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  • The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration
  • Helen M. Hopper
The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration. By Anne Walthall (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xvi plus 412pp. $45.00/cloth $17.00/paperback).

A primary goal of Anne Walthall’s research has been to restore peasants and women to 18th and 19th century Japanese history. While recognizing the importance of public action on a grand scale, she believes that historical understanding demands that we make room for the lesser actor, the local picture, the domestic role. Looking only at the “master narrative” necessarily smoothes the rough edges which local participants create and ignores the contributions of women. Consequently, for this book Walthall has meticulously searched the records and freely interpreted silences when data were missing in an effort to reconstruct the past of the ninetheenth century woman Matsuo Taseko.

Walthall recognizes that knowing about the contribution of a minor player like Taseko probably won’t change our overall view of Japan’s tumultuous 1860s. Just the same she insists “that restoring her to the history of the Meiji Restoration [End Page 254] has to enlarge our perspective” of this critical moment (p. 353). More importantly this historical act increases our understanding of the commoner view of the Meiji Restoration, the local history of the Ina Valley in central Honshû, the life of the wealthy farmer ( gônô), the domestic activities of farm women, the significance of genealogy and the identification of kin relationships, and the religious ideology of Hirata Atsutane’s nativism. Since Walthall is interested in individual participants rather than classes of actors, the narrative is necessarily densely written, filled with names of people and places, and detailed descriptions of the political machinations of minor players in major events. This is not a book for the faint of heart, but the rewards for persevering are generous. Each chapter represents an English reconstruction of predigious Japanese research using an array of diaries, local documents, demographic materials, poetry, secondary contemporary sources, photographs, charts, and interviews with Taseko’s descendants. Even so, Walthall admits that gaps in the narrative have made it necessary to take liberties with interpretation, make claims she cannot support, and argue positions that can only be conjectured. She does this convincingly and in the open so that we are privy to the process. It is not easy to recreate a history that has been both ignored and embellished.

Matsuo Taseko (1811—1894) was the daughter and then the wife of village headmen in the Ina Valley (currently Nagano Prefecture of Olympics fame). In her early years she was lauded for following the precepts of “good wife, wise mother”, but her family’s political power and wealth within the status hierarchy of the late Tokugawa Period (nineteenth century) and her own classical education meant she was always more than just a farmer’s wife. Walthall carefully details Taseko’s genealogy, adoptive and birth family lines, and her extended family’s power within the valley, all vital to our understanding of her unique contribution to history. With each new topic Walthall goes well beyond the personal biography, entertaining discussion of the landscape, regional political and economic characteristics, interactions between previously ignored historical players, the influence of literature and religion, and the interaction between Taseko’s fellow commoners and Kyoto and Edo/Tokyo elites.

The land of the Ina Valley was home to the Nakasendô (a national road) the Ina Road and several pack horse trails. Because many daimyô and their retinue travelling between the shogun’s capital in Edo and the large urban centers of Kyoto and Osaka used the main road and commercial adventurers and commoners the lesser roads and trails, the valley was awash in rumor and news. Political events involving leaders in both Edo and the court in Kyoto were known to farmers of Taseko’s status. These roads brought commerce, entertainment, the latest in drama and literature, and news of foreign intruders. For the Matsuo family who were engaged in agricuture, sericulture, sake production, and moneylending, as well as village administration, theirs was a vital location. Thus, Walthall has used...

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pp. 254-257
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