“Koume’s World: The Life and Work of a Samurai Woman Before and After the Meiji Restoration” by Simon Partner

Koume’s World: The Life and Work of a Samurai Woman Before and After the Meiji Restoration, Simon Partner (Columbia University Press, December 2023) Koume’s World: The Life and Work of a Samurai Woman Before and After the Meiji Restoration, Simon Partner (Columbia University Press, December 2023)

In 1804, a girl was born in Wakayama, the capital city of Kishū domain in mid-Japan. Named Koume (“little plum”), she was born into a family of low-ranking samurai. Her father was a scholar and teacher, as in turn would be her husband, and indeed her son. Although she was a skilled painter and poet, she was not destined to be a significant historical actor: she married, she brought up a child, and she gained some note in the local community for her art. While Kishū domain played a small but significant part in the reforms of the early Meiji period, as a woman in a low-ranking family, Koume had no opportunities to shape these policies. What makes her noteworthy, however, is the diaries that she kept: a vivid record of the daily life of her family and the community in which she lived. 

Simon Partner has taken Koume’s diary and used it to paint a fascinating portrait of small-city samurai family life. As such, Koume’s World is a contribution to a growing body of scholarship that uses biography to explore late Tokugawa era social history. This includes Partner’s previous work, The Merchant’s Tale, and others such as Ann Walthall’s Weak Body of a Useless Woman.

There are some interesting, conceptual questions about Koume’s diary—why she wrote it, and the curious fact that she refers to herself in the third person, and her husband as if he was the chief subject—however beyond a short methodological chapter at the start of his book, Partner concentrates squarely on the world that the diary reveals. Although published by an academic press, and perhaps less explicitly targeted at a wider audience than Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City, probably the best known of the subfield, it is very readable all the same. Comparison with these other books is illustrative—where Stanley’s book is propelled by the trajectory of her subject, Tsuneno, leaving her home town to move up to the capital, Edo, and Walthall’s subject, Matsuo Taseko, played a small but notable part in national politics, Koume never left Wakayama, building her life within the community of samurai officials, local merchants, and visitors to the town. Koume’s World, therefore, focuses on exploring the world of Wakayama city and its residents, just as the events of mid-19th century Japan began to force the lives of ordinary Japanese to change.

 

Kawai Koume was the sole daughter of the principal of the Kishū domain school. Although her husband, Hyōzō, was one of her father’s best students, brought into the family to ensure the continuation of the family line, there are signs from Koume’s poetry that there was an element of love in the marriage. The two built a life together—his educational career blossomed while she managed the household, at the same time as she developed her reputation as a painter. In the Tokugawa era, the samurai were the ruling class: the descendants of warriors turned officials and bureaucrats. However, by the nineteenth century, the domestic economics of a low-ranking samurai family was famously unpromising. The domain was always seeking ways to retain some of their salary (paid in rice) in order to shore up its own failing balance sheet, at the same time expecting that samurai would maintain levels of costume and appearance to match their status. Koume was at the sharp end of this, forced to find ways to keep the household up and running in the face of regular financial shortfalls. At the same time, others had it harder still, so even as she made regular trips to the pawnbroker, she found ways to help out less fortunate members of her extended family and friends—extending small loans and employing local daughters as maids.

While their lives were not luxurious, both she and her husband enjoyed entertaining and being entertained—sake seems to have been their chief indulgence, and Koume’s diary records a regular pattern of visitors, and visits to local beauty spots for poetry and painting parties, as well as sluggish mornings-after. Although Koume didn’t sell her paintings as such, she would often receive quasi-commissions and gifts in appreciation—gifts that were either more valuable foodstuffs (fish, say) or readily exchangeable for them. These formed an occasional addition to a diet that was dominated by rice from her husband’s allocation and vegetables often grown at home.

As daughter, wife, and mother, Koume’s life may have been limited in its geographic range and its range of activity, but external events inevitably encroached upon it. From the Tempo famines of the 1830s, through the arrival of Matthew Perry’s mission in the 1850s and then to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, successive events undermined the assumptions that underpinned everyday life. Speculation about the motives of the foreigners, rumors of supernatural phenomena on the highways between the major cities, and news of uprisings and revolts—all of these reached Koume, and were duly recorded in her diary.

 

Kishū domain was allied to the Shogunate—its daimyo (lord) was a member of the Tokugawa family himself. In the 1850s and 1860s, as national politics dealt with the fallout from the forced opening of Japan by Matthew Perry, this resulted in specific obligations. Overnight, samurai more used to running the domain bureaucracy or studying the Confucian classics than fighting discovered that the martial ethos of the samurai was more than just the legacy of a bygone age. Koume’s male friends and relations were formed into units, and scratched around to put together full suits of armor, ready to defend the coastline from foreign incursions, or to bring rebellious domains to heel. Even the politics of the domain was rocked by the tensions between calls for reform and the impulse to retain time-honored socio-political practices, when a leading advocate of domain reform was murdered by his rivals.

The diary wasn’t kept (or did not survive) for the critical years around 1868, but Koume lived to see the new society which followed. The domain school shut, and her son was forced to try, with mixed success, to adapt to a new world made up of a national school network concentrating on a curriculum of Western origin.

For the fan of Japan’s modern history, Koume’s World is a vivid portrait of a society changing under the impact of dramatic events and forces, but it is also a reminder of the events that make up all human life, no matter the time or place: striving to make ends meet, the simple pleasure of time spent with family and friends, the joys of new life entering the world, and the sadness of those leaving us.


Ian Rapley is Senior Lecturer in modern Japanese history at Cardiff University and author of Green Star Japan: Esperanto and the International Language Question, 1880–1945 (Hawaii University Press, October 2024)