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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Child of Japan

By Edward Howard House (1836–1901)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1836. Died in Tokyo, Japan, 1901. Yone Santo: A Child of Japan. 1888.]

I WAS interested in her chiefly because she was the only very young girl whom I had found disposed to tolerate me at all. As a rule, children of her sex and age had shunned my amiable advances with indifference or aversion. I attributed the contrast of her demeanor to a superior intelligence, but it was really due to the superiority of her birth and culture. Until then I had not chanced to fall in with any of the Japanese gentry, and had no idea that the rules of her training forbade her to manifest the feelings which probably possessed her. But there is no doubt that her natural acuteness aided her in overcoming an instinct which was merely conventional. Circumstances presently placed us in fairly confidential relations with one another. Her aunt’s illness grew serious, and my professional assistance was found effective to an unexpected extent. The malady was of a kind which yielded rapidly to a specified treatment, and the wonder of the unsophisticated Japanese was extreme. I observed that my little friend, in particular, watched all the proceedings with close intentness. Was it to learn, if possible, some part of the method to be pursued, in case of future need? Partly that, no doubt. Indeed, she afterward confided to me that her neko (kitten) suffered from rheumatism, the consequence of an infantile calamity, and she hoped to gather a few suggestions for her playfellow’s relief and comfort. But, in a broader sense, she was a passionate seeker for knowledge in every form, and the evidence of what she considered my miraculous skill in restoring her relative was sufficient to invest me, in her esteem, with marvellous attributes of wisdom and genius. A “sensei” (learned man) is always an object of respect in Japan, and this child was not only roused to admiration, but, in a vague way, hoped to obtain, by communion with me, some little addition to her own juvenile store of erudition. Finding me inclined to humor her, she attached herself to me with almost a blind devotion; poring over the small collection of books I had with me; building wild projects of a course of study then and there to be instituted; starting valorously upon explorations in the mazes of the alphabet; groping among labyrinthine numerals: and begging me, with timid wistfulness, always to be kind to her, and to help her in the hard struggle she would have to make to get an education in her new home at Tokio.


Shall I tell the story of Yone’s kitten? Of the early adversity which brought upon it the premature aches and pains from which the young mistress would have studied to shield it? Of the persecution from which she had rescued it, thus rendering the little animal—as in the natural order of things—an object of unspeakable endearment to its preserver? Why not? It will serve, perhaps better than pages of stiff description, to exhibit in a clear light certain features of the child’s character which were then developing, and which grew with her growth as she advanced toward maturity.

She was sitting in a snug corner of the garden, one afternoon, chatting confidentially to her cherished companions, when I ventured, through my interpreter, to join in the conversation—her original distrust of me having by this time almost melted away.

“Which do you love better, Yone, the cat or the doll?”

“Ah, which do I?” she answered contemplatively, in the sweet, silvery voice which belongs to the children of Japan.

“Yes, which would you rather lose?”

“Truly, it would be a great sorrow to lose either.”

“Now tell me, which will you give me for my own?”

No immediate response, except a look of perplexity and dismay, which gradually passed away as she gazed intently at me.

“Ah, the Doctor is jesting.”

“Certainly I am jesting; nobody shall take away your treasures. But I wish to know why you are so fond of them.”

“They are my children.”

“To be sure; and you prefer the doll because she is older.”

“Yes, she is older—but”—and here she sank into deep reflection, as if the problem presented difficulties hitherto undreamed of to her sense of maternal justice and impartiality.

“And then she never misbehaves,” I added, desiring to stimulate the course of her ideas, which were sometimes delightfully quaint and fresh.

“But she does; she often behaves ill. Not very ill; just the same as neko-san.”

“What, exactly the same?”

“Exactly the same. Please understand, Doctor-san, how unhappy the neko will be if he hears he is naughtier than the doll. My doll must not be better than my kitten.”

“You are very skilful to keep a strict balance, Yone; many foreign ladies would be glad to do as much with their children.”

“Oh, Doctor-san, it is not real,” she answered, nervously. “My doll—you know, my doll is nobody.”

She made this acknowledgment in a cautious undertone, pointing stealthily at the little stuffed image, as if tenderly reluctant to wound its feelings. Then, as I waited for a more intelligible explanation, she began to cast furtive glances at the interpreter, intimating, so far as I could guess her meaning, that she was not unwilling to impart to me, privately, if it could be done, the secret of her disciplinary art, but doubted the propriety of taking into her confidence a third party, who possibly would laugh at her.

