A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Japanese." by Mrs. Romyn Hitchcock [aka Mrs. Emma Louise Bingham Hitchcock]
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 556-561.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 556] 



Japan is a glorious land of balmy air and luxuriant bloom. Though its skies are less famed than those of Italy, though its volcanic peaks, beautiful terraced hillsides and cultivated valleys are less known to the tourist, they are as bright and beautiful as those of any land. There is a restful charm about life in Japan which one can not explain and yet can not long resist.

Sailing from Kobé or Hiogo upon our return voyage, after a two years' residence in Japan, was like leaving a well-loved house. With a sad heart I looked back as the great steamer carried us from familiar scenes and friends. The mountains behind the town soon faded away in the distance, and as darkness closed around us we passed through the narrow strait which leads to the famous Inland Sea.

The Empire of Japan embraces four large islands and a great number of smaller ones, extending over nearly twenty-seven degrees of latitude, and more than thirty-three and one-half degrees of longitude. The form of the land is said to resemble that of a silkworm with its head raised, the irregular island called Yesso forming the head.

It might be well to give a moment to the formation and existence of this remarkable chain of islands. We will not refer to the geologist, who would theorize about corrugations of the earth's crust, earthquakes, volcanoes and the like, but we will take the prettier mythological account which the Japanese themselves give. They tell us there were two Creator gods, Izanagi and his wife Izanami. These stood upon a floating heavenly bridge and thrust a jeweled spear into the waste of waters beneath. On withdrawing it the drops of brine piled up and formed one of the islands of Japan. Upon this the gods descended. They then gave birth to the other islands, and afterward to various deities who were necessary to govern the country. Finally the goddess Amaterasu was born. She is the sun, and every morning as her beams light on the misty hills the faithful Shintoist turns toward the east and worships. The first Mikado was descended in a direct line from the sun-goddess Amaterasu. From her he received his insignia of authority, the mirror and the sword. According to the native records the successive Mikados form an unbroken family line from Jimmu Tenno, the first emperor, down to the present day, a period of two thousand five hundred years. Japan has, therefore, the oldest dynasty on earth. [Page 557] 

The influence of that native myth remains. The belief that Japan is the land of the gods, that the emperor is a child of the sun, and that the people are all of divine descent naturally results in a feeling of importance and superiority which will not be outgrown in a few generations.

This is the outline of early Japanese mythology, which has developed into a kind of religion, known as Shinto. The word is of Chinese origin, but it is obvious that the religious system which it designates must have developed many centuries before any trace of Chinese influence was felt in Japan. Since then, however, Shinto has changed so much in its ceremonial and external character that it is now scarcely to be found in its original simplicity in any part of Japan. Indeed, it is only by the study of the oldest books that we have come to know fairly well what pure Shinto was.

Different religions were introduced from time to time. First came the teachings of Confucius, which spread rapidly and were received with greatest favor throughout Japan. At the present day they still constitute an essential part of a Japanese education. Then came a few Buddhist images and sutras from Korea, in the year 552 A.D. But it was not until the famous priest, Kobo Daishi, in the ninth century, ingeniously identified the various Buddhist saints with the Shinto deities that the new faith became popular and finally almost supplanted the other. Then arose different schools of Shinto, and now we find the two religions borrowing from each other, until it is sometimes confusing to decide whether a certain temple is Buddhistic or Shinto, or both.

The oldest Japanese book known is the Ko-ji-ki ("Record of Ancient Matters"); it dates from the year 711 A.D. Authentic historical records began in the year 400 A.D.

The earliest mention of Japan by European travelers is by Marco Polo, who from 1272 to 1298 was in the far East. Marco Polo did not visit the country, but he was told fabulous stories of the great wealth of gold in the island Kingdom of Zipangu.

When Columbus sailed, August 3, 1492, on his venturesome voyage of discovery, his purpose was first to visit China, and on his return to search for the famous Zipangu. He discovered America instead.

Japan was not discovered by the Portuguese, the pioneers in navigation in the Eastern seas, until America had been known for half a century. By the merest accident, Mendez Pinto, with two of his countrymen, landed in Kinshiu from a piratical junk in the year 1542.

The Japanese are a most charming and interesting people to live among. They are small in stature, with black eyes and hair. The types of features of the higher and lower classes are distinctly marked. The fine oval face with prominent, well chiseled features, oblique eyes and high, narrow forehead, distinguish the upper class; while the round face and less oblique eyes pertain to the lower.

