I was born on the outskirts of the city of Kyoto in the bitter cold winter of 1851. My time of birth - twilight just before a winter storm blew up - inspired my parents in naming me. My early life was not an easy one, but I have blessedly few memories of it these days. However, I do remember that my father had very little patience with me and only slightly more with my two brothers. I think that it was because he knew that they would be useful one day and he believed that I never would be despite the fact that I helped out as much as I could. Nothing I did ever seemed to be good enough. He expected far too much from a child and my mother was too weak willed to do much on my behalf. Still, I tried my best and stayed out of his way when I could. I dreamed of something better than my unwanted presence on the outside of society. Life was hard, I hated it and I wanted to escape.
Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes, because you just might get it. In the summer of my eighth year, I did escape from that border village, but not by pleasant means. To make ends meet in those last days of the Tokagawa Regime, my family made the decision that many poor people made in that time - they sold me. Sold their own daughter. I could never quite bring myself to forgive them for it, not even years later when I understood the depths desperation will make one sink to. When I became a mother myself, what they had done became unfathomable to me. Not human.
But, I'm getting far ahead of myself. Because I was a "pretty child", I was sold to an okiya - a Geisha House - in the Gion district deep in the city of Kyoto. I was to learn to be one of them. An honor, I was told. I was "fortunate". I could have gone to much worse places. I suppose I was fortunate, but I certainly didn't think so at the time when I was too young to imagine a worse place. At first, I rebelled against all of it. Not with temper tantrums and fits like some, but rather with calm refusals to so much as move when told to. They said I was a stubborn, ungrateful brat and, of course I was punished severally. Why do people think they can beat other beings into doing what they want? I never understood, but I was not a stupid child either. I quickly faked submission and placidly let them pull the strings of my life for the next five years. I learned all their lessons with hardly a fault and bided my time. I knew a chance would come. I would never become like them - a plaything for rich men, selling my worth to the highest bidder. Never.
My chance did finally come just a month after my 12th birthday. My years of composure had paid off. The foolish women actually trusted me to be left alone at the place and watch over it for a few hours one night when they all had engagements or other business. That night, I took not only they money that had been paid for me, but also the total of my "debt". Others might call that stealing, but I never have. It was buying myself back. I fled from that place, using the dancer's grace they had made me become so adept at to move over rooftops without so much as a wobble. Landing lightly in an alley, I hid all traces of my flight and disappeared into the night.
I knew they would hunt for me, of course. Apprentices were too valuable, too expensive of an investment to just write off. I had to be invisible, or, better yet, cease to exist at all. That's when my idea for my great charade came to me.
It was 1864 and already the city was stirring with the whispers of revolution. Groups and syndicates were forming, passion was swiftly taking on a purpose. Like all young ideals, this one needed all the support it could muster to survive. Dojos were packed with young men around my own age learning the sword in order to join whichever side their loyalties fell on. Like all these boys, I found myself caught up in the winds of change. Fighting to make Japan a better place, a place where no more little girls would suffer what I had sounded like a fine idea to be. Thus, the girl Yukiyo Sasaki disappeared and a young man named Taro Nakata took her place. I hid everything that even hinted at my true sex. My changing shape was easily concealed in kendo clothes and I discovered the makeup skills I had been taught actually did have a practical purpose. I could hide the softer contours of my face, making me unrecognizable as anything besides what I was pretending to be. For several days after this transformation I studied boys my age. The way they walked, the pitch of their voices - including the way it was apt to change. Everything, until I could imitate it all without thinking. If only those shrewish Geisha knew I was using their very skills to elude them, oh how angry they would be. I almost wished I could see it.
When I believed I was ready, I purchased a shinai, concocted a tale for my future master and went to a dojo I had been watching for a few days as well. It seemed to a good place. Discipline was certainly there, but not in a stiff, cruel form like other places I had checked out. I could not take anymore bad treatment, or I would surely snap. I hoped my instincts were right.
They were. I was accepted as one of the many live in apprentices at the school and became a student of the honorable Kasai Shinkage Ryu style under the teachings of Master Kasai.
