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Girl from the West Country

Black and white photograph of lady in kimono holding a sake bottle and cup
  • By Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
  • FableJan 2017

Translated from the Japanese by Michael P. Cronin

Hatsu came to the household in the summer of 1936. Two girls, named Haru and Mitsu, had been working there for some time, but it was decided that one more maid was needed. Hatsu came recommended by one of Madam’s friends, the wife of a dentist. She was twenty years old, and had worked briefly in two or three houses in Kobe. Hatsu was not her real name; that was Sakihana Wakae. In Sanko’s family—an old, established one in Osaka—it was customary to give a maid a new name for service, since using her real name was considered an insult to the girl’s parents. When this new girl arrived, everyone discussed what to call her and decided “‘Hatsu’ will do.” 

I don’t know how long she had been in service in Kobe, but Hatsu was not very sophisticated when she arrived at the Chikura household. Presenting herself to the master and his wife for the first time, she prostrated herself in the front hall, pressing her forehead against the wooden floor. 

“Where in Kobe were you working before coming here?” Sanko asked her.

“In Nunobiki, ma’am.”

“And how long were you working there?”

“About two weeks.”

“Why did you leave after just two weeks?”

When Sanko asked this, Hatsu only smirked.

“Did the master let you go?”

“No, ma’am, it wasn’t like that.”

“You quit, then?”

“Yes, ma’am.” 

 “For what reason?”

Hatsu just kept smirking, and wouldn’t give a reason. Sanko and Raikichi didn’t suppose the circumstances could be particularly serious and so they left it there. But two or three days later, one of the other maids, Haru, went to Sanko and the other ladies and said she had heard the reason. According to her, the master of the Kobe house had forced himself on Hatsu, and she had run away.  

“Really!” Sanko said, turning to the other ladies, “That girl?” Hatsu was quite plain, you see; no one would call her pretty, even in flattery. She herself admitted as much. At the house where she was in service before Nunobiki, she said, the son had teased her day in and day out about her looks, especially her broad, flat nose. He would say to her, “With that flat nose, you could fall down face-first and not hurt it!” He teased her so relentlessly that she thought to herself, “I can’t take it! I just can’t take it!” 

One day soon after she came to the Chikura household, Hatsu came flying out of the kitchen and into the parlor crying “Madam!” (she used an old-fashioned Osaka style of address, as the whole household did until the end of the war): “Madam! It’s true!” 

When Sanko asked, “What’s true?” Hatsu, rubbing her cheeks, responded: “Sure enough, what that boy said is true!” It turned out that Hatsu had slipped on the threshold of the earthen-floored kitchen and landed with her face in the dirt. She had scraped her cheeks, but hadn’t hurt her nose at all. And she had seen fit to come and report this to Madam! 

* * *

Raikichi set up house with his second wife in the autumn of 1935, when he was fifty and she was thirty-three. There were four in the household: the master, Raikichi; his wife, Sanko; her seven-year-old daughter by a former marriage, Mutsuko, whom Raikichi would later adopt; and the wife’s younger sister, Nioko. And then there were always several maids—at least two or three and sometimes as many as five or six.  

You might think there was no need to employ so many maids for a household of women (except Raikichi), but these were pampered young ladies who had grown up in luxury, and they couldn’t have managed without at least that many servants. Besides, Raikichi liked to have a lot of maids around—he said it made the house bright and lively. As a result, many, many maids have worked for the Chikura household over the years. The wife, Sanko, was a soft touch, the sort who would take on any number of girls if asked to. 

However many servants the family has employed over the years, almost all the maids have been Kansai girls, from the west country. I suppose it’s natural. Sanko is from Osaka, after all. Raikichi’s wife and her family dislike the rough manners of girls from the east, around Tokyo, and, when they come to hire a new maid, they always look for a girl from the west. This Atami house is in Narusawa, near Izusan. Here, as they come in and out of the kitchen, the deliverymen from the grocer’s and the fish market speak in a brisk Tokyo patter, but the maids reply in the Osaka dialect. After all, the whole family speak in dialect, and these girls from the Kansai countryside have no chance to learn the smooth, clipped Tokyo way of speaking. So they stick to their Osaka ways; they even slice pickled radish in sticks, Osaka-style, not rounds. 

Raikichi is originally from Tokyo but, in the twenty-odd years since he married his present wife, he has been living in a house where everyone else prattles on from morning till night in the Osaka dialect until at last, influenced by these surroundings, he has developed a strange manner of speech and forgotten his native tongue. Talking with people from Tokyo, he’ll inadvertently use the Osaka word hokasu instead of suteru for “throw away,” and be ridiculed for it. Between husband and wife, too, silly little quarrels sometimes arise over differences in customs and habits, but his wife has her surrenders. 

The west country maids, when they move here to Atami, begin to mimic the deliverymen who come and go, and they pick up various Tokyo expressions—if only the words and not the intonation. At the grocer’s, they have different names for everything: ginger is hine-shōga, rather than tsuchi-shōga; mizuna greens they call kyō-na; and taro is sato-imo, not ko-imo. What we call ito-konnyaku noodles they call shirataki and vice versa; and pumpkin is tōnasu, not nankin. At the fishmonger’s, too, everything is called something else. The girls can’t get their shopping done if they don’t use the Tokyo names for things, so they learn the words they need to get by, but they could never lose their accent. They still use many Kansai expressions without the slightest hesitation. In the past, people would be embarrassed to use the Kansai dialect in the middle of Tokyo, but these days, Osaka comedy teams come to Tokyo on tour, and they’re all over the movies too. Even the deliverymen have caught the fever for Osaka words, saying Nanbo? instead of Ikura? for “How much?” and Ookini, not Arigatō, for “Thank you.” 

Some girls work for less than a month, while others stay six, seven, even ten years or more. Whenever Raikichi meets a girl who was with the family for a long time, he treats her just as affectionately as he would his own daughter. He even lets a few of the young maids who are far from their hometown hold their engagement ceremonies at the house. A few who married and settled nearby still drop by to visit from time to time. It’s just as they say: “Close strangers are better than distant family.”  

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965) was born in Tokyo. His novel The Maids, from which this story is adapted, is forthcoming from New Directions in April 2017.

Michael P. Cronin is an associate professor of Japanese studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and the author of Osaka Modern. Serving in Japan © Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos