Memories of Silk and Straw

Memories of Silk and StrawFinally a non-fiction read this year, and a very good one. Memories of Silk and Straw is an ethnographic study by a Japanese doctor, Dr. Junichiro Saga, published in the 1980s, a decade of super affluence in Japan. He interviewed lots of elderly people who grew up in a small village about 100 miles north of Tokyo and asked them to recall life, trade, daily activities, etc in the early days of the 20th century. These days most resembled life in “old Japan,” and he wanted to record how people lived at that time. Most of those interviewed were born around 1900, and a few prior to that. He interviewed everyone from midwives to dyers to geisha to farmers. Some of the stories are astounding.

One story that really fascinated was by a man born in 1898 recalling his grandfather who was the town executioner, and prior to that worked as a huntsman for the local lord. That places part of his grandfather’s life squarely in Edo times (pre-1868). He describes his grandfather’s tremendous physical strength even into his 80s, his famous skill as a marksman, and perhaps even greater skill with an executioner’s sword.

Another chapter was presented as a conversation between two geisha who had entertained—or at least been in the room—with many of the high ranking Japanese military officers of World War II. They mention everyone from Admiral Yamamoto to Lt. Genda who went on (according to them—I have not researched) to plan the attack on Pearl Harbor. It also described the hierarchy of geisha and how your rank determined where you sat and whom you entertained. They were truly witnesses of men who shaped history, but in a context completely unconsidered in history books. What remarkable tales women in this profession from any era must have been able to tell.

One of the biggest themes running through most of these stories was that of incredible hardship and deprivation. People worked SO STINKING HARD. Sometimes they would recount a day in the life and it seemed that they only slept a couple of hours a night, ate little of poor quality, and spent 18+ hours at grueling tasks like fishing, farming, etc.  Some chapters focused on how local artisans did things like indigo dying, making tatami, thatching a roof, etc, many of which are lost arts now. There were troubling stories about infanticide and how it was commonly practiced (but think how hard it was to care for and feed another mouth in such poverty).

Often one of the storytellers would wind up by saying “Well there is more but I won’t trouble you with the details. Life is so much easier now, we should be grateful” or something to that ilk. I just never wanted the stories and explanations to end.

personal copy
Kodansha International, 1987

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