I receive a daily email from Delanceyplace.com which is a brief excerpt or quote that they view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and hopefully have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.
Today’s selection is from A Daughter of the Samurai by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto. For centuries under Buddhism, vegetarianism was widely practised in Japan. That continued until the 1850s, when the expedition of Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japanese society and the Japanese began to tentatively adopt Western eating habits and other practises, (I particularly like the grandmother’s final comment):
“I was about eight years old when I had my first taste of meat. For twelve centuries, following the introduction of the Buddhist religion, which forbids the killing of animals, the Japanese people were vegetarians. In late years, however, both belief and custom have changed considerably, and now, though meat is not universally eaten, it can be found in all restaurants and hotels. But when I was a child it was looked upon with horror and loathing.
“How well I remember one day when I came home from school and found the entire household wrapped in gloom. I felt a sense of depression as soon as I stepped into the ‘shoe-off’ entrance, and heard my mother, in low, solemn tones, giving directions to a maid. A group of servants at the end of the hall seemed excited, but they also were talking in hushed voices. Of course, since I had not yet greeted the family, I did not ask any questions, but I had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, and it was very hard for me to walk calmly and unhurriedly down the long hall to my grandmother’s room.
” ‘Honourable Grandmother, I have returned,’ I murmured, as I sank to the floor with my usual salutation. She returned my bow with a gentle smile, but she was graver than usual. She and a maid were sitting before the black-and-gold cabinet of the family shrine. They had a large lacquer tray with rolls of white paper on it and the maid was pasting paper over the gilded doors of the shrine.
“Like almost every Japanese home, ours had two shrines. In time of sickness or death, the plain wooden Shinto shrine, which honours the Sun goddess, the Emperor, and the nation, was sealed with white paper to guard it from pollution. But the gilded Buddhist shrine was kept wide open at such a time; for Buddhist gods give comfort to the sorrowing and guide the dead on their heavenward journey. I had never known the gold shrine to be sealed; and besides, this was the very hour for it to be lighted in readiness for the evening meal. That was always the pleasantest part of the day; for after the first helping of our food had been placed on a tiny lacquer table before the shrine, we all seated ourselves at our separate tables, and ate, talked and laughed, feeling that the loving hearts of the ancestors were also with us. But the shrine was closed. What could it mean?
“I remember that my voice trembled a little as I asked, ‘Honourable Grandmother, is –is anybody going to die?’
“I can see now how she looked — half amused and half shocked.
” ‘Little Etsu-ko,’ she said, ‘you talk too freely, like a boy. A girl should never speak with abrupt unceremony.’
” ‘Pardon me, Honourable Grandmother,’ I persisted anxiously; ‘but is not the shrine being sealed with the pure paper of protection?’
” ‘Yes,’ she answered with a little sigh, and said nothing more.
“I did not speak again but sat watching her bent shoulders as she leaned over, unrolling the paper for the maid. My heart was greatly troubled.
“Presently she straightened up and turned toward me. ‘Your honourable father has ordered his household to eat flesh,’ she said very slowly. ‘The wise physician who follows the path of the Western barbarians has told him that the flesh of animals will bring strength to his weak body, and also will make the children robust and clever like the people of the Western sea. The ox flesh is to be brought into the house in another hour and our duty is to protect the holy shrine from pollution.
“That evening we ate a solemn dinner with meat in our soup; but no friendly spirits were with us, for both shrines were sealed. Grandmother did not join us. She always occupied the seat of honour, and the vacant place looked strange and lonely. That night I asked her why she had not come.
” ‘I would rather not grow as strong as a Westerner — nor as clever,’ she answered sadly. ‘It is more becoming for me to follow the path of our ancestors.’
“My sister and I confided to each other that we liked the taste of meat. But neither of us mentioned this to any one else; for we both loved Grandmother, and we knew our disloyalty would sadden her heart.”