“Never mind, Yone,” I said; “you need not tell me everything.”

“I think I will tell you,” she replied, with some hesitation. “My neko, you know, is real; he is alive. My doll—my doll—”

The lines came into her childish brow, as she sought for words to express what was plain enough within her mind, but which it puzzled her to put into language.

“My doll,” she continued, “is neither good nor bad, if I must tell you the truth. She is only—my doll. But if I pretend she is good, then she is good; and if I pretend she is naughty, she is so. But it is different with my kitten. He is sometimes truly bad and disobedient. That is because he is so young. But he is very sorry, and, not to let him feel too much ashamed when I scold him, I scold my doll at the same time. She is just as bad as I choose to have her—and so—I make them always both alike. It isn’t real, you must understand. It is—I beg you to excuse me; I cannot say it at all.”

“You have said it very well, Yone. I see how it is, now. I understand, too, why you cannot decide which you care for the more.”

“Indeed,” replied the child, pleased at being thus encouraged, and enjoying the opportunity of working out her little fable in seeming seriousness,—“indeed, it is difficult. Shall I tell you all? I know I am often very unjust to the doll, because, really, really, she never can do anything wrong, and she is scolded for nothing, and I pity her. But then she does not mind the scolding, being only a doll; while my kitten, who is real and alive, does mind the scolding, and so I am obliged to pity him. What do you think, Doctor-san? I will pretend they are both yours. There, they are yours. Now, which is your favorite?”

“Yes, I see; they are mine, and I am Yone Yamada. That is simple enough. Well, then, the question is, Which is my favorite? Let me think; how long have I had them; when did I first get them? That is important, and I have forgotten all about it.”

The child’s eyes sparkled, as if the sympathy and coöperation of a grown person in her innocent fancies were rare and strange to her experience.

“Oh, I can tell you,” she said. “Your father gave you the doll, you know.”

“Did he? Yes, he gave me the doll. But when was it? I cannot remember.”

“Many years ago; why, you were too young to remember.”

“Of course; and the kitten?”

Her countenance suddenly fell. Our little comedy had evidently brought us to a point which she had not foreseen, and had perhaps awakened unpleasant recollections.

“It does not matter, Yone,” I said, hastily; “I can decide without that. Or, let us remember that it is all play.”

Again she regarded me with one of the keen looks by which I was still occasionally reminded of her inward doubts as to the perfect trustworthiness of the unfamiliar foreigner. Then casting her eyes upon the ground, and seeming to gather herself together for an unwonted effort, she said, falteringly:

“No, it is not all play. I did not think; but I will tell you about the kitten.”

“Indeed you shall not,” I answered. “Come, we will talk of something else.”

“But I must, Doctor-san; it is right. I do ask you to hear me.”

The decision in her countenance was remarkable, for so young a child. She was plainly resolved to relate something which, however painful, she considered it her duty to impart without reserve.

“It was in the third month,” she began, “and, as my father was about to leave Nagoya, we were all going, one day, to kneel at the graves of our family, in the Soken burial-ground. We had nearly reached the gate, when I saw, on the other side of a moat, many boys, jumping, and shouting, and throwing things into the water. Then I looked closely, and saw a small kitten—this kitten—my kitten—climbing slowly up the steep stone side. The boys caught it, and threw it far away into the water again. Oh, Doctor-san, I did not think what I was doing. It was very wrong, but I ran across a bridge, screaming and screaming again. Some of the boys ran away, some threw stones worse than before; they would not heed me, and so I—I—the moat is not deep at all, and—”

“I see, my child; you went in and saved the poor kitten.”

“It was wrong,” she said, in a voice scarcely above a whisper.

“Wrong!” exclaimed I. “How can you say so?”

“I spoiled my dress, and could not go with the others to kneel before our graves.”

“But wrong? Think again, Yone.”

“I cried out in the street, and disobeyed my grandmother.”

“But you saved the kitten’s life. Consider. Would you not do the same again?”

She looked around her timorously, and, seeing that none of her own people were near, answered:

“I—am—afraid—I would; but I am not a good girl.”

I peered into her big dark eyes, to find if I could detect any sign of affectation or pretence, but there was none. Her self-depreciation was undoubtedly sincere.

“Tell me, Yone, do you think it wrong to do a kind thing?”

“No, oh no; but I ran away from my father.”

“Were you not glad to get this pretty pet, all to yourself?”

“Truly, yes; but my best dress was torn and spoiled.”

“What is that, compared with your beautiful kitten?”

