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A Japanese Marriage in High Life by W. E. Griffis


In describing a Japanese marriage in high life we do not intend to soar too high. It is not for our alien pen to portray the splendors of such a marriage as that of the princess of Satsuma to Iyesada, the thirteenth Shô-gun of the Tokugawa dynasty, when all Yedo was festal and illuminated for a week. Neither shall we describe that of the imperial princess Kazu, the younger sister of the Mikado, who came up from Kioto to wed the young Shô-gun Iyemochi, and thus to unite the sacred blood of twenty-five centuries of imperial succession with that of the Tokugawas, the proud family that ruled Japan, and dictated even to her emperors, for two hundred and fifty years. We leave the description of those royal nuptials to other pens. Ours aspires only to describe a marriage such as has happened in old Yedo for the thousandth time in the samurai class—the gentry of Japan.

Were you with us in Tokio (the new name of the capital of Japan) we should take you, were you inclined to go, to the place where once stood the mansion of Yamashiro Kan, a high retainer of the prince of Echizen, and a lineal descendant of the great Iyeyasu, the founder of the dynasty of the Shô-guns. Were you to seek for Yamashiro's mansion now, you would not find it, but instead several very vulgar evidences of the Western civilization which is now changing the Land of the Gods into a paradise of beef, bread, butter, milk and machinery. We walked past the old mansion-grounds a few days ago, and lo! we saw a milk-shop and dairy, a butcher's stall, a sewing-machine store, a printing-office, a school in which Japanese boys were learning A, B, C's, a photographer's "studio," a barber-shop with an English sign, and a score or more Japanese shops of all kinds. This is of to-day. Five years ago a long wall of diamond-shaped tiles laid in white cement extended round the spacious grounds of the homestead of the Yamashiro family. Inside were fish-ponds, mimic hills, miniature mountain-scenery, dense flower-bushes, dwarfed arboreal wonders, solemn shade trees and a garden laid out according to the very best Japanese style. The fine old yashiki of Yamashiro, with its porter's lodge, stone path, entrance-porch, vestibule and the family homestead, was within. No wonder, then, that the aged man, who firmly believes that Japan is going to the dogs, the devil or the foreigners—he does not know which—shakes his head as he now passes by the milk-and butcher-shops, around which the lazy dogs sleep or wait for bones, and sighs as he remembers the grand old mansion.

About two miles farther north, in the great rus urba of Yedo, was another house of humbler pretensions, and yet one with a gate and garden of dimensions betokening the residence of a man of rank. It was the home of Nakayama, one of the eighty thousand hatamoto (vassals) of the Shô-gun, a studious gentleman whose greatest pride was in his two sons and his only daughter. The former were not only manly and expert in the use of the sword and spear, but had the best education that the classics of Confucius and the Chinese college and literati in Yedo could give them. Next to them in his love was his only daughter Kiku, seventeen years old, and as fair as the fairest of Yedo's many fair daughters. No vain doll was Kiku, but, inheriting her mother's beauty, she added to it the inner grace of a meek and dutiful spirit. Besides being deft at household duties, her memory was well stored with the knowledge of Japanese history and the Chinese classics. She had committed to memory the entire books of the Woman's Great Learning, and had read carefully five other works on etiquette and morals which her father had presented to her on successive birthdays. Kiku was a remarkably well-educated maiden, and would have been a prize for the richest daimio in the empire.

Faithfully following Japanese etiquette, Kiku had been carefully kept from the company of any of the male sex since her eighth year. She never talked with any young man except her brothers. Occasionally at family parties she was addressed by her uncles or cousins. Sometimes, when gentlemen called to see her father, Kiku would bring tea to the guest, and was thus made the subject of compliments; but as to "receiving" male company, she never did it. Kiku never went out unless accompanied by her mother or the maid, who was like her shadow.

