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Journal of Women's History 12.1 (2000) 188-190

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Review Essay

Life Begins at Fifty-One

E. Patricia Tsurumi

Anne Walthall. The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xvi + 412 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-226-87235-1 (cl); 0-226-87237-8 (pb).

In 1990, the Journal of Women's History carried Kathleen Barry's article in which she argued that a feminist-critical biographer must "reveal the subject as a subject." 1 But as E. P. Thompson once noted about Mary Wollstonecraft, 2 this task becomes complicated for a biographer of a woman who is more than one subject. This is certainly true in the case of Matsuo Taseko, a Japanese woman who at fifty-one temporarily left her prosperous village home to play an active part in the political movement that resulted in the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

On the one hand, Taseko was a full-fledged member of a corps of working poets; an established proponent of the school of thought founded by Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843), who taught that Japanese identity was unique and the emperor sacred; and a participant in the 1860s activism that attempted to expel Westerners from Japan and force the shogun's warrior government to "restore" political power to the emperor. While gender restraints and opportunities were present in these aspects of Taseko's life, full comprehension of her identities as a poet, Hirata adherent, and Restoration activist demands application of standards normally applied to her male comrades. On the other hand, as a female member of the upper strata of the peasant class in a village community in the Ina Valley of late-nineteenth-century Japan, Taseko was required to stay within strict gender demarcations. (Not that she always did!) Walthall's book explores both personae.

Skillfully alternating narrative and analysis, Walthall first discusses Taseko's life before fifty-one as a poet, wife and mother in a rich peasant family, pivotal figure in the political economy of her household, participant in the movement that came out of the Hirata teachings, and student struggling with the Hirata texts. Then comes Taseko's story as a political activist after 1862, when she left home to take her place among the plotters and protesters of the Restoration movement. Walthall draws no simplistic causative link between Taseko's pre-1862 experiences and her plunge into Restoration movement activism, but aptly notes that: "Poetry had given her a voice, national affairs gave her a subject, and the Hirata school gave her an institutional framework within which to be heard" (109). The last section of the book deals mainly with Taseko in old age. Here, as earlier, [End Page 188] we see how--in other people's minds at least, since Taseko often kept her thoughts to herself--this woman was both confined by and managed to leap over gender boundaries.

As a Restoration activist Taseko was able to make that leap because in a time of national crisis "normative standards of behavior were temporarily in abeyance" (185). Even with this window of opportunity, only a female of her age, liquid wealth, and lack of physical beauty could have become a comrade of the armed rebels in Kyoto. Once she was over the gender hurdle, the concepts available to those who approved of her performance were all masculine: men lauded her as a "manly woman" (185) and a female friend admired her as "a woman metamorphosed into a man" (190).

Even in comparison with women of similar class, status, wealth, and age, Taseko's was no ordinary life. Other women joined poetry circles and even the Hirata school; but no other village official's wife invested her postmenopausal zest into anything similar to Taseko's 1862 trip to Kyoto to offer her services to the emperor. Nevertheless, this book conveys a great deal about lives of less unusual peasant women--especially older ones who were no longer bearing and raising children--that have been ignored because they are "so alien to twentieth-century notions...


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