Perhaps You Don't Like Cow's Tongue

To celebrate the paperback edition of Tanizaki’s masterful novel, The Maids, we’re publishing an excerpt here.


Suzu usually accompanied Raikichi when he went for a walk. Calling, “Suzu! Come here!” he would set out suddenly in the evening and, when so inclined, head for some intimate little shop where the food was good—the restaurant Tan-kuma, northwest of the intersection of Kiyamachi-dōri and Shijō-dōri, for example, or Tsubosaka, in Sueyoshi-chō, in Gion—escorting Suzu through the curtain at the entrance. But something happened once at Tsubosaka. Raikichi loved tongue stew and, thinking that Suzu would like it too, ordered two servings. But Suzu gave a worried look and, drawing her mouth close to his ear, whispered, “Sensei, isn’t this cow’s tongue?”

“That’s right. Perhaps you don’t like cow’s tongue?”

“I will eat anything else, but please forgive me if I don’t eat that.”

“But why?”

Since her family’s home was on the banks of picturesque Lake Biwa, you might well imagine that it was a quiet and refined place, but more and more traffic had been passing on the road in front of their house in recent years, raising clouds of dust. As she worked in the fields, Suzu would watch cows pulling two-wheeled carts along that dusty road, their long tongues lolling out, drooling saliva as they passed, and see that saliva fall, drop by drop, onto the road. That had been a daily sight, so when it occurred to her that she was eating that tongue, Suzu felt sick and lost her appetite.

When in Tokyo, they mainly went to one of two Chinese food shops, Shinbashi-tei in Shinbashi or Shinya Hanten in Tamurachō, and, for Japanese food, to Tsujitome in the food-basement of the Daimuru department store, or Hamasaku in West Ginza, or the like. Mind you, in Tokyo, it was seldom just the two of them; often they were joined by two or three members of the family. And it wasn’t as though Suzu was designated as Raikichi’s sole companion; other maids sometimes accompanied him. Still, it was most often Suzu. The other maids didn’t eat the same food as the family; they were provided with simple dishes, suitable for maids. In Suzu’s case, though, Raikichi would sometimes tell the chef, “This girl loves good food and knows about cooking, so please serve her whatever she wants.”

Suzu came to us in the fall of 1952, and at the end of March of the following year, a girl named Gin (or “Silver”) arrived. Gin was nineteen at the time, three years younger than Suzu, and the youngest maid living in the Chikura house. She came recommended by Hatsu and was the first girl in a while from Kagoshima. According to Hatsu, Gin was the daughter of the family across the road from her own house. While Hatsu’s family was terribly poor, Gin’s family owned considerable property and lived in some comfort—a completely different standard of living from Hatsu’s family—and as the daughter of such a family, Gin could have continued on to high school, but she hadn’t wanted to. Hatsu recommended her as an honest and clever girl who could be useful if the family wanted her, so she came to us.

Suzu and this girl Gin were the two real beauties among all the maids who worked for the Chikura household. Suzu had the sort of beauty that appealed to everyone; no one who saw her would dispute it. Gin’s beauty, on the other hand, was perhaps more of a matter of preference. Raikichi’s own taste declared Gin the more beautiful, but not until two or three years after she started working here. When she first came to interview, he couldn’t have imagined that her face would become so lovely. Only—from the beginning—her eyes were big and round and full of charm, and surprisingly expressive.

“What eyes that girl has!” Sanko had said immediately. In this aspect, Gin was quite distinct from Suzu, and possessed something that the other girl lacked.

Soon after Gin came into service, she was involved in two memorable incidents. I’ve already explained that, in the Chikura household, maids were given an alias for work because of an old-fashioned notion that it was discourteous to a girl’s parents to use her real name. In fact, “Koma,” “Sada,” and “Suzu” were not those girls’ real names. So, when Gin joined the household, she too was given an alias, in keeping with this custom. What shall we call her, the master and his family wondered. How about this or that, they said, until it was decided that “Ume” (or “Plum”) would do.

The thing is, the other Ume who had worked for the family previously (whose real name had been Kuni, or “Nation”) had been born and raised in Kagoshima as well, after all, and besides, she had a distant family connection with Gin: it seems that the first Ume was Gin’s aunt’s niece, and after her father’s untimely death, she had been taken in by Gin’s family and raised by them until, upon finishing middle school, she was sent into service in Kyoto. Later, due to her unfortunate condition, she had asked the Chikura family to let her leave service and return to her hometown, but then the condition had turned out not to be serious, and she was now healthy. Given their connection, it was decided that Gin should take the same alias that Kuni had used.