“Nothing, to me; oh, nothing. But my grandmother said I did not respect our dead.”

“Tell me what happened next, Yone.”

“It was not much. Grandmother told me to throw the cat away, but I believe I cried very loud, and my father said I might take it home, and he would decide afterward. I went quickly back, and when they returned, the neko was clean and almost dry. Grandmother was still much displeased, but my father was smiling and gentle. He had been talking with the good priest at Soken-ji, who asked where I was, and why I was not with them. When he heard the reason, he told my father that our dead fathers and mothers would not be angry with me for saving the kitten from being killed, instead of going to bow before their tombs. And the kind priest sent me a present.”

“What was it, Yone?”

“I do not know; grandmother said I must not have it. I never saw it.”

“Indeed! An interesting old lady, I should judge.”

“Yes, she is very wise,—wiser than anybody. And she was willing, after all, that I should keep the kitten.”

“Ah, that is better.”

“At first she was not willing, but my father thought we might decide by the wishes of the greater number. We were five, all together, and he began by saying he believed we need not send the kitten away. That was one for me, and I was grateful to my good father. It seemed that perhaps he thought my aunts, or one of them, would follow him. But grandmother was very positive, and the aunts were both obliged to agree with her. Then my father said: ‘Yone, we are only two against three. I am afraid the neko must go.’ I said that if he went, so little and so weak, he would surely die. I know my father was sorry, for he answered: ‘If we had only been two against two, or three against three, it would be different.’ Then I kneeled to my father, and begged him to listen. I said: ‘Oh, father, it is so hard to think of, that we must send the suffering, trembling creature out to die. Forgive your daughter if she dares to ask you who, of all that live and breathe now in this room, is the most concerned in your judgment; who must feel it the most deeply; who will suffer, or rejoice, the most.’ ‘Why, truly,’ he said, ‘that is easy to answer: it is the cat, and no other.’ Then I bowed down again, and said: ‘In that case, if it please you, we are three against three, for surely the cat has no wish to go, and it is just that his opinion should be taken with the rest.’ My father laughed, and looked as if he would consent, but grandmother said quickly: ‘No, no, the cat has no voice!’ At that moment, suddenly, the poor animal, who was in my arms, began to cry out and make a great noise, and my father laughed more and more, and said that everything was settled; I might have my wish. Then he left us immediately, and grandmother did not object any more.”

“Why, it was quite a miracle,” said I, affecting great astonishment.

“What is a miracle?” asked Yone.

I explained as well as I could, at the same time highly eulogizing the kitten’s instinct.

“No,” said Yone, with cautious deliberation,—“no; I do not think it was a miracle.”

“At any rate, it was a remarkable coincidence.”

“What is that?” again demanded the child.

With somewhat greater difficulty,—the interpreter being here at a loss, and even the dictionaries affording us no guidance (“coincidence” being a word for which there was then no Japanese equivalent),—I made this also plain, causing her once more to ponder earnestly.

“I do not think,” she presently observed, with an air of graver solemnity than she had yet displayed, although the story had been told throughout with the dolorousness of a penitential confession,—“I do not think that it was a remarkable co—co—co—”

“Never mind the foreign polysyllable, my young philologist. It was fortunate, at least, that your kitten took just that opportunity to make himself heard.”

“Yes,” she admitted, “it was fortunate—it was fortunate—and—I think I will not speak any more now, if you please.”

Her voice was steady, but I could see tears gathering in her eyes. So, to shield her from observation, I sent my translator away, and, after addressing a few instructive remarks to the doll, withdrew myself to a distant corner, screening my little friend from my own scrutiny by means of a newspaper.

About a quarter of an hour after, she crept to my side, with her kitten under one arm, and—of all unexpected things—my copy of Hepburn’s Dictionary under the other. Laying the volume wide open upon my knee, she pointed to a Japanese character which she had laboriously hunted up,—evidently with the desire to escape the interpreter’s intervention,—and lifted her woe-begone face in pathetic appeal to my comprehension, softly repeating with her lips the word which she indicated with her finger. The translation was “To take between the ends of the fingers; to take a pinch.” Having read this, I turned for further elucidation, which she supplied by transferring her hand from the book to her living burden, and nipping its flesh so vigorously as to call forth an eloquent wail of astonishment and remonstrance.

