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  • Fragments of Friendship:Matsuo Taseko and the Hirata Family
  • Anne Walthall, professor of Japanese history

In fall 2004, the National Museum of History in Sakura , Chiba prefecture, held an exhibition on the Meiji Restoration and the Hirata Kokugaku movement. Following the exhibition, the current head of the Hirata family and Hirata shrine donated its archive, over ten thousand items covering a period from approximately 1800 to the end of World War II, to the museum.1 Catalogued and partially microfilmed by museum staff and scholars studying the Hirata school, the archive contains a treasure trove of information concerning the Hirata family—its intellectual, spiritual, and economic trajectory—and its relatives, friends, and disciples. A handful of documents shed new light on Matsuo Taseko (1811–1894), a peasant woman from the Ina valley in the mountains of central Japan, who joined the Hirata school in 1861. A year later she went to Kyoto, where she spent six months proselytizing for the school, writing poetry, and lamenting the shogun's inability to prevent foreign intrusion. The documents also provide insight into machinations by marginal players that contributed to crises surrounding the formation of the Meiji state, a theme I developed in my 1998 biography, The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration.

The exhibition featured a cheerful letter that Taseko wrote to her colleague Hazama Hidenori (1822–1876) in Nakatsugawa at the bottom of the Kiso valley, just over the mountains from Ina, expressing her delight at having arrived in Kyoto in the ninth month of 1862 and reporting on her meeting with other Hirata followers.2 Hung above the letter was her portrait. The caption pointed out that of all the disciples connected to the Hirata school, the first to arrive in Kyoto during this time of upheaval was a woman.3 This display attested [End Page 315] to the way Taseko is usually remembered—as a proponent of the Hirata school and loyal supporter of the emperor.

Documents pertaining to Taseko in the Hirata archive paint a somewhat different picture. In my biography, I emphasized her role as a middle person, in particular the ways she acted as a conduit between men seeking political advantage and those holding power. The Hirata archive documents corroborate and amplify what I have already suggested regarding that role in the years surrounding the Restoration while adding new nuances to its nature and content. In so doing they expose the web of relationships that supported the Hirata disciples and the Hirata family spiritually and economically; they allow an intimate look at political intrigue of the time from the perspective of minor players in the Restoration drama, as men scrambled to position themselves in new power structures; and they provide a point of entry into what men and women did in the Hirata family. Documents written by men bring to light heretofore overlooked conflicts that erupted during the unstable years immediately following the Restoration; those written by women point to the contributions they made to the networks that sustained the Hirata family enterprise.

The Hirata Family Enterprise and Matsuo Taseko

Among the people Taseko met in Kyoto was the current head of the Hirata school, Hirata Kanetane (1799–1880). In 1863, Kanetane had an official position as an Akita domain retainer, while as head of the Hirata school he spread the teachings of his adoptive father, Atsutane (1776–1843). Owing to the lack of opportunities for the fourth son of a middling domain retainer, Atsutane had left Akita at the age of twenty to seek intellectual stimulation and fortune in Edo.4 There Hirata Tōbei (d. 1809), a hereditary retainer of the Bitchū Matsuyama domain stationed in Edo, adopted him. Atsutane's increasing renown as a scholar brought a stipend from the Owari domain and, in 1838, enrollment in the Akita retainer band. In 1841, the shogunate sent him, with his wife, into exile in Akita for undisclosed reasons. Following his death there in 1843, with Kanetane and Kanetane's second son at his side, domain officials urged the entire family to move to the castle town of Kubota (now the city of Akita). It required delicate negotiations on Kanetane...


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pp. 315-335
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