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Women’s writings provide window on Tokugawa life

by Kris Kosaka

The Edo Period in Japan seems pretty much a feminist’s nightmare. Samurai rule and strict societal boundaries confined women within the neo-Confucianistic bonds of a deeply patriarchal society. Although women’s rights and power took a gigantic step backward during this time of military rule, women’s voices were not completely silenced. Edo women did enjoy some measure of freedom.

LITERARY CREATIONS ON THE ROAD: Women’s Travel Diaries in Early Modern Japan, by Keiko Shiba, translated with notes by Motoko Ezaki. University Press of America, 2012, 156 pp., $28.95 (paperback)

Historian Keiko Shiba’s work gathers travel diaries from women throughout the Tokugawa shogunate and further reveals the liberties of thought still present in the feminine mind. Motoko Ezaki, coordinator of the Japanese program at Occidental College in Los Angeles, offers a comprehensive English translation to Shiba’s collection, with additional notes to further explain the historical and cultural significance of the many travel diaries.

“Literary Creations on the Road” is organized in four parts: the reasons women traveled, detailed aspects of the journey, cultural and philosophical background and the effects of the journey. Each section contains excerpts from various diaries, showcasing a wide range of Tokugawa womanhood. Shiba drew from close to 200 diaries for her research, and the entries reflect the spectrum of Tokugawa society from holiday-makers to heroes. Accounts from women who chose travel for pleasure or pilgrimage, through to refugees traveling to flee the Boshin War, or the account of Tsuchimikado Fujiko, an emissary for Princess Kazunomiya, who traveled through unstable times to help stop a full scale attack on Edo at the start of the Meiji Era.

Each entry provides an important historical perspective, always through the eyes and voice of a woman. Translator Ezaki ends each chapter with a comprehensive collection of notes further highlighting the historical importance of these real-life accounts of life for Tokugawa women.

Stylistically Ezaki’s commentaries are direct, clearly elucidating the historical or cultural references found in the diaries. The entries themselves, like much of Japanese literature, are poetically descriptive, with many of the women travelers following the tradition of haibun, or poetry mixed with prose. At the same time they read like modern travel literature with concise details of the where and what of new discovery. These concrete diaries invariably contain abstract wonderings, and the literary reader will delight to uncover both practical and poetic reactions to life on the road. Along the way, the reader learns many interesting side-facts about Tokugawa life — how wives dreaded the long, dangerous journey to Edo from the outlying provinces; how the education of women differed between classes; how certain shrines were considered off-limits for women, “with the possibility of defilement.”

These diaries, therefore, provide a window into the larger picture of Tokugawa life, peering beyond the shiny hard steel of samurai armor into the softer recesses of everyday living. Certainly the domineering but peaceful world of the shogun harshly dictated boundaries for all its citizens, and many of the diaries speak of yearning and heartache. Still, the women who captured their thoughts on paper triumphed in the human spirit, finding much to appreciate along the open road.

The words from the women who traveled the thoroughfares and byways of Tokugawa Japan afford an important glimpse into the world of the shogunate.

Kris Kosaka teaches literature and writing at Hokkaido International School.

  • kyushuphil

    I like the lovely contrast in Kris Kosaka’s penultimate paragraph.

    There, the expression “hard steel of samurai armor” pairs nicely with the one for “softer recesses.” Perfect tribute to theme and title of Ruth Benedict’s classic, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.”

    I like knowing about this work Kris Kosaka reviews here, too, because it helps explain how culture survived the militarists and feudalists. Bashō and Chikuden didn’t just come out of nowhere. There must have been some number of very fine women nurturing the best of things in ways that chauvinist history till now, apparently, hasn’t much recounted.

  • rrslaton

    This certainly is an interesting addition to the many ways of looking at Tokugawa reality. I’m impressed that some 200 diaries still exist (and their continued existence speaks to what must have been a common activity among upper class women–and some strong kura!), and that Prof. Ezaki could locate them.

    Randy Slaton

    Honolulu