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  • Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family
  • Simon Partner
Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family. By Gail Bernstein (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005) 283 pp. $50.00 cloth $19.95 paper

Bernstein assumed an ambitious challenge in this book. Through the lens of one family's story, she offers an account of 300 eventful years of Japanese history. When done successfully, such an approach can bring history to life in a way that few other styles of historical research can. It can show vividly how the abstract political and economic events portrayed in the textbooks affected the individuals who lived through them, and how the experiences of individuals and families can differ markedly from widely accepted national narratives that may have been taken for granted. Bernstein's coverage of three centuries, including both the "premodern" and "modern" eras (traditionally if somewhat arbitrarily divided in the case of Japan by the Maiji Restoration of 1867/68), also offers the opportunity to transcend these categories. For the most part, Bernstein is successful in realizing such possibilities.

Matsuura Isami (1879–1962) is the central character in the book (Japanese names are normally written with the family name first). His long and eventful life makes fascinating reading in itself. Born into a family that had been hereditary headmen of Yamashiraishi village since 1680, Isami was the elected mayor of his village for four decades—a position that he passed on to his son. During those decades, Isami struggled [End Page 339] to support the economy of the village in the face of rapid economic change. He saw its sons off to war, from which many never returned. He strove to provide the best possible education to his fourteen children, and then to find suitable marriage partners for each of them. He attempted to revive his own flagging fortunes by investing in new businesses, and by developing his talent for invention (on the day of his fatal stroke at age eighty-three, he was trying to persuade a factory to adopt the mechanical rice husker that he had developed). He tried, not successfully, to instill in his children the essentially Confucian—but also essentially human—precepts of loyalty, devotion to public service, steady commitment, and paternalistic authority that were the legacy of his long and distinguished lineage.

Using Isami as an anchor, Bernstein forays backward in time, to Isami's ancestor Yajibei and his successors as village headmen. Drawing from family archives and a history prepared by Isami himself, Bernstein shepherds us through the business activities, local politics, marital and succession crises, and relations with villagers of eleven generations of Matsuura family heads. There is much fascinating material, as in the descriptions of the prominent roles played by some Matsuura wives over the generations. But Bernstein detracts significantly from her story by the confusing narrative strategy that she adopts, starting each chapter with an episode from Isami's life and then going back in time to describe an incident from the lives of his ancestors. It is often unclear what century she is describing, and it requires constant cross-checking to stay on top of the shifting narrative. Bernstein is strong in bringing her long-dead characters to life (especially the women), but a little weak in her treatment of the village economy and its relations with the Matsuura family. For example, she does not engage at all with the extensive literature on the Japanese feudal system, landlords and tenants, or peasant protest.

The latter part of the book is mostly about Isami's children. It, too, tends to be confusing in narrating the stories of more than a dozen siblings and even of their children. But their varied experiences, which took them to the far corners of the Japanese empire and saw them struggling to deal with the social and economic chaos of defeat and trying to rebuild their lives to take advantage of the freedoms of the postwar era, make fascinating reading. Bernstein, however, is also hampered at times by the wealth of her material. She might have explored in much more depth the ways in which her characters' lives intersected with, and at times...


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pp. 339-340
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