The Soil
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The Soil

A Portrait of Rural Life in Meiji Japan

Nagatsuka Takashi, Ann Waswo

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eBook - ePub

The Soil

A Portrait of Rural Life in Meiji Japan

Nagatsuka Takashi, Ann Waswo

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About This Book

This is a selection of the best plays of Chikamatsu, one of the greatest Japanese dramatists. Master of the marionette and popular dramas, he had, until the publication of this book, remained unknown to western readers owing to the difficulty of translating the work into English. The introduction provides a comprehensive survey of the history of Japanese drama which will assist the reader in better understanding the plays.

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The powerful west wind had tormented the forest all day, striking the trees with invisible blows until the leafless branches moaned in pain. Now the winter sun, emanating a yellow glow, was about to set. Abruptly the wind ceased, although dust-laden clouds hung uneasily above the treetops threatening another assault. As if remembering their suffering, the branches trembled from time to time, their rustling breaking the eerie silence.
Once again Oshina put down her shoulder pole and buckets. It was her custom in her spare time to go about from village to village peddling bean curd. Since she took only what she could carry in her buckets, little capital was required. Of course her earnings were also meager, but it was better than relying on farming alone. If she went her usual route through the countryside she would sell all she carried. On the return trip, after she emptied out the water and broken bits of bean curd, her pole would be lighter, and in her purse would be a little cash for everyday expenses. At all hours of the day, as long as there was light, Oshina kept busy at one task or another; soaking straw for rope-making, sweeping up leaves, her hands were never idle. She had always been strong and healthy, though, and did not mind incessant work.
On this particular day she had not wanted to leave home, but the winter solstice was coming and she had felt she must go out to get some konnyaku to sell. If she did not hurry the other peddlers who appeared at this time of year would cover her territory before her. Since there was no konnyaku in her own village she had to go some distance for it across the fields and through the forests. Thinking that she might do a little business on the way, she had carried some bean curd along. The strong wind that had arisen the night before slowed her progress. Her whole body shivered from the cold, and her hands, red from reaching into the icy water to scoop out bean curd, burned painfully. At some of her stops she had been able to warm herself briefly by a fire, but now it was late, her errand having taken far longer than she had anticipated. She hurried back towards her own village, through seemingly endless forest, fighting the wind all the way. She had felt tired and strangely listless, and several times she had stopped at the edge of the path to rest.
Now she stopped again, collapsing to her knees and leaning wearily against her shoulder pole. She looked miserable and disheveled. What was left of the wind blew from behind her and caught the edge of the dirty scarf she had tied about her head. It lifted her oily, red-tinged hair and revealed the soiled nape of her neck. As she sat there the trees continued their restless movement. Again and again the treetops by the side of the road bent forward as if to peek at Oshina below. After a time they moved back in unison. Shaking from side to side, they creaked and rustled noisily.
Sitting there, Oshina became aware of a growing numbness inside her, and for a moment she panicked. ‘It’s been a few days,’ she thought to herself, ‘It must be all right.’ But she felt as if she were sinking. ‘I’m just a little dizzy,’ she thought again. Then there was a ringing in her ears, so loud that she could hear nothing else. Suddenly she came to and briskly shouldered her pole. She moved on through the forest until finally she could see the rice paddies. Just beyong them was the village, and right at the edge of the paddies, her own house. Blue smoke was rising up into the sky from the roof. Oshina thought anxiously of her two children. It was only about 30 or 40 feet down from the edge of the forest to the paddy fields, but rainfall had gouged out deep depressions in the slope. Oshina turned sideways and climbed down carefully, her right hand steadying the front bucket on her pole and her left hand on the rear. The weight of the konnyaku inside the buckets made it hard for her to retain her balance, but at last she made it down, her straw sandals covered with slush. There was an irrigation ditch along the length of the tiny paddy fields. Where a few large black alders stood was a narrow bridge. Oshina paused a moment at the ditch and looked ahead to her house. The village was on a rise, and behind her house were more trees. Some of them grew on the hillside and partially blocked her view, but through the empty branches of one particularly fine oak tree she saw the dented roof. Five or six chickens were making their way up from the paddy fields, scratching at the ground in search of food. Oshina carefully crossed the bridge. Although the sun had set it was still light, and for as far as she could see everything was bathed in a yellowish brown glow. Before climbing up from the fields Oshina put down her pole and made her way to a silverberry bush that stood at the base of the hillside. The chickens had been there, clawing the newly dug soil. She pressed it firm again with her foot. By now the wind had stopped completely. Not even the leaves of the radishes hung up to dry in the chestnut tree in her yard were moving. The chickens ran up and darted hopefully around Oshina’s ankles, but today she paid no attention to them. Putting down her pole in the doorway, she called abruptly, ‘Ots
‘Mother?’ Otsugi replied immediately. Since the rain doors had been left closed that day the inside of the house was quite dark. Oshina had been unable to make out her daughter’s form at first, but now Otsugi turned, and Oshina could see the red flames in the stove by which Otsugi sat.
‘Mama! Mama!’ Yokichi, strapped to his sister’s back, waved his arms impatiently. While Otsugi untied him Oshina put down the buckets of konnyaku next to some straw bales in the corner of the dirt-floored kitchen. Then she picked up Yokichi, who began searching for her nipple, and sat down by the fire. Nearby a chicken was climbing awkwardly up to the roost, digging its claws into the makeshift rope ladder, both wings flapping. Up amid the blue smoke it quietly shut its eyes.