Their dress is picturesque, and, generally speaking, convenient. The kimono, or principal garment, is a long, loose gown, open in front from neck to feet and held to the form by a gridle, or obi, which is usually made of very rich material fourteen inches or more in width and four and a half yards in length, made of two thicknesses of cloth, with a layer of wadding between them. This is wound several times around the waist and tied at the back, thus forming quite a turnure. Unlike their Western sisters, they wear the bustle on the outside. The long, flowing sleeves of the kimono below the elbow serve as pockets, in which, among other things, they carry soft paper to use as a substitute for handkerchiefs.

The dress of men, women and children differs but slightly, there being some variation in length, cut, and choice of materials. The kimono of women fits more closely and comes down a little longer than a man's, and in full dress forms a train which is stiffened with wadding. The obi or belt of the men is much narrower. In place of socks they wear what are called tabi, made of cotton cloth, usually white, precisely like a low shoe, except that there is a special thumb to receive the great toe. The soles are of heavy duck. When a Japanese goes into the street he puts on a straw sandal or wooden clog. The sandals or clogs are dropped at the entrance of a house, and only the tabi are worn on the clean matted floors. The common coolie in summer wears only a loin cloth. [Page 558] 

The hair of the women is dressed very elaborately, so that the services of a hairdresser are required to arrange it. For this reason, it is said, they adopted the wooden pillow, that the hair might not become disarranged during the night, as they can scarcely afford the hairdresser more than once or twice a week. The coiffure is held in place by long hair-pins or combs made of tortoise-shell or wood, and is so plastered with oil that it could not easily become ruffled. Cosmetics are very largely used, the most important being a paste-like preparation of impure white lead and starch, with which the face and neck are smeared. Carmine was formerly used to redden the lips, but at the present time rose aniline is a favorite dye for the purpose. The color it gives is quite as good as that of the more expensive carmine when seen in the proper light, but the peculiar green, metallic luster is very conspicuous in a side view, and soon dispels the illusion of rosy lips. It has been customary for all married women to shave off their eyebrows and stain their teeth black, to show fidelity to their husbands, but this custom is falling into disuse, particularly in the cities. The recent adoption of foreign dress by the empress and her court is being followed by so many that there is quite a revolution in the manners and customs of the higher classes.

Although woman occupies a position quite inferior to man, so far as I have observed she is not abused nor harshly treated. Among the lower classes she works as industriously as her husband, frequently at the same labor. Among the higher classes her principal duty seems to be to make herself a well-dressed household ornament. Woman in the past has not received the advantages of a general education, but the daughters of good families are taught several accomplishments, among these singing, playing certain musical instruments and dancing are the most usual. The latter is a system of graceful movements and passes, with fans, parasols, and other implements. Every movement is most carefully studied to ensure the utmost smoothness and grace, and no young woman who has received a course of training in this art ever makes an ungraceful movement or gesture. In this, as in a thousand other matters, the Japanese habit of studying the minutest detail results in the most wonderful effects.

The houses throughout the country are built upon one common plan, differing in size and in the quality of the materials used. For the finer houses the principal building house material is cryptomeria wood, while for the cheaper ones pine is used. The Japanese house is a low building of light framework, with no foundation, but with a heavy projecting tiled roof, which is very picturesque.

The rooms may be entered from any part of three sides, by pushing aside one of the sliding, paper-covered doors. There is no privacy whatever. These doors serve the purpose of windows, not to see through to be sure, but to admit light. A room of ordinary size will have four such doors on each of the three sides, about three feet wide, or exactly the width of the Japanese floor mats. These mats are made of rushes, which are cultivated like rice, upon marshy ground, the inside filled with straw, making them about two inches thick. The edges are bound with blue cotton cloth. They always measure thirty-four and one-half inches by five feet nine inches, and the size of the room is determined by the mats–a small room is a four-mat room, one of ordinary size, eight mats. The mats are used in the poorest hovels and the richest dwellings. Chairs are unknown, and all the people sit on the floor in a manner peculiar to themselves.

The fourth or closed side of the room will probably consist of a sort of double recess, three or four feet deep, called the tokonoma, for the beauty of which the Japanese houses are justly famed. The floor of the tokonoma is of polished wood, usually dark in color, is raised a few inches above the floor mats. An upright partition separates the two parts. On one side will be a clear space, where a kakemono–a painting on silk–always hangs; on the other side will be a shelf, not a plain board shelf such as we would probably put in, but a Japanese shelf, which is made in two parts, running from opposite sides at a slightly different level, the ends overlapping a few inches about the middle of the space. Upon this shelf stands some ornament, and below, on the floor, there is generally a low stand, with a vase of shrubs. Above there will probably be a small closet, with decorated or plain gilt sliding doors. [Page 559] 