The gods of Japan meet together at the great temples in Ise during the eleventh month and tie all the nuptial knots for the following year. Kiku's marriage-knot had been tied by the gods six months before she even suspected the strings had been crossed. How happened it?

In Japan only the people in the lower classes are acquainted with and see each other frequently before marriage. The business of selection, betrothal and marriage is attended to by the parents or friends of the pair, who carry on negotiations by means of a third factor, a middleman or go-between. Children are often betrothed at birth or when on their nurses' backs (there are no cradles in Japan). Of course the natural results, mutual dislike and severance of the engagement at mature age, or love and happy marriage, or marriage, mutual dislike and subsequent divorce, happen, as the case may be. In general, when the parents make the betrothal of grown-up children, it is not probable that the feelings of son or daughter are outraged, or that marriages are forced against the consent of either, though this does sometimes take place. In Asiatic countries, where obedience to parents is the first and last duty, and in which no higher religion than filial obedience exists, the betrothal and marriage of children is not looked upon as anything strange. The prevalence of concubinage as a recognized institution in Japan makes it of no serious importance whether the husband loves his wife or not.

To tell an ordinary Japanese that in America people often marry against their parents' consent is to puzzle him, and make him believe Carlyle's saying about Americans without having heard it. If a man who marries against his parents' wish is not a triple-dyed ingrate, he must be a downright fool. Beyond this idea the normal Japanese cannot go; and you might as well try to make a blind man understand that "celestial rosy red" was "Love's proper hue" as to convince him that a good man ever marries against his parents' wishes. Such ideas and practices are convincing evidences to him of the vast moral inferiority of Western nations when compared with that of the people descended from the gods.

Resuming our narrative, we must mention that Kiku's father had once had an offer from one Matsui, a wealthy retainer of the Wakasa clan, through that young nobleman's middleman or agent, which he refused, to the disgust of both middleman and suitor. The latter had seen Kiku walking with her mother while going to the temple at Shiba, and, being struck with her beauty, inquired who she was. Having come of age and wishing a wife, he had sued for Kiku to her father, who, for reasons of his own, refused the request, on the ground that Kiku was too young, being then but fifteen years old. The truth was, that the Wakasa samurai was a wild young fellow, and bore a reputation for riotous living that did not promise to make him a proper life-companion for Nakayama's refined and cultured daughter. Between Nakayama, Kiku's father, and Yamashiro, the retainer of the Echizen clan, whose home we spoke of in the opening of our sketch, had long existed a warm friendship and a mutual high regard. Yamashiro, though more fond of society and good living than Nakayama, was nevertheless, like him, a high-spirited and well-read man. He had four children, two sons and two daughters. The oldest son, named Taro, was now twenty years old, of manly figure, diligent in study, and had lately acted as a high page, attending daily upon the person of Hitotsu-bashi, the then reigning Shô-gun, and the last of his line that held or will hold regal power in Japan. Taro, being the oldest son of his father, was the heir to his house, office, rank and revenue. Taro wanted a wife. He wished to taste the sweets of love and wedded joy. He had long thought of Kiku. Of course he asked his father, and his father "was willing." He told Taro to go to Nakayama's house. Taro went. He talked to Nakayama, and hinted faint compliments of his daughter. It was enough. Nakayama was keen of scent, and he also "was willing." Clapping his hands, the maid-servant appeared and falling down and bowing her head to the floor, listened: "Make some tea, and tell Miss Kiku to serve it."

Had you been in the back rooms of that house, you would have seen Kiku blush as the maid told her who was in the front room and what her father had said. Her heart beat furiously, and the carnation of health upon her cheeks was lost in the hot blushes that mantled her face and beautiful neck when her mother, reproving her, said, "Why, dear child, don't be excited: perhaps he has come only on some every-day business, after all. Be composed, and get ready to take in the tea."

