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  • The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan by Marcia Yonemoto
  • Gary P. Leupp (bio)
The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan. By Marcia Yonemoto. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2016. xvi, 284 pages. $70.00.

Marcia Yonemoto's thesis is simple and eminently arguable. She avers (on the dust jacket) that early modern Japan "was a military-bureaucratic state governed by patriarchal and patrilineal principles and laws." Even so, women had "considerable power" (p. 5) within it, as revealed by a variety of literary sources, including instructional manuals, diaries, memoirs, letters and fictional works. This itself is an unproblematic assertion, amply supported by a host of earlier studies by Susan Burns, Laurel Cornell, Laura Nenzi, Wakita Haruko, and Anne Walthall, among others. What distinguishes Yonemoto's work is the holistic approach to what she terms the "problem of women" during the Edo or Tokugawa period (1603–1868). She explains that, as she conceives it, this problem "is shorthand for a process—a conundrum, perhaps—that has preoccupied thinkers and critics, men and women, in public and private, over a long period" and continues "to occupy [End Page 435] us today" in connection with issues such as declining birthrates and public debate over workplace gender equality (p. 3).

The "problem," that is to say, is the whole history of gender inequality with specifics that alter over time, during which (male) prescriptions for female behavior (in the Edo period, mainly neo-Confucian prescriptions) met with radically differing historical actualities. Yonemoto notes that the concept of women serving mainly as "good wives, wise mothers" was in fact largely a Meiji-era invention and that "Tokugawa visions of women's roles were … broader and more complex" (p. 4) than modern scholars have recognized. (This has also been noted by Sharon Sievers, who has argued that women's status actually declined in the Meiji era.1)

The "problem of women" that Yonemoto engages was one that produced an enormous mass of didactic literature and commentary; over two thousand individual titles on the specific topic appeared during the Edo period (p. 6). These works indicate that women's roles were shaped by a neo-Confucianism that, much beyond its Chinese (or other East Asian) prototypes, validated women not only in relation to their spouse's families but also in relation to their own biological families and natal filial bonds. Yonemoto acknowledges that her sources (including a handful of personal narratives) reflect samurai women's realities but argues plausibly that the constraints imposed on women by Confucian ideology were applied even less to commoner than to samurai women.

The organization of the book follows the female life course. It begins with a chapter on filial piety as expected of and expressed by females from childhood, which concludes with the observation that "filial piety was neither uniform nor authoritatively imposed" (p. 49). This is followed by a chapter on "self-cultivation" into adulthood and indeed extending throughout life according to Kaibara Ekiken (p. 58), which indicates that women were capable of obtaining high positions—through book knowledge beginning with female instructional manuals, practical skills such as sewing, and artistic talents beginning with calligraphy.

Chapter 3 is devoted to marriage. While emphasizing the fundamental supposition that women were to marry, and that women spurned by husbands were unwelcome to return to their parental homes, Yonemoto finds that marriages were actually "fundamentally conditional" and "lasted only as long as they satisfactorily met the needs of all parties involved" (p. 122). The next chapter deals with motherhood: how the concept was surrounded by Confucian concepts of obedience and patriarchy, how stagnating population and the rise of the stem family from the eighteenth century affected mothers' roles, and how discussion of fetal development advanced in relation to these developments. Yonemoto's research here is especially fascinating. [End Page 436] She notes for example that it became common to attribute humanity to the fetus in the fourth or fifth month (p. 133). (This at the height of mabiki [abortion or infanticide—the two phenomena are conflated in the Japanese term].)

The concluding chapters examine women's roles in ensuring family lines, including through marriage to adopted sons-in-law...


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