MY old friend, Mr. Weatherly, has given up farming. If he were a city man he would now be in that condition of polite senescence which is called ‘ retired ’; but ’released ’ better describes his blessed condition. All he does now is to milk one cow, feed a few chickens, and tend a garden patch. No more extensive ploughing, harrowing, seeding, or harvesting for him. Ninety-nine one-hundredths of his land can go to weeds for all he cares, unless someone comes along to rent it and his rickety barns. He explained his situation in a cryptic sentence:—
‘It don’t cost much to live if you’re not doin’ anything.’
This sounds odd, but has sense in it. At work, Mr. Weatherly would be wearing out shoes, clothes, and tools. He would have to buy seed that might not sprout, teeth for the mowing machine to cut hay that might turn musty, wire to repair his fences, and lumber to repair his barns. Now he can scratch a living, and sell off a little timber or a few unwanted implements or vehicles around tax time. With economy, the farm will outlast the Weatherlys.
Mr. Weatherly is one of the few remaining mortals who do their own thinking. He can read if pushed to it; before he bought his radio he used to read market prices and reports. But he never would admit that wisdom could be won merely by conning print. Said he: —
‘Readin’ rots the mind. I’ve seen it ruin many a spry young feller. Me — I’d rather spend my spare time thinkin’.’
Since he is not burdened with misinformation and mass prejudices, Mr. Weatherly’s thinking follows no ruts. After hearing startling news on the radio, he switches the instrument off and ponders. He did that when the ‘ever-normal granary’ came to ear.
‘ Who ever saw ever-normal anything on a farm, ’ceptin’ animals? Some things you can depend on in animals — that cows are like to freshen on time and sheep to get their backs covered by winter. But with crops, there’s weather. In all my years I never saw normal weather for a month on end. Most of the work a man does on a farm is trying to catch up on the weather and its tetchy doin’s.
‘I’ll tell you what ails farmin’. It’s taxes — cash-money taxes to be paid by a given day. Farmin’s not geared up to being that punctual. You plant a money crop so’s to have the money ready, and then the crop does n’t come off and where are you ? ’
‘But farmers,’ I said, ‘don’t pay much in taxes — only three or four hundred million dollars a year, all the farmers taken together.’
‘And how much is the gov’ment forkin’ out to farmers?’
‘Once it was almost a billion dollars a year. Now it’s less.’
‘More even yet, I’ll bet, than all of us farmers pay in taxes. There ’d be a saving if no one bothered collectin’ land taxes from farmers and everyone let us alone from then on.’
‘The idea was to control surpluses that beat down prices.’
Mr. Weatherly fanned his placid features gently with his straw hat. ‘So that’s it, hey? Think we’d have hefty surpluses if we did n’t pay taxes? Here s the how of it. I plant a money crop for taxes. But I dasn’t figure close on the acreage, because I might get only half a crop and then I’d be short on cash. So I plant double allowance, and get a swash of rain, to find a bumper crop on my hands. A million or two farmers doin’ the same puts your surplus all cut and threshed in the barn, with the price way down. Taxin’ farm land is what breeds surpluses.’
I chewed on this awhile. ‘But a good many farms are mortgaged, with interest to pay on a given day. So wiping out farm taxes would n’t be an entire answer.’
‘And why are so many farms mortgaged?’ demanded Mr. Weatherly, tossing his beard at me. ‘Right around here there’s two classes of mortgaged farms — old family farms that was once clear and then was mortgaged to raise tax money in a bad year, and farms sold to newcomers with a purchase money mortgage hung onto ’em. Before the new feller gets settled into the place rightly, there’s his taxes to pay. With a hard year or two coming along, he never gets his nose above water enough to pay off. That’s the how of mortgagin ’. Besides, if farmers did n’t have to pay land taxes, they’d get their interest cheaper. It stands to reason.’
All I could do in the grasp of Mr. Weatherly’s economic theory was to ask blankly, ‘Why?’
Mr. Weatherly gazed upon me pityingly, as one whose mind had grown frail through reading. ‘Because taxes is a risk to the lender, too. A mortgaged farm comes back to him plastered with two, three, four years in back taxes, with penalties and fees appertainin’. Maybe the mortgage holder can’t pay ’em off. Then the state gets it.’
‘All right,’ I said, in desperation, ‘but surely farmers ought to pay some part of the cost of government.’
