Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Toshiko Matsumoto,
'I leave my destiny to my Goddess [Kamisama]'

Yongmei Wu

  1. Having a fair complexion and dark hair, Mrs. Matsumoto looked at least ten years younger than her real age of seventy-six. Having entered Kotobuki at the age of fifty-two, she had been living in Sazanka for about twenty-four years—a period long enough to make her a senior at the home and easygoing with the staff members. She was often seen to joke with both the matrons[1] and her fellows, receive or give gifts in the hallway, attend various club activities and knit while chatting with others. And she regarded washing the teapots after each meal as her daily duty and said that she would continue doing that as long as she was healthy.
  2. Mrs. Matsumoto was born in a big family in Hokkaido, where she lived with her grandparents, parents and three siblings. She could not remember much about her childhood except that she had lived in a big house coated with plaster, which indicated that her family was wealthy. When she was very young, her grandparents often told her and her brothers to help others as much as they could. They said that 'by doing so, even if the favours are not returned to yourself, they will be returned to your children or grandchildren.' As she was raised in such circumstances, she liked to look out for others. And she was helped by others, too.
  3. After she graduated from a girl's school, she worked in a foil factory for a while. Then she stayed at her aunt's home in Tokyo for four years and fell in love with a university student who lodged in her aunt's home. When the air raids became bad in the later part of World War II, she went back to Hokkaido, and got married ten days later after an o-miai.[2] She was twenty-four years old. Although she was not willing to marry the man her father had arranged for her, she had no choice for at that time a daughter was not allowed to offend her father. After that she lived in her husband's home for twenty-two years until she got tired of having to run their home shop alone for seven years after her husband had died from tuberculosis.
  4. Mrs. Matsumoto did not think her marriage was a happy one. She thought she would have been happier if she had married the man she loved. 'It was my fate,' she said. Her husband hoped for a boy to inherit his shop, so she had to keep on producing children each year until she finally had a boy seven years after her marriage. She was awfully busy because she had to raise six children while at the same time running the shop. She could never sleep more than four hours a night for over ten years.
  5. Her mother-in-law was not a bad person, and she helped to take care of her grandchildren. However, her three sisters-in-law were very spiteful [iji ga warui]. Mrs. Matsumoto was called 'a rotten bride [kusare yome]' when she could not get up because of severe morning sickness when she was pregnant for the first time. Sometimes when she opened the fusuma door of their bedroom, she found one or two of them standing at the door eavesdropping and spying. She tried her best to restrain her rage until one day she could not bear the piercing pain in the stomach because of an ulcer.
  6. Her husband was a gambler as well as a playboy. As Mrs. Matsumoto took care of the bills of their home shop, her husband could not take out money freely. He had property such as mountain and other land inherited from his father. But he had sold all of them gradually to pursue personal pleasure. Mrs. Matsumoto did not know that until one day after the death of her husband a man in her village proved it to her. She lost her temper: how could her husband do that without any consideration for their children? But anger was of no use, what was sold could not come back again. She worked day and night to run the shop and to support her six children, her mother-in-law and a shop helper.
  7. Mrs. Matsumoto moved to Tokyo to live with her son after she closed the shop. There was no problem as long as her son was single. However the situation changed after he got married. Her daughter-in-law wanted her husband to concentrate only on her and she was jealous when her husband showed kindness to his mother. At the same time, Mrs. Matsumoto took it for granted that she could presume on her son's goodwill [amaeru] because it was she who had brought up all the six children. So the presence of Mrs. Matsumoto became the source of quarrels between the couple. She felt sorry to put her son in the position of being pressured between her and his wife. She said,

      It was because of me that the two could not get along well. I thought it would be better for me to leave, so I began to live with my daughters here and there. And I moved to live with my eldest daughter after all the others got married. She was then in Tokyo. Because I am the mother of the wife in the household, it's unusual for me to live there.[3] I felt restrained and embarrassed [enryo] towards my son-in-law. He was also reserved towards me. And my daughter, because I am her mother, she felt indebted to her husband. After a while our relationships became strange [okashii]. As a result, I began to think of living separately. So I went to consult with the welfare commissioner in our district. She suggested that I go to the welfare office directly. There I was told that about three hundred persons were waiting for vacancies in the homes for the elderly and that I needed to wait for five to ten years. I was disappointed at that moment, but I applied for entrance that day. Upon returning home, I prayed to this God, my Goddess [Kamisama], Tomomaru-hime.[4]

