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Story from Japan: The Business at Hand

A young Japanese woman's fictional--and rather outrageous--correspondence with a visiting American.

Editor's Note: This charming story is taken from an anthology, The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan, published by Stone Bridge Press, and used, gratefully, with permission of the publisher.

June 20
Dear Sir:

The gloomy rains continue, and things feel damp and clammy to the touch. I trust that your efforts to keep your spirits from flagging have met with success.

As to the business at hand:

You must forgive me, a stranger, for writing to you without proper introduction. I am a third-year student in the Liberty Hill Girlsı Higher Seminary. I am nineteen years old, twenty-one years old by Japanese count. My hobbies are literature, philosophy, and television. I am 5.1 feet tall. I enclose a snapshot, taken last spring at the athletic meet, when I had fluctuations and was not feeling well. I think I would like to exchange ideas with a foreign gentleman, and when I went to the American Cultural Center and said I thought I would like to they were kind enough to give me your address. You must forgive me for writing to you without introduction.

I think I would like to exchange ideas on literature, philosophy, society, and television. Please let me know when I can see you. I shall take but a few minutes, provided I am feeling well.

Take good care of yourself in this damp weather.

Hideko ONO (age nineteen)

- - - - -

July 11

At last there are breaks in the clouds, and the early summer sun beats down. I urge you not to let the weather debilitate you.

As to the business at hand:

I think I need have no doubt that you feel keenly your duties to scholarship, and that you maintain a tight and learned schedule. It was therefore very good of you to agree to see me, if only for a few hours. The afternoon and evening were among the memorable ones of my life. Indeed had you not reminded me I would probably have missed the last train. Oh, scatterbrained me!

I am now firmly resolved to acquit myself of my duties to scholarship. I was particularly impressed with your views on education reform, and on Japanese plumbing. I said to myself: ³There is a person who knows more about our culture than we know ourselves.²

By the way, I checked with my mother about the recipe just to make very sure that I had it right, and she pointed out one rather important point which I (scatterbrained I) had overlooked. You must use white vinegar, not yellow vinegar. If you use yellow vinegar, the taste will be the same, but the color may call up unpleasant associations.

Uncollected as always, I forgot to ask how you feel about womenıs rights in Japan. How do you feel? You must forgive me for putting the question so bluntly, but, alas, I have rather strong feelings myself. You must have lulled yourself into thinking that women have equal rights in Japan. Have you? No, they have not. Japan is still very feudal. My own father is excessively feudal. He has a number of children I have never been introduced to. My oldest brother (I assume he is my oldest brother) is also very feudal. He locks his desk. This is evidence, do you not think, of morbid, feudal suspicions, and the nature of the family system.

Perhaps when we next meet for a few minutes we can exchange ideas on womenıs rights. Do you not think that we must work together to destroy the family system? I do. Perhaps when next we meet I can tell you of the part I mean to play. It will be a poor part, but, well, Japan is a poor country.

Now that we have become friends I think I must tell you why I am nineteen years old and only a third-year student in the Liberty Hill Girlsı Higher Seminary. I believe that there should be no secrets between friends. Is that not the essence of anti-feudalism? The truth is that I was suspended for a year, because of what I can only describe as a measure of public-mindedness. I knew what the physical education instructor was doing, and I said so, in an open letter which I posted on all the bulletin boards. But it is too disgusting. I start having fluctuations at the thought of it.

Take care of yourself in this warm weather.

Hideko

- - - - -

August 12

The days grow warmer and warmer, and my limbs grow heavier and heavier. I hope you manage to keep yourself at your valuable work.

As to the business at hand:

I continue to meditate upon the profundity of your remarks at our meeting. You have a great deal to say not to me but to the whole Japanese nation, and I hope your natural reticence will not keep you from speaking out. Please feel free to say nasty things about us, and especially about feudal remnants we have not yet succeeded in uprooting.

By the way, white vinegar is sometimes a little hard to come by (Japan is a poor country), and I hope that want of it has not caused you loss of sleep and weight. I think I should like to present you with a small bottle, which my mother ordered from Kobe. My mother sends regards, although you must forgive her for doing so without introduction.

Would you like to meet my sister? She is two years older than I and rather old-fashioned, indeed much too Japanese. Something must be done for her. When I told her about the physical education instructor, she said she had no idea what I was talking about. Can you imagine it? And she already nineteen years old at the time, and, in many ways which it would be tasteful not to discuss, less subject to fluctuations than I am even now, and certainly less than I was last spring. Will you help me with my plans?

I enclose my sisterıs snapshot. If you look on the back, you will find all the necessary information about her. I forgot to mention, however, that her hobbies are music and rock-climbing. She plays the trumpet. The neighbors say she is very good, and, not qualified to pass judgment myself, I can but accept the statement.

