Read an Excerpt
Masao Takashimaya's family had searched for five years for a suitable bride for him, ever since his twenty-first birthday. But in spite of all their efforts to find a young woman who suited him, he rejected each of the girls as soon as he met them. He wanted a very special girl, a young woman who would not only serve and respect him, as the go-between promised each would, but he also wanted a woman he could talk to. Someone who would not only listen to him, and obey, but a girl he could share his ideas with. And none of the girls he had seen in the past five years had come even close to fulfilling his wishes. Until Hidemi. She was only nineteen when they met, and she lived in a buraku, a tiny farming village, near Ayabe. She was a pretty girl, delicate, and small, and exquisitely gentle. Her face looked as though it were carved of the finest ivory, her dark eyes were like shining onyx. And she scarcely spoke to Masao the first time she met him.
At first, Masao thought she was too shy, too afraid of him, she was just like the others that had been pressed on him before her. They were all too old-fashioned, he complained, he didn't want a wife to follow him like a dog, and look at him in terror. Yet, the women he met at the university didn't appeal to him either. There were certainly very few of them. In 1920, when he began teaching there, the women he met were either the professors' wives or daughters, or foreigners. But most of them lacked the total purity and sweetness of a girl like Hidemi. Masao wanted everything in a wife, ancient traditions mixed with dreams of the future. He didn't expect her to know many things, but he wanted her to have the same hunger for learning that he did. And at twenty-six, after having taught at the university in Kyoto for two years, he had found her. She was perfect. She was delicate and shy, and yet she was fascinated by the things he said, and several times, through the go-between, she had asked him interesting questions, about his work, his family, and even about Kyoto. She rarely raised her eyes to look at him. And yet once, he had seen her glance at him, with excruciating shyness, and he thought her incredibly lovely.
She stood beside him now, six months after the day they met, with her eyes cast down, wearing the heavy white kimono her grandmother had worn, with the same elaborate gold brocade obi. A tiny dagger hung from it, so she could take her own life, should Masao decide that he did not want her. And on her carefully groomed hair, she wore the tsunokakushi, which covered her head but not her face, and made her seem even tinier as he watched her. And hanging just below the tsunokakushi were the kan zaslin, the delicate hair ornaments that had been her mother's. Her mother had also given her a huge princess ball, made of silk threads and heavily embroidered over the course of Hidemi's lifetime. Her mother had started it when Hidemi was born and added to it through the years, always praying that Hidemi would be gracious, noble, and wise. The princess ball was the most treasured gift her mother could give her, an exquisite symbol of her love and prayers, and hopes for her future.
Masao wore the traditional black kimono with a coat over it, bearing his family's crest, as he stood proudly beside her. Carefully they each took three sips of sake from three cups, and the Shinto ceremony continued. They had been to the Shinto shrine earlier that day for a private ceremony, and this one was the formal public marriage that would join them forever, in front of all their family and friends, as the master of the ceremony told stories about both families and their histories both of their families were present, and several of the professors Masao taught with in Kyoto. Only his cousin Takeo was not there. He was five years older than Masao, and was his closest friend, and he would have wanted to be there. But Takeo had gone to the United States the year before, to teach at Stanford University, in California. It was a great opportunity for him, and Masao wished he could have joined him.
The ceremony was extremely solemn and very long, and never once did Hidemi raise her eyes to look at him, or even smile, as they became man and wife, according to the most venerable Shinto traditions. And after the ceremony, at last she hesitantly looked up at him, and the smallest of smiles lit her eyes and then her face, as she bowed low to her new husband. Masao bowed to her as well, and then she was led away by her mother and her sisters to exchange her white kimono for a red one for the reception. In wealthy city families, the bride changed her kimono six or seven times in the course of her wedding, but in their buraku, two kimonos had seemed enough for Hidemi.
It was a perfect day for them. It was a beautiful summer day, and the fields of Ayabe were the color of emeralds. They spent the entire afternoon greeting their friends, and accepting the many gifts offered them, and the gifts of money carefully wrapped, and handed to Masao.