  8. Mrs. Matsumoto pointed to a picture of a middle-aged woman which she had put in front of a tablet on which was written the characters for 'Ôyamanezu no mikoto' on her old dressing table. According to her, Ôyamanezu no Mikoto is a Goddess of the heart. One's prayer will be answered if one prays genuinely from one's heart. Mrs. Matsumoto entered this religious group some twenty years ago after she went to listen to the teachings with one of her daughters, who was then afflicted with an unhappy marriage. She did not believe in the Goddess until some miraculous things happened to her children. For example, her son was in a traffic accident when he once drove his boss and a female colleague to a villa near the Kawaguchi Lake at Mt. Fuji. The car was severely damaged and both the boss and the woman were seriously injured. However, her son remained unscathed. He was not hurt at all! He was a believer of the religious group and had prayed to the Goddess every time before he went out. One more case was her second daughter. She was diagnosed with ovarian cystoma after she became pregnant. She was told to give up the baby because she needed an operation to remove the cyst. But as she had married after the age of thirty, she wanted the baby very much. So she prayed to the Goddess every day to keep her baby and for the tumour to disappear. On her next visit to the hospital it was found that the tumour had become smaller, and eventually it disappeared. Her daughter has since delivered a second child. Impressed by these apparent miracles, Mrs. Matsumoto became a follower of this religion. She said,

      I was totally convinced of the existence of the Goddess— Ôyamanezu no Mikoto. I entered the church [kyokai] and went to Yokohama three to four times a month to listen to Tomomaru-hime's teachings. After I applied for admission to the old aged home, I prayed to Tomomaru-hime every day: 'Oh, my Kamisama [God or Goddess], I want to live separately from my daughter. If there is a good place supported by welfare, please let me in.' Then when I went to the welfare office several days later, the officer there thought I was in a hurry, so he put my application form ahead of the others. I continued to pray to Tomomaru-hime and was told that there was a vacancy in Sazanka three or four days after my second visit to the office. So it was owing to the Goddess that I was able to live a comfortable life here in Sazanka.

  9. Mrs. Matsumoto thought it was happier living in Sazanka than being with her children, since by living separately from her children, thereby graduating from the role of a mother-in-law, she felt relieved of many worries and much anguish. She also thought she had been relieved many times since she joined the church. After she moved to Sazanka, she had been operated on twice. Each time before the operation, she prayed to the Goddess 'Dear Tomomaru-hime, please change the doctor's hands into your hands. Please guard me.' Both operations were very successful. The doctors told her that their hands were extraordinarily dexterous when operating. She knew that it was the Goddess who had helped her. She recalled one of her operations:

      I will never forget the day when I had my operation in 1988. Lying in bed, faint because of the effect of a painkiller I took, I heard Tomomaru-hime speak to me; 'I am here to protect you'. No sooner had I shut my eyes than I saw a screen with the words 'Tomomaru-hime comes'. 'Oh, thanks to the Goddess. She is with me', I was moved to tears. And I recovered from the operations faster than ordinary elderly people. With the faith healing [kaji] from my Kamisama, I have benefitted a lot since I came here. Whenever I feel too tired to do the laundry or too sick to attend club activities, I will pray to the Goddess, and then I will become energetic and fulfil the tasks.

  10. Mrs. Matsumoto also felt she had been redeemed by her religion. At the time she came to live in Sazanka, she could not adjust to the home world which was so different from her former life. She had to follow the regulations and pay attention to others, especially her roommate. It was stressful to adapt to the new environment and human relationships in her old age. She said if she had not had Tomomaru-hime with her, she would have become strange. It became her habit to greet the Goddess at six o'clock every morning and night. She would do everything Tomomaru-hime told her. If she was unsure about something, she would pray to the Goddess for directions. According to her, the Goddess understands that human beings do not know how to choose the right way, and how to keep the regulations. Therefore she guides her followers in the heart, and she saves people who are trying their best to obey regulations. Mrs. Matsumoto believed that her Goddess was showing her the right way and protecting her from illness as well. She spoke placidly, 'I have left my life to my Kamisama, so I fear nothing, not even death'.
  11. When talking about her current life in Sazanka, Mrs. Matsumoto said that she was quite satisfied. As she had been busy making a living for her families when she was young, she had no time to think about hobbies. She had dreamed of living a leisurely life in which she could enjoy her hobbies and do the things she liked while keeping an orderly schedule in eating, bathing and sleeping. Although there were times when she felt uncomfortable because of the limitations of her privacy, troublesome interpersonal relations and disagreeable matrons, the environment and schedule in general met with Mrs. Matsumoto's expectations. 'Except for the human relationships, this is a paradise,' she said.

      I feel at home here [igokochi ga ii]. The food is not bad. I can't comment on the quality of the meals because everyone has his/her own taste. Every day the staff members in the kitchen do their utmost to prepare the menu and make the dishes for us, so I am obliged to them. Besides, we can bathe any time we want; we can get some exercise by sweeping the floor or the like. In an ordinary family, the children are usually the focus of attention. However, this is a place where many elderly gather to lead a group life. So we are the principal focus and the staff here are all working for us. That's very good. We also have recreational and club activities. Each year the home arranges something for us. Another good thing about living here is that when our health deteriorates, we can move to Aoba or another tokuyô home. This makes me feel secure.