Take care of yourself in this increasingly warm weather.

Hideko

- - - - -

August 21

The great heat has come, the city sizzles. I pray that you are keeping yourself on guard against the assaults of the summer.

As to the business at hand:

As always, I think I found it far more worthwhile talking to you than spending my time in silliness. I come away from a talk with you bearing such a rich harvest. How different from my father, who, when we see him at all, only growls feudally. I feel more confirmed than ever in my mission, and again I urge you not to be parsimonious with your wisdom. Bestow it liberally, you have so much to give.

As the hours passed and the time for the last train came (I did not forget this time, but thank you for reminding me anyway), and the moments of silent meditation became more frequent, I saw with an intuitive insight that you could be counted on. We Japanese are an intuitive people, and it does not take much of a hint to make us see the truth. What was that pungent Americanism with which you characterized your relatives? Anyway, I saw with an insight, as we looked meditatively at our fingernails, that you agreed with me about the feudal family system. ³Ah, ah!² I said to myself. ³Ah!² Now everything will be all right, for you are at my side. My sister is not the cruelest victim of this system, perhaps, but it has not allowed her ideal fulfillment, and we must begin where we can. Japan is a poor country.

From your remarks about the Tokyo subway‹why, why can I not remember those biting Americanisms? I must buy a tape recorder. Anyway, from your remarks on the Tokyo subway, I gather that you do not object to surface transportation. I know, moreover, that my sisterıs pulse rises‹no, I cannot in any honesty pretend to know anything of the sort. I have never taken her pulse. All I can say is that she squeals with delight when she sees a cliff and starts wriggling into her climbing pantaloons. Oh, oh! Oh! I have just used an Americanism. I found it on page 2260 of Kenkyushaıs New Japanese-English Dictionary, 1931 edition. I am ashamed of not having the 1954 edition, but on these barren islands of ours we must learn to do with little. Anyway, I enclose two second-class tickets to Matsumoto, together with a schedule which I trust covers most eventualities. There have been a number of landslides lately, but I think you will be spared. The opportunity to have her exchange anti-feudal ideas with you is so golden that we must take the risk, be it great or small. Do not let the roar of the train in the tunnels interrupt your discourse, or if it must, try to have the tunnels coincide with moments of silent meditation.

By the way, I noticed that your peony looked rather dejected in the afternoon sunlight. Peonies, as you know, require rich soil, and, since you are sensible enough (I remember that earthy Americanism) to have no truck with Japanese flush toilets, the remedy is simple. All you need is a dipper with a long handle. Perhaps I can help you until you get the swing of it. Against the distant possibility that you do not have a dipper with a long handle, I shall try to remember to bring some chicken manure when next I come. My youngest (I assume) sister keeps chickens, and it will be no trouble at all. I shall wrap it up in a crepe kerchief.

Did you find the white vinegar helpful? My mother sends her regards.

Take care of yourself in this hot weather.

Hideko

- - - - -

August 26

The days grow shorter, and the morning and evening breezes begin to bring a touch of coolness. I feel secure in the knowledge that you have found new vigor.

As to the business at hand:

I think you were as disappointed as I was. I hope that you did not wait too long at the station, and I hope too that you had the sagacity to choose the air-conditioned waiting room. Or did you perhaps make the trip by yourself? My own disappointment, I fear, was more than disappointment. It approached disillusionment, the end of belief. I had thought that only men were feudal, but my sister refused to listen to my most closely reasoned arguments, with an obstinacy that must be labeled feudal. I can see now that the roots of the problem lie deeper than I had thought.

I had hoped to come inquiring after your peony before this, but to have oneıs plans go astray is cause for retreat and sincere self-reflection. By the way, if you have run out of chicken manure and still do not have a long-handled dipper, a little linseed cake laid not too close to the stem will fill the gap, though not, alas, with the vigor of animal substances. My mother sends regards. Do you like daffodils? I have dug all ours up, and my mother insists that I find new homes for them. I cannot understand her‹she will not learn. We went through exactly the same thing last year when we had kittens, and of course we ended up by throwing them away.

Well, as I have said, this is a time for sincere self-reflection, by me and by all of us. Are we to cut away the infected part or are we not? Are we? Are we not? It gives me strength to have you at my side.

Take care of yourself in this time of shifting temperatures.

Hideko

- - - - -

September 12

The fields yellow, and the noonday sun is weaker. Since the autumn effluvia frequently bring disorders to the body, I urge you to treat yours with consideration.