There was music, and many friends, and dozens of distant relatives and cousins. Hidemi's cousin from Fukuoka played the koto, and a pair of dancers performed a slow and graceful bugaku. There was endless food as well. Especially the traditional tempura, rice balls, kuri shioyaki, chicken, sashimi, red rice with nasu, nishoga, and narazuke. There were delicacies that had been prepared for days by Hidemi's aunts and mother. Her grandmother, "abaachan," had overseen all the preparations herself; she was pleased that her little granddaughter was getting married. She was the right age, and she had learned her lessons well. She would be a good wife for anyone, and the family was pleased with the alliance with Masao, in spite of his reputation for being fascinated by modern concepts. Hidemi's father was amused by him; Masao liked to discuss world politics and speak of wordly things. But he was also well versed in all the important traditions. It was a good family, and he was an honorable young man, and they all felt certain that he would make her an excellent husband.
Masao and Hidemi spent the first night of their marriage with her family, and then left for Kyoto the next day. She was wearing a beautiful pink-and-red kimono her mother had given her, and she looked especially lovely as Masao drove her away in the brand-new 1922 Model T coupe he had borrowed for the occasion. It belonged to an American professor at the university in Kyoto.
And when they returned to Kyoto they settled into his small, spare home, and Hidemi proved everything he had believed about her from the moment he met her. She kept his house immaculate for him, and observed all of the familiar traditions. She went to the nearby shrine regularly, and was polite and hospitable to all of his colleagues whenever he brought them home for dinner. And she was always deeply respectful of Masao. Sometimes, when she was feeling particularly bold, she giggled at him, particularly when he insisted on speaking to her in English. He thought it was extremely important that she learn another language, and he spoke to her on many subjects: of the British running Palestine, of Gandhi in India, and even about Mussolini. There were events happening in the world that he thought she should know about, and his insistence on it amused her. He was very good to her in many ways. He was gentle and kind and considerate, and he told her often that he hoped they would have many children. She was deeply embarrassed when he spoke of such things, but when she dared, she whispered to him that she hoped she would bring him many sons, and great honor.
"Daughters are honorable too, Hidemi-san," he said gently, and she looked at him in amazement. She would have been deeply ashamed to give him only daughters. She knew the importance of bearing sons, particularly coming from a farm community like Ayabe.
She was a sweet girl, and in the ensuing months they became good friends, as they learned to love each other. He was gentle and thoughtful with her, and always deeply touched by her myriad delicate gestures. She always had wonderful meals waiting for him, and flowers, perfectly arrangedparticularly in the tokonoma, the alcove where the painted scroll was kept, which was their home's most important and honored decoration.
She learned what he liked, and what he didn't, and was careful to shield him from the most minor annoyance. She was the perfect wife for him, and as the months wore on, he was ever more pleased that he had found her. She was still as shy as she had been at first, but he sensed that she was growing more comfortable with him, and more at ease in his world. She had even learned a handful of phrases in English to please him. He still spoke to her only in English at night when they shared dinner. And he spoke to her often of his cousin Takeo in California. He was happy with his job at the university, and had just married a kibei, a girl who had been born in the States of a Japanese family, but had been sent to Japan to complete her education. Takeo had said in his letters that she was a nurse, her name was Reiko, and her family was from Tokyo. And more than once, Masao had dreamed of taking Hidemi to California to meet them, but for the moment, Masao could only dream of going there. He had his responsibilities at the university, and despite a very respectable career, he had very little money.
Hidemi did not tell her husband when they were expecting their first child, and according to tradition, and the instruction she had had, the moment it began to show, she bound her stomach. And it was early spring before Masao even knew it. He discovered it one day when they were making love, very discreetly as always. Hidemi was still very shy. And as soon as he suspected it, he asked her. She couldn't even bring herself to answer him. She turned her face away in the dark, blushing scarlet, and nodded.
"Yes, little one?...Yes?" He gently moved her chin so that she faced him, and smiled down at her as he held her. "Why didn't you tell me?" But she couldn't answer. She could only look at him, and pray that she wouldn't disgrace herself by giving him a daughter.
"I...I pray every day, Masao-san, that it will be a son," she whispered, touched by his gentleness with her, and his kindness.
"I would be just as happy with a daughter," he said honestly, as he lay beside her, dreaming of their future. He loved the idea of having children, her children especially. She was so beautiful and so sweet, he couldn't imagine anything lovelier than a little girl who looked just like her mother. But Hidemi looked shocked by what he had just told her.
