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  • Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family
  • Brian W. Platt
Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family. By Gail Lee Bernstein. University of California Press, 2005. 283 pages. Hardcover $50.00/£32.50; softcover $19.95/£12.95.

Rarely does one have the opportunity to use the words "dramatic" and "moving" when reviewing scholarly historical works, but those descriptives can be applied without reservation to Gail Lee Bernstein's Isami's House. The book traces the history of a single family over the past three hundred years to show how Japan's modern transformation affected the lives of real—though not, as Bernstein acknowledges, [End Page 418] ordinary—people. Because it illustrates the consequences of that transformation in such personal, resonant terms, the book is destined to become a staple of modern Japanese history courses.

The book's narrative pivots on Matsuura Isami (1879-1962), the eleventh-generation head of the Matsuura family. In his early years as patriarch, Isami stood at the apex of the family's wealth and prestige, built up over two centuries of landholding, commercial ventures, and political leadership in the remote mountain village of Yamashiraishi in present-day Fukushima prefecture. His fourteen children both symbolized the family's prosperity and figured in its longstanding strategy to secure its continuity by cultivating a broad network of social connections. Though raised in an agrarian, communal setting, Isami was eager to capitalize on the opportunities presented by modern social and economic change and used his children's marriages to gain entry into Japan's new urban middle class. He thus functions in Bernstein's narrative as a kind of human bridge across the divide between Japan's premodern agrarian past and its modern, urban present.

Isami himself seems to have viewed his life in historic terms of this sort. Nostalgic for the family's glorious past and anxious about its imminent decline, Isami sat down in 1949 to write the family's history (which he later published at his own expense). This text serves as a key source for Bernstein's book. The other main source is her interviews with Isami's children, with whom Bernstein has maintained a friendship over the past forty-odd years. The centrality of these family-generated sources to Isami's House raises a question about the relationship between the author's scholarly voice and that of her subject, the Matsuura family. How closely does Bernstein's story resemble the one Isami's family would tell? They are by no means identical: Bernstein adds valuable scholarly contextualization at various points and even includes a few potentially embarrassing details that the family might not otherwise choose to publicize. The family's perspective, however, shapes indelibly the narrative structure and tone of Bernstein's book.

This is not necessarily a flaw. Indeed, part of what makes the book so compelling is that it invites the reader to see historical changes through the family's eyes. But this means that instructors who use the book might want to foreground an issue that Bernstein addresses only intermittently—namely, the politics of the Matsuura family's perspective. What story does the family want to tell? Why might they want to tell their story in this particular way? What does that story neglect or conceal? Their story is, after all, not just a story: like any story, it is also an interpretation. And it is an interpretation not only of the family's history, but of the larger meaning of the past three centuries of historical change in Japan. Instructors might therefore find it fruitful to challenge students to articulate Isami's interpretation of modern Japan, identify where Bernstein's interpretation differs, and discuss the variety of interpretations that might be crafted from the same set of historical data.

This issue comes into play almost immediately, with Bernstein's account of the early origins of the Matsuura family. Bernstein's (and Isami's) narrative begins in the late seventeenth century, when the first generation head of the Matsuura family (who, like almost all village elites, claimed samurai descent) was invited by the villagers of Yamashiraishi to serve as their village headman. For the...


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