Rhythms, Rites and Rituals: My Life in Japan in Two-step and Waltz-time

Rhythms, Rites and Rituals: My Life in Japan in Two-step and Waltz-time

by Dorothy Britton


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Including her survival of Japan's Great Kanto Earthquake, this book is an enthralling account of Dorothy Britton's life, loves and discoveries in an amazingly varied life and career. Bilingual from birth, she found the immense joy of blending in with peoples of different cultures simply by getting the sound right when speaking their languages to the extent that she herself sounds Japanese. While interviewing Talent Education's Shinichi Suzuki, she realized his peerless 'mother tongue method' for learning the violin was ideal for foreign languages too. While composing music for many documentary films introducing Japan to the world, in Empire Photosound's beautiful My Garden Japan she used the ancient instruments of the Imperial Court Orchestra. The film was shown daily at Montreal's EXPO 67 where it garnered a prize. Amusing episodes and stories of fascinating people and relationships abound in the book, as do valuable insights into topics such as the post-war Occupation and its impact on everyday life, the role of women, learning Japanese, marriage customs, food and many other aspects of Japanese culture and society. Appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2010 for her highly regarded contributions to bridging two cultures, this long-awaited memoir will be widely welcomed. Here is the remarkable and remarkably frank story of a life lived to the full by the doyenne of British residents in Japan that has benefited so many and touched the lives of countless others.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781898823124
Publisher: Renaissance Books
Publication date: 03/01/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Anglo-American writer, poet, composer, musician, Dorothy Britton was born in Japan and educated in Britain and the USA. A pupil of Darius Milhaud, known for her popular Capitol Records album Japanese Sketches, hailed as a highly successful 'translation of the koto/samisen aesthetic into occidental terms'. Capitol also commissioned a musical. Also known for her translation of Tetsuko Kuroyanagi's best-seller Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window, and short stories by Ryonosuke Akutagawa.

Read an Excerpt

Rhythms, Rites and Rituals

My Life in Japan in Two-step and Waltz-time

By Dorothy Britton

Global Books Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Dorothy Britton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-898823-12-4


Rhythms Are What Divide Us

* * *

I was a bonny baby, as most small children are, and my nanny called me a bep-pin, a colloquial term meaning 'a beauty', 'a knock-out'. There was, of course, the added glamour of my being a foreign baby. But my nanny soon shortened that and added chan, the affectionate suffix, giving me the nickname 'O-bet-chan'. All my old Japanese friends still call me that – even including one princess! And as with most Japanese nicknames, the origin is not clear.

From the moment she first laid eyes on me in Yokohama, Suzu Numano, my mother's first Japanese friend, from San Francisco days, called me 'The Japanese child with the Western skin'. For born in Japan, I have lived most of my life in two rhythms: the 'one-two, one-two' of Japanese, and English, which is mostly in waltz time. From the time I was a child I was fascinated by the differences in rhythm, and it seemed to me to affect not only the language but everyday life as well. I became very conscious of the fact that Japanese people seemed to move and walk in 2/4 time, while foreigners waltzed about. Footwear may have had something to do with it, for in those days the air was redolent with the kak-ko kak-ko sound of geta, while the heel-ball-toe with a shoe was a 1,2,3. And when they talked, Japanese people made little nods in 2/4 time, while Westerners' heads stayed still.

By the age of three, I had learned to read and my favourite book was Through the Looking glass by Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll. In it Alice pokes the mirror that sits above the mantelpiece and enters the room that she sees in the mirror. It is the same room, but slightly different – a reflected version of it. Everything is the other way around. And I discovered I could enter a slightly different world in another way – just by speaking Japanese! That was my magic looking glass!

And, of course, I spoke it with the right rhythm, like the Japanese spoke it, simply having copied my Japanese nanny; so I seemed to really enter Japan and become Japanese. I thought it was tremendous fun going backwards and forwards between Japan and my parents' worlds, just as Alice went backwards and forwards through the looking glass! And I still do. And just as Alice's room in the mirror remained the same, people from every country and race have always seemed the same to me, with the only difference being the rhythm of their languages. I had made a wonderful discovery: that it is only rhythms that divide us!

