Alma O. Taylor served for more than eight years as a mission in Japan, from the opening of the Japan Mission in 1901 to Alma’s return to Utah in 1910. He served as mission president for much of that time and translated the Book of Mormon and other materials into Japanese. By the time he was released, he was thoroughly appreciative of Japanese culture and the goodness of the Japanese people. In this report, though, from his earliest days in the mission, while he was still struggling to learn Japanese and to feel comfortable in Japan, he may remind you of yourself in your first days away from home …
My First Visit to a Japanese Home
By Alma O. Taylor
Last Friday I went up to a little country village some thirty-six miles northeast of Tokyo and spent a day and a night in a purely Japanese style at the home of Mr. Aoki, our Japanese teacher. The things which I saw and what I experienced would take the descriptive powers of a Dickens or some other great writer to produce on paper or tell to others, but I will endeavor to tell in a rough way how it happened.
We left Honjo station at Tokyo just at twelve o’clock and after a ride of an hour and a quarter through beautiful fields and low wooded hills we arrived at the little town of Chiba, which is prettily located on the shore of a large inlet from the ocean. The hundreds of fishing crafts with their sun-bleached sails looked like butterflies flitting over the glassy surface of a pond, and the activity of so many of these boats revealed at once that this hamlet was the home of many fishermen. In the afternoon Mr. Aoki and I took a walk along the sea shore and watched the fishermen unloading their crafts and drying their nets. I could not help thinking, as I saw these men who were almost naked, working busily with ropes and other things, of the fishermen along the shores of Galilee, and from among whom the Savior called the most stalwart of His Apostles. I wondered to myself if in this number of men and women – for there were also some women among them – whom I saw along this sandy beach there were some noble hearts, which, if introduced to the truth of Christianity, would become strong and ardent defenders of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as Peter and John of old had been.
About one hundred feet back from the water’s edge rose gradually a small bluff, completely covered with pine trees and other shrubbery, and extending for some miles on a parallel with the sea. Along this bluff were built homes – some very beautiful, while others were the simple thatched roofed cottages of those humble fishermen who were working diligently with their nets along the shore below.
When we had finished our walk, we found that it was nearly five o’clock, so we hastened back to Mr. Aoki’s, as he had to take the train shortly after five o’clock to a little village some five miles north of Chiba, known as Yotsukaido. In this place Mr. Aoki has two classes of Japanese students, who were studying English, and he requested me to accompany him and see what I thought of his work.
It was dark when we reached this place, and as it had rained quite heavily the night before, we found it very hard walking, and not being able to see the way we often stepped into mud holes which many times were almost as deep as our shoes. They have no sidewalks in this land, so we have to walk in the street. We at last reached one of the places where the students met, and I found to my surprise that Mr. Aoki’s students were soldiers who were doing service in the government artillery barracks, located at this place. This class has an enrollment of twenty pupils, but there were only five present, the others were on service as guards over the grounds. At Mr. Aoki’s request I took the class and listened to the recitation of their lesson. They seemed to appreciate my efforts with them and thanked me very much for the same.
We left this building and wandered around through the dark and mud again until we came to the room in which the second class was held. This class was composed of other students than the first and seemed to be much brighter. There were some twelve or fifteen of them in this class, and as they were just commencing to read anew book, I, at the request of Mr. Aoki, read the first chapter as sort of an example to them. It is very hard for the Japanese to sound some of our consonants, and after half an hour’s drill on some of these, we left this place about 10 p.m. so as to catch the last train back to Chiba. Before going, however, we were presented with cake and tea, of the former only I partook, of course. While eating, an earthquake shook the house until it rocked on its foundation and cracked from cellar to garret as though it were going to collapse.
I left my Japanese cards with the students and they all evinced a most friendly feeling toward me, and I felt that the Lord had blessed me with His Spirit while I was among them. They all expressed a desire to have me come back, but it may be that I shall never see them again.
You may be surprised at my acting as a teacher, but I assure you that it was very simple work, for the students knew but very little of the English language, so I was capable, with Mr. Aoki acting as interpreter, of giving them a pointer or two.
We got back to Mr. Aoki’s house about eleven o’clock and were welcomed by the servants who bowed their heads to the floor (in strictly Japanese style) in courtesy to their master and his friend.