Three years later the Revolution was in full swing. Change was definitely coming and I was determined to be a part of it. I wanted the downfall of the feudal system we had been suffering under and the emperor back on his seat. The Shinkage style was meant to be quickly learned in times of need and I, with my peers, had just recently become very young masters. I joined up with the Ishin Shishi group just a few weeks later.
Of course, my dreams of change soon became harsh realities as I quickly learned just what a hard battle this was going to be. Things did not go as I planned and I found myself sucked into many dark situations with few options. I was a spy and soldier mostly - though the real fighting didn't begin until the climax of our revolution. I took on the hardest missions. I could get the information we needed without risking the Ishin and never objected to making sure that the person I had gotten it from would never tell anyone else. I used whatever methods I had to in order to survive and complete my duties safely. Surviving had become my purpose. However, to do this, I came miserably close to becoming the very thing I had sworn I never would be. Several times, I was forced to use the fact that I could be two completely different people to successfully complete my assignments. I became a woman again to lure men and their secrets to me and when it was done, Taro would return. It made me untraceable, it kept me alive, but the intense shame of what I did has haunted me for the rest of my life. I sold myself out for the sake of a cause that turned out to be a lie. I've spoken of it only once until now. My friends and family do not know of this - only my husband, Kenshin. That brings me to the next part of my tale.
Several months after I joined up, the Ishin's legendary manslayer, the Hitokiri Battousai, reappeared from wherever it was he had been hiding out. I heeded the warnings of the other Ishin members to give him a wide berth. I believed him to be as cursed as everyone said he was, teetering dangerously on insanity's edge. They whispered over our meals that he had killed too many and had been poisoned by it. I had seen for myself how the strange scar on his face never seemed to heal and when it finally stopped bleeding all the time, it didn't fade. Certainly cursed. The look in his eyes alone was enough to keep any sane man away. Besides, like everyone else I had heard the greatly exaggerated stories of Battousai the Manslayer and was in no hurry to get to know any such person for good or ill. For several years I went about my business while he went about his.
When the real fighting started near the end of the Revolution, I naturally found myself fighting side by side the other members of the Ishin against the Shogunate and Shinsengumi. I was able to mercifully give up my spying job entirely. Despite the close quarters of soldiers, the Battousai still continued to keep a silent distance from the rest of the Ishin, only speaking when he was spoken to first and then in clipped responses. The others said that they were just waiting for him to purposely die in a battle. I silently thought I would have to agree with them, there was something dark working inside the manslayer. With a final glance at the figure brooding in the farthest corner, I shrugged it off and cynically thought that all of us would probably come to a similar state in the end.
During one of the largest battles, I was badly wounded near the end and tried to hide myself to keep my secret. I lost consciousness, and assumed that I would never wake up again. But, I did.
When I woke, I found that I had been saved from my death by none other than the Battousai himself - Kenshin. He knew my secret and at first I feared him. I begged to be heard out and he agreed to listen. When I finished, swore to keep my secret. However, I now owed him a life debt. I suggested that the two of us become battle partners for the rest of the Revolution in the hopes that we might survive this thing. He hesitantly agreed before leaving me to my rest.
When the Revolution ended in the Ishin's favor a few months later, Kenshin told me over our customary sake of his plans to sell his katana and wakazashi and take up wandering. He told me that he believed that helping people throughout the country of Japan would be the truest form of repentance that he knew. I agreed that doing this is just what he needed to free his heart of the terrible burden of guilt that I knew he carried. I saw it wearing at him day after day and I knew I could do nothing to soothe it. If this would, then it would be the best path to follow. However, I said, I also had no home that I cared to return to, no plans for the future and that I was going with him. I suppose I had already come to love him, but there's no way I could have admitted to it yet. Not back then. Our world was still in chaos… and I was still living as a young man! However, I wasn't about to just let him wander out of my life either.
