Warning: This review will briefly discuss sexual assault.
As a librarian, one of my tasks is to do collection development. What does this mean? It involves adding items to and removing ones from the collections that I’m in charge of as well as keeping them up to date. So, at least once a week, I look through book catalogs and websites to see what kinds of items I think patrons would be interested in. This is how I came across today’s book Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley. After reading the synopsis, I decided to add it to my cart. Months passed, and I discovered an advanced reader copy of the book, so I took the opportunity to read it. Was it worth it? I say yes, but with some reservations.
Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World tells the story of Tsuneno – an unconventional daughter of a Buddhist priest who was alive during the early 19th century. She wanted to live the life that she wanted as opposed to the one her family planned out for her. After three marriages, she ran away to Edo (later Tokyo) and lived there right before Commodore Perry “convinced” Japan to open its doors.
Through mostly her and her family’s letters and secondary resources, Stanley richly illustrates who Tsuneno is, what her life was like with all its trials and tribulations, and what Edo and Japan as a whole were like at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate (a period between 1600 and 1868, in which the country was under a feudal military government that promoted isolationism). Seriously, the research was so rich that I was almost afraid that I was going to get sucked into it. Luckily, Stanley knows when to shift the focus back onto Tsuneno to explain how what she’s talking about would have affected our female protagonist. For example, in the summer of 1841, the City Magistrates in Edo decided to put out edicts forbidding silk crepe, velvet, gold, silver, “tortoiseshell hair ornaments,” and female singing teachers; requiring smaller and dimmer lanterns for the Sanno Festival, etc (p. 168, 172). More reforms appeared. These became known as the Tenpo Reforms, and they were meant to “bolster their finances[, to allow shoguns to]…shore up their authority with regard to the domain lords,” and to impose a moral agenda onto the people by instilling frugality and diligence (p. 168). And historians called that a period of peace.
Meanwhile, how did this affect Tsuneno? After an explanation of these reforms that lasts nearly 7 pages, Stanley proclaims that Tsuneno and her fourth husband Hirosuke ran out of money during that time, and she had to pawn personal items in order to obtain some cash. She even had to pawn clothes, which this particular society would have wanted her to have to look respectable, yet no one really knew what styles and fabrics were acceptable (p. 176-177).
Tsuneno herself is a strong, confident woman that one would normally see portrayed in a mostly positive way in the media today. Back in those days, society wanted women to be docile, gracious, full of chastity, obedient to their families and later husbands and his kin, and have sewing skills (p. 13, 15). While she could sew, she was rather stubborn and wanted more than the safety that her family offered. She left the Echigo Province in north-central Japan – her birthplace – for Edo without telling them. In multiple letters, her older brother Giyu scolded her multiple times for her disobedience and headstrong nature throughout her time in the city, but he gave in when she asked for money and other items until he officially cut her off from the family when she remarried her fourth husband (p. 201, 221). At the same time, without Giyu’s meticulous record keeping, readers like the author herself probably wouldn’t have known about Tsuneno.
The only thing that readers might complain about is that Tsuneno’s life was not all that interesting. I can see where they are coming from. On the back cover, the summary calls her “an extraordinary woman.” The only thing that truly made her that way is how she defied social conventions, and readers can find that kind of story in any form of media within the last ten years.
However, these kinds of tales are absolutely necessary for three reasons. The first reason is that most cultures wanted women to be docile and passive as well as serve her family and later her husband. Anybody who has studied history will know that not all women were like that, Tsuneno included.
The second reason is that throughout centuries, histories mainly focused on the winners. These people were usually royalty or people who changed the course of history. Tsuneno was not part of nobility (although she had a little higher standing than an average Japanese person due to being a daughter of a priest), nor did she alter the ways things were run in Japan. In other words, she was an ordinary person. Luckily, histories that have been published within the last 10-20 years have focused more on these kinds of people in order to provide a fuller picture of a certain era like this one does.
The third and final one is that these stories can be universal, in that they are relatable to those who are going through similar circumstances. At one point, while Tsuneno and her companion Chikan – a junior priest from a nearby village – were traveling to Edo, something happened to her that at first she couldn’t quite explain. She felt ashamed for trusting Chikan and reluctant to admit what she thought of as her own mistake. Then one day, she found the words: Chikan had raped her. Stanley believes her despite the initial skepticism that she addressed in this fantastic article about how history deals with sexual assault. Anybody who has gone through sexual assaults will know exactly the psychological state of mind that Tsuneno was in when she went through hers.
Overall, Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley is an extraordinary read about an ordinary woman who just wanted different things than what others expected of her at that time. It contains a vast amount of primary and secondary resources that paint a colorful picture that in more ways than one contradicts the period of peace that the Tokugawa Shogunate is known for. I would mainly recommend it to those who are interested in Japanese history, especially during the shogunate period, and obviously the Japanophiles (shinnichi in Japanese). It might be another story about a woman defying the conventions of her time, but the richness of the sources makes this book stand out, and readers need more stories like hers.
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