Nevertheless, Kiku took out her metal mirror while the maid made the tea, smoothed a pretended stray hair, powdered her neck slightly, drew her robe more tightly around her waist, adjusted her girdle, which did not need any adjusting, and then, taking up the tray, containing a tiny tea-pot, a half dozen upturned cups, and as many brass sockets for them, hastened into the front room, bowed with her face on her hands to the floor, and then handed cups of tea to her parent and his guest. This done, she returned to her mother. Whether Taro looked at Kiku's cheeks or into her glittering black eyes we leave even a foreign reader to judge.

Let it not be thought, however, that a single word relating to marriage in the concrete passed between the two men: no such breach of etiquette was committed. The visit over, the two friends parted as friends, and nothing more, either in fact or in visible prospect.

But, to be brief, not long afterward, Taro, having selected a trusty friend, sent him as a go-between to ask of Nakayama the hand of his daughter in marriage. The proposal was accepted, and when the go-between came the second time to Kiku's home it was in company with two servants bearing bundles. These, being opened, were found to contain a splendidly embroidered girdle, such as Japanese ladies wear, about twelve feet long and a foot wide when doubled; a robe of the finest white silk from the famous looms of Kanazawa; five or six pieces of silk not made up; several kegs of saké or rice-beer; dried fish, soy, etc. These were for the bride-elect. For her father was a sword with a richly mounted hilt and lacquered scabbard, hung with silken cords. The blade alone of the sword was worth (it isn't polite to speak of the cost of presents, but we will let you into the secret, good reader) one hundred dollars, and had been made in Sagami from the finest native steel. Kiku's mother was presented with a rich robe, which she recognized at once as being woven of the famous Derva silk. The ceremonious reception of these presents by the parents signified that the betrothal was solemnly ratified, and that the engagement could not be broken. Nakayama, the intended father-in-law, afterward sent to Taro a present of a jar of the finest tea from his own plantation in Shimosa, a pair of swords, and a piece of satin, such as that of which the hakama or trousers which indicate the rank of the samurai are made.

The betrothal was now published in both families, and in both houses there were festivities, rejoicing and congratulation. The marriage-day, a fortunate or good-omened one, was fixed upon as the twenty-seventh from the day of betrothal.

Was Kiku happy? Nay, you should ask, Can that word express her feelings? She had obeyed her parents: she could do nothing higher or more fraught with happiness. She was to be a wife—woman's highest honor and a Japanese woman's only aim. She was to marry a noble by name, nature and achievement, with health, family, wealth and honor. Kiku lived in a new world of anticipation and of vision, the gate of which the Japanese call iro, and we love. At times, as she tried on for the twentieth time her white silk robe and costly girdle, she fell into a reverie, half sad and half joyful. She thought of leaving her mother alone with no daughter, and then Kiku's bright eyes dimmed and her bosom heaved. Then she thought of living in a new home, in a new house, with new faces. What if her mother-in-law should be severe or jealous? Kiku's cheek paled. What if Taro should achieve some great exploit, and she share his joy as did the honorable women of old? What if his former position of beloved page to the Shô-gun should give her occasional access to the highest ladies in the land, the female courtiers of the castle? Her eyes flashed.

The wedding-night came, seeming to descend out of the starry heavens from the gods. Marriages rarely take place in the daytime in Japan. The solemn and joyful hour of evening, usually about nine o'clock, is the time for marriage—as it often is for burial—in Japan. In the starlight of a June evening the bride set forth on her journey to her intended husband's home, as is the invariable custom. Her toilet finished, she stepped out of her childhood's home to take her place in the norimono or palanquin which, borne on the shoulders of four men, was to convey her to her future home.