I used to love going with my nanny to the Japanese festival at the local shrine, where the festival music, called hayashi, was in vigorously lilting 2/4 time. ('Shrine' is the customary English translation of jinja, the Shinto sanctum, whereas in Japan our word 'temple' is only used for o-tera, the Buddhist sanctuary.) Especially out in the countryside, one of the most important occasions in Japan's year is the annual village festival. These o-matsuri are Shinto festivals of supplication and thanksgiving for bumper crops and catches. They last for several days and are a time of general merrymaking. Fancy stalls are set up in the shrine compound, and stages are erected where plays are performed, as well as bouts of exhibition Sumo. I used to love the comic duo hyot-toko and o-kamé, and I still have a smiling okamé mask hanging in my study to keep me cheered up!

During the festival, the deity of the shrine is taken for a jolly outing in a small portable shrine carried this way and that on the shoulders of the young men of the village. Their task is made merrier all along the way by sips of saké, and by the end of the procession the god is usually rollicking all over the place, and giving its bearers a very hard time! Shrines everywhere, not only those in the villages, but every shrine in Japan has its own festival. In towns and cities the god in his portable shrine has to cope with heavy traffic and is usually escorted by one or more policemen to keep back the cars. As they warm to the task, the lads that shoulder the mini-shrine set up a lusty antiphonal chorus shouting wasshoi- wasshoi, wasshoi-wasshoi (literally 'heave ho', but it is also a 'unifying' chant) half of them shouting the first wasshoi while the others reply with the second, creating a very infectious 1/2, 1/2 rhythm.

I used to have fun with my young Japanese friends by taking each others' names and singing them in festival music rhythm, for instance Takeko would go 'take-take kok-ko, take kok-ko' and then I would go 'doro-doro thith-thee, doro-thith-thee'. The Japanese pronunciation of my surname Britton was even better, sounding like a drum: buri-buri ton-ton, buri-ton-ton! When I was playing with my Japanese friends it was all in 2/4 rhythm, and I virtually 'became' Japanese!

And I found one did not have to be born in another country to learn how to 'sound' just like the people of that country. When I was seven or eight, my mother arranged for me to have French lessons from a French nun in Yokohama. All that nice nun did in my first lesson was to teach me to sing one single song sounding just like a French child. So I found that by sounding French I could 'enter' France now too. I soon became friends with three French girls, the daughters of the French consul. When we met again many years later in France, they told me how lots of American and British children in Yokohama were taking French lessons, but that I was the only one it was fun to play with, because I was the only one who really 'sounded' French. I am absolutely certain it is that first step that is so important in learning a foreign language: getting the sound and rhythm right. Spending time going over and over and over first words, then sentences, until you get it sounding just right. It takes time, but it is well worth it!

I once tried 'sounding' Dutch, too. I was a waitress in a club for sailors during the war in Bermuda, when some men from a Free Dutch Navy ship came in. I learned a few Dutch phrases such as 'Which would you like, tea or coffee?' getting the pronunciation as perfect as I could, which prompted them to begin conversations, but of course I was soon out of my depth, and would then have to disappear!

It does not matter how good your grammar is if it does not 'sound' like the language. I remember once going with my mother to a church in Geneva for the service in English. But the vicar's sermon did not sound like English at all and we could not understand a word. And though it sounded French, it was not French!

It happened so often in Tokyo at Embassy receptions, that a professor of English from some university would greet my mother in English, and she would turn to me and ask me to interpret, which was always so embarrassing. He was usually a highly respected professor, and his grammar was perfect, but it just did not SOUND like English!

When I speak Japanese, it sounds like Japanese, so people often think I am Japanese. I was having dinner in London once at the house of a Japanese friend from the Japanese Embassy. All the other guests were Japanese, and one of them said, 'Isn't it nice, all of us being Japanese, and no Brits present.' I was thrilled.

And then there was the time I asked a taxi driver to stop at the NHK building while I left my Irish harp there for a later performance. When I came out, he would not let me get in and instead pointed to the car in front. But the driver in front pointed to the taxi behind. So I went back. 'Did your passenger have a harp?' I asked him. He replied, 'Yes, but she was not a foreigner. She was Japanese.'

So few people seem to realize that the most important first step in learning a foreign language is getting the rhythm and sound right! For the sound, of course, is paramount too. That is why using katakana when learning English is a no-no with its paucity of sounds. We apparently visualize the sounds we utter. So it is difficult to utter sounds that are not in one's written language. A Japanese sound that is very difficult for Western speakers is the syllable written in Roman letters with a consonant followed by a 'y': kyo as in senkyo (election) and myo as in myonichi (tomorrow). English people invariably pronounce two-syllable 'Kyoto' in three syllables, as Ki-o-to or even 'Kai-o-to', and usually two-syllable byo-in (hospital) as bi-o-in (beauty parlour)!