As to the business at hand:

We are having a pleasantly noisy time. My youngest (I think) sister is having hysterics, I suppose you would call them. And for very little reason that I can see. She has locked herself in the closet, silly thing, and she bangs and bangs, and screams and screams. My oldest (I am fairly sure) sister, who is very methodical, is having her hour on the trumpet. My brothers are out streetwalking, and my mother is asleep, and my father too. I suppose he is snoring, though I cannot hear him. I sit here watching him breathe, and it is the oddest thing. I have great trouble writing. Have you ever tried humming a waltz while you are playing a march? That is exactly how it feels. His lip flutters every time he breathes out. I am sure he is snoring. I fear that you will find my writing transparent and vulgar. It is inelegantly legible at best, try though I may to improve it. While my youngest sister has not been too successful at describing the reasons for her hysterics, and while her performance is a trifle exaggerated, I must say that I too was shocked at one point. ³The trouble with you is that you just donıt want to grow up,² my father said to her. Think of it! The indelicacy of touching on a subject so intimately personal! I almost wanted to vomit.

By the way, I am bringing the daffodils, because my mother keeps after me. We vibrate so in harmony, you and I, that I think you dislike the watery yellow things too. Still I must plant them, for I cannot lie to my mother; but they will not bloom, you know, if they are buried too deep or if the soil is too rich. I pride myself on being the least demanding of persons, but I really must ask you to buy a long-handled dipper.

How refreshing it was to read Mrs. MacArthurıs remarks in the newspaper this morning. Do you realize your good fortune in belonging to a nation of dedicated, forward-looking women? But I do not despair. With your help, we too are moving forward.

Take care of yourself in this frequently malevolent weather.

Hideko

- - - - -

September 19

On the hills the plumes of autumn grass rustle in the wind. Autumn scenes fill me with thoughts of things, and no doubt have the same effect upon you.

As to the business at hand:

My plans received a setback, you will remember, but I have at length recovered my determination. I am bringing my sister to see you. Last night she talked in her sleep. I shall not tell you what she said, it was too awful; but it was clear proof that the feudal family system does not answer to a womanıs needs. To my suspicion that she is too feudal, I must now add a suspicion that she was not being entirely honest when she said that she did not know what I was talking about when I said that I knew what the physical education instructor was doing.

I am not one to spare myself when it comes to sincere self-reflection. Here in this small breast of mine I have found traces of feudalism! I have interposed complications. I am oversupplied with reticence and delicacy, which are attributes of little use in the fight that lies ahead.

And now that I have seen that fault and overcome it, I shall venture to tell you something. I have in the past found you wanting in delicacy. Think of your habit of calling my attention to the striking of the clock, just when we Japanese would be silent, savoring the dying echo. I think that, in the course of our intimacy, I have not once been allowed to enjoy it. ³There is the difference between the rational Occident and the intuitive, artistic Orient,² I have said to myself each time.

But now I see. Your want of delicacy is in fact a virtue. You have no Japanese reticence. You can be counted on to plunge in. So I shall bring my sister to see you. I should have done so earlier. And when I have seen her to your shady study, I shall quietly withdraw, slip into my shoes again (I must remember to wear loafers), and, after planting the hydrangeas I mean to bring with me, perhaps go streetwalking for a time. Will an hour be enough? I think you will find her in most respects satisfactory. There are those toothmarks, of course, but you will see upon close inspection that they are the marks of a dogıs teeth. I shall not go into the details, save to tell you that, practicing the trumpet on warm nights, she sometimes removes encumbrances to breathing, and that our dog (of an Occidental breed) is very unmusical. And do remember one thing: screaming runs in our family. There is no need whatsoever to be alarmed.

I shall be waiting for a full report. If there is any one thing that the anti-feudal movement has demonstrated, it is that progress must be documented. I know I can count on you for a (let me emphasize it) full report.

I hope the daffodils are as I left them. For the time being, I think we need do nothing more about them, though you might let me know if they begin to break through. I think you like hydrangeas.

Take care of yourself in this brisk weather.

Hideko

- - - - -

September 26

Clear autumn days follow one another, and yet showers come up from nowhere. Be not deceived, I beseech you, by the fickle autumn skies.

As to the business at hand:

I find it hard to know at precisely what point along the way forward we have arrived. You must admit that you have been slow with your reporting. My sister, for her part, has shown a tendency not to speak to me. That we move forward is unmistakable, however. Evening before last (I saw it all) my father glanced at her and then looked at her, and said he must think of finding her a husband one of these days, and she looked straight back at him and said she was not going to give up rock climbing for any pair of pants he was likely to bring home. Was that not splendid? And all, I think, because of you. Thank you, thank you. By the way, did you notice anything wrong with her? My father did look at her in the strangest‹but how I babble on. You must forgive me if I have said anything inappropriate. I make it a practice not to talk about my family.

