Yokohama Triennale 2020 2020.7.3~10.11 Yokohama Triennale 2020 Yokohama Triennale 2020

AfterGlow

BONGOMOHILAR JAPAN JATRA
[A BENGALI WOMAN’S VOYAGE TO JAPAN]

Hariprabha Takeda

At around 8, we saw a cluster of islands far away. A few ships stood near them. We could see mountains. Here the sea was green because land was nearby. At 11, our ship came near the island. By the seashore we could see small trees and paths. Today was very hot. I think we would suffer till we reached Singapore.

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[…] The ship became tumultuous throughout the afternoon. The waves, with a roar, came dashing against the deck and made everything wet. Every bit of luggage that had been up on the bunk fell down on the floor and rolled from one end to the other. Later two ‘boys’ came and arranged and fixed them on the floor so that they would not move. Nobody could stand up straight without holding onto something. If one sat on a bench, one would fall face forwards. The beds had wooden frames all around so there was no fear of falling. Even then, because our beds were sideways and were too big, when we lay down we moved up or down as the ship swayed. One had to clutch hard at the bed to stay still. It was impossible to sleep. Our heads went up once and then down again. The rocking of the ship went on and on. No body could eat anything. The ship had 1000 Chinese passengers all of whom fasted. […]

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[…] One by one many people came to meet us. Young or old, they took off their hats, sat on folded knees and bowed to each other in greetings. They introduced themselves, greeted each other, asked about our health, gave thanks and expressed their joy at meeting us. At each exchange of question and answer, it was expected to bow three or four times to each other. Since I knew no Japanese, I bowed silently. […]

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[…] The shop was decorated with beautiful merchandise. Japanese and foreign clothes, essential and luxury items, and all kinds of food both Japanese and foreign were stocked. We had our lunch there. In one building, various kinds of flowers and trees and shrubs were kept. They were protected from the cold wind outside, so looked green and fresh, with flowers blooming. Sometimes concerts played to please the visitors. […]

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[…] The shrine was a building surrounded by high wooden walls. One had to cross three doors to enter the sanctum. From the outside only the building made of brass could be seen. Ordinary people were not allowed to enter. I didn’t get to see how the deity looked. In that large shrine complex a formless God existed: one could feel His presence even stronger without coming face to face with Him. I noticed there were many devotees flocking the shrine. On one side of the garden some war spoils were displayed: two large canons won in the Russian War, one in the war with the Chinese and other smaller artillery along with a large anchor from a war ship. In Ise, there was another shrine surrounded by a garden just like this one. In one pond in the garden red fishes played along with many other kinds. In the clear clean water, the fish gathered around the visitors in search of food. On the shore of the pond, biscuits and other food were on sale to feed the fishes and visitors were entertained by seeing them. We took a train back in the evening after our visit to the shrine.

Mr. Takeda was in pain for a few days suffering from a large boil.

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1st January: New Year’s Day. The day before New Year, the house is cleaned after taking out all the floor mats. Everybody dresses in new clothes and participates in many amusements. In the cities, the first day of January is marked for the New Year festivities that continue for seven days. In shrines, special festivals take place. Many kinds of entertainments and soldier’s march-pasts take place. In the villages of Japan, such festivities also happen. Everyone, dressed in new clothes, visit the shrines. The young children roam around, play, fly kites. The people decorate their houses with leaves and flags. On the 2nd, they bathe in the morning and begin work. Whatever may be their work, they begin a little to make an auspicious start for the rest of the year. […]

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Tokyo is the capital of Japan. In Tokyo, except for a few special buildings, all the houses were made of wood. Although the capital, the city did not appear to be overtly splendid. On the streets, there were rickshaws and trams and occasionally horse drawn carriages. The city roads were wide but after the rains, they all became muddy. The wooden shoes made the mud churn thicker. The trams were very affordable: in five paisa one could go to any place in the city. If one had to change a tram, then the same ticket was allowed. The car had one compartment without differing classes. There were two doors, one in the front and one at the back. When one boarded the conductor came to give a ticket that one returned to him while getting off. The tram stopped at designated places marked by a red column. Before stopping, the conductor enquired if there were any passengers for the stop and if there were none, the tram went on. From time to time, he advised the passengers to board and get off with care. By the roadside, in small cubicles, policemen were stationed to direct people. In Japan, the police carried swords on their persons. The policemen helped in maintaining peace and did not oppress or trouble any one; instead they behaved with calm politeness. In places there were small booths with telephones, and with five paisa one could talk for five minutes.