Just as Kiku stands in the vestibule of her father's house let us photograph her for you. A slender maiden of seventeen, with cheeks of carnation; eyes that shine under lids not so broadly open as the Caucasian maiden's, but black and sparkling; very small hands with tapering fingers, and very small feet encased in white mitten-socks; her black hair glossy as polished jet, dressed in the style betokening virginity, and decked with a garland of blossoms. Her robe of pure white silk folds over her bosom from right to left, and is bound at the waist by the gold-embroidered girdle, which is supported by a lesser band of scarlet silken crape, and is tied into huge loops behind. The skirt of the dress sweeps in a trail. Her under-dress is of the finest and softest white silk. In her hands she carries a half-moon-shaped cap or veil of floss silk. Its use we shall see hereafter. She salutes her cousin, who, clad in ceremonial dress with his ever-present two swords, is waiting to accompany her in addition to her family servants and bearers, and steps into the norimono.

The four bearers, the servants and the samurai pass down along the beautiful Kanda River, whose waters mirror the stars, and whose depths of shade re-echo to the gurgling of sculls, the rolling of ripples and the songs of revelers. The cortége enters one of the gate-towers of the old city-walls, passes beneath the shade of its ponderous copper-clad portals, and soon arrives at the main entrance of the Yamashiro yashiki. Here they find the street in front and the stone walk covered with matting, and a friend of Taro's, in full dress, waiting to receive the cortége. Of course the gazers of the neighborhood are waiting respectfully in crowds to catch a glimpse of the coming bride.

The go-between and a few friends of the bridegroom come out to receive the bride and deliver her to her own servant and two of her own young maiden friends, who had gone before to the Yamashiro mansion. The room in which the families of the bride and groom and their immediate friends are waiting, though guiltless of "furniture," as all Japanese rooms are, is yet resplendent with gilt-paper screens, bronzes, tiny lacquered tables and the Japanese nuptial emblems. On the wall hang three pictured scrolls of the gods of Long Life, of Wealth and of Happiness. On a little low table stands a dwarf pine tree, bifurcated, and beneath it are an old man and an old woman. Long life, a green old age, changeless constancy of love and the union of two hearts are symbolized by this evergreen. In the tokonoma (or large raised recess) of the room are the preparations for the feast, the wine-service consisting of kettles, decanters and cups. On two other tables are a pair of white storks and a fringed tortoise. All through the rooms gorgeously painted wax candles burn. The air of the apartment is heavy with perfume from the censer, a representation in bronze of an ancient hero riding upon a bullock. All the guests are seated à la Japonaise—upon the floor. Two or three young ladies, the bridesmaids, go out to meet the bride and lead her to her dressing-room. Here she finds her own property, which has been brought to her future home during the day. Toilet-stands and cabinets and the ceremonial towel-rack are prominently displayed. On a tall clothes-horse of gilt lacquer are hung her silk robes and the other articles of her wardrobe, which are bridal gifts. Over the doorway, in a gilt rack, glitters the long spear or halberd to the dexterous use of which all Japanese ladies of good family are trained. In a box of finest wood, shining with lacquer and adorned with her family crest, are the silk sleeping-dresses and coverlets, which are to be spread, as all Japanese beds are, on the floor. The articles above mentioned constitute the trousseau of a Japanese bride.

Here Kiku rearranges her dress, retouches her lower lip with golden paint and puts on her hood of floss silk. This is of a half-moon shape, completely covering her face. She does not lift it until she has drunk the sacramental marriage-cup. Many a Japanese maiden has seen her lord for the first time as she lifted her silken hood. Kiku is all ready, and she and the groom are led into the room where the ceremony is to be performed, and assigned their positions.

