Stranger in the Shogun's City
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Stranger in the Shogun's City

A Japanese Woman and Her World

Amy Stanley

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eBook - ePub

Stranger in the Shogun's City

A Japanese Woman and Her World

Amy Stanley

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About This Book

*Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography*
*Winner of the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award*
*Winner of the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography* A "captivating" ( The Washington Post ) work of history that explores the life of an unconventional woman during the first half of the 19th century in Edo—the city that would become Tokyo—and a portrait of a city on the brink of a momentous encounter with the West. The daughter of a Buddhist priest, Tsuneno was born in a rural Japanese village and was expected to live a traditional life much like her mother's. But after three divorces—and a temperament much too strong-willed for her family's approval—she ran away to make a life for herself in one of the largest cities in the world: Edo, a bustling metropolis at its peak.With Tsuneno as our guide, we experience the drama and excitement of Edo just prior to the arrival of American Commodore Perry's fleet, which transformed Japan. During this pivotal moment in Japanese history, Tsuneno bounces from tenement to tenement, marries a masterless samurai, and eventually enters the service of a famous city magistrate. Tsuneno's life provides a window into 19th-century Japanese culture—and a rare view of an extraordinary woman who sacrificed her family and her reputation to make a new life for herself, in defiance of social conventions."A compelling story, traced with meticulous detail and told with exquisite sympathy" ( The Wall Street Journal ), Stranger in the Shogun's City is "a vivid, polyphonic portrait of life in 19th-century Japan [that] evokes the Shogun era with panache and insight" ( National Review of Books ).

