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  • Toshié: A Story of Village Life in Twentieth Century Japan
  • Anne E. Imamura (bio)
Toshié: A Story of Village Life in Twentieth Century Japan. By Simon Partner. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004. xv, 195 pages. $50.00, cloth; $19.95, paper.

In this highly readable and compelling study, Simon Partner uses the life of a farm woman named Toshié as the focal point to examine the changing situation in rural Japan from the time of her birth (1925) to the present. This [End Page 477] well-documented study draws the reader in as would a good novel. Opening with the birth of Toshié, Partner provides a detailed description of daily life and sets the harsh experiences of Toshié's family in the context of national statistics to which the family compared favorably in terms of housing and hygiene.

Partner tells us:

In 1925. . . .[farm families'] lives were circumscribed by the inexorable pressure of people on the land; by a rural class system that forced them to pay heavy tribute on the land they tilled; by dirt, disease, and frequent early death; and by a community beyond which most had seldom strayed. In 1970, . . . those farmers who remained on the land did so with the aid of machinery that eliminated much of the physical toil of farming; they participated fully in the national economy, often as wage laborers in nonfarm jobs (leaving farming to the weekends or to women and the elderly); and their incomes and standards of living were at least on a par with those of their urban counterparts. They were, in essence, fully fledged members of the mass consumer society.

(p. xi)

Toshié is the story of that transformation.

The study has three goals: to present, through the life of Toshié, a portrait of rural life and its transformations during the middle decades of the twentieth century; to add to our understanding of the main narratives of Japanese rural and national history by paying attention to the ways in which Toshié's story intersects and runs parallel to those narratives; and to investigate the question of individual choice by examining how Toshié made the choices she did. The book makes an excellent contribution on all three questions. It also illuminates the interactions between state and local, modern and "traditional" at work throughout the period.

The author's combination of various personal accounts, newspaper articles, and excerpts from literature fleshes out the broader context of the society at each juncture covered in the book. By combining the lenses of Toshié's personal experience and this rich array of other sources, Partner reveals a complex and sometimes contradictory situation in the village where Toshié lives.

The story provides great insight into how the village fit into the broader narrative of Japanese history. The village was a community in which every member understood the local hierarchy and behavioral expectations. It was connected by commerce and public transportation to urban Japan and by education and military service to the nation. Throughout the book the tensions between and the costs and benefits of maintaining local/traditional values and participating in national development are clear.

Military service connected the village to the nation and affected status relations within the community. The village hierarchy was undermined as [End Page 478] educational opportunities increased and as conscription took the youths outside the village. The world impinged on the community as the 1930 depression put the farmers in deficit and brought the unemployed back to the countryside. By grounding the details of Toshié's experience in the context of other farm families at this time, the narrative shows the vast difference between the circumstances of wealthy landlords and poor farmers that led to tenant unrest.

Ultimately, the war effort preoccupied the village. Partner provides a grass-roots analysis of how the war impacted the community as well as the contradictions between wartime behavior and rhetoric and postwar remembrance. One of the most striking parts of the book is found on pages 67–69 where the author presents and analyzes two photos of Toshié's brother Rikichi. Asking how the young rural men could be the perpetrators of atrocities in war, Partner contrasts the youth...


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pp. 477-482
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