Since returning home Oshina had become a little warmer, but still she could not stop shivering. ‘After a while,’ she thought, ‘we’ll go out and have a bath at one of the neighbors. If I can just get warm again, I’ll be fine.’ A small pot sat on the stove, the soup inside it boiling. Outside it was completely dark. Otsugi took a burning faggot from the fire and lit the lantern. Then Oshina could see that her daughter wore only an unlined kimono and a short jacket. Normally she would have said nothing, but since she herself was so cold she felt irritated.
‘Aren’t you cold, dressed like that?’ she asked sharply.
‘Oh, no,’ Otsugi replied nonchantly. Yokichi suckled intently at his mother’s breast, and Oshina suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to bring him a treat.
‘Isn’t there some sugar over there, Ots
?’ she asked. Without a word Otsugi kicked off her sandals and stepped up into the main room. From the cupboard she took out a small envelope made from old newspaper and sprinkled some sugar into the palm of her hand.
‘Here you are,’ she said as she put the sugar in Yokichi’s outstretched hand. What remained in her palm she herself licked off. Yokichi held his treat between his fingers and still suckling squeezed it clumsily into his mouth. Then he thrust his sticky hand up to his mother, who licked it clean.
Oshina uncovered the pot and peered inside. ‘What’s this? Potatoes?’
‘Uh-huh. I added a few to the pot.’
‘And the rice? That’ll be cold, won’t it?’
‘Well, I was going to add that, too, and make gruel.’
Oshina thought that was a good idea. If she ate something hot and steamy she would surely get warm. Since she was so tired she left the preparations to Otsugi, who put a handful of cooked barley mixed with a little rice into the pot. Oshina poked at the fire while Otsugi removed the pot and hung a kettle in its place. She stirred the gruel a few times and then set out a tray on the ledge between the kitchen and the main room. Oshina sat down and began to eat, giving a little bit every now and then to Yokichi whom she held in her lap. When she put a piece of potato in his mouth, however, he immediately spat it out and began to cry. ‘Too hot?’ she asked, blowing against his cheeks. She chewed the potato a little herself and gave it back to him. In all she consumed three bowls of gruel even though she did not like it much. Then she drank a little hot water. At last she began to feel warm inside.
Otsugi went out to the well and poured a bucket of water over the empty cooking pot. ‘You don’t have to do anymore tonight,’ Oshina told her when she returned, but Otsugi went over to the buckets in the corner.
‘These need water.’
‘That’d be nice, but really, you don’t have to do so much…’
Before Oshina had finished speaking Otsugi was out in the yard again. When she reappeared in the doorway she was carrying the clean pot and the well-bucket. Soon the konnyaku were soaking in water.
Oshina and her children then went off for a bath at East Neighbor’s house, a large compound surrounded by a forest.
It was dark outside. The cedars in the forest thrust up boldly into the cold night air. In the past this forest, which belonged to East Neighbor, had kept the sun from shining into Oshina’s yard until fairly late in the day. Her family had truly lived in the shadows then. But one day the men from the land survey department had arrived in the area, setting up their tripods with the little flags on top. Because they could not see through the forest to complete their measurements they had cut down several trees. A big cedar had fallen to the west with a great thud right across Oshina’s yard. Its branches had broken off, and their tips had dug into the soil. When the neighbors had come to dispose of the tree they had given Oshina all the branches and debris on her property, providing her with a huge supply of firewood. And although the neighbors had lamented the loss of their fine trees Oshina and her family had secretly rejoiced. Now there was an opening through the forest, and thereafter the sun shone on them from morning on. But even with some trees gone the forest still dominated its surroundings. At night it was especially awesome. Oshina’s tiny house, perched on its narrow ledge, looked insignificant indeed.
Oshina disappeared into the darkness and emerged again in the neighbor’s doorway. Several employees were inside making rope as night-work. Sitting cross-legged on the raised wooden floor, each man secured the piece he was working on beneath his feet and added more straw to it until his hands were high above his head. Then he reached down and pulled the completed portion behind him. So much rope had been made already that it piled up on the earthen floor of the entryway. Oshina knelt humbly on the wooden floor, waiting. Soon the men used up all the straw and began hauling in their ropes, measuring them expertly between their feet and hands and bundling them up as they went. Then they swept the leftover bits of straw off onto the dirt below. At last they were ready to bathe. Oshina watched and waited silently. She always had to wait when she came here, and sometimes she had gone elsewhere instead. But on this particular evening there were no other baths to be had. She had checked at two or three other houses first but finally had come here. The employees clustered by the roaring fire under the metal cauldron, waiting thier turns. Once bathed they stood by the fire again, their naked thighs red from the hot water.
‘Come on over and get warm,’ one of the men called out, ‘It’ll be your turn soon.’ But Oshina sat still, trying to ignore the cold draft behind her. Very slightly, so as not to wake Yokichi, who was asleep in her arms, she shifted her weight to relieve her numb feet. When finally the men were finished Oshina hurriedly took off her clothes, thinking of nothing else but getting into the hot water. Otsugi held Yokichi, who was so exhausted that he did not know he had been taken from his mother’s bosom. As Oshina felt warmth returning gradually to her body she began to feel revived. She wanted to stay in the soothing water forever. But then she began to worry that Yokichi would start fussing. Reluctantly she got out of the tub. Her face was flushed, and no matter how often she wiped her forehead she kept sweating. She felt fine at last. Quickly putting on her kimono she took Yokichi in her arms again so Otsugi could bathe. But at that moment a maid came in for a bath, and Otsugi had to wait. By the time Otsugi finally got out of the tub Oshina had begun feeling cold again. She regretted that she had not waited and gone last herself.
When they returned home the moon was shining brightly, revealing the forest around them. The gap where the trees had been cut down was especially well lit. It was very cold. When Oshina lay down under her thin, stained quilt at home she was shivering again, and her knees felt stiff and frozen.


