

Even in the Gion Festival, upper-class women couldn’t slip outside to watch the floats going past. There was a thin lattice partition between the women’s quarters and the shop so, instead of watching the parade like anybody else, the lady of the house would have to sit inside, with a fan in her hand, watching in secret behind the partition. The geisha would file past and the men would heave on the ropes of the floats, singing and shouting as they went, but unfortunately all the lady could see of them was their legs. She’d have loved to go and have a good look, but back then festivals were thought of as vulgar things, only for common people to enjoy, and it certainly wouldn’t have been proper for someone like her to be seen joining in and laughing with the crowd.

A wonderful example of the stark class divisions. I’m amazed reading how many cultures “hide the women” behind screens, behind veils and all covered up. This continues even to this day in many societies and sometimes to the extreme in the case of Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent in other Muslim countries. Women continue to be treated as second class citizens in much of the world. In the case above however, they were the aristocracy but that station seems more like a prison than a privilege.

We never had time in the morning to put on any makeup. The attitude then was that a girl who spent time in front of the mirror was no use to anyone, and certainly no farmer’s daughter who did her hair up nicely and put on makeup would’ve found herself a husband.

Our society puts so much emphasis on looks. Just take Instagram influencers as an example. Men and women alike want to appear wealthy, successful and beautiful. It is too bad we do not put greater emphasis on personality, on character. I’m not saying the example above is the ideal but comparing it with our vapid, shallow culture of “me, me, me” finding a partner who has ‘utility’ has talents other than what is on the surface sure seems desirable.

When the war began, the geisha district changed completely. In 1944 the government decided geisha were an extravagance, and from then on we were called just “hostesses.” We were miserable.

Hostess bars are everywhere in Japan. It was interesting to learn that these establishments were born of the geisha tradition. We don’t have ‘hostess’ bars in the USA, it just wasn’t part of our tradition. In learning more the geisha were accomplished but had very difficult lives. Any girl can be a hostess so long as she knows how to make conversation and is reasonably attractive. Readers in the USA might take offense to this tradition as female exploitation until they realize that male hostess bars are just as popular as female ones. In fact, they may even be more-so and have patrons that are just as enthusiastic and wealthy as their male counterparts.

Umeka: Yes, the relaxed atmosphere of the prewar years disappeared entirely. No sooner had a new batch of trainee pilot officers arrived than they were sent off on active service. Even at parties we attended, the recruits would get so emotional that their instructors would have to shout at them, “Stop crying in front of the women.” The officers all looked so syoung it often made me cry too. We knew the young pilots would fly to Chiran in Kyushu before going on their suicide missions, so we were always trying to persuade ourselves that it wasn’t as if they were going straight from Tsuchiura to their deaths. It must have been even more upsetting for the people who lived in Chiran.
Ochiyo: They were so different from the officers before the war. I remember they wore dark blue tunics, and belts that crossed on their chests, with scarlet tassels on them; they also carried long sabers, but somehow they didn’t look like proper officers at all.
Each of them was allowed to spend his last night here with a geisha. A lot of the girls were young too at the time, and just for a night they became young wives, to comfort them. I was already getting on a bit by then and just doing maid’s work, so I only saw what was going on from behind the scenes; but in no way could you say those men had some to enjoy themselves. They all looked desperate. Lower-ranking officers and ordinary soldiers spent their last night in much the same fashion, in one of the brothels.
The next morning, before they set off, each man, in his immaculate uniform, would com eand say goodbye to us: “This is the last visit from me in this life. I doubt I’ll ever see any of you again. Goodbye.” We’d all stand there, with tears streaming down our cheeks, quite unable to reply. We realized then what a really dreadful thing war was.
Umeka: And in the end we lost the war. GIs rode up in jeeps to places where we’d once entertained the navy. “Japan’s done for,” I often thought to myself in those days. Anyway, we’ve all got much older since then and, like it or not, we’re now a very different country.

This is a gold nugget. Reading history books Japan will always portray the Kamikaze pilots in the best light: heroic, brave men willing to give the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. All countries do this for their soldiers. As I mentioned I want to know the truth, to try and put myself in the mindset of the people in those times and this entry tells me the truth. Soldiers everywhere were thrown into situations they most likely would have avoided. Even my grandfather who served in World War II told me many Nazis would have rather stayed home, drinking beer by a warm fire and chatting with their friends and families. It is only natural that any human would not want to go into the hellish conditions of war. But the powers that be everywhere must make it seem glorious, but as Creedence Clearwater Revival succinctly describes in “Fortunate Son,” those powers do not send their own kids. The truth is it is usually the poor that have to do the hardest fighting. Soldiers in all wars would most likely preferred to have stayed home and enjoyed life instead of killing others and experiencing something that is hell on earth.

After the war fewer and fewer people in the village were practicing Buddhists, and for some years no one went near the prayer halls at all. Many of the statues of Buddha toppled over, and around 1975 one was even found lying in a paddy field. Not long after that, both prayer halls and all the icons they contained were pulled down. I can still hear the mournful sound of the little handbells the old people used to ring as they followed the funeral procession when someone from the village died.