The beauty of the tokonoma is in both the artistic design and the fine finish of the wood. Some of the woods used are very valuable, and the tokonoma alone may cost three hundred dollars or more, and yet not be of the richest quality. The more costly kinds of wood are imported from China. The most honored guest is always seated in front of the tokonoma. The ceiling of the room is very neat, usually made of plain, unvarnished and uncolored wood. The space between the ceiling and the beams that run around above the doors may be closed, but it is more likely to be filled with an open fretwork of wood, which the Japanese are very skillful in making. The best rooms are found at the back of the house, where the veranda overlooks a beautiful garden, a landscape in miniature, such as only the Japanese can imagine and create. The people love shrubs and flowers, and the poorest of them will have some green thing about, even though they have only a tube of bamboo for a holder.

They are famous for dwarfing plants. Pine trees a foot high are grown like forest giants in miniature. Oranges ripen on trees scarcely larger. It requires years of patient care and watching to attain this result, and a climate such as Japan alone affords.

They are great lovers of natural scenery. Around every city and town there are resorts for pleasure and recreation. Usually these are temple inclosures, but wherever there are plum or cherry trees in blossom there the people gather for a holiday.

There are two articles which the Japanese deem indispensible to their comfort, and these are the hibachi and the tobacco-box. The former is a brazier of bronze or wood, copper lined, holding glowing coals by which the rooms are heated. In the coldest weather this small brazier is the only source of heat in a Japanese house. The cooking is done on stoves without chimneys, over fires of burning wood, but the people depend for bodily comfort upon warm clothing, putting on suit after suit, one over the other, and toast their hands over the hibachi. The tobacco-box also contains glowing coals for lighting pipes and cigarettes, with a piece of bamboo to serve as a cuspidor.

A Yankee invention, called a jin-rik-i-sha, is a comfortable two-wheeled carriage, with a coolie in place of a horse trotting in the shafts, a veritable baby carriage, also called a Pullman car. In this one travels over the plains and through the cities. A sort of bamboo basket is used to travel over the mountains. This basket, called a hago, is suspended from two poles, which are carried on the shoulders of coolies.

A Japanese hotel differs in proportion as the Japanese houses, ways of living and customs differ from our own. A foreigner entering a hotel for the first time is at a loss to know what to do. First he must take off his boots immediately inside the entrance, which may be through a special doorway, although more commonly the entire front of the house is open to the street; one finds a passageway leading along the main floor, which is raised about two feet above the ground. This main floor is divided into a number of rooms by means of the sliding doors. Probably these doors will be open, and one can then see through the house into the garden behind. In the passageway outside the rooms are stained and polished floors which would be marred and scratched by boots or shoes. Having entered as an unexpected guest, the room will by absolutely bare of furniture. A servant, or perhaps the proprietor himself, will immediately bring some cushions about twenty inches square to sit on, and then a hibachi and tobacco-box. Then follows an iron tea-kettle which is set on a tripod over the coals, and a small tray on which is a tea-set. The teacups are very small and without handles, very different from ours. There will also be an ornamented dish containing confections, probably thin, dry, twisted or curled cakes made of rice flour. The guest will now have been provided with all the luxuries of a native hotel.

The hot water, not boiling, is no sooner poured over the tea than it is poured out into the cups. You will probably be surprised that the tea is made so quickly and [Page 560]  without boiling water. As a matter of fact boiling water is quite generally used, but whenever the best teas are used, and where, as in private houses, the people endeavor to bring out the finest flavor, the water is just below the boiling temperature. As regards the quickness of making the tea, it must be understood that the tea used by the natives is not dried like the teas prepared for exportation. All the native dried tea, such as is used by the people, is re-dried in the foreign godowns before it is sent abroad.

Just before dinner you will be told that the hot bath is ready. The hot bath is an essential part of Japanese life. There is probably no other thing that the people enjoy so thoroughly. The water is often quite too hot for foreigners, but to get the full benefit of it the temperature should be as high as can be borne. It is then not enervating, but restful. The bath-room is not always private, but is often quite open to passers-by in the hall.

The water is used by all the guests successively, but as no one uses soap, the water remains tolerably clear. The most distinguished guest is given the preference. After the guests follow the heads of the family and children, and lastly the servants. There are many public bath-houses for the people in every town.

The dinner follows the bath, and it is served in so many different styles that any attempt to describe them intelligibly would be hopeless; but usually it is served upon individual red or black lacquered trays, raised on legs from three to eight inches in height. Upon these trays will come five different dishes.

The lower classes live mainly on rice, radishes, and a few other vegetables and pickles, the latter being a very important article of diet. The staple article of food with all classes is rice. The rice is boiled so that the grains retain their form, and it is eaten without seasoning of any kind.