Oshina woke up the next morning just as the faint light of dawn began shining through the cracks in the rain doors. She tried to raise her head from the pillow, but it throbbed too severely with pain. The sound of the chickens clucking noisily and flapping their wings up in the roost overhead grated on her ears. Otsugi was still sound asleep. When the cracks in the doors grew bright with light, like eyelids fully opened, the chickens began to squawk shrilly. Oshina had wanted to let Otsugi sleep late that morning, but when the chickens began their rumpus Otsugi suddenly awoke and looked around as if bewildered. Then she saw that her mother still lay beneath her bedding on the floor beside her.
‘There’s no rush,’ Oshina said, ‘I don’t feel so good this morning, so let’s take it easy.’ Otsugi hesitated for a moment and then got up, slid open one of the doors with a clatter, and stepped out into the yard, rubbing her eyes sleepily. In the bucket by the well some potatoes she had left to soak were now locked in by a sheet of ice. Otsugi broke the ice with a fragment of whetstone. Then she realized that she had left the door of the house open and that all this morning cold was creeping inside.
‘Mother, are you okay? I didn’t think,’ she said as she hurriedly slid the door shut again. Inside the darkened house one could see only the fire in the stove. ‘It is really cold out there.’ Otsugi shivered as she held her hands up near the flames. ‘The potato water froze,’ she continued, turning to face her mother.
‘Hmm, looks like a lot of frost, too,’ replied Oshina faintly. With her back to the doors she lay watching the flames.
‘Everywhere it’s all white,’ said Otsugi as she stirred up the dried leaves in the stove with bamboo tongs.
‘The cold at dawn woke me up,’ said Oshina, lifting her head slightly. ‘I don’t feel like eating, but you go ahead and fix yourself something.’
Otsugi made another pot of gruel.
‘Have a little, Mother,’ she said as she put a bowl by Oshina’s pillow. Sm...

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