A Woman’s Life in Letters

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘To be A woman is to grow up and leave for another household.” So begins “The Great Learning for Women,” an 18th-century Japanese primer attributed to the neo-Confucian scholar Kaibara Ekken. As generation after generation of girls sat down to study, learning the texts and skills that would prepare them for adulthood, this was among the first and most fundamental precepts: They would grow older and, in time, depart their family home to marry into another. Biology and society admitted no alternate possibility.

In the snowy town of Ishigami at the beginning of the 19th century, a girl named Tsuneno likely read this text. The oldest daughter of a Buddhist priest, Tsuneno was expected to be disciplined, skilled and quiet; to marry the man her parents selected from within her family’s social network and raise another generation of devout sons and obedient daughters.

As Amy Stanley, a professor of history at Northwestern University, recounts in her absorbing new book, “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World,” Tsuneno would try, more than once, to fulfill the mandate set out by her family and society. By the age of 35 she had been married and divorced three times, each union shorter than the previous one and none yielding any children. Quarreling with her older brother and desperate to avoid a fourth arranged marriage, Tsuneno left—not for another husband or household, but for the bustling city of Edo (now Tokyo).

With her departure, Tsuneno changed course in dramatic fashion and initiated a furious exchange of correspondence to explain her decisions and persuade her relatives to support them. That trove of letters, carefully preserved by Tsuneno’s family, eventually became part of the Niigata Prefectural Archives. Ms. Stanley read Tsuneno’s words online and followed them to the archive, painstakingly deciphering one messily handwritten document after another until she could assemble the events of Tsuneno’s life. The resulting book is a compelling story, traced with meticulous detail and told with exquisite sympathy.

Other parts of the globe were deep into the Age of Revolution when Tsuneno was born in 1804, but peace had reigned over Tokugawa Japan for nearly two centuries. While Japan was not the “closed empire” others have depicted, Ms. Stanley writes, “it was a sheltered place, inaccessible to most foreigners and at a remove from global markets.” Ishigami, about two weeks’ walk northwest from Edo when the roads were passable, sat even further removed. As Tsuneno and her seven siblings grew up surrounded by the cyclical rhythms of religious ritual, it must have seemed unthinkable that anything would ever change.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)