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[…] We went to visit a school for girls. A teacher took us around. She had been to England, spoke English and was well educated. We went around the school for 2–3 hours. In this place, there was no dearth of that kind of education that was required to become a good human being, living a fulfilled life and to educate children as well as other citizens. The school taught college level subjects like Chemistry, Botany, Geoscience, Physical Education as well as cooking, cleaning, laundry, looking after small gardens, sewing, music, crafts, drawing, Moral Science, and English language. The younger students were not taught through books. Instead through art and craft, clay modelling, paper cutting they were taught moral lessons as well as other subjects. With clay they learnt geography by making different shapes like Fujisan (mountain) and Sumida (river). Through rhyming poems they leant the names of major places in big cities. One would be astonished to see the clay artifacts and the other art pieces made by the students.
 In one classroom, we saw 3 or 4 year olds making pictures with brush and paper. It was a marvel to see their tiny hands produce such art work. In one place, some children were working in the garden. Elsewhere, girls were engaged in a discussion about Chemistry. They were studying the properties while blowing or removing gases from pipes. The girls were taught etiquette, to respect each other, to talk modestly, to respect elders. In Japan, if one observed the ways in which people spoke courteously to each other, one could understand the deep sense of respect that people had for each other. For example, in the morning, children would bow to parents, everyone would bow to each other and so on even at bed time. Sometimes the words spoken were different. For example, while meeting neighbours, one would greet them with folded hands and if someone came as a guest then the Japanese sat on folded knees to greet them with respect and welcome them by asserting their own insignificance to host such an honoured person. Greetings and saying thanks was an integral part of the daily discourse. Receiving the smallest of kind words or deeds they bowed to give profuse thanks. The custom of talking to someone was to keep oneself small in comparison to the other and to pay respect. While bidding goodbye, they greeted the departing guest and welcomed him back again and again. It was rare to find any illiterate men or women in Japan. Through government efforts, from the age of 8 everyone had to go to school and before that mothers mainly taught the children their letters.

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For personal improvement, the Japanese do not consider any kind of work beneath their dignity. I read in a newspaper once that an Indian who had come to study in Japan was walking home in the rain when one of his colleagues drove a rickshaw and offered his help. When the Indian recognized him and wanted to say something, the Japanese student told him, ‘I am the coachman, there is no need for any words.’ When the Indian did not ride with him, the student went away in search of another passenger. It was not rare to come across incidents like this in Japan. Students who studied in schools and colleges worked at pulling rickshaws that they rented from somewhere, or as porters helping to reach vegetables and fish from the market on their days off. (Here, the shopkeeper sent the wares home as per order.) Everyone worked at what they deemed convenient.

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In many places, women help their husbands in farming the fields. Women work everywhere: in the markets, shops, station, post-office. In places of entertainments, where there is a crowd, women supervised. They sell tickets for show tents and there are no obstacles for women to go and work along side men and to be free to go about every where without impediments or shame.

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[…] No one stays bare chested or bare footed here. Their clothing and apparels are highly civilized. But in public baths, no one is ashamed to be naked while taking a bath. They even take the help of servants to scrub their bodies for 1 or 2 paisa. They pay special attention to hygiene and cleanliness to prevent diseases.

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In their birth and death, the Japanese follow various ritual and prayers but nothing when they get married. It is because they think a marriage is just a union of two bodies. It is because of that they have a few outward festivities that they are supposed to enjoy but no ritual is deemed necessary that would imply the union of souls. But sometimes the wife committed suicide after a husband’s death by cleaving open her stomach or getting rid of her hair and living like a nun to preserve the memories of the dead man and to wish for an afterlife of re-union. […]

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Japan has two religions: Buddhism and Shinto religion. Nowadays some people have also accepted Christianity. The Buddhism prevalent here is not pure Buddhism but everyone is influenced by Shinto religion. They worship dead heroes and all the dead people as gods. The dead ones help humans by being with them in danger and difficulty and during war. The Japanese worship the Emperor as God. They believe that during difficult times such as a war the good benedictions of the Emperor and of the dead ancestors help them to succeed against odds.
 For the dead heroes, there are grand festivals of worship. They are called Shōkonsha. In places there are also shrines dedicated to various gods and goddesses. Both Buddhists and Shinto followers pray there. The religion of Japan can be summed up in the worship of the dead, respect to the Emperor, love for the land, commitment to work. […]

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It was wondrous to see the way the people of this country behaved with me. My mother-in-law and other relatives were always mindful about doing everything that would make me comfortable. She would complete many chores for me. If sometimes I went to fetch water from the well or tried to wash my clothes, she would stop me, take them away from my hands and against all my protestations, say, ‘It’s too cold, you will fall sick.’ She was 60 years old but she was so hardworking that 2–3 people like me could not match her. […]

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[…] Not only did they never display any hatred for a foreigner, they did everything in their means to make me happy and to entertain me. Not only in our home, but wherever I travelled elsewhere either after an invitation or for our own necessity, people came to see me and were eager to know various news of my country. They spent many hours discussing plans that satisfied their desire to welcome me. Even after great preparations, they would apologize at not doing enough and say “We have tried as much as we could but you may face some inconvenience.” It was a great joy to see their sincere sympathy for a foreigner. […]

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[…] A notice had been sent before the prayers and many people had come only to see me. There were so many people that after the prayers, when donations were asked from the invitees nearly 15–16 yen was collected although the amount collected from each person was small (that is 23–24 rupee, 1 yen=1.50 rupee). This money was spent on the shrine and its works. There was such an eager crowd to catch a glimpse of me that I felt uncomfortable and my brothers-inlaw pushed people aside and took me inside and locked the doors. When there was a great demand to see me, I was allowed to come out for a few minutes. I was often invited to such Buddhist memorial services because there would be a crowd for sure and in the village or small cities, where people had not seen too many foreigners it was often impossible for me to venture out sometimes as I would be surrounded by huge crowds.

 


Excerpt from Hariprabha Takeda, Bongomohilar Japan Jatra (A Bengali Woman’s Voyage to Japan), first published in Dhaka, 1915. Reprinted by Sahitya Prakash Publishers, Dhaka, 1999. English translation from Bengali by Debjani Sengupta, commissioned for Yokohama Triennale 2020.