Marie Went Back to the Dark Ages
In Canada Marie Kawamoto always believed women were at least the equal of men. In the land of her fathers she found that most Japanese women are still little better than servants, eat last, and may have to share a husband with a concubine
MACLEAN’S ARTICLE EDITOR
IN THE FALL of 1946 a young Canadian girl went back to the Middle Ages as surely as if she had boarded one of the time machines that are among the favored devices of science fiction writers.
When she was twenty-one Marie Kawamoto left the neon brightness of Vancouver and went to live in the dark fishing village of her parents in Japan, which she had never seen. If she had been dropped into feudal England the change in her life could scarcely have been more sweeping, for she became
part of a culture and a way of life that bore no relationship to anything she had known before.
For five years now she has lived in a land to which she is tied only by the slender threads of ancestry, among a curious people whom she has never quite grown to know. For though her features are Japanese Marie is as Canadian as an Okanagan apple. She still cannot read the language of her fathers and she speaks it with a Canadian accent. A foreigner in the land of her birth— for the Canadian-born Japanese were never fully accepted
by their countrymen—she now finds herself even more a foreigner in the land of her ancestors.
In her sudden change from the Western way of life to the Oriental way of life Marie suffered many minor shocks and two major ones. One affected her pocketbook. The other affected her pride. She found herself in a world where a wellto-do merchant makes less money and has fewer amenities than a Canadian day laborer; and where the status of women is pretty much the same as the status of servants. In Canada she could always afford the fripperies of Western civilization—a package of gum, a record on the juke box. In Japan at first she didn’t even have the price of a bottle of milk. In Canada she was a member of the “weaker sex”: men stood aside when she
passed through doorways and treated her with some deference. In Japan, although she has always felt the equal of any man, she has seldom been treated that way.
Yet, with the adaptability of women of all races and all times, she has managed to reach a compromise with her new existence, just as her own mother and father, who came from Japan to Canada in the 1890s, adapted themselves to the strange Western civilization. Marie still has a faded photograph of them and in it you catch something of their fierce desire to become part of the New World: Mr. Kawamoto in his high starched collar and handlebar mustache and bowler hat and pretty little Mrs. Kawamoto in a Nineties hourglass suit and a fur collar with a wide feathered hat perched on the thick pile of her hair.
Their home was in Burnaby down on the fiatlands by the Fraser delta. In the summers, when Mr. Kawamoto took his fishing boat north along the coast, Marie and her mother would move to West Vancouver where some of the Japanese ran a cannery. She took her public school in Burnaby and her high school in West Vancouver. Her parents still spoke in thick Japanese accents and the family ate a good deal of rice and the occasional raw fish with soya sauce, Japanese style, but Marie herself was a pure Western product, speaking in uninflected accents as flat as the delta land, and with the Canadian adolescent’s fierce tastes in cherry cokes, ankle socks and scarlet nail polish.
The war changed her life. After the first bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor the Kawamotos were moved out of the coastal area by the Government and their possessions sold by the Custodian of Enemy Property. Their cottage, with its two acres of land, its orchard of plum, apple, pear and cherry trees, its chicken coop and root house and little kitchen garden, went for $1,025. Her father’s $1,300 fishing boat sold for $250. The family itself was lodged in a tarpaper shack in Tashme in the Kootenay Mountains. The shack had two bedrooms and one kitchen. One of the bedrooms was occupied by a family of four. The Kawamotos had the other. Here
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they lived for four years in the shadow of the mountains. To earn a little money and keep busy Marie taught elementary school for Nisei (Westernborn Japanese) children in an old barn.
The year after the war they were faced with a hard decision: They were told they had two choices—go east and work on the sugar-beet farms or make their own way in the strange cities, or go back to Japan. They were not legally allowed to return to the west coast. Marie’s parents, both over seventy, were too old for farm work. The thought of going to big cities they didn’t know frightened them. They turned to the only familiar place left: Japan, which neither had seen in twenty-five years. Marie had not the heart to argue with them.
“After all,” she says now, “I’ve got a much longer future than they.”
That fall they docked at Kurihama, Japan, and Marie found herself part of an Oriental world which was at an opposite pole from the one she had known. At first she was intrigued and a little excited by the things she saw. Looking at the shoreline, she couldn’t help remarking how small the trees looked after B. C. On the streets she saw women, and men too, wearing kimonos. She’d never really believed they did although she’d seen them in Japanese movies. But her first big impression was the crowds—the teeming, ragged, haggard crowds jostling down the narrow streets, and the thousands and thousands of children scuttling about like so many mice. She had never seen so many people together before. And they all looked hungry.
For two weeks they were housed, with other Nisei, in a big Japanese naval barracks, a huge barnlike structure with tatami floors which Marie had never seen before. She found she was expected to sleep on the floor, Japanese style, and this was agony for her. Her Western concept of privacy underwent a shock when she discovered that two hundred and fifty people were to be quartered in one room, without any curtains or partitions, and that groups of twenty were to sleep together under each gauzelike mosquito tent. She slept with her clothes on and “never did have a real go-to-bed feeling.” The food was slop. Each group received two buckets. One contained a gruel of unpolished rice and boiled wheat, spotted with flies; the other, seaweed soup occasionally thickened by potatoes and horse meat.
The water was so heavily chlorinated against typhoid that Marie couldn’t drink it. She tried buying a beverage in the market—a strange mixture of shaved ice covered in syrup, only to discover that the syrup was made of saccharine. Once she saw an empty Coca-Cola bottle in a gutter and a vision of the drugstore on the corner which she had come to identify as a typical Canadian scene flashed nostalgically across her mind’s eye.
After two weeks they were able to get a train for her father’s old fishing village of Aikawa on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The train trip took twelve hours and was a nightmare. The three crowded into one narrow seat in the packed car. Often people pounded on the windows for admittance and clambered in on top of them. At Fukui reporters collared them and asked about the tortures they were reputed to have undergone in Canada. Marie replied in her halting Japanese that the stories were false and that they had all been treated well. When they
reached the end of their journey the crowd was so dense that they themselves had to leave by the window.
There followed a three-hour ride standing up in a jammed bus with the stench of fish and rotting meat foul in their nostrils. Marie looked out at the neat little farms ascending the steep mountains in ordered steps. The foliage along the way was thick and reminded her of B. C., and the long easy curve of the blue Sea of Japan under the high cliffs gave her the fleeting feeling that she was back in West Vancouver.
But the village, when they reached it, was dark and dirty. There were few shops and the houses were jammed tight against each other. For the next three months Marie Kawamoto felt that she was back in the Dark Ages.
“My gosh,” she says, “it was just like what I used to teach the First Graders about prehistoric times.”
They lived in one room of a threeroom house with Marie’s uncle, wife and two children and another uncle. The fire consisted of a recess in the floor and the cooking facilities a pot suspended above it. There was no furniture as we know it and Marie soon got pins and needles in her legs from squatting Oriental-fashion on the floor. It was bad manners to sprawl. The toilet was a hole in the floor and the contents were used to manure the fields. The stench of the fields filled the village with an odor which some Nisei have nicknamed “Chanel No. 6.”
Most of the household except Marie left home at dawn for the rice paddies and returned at sundown. The women took their laundry and supper dishes
down to a little creek that ran like a gutter through the town and there, squatting always on their haunches, did the washing. They wore voluminous mon pei pantaloons and kerchiefs on their heads and they carried huge loads on their heads and backs. They took their wooden shoes off before entering the house.
And they did everything by hand. The women were gnarled and bent as the dwarf pines twisted by Japanese gardeners into grotesque shapes, and before many days were gone Marie knew the reason.
“Don’t you realize,” she said to her mother, “that everything you do requires you to bend over? Why, there isn’t a long-handled tool used in the rice paddies! You’ve got to bend to do your washing and you’ve got to bend to do your cooking and you’ve got to bend to serve the table. No wonder everybody’s bowed over.”
Her mother merely shrugged, but her old father, who also had pins and needles in his legs for he had forgotten how to squat—said with some astonishment: “You know, there hasn’t been
a single improvement or change in this village since I left it fifty years ago, except for the coming of electricity.”
At first Marie walked a bit in the village but she soon stopped, for wherever she went she was followed by a curious throng of children and adults who stared at her strange clothing. She fancied that the women looked with disapproval on her bright blouses and print dresses -the Japanese prefer subdued colors—and at her make-up and the brisk, assured manner of her car-
riage. And always there were questions about America—nobody could quite understand the idea of Canada: Weren’t they treated badly during the war because they were Japanese? And Marie, until she tired of it, would answer hotly that it hadn’t been bad at all, that she had been treated well in the land of her birth and that it wasn’t America either—it was Canada.
