How did literacy—from the basic ability to read and write to the consumption and production of sophisticated texts—contribute to women's lives in Edo and Meiji Japan? How did it influence the way women saw themselves and how others saw them? How did reading and writing empower them, and how did authorities try to control what they read and wrote? These questions are explored by the eleven contributors to this volume.
Lurking in the background are two paradigms, contrasting but oddly compatible. The seventeenth-century Onna daigaku, widely recommended to Edo-period female readers, characterizes women as lascivious, jealous, and silly, and it demands their obedience to male family members at all stages of their lives. In the Meiji era, women—at least those in the middle and upper classes—were expected to manage the home and educate children for the good of the state, performing a role known as ryōsai kenbo (good wife, wise mother). The earlier paradigm denigrates women, allowing that they may have some value if they do what they're told. The later paradigm grants them agency and authority, but only in a restricted sphere. In actuality, neither paradigm was followed completely, as this book shows in its portraits of Edo-period female writers and scholars and of Meiji activists for women's rights.
The book is framed by its first and last chapters. The introductory essay by P. F. Kornicki lays out the problem in assessing the educational levels and literary inclinations of women in the Edo period: incomplete data that varies according to time, location, and social class. Kornicki concludes that Edo women did have access to education and literature, and that the situation improved over time. The overall picture is one of both complexity and change, and the chapter sets the stage for the more focused exploration of narrower topics. The final essay, by Anne Walthall, provides a succinct view of both the Edo and the Meiji paradigms and how women lived within (and in spite of) them. Walthall explores continuities and discontinuities from Edo to Meiji, asking what women gained and lost in the modern era. She argues that the focus on women's literacy shifted from cultivating women for the privacy of the home to educating them in socially useful skills. While women in Meiji benefited from state-sponsored schools, the content of their education was also more severely circumscribed, and Walthall suggests that the Edo period's "private patriarchy of family control" gave way to the "public patriarchy of state control" (p. 217).
The remaining essays take a variety of approaches: several explore the reading and writing practices of specific individuals, while others examine what literate women read or how they were depicted. In the one contribution that explicitly examines methodological issues, Anna Beerens suggests fleshing out the data concerning Edo-period women by mining records devoted mainly to men. Using this method, she concludes that cultural activities among commoners and the marketing of culture to people of different backgrounds reveal diversity in the literate population as a whole. Literate women, in other words, cannot be seen apart from the society in which they were embedded. [End Page 168]
Women were clearly supposed to read conduct books such as Onna daigaku; but what else did they read, and how was this regarded by those who set the standards for normative female behavior? The Heian classics—including The Tale of Genji, Tales of Ise, and the waka collection Hyakunin isshu—served as cultural capital for upper-class and upwardly mobile women, as well as for courtesans seeking to please cultivated men. But women also read popular fiction and musical instruction books. Illustrations and illustrated texts provide further clues. Itasaka Noriko examines figures of women reading in Edo-period ukiyō-e, arguing that the social classes of those who consumed literature broadened over time and that leisure reading became more common. Yet, she maintains, reading itself...