A Chinese lady once told me that the reason the Chinese were so good at learning languages was because they have so many different sounds in Chinese — even more different sounds than we have in English! I knew a Japanese teacher of English who used to say that English in kana was pathetic English, and it certainly is pathetic the way Japanese kana can change so many English words into some that may even be embarrassing, for instance 'erection' for 'election'! I strongly believe that the Ministry of Education, should introduce more kana. The vowel [??] (u) with diacritical dots [??] for 'vu' is already used unofficially, for English words like 'dove' (da-vu). But those marks could be used on all five vowels to make a whole 'v' column: va-vi-vu-ve-vo. And then, an 'l' column, la-li-lu-le-lo, could be made by adding dots to ra-ri-ru-re-ro. And the sa-shi-su-se-so column could use the tiny diacritical circles to make tha-thi-thu-the-tho! That is only a start, of course, since there are many gaps in the other columns.

But at least, surely, a la-li-lu-le-lo column would be very, very useful?

And now, let me tell you how it happened that I was born in Japan.


My Mother

* * *

My mother, Alice Hiller, was born in San Francisco, granddaughter of a former Prussian count. Like Prince Chichibu in Japan, Count Johann Friedrich von Hillerscheidt was greatly distressed by the hard lives of the poor German people, and at the time of the 1840 and 1841 uprisings known as the 'bread riots' he tried to help them. This got Friedrich into trouble with the Prussian authorities. They banished the young nobleman and confiscated his property, which led to his emigrating to the United States of America with his family.

Johann Friedrich had studied medicine and surgery at Heidelberg University, and while serving as a surgeon to Kaiser Wilhelm in the elite Black Hussars during the Franco-Prussian Wars, he married Hortense Parisot, the daughter of the mayor of a town in Alsace Lorraine. The vineyard-owning Parisots were a noble and ancient Provençal family descended from the Counts of Toulouse.

Johann Friedrich became a US citizen in 1849, and as Dr John Frederick Hiller MD he ministered with great popularity to the gold diggers of early Nevada. His son, Dr J. Frederick Hiller Jr followed in his footsteps as a general practitioner in San Francisco, where his daughter Alice, my mother, was born. She was a motley European mixture of German, French, Dutch and Scottish, and, when she travelled abroad, she used to complain that there was never enough space on the required form in the place for 'ethnic background', and she used to wonder how long it would be before one could just put 'American'! She longed to know the details of her grandfather's Prussian experience, but he refused to speak of the people who had angered him so much. 'I'm American now,' he would say in heavily accented English.

After years of gazing out across San Francisco Bay quoting to herself from Tennyson's Ulysses: 'My purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset,' Alice, when still quite young, had briefly visited the Philippines, and also spent a year in China with her best friend Alice Baker Richards, whose husband was working there. To join them in Chungking, she had to make a long but fascinating trip up the then magnificent Yang Tse River, which she describes in an article she wrote for the May 1918 issue of The Record, the San Francisco YWCA's magazine, one of whose editors she was. It is entitled 'Fifteen hundred miles on the Yangtse Kiang.' In it she writes:

Much of the charm of China lies in the mediaeval walls which enclose so many of the cities, the gates of which are closed at sunset and opened at sunrise, with the noisy beating of tom-toms and gongs.

And she goes on to say:

In the interior of China, things are now exactly as they must have been in the time of Marco Polo, and everything seems age-old. As we neared Chunking in the province of Szechuan, we were almost in sight of the Tibetan Hills, as they call the Himalayas. In Chungking one goes about in chairs carried by four bearers. There are no streets or roads, only paths, and miles of crowded stone steps. It is bewildering to have the coolies run up a steep flight of steps, with you almost falling out of the chair backwards on your head. The flowers of Szechuan are lovely, and golden pheasants lend color to the landscape.

Alice's interest in the Far East had already begun with her friendship with Suzu Numano, the wife of Yasutaro, the extremely handsome, Spanish-looking Consul-General of Japan. They gave wonderful parties, at which Suzu sang fascinating old traditional Japanese songs, accompanying herself on the koto, the long horizontal plucked instrument with a harp- like tone whose place in the Japanese upper-class home is like that of the parlour piano in the West. It was at one of the Numanos' parties that Alice met Opal, a talented pianist from Texas who was studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Alice thought Opal Perkins would be just the right girl for her favourite youngest brother Stanley, so she invited her home to meet him, and to her great joy, they fell for each other and ended up getting married! Opal was a fine pianist, and often played with the city's leading string quartet. It was thanks to her that I studied in later years with the French composer Darius Milhaud.

Alice had become interested in Chinese art, and later when she was left some money, she thought she would use it to go back to China to study. Her hidebound elder brother Henry, however, tried very hard to stop her. 'You're forty,' he said, 'and you're obviously not going to get married, so you must put that money in the bank so that you will have something to support you in your old age.'

But Alice persisted, and her Christian Science practitioner not only prayed that God would guide her, but he also asked an American couple he knew in Yokohama to meet her ship when it stopped there for three days en route to Shanghai. The kind couple were waiting at the pier when the ship arrived, and took Alice for a drive to show her the sights, including Yokohama's Sankei-en, the beautiful park whose name means 'Garden of Three Glens'. On the way back, via Zenma village in Isogo on the town's outskirts, they approached a small Western-style house, and the husband said: 'It's tea-time, and Mr Britton's an Englishman. Maybe he'll give us a cup of tea!'

'Mr Britton' not only gave them a cup of tea, but it was love at first sight! He had a delightful little garden, and Mother told me that when she greatly admired a bed of Canterbury Bells, he started to pick her some, then realized it had rained and they would be muddy. But Alice said 'Oh, that's alright, I'll wash them,' which touched him deeply. Frank and Alice had much in common. They were both amateur musicians, loved travel, and had read lots of the same travel books, and were getting along so famously that the couple, who lived up on The Bluff, invited Frank to join them for dinner, after which they all had fun around the piano singing while Alice played the accompaniments.

Next day was Sunday and Frank invited Alice to go for a drive to Kamakura. While they picnicked, he proposed – having known her only four hours! And before the ship sailed for Shanghai two days later, she said 'Yes'!

Alice had to go on to Shanghai, not only because of her luggage on board, but she had been commissioned by Gumps, the well-known San Francisco gifts and home décor store, to buy some Chinese artifacts for them, and so she was obliged to carry out at least some of that commission. The early twentieth-century Chinese rosewood set of quartetto tables here in Hayama in my drawing-room, were bought by her for her new home at the same time!

Besides that, Alice had been invited to spend some time in Shanghai with her childhood friend from Alameda days, Ruth Shreve, whose husband, Benjamin Haile, was there as manager for the Far East of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. When they found she was to be married, and after Frank duly arrived, they arranged for it to take place in the English cathedral on 15 July 1920, after first registering the marriage at the British Consulate. After the service Ruth strewed white gardenia petals in front of the pair as they came down the cathedral aisle. 'It was beautiful,' wrote Alice as well as describing the lovely reception given to them by the Hailes. When Frank and Alice returned together to Yokohama, and Alice's elder brother heard the news, he cabled his sister: 'Have you lost your mind? Marrying a foreigner in a heathen land!' But to Alice, it was a dream marriage, in a fairytale land.


Excerpted from Rhythms, Rites and Rituals by Dorothy Britton. Copyright © 2015 Dorothy Britton. Excerpted by permission of Global Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Plate section faces,
List of Plates,
1. Rhythms Are What Divide Us,
2. My Mother,
3. My Father,
4. How Marrying Changes My Father's Life,
5. The Great Kanto Earthquake,
6. Hayama,
7. Mother Contacts Her First Japanese Friend,
8. Royal Friends,
9. The Japanese Language,
10. Winters in Yokohama,
11. Father's Sudden Death,
12. England,
13. Bermuda,
14. Mills College, 1943-1945,
15. London, 1945-1949,
16. Innocence and Ignorance,
17. Back in Japan – 1949,
18. Love and Sex,
19. Meeting 'Boy',
20. Society in Japan,
21. Marriage Customs,
22. Washoku and O-furo,
23. My Royal Neighbours,
24. Two Composers,
25. London and Paris,
26. Harps and Angels,
27. Back to Work in Japan,
28. Dreaming of Elephants,
29. Finding the Brittons,
30. Sea Shells,
31. The 'Katakana Prison' and Mr Suzuki,
32. Poetry,
33. The Island in Between,
34. Marrying 'Boy' – 1968,
35. The Japanese Crane – Bird of Happiness,
36. Comfort and Solace with Ted,
Dorothy Britton's Published Works,

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