She was sick for ten days from dysentery and her skin erupted into sores because of the change in diet. They ate only rice with boiled wheat, with side dishes of pumpkin and sweet potato. Marie longed for slices of thin bread and butter and a cup of good Canadian coffee instead of the thin yellow Japanese tea.
She lived three months in the village. Then, providentially, a distant Seattleborn cousin, a woman of about sixty, sent for her to live with her in Yokohama. Here she got a job with the U. S. Occupation Forces and because she had taken shorthand at West Vancouver High she was paid two thousand yen a month instead of the thousand the other girls got. This is a little more than six dollars.
A Chesterfield in Tokyo
As Japan progressed, so did Marie. When civilian airlines were allowed to fly into the country, she got a job at the office of North West Airlines in Tokyo. Here her knowledge of idiomatic English stood her in good stead. About a year later, when foreign traders were admitted, she went to work in the offices of Barclay and Company, a Seattle firm of exporters and importers. Here she met and married a rising young executive named Peter Katzuno, who was born in the United States.
The Katzunos live in the crowded residential district of Denen-Cho-Fu on the outskirts of Tokyo where the neat little Japanese homes sit perched on their gardens by the thousands, like locusts on a persimmon tree. It is a far cry from West Vancouver or Burnaby. Each of these little homes, with its tile roof and its paper-thin walls, is almost identical with all the others. Each is furnished with the Spartan good taste that marks all Japanese interiors: the tatami matting on the
floor, the little black lacquer table in the centre at which you squat on cushions, the charcoal brazier with its two glowing coals in the corner, the recess in one wall where a single Japanese scroll and perhaps a vase of flowers or a carved figure accents the almost complete lack of furnishings. There is no bed or couch anywhere in sight, only some heavy mattresses and quilts stowed away behind one of the wafer-thin sliding panels, to be brought out when night falls ^nd living room becomes bedroom until dawn.
It is said that you can walk into any one of these little homes and feel that you have been in them all. The Katzunos’ house is the one exception. It is as tiny as the others, and from the outside just as austere. But when you slide back the panels and step into the little front room you might easily be back in Canada. For here is a chesterfield and an easy chair and another upright chair, a card table, a photograph in a frame and a picture on the wall and some books showing and some bric-à-brac too. There is a pile of magazines and several vases and, in one corner, a faded-green satin souvenir cushion on which have been embroidered the words “Banff, Alberta.”
Here Marie and her husband live, with Marie’s parents and her little six-month-old daughter, named Carol because she was born just before
Christmas. Peter has risen to general manager of his company, a Japanese affiliate of Barclay’s called Tokyo Sales, and he is paid well by Japanese standards. He gets 50,000 yen a month, which comes to around $140 in our currency. The Katzuno’s pay 3,300 a month rent on their little house, or less than $10. Their groceries cost them 5,000 yen and their meat 3,000 But a pair of American-style shoes comes to 4,800. Japanese houses are cold, and both are used to Western comforts, so the heating bill is more than the rent. All in all, they spend almost all they make but manage to live fairly well.
They live quite differently from their neighbors, the Tsukimatos, who are in the dwarf-tree business. The Tsukimatos sleep and squat on the floor but the Katzunos have a proper bed and bedroom. The Tsukimatos have no washing machine but Mrs. Katzuno has managed to get a small one for little Carol’s Curity diapers, which she vastly prefers to the loincloth affairs that Japanese mothers make for their babies from old kimono sleeves. The Tsukimatos have a recess in the floor where glowing pieces of charcoal partially heat the house, but the Katzunos have a modern gas heater. The Tsukimatos eat soybean soup and rice for breakfast. The Katzunos prefer toast and coffee, although they do have Japanese food with chopsticks on occasion.
Although the Katzunos do have many Japanese acquaintances, their close friends are other Nisei whose background is similar to their own. There are three thousand Canadian Nisei alone in Japan, and to most of them the Japanese are still a race apart. Marie Katzuno talks Japanese during the day to the deliverymen and neighboring housewives but in the evening she and her husband lapse into North American slang. Sometimes the neighbors offer Mrs. Katzuno a Japanese paper to read and she always takes it politely because she does not care to let on that she cannot read the language.