A meal of jam, rice and bread was speedily prepared and we ate heartily as we talked over the attitude of the Mormons past and present, on the subject of polygamy. After the meal the table was taken away and my bed made on the floor. A Japanese bed consists of two “footons” (bedding which looks very much like comforters, only containing much more padding) laid on the floor; a pillow, a foot long and eight inches thick, filled with straw or some other material equally as hard; and lastly as many “footons” on top as may be required for the comfort of the sleeper. It is also the custom of the Japanese to sleep in “kimonos” instead of nightshirts or gowns; so in order that I might experience as much as possible of the native style, I was provided with a nice looking “kimono,” which, when I had put it on, made the inmates of the place laugh heartily. They were not accustomed to seeing a foreigner dressed in native garb, and it touched their funny spot. Also, according to custom, I was provided with a little tallow dip that was placed in a box, the sides of which were of paper, through which a dim light glimmered all night long. I said good night and the sliding doors were drawn together, leaving me alone in the room. It would require a volume to contain the thoughts that passed through my mind in the two or three minutes that I spent looking around before lying down in the Japanese cradle prepared for me on the floor.
My heart was full of gratitude to God for the experience of the day and for the prospects of the night.
I woke up a time or two during the night, but each time the faint light which came from the tallow-dip brought me quickly to a realization of where I was, and I rolled over with an assurance of my safety and was soon asleep again to dream of my future life in the land of the Mikado.
It was half-past eight when I got up, and after nine o’clock when breakfast was ready. O what a breakfast! Warm condensed milk with rice and sweetened with something which looked very much like a mixture of maple and white sugar, and a very choice dish among the Japanese, consisting of sliced raw fish, prepared with a kind of black sauce filled with horse-radish. The sight of this meal was sufficient to satisfy my appetite, but I, realizing that a Japanese would consider it a serious thing for his guests to refuse the food which he prepared for them, ate just as much as I could but you may rest assured left considerable of the raw meat uneaten.
When we had finished our breakfast, we took a walk out to one of the ancient temples on the edge of the town, and it being on an eminence, it is a place from where one of the most picturesque views of the ocean can be had. The temple was closed, and we were therefore unable to see the inside save as we looked through the slat-doors in the front of the building.
When we got back to the house again, the servant brought us in some food the name of which I do not know, nor can I tell all of what it was made out of, but from the way the Japanese ate it, I should judge that it is a sort of a delicacy among them. It was made into pieces about the size and very much the shape of a small biscuit. The outer coating was of uncooked dough, which the inside was made of sugar and some fruit peculiar to Japan. I took a bite and started to chew it, but the dough and sugar mixed up into one of the mushiest messes I ever had in my mouth. Fortunately for me, Mr. Aoki was called away immediately after presenting me with the second piece out of which I had taken one bite and while he was gone I disposed of the rest over the neighboring fence. I was invited to eat more, but I succeeded in escaping the ordeal by saying that my stomach was small and quickly filled, and I would be overloading it if I were to eat any more.
As we were sitting together, a foreign gentleman called to see Mr. Aoki and invited him to take a walk during the most beautiful afternoon, and as I was there as a guest of Mr. Aoki, I was also invited to accompany them. Mr. Aoki insisted that we should have dinner before we went. I was surprised at the mention of dinner, for I felt that the eating ordeal through which I had just passed was quite enough for one day, and the thought of another meal nearly made me sick, for there was no telling what would be presented and I could not refuse for fear of hurting the feelings of my host. I was truly thankful when I saw that it was food which I could eat, and consequently I enjoyed this meal very much. During the meal Mr. Norman and I had a discussion on the truth of Bible history as shown by the condition of the Holy Land today. He opposed the Bible, but I succeeded, I believe, in showing him in his own words how he disproved his own mistaken position on the subject. We walked from Chiba along a beautiful path between the sea shore and the wooded bluff, to a little place in a grove called the “Hotel Kaikikau,” some two miles west of Chiba. Here was where Mr. Norman lived, and it is indeed one of the most delightful spots for a quiet life to be found in Japan. After a few minutes rest here, I bade Mr. Norman goodbye, and we returned by train to Chiba. The afternoon was gone and darkness was coming fast, so I hastily bid Mr. Aoki good-bye and, thanking him for his kindness and also the kindness of those in his home, I took the train back to Tokyo, arriving at the hotel at 8:45 p.m.
This is in part the story of my first experience in a Japanese home and in Japanese life.