井の中の蛙

2/20/2005

Women During the Meiji Restoration

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 6:22 am

Someone might have made the astute observation that most of my entries are about works which one might read for orals preparation. That is because, I am reading a lot for my orals preparation. As such, many of the classic works on modern Japanese history will make an appearance in my postings as I post some random thoughts on them. I finished reading Marius Jansen’s Sakamoto Ryôma and the Meiji Restoration today and it was an interesting contrast to Anne Walthall’s The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration which I mentioned in a recent posting here. Walthall says explicitly in her introduction that her book title was a direct reference to Jansen’s work and written as a challenge to the “male-centered genre of history writing.” (3)

I kept this in mind as I read Jansen’s book, which is indeed full of men strutting the political stage. It even includes juicy page-long excerpts from some of the violent skirmishes that Ryôma and others got involved in that would be fit for a Shiba Ryôtarô novel or Japanese TV drama. There are however, some rare but interesting, if not occasionally odd references to women in Jansen’s book.

The most agency we seem to get from women in Jansen’s book is to be found in two similar passages:

There are several instances in the fragmentary diary of Nakaoka Shintarô in which he prepared himself for danger by a last visit to the brothel, only to meet the rest of the group there, with the result that the evening was made up in equal parts of self-indulgence and political discussion. Thanks to this the Restoration received its quota of female heroes, for the entertainers and hotel maids frequently saved the lives of their carefree customers. (98, italics mine)

The inns and pleasure haunts also provided their share of women whose participation in the activities of the decade made them fitting subjects for later chroniclers of screen and fiction. Many a shishi owed his life to a timely warning brought by a geisha or maid. Kido Kôin, who was sheltered by his favorite geisha after the disastrous Chôshû battle in Kyoto in 1864, later made her his wife. In 1866 the Fushimi inn maid who saved the day for Sakamoto not long after became his wife [Oryô]. (224)

This is followed by a page about Oryô, including an anecdote, taken from one of Ryôma’s letters, about an encounter between Oryô, armed with a dagger, and some villains in a brothel. She successfully saves a young girl from slavery at the brothel despite the threat of violence against her. He also mentions her courage one more time in reference to the Fushimi attack on his life. (228)

These are the only places I found where Jansen is really trying. I think he must be indicating that the women who have been remembered in Japan are largely the maids and geisha who saved the Restoration heroes in the night, which isn’t really problematic in any way. There are however, a few interesting hints of lost opportunity in his work, where some interesting questions could have been asked about the education and political consciousness of women might have been taken into account…
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自己紹介: Nick Kapur

Filed under: — Nick Kapur @ 12:46 am

I’m doctoral student at Harvard University in International History, with a focus on US-Japan relations. At least for now that is, as Konrad is doing his best to drag me all the way into Japanese history. I am especially interested in Japanese military culture, postwar US-Japan economic ties, Japanese environmental policy, and the evolution of the Japanese education system, but I’m pretty much interested in everything else too, so don’t be surprised to see me post on Japanese baseball or Kusunoki Masashige or something.

I spent last year in Japan, where I lived in Takarazuka (yes, that Takarazuka), taught English, and spent most of my free time visiting 古墳 and 古戦場.

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