Nothing could be clearer. The timely feline outcry at the critical instant of the creature’s fate was not a miracle, nor yet a strange coincidence. It was the natural effect of a lucky inspiration on the child’s part,—that was all. Perceiving that she had made herself understood, she nodded her head several times, with a seriousness which checked my impulse to laugh at the disclosure; tried to fall on her knees, until I managed to convince her that such abasement was superfluous; and finally divining that she had not entirely forfeited my good-will by her revelation, took herself and her playmates away, still smiling mournfully, but certainly less dejected than she had been at any time since my untoward question as to the origin of her relations with the neko-san.

Who could resist these pretty and touching evidences of simplicity and candor? It was a pleasant study to trace the current of the child’s ingenuous thoughts, and endeavor to accompany her through the various perplexities in which her mind had wandered. I failed entirely, as I afterward learned, in fathoming the actual depth of her emotions, but my inferences were at least in the right direction. In truth, her sensitive soul was painfully agitated by the struggles of timidity, apprehension, and harsh necessity created by her recollection of the kitten’s rescue and its attendant incidents. That she must tell me all that had happened, having once opened the subject, she did not allow herself to question; notwithstanding that the recital would fill her with an agony of mortification, possibly subject her to fresh penalties, and almost inevitably deprive her of my aid in her future studies. For she never doubted the strict justice of her grandmother’s verdict, and fully anticipated that I would view her conduct with similar censure. She was not a good girl; she had committed grievous faults, which she was compelled to lay open to the inspection of one who, though kindly disposed toward her, was almost a stranger. The very goodness and generosity he had shown made it the more imperative that she should conceal nothing. To deceive him would be a darker shame than to suffer the consequences of her misdeeds. Hardest of all, she must tell her tale through the cold and unsympathetic medium of an interpreter. Nevertheless, it was her duty. It would be difficult to look me in the face, after the disclosure; but if she left me in ignorance, she could not look me in the face at all. Yet how to convey the terrible avowal of her culminating fraud,—the strategic pinch which her grandmother still refused to condone? No interpreter could be trusted with that guilty secret. Hence her reliance upon the dictionary, with the subsequent touch of pantomime. I was glad, in later years, to remember that I had not laughed at her, as was my impulse at the time. In her overwrought state, anything like mirth, however good-natured, would have cut her to the quick, and probably gone far to break up the confidence she had begun to extend to me.

It was long before Yone could bring herself to regard her act of natural tenderness and humanity in the proper light; and, during the whole of her girlhood, her faith in the righteousness of the aged relative’s judgment remained unshaken. What child of her years, in Japan, would dream of doubting the infallibility of a parent or a grandparent? Any attempt to disturb her convictions on this point would have startled her beyond measure, and would have severely strained, if not severed, the pleasant ties that held us together during that summer sojourn in the country. I left her in the enjoyment of an illusion which she never ceased to cherish until it was forcibly dispelled by the torturing experiences of her later life. It was a great concession, for her, to accept the indirect consolation I offered. Beyond that limit she did not desire to be comforted….


As the time approached when she would be called upon to leave all the associations of girlhood behind her, the childlike simplicity of her nature seemed to renew itself in various ways. With many a blush, she gave me to understand that it had cost her a struggle to renounce the never-forgotten and, till now, never-neglected doll which had been the only intimate companion of her solitary infancy. With regard to her cat, the consolation of her more advanced youth,—now arrived at a stately and dignified maturity,—she decided to invoke my good offices. In proffering this priceless gift, she was evidently disturbed by the fear that mankind at large might not value her pet so highly as she herself did; and was not entirely free from the suspicion that what she deemed a precious prize might prove to another an unwelcome encumbrance. She was, moreover, embarrassed by the necessity of concealing her reason for parting from her four-footed friend; which was, in fact, a vivid apprehension of possible ill-treatment for him in the new home which awaited her. To reveal this cause of anxiety was not compatible with her sense of propriety; but as it was not difficult to divine, I at once averred that the only unfulfilled desire of my heart was to possess a cat of my own, and not any haphazard selection from cats in general, but precisely the sort of animal which Yone had rescued from aquatic perdition in Nagoya, and brought to years of discretion with prudent nurture and suitable training.

