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  • The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan by Marcia Yonemoto
  • Anne Walthall
The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan. By Marcia Yonemoto. University of California Press, 2016. 304pages. Hardcover $70.00/£58.95.

In the decades since women’s history became an acknowledged field in the United States, scholars have produced essays, biographies, and translations that deal with the topic of women in early modern Japan. Now Marcia Yonemoto has written the first monograph to tackle the subject of women across a range of issues from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. By taking a cultural history approach that draws on art, drama, didactic literature, fiction, diaries, letters, and memoirs, she brings a variety of perspectives to bear not just on how women lived their lives but on what their actions meant for the women themselves, their families, their communities, and Japan as a whole. Because the women who have left the most voluminous records are those associated with the military, from the wives of daimyo and samurai to their servants, she focuses her attention on them.

What Yonemoto means by the problem of women has to do with the diverse ways they have been portrayed; the disjunction between theory and practice in filial piety, self-cultivation, marriage, motherhood, succession, and retirement; the many complex and sometimes conflicting roles that women were expected to perform; and the question of what kinds of control they had over their lives and those of people around them. Were they simply pawns or passive victims manipulated by their men-folk on behalf of the patrilineal house, or did they have input into decisions about their house’s future, chiefly those concerned with marriage and adoption? Throughout the book, Yonemoto argues that normative gender roles did not constrain women as much as we might think, especially in comparison with China and Korea, and that women indeed had the power to effect social, political, and economic change, at least in their immediate environment.

Yonemoto begins her analysis with a discussion of filial piety, the Confucian virtue often seen as constraining both men and women and the linchpin of family life [End Page 87] for the military in early modern Japan. Unlike in China, Japanese women received commendation for being filial not only to their in-laws, but also to their natal house. What constituted filial piety changed over time and was also represented differently depending on textual context. The shogunate’s official compendium of individuals rewarded for filial piety, Kankoku kōgiroku, for example, explicitly excluded vendettas from the deeds it considered meritorious. Biographies of exemplary women, on the other hand, often featured vendettas. Many emphasized daughters’ sacrifices for their fathers, sometimes in acts of remonstrance. Most famous is the case of two sisters who take revenge on their father’s killer in Go Taiheiki shiraishi banashi, the title of a play performed in bunraku and on the kabuki stage. Continuing attachment to the natal family is also a theme in the diaries and memoirs that Yonemoto analyzes for the perspectives on filial piety revealed by their authors. Here, too, she finds contradictions. She argues that there was little uniformity in what was meant by filial piety; it was not imposed unilaterally on women, and women differed considerably in how they practiced it depending on circumstances and opportunity.

Only in chapter 2 does Yonemoto turn to the most famous didactic text associated with women in early modern Japan, Onna daigaku, but by placing it in the context of hundreds of other instructional manuals, she mitigates the harshness of its message. Instead she argues that just as filial piety eludes a singular definition, so does self-cultivation. Even the dictate to follow one’s husband meant that the mutually dependent relationship between husband and wife was both hierarchical and complementary. Self-cultivation encompassed both moral values and practical skills acquired through effort for the sake of self, family, and community. Education was important; it had moral, ethical, and utilitarian value, and women were expected to learn not only penmanship and how to write a letter but also arithmetic and multiplication; deportment and proper speech; the cultivation of a refined appearance in dress...


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pp. 87-91
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