With a Japanese marriage neither religion nor the Church has anything to do. At the wedding no robed priest appears officially among the guests. The marriage is simply a civil and social contract. In place of our bans is the acceptance of the suitor's presents by the family of the sought, the announced betrothal and intimation of the marriage to the police of the ward. In place of our answer, "Yes," is the sacramental drinking of wine. We may say "wine," because we are talking of high life, and must use high words. Saké, the universal spirituous beverage of Japan, is made from fermented rice, and hence is properly rice-beer. It looks like pale sherry, and has a taste which is peculiarly its own. Sweet saké is very delicious, and it may be bought in all the degrees of strength and of all flavors and prices. As the Japanese always drink their wine hot, a copper kettle for heating saké is a necessity in every household. On ceremonial occasions, such as marriages, the saké-kettles are of the costliest and handsomest kind, being beautifully lacquered. Bride and groom being ready, the wine-kettles, cups and two bottles are handed down. Two pretty servant-maids now bring in a hot kettle of wine and fill the bottles. To one bottle is fastened by a silken cord a male butterfly, and to the other a female. The two girls also are called "male" and "female" butterflies. The girl having the female butterfly pours out some saké in the kettle, into which the girl with the male butterfly also pours the contents of her bottle, so that the wine from both bottles thus flows together. Then the saké is poured again into another gilt-and-lacquered bottle of different shape.

Now the real ceremony begins. On a little stand three cups, each slightly concave and having an under-rest or foot about half an inch high, are set one upon another, like a pagoda. The stand with this three-storied arrangement is handed to the bride. Holding it in both hands while the saké is poured into it by the male butterfly, the bride lifts the cup, sips from it three times, and the tower of cups is then passed to the bridegroom and refilled. He likewise drinks three times, and puts the empty cup under the third. The bride again sips thrice from the upper cup. The groom does the same, and places the empty cup beneath the second. Again the bride sips three times, and the bridegroom does the same, and they are man and wife: they are married. This ceremony is called san-san-ku-do, or "three times three are nine."

Like a wedding at once auspicious and distingué, the nuptials of Kiku and Taro passed off without one misstep or incident of ill omen. In the dressing-room and in the hall of ceremony Kiku's self-possessed demeanor was admired by all. After drinking the sacramental wine she lifted her silken hood, not too swiftly or nervously, and smiled blushingly on her lord. The marriage ceremony over, both bride and groom retired to their respective dressing-rooms. Kiku exchanged her white dress for one of more elaborate design and of a lavender color. The groom, removing his stiffly-starched ceremonial robes, appeared in ordinary dress. Meanwhile refreshments had been served to all the bridesmaids and, maid-servants. Husband and wife now took their seats again, and the whole company joined in the supper, during which apparently innumerable courses were served. Neither ices, oranges nor black-cake appeared on the table at Kiku's wedding. The bill of fare contained many decidedly recherché items which it requires a Japanese palate thoroughly to appreciate. Let us enumerate a few. There were salmon from Hakodate, tea from Uji, young rice from Higo, pheasants' eggs, fried cuttle-fish, tai, koi, maguro and many another sort of toothsome fish from the market at Nihon Bashi. There were sea-weed of various sorts and from many coasts, bean-curd, many kinds of fish-soups, condiments of various flavors, eggs in every style and shellfish of every shape. A huge maguro-fish, thinly sliced, but perfectly raw, was the pièce de résistance of the feast. Sweetmeats, candies of the sort known to the Japanese confectioners and castera (sponge-cake) crowned the courses.

Now, having briefly described Kiku's wedding, perhaps we should stop here. Although fairly married, however, Kiku was not through the ceremonies of the night. Before her own parents left the house she was taken by the attendant ladies before her parents-in-law, and with them drank cups of wine and exchanged gifts. All the bridal presents were displayed during the evening in her dressing-room, and the whole of her trousseau was open to the inspection of all the ladies present. Feasting and dancing were the order of the hours until midnight, and then Kiku's parents bade her farewell, and she was left a bride in a new home.

"Where did the young couple go?" "What was the route of their bridal-tour?" "Perhaps they made a late wedding-journey?" "Of course Japan has many fine watering-places to which married couples resort?" These are American questions. The fashion of making bridal-tours is not Japanese. Many a lovely spot might serve for such a purpose in everywhere beautiful Japan. The lake and mountains of Hakone; the peerless scenery, trees, waterfalls and tombs of Nikko, where sleeps the mighty Iyeyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa line; the spas of Atami,—all these are spots which if in America would be thronged with bridal-parties. Caucasians in Japan even make Fusiyama's summit the goal of their wedded steps, but our Kiku and Taro went nowhere.