We will suppose the dinner served upon a neat red lacquered zen, or tray. On the right front corner, as we sit facing it, will be a lacquered covered bowl of miso soup, probably containing an egg or some fine-sliced or chopped vegetable. On the left corner will be the porcelain rice bowl; on the corner back of that, a clear vegetable or fish soup, the suimono, or a soup made with egg, fish and vegetables, cooked up all together and called wan-meshi. On the right back corner will probably be some kind of baked or grilled fish. A small cup in the center will contain a relish; it may be pickles, or beans boiled in black sugar, or fresh cucumber; very likely there will be some fresh radish tops with shoyn, or soy, a kind of sauce from which our Worcester is made. The grilled fish is sometimes replaced by raw fish, cut in slices, to be eaten with shoyn. There is no special ceremony about eating, but some skill is required to manage the chopsticks. These are simply two straight sticks, which are used with one hand. The food is prepared to be lifted with the chopsticks. The grilled fish is rather difficult to manage without a knife and fork. However, every scrap of meat can be taken up if one is skillful and knows how to begin. The daikon, or preserved radish, is at first quite offensive to taste and smell, but after a time it is recognized as a valuable adjunct to a bill of fare, for unseasoned boiled rice soon cloys the appetite unless some such strong flavored preparation is added. This is not a matter of individual experience, but also of the Japanese people. There is always some strong pickle used at their meals; they depend so much upon the nutritive value of rice that they must eat it in large quantities, and this they can not do without something strong to supplement it.

The Japanese bed is made by spreading a futon, or heavy quilt, on the floor, on which is placed the peculiar wooden pillow and as many quilts for covering as the weather may call for. It may be imagined that such a bed is not springy, even if two or three such quilts are placed beneath one. The bed is not good as compared with our spring and hair mattresses. However, habit is everything. The amado, or outer rain-doors, which protect the house from intruders, and shield the paper doors from rain, being closed, the house becomes quiet and you retire, but doubtless a late party will arrive and make a great noise just when you wish to sleep. As the houses are so open, speaking and laughing are distinctly heard all over, and the Japanese are incessant chatterers. [Page 561] 

Early in the morning, there will be a tremendous racket, caused by opening the rain-doors. This lasts only a few moments, but long enough to get one wide awake. As soon as you rise the quilts are removed, the hibachi brought in, and the room swept and dusted. Meanwhile you make your toilet out on the veranda or down-stairs; you must wash in the open air even in winter.

The people marry very young, being usually betrothed while in childhood by their parents. Divorce is quite common and granted for what we would consider most trivial reasons; for instance, a husband can divorce his wife if she talks too much.

Several modes of burial have prevailed in Japan at different periods. First was the burial in artificial caves, next in simple mounds of earth, then followed burial in mounds with rock chambers or dolmens, later in double mounds or imperial tumili surrounded by moats, and lastly, burial in coffins shaped like round tubs, into which the body is placed in a sitting position. Cremation is also now a very prevalent method of disposing of the body. An ancient custom was to bury the retainers of a prince and his family alive, standing upright like a hedge around the grave. This custom is said to have come from China. Wives suffered themselves to be buried alive around their deceased husbands. But this was all too terrible, and when, in the last century before Christ, the Empress Hibatsuhime no Mikoto died, the Mikado asked that some other way might be devised. One of his court, Nomi no Sukine, advised making figures of clay to represent men and horses, and to bury them as substitutes. This was done, and the Mikado, well pleased with the plan, ordered that henceforth the old custom should not be followed, but that clay images should be set up around the grave instead.

The making of these clay images is said to be the beginning of Ceramic art in Japan.

[Page 556] 

Mrs. Emma Louise (Bingham) Hitchcock was born in Ithaca, N.Y. She married Prof. Romyn Hitchcock, a chemist, since which time she has resided alternately in Chicago, New York and Washington, as the position held by her husband dictated. As a chemist, Professor Hitchcock was chosen in 1886 by the Japanese Minister at Washington to go to Japan in the employ of the Department of Education. This was the beginning of Mrs. Hitchcock's extended travels and studies in the Orient. She has since spent three years in foreign travel, and is familiar with almost every place of interest to tourists and has gathered a fund of valuable information from her travels. She was one of the prime movers in the organization of the Women's Anthropological Society, and became the first secretary. A year later, while the society was in a very active and flourishing condition, she departed on a second voyage to the Orient, her husband having been appointed World's Fair Commissioner to China. Her literary work has been limited to a number of descriptive articles on travels among the Ainos, Japanese and Chinese, several of which have been published.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Elizabeth Pysar.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom