- Crossing Boundaries in Tokugawa Society: Suzuki Bokushi, A Rural Elite Commoner by Takeshi Moriyama
Even those unfamiliar with the name Suzuki Bokushi (1770–1842) may well have heard of Hokuetsu Seppu, Bokushi’s fascinating ethnographic account of life in Japan’s snowy Echigo province. Since its publication in 1837, the book has captivated Japanese readers with its odd mixture of content, which ranges from essays about asbestos or the shape of snowflakes to tales of yeti-like creatures with a taste for rice balls or villages cursed to remain illiterate by the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane.1 In contrast to the charm of his bestseller, however, Bokushi himself seems to have been a surprisingly bland character, with neither a record of great historical deeds nor an extensive literary oeuvre. Anne Walthall has described him as a “typical local intellectual,”2 and Takeshi Moriyama, author of Crossing Boundaries in Tokugawa Society—the biography under review—cannot help but repeatedly mention the ordinary nature of Bokushi’s life, describing his social network and his education as “not exceptional” (pp. 39, 130), his movements as reflecting “the general situation of travel by members of the rural elite” (p. 42), and his business practice as that of “a typical family business in a rural town” (p. 81). What, then, merits Bokushi to be the subject of a monograph?
The question is rhetorical, of course, since we have long known the value of the ordinary in qualifying and enriching the “kings and battles” type of history so aptly criticized by Kunikida Doppo as “an account of vanity”3 and satirized by Ambrose Bierce as “an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant” (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906). If anything, with the rise of the minshūshi (people’s history) movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, the lives, ideas, and mentalities of the common people have come to occupy a prominent place on the agenda of Japanese historiography. Despite such momentum, however, the genre of book-length biography still tends to be very much skewed toward renowned historical figures. The Jinbutsu Sōsho, for example, Japan’s most voluminous biographical series (with 279 volumes to date), contains but a handful of “minor” historical figures. The state of English-language scholarship is little different. Of the 76 biographies of early modern individuals for [End Page 159] which Monumenta Nipponica has published reviews over the past eighty years, only two might be said to focus on marginal figures: Anne Walthall’s, on Matsuo Taseko, and Bettina Gramlich-Oka’s, on Tadano Makuzu.4 For this reason alone Moriyama’s biography of Suzuki Bokushi would be a welcome addition—though the book has much else to recommend it as well.
In six ingeniously structured chapters, Moriyama offers ably contextualized readings of Bokushi’s private writings, primarily the family chronicle Eisei kirokushū; the autobiographical essay Yonabegusa; and Bokushi’s final words to his son-in-law and other descendants, Isho. The book can be appreciated on at least four different levels: as a life history, a book history, a cultural history, and an analysis of social space. Moriyama presents his subject as a multifaceted individual with a variety of interests, social roles, and identities. We come to see Bokushi as a highly energetic man who devoted himself with passion to all his activities—a self-proclaimed “workaholic” (p. 87) in his business; a man “sensual for his age” (p. 110), having had numerous marriages to much-younger wives; and a restless “seeker after fame” (p. 218) in his cultural exploits. While this level of intensity may have been a sine qua non in sustaining Bokushi’s occupations as pawnshop broker, landholder, and village elder (described in chapter 2), and his avocations of painting, composing poetry, and collecting holographs (chapters 4 and 5), it put a strain on his family relations (chapter 3). Not only did his cultural activities burden the household finances, but his strong and highly cultivated sense of “self ” clashed with his family’s communal values. This...