Isamu and Others

Paternal Pointers Concerning Baby San and His Koishikawa Playmates

By Yone Noguchi

Author of From the Eastern Sea; The Pilgrimage; Etc.

The arrival of my two-year-old boy Isamu from America was anticipated, as it is said in America, with crane-neck-long longing. And this Mr. Courageous is now landed in Yokohama on a certain Sunday afternoon when the calm sunlight, extraordinarily yellow as it happens to be sometimes, gave a shower-bath to the little handful of a body half-sleeping in his “nurse carriage” and doubtless half-wondering with a baby’s first impression upon Japan many colored and ghostly. Now and then he opened a pair of large brown eyes.

“See papa,” Leonie tried to make Isamu’s face turn to me; however, he shut his eyes immediately without looking at me, as if he were born with no thought of father. In fact, he was born to my wife in California some time after I left America. Mrs. Noguchi attempted to save me from a sort of mortification by telling me how he used to sing and clap his hands for “papa to come” every evening. I thought, however, that I could not blame him after all for his indifference to father, as I did not feel, I confess, any fatherly feeling till I, half an hour ago, heard his crying voice for the first time by the cabin door of the steamer before I stepped in; I was nobody yet, but a stranger to him. He must have, to be sure, some time to get acquainted with me, I thought; and how wonderful a thing was a baby’s cry. It is true that I almost cried when I heard Isamu’s first cry. I and my wife slowly pushed his carriage toward the station, I looking down to his face and she talking at random. I felt in my heart a secret pride to be his father; but a moment later, really I was despising myself, thinking that I did not pay any attention to him at all for the last three years. “Man is selfish,” I said in my heart, and again I had to despise me.

I learned that Isamu made the whole journey from Los Angeles sitting like a prince on the throne of his little carriage; he even went to sleep in it on the steamer. He was ready any time to cry out whenever he lost sight of it; it was the dearest thing to him, second only to the bottle of milk for which he minted a word of “Boo.” We thought that it would be perfectly easy to take the carriage with us on board the train, as we could fold it up; but the conductor objected to our doing so as it belonged in the category of “breakables.” And we had to exclaim, “Land of red tape, again.” Isamu cried aloud for “baby’s carriage” when the train reached the Shinbashi station of Tokyo; we put him again in his carriage and pushed it by Ginza, the main street. And there my wife and baby had their first supper in Japan.

It was after eight in the evening when we took the car line toward my house in Hisakata Machi—quite poetical is this far-beyond street, at least in name—wrapping baby’s carriage in a large furoshiki; it may have been from his kindness that the conductor did not raise his voice of objection. But afterward, when we had to change cars at Iidabashi Bridge, we met again a flat denial to our bringing it in; and we had to push it some one mile more of somewhat hilly road under the darkness. A few stars in the high sky could not send their light to the earth; the road was pretty bad, as it was soon after the snow, though our Tokyo streets are hardly better at any other time. And it was a rather cold night. It goes without saying that my wife must have been tired nursing Isamu all the time through the whole voyage; he had been seasick, eaten almost nothing. Where was the fat baby which she used to speak of in her letters? It was sad indeed to see Isamu pale and thin, wrapped in a blanket; and now and then he opened his big eyes and silently questioned about the nature of the crowd which, though it was dark, gathered around us here and there. His little soul must have been wondering whither he was bound to be taken. And we must have appeared to people’s eyes quite unusual. It was no larger than a dying voice of an autumn insect when baby suddenly asked mother where was his home. I am sure that not only Isamu, tired Leonie too wished to know where it was. I think that it was not altogether unreasonable for baby to keep up crying all the time; I was rather suspicious from looking at Leonie that her heart also wanted a heartful cry from the heavy exotic oppression whose novelty had passed some time ago. “Karan, koron, karan, koron”—a high-pitched song which was strung out endlessly from the Japanese wooden clogs on the pavement, especially in the station, had, I believe, the most forlorn kind of melody whose monotony makes you sad; and, I dare say Isamu thought that the Japanese speech might be a devil’s speech—in fact, it is, as one of the earliest Dutch missionaries proclaimed. I noticed he raised his ears at any chance to hear it. (By the way, he has come already to handle now this devil’s speech so far. My writing was interrupted a while ago by his persistence in Japanese to take him to see his Japanese aunt; he is quite happy here as he can have aunts as many as he wishes.) And still he did not stop his cry even after his safe arrival to this Hisakata Machi home, and it tried my patience very much, and I did not know really what to do with him. He cried on seeing the new faces of the Japanese servant girls, and cried more when he was spoken to by them. I got a few Japanese toys ready for him, a cotton-made puppy among them as I was told a favorite; but he could not think that they were meant to amuse him and not to hurt him, and the dog did not appear to him like a dog at all, but as something ugly. And he cried terribly. Okashi, one of the servants, brought a piece of Japanese cake, but he cried the more, exclaiming, “No, no!” The cake did not look to him like a cake, to be sure.