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Information

Publisher
Scribner
Year
2020
ISBN
9781501188541

Chapter One FARAWAY PLACES

Baby gifts arrived at the Rinsenji temple in the spring of 1804, during the early thaw, when the paths through Ishigami Village were choked with mud. The number of presents was limited. This was, after all, the birth of a second child—and a girl. Four-year-old Giyū, his mother’s firstborn son, arrived in the dead of winter, and still the temple was swamped with deliveries, package after package of sardines, sake, bolts of cloth, seaweed, dried persimmons, and folding paper fans. That was appropriate. This new baby, born on the twelfth day of the third month, received simple, mostly homemade things: sticky rice cakes, sake, a set of baby clothes, dried fish flakes.
She didn’t have a name during the first week of her life. It was too soon, when so many infants didn’t survive. It would be bad luck, as if the family were trying to hold on to something that wasn’t quite theirs. Once the baby lived for seven days, then it would be time to celebrate, to give her a name and welcome her to the community.
When the week of anxious waiting passed, Emon and his family held a small gathering. No records of it survive, but such events were customary, and the temple family fulfilled all the usual social obligations. The guests would have been an assortment of wives and mothers from Ishigami and the neighboring villages: strong peasants, including the midwives who had attended the birth, and probably a few more refined ladies, Buddhist priests’ and village headmen’s wives. The baby girl was so new to the world that she didn’t yet recognize any of the people who would later become fixtures in her life. She may have slept through the festivities. But considering the personality she grew into later, it also seems likely that she opened her eyes, looked around at the tight circle of women, and wailed.
For a name, the girl’s parents had chosen something slightly sophisticated and out of the ordinary: Tsuneno. It was three syllables instead of the more common two, and it took two Chinese characters to write. This child would be the only Tsuneno in her family, most likely the only one in any of the farming villages that surrounded the temple. As long as she kept her name, she would never be confused with anyone else.
In the first months of her life, baby Tsuneno had everything she needed. Her family had old clothes and rags to piece together for diapers, so she could be changed whenever she was wet. She had a mat to sleep on, instead of a dirt floor, and enough firewood and charcoal to keep warm in the long winters. She had a wardrobe: loose cotton robes made up in a tiny size for babies and toddlers. There were lamps and candles to illuminate the shadowy rooms of the temple at night, and on snowy days she could sleep under a puffy patchwork blanket. In the summer, there were mosquito nets over her futon. Her mother could eat enough to produce breast milk—babies typically nursed until around the age of three—and if she couldn’t or didn’t want to breastfeed, her family could hire a wet nurse. They could also pay a village girl to work as a nursemaid. She could wear Tsuneno on her back and sing her plaintive country songs, and Tsuneno could regard the world from over her shoulder.
There was so much to learn. First, the things that babies need to know: mother’s face; father’s voice; her older brother’s name, Giyū. Next, lessons for toddlers, new vocabulary and rules. The word shōji for the paper-covered sliding doors, clattering and delicate, that she shouldn’t push her fingers through. Tatami for the mats on the floors: they rippled under her bare toes, and she had to remember not to pull at the sweet, grassy straw. Tansu was the word for the dresser, which was not safe to climb on, and hibachi was for the charcoal brazier that was too hot to touch. Ohashi was for chopsticks. There were two words for bowls. Owan for the dark, glowing lacquer ones, which were surprisingly light, and osara for the smooth porcelain, which could break. It was important to be careful.
Tsuneno also learned social rules, some beyond language, that alerted her to her family’s place in their small village. She could get a sense of her status through her neighbors’ deferential bows and the quick envious glances of other children. Adults knew the details, and the few who had the time and space to contemplate could perceive the outlines of a longer story. A hundred and fifty years earlier, when Tsuneno’s father’s ancestors were the Ishigami Village headmen, the main difference between rich and poor peasants had been one of degree: some owned land and others were tenants, but most shared a common occupation, farming, and a similar lifestyle. That had changed by the time Tsuneno’s grandfather was born. Prosperous families were finding new places to invest their money and new ways to multiply their fortunes, often at their neighbors’ expense. They had opened workshops for the production of Echigo chijimi—a kind of fine hemp crepe, bleached on snowfields—or they had become textile dealers, middlemen between producers and merchants. They bought local rice and brewed sake or bought eggs and sold them to city people. Or, like Tsuneno’s family, they invested in religious education, established temples, performed funeral services, and collected offerings. When they made money from these endeavors, they opened pawnshops, lent money, and, most important, invested in land. Already in Tsuneno’s great-grandfather’s generation, half the land in Ishigami Village was held by people in other places. By the time she was a child, one family—the Yamadas of Hyakukenmachi, an easy walk downriver—had holdings in nearly thirty villages.