When Sanko went to inform the girl herself of her new name, however, she responded quite frankly, “I’d rather not, ma’am.”

“Whyever not?”

“I don’t want to take the name of someone with epilepsy,” she said. “My name is Gin, so that will do. Please call me by my real name.”

Her manner of speech was quite brusque, and at that moment Raikichi and Sanko thought: This Gin has a willful streak. Sanko’s younger sister, Nioko, had set up house in Nishi-Shirakawa after being widowed and needed a maid, so she borrowed Gin from her older sister, but Gin returned to the Chikura household after just one day, saying, “I came here with the understanding that I would be working for Chikura-sensei.”

A little stream ran in a trickle north to south in front of the gate to the Shimogamo house. Some say this is the “cicada stream” mentioned in the old poem by Kamo no Chōmei, but Yoshida Tōgo clearly contradicts this in his dictionary of place-names, and the local people call the stream Izumigawa. It has its source in the village of Matsugasaki and flows down east of the Forest of Correction before meeting the river that runs through Kyoto, the Kamo. When the maids of the Chikura household went out to do their shopping, they would cross a simple bridge that spanned this stream in front of the house, walk west across the road that leads through the grove to the shrine, and come out on the street where the bus for Midorogaike runs (the streetcar hadn’t yet reached that neighborhood). About that bridge: there had been a crude earthen bridge there, but after that was washed away, the people in the neighborhood pooled their money to replace it with one made of concrete. I say concrete, but it was a simple thing, one meter wide and about six meters long, with no railing, inclining slightly from each end toward the middle to form a low arch. It was a bit dangerous to ride one’s bicycle over it, so most people would dismount at the edge of the bridge and walk their bicycle over, but returning home from an errand one day, Gin, with youthful confidence, tried to ride over the bridge and fell, bicycle and all, into the stream.

This happened at around two in the afternoon. The stream was very shallow, so there was no danger of her drowning, but Gin hit her forehead hard on some of the broken crockery that littered the stream bed, and blood was gushing from her brow. Koma was just walking out of the front gate and heading toward the stream when Gin stumbled up the bank, blood dripping down her face.

“Oh no! Gin, what happened?!”

Gin didn’t answer her, saying only “I left the shopping basket in the river. Would you go and get it? There’s cash in it.”

“Never mind about the cash! First let’s take care of that cut.”

Koma carried the girl, bloody from head to toe, into the kitchen and called a taxi.

“I’m sorry,” she was told, “but no regular taxis are available currently, only a large one.”

“A large one is fine, only send it quick!” Having done this, she stepped out of the front door with Gin to discover that the neighbors, wondering what was up, had gathered in a noisy crowd. The taxi was too big for the narrow road, and the driver had to stop some distance from the front gate. Blinded by the blood streaming down her face, Gin staggered between the people, jumped into the taxi, and immediately covered herself so that no one could see her through the window.

Koma, jumping in after her, said “To Kōori Hospital, on Ōike Road!”

While Gin continued to sob tearfully, she never once complained of the pain. Rather, concerned about her appearance, she was saying, “Look how filthy I am!” and “My kimono is covered with mud!” and “I’m ashamed to be seen like this.”

Honestly, she looked as though she had just come out of the river, blood still trickling steadily from her wet and sticky clothes and dripping all over the taxi.

Upon examination at the hospital, the gash in Gin’s forehead turned out to be three centimeters long. She was immediately administered penicillin and an injection to prevent tetanus, then she was given a local anesthetic, and the cut was sewn shut. When she returned home, her face had swollen to more than twice its size, and it was wrapped around and around with a bandage. She had a fever of nearly 104.

“What a thing to happen!” Sanko exclaimed. “What will I tell your mother when she sees that cut on your forehead!”

“Please don’t concern yourself, ma’am. This is entirely my fault and no one else’s. It has nothing to do with you. I should have gotten off my bicycle, but I stupidly tried to ride it across the bridge,” Gin replied. “That’s why this has happened, and that’s just what I’ll tell my mother.”

