school for the very young in ancient japan - 5/10/17

Today's selection -- from A Daughter of the Samurai by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto. Etsu Sugimoto recalls her life as a young girl growing up in the 1800s in Japan. Students of that era were expected to sit motionless during lessons:

"I was only six years old, and of course I got not one idea from [reading and studying the Four Books of Confucius]. My mind was filled with many words in which were hidden grand thoughts, but they meant nothing to me then. Sometimes I would feel curious about a half-caught idea and ask my teacher the meaning. His reply invariably was:

" 'Meditation will untangle thoughts from words,' or 'A hundred times reading reveals the meaning.' Once he said to me, 'You are too young to comprehend the profoundly deep books of Confucius.'

"This was undoubtedly true, but I loved my lessons. There was a certain rhythmic cadence in the meaningless words that was like music, and I learned readily page after page, until I knew perfectly all the important pas­sages of the four books and could recite them as a child rattles off the senseless jingle of a counting-out game. Yet those busy hours were not wasted. In the years since, the splendid thoughts of the grand old philosopher have gradually dawned upon me; and sometimes when a well-remembered passage has drifted into my mind, the meaning has come flashing like a sudden ray of sunshine.

"My priest-teacher taught these books with the same reverence that he taught his religion -- that is, with all thought of worldly comfort put away. During my lesson
he was obliged, despite his humble wish, to sit on the thick silk cushion the servant brought him, for cushions were our chairs, and the position of instructor was too greatly revered for him to be allowed to sit on a level with his pupil; but throughout my two-hour lesson he never moved the slightest fraction of an inch except with his hands and his lips. And I sat before him on the matting in an equally correct and unchanging position.

"Once I moved. It was in the midst of a lesson. For some reason I was restless and swayed my body slightly, allowing my folded knee to slip a trifle from the proper angle. The faintest shade of surprise crossed my in­structor's face; then very quietly he closed his book, saying gently but with a stern air:

" 'Little Miss, it is evident that your mental attitude to-day is not suited for study. You should retire to your room and meditate.'

"My little heart was almost killed with shame. There was nothing I could do. I humbly bowed to the picture of Confucius and then to my teacher, and backing respect­fully from the room, I slowly went to my father to report, as I always did, at the close of my lesson. Father was surprised, as the time was not yet up, and his unconscious remark, 'How quickly you have done your work!' was like a death knell. The memory of that moment hurts like a bruise to this very day.

"Since absence of bodily comfort while studying was the custom for priests and teachers, of course all lesser people grew to feel that hardship of body meant inspiration of mind."



Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto


A Daughter of the Samurai


University Press of the Pacific


Copyright 2001 by University Press of the Pacific


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