’Well, now,’ said Mr. Weatherly, with a sigh for my stupidity, ‘let me ask why. What do we get out of gov’ment? Maybe a road and a feeble sort of school somewhere. We have to do pretty much all our own policin’ and all of our fire fight in’. If there was n’t any gov’ment at all, we’d manage about as we do now, providin’ for ourselves some kind of a road and some kind of a school. But if we have to pay, there’s better ways than a tax on land. Tax us on what we sell, tax us on what we buy, tax us on what money we make if we make any; but don’t tax our land. Land don’t raise crops, Mister — it just helps or hinders, like the weather and the insects.’
This was too much for me. ‘Then what does raise crops?’ I asked, as one groping toward the heart of mystery.
‘Labor,’ he said, tersely. ‘That is, it does sometimes, when land, weather, and bugs ain’t too much for it.’
Now that he has stopped trying to beat this combination, Mr. Weatherly is applying his uncorrupted mind steadily to the problems which beset the nation. If he were as sound physically as he is mentally, we should run him for Congress. As it is, we are trying to persuade him to stand for township representative on the Board of County Supervisors, on a platform of economy and lower taxes, preferably none at all.
SWINGTIME AND CHERRY BLOSSOMS
WE had not known that we were homesick until we came to Takaradzuka. That nostalgia was a paradox more complicated than we suspected, a mystery not to be fully appreciated until months afterward. Our visit to the Kansai district was due solely to curiosity.
The wife of a Peiping doctor had told us about the girls’ school for American dancing. One day at the Shanghai track she said: —
’It simply goes to show how the Japanese mind works. In the Takaradzuka school there are six hundred beautiful and talented girls, specially selected to take five-year courses in American jazz in a governmentsubsidized seminary. The purpose is to make sure the Japanese theatre shall have a supply of native performers, and that the people shall believe that syncopation is a Japanese instinct. And perhaps it is.’
Naturally when we landed in Kobe we made inquiries about Takaradzuka. Soon we were in a car and on our way, with a tiny guide called Mr. Higuchi. Three thousand feet above the harbor we followed what they call the skyline driveway, along the crest of the Rokko mountain range, and then began to skid gently downward until we reached level land and Takaradzuka.
Observed from its outskirts, the town — forty minutes from the two large cities, Osaka and Kobe — was an incoherent scramble of buildings in modern architecture; parks and pond water and thin little lanes full of late cherry blossoms and early wisteria, and frantic cyclists ringing their bells.
Higuchi wanted to show us everything. He pointed vaguely toward nondescript structures and foliage where wonders were to be seen — little lakes with boats for hire, a tropical zoo with seal ponds, elephant sheds, wild-animal cages, a monkey island, billiard rooms, dance halls, and a studio where we could have our pictures taken. He extolled the classic decorum observed in the tearoom, the succulent cooking of Chinese, Japanese, and foreign restaurants, and the perfumed conveniences of public bathtubs for men and women.
We asked to be led at once to the great sight of Takaradzuka — the Recreation and Opera House, which encloses not only the School for Girls, but three full-sized theatres, one of them among the largest in the world.
Even when we had reached the entrance, paid our yen, and passed through the turnstile into an open space surrounded by the theatres and an amusement park, Mr. Higuchi hung back. Should we not fancy a turn in the children’s recreation ground? Later I learned that Mr. Higuchi, aged fifty-seven, had a happy passion for midget auto racing cars — one ride, ten sen.
As we labored with his disappointment — he was blue as the mountain ranges framing the whole scene — three laughing girls hurried by. They were wearing sedate green aprons, like uniforms, over flowered kimonos. Their pretty faces were young, but held the settled and honest look that comes from a difficult discipline. One almost always sees that expression on the faces of young musical and dancing students. These were some of the six hundred Nogi girls probably passing from one studio classroom to another — girls signed up for five years in this place to learn tap dancing, singing, and all the arts of Broadway.
How had the school come to be? Later I was to learn that since 1913 such a school had been here; in 1918 it was formally recognized by the Japanese Department of Education. For two years students are taught the fundamentals of Japanese training, in which the sterner womanly virtues are emphasized. The next three years are devoted to ‘nip-ups,’ ‘back-flops,’ ‘cartwheels,’ and double somersaults. These girls live nun-like lives; they work hard, and they are sustained through the training period by the feeling that a bright future is in store for them. The performers of the opera company — in a single production there may be twenty principals and anywhere from thirty to two hundred chorus girls in line — are drawn entirely from the graduates and undergraduates of the school. In addition to their five-year course of study they must also sign a contract for five years in Japanese playhouses — and for salaries that would not be beauty-parlor money for American girls.
Higuchi marched us by a parking space filled with undersized bicycles and thence into the lobby of the Grand Theatre. A spacious hall with a grilled roof, it had comfortable seats for those who must wait, charcoal burning in great urns for smokers, booths at which baubles and kickshaws were sold, a checkroom for the Japanese stilted sandals called getas. Crowds of men and women moved quietly about. Some were in Japanese costume with babies asleep in pouches on their backs. An enchanting sight, those Japanese women in their lovely kimonos, obis, getas, and tabis. We mingled with them for a little while, then passed on into the mam auditorium.
