Chapter 5, 'Lady of the House'
After Sawano’s hurried, modest funeral, Kichinosuke gathered his family around him.
“We must all practice gaman, perseverance, to overcome what fate has dealt us. Everyone must do their part to maintain the honor of the Takahashi name.”
He looked intently at the youthful faces of his children in front of him. “After much thought, I have decided to appoint Mizuko as the Lady of the House. This means that all of you must follow her directions without fail.”
Mizuko and her sister Sanae exchanged glances, surprise and concern etching both of their faces.
As if reading their minds, Kichinosuke continued. “I know that Sanae is older, but I have decided that the wiser course of action is for her to continue her cultural studies.”
Left unsaid, but understood by all, was the fact that Sanae had a delicate constitution and needed regular rest to stay healthy.
Mizuko by her age of 15, had enjoyed the lessons in ikebana, calligraphy, tea ceremony, and shamisen that she and her sister had taken, but instantly understood the reasoning behind her father’s decision.
“I understand father, and accept the responsibility,” Mizuko said bowing.
Internally however, Mizuko was troubled by her father’s announcement. Ever since she could remember he had complemented her on her intelligence, energy, and industriousness. Now it was clear that she would have to forgo her education because being Lady of the House, especially in a family with four children under the age of twelve was a full-time job. The family could not afford a governess to care for them, so Mizuko would not have the time to continue attending her distant school.
Involuntarily, Mizuko asked, “But what about my education, otoosan?”
Her father looked at her sternly, then softened. “I’m sorry, but that will have to be delayed until times are better.”
Mizuko applied herself diligently to her duties. Most tasks like cleaning, cooking, mending, and shopping were already familiar to her. In fact, with Sawano no longer around to constantly complain and order her about, Mizuko found her work to be more satisfying and easier to perform.
Despite his catastrophic financial reversal, Mizuko’s father Kichinosuke still retained several civic responsibilities. Ever since his father Naotaro’s retirement from public life, Kichinosuke had served as the local ‘go-between’ for couples seeking to be married. In that capacity he was expected to interview prospective husbands and wives to assess whether or not their social standing, economic backgrounds and future goals were compatible. Kichinosuke’s first and second wives had been an integral part of his assessment team while they were alive. With the loss of his second wife Sawano, Kichinosuke needed someone else to assume his former spouses’ responsibility.
In her role as Lady of the House, Mizuko took on this function. Self-conscious about her height, youth, and appearance, uncomfortable with the endless chit-chat, and bereft of the life experiences and social sophistication necessary to the process, Mizuko suffered greatly in meeting her obligations as a baishakunin. She knew nothing of marriage, or male/female relationships, but was still called upon to “counsel” women who were usually older and far more experienced than she.
Like everything else she undertook, Mizuko tried her best to do the job well. Shopping in the market one day, a red scarf caught her eye. Thinking that wearing it would make her seem somehow more worldly and mature, Mizuko bought it using some of her meager grocery allowance. On the next “go-between” appointment, she drew a rare comment from her father as they rode to their appointment by jinrickshaw.
“That color becomes you,” he said, “but perhaps it is a little bold for the circumstance,” he added. Mizuko blushed deeply in embarrassment and quickly unwound the scarf from around her neck. Just then, a sudden rainsquall was upon them. Mizuko raised the scarf above her head to shield her elaborate hairdo.
By the time they reached their destination, she and Kichinosuke were drenched. Mizuko scurried from the jinrickshaw to stand below the overhang of the nearby roof. As she lowered the scarf she was dismayed to see that the red dye from the cheap scarf had bled onto her hands and the collar of her kimono
"Otoo-san, we must go home,” she cried. “I cannot be seen like this!”
Kichinosuke examined her hands and kimono. “It is unsightly, but we cannot miss our appointment.”
“But I won't…,” she begged.
Her father shook his head saying, “We must always do what is most important and expected.”
He withdrew a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to her. He paid thejinrickshaw driver and turned to enter the residence of the future husband’s parents. Mizuko dabbed ineffectually at the red stains for a moment then reluctantly followed her father to the doorway of the house.
Loathe to re-experience any further embarrassment and to avoid the discomfort of playing the role any more, Mizuko refused to accompany her father to further baishakunin meetings.
It was the first and only time that Mizuko ever disobeyed her father, and the tension between them remained palpable for weeks. Finally, Kichinosuke was forced to ask Sanae to go with him when a request for “go-betweens” was received. Sanae easily handled the responsibilities of the task, and a relieved Mizuko focused her energies on running the household and caring for her younger siblings.
Life proceeded in a routine fashion until Mizuko approached her 16th birthday.
end of Chapter 5, 'Lady of the House'
please return to this Blog next week to read, Chapter 6, 'Marriage 1911, Spring'