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One Woman's Opinion

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A Year in Japan: 1965, Part 11

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Urbanna, Va.— The captain’s wife of the USS Mars had been invited to tea in the home of a prominent Japanese socialite and we junior officers’ wives had been included. Our hostess’ husband, only a generation ago, had served as a captain in the Japanese Navy. Again, I was overwhelmed with how quickly our fate and fortune turn in this world and how quickly past enemies become the best of friends.

The devastating World War II apparently had not hurt this Japanese family. We turned into the stately gate entrance of lovely gardens, which surrounded the large and rambling home. As in all Japanese gardens, there was no grass. The sandy soil is merely combed by a rake. The garden consisted of stately old trees, exotic plants and shrubs interlaced with interesting rock formations. The result gave the estate a simple, peaceful and elegant air.

Our Japanese hostess greeted us at her door. We hastily changed from our street shoes into awaiting slippers that had been neatly laid out for us, and followed her up the long wooden staircase that led us to the living rooms on the second floor.

What a sight awaited us! The room was filled with hundreds of dolls totaling five generations of doll collections on display. March 3 is a national holiday in Japan known as the Doll Festival where all girls, young or old, participate. The dolls consist of many elaborate sets of 16 china-faced figures dressed in rich colorful kimonos and robes. 

The dolls were displayed on a red-felt covered staircase platform that reached the ceiling with the Emperor and Empress dolls on the top step, as if reigning over their subjects. On the next step were the ladies-in-waiting, then court jesters and warriors, and below these various other members of the royal court. The costumes were breathtakingly beautiful, having been handmade from expensive silk brocade materials. The sets of dolls were very expensive, ranging (in 1965 prices) from $60 to $500.

The tradition of collecting dolls is said to have originated in China more than 200 years ago; its purpose largely for political reasons. The idea quickly became a “tradition” and the dolls were passed from mother to daughter so that soon very large collections came into existence. Our hostess had her grandmother’s collection, with dolls that were 98 years old. Beside the grandmother’s collection, and taking an entire wall for display, was our hostess’ mother’s collection. Opposite, and even more elaborate in size and color, was her collection. Beside this was her 37-year-old daughter’s collection. Opposite this was her granddaughter’s collection already larger than all of the others!

Besides dolls, tiny “doll house” furniture was displayed that was so delicate we were afraid to touch the pieces. Carved in wood and carefully hand-painted or lacquered, petite drawers even pulled out from bureaus displaying Lilliputian Japanese utensils, dishes, tea sets and even bits of various foods. I was impressed as always by the artistic and clever Japanese craftsmanship.

Our hostess, who spoke perfect English, explained that it took three full days to unwrap and lay out all the many dolls and objects. It took five days to put them away, as each precious treasure had to be wrapped carefully in tissue and stored until the next year. Because of her large collection and the many visitors who came to admire them, she had her display out for one full month. The spectacle was a rare treat for Americans.

She began preparation for formal tea. We sat on zabutons (cushions) placed around the low table (oh, how my legs ached). Here we sipped our warm green tea and tasted delicious Japanese delicacies. The centerpiece on the table consisted of five layers of trays. Our hostess exposed them one by one, each holding a snack or sweet to be enjoyed.

A beautiful woman dressed in an exquisite kimono entered the room. She brought out a silk fan from the folds of her obi (sash), turned on a record of oriental music, and began a delicate traditional Japanese dance on the tatami mat floor before us. We were spellbound under the charm and grace of the young woman, our hostess’ daughter, who was a professional dancer. We applauded with such enthusiasm she appeared startled, not accustomed to American exuberance.

Our hostess unwrapped a beautiful wedding kimono from layers of tissue and began to dress a fellow officer’s wife in the rich robes. But the American was so tall the kimono only fell mid-leg. After she was finally dressed she strutted around looking quite unjapanese! We burst out laughing realizing a kimono was only the beginning of Japanese dress; one also had to learn how to walk in a kimono!

Bonding with natives, wherever personnel is assigned, is a very important part of military service. How very fortunate we were to be able to serve our country in the U.S. Navy during this time.

(To be continued)


posted 05.24.2018

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