Tsuneno’s parents and grandparents were investors and planners. They had to be, since even substantial fortunes could be lost quickly through bad harvests and mismanagement. But families like theirs also spent money freely on the small things of everyday life. They bought sets of bowls and plates for a few hundred coppers each. They bought books, too, to be read and lent to the neighbors, and low desks for writing. They spent heavy, ridged gold coins on futons, thick blankets, and finely woven mosquito nets, and they also purchased silk kimonos and obis for special occasions and heavy coats for the winter. With the small change left over, they bought snowshoes and wooden clogs for the children. When the tea had been drunk, the bowls had broken, the coats had worn out, and the mosquito nets had torn, they bought more. Consumption had become an endless occupation, and their houses filled with more and more things for their children to name and count.
In Tsuneno’s house, which was attached to the temple, some of those everyday things were funded by donations from parishioners, who gave cash, rice, and vegetables in gratitude for the Buddha’s compassion. Snow country people were known for their piety, not only because their lives were so difficult but also because the revered founder of the True Pure Land sect, Shinran, had lived there for a time in the early thirteenth century. He had been exiled from the capital for his heretical teaching that salvation depended on faith alone: anyone who called on Amida Buddha could be reborn in the paradise of the Pure Land. Even worse (at least from the standpoint of the clerical establishment), Shinran rejected priestly celibacy. Instead, he had married an Echigo woman, Eshinni, who established the role of the priest’s wife as a religious leader.
Some adherents of other Buddhist sects—such as Zen, Nichiren, and Shingon—still looked down on True Pure Land believers. Those who belonged to austere monastic traditions, in which clerics refrained from eating meat and remained celibate, often thought True Pure Land priests like Tsuneno’s father were too invested in worldly success, too covetous of riches, and too indulgent in earthly pleasures. True Pure Land priests had wives and children, and they enjoyed a lifestyle much like that of prosperous laypeople, all funded by gifts from parishioners. (“This is truly a sect that treats the people with extreme greed,” a critic wrote.) But even those who condescended to True Pure Land believers could recognize the strength of their devotion. They tended to raise large families, believing that infanticide—fairly common among other peasants—was a sin. In some circles, this was regarded as an admirable commitment to principle. In others, it was a sign of irrational zealotry or even barbarism: raising large broods of children as if they were dogs or cats.
In the end, Tsuneno’s parents had eight children who survived infancy. Childbearing was part of Tsuneno’s mother’s vocation, as central to her faith as singing hymns and saying prayers. The True Pure Land sect’s scholars taught that raising a child to become a priest or priest’s wife was a gift to the Buddha equal to “all the treasures that fill three thousand worlds.” So Haruma tended to her babies, and then her growing children, while she fulfilled the other duties of a village priest’s wife. Every day, she placed offerings of food and flowers on the altar before an image of Amida Buddha. She kept house, entertained parishioners with tea, and ministered to the women of the village. As the “guardian of the temple,” Haruma taught her sons and daughters that devotion could be embodied, that consistency and discipline were testaments of faith.
Tsuneno and her siblings learned about religious implements the way that peasant children learned about threshers and fishing nets. Their days were perfumed by the smoldering incense on the altar and punctuated by the deep, hollow sound of the bell calling people to the main hall for worship. Tsuneno learned to roll the cool beads of a rosary between her palms as she prayed. She memorized the first, most important prayer, Namu Amida Butsu (Hail Amida Buddha), something even a toddler could say.
Outside the temple, Tsuneno learned things that all Echigo children knew. She grew up speaking the local accent, switching around her i’s and her e’s just like everyone around her. In winter, she learned to “paddle” through powdery snow in straw snowshoes and to clear a path by “digging” rather than “shoveling.” In spring, when the snow froze hard, she learned how to walk on ice without slipping and how to laugh at her little brothers and sisters when they fell. She probably knew how to win a snowball contest, how to design a snow castle, and how to build a little cooking fire by scooping out a hollow in the snow and spreading rice bran under the kindling. If she didn’t, her brothers certainly did.
One of Tsuneno’s older brothers, Kōtoku, had been adopted by a doctor’s family living in the nearby town Takada, where a local lord had his castle. Most of the town’s twenty thousand residents lived in dark, narrow town houses tucked behind unbroken rows of eaves. In winter, they climbed to their rooftops to clear the snow, then dumped it out into the middle of the road. Kōtoku could have taught Tsuneno how to scramble up to the top of the snow heap. By midwinter, it was so high that they could look down at the rooftops and out toward the mountains.
There was a measuring pole ten feet high set out in front of Takada Castle, and in the worst winters snow buried it completely. Echigo’s children learned to speak of blizzards and frozen horses as if such things were ordinary. They were not impressed with giant icicles, even when they grew inside their houses, extending from the rafters nearly to the floor. They were accustomed to spending days in the dark because all the doors and windows were snowed over and couldn’t be cleared. Little girls filled the dull stretches of time with singing and clapping games or with stories: Once upon a time, a fisherman named Urashima Tarō rescued a turtle. A woodcutter and his wife found a tiny baby inside a hollow bamboo stalk. A weaver girl fell in love with a cowherd. An outsider might have thought the winters were quaint, even cozy, and children may not have minded. But for their parents, there was nothing romantic, or even pleasant, about the winter. It was a test of endurance. The region’s most famous author, Suzuki Bokushi, wrote: “What enjoyment is there of snow for us in Echigo, where foot after foot falls year after year? We exhaust ourselves and our purses, undergo a thousand pains and discomforts, all because of the snow.”
