“No, Sora-chan,” an elderly, thin woman in a traditional kimono scolds as I walk into the kitchen, “You must take off your coat at the door, that is the Japanese way.” I bow my head and apologise frantically as I rush to take off my coat, gloves and scarf – my fighting weapons against the dry, piercing Tokyo winter air.
Akiko-san and Saki-chan, together with the three elderly sisters, Akiko-san’s koto teachers, who share the cozy apartment fill the room with energetic jibber-babber as I do so. When I am finished, the youngest of the three, Takemata-sensei, smiles before pronouncing, “Before we sit down, let us all exchange proper salutations.” Then a flurry of “Akemashite-omedetou” ( “Happy New Year”)s fill the air and we bow many times before finally sitting down at the table.
Across from me, the middle sister who scolded me earlier, Inagaki-sensei, sits quietly and offers a few words here and there as Takemata-sensei begins to bring out gorgeous china, explaining the importance of each one in quite a fast pace. Across the table to my right, the oldest of the three, Kikuchi-sensei, smiles kindly and quietly at me.
All three have been playing the koto – an ancient Japanese large, stringed instrument that is played sitting down – from the early years of grade school. When World War II started and life became hard, they still continued their lessons and presently still play at various events, while also saving time to give daily lessons to people like Akiko-san.
The three sisters are part of a big family of seven and grew up in the heart of Tokyo during the War. One younger sister passed away, but their brother lives close by. When asked why they started to play the koto at such a young age, Inagaki-sensei replies that one of her friends was taking traditional Japanese singing lessons and she wanted to do something as well. After she saw the koto being played at a performance, she fell in love with the sound and asked her mother if she could take lessons. “My mother said, ‘Starting lessons is easy, but continuing to go is difficult. If you have the confidence and will that you will continue the lessons, then you may.’ Because I agreed to this, I could not quit, even if I wanted to. I never missed a lesson.”
While Inagaki-sensei wholeheartedly admits she did not like studying at school or homework, her elder sister, Kikuchi-sensei was the opposite case. Kikuchi-sensei had the best grades in her class and in her family and especially loved learning mathematics. Her eyes grew sad as she recounted how when the war started, schools were not able to teach English anymore. Instead, she and her siblings were forced to quit going to school and instead put into war-supporting volunteer work. At this point, the three sisters were in their early teens.
Inagaki-sensei worked in an airplane factory far from her home and remembers how difficult it was to keep going. “I had to run to the train station every day, which was a great length and then work for hours in the factory. It became so hard on my body – I was still so young – that I began to throw up blood, so much that the person in charge at the factory told me that I did not have to come anymore.” But her father soon moved the family closer the factory, so she was able to continue her job. Even though her family was considerably well-off before the war, still it was difficult to eat. Her father, who was the eldest in his family, had the great duty to support both his father’s family and his own family. Even though he dreamed of going to a School of Art, since he was very artistic, he gave this up to work for these two families and instead filled his artistic craving with his hobbies. He wrote daily summaries, complete with beautiful drawings, during the War.
As described by the three sisters, their father was very strict, but kind as well. They were always expected to bow respectfully to their father when he arrived home. Their mother was also strict, but based on the gorgeous black and white pictures of her, she was quite beautiful.
Before the War, Inagaki-sensei describes their childhood as the best of times. She would go to school, come home and complete her koto lesson, then do her homework. At seven o’clock, the whole family would come sit together in the dining room to eat dinner. “Everyone was often very busy in our house, so I always loved how we all came together to eat at night,” Inagaki-sensei explains. Her father’s friends would also often come over to talk after dinner.
Inagaki-sensei especially loved playing karuta – a type of Japanese card game where half of a traditional poem is read out loud and the players compete to find and slap the card that says the rest of the poem. From their early years, the children all loved to watch the adults play and gradually began to memorize the poems. As they grew older, their favorite pastime became playing karuta with their parents reading the poems out loud. Yet they got so good at the game that when opportunities to play the card game came up at their friends’ house, according to Takemata-sensei, “since we always won, it was not fun anymore.”
But those days of childhood happiness, when they enjoyed being quite well off, stopped abruptly with the start of World War II. Lights had to be turned completely off at night in order to avoid being targeted for the American bombing planes. At the factories that they worked day in and day out at, bombings were common and death was always a possibility. During one bombing, their house was burned to the ground and the family lost everything.
“But when all the lights were turned off at night during the War, I still played my koto,” Inagaki-sensei says proudly. “We lost everything because of the War and we had to go through painful experiences, but because of that, we gained compassion. If the War had not happened, we would have grown up in our riches and would have never known how it feels to have nothing, to be hungry. So I believe it was a good thing.”
Japan changed drastically after the War. When Americans came into Tokyo, everyone was fearful that they would hurt the Japanese citizens. But thankfully, nothing happened to them or their friends and family. But the Americans did one thing that the sisters cannot forgive. They took away a class at school that taught proper Japanese manners. They had grown up with the knowledge that one must always respect their elders, the proper way to bow, to exchange greetings. But because that way of thinking was forced away after the War, today’s Japanese youth do not know all of these manners.
“My father thought that the Americans would come and take everything away from us after the War. That’s why he taught us that we needed to save the Japanese culture,” explains Inagaki-sensei. “That’s why I play the koto. That’s why I teach how to play the koto. I want the Japanese culture to stay alive through the generations…
…I believe that is my job.”
When we finally leave, after a delicious meal of ozoni soup and osetchi-ryori, I start to put my coat on again in the kitchen, forgetting my previous mistake. “No, Sora-chan…” Inagaki-sensei starts. I bow and apologize again, but this time I feel different, happier. I take off my coat and look up at the creased, good-natured faces of the three sisters…and smile, showing my deep respect.