"You must not say that, Masao-san!" She was afraid that even thinking about a girl just now might bring one to them. "You must have a son!" She looked so adamant about it that it amused him. But he was a rare man in Japan, he truly didn't care if they had a son or a daughter. And he thought that the traditional obsession with wanting only sons was extremely foolish. He actually liked the idea of having a daughter whom he could educate with new ideas and new views, unfettered by the weights and chains of ancient traditions. He loved Hidemi's sweet, old-fashioned ways, but he also loved the fact that she seemed amused by his passion for modern ideas and contraptions. It was one of the things that had drawn him to her. She happily tolerated all his newfangled ideas and fascination with modern developments and politics the world over. She wasn't deeply involved in any of it herself, but she always listened with interest to the things he told her. And the idea of bringing those same ideas to a child, and bringing him or her up with them from the first, absolutely enthralled him.
"We will have a thoroughly modern child, Hidemi-san." He smiled as he turned over to look at her, and she looked away from him, blushing in embarrassment. Sometimes when he was too direct with her, it made her feel shy again, butmore than she would ever have been able to tell him with wordsshe loved him deeply. She thought him fascinating and intelligent and sophisticated beyond anything she had ever dreamed. She even liked it when he spoke to her in English, no matter how little of it she understood. She found him completely enchanting. "When will the baby be born?" he asked, realizing that he had no idea. The year was already off to an interesting start, particularly in Europe, where the French army had occupied the Ruhr, in a reprisal for delayed reparations payments owed them by the Germans. But world news seemed far less important now, in relation to the arrival of their first baby.
"In early summer," she answered him softly. "I think, July." It would be exactly a year since they'd been married. And it was a nice time of year to have a baby.
"I want you to have it in the hospital," he said as he glanced over at her, and he instantly saw a stubborn look in her eyes. He knew her well, after only eight months of marriage. Even though his more modern ways seemed to amuse her, on some things she had no intention of moving an inch in honor of more modern inventions. And when it came to family matters, she clung to all the old ways with dogged determination.
"I don't need a hospital. My mother and my sister will come to help me. The baby will be born here. We'll call a priest if we need one."
"You don't need a priest, little one, you need a doctor."
She didn't answer him. She had no desire to be disrespectful, nor to heed him. And when the time came, she cried bitterly as he argued with her fiercely. Her mother and oldest sister arrived in June, as planned, and stayed with them. Masao didn't mind, but he still wanted her to see a doctor and have their baby in the hospital in Kyoto. But it was obvious to him that Hidemi was afraid. She didn't want to go to the hospital, or to see a doctor. Masao tried in vain to reason with her, and to convince her mother that it would be better for her. But Hidemi's mother only smiled and treated him as though he were eccentric. She herself had given birth six times, but only four of her children were living. One had died at birth, and another from diphtheria when still a baby. But she knew about these things, and so did Hidemi's sister. She had two babies of her own, and she had helped many women when their time came.
As the days passed, Masao realized that he wasn't going to convince any of them, and he watched with dismay as Hidemi grew larger and more tired in the heat of the summer. Each day, her mother made her follow the traditions that would make her delivery easier. They went to the shrine, and they prayed. They ate ceremonial foods. And in the afternoons she went on long walks with her sister. And at night when Masao came home, he would find Hidemi waiting for him, with tasty delicacies prepared, always anxious to be with him, and serve his needs, and hear whatever news he told her. But the only news that interested him now was about her. She seemed so tiny, and the baby so large. She was so young and so frail, and he was desperately worried about her.
He had been so anxious to have children with her, but now that the moment had come, he was terrified that a baby might kill her. He spoke to his own mother about it eventually, and she assured him that women were made for such tasks, and that she was sure that Hidemi would be fine, even without the benefit of a modern hospital or a doctor. Most women throughout the world were still having their babies at home, despite Masao's insistence on the advantage of being different.
But he grew more uneasy each day, until finally, late in July, he came home in the afternoon to find the house seemingly deserted. She wasn't waiting for him outside, as usual, nor was she in their room, or at the small brick stove in their kitchen. There was no sound anywhere, and he knocked gently on the room occupied by his mother- and sister-in-law, and there he found them. Hidemi had already been in labor for hours, and she lay there silently, in agony, with a stick between her teeth, writhing in pain as her mother and sister held her. There was steam in the room, and incense, and there was a large bowl of water, and Hidemi's sister was trying to wipe her brow as Masao glanced into the room and then backed away, afraid to enter.