The Grand Theatre, as it is called, where the ‘star troupe’ was performing, was one of the largest theatres we had ever seen. Although it is in the country, yet on this rainy Monday afternoon nearly every one of four thousand seats was taken. We had to buy tickets for what down in Baltimore we used to call ‘African Paradise,’ far up near the roof. From this lofty perch we looked down like foreign birds upon a strange scene. The vast interior, with its two balconies, was done in the modern German style, with shrewd and restful house lighting. A large orchestra was playing, and just as we were seated the curtain fell on a preliminary act of traditional Japanese entertainment.
The audience sighed and broke into talk with a kind of light, high-pitched, and gentle expectancy. Soon the principal attraction was to begin, a piece called — in translation — ‘ The Manhattan Rhythm,’ a musical play alleged to have been written and directed by Utso Hideo, with music by Sakai Kyo and Tsukui Yuuki, all strangers to us. Then the orchestra blared and whined, the curtain soared, and there on the brilliant stage was a long chorus of beautiful Japanese girls dancing and singing in their smart top hats, white ties, tails, and ebony sticks — a full threescore of yellow, slant-eyed phantoms of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers moving with Alabama abandon in a swingtime parade.
With knowingness and skill some Nipponese George White had scolded and coaxed these girls into line. They had a Broadway precision of attack in every tap of toe and heel, and in everything an intense joy of ragtime — a pleasure with no evil in it, childlike and innocent. That feeling was in the high head tones of their singing, the merry flip of hip and shoulder — boom-a-laddie, boom-a-laddie, boom-a-laddie, boom! It was as if all Japanese youth had watched a Broadway show and said: ‘You mean — do it like this?’ and did it a little nicer than that.
The song they were singing was a New York ditty with a squalid little tune from the slums of melody; I had heard it in New York before we sailed to the Orient. As the chorines of Takaradzuka sang its wilted measures in their native tongue, I remembered that programme and looked again. Yes — it said, in so many words, that the music had been composed by Sakai Kyo and Tsukui Yuuki. But then, I reflected, even on Broadway songs have been attributed to others than their composers. When the Japanese set out to copy, they copy not a feature, but a system.
The only trouble I had was in trying to understand the plot of the play, but then I had often had that trouble in New York, too, and here the Japanese had actually improved on Broadway. In the programme I found a synopsis of what was going on — a device which I recommend to friends in Longacre Square.
I quote the synopsis: —
‘In order to raise funds for her daughter, Juliana, to go to Broadway, the mother and Louise sell flowers. But no matter how much they earn, all their money are taken by their debtor, Angels. Louise gets acquainted with Goldman, a wealthy man who offers to lend them enough money for Juliana to make a start in Chicago.
‘Angels captures Juliana on her way to Chicago and forces her to work in his bar as a cheap singer. There he takes Goldman and shows him the girl whom he thought had left for Chicago. Goldman is outraged at the insult done to so fine a girl as Juliana but is helpless to save her as Angels’ men had surrounded him. His friend Eddie comes to his rescue and Angels puts the room into darkness. In the uproar Juliana finds Goldman and with tears of joy thanks him. Angels shoots, aiming at Goldman, but Juliana is shot instead. The curtain descends on the dying Juliana in the arms of Goldman.
‘And this is the end of the Revue called “Manhattan Rhythm."‘
All the parts were taken by girls and two of them imitated men much more convincingly than some of the Rosalinds and Portias and Violas I have seen in the American theatre.
A climax was reached when suddenly across the whole stage was flashed an American flag, symbolic of a great moment in the plot. The audience sat in perfect silence while the flag was displayed. I occupied myself by counting the stars in the blue field. There were only thirty-six — which, as I whispered to my wife, showed clearly that the Japanese underestimate our resources.
When the show was over we came downstairs and in the lobby purchased a souvenir phonograph record of the troupe singing that familiar ballad. Even on the phonograph label the authorship was attributed to the Hon. Mr. Kyo and the Hon. Mr. Yuuki.
As we walked through a tunnel of cherry blossoms on to a crooked bridge over a little lake, we suddenly felt saddened. The memory of those piping, adolescent voices, singing a cheap little ditty from home, had filled us with a sudden yearning for our own place in the world. That we thought was strange — but stranger still it is now that we are home. For when we play the Japanese records a little mist comes, and we are homesick for the dancing girls of Takaradzuka.