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A JAPANESE DAY
The first person astir in a Japanese household is the mistress of the house. She rises from the quilts on the floor which form her bed and puts out the lamp, which has been burning all night. No Japanese sleeps without an andon, a tall paper lamp, in which a dim light burns. Next she unlocks the amado, the wooden shutters, and calls the servants.
Now the breakfast-table must be set out. In one way this is very simple, for there is no cloth to spread, for tablecloths are unknown, and when enough rice has been boiled and enough tea has been made, the breakfast is ready. But there is one point upon which she must be very careful. The lacquer rice-bowls and the chopsticks must be set in their proper order, according to the importance of each person in the family. The slightest mistake in arranging the position at a meal of any member of the family or of a guest under the roof would be a matter of the deepest disgrace. Etiquette is the tyrant of Japan. A slip in the manner of serving the food is a thousand times more important in Japanese eyes than the quality of the food itself. A hostess might serve burned rice and the most shocking tea, but if it were handed round in correct form, there would be nothing more to be said; but to serve a twice-honourable guest before a thrice-honourable guest--ah! that would be truly dreadful, a blot never to be wiped off the family escutcheon.
After breakfast the master of the house will go about his business. If the day is fine the wife has his straw sandals ready for him; if it is wet she gets his high wooden clogs and his umbrella of oiled paper. Then she and the servants escort him to the door and speed his departure with many low bows, rubbing their knees together--the latter is a sign of deep respect--and calling good wishes after him.
It may seem odd to us that the servants should accompany their mistress on such an errand, but the servants in Japan are not like other servants: they are as much a part of the family as the children of the house. Domestic service in Japan is a most honourable calling, and ranks far higher than trade. A domestic servant who married a tradesman would be considered as going down a step in the social scale. In Japan trade has been left until lately to the lower classes of the population, and tradespeople have ranked with coolies and labourers.
This importance of domestic servants arises from two reasons: First, the old custom which compels the mistress of the house, even if she be of the highest rank, to serve her husband and children herself, and also to wait on her parents-in-law, has the effect of raising domestic service to a high and honourable level. Second, many Japanese servants are of good birth and excellent family. Only a generation ago their fathers were samurai, followers of some great Prince, a Daimio, and members of his clan. In the feudal days of Japan, so recently past, the position of the samurai was exactly the same as the clansmen of a Highland chief, say at the time of the "Forty-Five."
The Daimio, the Japanese chief, had a great estate and vast revenues, counted in measures of rice; one Daimio had as much as 1,000,000 koku of rice, the koku being a weight of about 132 pounds. But out of these revenues he had to maintain his clan, his samurai, the members of his private army. The samurai clansmen were the exact counterparts of Highlanders. The poorest considered himself a gentleman and a member of his chief's family; he held trade and handicrafts in the utmost disdain: he lived only for war and the defence of his lord. But he regarded service in his lord's household as a high honour, and thus all service was made honourable. When the feudal system came to an end, when the Daimios retired into private life, and the samurai were disbanded, then the latter and their families found that they must work for their own support, and great numbers entered domestic service.
Boys and girls who are meant for servants have to go through a course of training in etiquette, quite apart from the training they receive in their duties. This training is intended to maintain the proper distance between employer and servant, while, in a sense, allowing them to be perfectly familiar. The Japanese servant bows low and kneels to her mistress, and addresses her always in the tone of voice used by an inferior to a superior, yet she will join in a conversation between her mistress and a caller, and laugh with the rest at any joke which is made.
It sounds difficult to believe that servants do not become too forward under such conditions, but they never do. Their perfect taste and good breeding forbid that they should pass over a certain line where familiarity would go too far. The position of a servant in Japan is shown by the fact that, though her master or mistress will speak to her as a servant, yet a caller or guest must always use the tone of equality and address her as san (miss). In the absence of the mistress, servants are expected to entertain any callers, and they do this with the perfection of gentle manners and exquisite politeness. A lady writer says:
"I remember once being very much at sea when I was taken to pay a call on a Japanese lady of the well-to-do class. Not being able to speak a word of the language, I was unable to follow the conversation which took place between the charming little lady who greeted us at the inner shutters and my friend. She was dressed in the soft grey kimono and obi of a middle-aged woman, and her exquisite manner and gentleness made me feel as heavy as my boots, which I had not been allowed to take off, sounded on the delicate floor-matting compared to her soft white foot-gloves.
"My friend addressed her as san, and seemed to speak to her just as a guest would to her hostess. We had tea on the floor, and my friend chatted pleasantly for some time with the little grey figure, when suddenly the sound of wheels on the gravel outside caught my ears, and the next instant there was the scuffling of many feet along the polished wooden passage which led to the front door, and the eager cry of 'O kaeri! O kaeri!' (honourable return). Our hostess for the time rose from her knees, smiled, and begged us to excuse her honourable rudeness. When she had hurried off to join in the cry of welcome, my friend said, 'Oh, I am glad she has come!'
"'Who has come ?' I asked.
"'The lady we came to see,' she said.
"'Then, who was the charming little lady who poured out tea for us?' I asked. My friend smiled.
"'Oh, that was only the housemaid.'"
A man dealing with the same point remarks: "It is very important that a Japanese upper servant should have good manners, for he is expected to have sufficient knowledge of etiquette to entertain his master's guests if his master is out. After rubbing his knees together and hissing and kowtowing (bowing low), he will invite you to take a seat on the floor, or, more correctly speaking, on your heels, with a flat cushion between your knees and the floor to make the ordeal a little less painful. He will then offer you five cups of tea (it is the number of cups that signifies, not the number of callers), and dropping on his own heels with ease and grace, enter into an affable conversation, humble to a degree, but perfectly familiar, until his master arrives to relieve him. Even after his master has arrived he may stay in the room, and is quite likely to cut into the conversation, and dead certain to laugh at the smallest apology for a joke!"