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Modern History Sourcebook:
Sir Edwin Arnold:
A Japanese Dinner Party, 1890

A BANQUET here, properly arranged, served, and located, furnishes, in my humble judgment, as graceful and delightful a meal as can be shared in all the world; and casts into the shade the classic memories of the triclinia of ancient times, the too solid and lavish dishes of Turkey and Syria, the cloying sweetmeats of an Indian burra Khana, and even in many respects the festal triumphs of a Parisian or London cordon bleu. The act of eating is, in truth, somewhat gross, and of the animal; albeit, decidedly necessary. Japanese taste and fancy have, however, known how to elevate this somewhat humiliating daily need from a process of mere nourishment into a fine art and a delicate divertissement, where every sense is in turn softly pleased and soothed, and food and drink fall in like pleasant interludes without ever assuming the chief importance of the occasion. None the less may you fare abundantly, luxuriously, and to repletion, if you will, from the Japanese menu; but the fare is all the more agreeable and digestible because you eat what you like, when you like, as you.like, and in what order you like during three or four placid hours, converted into a dream of pleasure by accomplished dancing and singing, and by the most perfect and most charming service. It was our good fortune lately to be invited to a typical native dinner at the Japanese Club in this capital, of which I will offer a sketch in the very lightest outline.

The club, situated in the heart of the city, is a building entirely of the indigenous style as to design and decoration, frequented chiefly by the higher officials and noblemen of Tokyo. Imagine, if you can, endless platforms of polished wood, stairway apartment ladders of shining cedar and pine, apartment after apartment carpeted with spotless matting, and walled by the delicate joinery of the shoji---everywhere a scrupulous neatness, an exquisite elegance, a dainty aesthetic reserve; nothing too much anywhere of ornament. Except the faultless carpentry of the framework and the tender color of the walls and paneled ceilings, you will see only a stork or two in silk embroidery here, a dream in sepia of Fuji-San there, a purple chrysanthemum plant yonder, in its pot of green and gray porcelain, and the snow-white floors with their little square cushions.

Our dinner was one of about twenty cushions, and we were received at the entrance by about as many musumes---the servants of the establishment---having their okusama at their head, who, upon our approach, prostrate themselves on the outer edge of the matted hall, uttering musical little murmurs of welcome and honor. Our footgear is laid aside below the dark polished margin of the hall, and we step upon the soft yielding tatamis, and are each then led by the hand of some graceful, small tripping musume to the broad ladder, up which we must ascend to the dining-room, enlarged for the occasion by the simple method of running back the shutters of papered framework. The guests comprise European ladies as well as gentlemen, and all are in their stocking-feet, for the loveliest satin slipper ever worn could not venture to pass from the street pavement to these immaculate mats. While you chat with friends, you turn suddenly to find one of the damsels in the flowered kimono and the dazzling obi kneeling at your feet with a cup of pale tea in her tiny hands. Each guest receives this preliminary attention; then the square cushions are ranged round three sides of the room, and we tuck our legs under us---those, at least, who can manage it---and sit on our heels, the guest of honor occupying the center position at the top. To each convive then enters a pretty, bright, well-dressed Japanese waitress, with hair decked "to the nines," stuck full of flowers and jeweled pins, and shining like polished black marble. She never speaks or settles to any serious duty of the entertainment without falling on her little knees, smoothing her skirt over them, and knocking her nice little flat nose on the floor; and will either demurely watch you use your hashi---your chopsticks---in respectful silence, or prettily converse, and even offer her advice as to the most succulent morsels of the feast, and the best order in which to do them justice. Before each guest is first placed a cake of sugared confectionery and some gayly-colored leaf-biscuits, with a tiny transparent cup of hot tea. Then comes the first "honorable" table, a small lacquered tray with lacquered bowls upon it, containing a covered basin of tsuyu-soup---the "honorable dew"---a little pot of soy, a gilded platter with various sweet and aromatic condiments upon it, and some wonderful vegetables, environing some fairy cutlets of salmon.

You disengage your chopsticks from their silken sheath and prepare for action---nor is it so very difficult to wield those simple knives and forks of Eastern Asia, if once the secret of the guiding fingers between them be learned. Otherwise you will drop the very first mouthful from the soup-bowl upon your shirt-front, to the gentle but never satirical laughter of your musume. Amid the talk which buzzes around, you will have inquired of her already in Japanese, "What is your honorable name?" and "How many are your honorable years?" and she will have informed you that she is O Hoshi, O Shika, O Tsubaki---that is to say, "Miss Star," "Miss Camellia," or "Miss Antelope"---and that she was eighteen years of age, or otherwise, on her last birthday. Respectfully you consult O Shika San as to what you should do with the fragrant and appetizing museum of delicacies before you. She counsels you to seize the tiny lump of yellow condiment with your chopsticks, to drop it in the soy, to stir up and flavor therewith the pink flakes of salmon; and you get on very famously, watched by her almond eyes with the warmest personal interest. Now and again she shuffles forward on her small knees to fill your sake-cup, or to rearrange the confusion into which your little bowls and platters have somehow fallen; always with a consummate grace, modesty, and good breeding. And now, while you were talking with your neighbor, she has glided off and reappeared with another tray, on which is disclosed a yet more miscellaneous second service.