But at least everyone knew what to expect. It would be “freezing from equinox to equinox,” as the older people said, and sometimes farmers would need to shovel out the fields so that they could plant their rice seedlings. But eventually the rivers would thaw, the ice would retreat from the valleys, and in the fourth or fifth month all the flowers would bloom at once.
In the short summers, when the snow had cleared, Tsuneno learned the contours of her village. Ishigami extended to the shorelines of Big Pond and Little Pond, the reservoirs used to flood the rice fields in the spring. Like all children, she first measured distance in time and footsteps—she could walk all around Big Pond within the space of a morning—while the adults around her rendered the same distances in numbers and noted the figures for their records. To Tsuneno, Big Pond was just a vast glittering lake, but to men like her father, the details were important: the height of the embankments, the surface area of the water, the level of rainfall, and the date on the calendar when the floodgates would be open and the muddy fields would fill with water.
As the men in Ishigami made measurements and drew brightly colored maps of local rice paddies and pathways, all of the Japanese islands were being charted and measured more precisely. Just before Tsuneno was born, the cartographer Inō Tadataka had surveyed her part of Echigo, equipped with a compass, a sextant, and his knowledge of the stars. He had followed the Sea of Japan coastline from the northern tip of the main island of Honshu down to the port of Naoetsu and turned inland toward Takada. From there, he set out for the mountains, naming the villages he passed and noting the number of buildings in each. Later, he turned his surveyor’s diary into a map of southern Echigo, which he presented to the shogun. He rendered all the turns and inlets of the Sea of Japan coast, the town of Takada, all the little villages along the Northern Highway, and the distinctive peak of Mt. Myōkō, a familiar sight on the horizon whenever the clouds cleared. But Ishigami Village was still too small and remote to have a place on his map—even Big Pond and Little Pond were blank space. They would have to wait a few decades to appear on a comprehensive map of the province, and by then Echigo would be called Niigata Prefecture.
Meanwhile, a child could make her own map of the woods and fields around Big Pond, noting the cicadas seething in the grass and the clicking black dragonflies tracing circles over the water. Stands of cedar trees bracketed the shore; water chestnuts and lotuses floated on the water’s surface. There were also other, mysterious things. They lurked in dark forests and in the depths of the ponds. Tsuneno couldn’t see and touch them, but she knew they were there. All the children did—it was common knowledge. Water sprites splashed in Big Pond, and goblins with long red noses darted among the trees. Even ordinary animals had hidden lives. Badgers were tricksters, and foxes could turn into beautiful women. An industrious rabbit lived in the full moon and spent every night pounding sticky rice cakes.
In books, the forests were no longer enchanted. Precise illustrations of all the plants and animals appeared in thick, dense volumes, which were available for purchase from traveling booksellers. Like cartographers, Japanese natural scientists were charting the world of Tsuneno’s childhood, making detailed observations and measurements. They classified what they found as medicinal herbs, “products,” or natural objects, inspired by the categories named in Chinese texts. But that would soon change. Far away in Bizen Province, a boy a little older than Tsuneno was studying “Western learning” and puzzling out the foreign sounds and letters of Dutch books. In time, he would write a Sutra of Botany, arguing that the Japanese should adopt the classification system devised by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus. For the first time in Japan, the cedars in the forest and the lotuses on Little Pond would be called plants.
For Tsuneno, there were no “plants,” but there were other kinds of knowledge waiting between the pages of books. When she could be trusted to sit still and not spill her ink, probably around the age of seven or eight, she began her formal education. This was not taken for granted in rural Echigo. Only a few years before Tsuneno was born, a woman from a nearby village was forced to apologize to her in-laws for wasting time learning to read and write. But Tsuneno was not an ordinary peasant. A sophisticated girl, and a desirable bride for a priest or village headman, would have to be able to write graceful letters, read poetry, and, in some cases, even keep family accounts. What if Tsuneno’s mother-in-law kept a housekeeping diary and expected her to follow written instructions? Or what if Tsuneno didn’t know how to arrange plates on a tray properly and wanted to look up the answer in a manual? There were expectations for womanly competence, and Tsuneno had to keep up. Parents all around were purchasing copybooks and hiring tutors, and their daughters were practicing literacy: drafting simple letters to their friends, entering numbers in ledgers, and keeping short diaries.
By the time Tsuneno first knelt at a desk to dip her brush in ink, her brother Giyū, who was about four years older, had already begun lessons. He and Tsuneno might have attended the same village school, since teachers in some places taught boys and girls together, or one or both of them might have studied with a tutor at home. But even if they sat side by side, they followed different curricula. Both siblings started with the forty-eight letters of the Japanese phonetic alp...

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