  12. Mrs. Matsumoto was grateful to the home for the services it provided, and she thought residents should not demand too much. She did not like those who kept complaining about this and that and speaking ill of others. She said, 'As the life here is a group life, everyone cannot have his/her own way. And since everyone is different, one should not expect others to share the same ideas as oneself. One should learn to compromise'. She thought it was important to tune in with others in order to lead a harmonious group life. Actually her relations with other residents were quite good. She was called 'everybody's friend' [happô bijin] in secret because she had a lot of friends, not only women but also men.[5] She thought that since both she and other residents had had a hard life, they should make fun during the last stage of their life. 'We should be considerate with each other and enjoy our lives here with our peers,' she said, 'those who only think about themselves or act like a God will not get along well here.' And she explained,

      I once lived with a person who had never married. As she had long lived a self-centred life [jibun kate na seikatsu], she didn't care about others as long as she herself was OK. People who have never married or who have no children do not understand the importance of interpersonal relations, and they don't know that they should consider others' situation before thinking about their own. That's why some people feel isolated from others.

  13. Mrs. Matsumoto was very active in club activities. The clubs she attended were calligraphy, handicrafts, card playing, table tennis and mahjong. She was good at paper folding [origami] and knitting. She was pleased to be one of the representatives of Sazanka to provide something for the yearly handicraft exhibition held in the Higashimurayama City Cultural Centre. She liked to keep herself busy and was willing to continue participating in recreational and club activities as much as her health permitted. But she was thinking about quitting the table tennis club, because she thought her declining energy could not allow her to play twice a week. Also, she did not want to be involved in the complicated interpersonal relationships caused by the problem of sorting out who would be responsible for club duties. It seemed that her philosophy of life was to avoid conflict and maintain peace as far as possible.
  14. Mrs. Matsumoto missed her children, but she stated that she would not live with them, because she thought of Sazanka as her own home. She could go to visit her children or call them when she missed them. But she did feel lonely sometimes, especially at dusk. Even if she was talking to somebody, she felt somewhat lonely in the corner of her heart. 'I think everyone here has the same feeling as I do,' she said. 'It's miserable to be old. But you have no choice.'
  15. Having lived in Sazanka for more than twenty years, Mrs. Matsumoto thought it easier for her to ask a favour from a matron than for the newcomers. 'I can make fun of the matrons,' she said, 'it is advantageous if you can make fun of the matrons.' She preferred to talk to the older matrons rather than the young staff because 'they give you a sense of reliability. The young matrons sometimes don't understand the feelings of the old people.' Although she thought the staff members were good to her and she could joke with them, they were not her family and she could not always depend on their good will. She would like to leave her destiny to her Kamisama and ask her to keep her healthy and protect her from being a burden to others [meiwaku wo kakeru]. Her wishes now were to devote herself to her Goddess and to live harmoniously with her peers.


    [1] In Japanese welfare institutions for the elderly, a matron [ryôbo] is a person who tends to the personal care of the residents. His or her function is similar to that of the nurse-aide in an American nursing home.

    [2] In the prewar ie household, the head of the family, usually the father or the eldest son who inherited the household, was responsible for arranging marriages for its members. A daughter was expected to marry the person her parents had arranged for her even though she might love someone else.

    [3] Though the New Constitution and the New Civil Codes after World War II eliminated the legal basis for the ie and a new family system was established based on new imported traits, such as equal inheritance by all children, equal rights for women and free choice of spouse, etc., the traditional ie ideology has remained embedded in Japanese social life. Primogeniture and the oldest son's responsibility for caring for old parents remain as social norms and practice in actual family life. Daughters who do not succeed a household are not expected to take the responsibility for parents' care.

    [4] According to Mrs. Matsumoto, Tomomaru-hime is the direct envoy [chokushi] dispatched from Ôyamanezu no Mikoto, a female Goddess who helps those suffering from illness and agonies in the secular world. She is a reborn human being. The religious group, named Shinji Kyôkai, are devotees of Ôyamanezu no Mikoto and it is a new religious group of Shinto with its head office in Yokohama.

    Although the meaning of Goddess might be different from the Japanese word of Kamisama, as I am unable to find a suitable translation for Kamisama, I tentatively use 'Goddess' as the translation for Kamisama in this article.

    [5] In Japanese, [happô bijin] is a critical term. Here Mrs. Matsumoto meant that as a number of female residents, especially those without close friends in the home, felt jealous of her wide circle of friends, they used this word to criticise her in secret.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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