I’m fascinated with Buddhism in Japan and even had the privilege of doing zazen meditation in the early morning at the temple in my wife’s hometown. I’d go every week if I lived there. But, even though Japan is awash in temples around every quarter, nobody is quite a “practicing” Buddhist. The religion is engrained in their DNA and they rely on it for blessings and services dictated by tradition. But ask any of them why they do it and more often than not, they don’t really know . Here in the USA we are more accustomed to actually practicing our religions by going to weekly services but ask any the origin of a prayer, or a specific service and you’d receive a superficial answer the same way. One example, is why do Americans use a Christmas tree? 90% won’t be able to give an answer. How about the Easter Bunny? Why do Catholics recite the Apostle’s Creed? What was the origin? Their answers will be uninformed.

There was a craze for spinning tops: I seem to remember I once bought an ordinary wooden one and took it along to the village blacksmith to get him to hammer an iron ring around it for me. The heavier and stronger the top was, the more likely it was to win in spinning contests, so I got him to make me a ring at least half an inch thick.

I highlighted this passage because this game had a renaissance in the past decade and my own kids used to play it. It is called Beyblades but they are now made of plastic and one can even buy a plastic arena for them to compete. Interesting to see how many ‘new’ things are really old things repackaged.

My mother once told me that i only just avoided being killed the day I was born. “Thinning out” babies was pretty common in the old days. It was though bad luck to have twins, for example, so you got rid of one before your neighbors found out. Deformed babies were also bumped off. And if you wanted a boy but the newborn was a girl, you’d make it “a day visitor,” as they used to say.
In my case, I wasn’t deformed, I was downright ugly. My parents and grandparents were very shocked apparently. “We’ll never be able to find her a husband – not with those looks,” they said. My mother told me that when she first saw my face, she thought, “What a waste of time, giving birth to a think like that.”
“I mean, you’re still ugly now,” she went on, “but when you were born you had thick arms and legs, an enormous head, and a short, stubby neck. If you’d been a boy, you’d have made a fine worker. But when I saw you were a girl, I was terribly disappointed. Anyway, we decided we’d better ask the midwife to get rid of you.”
There were two midwives in our village; one was married to an old shoemaker, the other to a retired pawnbroker. Our village was quite small but, being on the main highway, it had a number of shops, including a pawnbroker’s and seven or eight brothels. Neither of the midwives had any qualifications, of course.
Killing off a newborn baby was a simple enough business. You just moistened a piece of paper with spittle and put it over the baby’s nose and mouth; in no time at all it woudl stop breathing. In my case, the midwife wrapped me tightly in rags as well. Everyone felt relieved to have got the problem out of the way, and went and sat around the fire chatting over a cup of green tea. Mother was asleep on her mattress. She told me that she woke after a while, and saw the bundle of rags moving. She could hear the baby crying. It really gave her a start she said.
Everyone gathered around to look, and when they unwound the rags, they saw that the baby was still alive. It began bawling its head off. “What the hell do we do now?” they all thought; they eventually decided that the kid must have been fated to survive and that to try and kill it again would bring bad luck on the house. So they let me live.

Hearing about infanticide in the past is one thing, but to really dig into the reality of it is quite another. It is like we can read about war but understanding all the gruesome details of that experience is a whole different thing.

But in my case it wasn’t food that mattered so much as drink. I like my drink; I started when I was thirteen or fourteen and always had a drop with my lunch. Unless I was given a glass or two with the middday meal I just couldn’t do the work properly; and if the man who wanted his roof thatched had any brains about him he’d give me a little something to get me going. It was priming I needed, you see. Later on, I even used to have a glass before leaving for work in the morning…….
I wonder if he drinks at work… like father, like son. I’ve been a hard drinker all my life and it probably hasn’t done my health any good but, for all that, I’ve lived a good long time. I usually get through a whole three-pint bottle of saké a day, and I drink pretty well solidly from the time I get up till I go to bed. And if I ever go out anywhere, I’ll usually have something there as well. I suppose I’ve just got a taste for the stuff.

We even used to go out as far as Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro. In my time there was nothing but fields around there – I remember seeing rows of carts carrying night soil in what are now the busiest shopping districts in Tokyo. It was pitch-dark after sunset and so quiet you almost expected a ghost to appear. In fact, all the areas to the north and west of Tokyo were more rural even than Tsuchiura. And just look at them now!

Yes, it is amazing. Ikebukuro is ‘my neighborhood’ when I’m in Tokyo. It is what I know best and where I feel most at home. You’ll never find someone carting around poop ‘nightsoil’ nor a field to utilize it in Ikebukuro these days.

So it’s obvious things were pretty basic there, and only very few houses, for example, had thatched or tiled roofs. Houses thatched even with tree bark covered with stones, and anywhere with proper matting on the floor, would’ve been considered better than average. It was usual to find a whole family having to sleep in a single room on a rough straw mat. And as soon as one of the men had any money in his pocket, he’d usually blow it all in a few hours on food, drink, women, and gambling. You see, the attitude then was that there was only a plank of wood in a small boat between you and oblivion; life was short, so you made the most of it while you could.

Categorized as Books

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/

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