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  • Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley
  • Rebecca Corbett
Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World. By Amy Stanley. New York: Scribner, 2020. 352 pages. Hardcover, $28.00; soft-cover, $18.00.

Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City tells a riveting story about one woman in nineteenth-century Japan. Tsuneno, the central figure, emerges as a rebellious [End Page 185] woman who made sometimes unwise, or at least questionable, choices but stuck by them. When we meet her in chapter 1, she is a child, born into a temple family in Echigo Province and dreaming of the big city of Edo. We also meet her family, notably her older brother Giyū and younger brother Gisen, who appear as prominent figures throughout the book. In chapter 2, Tsuneno leaves her home village for her first marriage and returns home fifteen years later, divorced. She remarries, divorces again, and then enters a third marriage before divorcing after only four months. During these years, she experiences famines, illness, and family drama. It is at the end of chapter 2 that Tsuneno’s life takes a decisive turn as she decides to leave for Edo with a man from another temple family. In chapter 3, we follow Tsuneno on her journey with Chikan, observing the ups and downs of life on the road and her arrival in Edo; along the way and alongside Tsuneno, we learn more about her traveling companion, a man whom she at first trusted. Settling into the rhythms, difficulties, and opportunities of city life is the subject of chapter 4. In chapter 5, Tsuneno is a thirty-six-year-old woman living alone in Edo, working as a maidservant in a bannerman’s household. By chapter 6, Tsuneno has moved to a new job, is trying desperately to get her family to send clothes and other belongings from home, and is steadfastly refusing to return to Echigo. She also meets her fourth husband, Hirosuke, himself a migrant from Echigo. This difficult marriage, during which the partners move from job to job and fight constantly, forms the backdrop to chapter 7. By the end of this chapter, Tsuneno is divorced and has agreed to return to Rinsenji Temple, the family home in Echigo. Yet the lure of the city draws Tsuneno back to Edo and back into marriage with Hirosuke. Their second marriage and employment at the city magistrate’s office is the focus of chapter 8. Chapter 9 marks the end of Tsuneno’s story as she succumbs to illness.

Quite unusually, this book chronicling the life of a Japanese woman opens with a description of John Adams, president of the United States, in the newly built White House. Stanley’s remarkable book takes the life of one woman who lived between Echigo and Edo in the first half of the nineteenth century and places it in the context of both Japanese and world history. After the first scene in Washington, DC, Stanley orients her readers to events on both sides of the Atlantic before moving to Japan and drilling down to the small village of Ishigami in Echigo where Tsuneno’s father, Enmon, kept meticulous records of the temple family’s business and personal affairs. It is these records, the Rinsenji Monjo, preserved in the Niigata Prefectural Archives, that are the book’s primary sources and out of which Stanley crafts a compelling and vivid narrative.

Narrative is a key word here because Stranger in the Shogun’s City is a trade publication written for a popular, nonspecialist audience. The book employs several narrative devices, including cinematic techniques, to engage the reader. As noted above, in chapter 1 Stanley pans across the wide angle of world history before zooming in on Japan, then Echigo, the village of Ishigami, and finally Rinsenji and Tsuneno herself. At the end of the book, conversely, Stanley zooms out to the macro changes taking place within Japan as the Meiji Restoration leads to changes in the names and [End Page 186] contours of the places Tsuneno had known—Edo becomes Tokyo, and Ishigami is incorporated into...


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pp. 185-189
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