The night advanced; a blind shampooer passed before the house playing a bamboo flute. Isamu, though he was sleepy doubtless, caught its music, and jumped out from his little bed exclaiming: “Andrew, mama!” A man by the name of Andrew Anderson, Leonie explained, used to call at his California home almost every evening and sing to him in a sweet high Swedish voice. For the last month since the day of his departure from Los Angeles, his poor head had been whirring terribly through nightmare spectacles. Poor Isamu! When two or three days had passed, he stopped crying, although he was yet far from being acquainted with his Japanese home, of course. There are many shojis, or paper sliding doors, facing to the garden; they have a large piece of glass fixed up in their centers, over which two miniature shojis open and shut from right to left; and they caught his interest. He has been busy, I was told one day, opening them and shutting them again since morning; when I saw him doing it, he was just exclaiming: “Mama, see boat!” It was his imagination, I think, that he caught the sight of a certain ship; he was still thinking that he was sailing over the ocean on the steamer. Surely it was that. When he stepped in the house, I observed that he was quite cautious about tumbling down; it was very funny to see his way of walking.

It was the fifth day when he earnestly begged his mother to go home. “Where’s Nanna?” he asked her. His grandmother, who still remains in Los Angeles, was called by Isamu “Nanna”; he began to miss her a great deal, as she was the dearest thing next to his mother. When Leonie answered him, “Far, far,” in the baby’s speech, he repeated it several times to make him understand, and he turned pale and silent at once. He was sad. “Baby, go and see papa,” my wife said to him; he slowly stole toward my room, and slightly opened my shoii, when I looked back. He banged it at once, and ran away crying, “No, no!” I overheard him, a moment later, saying to Leonie that I was not there. I must have appeared to his eye as some piece of curiosity to look at once in a while, but never to come close to. However, I was not hopeless, and I thought that I must win him over, and then he would regard me as he did his mother. In fact, I was three years behind. Isamu noticed that I clapped my hands to call my servant girls, and they would answer my clapping with “Hai!”; that is the way of a Japanese house. And he thought to himself it was proper for him to answer that “Hai” for my hand-clapping, and he began to run toward me before the girls, and kneel before me as they did, and wait for my words. I was much pleased to see that his growing familiar with me was quite rapid. And he even attempted to call me “Danna Sama”—Mr. Lord—catching the word which the servants respectfully addressed to me. My wife could not be so wonderful as to be familiar with the Japanese food at once; but I found that baby was perfectly at home with it some time ago. I discovered when he quietly disappeared after our breakfast that he was enjoying his second Japanese table with the servants. When they objected to him one morning, I overheard him exclaiming: “Gohan, gohan” (honorable rice). His love of Japanese rice was really remarkable.

Every morning, when an ameya, or wheat gluten seller, the delight of Japanese children, passed by the house beating his drum musically, Isamu’s heart would jump high, and he would dance wildly exclaiming, “Donko, don, donko, don, don,” and get on the back of a servant—any back he could find quickest—to be carried as a Japanese child. This ameya is indeed a wonderful man for children’s eyes; he will make a miniature fox, dog, tengu or anything imaginable with wheat gluten for one sen or so.

At first Isamu seemed not pleased to ride on the girl’s back; but soon it became the most indispensable carriage for him. It is ready for him any time to begin with; and the Japanese girl’s large obi tied on her somewhat bended back makes a sort of comfortable seat. And the funniest part is that Isamu thinks that the girl’s back is called “Donko, don, donko, don.” As our servants did not know a word of English, they could not express their invitation to get on their backs, and it happened, when one ameya passed by, that one of them acted as if he were being carried on her back, repeating the sound of the ameya’s drum “Donko, don, donko, don.” Isamu caught the meaning on the spot and jumped on her back. He started to use the words even when he wished only to go for a walk. I heard him saying a while ago to Leonie: “Oh, mamma, donko, don, donko, don!”