My family and your family. My line and your line, separated for so many ages that I think your hair has become red and mine black. Then together again. Ah, ah! Ah! There is something about the idea. I tremble before it. Red hair mingled with black, like a fire in the night. How I think I wish you could have been with me, those spring nights when Tokyo burned. I watched it from the mountains, red and black halfway up into Scorpio. But it will burn again some day, and we can watch it together. I must see you. Ah! Your red hair glows before me like centuries of loneliness.

I hope the hydrangeas are taking root. They thrive on exactly the soil that is poison for daffodils. They will bloom and bloom, sending out blue veins that remind me of‹I hardly know what. Would you like to learn flower arranging? My mother is very good at it. She can even arrange zinnias. She always sends me into the garden with shears, and waits in the tea room until I have finished. My sister once said she knew exactly how I felt, she felt the same way about rocks. Well, I am babbling on. Do keep your hydrangeas well fertilized, even if the smell is a bit trying. How foolish I felt on the train with that long-handled dipper! I wonder what would have happened if I had surrendered to my impulse to‹no, I shall not tell you of it.

Take care of yourself in this unpredictable weather.

Hideko

- - - - -

October 10

In the hills the leaves are turning. The days grow shorter and shorter, and soon we will hear the call of the quail and the wild goose. Do not allow yourself to be plunged into melancholy, I pray you, by the cold, white autumn moon.

As to the business at hand:

I called several times only to find you away from home. What a pity. Yesterday I knocked and knocked, and when there was no answer I took the liberty of going in through the garden gate to see your hydrangeas. Well! I must say I was surprised. I sniffed and sniffed, and could detect no evidence that they had received any care other than that which I myself gave them some three weeks ago. I said to myself: ³Now there is the difference between the Occident and the Orient!² I thought it necessary to put more dirt on the daffodils. Not being able to find your dipper, I had no other recourse. The mound over the daffodils may at first distract you (did you notice when we planted them what an odd configuration they made?), but you will get used to it, and, as I have said, I had no other recourse. I took the dirt from under the foundations, where it will not be noticed.

I had the strangest feeling that someone was watching me from your study. Did you notice anything missing when you came home?

I would have brought more chicken manure but for the fact that my youngest sister is no longer keeping chickens. Had I told you? My father used to eat the eggs raw, especially when he came home late at night, and to remark that he wasnıt the man he used to be. My oldest sister killed all the chickens and will not allow an egg in the house. I think she is quite right.

Here it is the full moon again. How things have changed this last month! When the moon was last full, we seemed to be marching ahead, with your encouragement and Mrs. MacArthurıs. My mother was to be next‹a most difficult problem, to be sure, but I was really so very hopeful. And now, will you imagine what has happened? My father arranged for my sister to meet a man with an eye to reviewing him as a possible suitor. We all went along, of course. I think the man seemed to have very progressive, anti-feudal ideas, but he had an unfortunate way of touching the tips of his fingers to his lips, and giggling. My sister, I swear it, looked at him only once during the evening. And will you imagine what has happened? She has agreed to marry him! Yes!

How am I to explain it? Have you kept something from me? Have you deceived me? I would be quick to forgive most injuries, but not this, no, not this.

Well, one thing is clear. I am doing no good along the periphery. I must strike at the heart of the matter, the source of the trouble.

It is very quiet. The moon is shining on the late chrysanthemums, and the crickets are chirping. Usually at this time of night my sister would be at her trumpet, but she is getting her ropes ready for one last go at the rocks before the snow comes. My father, who got home early this morning, has fallen asleep over his newspaper. I wonder why he isnıt snoring? Maybe he never snores, and it has until now not been quiet enough for me to know. And yet his lip trembles every time he breathes out.

Take care of yourself in the growing autumn cold.

Hideko

- - - - -

The autumn winds come down upon us, bringing dust from the hills. Do not breathe too freely of it, I advise you most urgently.

As to the business at hand:

We have been terribly busy. Not of course that there is much for me to do. I help my sister make tea for the priests, and that is about the sum of it. Oh, well. I have done enough already. Do you think they will be sufficiently grateful when they find out?

I should so like to be at the crematory. I cannot put down the feeling that I have allowed myself to be maneuvered into an unfavorable position. I cannot help feeling that I may be left behind to keep the tea boiling. Oh, well. I think there will be other opportunities.

Do you remember your profound remark, when we first met, about education reform? ³You canıt make an omelette without breaking eggs,² you said. I have thought about it so often. Indeed I have thought so often these past few days about you, and your red hair. I must see you. I will see you.

I think that by this time your daffodils will need additional cover and (you are so lazy) food, essential to their deflowering.

Take care of yourself in this time of chill and darkness.

Hideko

[1961] Edward Seidensticker is one of the finest translators of Japanese literature. His other works include Very Few People Come This Way: Lyrical Episodes from the Year of the Rabbit, Low City High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake, This Country, Japan, and Genji days, a diary he kept while at work on his translation of The Tale of the Genji.


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