Amy Stanley is a professor and social historian who specializes in early modern Japan. In her 2020 book, Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World, Stanley explores the story of a rebellious woman in a strict time. Her subject is Tsuneno, the daughter of a Buddhist priest from a country village. Although she tries to live a typical life, ultimately, she wants more. So, she finds a way to venture beyond her family’s expectations.
Stanley tells the story in a chronological way, embellishing each place and time with myriad details. As readers, we learn not just about Tsuneno and her family, but about the political power structure of the time. We learn about approaching transitions in the larger society. And Stanley also takes us inside the details of both rural and city life, as well as how priests, samurai, and city officials lived. Much of the material comes from letters and other personal papers, which have amazingly survived across the centuries.
The 19th century was a time of tremendous upheaval around the world. The world modernized, while also retaining older traditions and mindsets. And women like Tsuneno were caught right in the middle. She was young enough to imagine she could determine her own fate. And yet, she was also quite dependent on her family for dowries and other support in her marriages.
Tsuneno could easily be a fictional character, but instead this is the life she actually lived. I credit Stanley for finding her and hunting down all the details of her life. Tsuneno’s character might not be completely likable, given her stubborn nature. But at the same time, that stubbornness got her from her home village to Edo, the city which eventually became Tokyo. It makes for a fascinating story.
This book hit home for me on so many levels. First, it’s all true and based on extensive research. I am amazed at the things Tsuneno accomplished against the odds, and how she persisted even through the toughest of times.
Second, as the wife of a Sansei (third generation) Japanese American, this history connects to our family. We embrace a handful of Japanese traditions in our lives and understanding more about the culture and the country deepen that connection.
Third, we also recently watched the Netflix multi-episode documentary, Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan. The show is about a considerably earlier time but offered me some visuals to go along with this book. And since the show focused on men, reading the book from Stanley gave me a much-needed female perspective.
Fourth, so far, my 2021 reading life is full of historical fiction. And some of it was also set in the mid to late 1800s, even though the location wasn’t Japan. That makes an interesting comparison between this real-life historical narrative and my recent fictional choices.
If you enjoy historical fiction, give this biography / social history a try. I also recommend it for readers who like women’s studies and feminist themed books. Stanley touches on all of those topics as she introduces us to this remarkable Japanese woman.
Pair with Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff since the women share many personality traits, despite their vastly different stations in life. Or try Women of the Silk and The Language of Threads by Gail Tsukiyama because the main character in that historical fiction series also chooses an unexpected path.