Actually, this is no serious handicap in Tokyo. Tn a few years the Katzunos have seen it flower, superficially at least, into a Western city. The kimonos have almost gone from the streets —scarcely any men wear them now and only the older women. The downtown area, where the little night clubs cluster thickly around Shimbashi station and bright new stores line the broad Ginza, there is a galaxy of neon signs. Jazz bands play Goodnight Irene and the Tennessee Waltz and there is a radio program called Twenty Questions. Young Japanese in sports jackets jitterbug and form conga lines in the garish, rowdy dance-halls.
Hand-Holders in the Street
To the casual visitor in the great city, once the world’s third largest, the Japanese seem to have become a Westernized, democratic people. But Mrs. Katzuno remembers the dark little village on the seacoast and isn’t so sure. Besides, she is a woman and notices things that often escape a man.
She notices that in spite of the emancipation of Japanese women, their husbands still call their wives by shouting “Oi!” which she translates as “Hey you!” Among her husband’s Japanese business acquaintances it is bad manners to compliment a woman on her dress or appearance, and a man often refers to his spouse as “my stupid wife.” Mrs. Katzuno has got used to being served last in restaurants and homes and to following men through doorways and into elevators.
“Their wives sure never tell their
husbands off like I tell mine off sometimes,” she says. “And I can tell you one thing: My hubby never says Oi
Old customs die hard. Mrs. Katzuno knows more than one Japanese who has a concubine as well as a wife. Her friend, Mary Ikeda, a Nisei girl from Vancouver who lives in Yokohama, rents a room to a former Geisha who is the “Number 2 wife” of a wealthy Japanese and has two children by him.
On one hand Mrs. Katzuno has noticed young Japanese couples holding hands on the streets—something you never saw in Japan a few years ago. On the other she notices that when she goes to dinner at a Japanese friend’s home his wife and eldest daughter-inlaw do not sit at the table with the other guests, but squat at the rice pot in the corner, acting as servants.
She Misses Christmas Most
Sometimes the traditional ultrapoliteness and self-effacement of the people irritate her. Everyone says “Excuse, please” and “Thankyouverymuch,” just like the Japanese in the comic strips. When Mrs. Katzuno has people over she has to ask them to come in several times before they actually cross the threshold. Sometimes it is like pulling teeth to get them to sit down.
The Japanese have never quite accepted the Nisei, who dress in the brash foreign manner and whose women are so outspoken. “I’m afraid they think of us as smart alecks,” says Jean Kimura, a friend of Mrs. Katzuno’s from New Westminster. “Why, if you show your arms they think you’re a hussy,” says Mary Ikeda.
Mrs. Katzuno thinks it is more than that. Postwar Japan, for all its glitter and its Western veneer, is still a beaten country whose people are often poor and hungry. To them the Nisei, with their ability to speak English so well and their knowledge of Western customs and habits, and more than that, with their citizenship papers in the Promised Land—these Nisei are rich interlopers who can be properly resented.
Marie Katzuno’s own integration into this new world has not been easy. “We’re in a funny situation,” she says. “We’re both very much Western at heart. But my husband works with Japanese and everyday things are so Japanesey you sort of get stuck in between at times.”
She has made many adjustments during her five-year exile in Japan. Undoubtedly she will have to make many more. Recently, for example, she has caught herself bowing in the Japanese manner. “It’s just a sort of habit, I guess,” she explains. “You bow instead of saying hello.” But in spite of this it is unlikely that she will ever feel at one with the curious little people who are now her countrymen but whom she still refers to as “they.” At night she still dreams of Canada and often wishes she could taste a California orange instead of a mandarin, or an Okanagan apple instead of the Japanese variety which looks so good and tastes so insipid.
There are many things about Canada that Marie Katzuno misses badly, but the feeling of loneliness in the strange brown land comes on her most strongly at Christmastime, a festival which is celebrated in cursory fashion if at all.
“If only there were a bit of crisp snow and we could have a tree in the room with maybe a bit of tinsel on it,” she says wistfully. “If there were only some sleigh bells jingling . . . But of course over here the people have different customs.” ^