The stubborn girl tried to go right back to work, braving the fever and with her head still wrapped in bandages, but the master and mistress scolded her severely, and she acquiesced. She returned to the hospital several times to get further shots of penicillin, and even now, already nine years after the incident, there remains a faint trace of the gash on her forehead. Once you’re used to it, you hardly notice, but I suppose some people think it a shame, since her face is so lovely. In any case, she’ll certainly carry that scar for the rest of her life.

Well then, why don’t we return now to Hatsu’s story?

When Hatsu recommended Gin, in 1953, she had already been working for the Chikura household for eighteen years, included the war years, during which she had traveled back to her hometown several times—when her mother had fallen ill, for instance, and when her brother had died from tuberculosis. She had been twenty when she came to work at the Tantaka-bayashi house in 1936, and she was now almost forty years old. Sad to say, she had not received a single suitable offer of marriage from anyone, either in Kyoto or her hometown.

Once, while they were living at the house in Teramachi-Imadegawa, Raikichi was walking with her around Kawaramachi when Hatsu stopped suddenly and looked him in the eye. “Sensei, do you think I’ll ever get married?” She seemed to be truly at a loss.

“Oh, you will,” Raikichi answered at the time. “Of course you will—so there’s no need to worry.” He believed that while most people might consider a girl like Hatsu homely, not everyone would. Let me review Hatsu’s good points, as I first described them in Chapter 2. There, I said that “When Mutsuko compared [Hatsu] to McDaniel, she was thinking only of the shape of her face; her skin was snow white. Her figure was ample and well developed, but not sloppy. She was taller than average for a twenty-year-old woman of that time, almost thirty years ago, and fit. Her fingers were long, and her feet, though quite big, were not badly shaped. And though Raikichi hadn’t seen her naked, according to Mutsuko, her bust was ‘better than Marilyn Monroe’s,’” and I continued, “Raikichi hated to see a woman with dirty soles, and the soles of Hatsu’s feet always looked smooth and pure white, as though she had just scrubbed them with a washcloth. If you happened to peer down into her collar, you’d find her underclothes freshly washed and impeccably clean.” So you see, when Raikichi told her, “Of course you’ll get married,” he was not merely trying to console her; he really thought she would. If a girl like Hatsu couldn’t find someone to take her as a bride, then the men of the world were just too stubborn, that was all. A suitable prospect was bound to turn up before long—he was sure of it. Somehow, though, no one ever had.

Hatsu was left to look after the Atami house on her own for some time and it seems that she occasionally invited over some of the young deliverymen who were constantly in and out, treated them to sukiyaki and staying up late with them. Raikichi and Sanko heard about this from someone soon afterward. Perhaps Hatsu can’t bear it any longer, they worried between themselves; she’s a fastidious woman at heart and, up until now, she hasn’t slipped up even once; let’s hope she hasn’t fallen in with a bad crowd and strayed. Fortunately, she was soon summoned from Atami back to Kyoto and sent to work for the Asukai household in Kita-Shirakawa, and it all came to an end without any damage to her reputation.

After her husband, Asukai Jirō, died of cancer in 1949, Nioko, now a widow, had sold the house in Nanzenji and moved back in for a little while with her older sister, Sanko, at Shimogamo and, since she had no children of her own, she made Keisuke, Sanko’s son by her former husband, her own heir. With that, Keisuke was able to marry for love—he wed a girl named Numeko, a graduate of the English department at Dōshina University, and Nioko had a house built for them near the flower garden behind the Kita-Shirakawa house, in the ruins of the ancient Shirakawa palace. Hatsu went to work there just as this young couple was welcoming a new daughter, Miyuki, and were very much in need of her assistance.

Numeko shared the blood of her grandfather—the famous painter Nashimoto Ransetsu—and was a brilliant girl with an edge like a sharp knife. She was quite a demanding and reserved young mistress, but she never had a single complaint about Hatsu and still feels deeply grateful for all Hatsu’s work. No doubt, one reason for that gratitude was that, in contrast to the twenty-four year old Numeko, Hatsu, her senior by thirteen or fourteen years, was competent at everything, even though she had no children of her own. Familiar with housekeeping and of course caring for children, and completely at home cooking for a family, she must have been a treasure in many ways. I suppose Hatsu’s big-framed and generous physique and her easygoing, calm, and confidently bossy personality had a gently soothing effect on the high-strung young Numeko. The sight of baby Miyuki, snuggled deep in Hatsu’s big arms, fast asleep, would, I think, give anyone a feeling of reassurance and reliability.