Chapter 3, 'A Change of Fortune'
For over a fortnight, a dark cloud darkened the Takahashi manor.
Mizuko and her siblings fretted as a stream of visitors arrived at all hours of the day and night. Produce brokers, local merchants, regional officials, and the Takahashi bookkeepers, along with mysterious groups of grim strangers wearing black Western business suits vied for their father Kichinosuke’s attention.
Kichinosuke seemed to exist on tea alone, going without food or rest while attending one meeting after another. Instead of spending his afternoons at the kendo dojo, fifteen-year old Katsumi came directly home from school to help his father. Mizuko's mother, Tona, bedridden by a mysterious malady, was soon receiving around-the-clock care from Kyoko obaasan and the female servants. Soon, Tona’s condition worsened and she would not allow anyone outside the family to see her.
On New Year’s Day, January 1, 1902, after a night of many unannounced comings and goings, the children arose to a gray and silent morning.
Kyoko obaasan gathered all five of the children in the great room of the mansion. The massive table in the center of the room was already filled with the traditional New Year’s Day foods, osechi ryori gotso. The lavish display gave the room a festive air that was at odds with the prevailing feeling.
Looking uncharacteristically haggard after a sleepless night, Kyoko obaasan took her time looking from one expectant face to another.
After a deep sigh she said, “I have some very sad news for you.” Mizuko heard her older sister Ayano draw in her breath in dreadful anticipation.
“I am sorry to tell you that your mother died during the night.”
Sanae cried out “NO!” and fell into the arms of Ayano sobbing. Little Tomoye, sensing more than understanding the anguish in the room, broke into tears. Mizuko sat perfectly still, as if somehow she could alter reality by not moving. She tried to speak, but no words came.
How could this be? She thought. I just was with okaasan yesterday.
Tona-san, her mother, had seemed weak but better, and had even summoned up the strength to sit up and brush Mizuko’s thick, black hair a little. Now the thought of her lying cold and still in her room was impossible to comprehend.
Two of the female servants, Sachi and Yumi, shed silent tears. Watching them, Mizuko, tried desperately not to cry. I need to be strong… she thought to herself. Katsumi stood up abruptly, and violently slammed his right fist into the palm of his other hand. He looked down at his weeping sisters, than pulled himself together and strode decisively towards the room where their dead mother lay.
When the girls’ crying began to subside Kyoko obaasan said quietly to the small gathering, “May she find her way to a better existence.”
The old woman rose to her feet, and with her familiar resolve returning said, “Ayano, come with me. Help me prepare the room for the body washers so we can give your mother the proper traditional funeral she deserves. There is much to do.”
Mizuko’s eldest sister got up without a word and followed her grandmother out of the room. Sanae trailed after them. Mizuko bent down and gathered the weeping Tomoye into her arms and rocked and soothed her until she quieted. After Tomoye had fallen asleep, Mizuko found herself trembling with the knowledge that her family would never be the same again.
At six and a half years old, Mizuko was too young to understand the circumstances of her mother’s death or of the monumental factors that led to it. She only came to know of them later in life. Something had triggered her healthy mother’s death, but on that morning Mizuko and her sisters could only speculate on what it might have been. Regardless, within the space of the next five months the lives of the Takahashi family would change drastically.
When Kichinosuke Takahashi married Tona Hase, their union had come with an unusual stipulation. Tona was the sole heiress to a coal mining empire. As a condition to their marriage, her parents made Kichinosuke promise that he would assume full financial responsibility for any problems that Tona's mines might encounter.
Twenty-one years after that agreement was signed, the inconceivable happened. A devastating earthquake struck, collapsing the main mine and killing or injuring countless workers. Operations ceased, and huge debts owed to the surviving families and injured workers rapidly accrued. Kichinosuke, true to his promise, stepped up to clear the debts and save his wife's family name.
His decades-old promise resulted in the destruction and loss of the Takahashi fortune. The thought that she and her inheritance were at the root of the collapse of the Takahashi Empire was too much for Tona to bear. While the cause of her death was listed as a shock to the nervous system, Tona died from a broken heart prompted by shame. As for her children, they not only lost their mother, but the blissful and privileged existence they had always known.
Over the next several months, the Takahashi riches quickly disappeared. Family heirlooms, including the hinamatsuri display, centuries-old ceramic tea bowls and vases, wall hangings, and formal kimono were all sold to reduce the family debt. The domestic servants, maids, cooks, and gardeners, many of whose families had been in the employ of the Takahashis for generations, were let go. Goro, the senior groundkeeper, although no longer paid, stayed on to attend the gardens until they too were uprooted for their valuable stones, statuary, and flora. The magnificent koi, many of which had lived in the garden pond for sixty years or longer, were sold to the highest bidders.
Without its precious artifacts and furnishings, the interior of the manse felt cavernous. In the echoing gloom of the nearly empty house, a sense of doom pervaded. Once, on the night of the full moon, the sound of shuffling footsteps and indecipherable murmurings woke the family. Katsumi and Kichinosuke investigated but found nothing. Katsumi’s offhand remark that the Takahashi ancestors were visiting the house for the last time unsettled everyone even further.
As the process of dismantling the manse itself gained momentum, Kichinosuke and his family were forced to move into what had once been a modest guesthouse for visitors next to the main house. Workmen strategically removed the keys and wedges that held their former residence together. Within a week, the showplace residence of the Takashashi clan was reduced to its component parts and sold off. A new road erased all traces of the tree-lined walkway that had led to the Takahashi house.
Worst of all, the vast land holdings of the Takahashi clan, accumulated over nearly three hundred years of collective sweat and tears, were sold to cover the colossal debt incurred by Tona's family catastrophe.
The Takahashis were no longer among the wealthiest families in Hiroshima-ken. Kichinosuke Takahashi, however, retained some of his status by virtue of historical precedent and his own scholarly reputation. In a nod to his long-standing position in the community the prefectural government appointed him the Principal of a local school. Life for him became far less luxurious but was still respectable. On the other hand his children, who had known only wealth and favor, began living lives drastically different than before.
Although many of Kichinosuke’s former tenant farmers and sharecroppers would still bow low when the family passed by, most of the children’s material wants, beyond the basic necessities, were no longer affordable. In addition, without a mother, nannies, and house servants, the children were forced to shoulder unfamiliar, often mundane, yet exhausting responsibilities. As fate would have it, many of those responsibilities fell heaviest upon the shoulders of Mizuko, the fourth child of the Takahashi family.
end of Chapter 3