The Human Tradition in Modern Japan offers a refreshingly and intriguingly different perspective on the history of early modern and modern Japan. Through biographies of figures representative of perspectives, groups, or types largely absent from the standard historical narratives, the volume contributes to a more nuanced, complex, and diversified understanding of Japan’s history. By describing how conditions and developments of the Edo, Meiji, and later periods impacted, for example, court ladies, samurai women, Okinawans, and middle-ranking officials in a provincial domain, these biographies further challenge the ability of those standard narratives to present themselves as representing the “whole” story.
Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya, a daughter of Emperor Go-Mizunoo, based on the princess’ diary, is of particular value in (at least) two ways. One, it indicates something of the activities and lives of members of the imperial court during a time when the court, and court aristocracy, had very little direct impact on political affairs, and are thus very often almost entirely absent from summarizing narratives. Our standard narrative of the Edo period, e.g. if one were to summarize the entire period in a lecture or two or three, might mention the court only so far as to say that, unlike in earlier periods, the court had effectively no power in the Edo period, and largely simply carried on in the cultural and ritual pursuits they had pursued previously. When asked about the role of the emperor during the Edo period, I myself often comment that the emperor did not leave Kyoto, and hardly left the palace, for a considerable span in the 17th-19th centuries. Only in a discussion of the period more centered on Kyoto, and on cultural activities (e.g. poetry circles), among a limited set of other aspects, might one expect to see the court aristocrats achieve any prominence in the narrative. Yet, just what did court nobles, and the imperial family, do during this time? Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya reveals, not in vague broadstrokes, but in evocative vivid details, the familial and cultural activities, and trials and tribulations of court politics of an imperial princess’ life. We learn that leading members of the five sekke families could expect to pass through certain high court positions (e.g. Kanpaku, Udaijin, Sadaijin), and that these rotated between the families in a standard enough fashion that one would feel directly slighted when passed over for such a promotion. We also learn that members of the court were entrusted, or at least saw themselves as having been entrusted, with maintaining and preserving the cultural traditions of their ancestors, an active responsibility importantly different in character from the passive continuation of these traditions we might have assumed – that is, the idea that the courtiers simply continued these traditions because that is what they did.
A second great contribution of Segawa Seigle’s essay is in bringing to the forefront the personal, emotional aspect of individuals’ lives, something all too often overlooked in history, often because of the inability to glean it from the documents, and thus easily forgotten. It is one thing to speak of court ladies, for example, as a group or as a type, offering generalizing descriptions of aspects of their lifestyles, their place in society, and so forth. Even in biographies, we often focus in on a chronology of key moments in their lives, noting the dates at which they married, had children, moved cities, or took up different ranks or positions, perhaps stopping at times to give more detailed treatment to certain political events. We see this in both Roberts’ biography of Mori Yoshiki, in which several pages are devoted to discussion of a particular murder, and in Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, where various personal political conflicts are described in some detail; and that is of course of great value as well, illuminating interesting and important aspects, respectively, of the functioning of systems of justice under the Tokugawa, and key social-political developments in Okinawa’s Meiji period history. But, it is quite another to do what Segawa Seigle does here, relating to the reader, by virtue of the fortune of having Shinano-miya’s personal diary, her thoughts and emotions, bringing to life the emotional humanity of the individual, and by extension inspiring, or challenging, us to think about the individual humanity of all historical figures. This is a major theme, too, of Anne Allison’s recent book, Precarious Japan, in which she emphasizes that economically and socially precarious positions – e.g. lacking in job security; financial savings or retirement funds; or familial, corporate, or governmental safety nets for social welfare – have not only economic and social impacts, but profound impacts emotionally and otherwise upon one’s sense of identity, of self-worth, and so forth, and that these need to be recognized as of profound significance.
Walthall does this to an extent as well in her essay for the volume, on Nishimiya Hide, a lady-in-waiting to the wife of a prominent daimyō, who after the Meiji Restoration struggles to get by. Nishimiya’s story also serves as suggestive of what many others likely faced in the early Meiji period, a period of incredible social, political, economic, and cultural upheaval. While we may have some conception, in broad strokes, of which types of people were “winners” and “losers” as the results of these changes, there are many who fall through the cracks. Nishimiya’s biography, in fact, makes one curious to read about others’ experiences at this time. In her biography, we see someone who, after passing an interview and being hired by a high-ranking daimyō family, enjoyed a rather stable and comfortable life, but who lost very nearly everything when the bakuhan system was dismantled. One can easily imagine that there were many of similar station who fared better, many worse, and many similarly; like Dusinberre’s treatment of the town of Kaminoseki, Nishimiya may not be “typical” or “representative,” but she is certainly suggestive or evocative of other cases. One is inspired to wonder about other cases, other stories from this period. We know of certain merchants, and certain daimyō who did quite well, and that in broad strokes there were many farmers who did not. What happened to other daimyō, other merchants? What happened to someone of similar rank and position to Mori Yoshiki? Nishimiya tried her hand for a time at applying her experience in refined arts and elite housekeeping to open a geisha house; in her case this does not last, but one cannot help but wonder about other cases where it might have succeeded. How many individuals from samurai or court noble families succeeded in transferring their abilities in the traditional arts (and/or in aspects of traditional lifestyle, such as Nishimiya’s experience in serving her lady) into successful employment or commercial pursuits in the modern period? At the very least, despite her geisha house not lasting very long, Nishimiya’s willingness to go that route, and to have her son become a leatherworker, is a dramatic indication of shifts in attitudes, as one allows oneself to (or is forced to) put aside “traditional” attitudes about “low” things that one of such elite birth could not imagine being involved in.
Jahana Noboru (left) and Narahara Shigeru (right), as portrayed in Ishikawa Mao’s photo installation “Dai-Ryûkyû shashin emaki” (2014).
Gregory Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, in addition to simply bringing Okinawa into the story of modern Japan, also serves as a good example of a point made by Anne Walthall in her introduction to the volume. Human lives and careers happen in fits and starts, and we should not allow ourselves to deceive ourselves into thinking that any person’s life takes place in a smooth, linear fashion, with all major occurrences prefiguring later key accomplishments. Jahana is remembered today as a hero, a champion of peasants’ rights and a defender of Okinawan interests against the predations of both government officials & corporate interests from mainland Japan, and of the former Ryukyuan aristocracy. Yet, as Smits points out, citing the work of other scholars, several years prior to Jahana’s famous stand-off against Narahara Shigeru in 1897-1898, and against the aristocratic interests of the Kōdōkai c. 1900, Jahana in 1894 was perhaps rather dismissive of peasants’ attitudes and demands, and resentful of their questioning his expertise, as someone trained at the top agricultural college in the country.
Biographies such as these contribute to our understanding of Japanese history in a number of profound and significant ways, providing diversity and challenging the national-level version of narratives of historical developments, and in doing so problematizing generalizing notions of “the Japanese people,” as well as inviting us to consider the personal and emotional, human, aspect of historical experience, and providing us with valuable details on specific cases and situations – even beyond these unquestionably important broader, historiographical aspects, these biographies also teach us much about the material and logistical culture of the court, of samurai life, and so forth, and about the names, dates, and events of Mito and Tosa domains, the Imperial court, the city of Tokyo, and of Meiji period Okinawa.