- The Chaos and Cosmos of Kurosawa Tokiko: One Woman’s Transit from Tokugawa to Meiji Japan by Laura Nenzi
A very few people live their lives as though they are historical arguments. They move through a series of episodes, one building on another, reaching toward a climax that changes the trajectory of an age. In the realm of Japanese history, the Restoration hero Sakamoto [End Page 245] Ryōma 坂本龍馬 comes to mind.1 Many others are perfect bystanders, people whose lives, in their very ordinariness, reflect the vicissitudes of their era. They are born in villages, go to schools, join the army, work in factories, and drift in and out of events and institutions beyond their control. If historians are lucky, they write letters or keep diaries, allowing us a way into social relations and subjective experiences that we would not be able to see otherwise. The hero of Simon Partner’s The Mayor of Aihara, Aizawa Kikutarō, was one such person.2 But a third type of person, who hovers somewhere in between these categories, causes much more trouble for historians. These people are not necessarily typical—not representatives of “the peasant” or “the student” or “the worker.” On the other hand, they do not shape their lives into arguments, and they do not change history. But, because they believe deeply in their own significance, because they are momentarily moved by some idea, or because they find themselves in the right place at the right time, they rise to prominence very briefly. Then, like meteors, they fade, left to trace their own erratic paths into the darkness.
The subject of Laura Nenzi’s brilliant book, Kurosawa Tokiko 黒沢止幾子, was one of these troublesome, in-between people. Everything about her is difficult to categorize. Born in 1806, she lived in the politically central Mito domain, but in an obscure village, Suzugoya 錫高野. This hamlet was close enough to a main road to receive news but out-of-the-way enough to be a good hiding place for loyalist activists. For most of her life, Tokiko’s marital status was murky. She was widowed early on, but it is impossible to tell whether a man later listed as a member of her household was her second husband or her adopted son. Meanwhile, she was a schoolteacher and a peddler of hair ornaments, a diviner and a sometime poet, moving between occupations according to her own preferences and economic circumstances. She became momentarily famous for traveling to Kyoto to submit a petition to the imperial court, asking for clemency for her lord, Tokugawa Nariaki 徳川斉昭, who had been sentenced to house arrest during Ii Naosuke’s 井伊直弼 Ansei purge. But the petition seems to have reached everyone [End Page 246] important in Kyoto except for its intended audience, and it had no impact on subsequent events.
Tokiko’s lifelong resistance to type distinguished her from the other commoner who became a Restoration heroine, Matsuo Taseko 松尾多勢子, who is the subject of a pioneering study by Anne Walthall. 3 Taseko was a gōnō 豪農 (wealthy peasant) wife and mother, securely positioned within a household, who worked at a traditional female sideline employment, silkworm raising, and followed a familiar trajectory from a married-in bride through a hardworking mother to a poetry-composing and traveling mother-in-law. Even though Taseko proved to be exceptional in her political activism, Walthall was able to use her story to uncover hidden contradictions and nuances within the lives of wealthy peasant women in general. Tokiko shared Taseko’s self-possession, her interest in poetry, her basic convictions about the problems facing the realm, and her desire to participate in high politics. But the life she led was far messier. Following her story, which Nenzi relates with verve and humor, illuminates a truth that sometimes gets lost in more schematic treatments of the Edo period (1600–1868): for all the discussions of the structure of the family system, the ideals of masculinity and femininity, and the constrictions and...