The Little Fish Girl
I wasn’t born and brought up to be a Kyoto geisha. I wasn’t even born in Kyoto. I’m a fisherman’s daughter from a little town called Yoroido on the Sea of Japan. We lived in a tiny house, high above the sea, and my father smelled like the sea even after he washed.
One day, many years ago, I was entertaining at a party in Kyoto and a man said he was in Yoroido only last week. I felt like a bird that has flown across the ocean and finds another bird that knows its nest. I couldn’t stop myself-I said:
«Yoroido! That’s where I grew up.»
The man didn’t believe me.
«You can’t mean it,» he said, and laughed. «You, growing up in Yoroido! That’s like making tea in a bucket.»
Well, I’d never thought of Yoroido as a bucket, though it’s not pretty. In those days, the early 1930s, it had only one road leading to the Japan Coastal Seafood Company, which sold all the fish that my father and the other fishermen caught.
My father was a very old man. I was twelve then, but from the day I was born I never looked like him at all. I always looked like my mother. We had the same strange eyes; you hardly ever saw eyes like ours in Japan. Instead of being dark brown like everyone rise’s, my mother’s eyes were a shining gray and mine are just the same. It’s the water in both our personalities. My father had wood in his personality; mother and I were full of water.
But all the water was running out of mother because of her illness. You could see every bone in her face getting harder and harder as the water dried out. Dr. Miura visited her every time he came to our village.
«Chiyo-chan,» my father would say to me, «get the doctor a cup of tea.»
My name back then was Chiyo. It was many years before I was known by my geisha name, Sayuri.
«Sakamoto-san,» said the doctor to my father, one time, «you need to have a talk with one of the women in the village. Ask them to make a new dress for your wife. She shouldn’t die in that old dress she’s wearing.»
«So she’s going to die soon?» asked my father.
«A few more weeks, maybe,» said Dr. Miura.
After that I couldn’t hear their voices for a time. And then… «I thought I’d die first,» my father was saying.
«You’re an old man, Sakamoto-san. But you might have another year or two.»
One afternoon I came home from school and found Mr. Tanaka Ichiro walking up the path to my house. Mr. Tanaka’s family owned the Japan Coastal Seafood Company. He didn’t wear peasant clothes like the fishermen. He wore a man’s kimono with kimono pants.
«Ah, Chiyo,» said Mr. Tanaka. «Dr. Miura told me that your mother’s sick. Give her this.» He handed me a packet wrapped in rice paper, about the size of a fish head. «It’s Chinese medicine,» he told me. «Don’t listen to Dr. Miura if he says it’s worthless.»
He turned to go but then turned back again. «I know a man,» he said. «He’s older now, but when he was a boy about your age, his father died. The following year his mother died. Sounds a bit like you, don’t you think?»
Mr. Tanaka gave me a look that meant I had to agree with him. «Well, that man’s name is Tanaka Ichiro,» he continued. «I was taken in by the Tanaka family at the age of twelve. They gave me a new start.»
The next day I came home from school and found Mr. Tanaka sitting across from my father at the little table in our house.
«So, Sakamoto, what do you think of my idea?»
«I don’t know, sir,» said my father. «I can’t imagine Chiyo living anywhere else.»
Part of me hoped desperately that Mr. Tanaka would adopt me, but I was also ashamed that I wanted to live anywhere except my little house above the sea. As Mr. Tanaka left, I heard my father crying.
The next day Mr. Tanaka came to collect me in a little cart pulled by two horses. I thought we were going to his house but we drove to the train station. A tall, thin man met us there.
«This is Mr. Bekku,» said Mr. Tanaka. And then he drove away again. Mr. Bekku gave me a look of disgust.
«Fish! Ugh! You smell of fish,» he said.
When the train came, Mr. Bekku and I got on. As soon as we sat down he took out a comb and started pulling it through my hair. It hurt a lot and although I tried not to cry, in the end I did.
Then he stopped doing it. The train went on and on, away from my home.
«Where are we going?» I asked, after a time.
«Kyoto,» said Mr. Bekku. It was the only word he said to me on the long train journey. Kyoto sounded as foreign to me as Hong Kong or even New York, which I’d once heard Dr. Miura talk about.
I could see little of the city as we neared Kyoto station, but then I was astonished to see rooftop after rooftop, all touching, as far as the distant hills. I could never have imagined a city so huge.
Back in the 1930s there were still rickshaws in Kyoto. Mr. Bekku led me by the elbow and we climbed into a rickshaw. «Cion,» Mr. Bekku said to the rickshaw driver. It was the first time I ever heard the name of the famous geisha area of Kyoto.
I fell back in the seat as the rickshaw driver picked up the poles and ran through the streets.