Author:Karashi Renkon
About Roots

The Story of the Hairdresser Who Became a Buddhist Nun

Author:Karashi Renkon
Author:Karashi Renkon

Unless you come from a long-established family or have samurai ancestors, it's quite challenging to know about your own roots.

I myself hail from a somewhat unique family on my mother's side, with my grandparents running a temple. However, my parents are ordinary salarymen and, apart from being occasionally recruited to help with events like summer festivals or New Year's celebrations, I had little involvement with the temple. Until recently, I had absolutely no knowledge of the temple's origins or establishment.

This article is a compilation of what my grandmother told me about the roots of our family's temple on my mother's side.
In the course of casual conversation, I asked, and what emerged from my grandmother's mouth was a "story of a hairdresser" that I could never have imagined.
The story takes place during the Meiji era, going back to the time of my great-great-grandmother.

The photo is for reference only.
The photo is for reference only.

My Great-Great-Grandmother Who Was a Hairdresser

My great-great-grandmother worked as a hairdresser in a former castle town located close to the sea.
A hairdresser, in modern terms, is equivalent to a hairstylist.
Originally, it was a profession performed by men, but during the mid-Edo period, as women's hairstyles became more complex, women began to actively take part in the role of hairdressing.

The customers were mostly geisha from the flower district, and when we think of geisha, we often picture their glamorous performances in singing and dancing. However, in reality, it seems that their lives were not always filled with bright and joyful stories.
Romantic entanglements with customers.
Conflicts among geisha.
Interpersonal issues and financial disputes.
Worries about the future and health concerns.
My great-great-grandmother often listened to the grievances of these geisha.

At home, there was a husband, fond of his drink, truly embodying the term "the hairdresser's husband," along with five children.
Besides, it was always lively with women who came to have their hair done by my great-great-grandmother and vented their grievances while getting their hair styled.
Perhaps it was due to my great-great-grandmother's exceptional hairdressing skills or her ability to listen to grievances attentively, but her hairdressing business prospered greatly.

However, she chose not to pass down the profession of hairdressing to her daughters and instead sent them to girls' schools in Tokyo.
Perhaps my great-great-grandmother's husband (great-great-grandfather) wasn't just a "hairdresser's husband" (relying on his wife's work to support the family), and he might have had a proper job that allowed him to afford sending their daughters to girls' schools.
However, all that is known about my great-great-grandfather is that "he liked alcohol." Now, there is no way to confirm what kind of work he actually did.

Letter from the Married Daughter

ne of those daughters, while in Tokyo, caught the eye of a certain man and got married.
He seemed to have a decent job that required him to travel extensively across the country.
After the marriage, the daughter had to move quite far away from where my great-great-grandmother lived to follow her husband's job transfers.
She would probably be considered akin to what we refer to today as "a wife who frequently moves due to her husband's job transfers," wouldn't she?
As the "mother of a wife who frequently moved due to her husband's job transfers," my great-great-grandmother continued her work as a hairdresser, while never missing her regular visits to the temple to pray for the well-being of her daughter living far away.

One day, she received a letter from her daughter.

"I am criticized by my husband every day. The money I had left at home has disappeared, and he blames me for it.
Despite having no memory of it, I'm unable to defend myself or provide an explanation. Every day, I search throughout the house.
Mother, please pray that the money is found."

I asked my grandmother for the specific amount of the missing money, but when converted to today's value, it turned out to be a considerable sum.
(I will omit the exact amount due to its sensitive nature.)
It was suspected that someone might have stolen and used the large sum of money. Perhaps, the husband suspected that his wife was secretly indulging in luxury without his knowledge, leading to severe daily reprimands and criticism.

After receiving the letter, my great-great-grandmother started visiting the temple even more fervently.

If she lived nearby, she could search together with her daughter and plead for her innocence.
She could even gather money and confront her daughter's husband with it.
However, the place where her daughter lived was far away, and transportation was not well developed at that time, so she couldn't just go there easily.
Moreover, during that period, there was a strong belief that "women belong to their husband's family," so my great-great-grandmother might have thought that "interfering too much would only cause trouble for her daughter."

She fervently hoped that at least the money would be found.

Perhaps my great-great-grandmother, filled with such feelings, held her hands together, praying to the Buddha.

Becoming a Buddhist Nun from Despair

After praying continuously for about a year, my great-great-grandmother received a letter from her daughter's husband.

The letter contained only one sentence: "Your daughter has passed away."
It was unclear under what circumstances she had passed away or what her last words were.
She also had no idea whether the money had been found or not.

It is said that a lock of hair, believed to be from the daughter, was enclosed in the letter.

It happened just two years after her daughter got married.