At first, Kenshin argued that it was not a good idea. That it would be a dangerous path and I needed the chance to built a better life for myself. I remember telling him, "Kenshin, the life of a wanderer is a very lonely path. With two of us, maybe we'll be able to save not only our souls… but our humanity as well." With a bit more persuasion along the same vein, Kenshin finally agreed and the two of us planned to leave the very next day. Both of us hoped we would never again have to lay eyes on the city so full of bitter memories.
The two of us wandered all over the country of Japan and grew closer each day, companionship slowly healing the deep emotional wounds we both carried in our hearts. Of course, we did eventually fall in love - though not in the traditional way of romance stories. One day, I simply woke up and realized that loving him was the most natural thing in the world to me. It wasn't something we had to think about, it just was. In loving each other we were able to get back the humanity that we thought was lost forever.
We were able to have three wonderful years together before things went badly. I was wounded in one of our countless fights against revenge seekers. Overcome with guilt and haunted by ghosts of the past, Kenshin left me to save me. I never dreamed I could feel so alone when I found him gone. He wanted me to start a new life, a safe life. I was devestated by his loss, but, I eventually was able to pull myself together and do as he said. What choice did I have? I could never find him. Oh, I looked, but it was in vain.
A few months later I took up residence in Tokyo with a great aunt who lived there. I found her to be a well-to-do woman who was smart as a whip, despite her advanced age. She had stopped having anything to do with her nephew, my father, because she disapproved of his lifestyle choices and had refused any communication with him in nearly fifteen years. I told her that I was widowed in the war, but my family would not take me back. I had been trying to earn a living on my own, but have not been able to; this was the very last place I had to turn. I hated lying to her - I still regret it today. But, I am also still quite sure she would have not been pleased with the truth.
So, I found my new, quiet life in Tokyo with my aunt. When the good lady died a few years later, she left everything to me, including the house and a substantial amount of money to live on long ago set aside for old age by my great-uncle. I had built a new life for myself by then, keeping busy by occasionally giving vocal and instrument lessons to the daughters of Tokyo families. I often thought it ironic just how well the Geisha lessons I had so resented had served me in the end. With the exception of the lessons and occasional meals at the local beef pot restaurant, the Akabeko, I lived a very peaceful, yet solitary existence in Tokyo. At least, for awhile. In those years, I became close to one of my former students, a young girl who lived down the road named Kaoru Kamiya. After her parents died, I helped her out as much as I could. Sometimes, I was at her dojo more than my manor house. We were both quite alone in the world and naturally gravitated towards each other. Despite being only ten years older than her, I believe she saw me as a surrogate mother of sorts back then.
I lived this way for the next five years in my aunt's grand manor estate. I never once heard word of Kenshin in all that time. Nothing substantial, anyhow. What I did hear were wild legends that grew up around 'the terrifying Hitokiri Battousai'. I had little patience for these and would not even continue to entertain any conversation where they were brought up. My gentlewoman image did not permit me to stand up for him, but I didn't have to listen to the lies either. I never once believed that he had died, but I didn't think I would ever see him again either. As the years passed, the ache of his absence lessened, but the gap left in my life never did disappear completely.
Then, in the early spring of 1878, Kenshin wandered back into my life - this time forever. It was one of the very happiest of all my days. The gentle nature that I loved so much lead him to save people around the city of Tokyo and these redeemed people formed the most closely knit group I could imagine - with Kenshin at its very core. In the dark times that followed his reappearance, all of us fought together at his side. The great Kyoto battle, Enishi's Vengeance, Shimabara - somehow we survived them all and more. Kenshin and I found through all this that our bond was even stronger than it was before. Perhaps it's true what they say. We are shaped and made stronger by our hardships - it makes the pleasant things sweeter.
In our minds, we had been together since before the Revolution's end. But, in April 1880, we were finally able to make it official. We were married surrounded by all the people who had become the loving family neither of us had ever had.
As I sit and write this, our two children, Hitomi and Keitaro, are five and two years of ago. These last six years have passed in peace and it seems that the past has finally been laid to rest for all of us. I hope that this existence that seems to be always bathed in warmth and golden light will continue for the rest of our days.
~ Yukiyo Sasaki Himura, 1886, Tokyo.