“Historians”, wrote Simon Schama, “are painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation,” but Amy Stanley succeeds as well as anyone could hope in her masterfully told and painstakingly researched evocation of an ordinary Japanese woman’s life in Edo on the eve of the opening of Japan.
Stanley’s heroine, Tsuneno, flees unfulfilling village life in what is today’s Niigata prefecture to seek her fortunes in the teeming metropolis Edo. She works as a maid, as a cook, she marries several times. Her employers are lumpenproletariat and feudal lords. She survives many of the great crises that wracked the last decades of the Shogun regime, including fires, riots and the Tenpô reforms. She buries one brother, who had become a monk in Edo, and then she dies.
This summarized biography does not do justice to her character. She is headstrong, irascible, dreamy and inconsistent. In face of the disapproval and rejection of her staid and respectable family of provincial monks, she pours out her self-justifications and pleas for help in a lifetime of letters home. Those letters, which must have been bitter bile for her brothers and sisters to read, are what makes Tsuneno alive for us today.
Professor Stanley of Northwestern University discovered the digitized letters of Tsuneno and her family in the Niigata prefectural archives. Just reading the handwriting was an exploit, since Tsuneno’s spelled words the way she pronounced them in her northern accent. From the exchange of letters Stanley teases out the drama which was taking place within the family, thinking through the multiple points of view, considering what was said and more importantly, in a Japanese context, what was not said (although, it’s refreshing to read that Tsuneno’s brother tells her new husband is “an idiot”).
This is very much the portrait of a woman. Stanley deals with the disappointments and tragedies of Tsuneno’s life with a delicate touch that channels the understanding of a daughter, a sister, a mother. The subject’s gender drives the story forward. One cannot imagine a man exposing his vulnerabilities and illusions in such a guileless manner.
Having laid out the psychological and familial framework for her story, Stanley then weaves through the narrative threads from the rich trove of memoirs, annals and artefacts that the boisterous Edo period left behind. From this we hear the sounds of the samurai tramping through the city, smell the eels grilling in tiny food stands, see the colour of posters for Kabuki performances. We learn how the poor wear paper clothes, which can never be washed, and how the wealthy visit hairdressers for their elaborate coiffures. Stranger in the Shogun’s City is the most evocative book this review has read about Japan since The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris.
History with a capital “H” is dealt with in this book as a subtext. The inability of the Shogun’s regime to deal with social change, the distant but menacing cannonry of the First Opium War, the American preparations to send the black ships, these all underly Tsuneno’s story and sometimes, but not always, shape it. As an unimportant person, as a woman, Tsuneno has no place in a certain kind of history telling, but without her, can we really claim to understand Japanese history, or indeed early modern history?
Stanley says Tokyo remains her favorite city in the world. Is that because when walking in the alleys of Ginza and Nihonbashi, one can still feel the buzz and the vitality which characterized Edo’s people, unlike the besuited crowds staring at their phones in Marunouchi?
For non-historians, Stranger in the Shogun’s City allows us to see the palimpsest of Tokugowa Edo beneath the pavements of today’s Tokyo. The neighborhoods where Tsuneno lived in her scramble to make a living: Shinjuku, Ueno, Ginza are all evoked, even if they have changed from shanty towns to skyscrapers, or from lordly manors to shopping malls.
This reviewer feels a strong pull to return to Tokyo at the earliest opportunity.