Women During the Meiji Restoration

Someone might have made the astute observation that most of my entries are about works which one might read for orals preparation. That is because, I am reading a lot for my orals preparation. As such, many of the classic works on modern Japanese history will make an appearance in my postings as I post some random thoughts on them. I finished reading Marius Jansen’s Sakamoto Ryôma and the Meiji Restoration today and it was an interesting contrast to Anne Walthall’s The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration which I mentioned in a recent posting here. Walthall says explicitly in her introduction that her book title was a direct reference to Jansen’s work and written as a challenge to the “male-centered genre of history writing.” (3)

I kept this in mind as I read Jansen’s book, which is indeed full of men strutting the political stage. It even includes juicy page-long excerpts from some of the violent skirmishes that Ryôma and others got involved in that would be fit for a Shiba Ryôtarô novel or Japanese TV drama. There are however, some rare but interesting, if not occasionally odd references to women in Jansen’s book.

The most agency we seem to get from women in Jansen’s book is to be found in two similar passages:

There are several instances in the fragmentary diary of Nakaoka Shintarô in which he prepared himself for danger by a last visit to the brothel, only to meet the rest of the group there, with the result that the evening was made up in equal parts of self-indulgence and political discussion. Thanks to this the Restoration received its quota of female heroes, for the entertainers and hotel maids frequently saved the lives of their carefree customers. (98, italics mine)

The inns and pleasure haunts also provided their share of women whose participation in the activities of the decade made them fitting subjects for later chroniclers of screen and fiction. Many a shishi owed his life to a timely warning brought by a geisha or maid. Kido Kôin, who was sheltered by his favorite geisha after the disastrous Chôshû battle in Kyoto in 1864, later made her his wife. In 1866 the Fushimi inn maid who saved the day for Sakamoto not long after became his wife [Oryô]. (224)

This is followed by a page about Oryô, including an anecdote, taken from one of Ryôma’s letters, about an encounter between Oryô, armed with a dagger, and some villains in a brothel. She successfully saves a young girl from slavery at the brothel despite the threat of violence against her. He also mentions her courage one more time in reference to the Fushimi attack on his life. (228)

These are the only places I found where Jansen is really trying. I think he must be indicating that the women who have been remembered in Japan are largely the maids and geisha who saved the Restoration heroes in the night, which isn’t really problematic in any way. There are however, a few interesting hints of lost opportunity in his work, where some interesting questions could have been asked about the education and political consciousness of women might have been taken into account…

One more woman who makes a frequent appearance in Jansen’s book is Ryôma’s sister Omote (And in a practice that Walthall points out, is only referred to by her first name, while Ryôma is referred to as “Sakamoto” throughout). Omote appears in many places (for example pages 172, 175, 269) because she is the recipient of Ryôma’s letters, the contents of which we are often introduced to.

The first interesting thing we can find in the long excerpts from Ryôma’s letters to his sister, unnoticed or at least unmentioned by Jansen, is the fact that Ryôma is writing his sister in great detail about the political events of his time and his own actions.

Elsewhere we find Ryôma giving her advice about her desire to become a nun, and finally recommending that she has “got to be a vigorous, tough woman with some spunk. If, for instance, you go out with one or two friends of [sic] an evening and meet robbers, go after them and don’t let go until you have them where it hurts.” (172) In a separate letter, we find Ryôma telling her about what it means to have loyalty to the Imperial Court, the country and the desperate nature of the times. There we find this interesting section,

Surely you realize that one ought to put the Imperial Court before his own province, and ahead of his parents. Surely you realize that putting your relatives second, your province second, and abandoning your mother, your wife, and children—that this is a violation of your proper duty — is certainly, considering our times, something that comes from stupid officials. If at such a time as this, you and Kura’s wife take up your brooms and wave them about in petty discussions, and sob and weep, he will certainly be ashamed of you.” (174)

Jansen goes on to talk about the importance of this letter in showing Ryôma’s dedication to the emperor. But what are we to make of the fact that he is specifically suggesting that his sister understands the importance of loyalty to the emperor and that she is not to simply “take up brooms and wave them about in petty discussions” (the seems like an odd translation though)? If the “he” that follows is “the emperor” then what is she being advised to do? The translation is a little unclear, and we would have to look a little more at the original correspondence but at the very least this is a very unusual passage.

We find even more interesting hints about Omote’s interest in politics when we hear in a later chapter that Omote has chastised her brother for “consorting with the rascals” running Tosa domain when he has previously denounced them for their lack of loyalist vigor. (270) This only gets mentioned in the context of Ryôma’s reply and justification and unfortunately never in the book do we get to see an excerpt from one of her letters to him (perhaps they are unavailable?). On the next page, we even hear (again, only indirectly through Ryôma’s response to her) that she wanted to leave the fief of Tosa (Kôchi) and join the loyalist cause. His response, despite his earlier call for her to be a “tough woman” and not to “merely” wave her broom, was to pour “ridicule and contempt on the idea. It was absurd for a woman to leave home and take part in national politics.” To leave home and take part in national politics, of course, is just what we learn Matsuo Taseko did in Walthall’s book, leaving her home without so much as telling her husband first.

Jansen might say that discussing Omote more directly and considering her apparent interest in politics is well outside the range of his topic. However, Jansen’s work is filled with lengthy descriptions of other minor and marginal characters and if rewritten today, could benefit by including more about some interesting women such as Ryôma’s sister in this action-packed narrative of the Meiji Restoration.


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