In a case of such extremity, she was not disposed to probe my sincerity too deeply, and with little delay the transfer was formally effected,—not without ceremonies and exercises which afforded me the liveliest amusement. What bond of intelligence had been established between the creature and its affectionate mistress, and to what extent the interchange of ideas had become practicable, no man could say; but it pleased Yone to assume, with a fraction of seriousness in her jest, that she could hold intelligible conversations with the neko, and that he was by no means insensible to the spell of moral suasion. It is certain that the pair would often sit face to face and hold dialogues in a fashion to impress an attentive bystander with new and enlarged ideas respecting the animal’s intellectual qualities. Yone would open the debate, and the cat would respond in accents of which I never believed one of his race capable. On this occasion, Master Tom was placed upon a chair, and informed, gently but gravely, of the altered future before him. As if regarding the announcement as a foolish fiction, unworthy of serious notice, he simply moved his lips slightly, in the direction of a mew, but without emitting a sound,—a common expedient of his when not interested in the topic under consideration. Being addressed with more earnestness, he endeavored to take possession of his mistress’s lap, purring melodiously, and sending out entreaty in measured cadences. Finding himself repulsed, and compelled to listen to a more determined statement of the situation, he appeared to assume the attitude of a cat under the influence of extreme astonishment, reversing his ears, and wailing with increased energy. From this stage he proceeded to more vehement demonstrations; uttering prolonged and piercing screams, with his mouth stretched open to its widest capacity, as Yone reminded him, in resolute terms, of the principles of docility and obedience in which he had been reared, and by which it was his duty to be guided at this critical epoch. Nothing could be more comical. Even Yone’s melancholy yielded for a moment to the mirthful provocation.

All this will be taken at its proper value, as a fanciful interpretation of the feline dialect; but an incident which followed showed that the girl had acquired, in some inscrutable manner, a curious mastery over the animal’s usually wayward will. When about to take leave, her familiar prepared to accompany her, as a matter of course, but was put in a corner with stern rebuke. Quite regardless of this unaccustomed severity, the creature insisted on following his mistress, and when I tried forcibly to detain him, shrieked at me with such wild vociferation of abuse that I began to doubt the practicability of the transfer. As a last resource, I fastened a little dog-collar about his neck, and tied him to a chair; but this had the effect of rousing him to such fury as Japanese cats seldom exhibit,—possibly because, having no tails to distend, they lack the chief accessory to an extreme display of frenzy. Here, however, was a notable exception to the rule. He broke the cord, upset the chair, tore off the collar, and abandoned himself to the wildest exaltation of declamatory emotion, until Yone, who had been watching the experiment through a window, returned, and announced that she would employ an unfailing device.

“You shall see,” she said. “I shall work upon his self-esteem. I shall flatter him, and puff him with vanity and pride.”

Then, replacing the collar, and again fastening the cord securely, she commenced an impressive appeal.

“Listen, Pussinole” (Pussinole was a name bestowed in the days of her early English,—a twisted version of Old Pussy, which designation had been applied in her hearing): “you must respect the good doctor’s collar. It is a beautiful collar, and no cat ever had so wonderful an ornament before. It is a great honor for you, Pussinole, and every cat in Tokio will be envious. Why, it is like a king’s necklace. You must keep it carefully, and not injure it. How beautiful he looks in it; does he not, Doctor? Come and tell him he is now the handsomest cat in the world,”—and so following, for a couple of minutes or more, at the end of which she rose, saying: “He will be quiet now, and give you no more trouble.”

To my amazement, the creature did not stir, and, while appearing not altogether content, pursued his mistress only with his eyes. I could not conceal my surprise.

“How did you do it?” I asked, turning over in my mind the possibilities of animal magnetism and similar enchantments. “Do you really believe the cat understands you?”

“Oh, Doctor, Pussinole and I cannot let you into all our secrets. No, indeed. You had better tell me what you think.”

“I think you are a witch, of course; I always thought so.”

“Truly, Doctor, I do not know what to say. I am not so silly as to suppose my cat knows the meaning of my words. Still, there is something not easy to explain. He is familiar with the tones of my speech, at any rate. I have always talked to him as I would to a friend. For many years I have hardly had any other person to talk to, at home; only my little cat. He must comprehend something, for you see how he answers. And he is very glad to be praised. He will do anything, if you compliment and admire him; I am sure of that. So there is nothing marvellous about it.”

Marvellous or not, it was true that the animal made no further effort to escape, and allowed the restraining collar to remain unmolested. In course of time, a certain intimacy grew up between us; but his most ecstatic manifestations of affection were reserved for Yone, upon whom, whenever she visited him, he lavished every endearment of which a cat is capable; purring, chuckling, “chortling,” closing and outstretching his claws, rubbing his head against her as if he would wear away the fur, and entering into animated conversation upon the slightest encouragement. But neither with me nor with any other human acquaintance would he ever exchange a word on any subject. The power of engaging him in oral discourse belonged to Yone alone.