He bowed low, turning away, reluctant to offend any of them, and asked politely how his wife was. He was told that she was doing very well, and his mother-in-law came swiftly to the shoji screen that served as a door, bowed to him, and closed it. There had been not a word or a sound from Hidemi, but from the little he had seen of her, she looked awful. And as he walked away, he was tormented by a thousand terrors. What if she was in too much pain? If she died of it? If the child was too large? If it killed her? Or if she lived, and she never forgave him? Perhaps she would never speak to him again. The very thought of it dismayed him greatly. He was so much in love with her, so desperate to see her sweet, perfectly carved face again, he almost wished he could enter the room where they were and help her. But he knew that all of them would have been hysterical at the mere thought of anything so outrageous. A birth was not a place for a man. Anywhere in the world, a woman in labor was not to be seen by her husband, and surely not in his world.
He walked slowly through their garden, and sat down, waiting for news of her, forgetting completely to eat, or do anything. And it was dark when his sister-in-law came quietly to him, and bowed. She had prepared sashimi and some rice for him, and he was startled when she offered it to him. He couldn't understand how she had left Hidemi to take care of him, and even the thought of eating repulsed him. He bowed to her, and thanked her for her kindness, and then quickly asked about Hidemi.
"She is very well, Masao-san. You will have a handsome son before morning." Morning was still ten hours away, and he couldn't bear the thought of her being in pain that much longer.
"But how is she?" he pressed her.
"Very well. She is full of joy to be giving you the son you desire, Masao-san. This is a joyful time for her." He knew better than that and couldn't bear the pretense of what she was saying. He could imagine Hidemi in unbearable pain, and the thought of it was driving him crazy.
"You'd best go back to her. Please tell her that I am honored by what she is doing." Hidemi's sister only smiled and bowed and then disappeared back to the bedroom, while Masao strolled nervously through the garden, and completely forgot the dinner she had made him. There was no way in the world that he could have eaten. And what he had wanted to say to her, but of course couldn't, was to tell Hidemi that he loved her.
He sat alone in the garden all night, thinking about her, and the year they had shared, how much she meant to him, how gentle and kind she was and how much he loved her. He drank a fair amount of sake that night, and smoked cigarettes, but unlike his peers, he didn't go out with his friends, or go to bed and forget her. Most men would have retired, and been pleased to hear the news in the morning. Instead, he sat there, and paced from time to time, and once he snuck back to the room where she was, and thought he could hear her crying. He couldn't bear the thought of it, and when he glimpsed Hidemi's sister again later on, he asked if he should call a doctor.
"Of course not," she snapped, and then bowed, and disappeared again. She looked distracted and busy.
It was dawn before his mother-in-law came to find him. He had had quite a lot to drink by then, and he was looking slightly disheveled as he smoked a cigarette and watched the sun come up slowly over the horizon. But he was frightened instantly when he saw the look on his mother-in-law's face. There was sorrow there, and disappointment, and he felt his heart stop as he watched her. Suddenly everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. He wanted to ask about his wife, but just seeing the look on his mother-in-law's face, he knew he couldn't. He just waited.
"The news is poor, Masao-san. I am sorry to tell you." He closed his eyes for an instant, bracing himself. Their moment of joy had turned into a nightmare. He had lost them both. He just knew it.
"Hidemi is well." He opened his eyes and stared at her, unable to believe his good fortune, as his throat tightened and his eyes filled with tears that many men would have been ashamed of.
"But the baby?" This time he had to ask her. Hidemi was alive. All was not lost. And how he loved her.
"Is a girl." His mother-in-law lowered her eyes in grief that her daughter had so badly failed him.
"It's a girl?" he asked excitedly. "She's well? She's alive?"
"Of course." Hidemi's mother looked startled by the question. "But I am very sorry...." She began to apologize, and Masao stood up and bowed to her in elated excitement.
"I am not sorry at all. I am very happy. Please tell Hidemi..." he began, and then thought better of it. He hurried across the garden as the sky turned from peach to flame, and the sun exploded into the sky like a bonfire.
"Where are you going, Masao-san? You cannot..." But there was nothing he could not do. It was his home, and his wife, and his baby. He was law here. Although seeing his wife at this point would have been highly improper, Masao had no thought of that at all, as he bounded up the two steps to their second bedroom, and knocked softly on the shoji screens that shielded her from him. Her sister opened them instantly, and Masao smiled at her, as she looked at him with eyes full of questions.
"I'd like to see my wife."
"She cannot...She is...I...Yes, Masao-san," she said, bowing low to him, and stepping aside after only a moment's hesitation. He was certainly unusual, but she knew her place here, and she disappeared, and went to the kitchen for a moment to prepare tea for him, and join her mother.