He showed a certain pride in learning even a few Japanese words which could be understood by the people round him. And he has made it his own office to sit down like a Japanese and say “sayonara” when a guest leaves the house, and he is happy to do it. He shouted “banzai” for the first time the day when my brother brought him two paper flags, one of them being, of course, Japanese, while the other was an American one. “You Japanese baby?” Leonie asked him. “Yes,” he replied, turning to me. And when I asked him how he would like to remain as an American, he would turn to my wife and say “Yes.” Indeed, I wish he will grow up as an American as well as a Japanese. He was the cause of no small sensation among the Japanese children of this Koishikawa district at least; his foreign manner and Western tint, and also the point of his having a Japanese father, made him a wonderful thing to look at for the children around here, while they felt some kinship with him. The fame of Isamu spread over many miles; even a jinrikisha man far away will tell you where “Baby San” lives, although Noguchi’s name may mean nothing to his ear. The children think, I am sure, that “baby” is his own name, and whenever they pass by our house morning or evening, they will shout loudly “Baby San.” And Isamu will rarely miss a chance to run out and show himself to answer. Why, this little fellow is quite vain already. And the children who caught the word of “Mama” spoken by Isamu to his mother, thought that it was Leonie’s name. I am told by her that she was frequently startled by a shout of “Mamma San” from behind on the street. I feel happy to see that he began to play with the Japanese children. We have a little play called Mekakushi; many children will make a large ring with their joined hands and choose a child to let him stand in the middle of the ring with his eyes covered with his palms. Mekakushi means “eyes hidden.” The child at the center will walk to the ring, and touch any child, and tell its right name; and then the child who was told its own name will take a turn to be in the middle. It happened one evening that our Isamu was obliged to stand in the center; it was clear to see his bewilderment, since he never knew the children’s real names. But accidentally Leonie passed by on her way home; he took advantage of the chance at once and called out loudly: “Mama, mama!” I am not told whether my wife filled her duty to stand in the middle or not; however, we talked about it afterward, and laughed.

Our large oval wooden Japanese bathtub furnishes for Isamu one of the most pleasing objects. He will get in it even when the water is hardly warm; he does not mind a bit of cold water. And he will stay there such a long time playing that he is a tortoise. We have a little folk-lore story of a monkey and a tortoise; the latter was outwitted by the former when he attempted to get the monkey’s liver. Isamu’s mother told him of this story and it took his little heart by storm.

Isamu hates anything which does not move or makes no noise. When he has nothing new to play with he will begin to open and shut the shojis; when he tires of that, he will try to go around the house and hunt after the clocks, which I hid as they perfectly lost the right track of the time since he came. And presently I will send him away with a servant to the botanical garden to look at and feed the “Kwakwa,” as he calls the ducks. He made a habit of playing with our shadows on the walls of the sitting-room after supper every evening. “Mama, shadow gone! Give baby shadow, mama,” he will exclaim, sulkily, seeing his own shadow disappear. “Go to papa! He will give it to you,” Leonie will say; then he will hunt for it, pushing his hand everywhere about my dress. “There it is, baby,” I will say, seeing his shadow accidentally appear on the wall. How glad he will be. He is not pleased to go to bed if he does not see the moon. But I doubt if he has any real knowledge of the moon. When I say that he must go to bed, he will push a little outside door, and say that no moon is seen yet. Then I will quietly steal into the drawing-room and light a large hanging lamp with a blue-colored globe, and say to him: “Moon is come now. See it, baby!” He will be mightily pleased with it; a few minutes later, he will be found in bed soundly sleeping. Really his sleeping face looks like a miniature Buddha idol, as once Leonie wrote me long ago.

A while ago, our neighboring children passed by the house, calling loud: “Isamu San, Baby San, ’Merican San!” I felt quite proud, thinking that Isamu’s popularity among the Japanese children was something wonderful. Isamu rushed out to the door to acknowledge their salutation, and I thought that he felt already some dignity as an American. And at the same time, he must feel quite at home with them. To be a Japanese-American is not a small thing here in Japan. To belong to two countries is far more fortunate than to belong to one; and if we have to choose one more country besides Japan, that country must be America. There is no other country like America, who we so admire and love with our sincerest hearts.