"At home" for three days is the general rule in Japan. All their friends came to see them, and presents were showered on the happy pair. The great Shô-gun, remembering his former page, sent Taro a present of a flawless ball of pure rock-crystal five inches in diameter. Prince Echizen, his feudal lord, presented him with a splendid saddle with gilt flaps and a pair of steel stirrups inlaid with gold and silver and bronze, with the crest of the Echizen clan glittering in silver upon it. From his own father he received a jet-black horse brought from the province of Nambu, and an equine descendant of the Arab sire presented by the viceroy of India to the Japanese embassy to the pope in 1589. On the delightful wonders of the gifts to Kiku our masculine pen shrinks from expatiating. On the third day after her marriage Kiku visited her parents, and after that spent many days in returning the visits of all who had called on her.

Now, like the "goosie gander" of nursery memory, we must wander again into the lady's chamber. Were you to wander to such a place after a Japanese maiden became a wife, you would see, as we have often seen, how the outward form of a Japanese maiden assumes that of a Japanese matron. First, then, the maiden wears a high coiffure that always serves as a sacred symbol of her virginity. It is not easy to describe its form, but even foreigners think it very beautiful, and will regret the day when the Japanese musume wears her hair like her sisters across the ocean. Indeed, it would be no strange thing were Queen Fashion to ordain that American maidens should adopt the style of dressing the hair now in universal vogue in Japan. The shimada or virginal coiffure, however, is changed after marriage, and Kiku, like the rest of her wedded friends, now wore the maru-mage, or half-moon-shaped chignon, which is wound round an ivory, tortoise-shell or coral-tipped bar, and is the distinguishing mark of a Japanese wife. So far, however, the transition from loveliness to ugliness has not been very startling: Kiku still looked pretty. The second process, however, robbed her of her eyebrows, and left her without those dark arches that had helped to make the radiant sun of her once maidenly beauty. With tweezers and razor the fell work, after many a wince, was done. With denuded brows and changed coiffure surely the Japanese Hymen demands no more sacrifices at his shrine? Surely Kiku can still keep the treasures of a set of teeth that seem like a casket of pearls with borders of coral? Not so. The fashion of all good society from remotest antiquity demands that the teeth of a wife must be dyed black. Kiku joyfully applied the galls and iron, and by patience and dint of polishing soon had a set of teeth as black as jet and as polished as the best Whitby. Not strange to tell to a Japanese, either, the smile of her husband Taro was a rich reward for her trouble and the surrender of her maiden charms. Japanese husbands never kiss their wives: kissing is an art unknown in Japan. It is even doubtful whether the language has a word signifying a kiss. No wonder Young Japan wishes to change his language for the English! Henceforth in public or private, alone or in company, Kiku's personal and social safety was as secure as if clothed in armor of proof and attended by an army. The black teeth, maru-mage and shaven eyebrows constitute a talisman of safety in a land which foreigners so like to believe licentious and corrupt beyond the bounds of conception.

Now that we have Kiku married, we must leave her to glide into the cool, sequestered paths of a Japanese married lady's life. Only one thing we regret, and that is that her marriage could not have happened in the year of our Lord 1874 and of "Enlightened Peace the seventh, and of the era of Jimmu, the first Mikado, the two thousand five hundred and thirty-fourth." Had she been married during the present year, her coiffure would need no alteration, her eyebrows would still knit with care or arch with mirth, and her teeth would still keep their virgin whiteness, unsoiled by astringent galls or abhorred vitriol.

The leader of feminine fashion in Japan, the young empress Haruko, has set her subjects the example by for ever banishing the galls and iron, appearing even in public with her teeth as Nature made them. Kiku and Taro, though once proud to own allegiance to the Shô-gun, are now among the staunch supporters of the lord of the Shô-gun, the Mikado, the only true sovereign of the Sunrise Kingdom.