Friday, 30 March 2012

Recommended: Japanese Memories

This book (yes, a book) was written by Ethel Howard, an English governess. She had previously been the tutor for the children of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and this book tells her tale of teaching the four sons of the royal Shimazu family from 1901 to 1908.

It's a fascinating glimpse into a very different world. A world that was, itself, changing rapidly. At first she describes the difficulty in communicating to the staff of the household since – apart from her students – no one spoke much English. But in time she starts to settle in and writes about her students, her arguments with their other teachers, and about Japan in general.

It's written with much detail and is often very funny, in a dry British humour kind of way. One tale tells how the princes brought back some Eau d'Cologne from a trip abroad and gave them to the ladies of the household as a gift. A few days later, the princes received a note from the ladies asking how much they were supposed to drink, since it effected their heads! And for those who think the fashion for walking with the toes turned inwards is a new thing, it seems that it's been with us for over a hundred years:

"At first it was a mystery to me why the children had such terribly turned-in feet. I did not know at the time that it was an old-fashioned necessity of the polite world for the feet of a Japanese nobleman to take this position. It tired me more than any other work at the beginning to break the boys of this habit; but it did not take long, for in this, as in everything else, they adapted themselves with marvellous rapidity. It became a second habit to say every few minutes, "Turn your feet out," so much so, that one day, when very over-tired and distraite, I made the same remark to the German Ambassador, Count d'Arco Valley, who, for some absurd reason, happened to sit with his feet turned in when visiting us!"

The pdf version also has some nice photos of Japan and Japanese people from that era. In short, this is a glorious time capsule from Meiji era Japan. So if there are any Japanese TV producers who need ideas for the next Taiga drama, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at this.

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