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  • Gendered Power: Educated Women of the Meiji Empress' Court by Mamiko C. Suzuki
  • G. G. Rowley (bio)
Gendered Power: Educated Women of the Meiji Empress' Court. By Mamiko C. Suzuki. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2019. x, 147 pages. $65.00, cloth; $19.95, paper; $19.95, E-book.

The title of Mamiko C. Suzuki's first book suggests a narrowly focused monograph, but in fact hers is a wide-ranging study which builds upon a wealth of work in Meiji-period history to provide a missing piece of the puzzle: women who served the imperial institution.

Suzuki's book is refreshingly short, just 104 pages of text, comprising an introduction followed by three substantial chapters and a very brief conclusion. The first chapter discusses the noblewoman Ichijō Masako (1849–1914), who became Empress Haruko, wife of Emperor Meiji; the second, [End Page 471] Kishida Toshi(ko) (1863–1901), later known as Nakajima Shōen, the Kyoto child prodigy from a humble merchant-class background whose knowledge of classical Chinese enabled her to rise to appointment as tutor to the court of the Meiji empress; and the third chapter discusses Hirao Seki (1854–1936), better known as Shimoda Utako, the daughter and granddaughter of samurai-class scholars with "proimperial political proclivities" (p. 78) who served as an attendant of Empress Haruko for eight years, during which she was presented with the name Utako, "in recognition of her talents in waka composition" (p. 79).

That well-educated women were employed at the imperial court was nothing new. Ever since the establishment of the Bureau of Palace Attendants (Naishi no Tsukasa) in the early eighth century, noblewomen had been employed to wait upon the emperor, to transmit petitions addressed to him, and to draft and transmit pronouncements issued by him. The learning possessed by women who worked in the bureau, as well as those who were employed in the entourages of imperial consorts, varied over time, reaching a nadir in the fifteenth century, when the courtier Sanjōnishi Sanetaka (1455–1537) had to direct his wife, whose two sisters served at court, to memorize ten Kokinshū poems per day.1 During the eleventh century, in the world depicted in Makura no sōshi and Genji monogatari, such knowledge had been regarded as standard among women in court service.

Suzuki shows that what was different about women who served the imperial court in the Meiji period was that education could sometimes eclipse birth. Kishida Toshiko, a product of the Kyoto public school system, was the first commoner to serve as tutor to an empress (pp. 48–49). Likewise, Utako, the daughter of a "country samurai," albeit a scholarly one, could not in an earlier age have expected to be appointed to attend an empress, let alone be entrusted with the education of two imperial princesses (p. 79).

Another of Suzuki's points is that the high level of Sinological literacy possessed by some women was a source of power for them. Scholars have focused on those who became educators: Margaret Mehl has discussed Miwada Masako (1843–1927) and Atomi Kakei (1840–1926), who founded academies of Chinese learning (kangaku juku) that became girls' schools (jogakkō) and survived into the present day; and Peter Kornicki has recalled Wakae Nioko (Shūran, 1835–81), who tutored Ichijō Masako before her marriage to the Meiji emperor and later prepared a new translation of the Confucian primer Nü sishu (Four books for women, J. Onna shisho) [End Page 472] entitled Wage onna shishō, published posthumously in 1883.2 The subject of Suzuki's third chapter, Shimoda Utako, also worked as an educator her entire life, serving from 1886 to 1906 as dean of Joshi Gakushūin, the women's division of the Peers' School, before going on to found a number of institutions for women, the best known of which is probably the Jissen Girls' School, where Chinese women as well as Japanese were educated. It too has survived into the present day. Utako authored dozens of textbooks for women on a wide variety of subjects, from domestic science to Genji monogatari. A two-year period of study abroad 1893–95, spent principally in...


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