Her brown, tiny, well-formed hands insinuate deftly within reach, as you kneel on your cushion, numerous saucers clustered round a fresh red lacquer basin of vegetable soup, wherein swim unknown but attractive comestibles. The combinations of these are startling, if you venture upon questioning the delighted O Shika San, but you must be possessed of a courageous appetite or you will subsequently disappoint the just expectations of "Miss Antelope." Here are shrimps, it seems, pickled with ansu (apricots), snipe subtly laid in beds of colored rice and kuri (chestnuts); wild goose with radish cakes, and hare (usagi), seasoned with preserved cherries amid little squares of perfumed almond paste, and biscuits of persimmon. The piece de resistance is a pretty slab of fluted glass, whereon repose artistic fragments of fish, mostly raw---so grouped that the hues and outlines of the collection charm like a water-color drawing. You play with your chopstick points among shreds of tako (the cuttle-fish), kani (crab paste), saba and hirame, resembling our mackerel and soles; and are led by the earnest advice of your kneeling musume to try, perhaps, the uncooked trout yamame. With the condiments her little fingers have mixed, it is so good that you cease presently to feel like a voracious seal, and wonder if it be not wrong, after all, to boil and fry anything. Environed with all these in tiny dishes, and lightly fluttering from one to another---with no bread or biscuit, it is true, but the warm, strong sake to wash all down (for the glossy-haired musume keeps a little flask at her side for your especial use)---you are beginning at last to be conscious of having dined extraordinarily well, and also, perchance, of "pins and needles" in your legs. So you say Mo yoroshii---"It is enough!"---and now the service relapses a little for music and dancing.

The shoji are pushed back at the far end of the room, and three musicians are discovered playing the samisen, the thirteen-stringed koto, and a kind of violin. Before them sit the best Geishas from Kyoto, and we are pleasantly weaned from our desultory dinner by a dramatic pas de deux founded on the subjoined ideas: Hidari Jingoro was one of the most celebrated wood-carvers of Japan. He flourished in the early part of the seventeenth century. Specimens of his work are to be seen in the

great temples at Nikko and in Kyoto. The tradition represented in this dance is the Japanese "Pygmalion and Galatea." Hidari Jingoro having employed all the resources of his art to carve the image of a Kyoto beauty to whom he is said to have been attached, succeeds so admirably that, one day, he suddenly finds the figure endowed with life and movement. But although the girl is there in the flesh, her soul is the soul of Jingoro---she thinks with his thoughts, and moves with his movements.

Jingoro would fain alter this and convert the wooden image into Umegaye herself---as well in the mind as in appearance. He considers that the object upon which all the feminine instincts of the fair sex are concentrated is a mirror. Accordingly he places a mirror in the girl's hand, and she, seeing her own face, immediately becomes Umegaye, and ceases to be a female replica of Jingoro. Deprived of the mirror, however, she loses individuality, and is once more a living automaton. The little musumes withdraw to the side walls that we may better watch every step. Absolutely impossible is it to describe with how much eloquence of pace and gesture the little girl in gold and blue dances and glances round the motionless girl in gold and scarlet, until she has charmed that black-eyed statue into life. And then the rapture; the illusion; the disillusion; the anguish of watching the imitativeness of that brown Galatea; the joy when the mirror renders her individual; the grief when without it she relapses into a living shadow of her dark-skinned Pygmalion; the artistic graces developed and the dainty passages of emotion tripped to the simple but passionate music with the gilded silken kimono floating and fluttering about those small bare feet, those slender banded knees! The dance was a real piece of choregraphic genius, and the applause sincere when the sculptor and his lovely image bent themselves to the earth, and demurely resumed their cushions.

Meantime, obeying Japanese etiquette, each guest in turn comes to the "guest of honor," asks leave to drink from his sake-cup, and obtaining it, raises the vessel to his forehead, drinks, rinses it from the water-bowl, and fills it for his friend. When this is done, the "guest of honor" must go round and pledge his associates in the same way, while the three sides of the convivial square now for a time break up into chatty groups, wherein the musumes mingle like living flowers scattered about. But dinner is not nearly finished yet. Before each cushion there is again laid a lacquered tray---none of the others being yet removed---and this contains the choicest fish which can be procured---a whole one---with his tail curled up in a garland of flower-buds, together with cakes, scented spice-balls, and sugar-sticks, which you are to eat if you can. If not able to cope with these new dainties, they will be put into pretty boxes and deposited in your carriage or jinrikisha---indeed, it is necessary to be careful in leaving one of these entertainments, or you may sit on a boiled mullet, or a stuffed woodcock, or some cream-tartlets.

While we dally with the third service the Geishas dance again and again---the last performance being full of comicgrace. It was called the Arashi-yama. Arashiyama is one of the most celebrated spots in Kyoto. Its cherry blossoms in spring and its maples in autumn attract thousands of visitors. Among the cherry trees therewas a little theater called Mibu-do,where wordless plays used to be acted when the flowers were in full bloom. Here the Palace ladies were in the habit of coming every season, and their attendants enjoyed a picnic and extemporized plays for the ladies' amusement. The dance represented such a picnic. During the carouse a female enters, beautifully dressed, but wearing the mask of Okame (the colloquial term for a particularly fat homely wench). The convives, persuaded that this disguise is intended to conceal uncommon charms, press her to drink; and she, after receiving their attentions, suddenly removes her mask, exhibiting the face, not of a lovely damsel, but of the veritable Okame herself, the patron goddess of plain women. With wonderful spirit and charm the gay little danseuses performed this comedy, ending our long but never tedious dinner of five hours with a special figure called Sentakuya, or the "Washermen's Trio." After this each musume led her guest by the hand to the hall. Shoes were resumed, carriages entered, and "honorable exits" made, in a dazzling forest tempest of Sayonaras ("Farewell!") and Mata irrashais ("Come soon again!").


Source:

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 391-398.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998
halsall@murray.fordham.edu