My great-great-grandmother was so shocked that she could no longer carry on with her work as a hairdresser.
It is difficult to imagine the feelings of my great-great-grandmother at that time.
Perhaps, she regretted sending her daughter to a girls' school, regretted approving her daughter marriage to this man, and regretted not rushing to her daughter's side when she received the letter. However, she couldn't turn her regrets into anger and confront her daughter's husband. She might have been consumed by deep remorse and felt utterly helpless.

Around the same time, my great-great-grandmother's husband (great-great-grandfather) also passed away due to illness. Their children had already left home, and she completely lost her sense of purpose in life.
During that period, my great-great-grandmother might have been unable to recall even the colors of the scenery before her eyes.

What should I do next?
Should I return to being a hairdresser or...?

After much internal struggle, the decision my great-great-grandmother made was to "become a Buddhist nun."

The photo is for reference only.
The photo is for reference only.

After her daughter got married and moved far away, my great-great-grandmother kept visiting the temple she had always frequented. Whether the abbot of that temple could not bear to see her in such distress, or perhaps my great-great-grandmother directly pleaded to the abbot, it's unclear now. Nonetheless, through the temple's guidance, my great-great-grandmother took vows and became a Buddhist nun.

She was a "hairdresser."
Although her own hair might not have been elaborately styled, she surely maintained it reasonably well-groomed.
After all, if a hairdresser who creates beautiful hairstyles had unkempt hair, it wouldn't leave a good impression, so there's no doubt she took good care of it.
Yet, she completely cut off what could be referred to as her "business tool," her hair, and began her training to become a Buddhist nun.

Subsequently, Becoming the Abbot of a Women's Sanctuary Temple

Afterward, my great-great-grandmother successfully became a Buddhist nun. With the kind offer from the abbot of the temple she had been receiving care and support from, she was entrusted to become the abbot of another temple.
Her son (my great-grandfather), who had previously left home, started helping at the temple and eventually took over its leadership.
This is the origin of my maternal family's lineage.

My great-great-grandmother devoted herself to assisting women in dire situations. She provided refuge to those fleeing from domestic violence—what we now term as DV—and opened her temple as a sanctuary to widows who had no place in either their marital or parental homes.
I wonder, when she saw these desperate women knocking on the temple's door, did she see in them the shadow of her daughter, long passed away in a distant place?

Furthermore, it seems that the temple was always bustling with Danka (parishioners) who came seeking advice and to share their worries.
My grandmother often remarked, "Though your great-great-grandmother shaved her head, the work she did might not have been much different from the time when she was a hairdresser."

What My Great-Great-Grandmother Did

Since the Meiji Restoration, Japan has emphasized "Monarchy" and "Patriarchy," leading to a male-centered society. Additionally, the introduction of the Western concept of "Good Wife, Wise Mother" further exacerbated the culture of male domination and female subordination.
Listening to my grandmother's stories, I came to understand that my great-great-grandmother had been rescuing women who had become victims of the stifling and distorted society of male dominance.

However, I guess that my great-great-grandmother's actions were not driven by grandiose ideals such as "changing this ridiculous society" or "improving women's status". Rather, I believe she was simply, and earnestly, dealing with each person in need that she encountered.
I believe my great-great-grandmother, not wanting those who had come to the temple by fate to experience the same sorrow as her own daughter, simply did her best at each moment with a sincere heart.

In the world we live in today, a considerable time has passed since the end of the war, and the former gender hierarchy of male superiority and female subordination has almost disappeared. Nowadays, regardless of gender, we all have the freedom to choose our own way of living. On the other hand, with the expansion of choices and the overflow of information, there are likely quite a few people who feel pressured, thinking they must set lofty goals, must do something significant, must be the best, and must earn more money. In the process, they may lose sight of who they are. This is not just about us women; I believe it applies to men as well.
For us living in the modern world, my great-great-grandmother's way of cherishing the present fate might seem cumbersome and inefficient at first glance.

However, if this "small drop" could eventually become a powerful wave that changes reality, then...

Through understanding the roots of my maternal family and the lifestyle of my great-great-grandmother, I've felt compelled to cherish my current relationships, even if it's just a little more than before.

The "roots of my ancestral home" that I thought I knew turned out to be surprisingly unknown. This time, through a casual conversation with my grandmother, I unexpectedly learned about it.
Even if you come from a family like mine with "ordinary salaryman" parents, you might uncover a grand drama of your ancestors if you take the time to investigate. Why not ask your knowledgeable parents or relatives about the roots of your ancestral home, on occasion?

Thank you for reading until the end.
Thank you for reading until the end.

※he photos are for reference only. Actual scenes may appear differently.
※Adjustments have been made to a degree that does not compromise their essence.