AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 368

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Session 368: Women in Transit: Gender and Mobility in Early Modern Japan

Organizer: Bettina Gramlich-Oka, Sophia University, Japan

Discussant: Gerald A. Figal, Vanderbilt University, USA

A major theme of the March 2010 annual meeting of the Sōgō Joseishi Kenkyūkai (Society for Research on Women's History) was women living through history during times of major transformation. The panel builds on this approach, examining women from a wide range of social strata and regions, all of whom were born in one political environment, died in a changed political setting, and were themselves a part of those changes. Some of these “women in transit” deliberately moved through spaces and social groups, often with surprising ease. Others might have preferred to stay in place, but circumstances beyond their control changed the meaning of their political roles and status affiliations, producing the appearance of radical mobility. Gregory Smits introduces the changing position of female religious officials in Ryukyu during the seventeenth century. Amy Stanley, Bettina Gramlich-Oka, and Laura Nenzi examine individual women of the nineteenth century who, by virtue of formal political status, by the ability to take charge of their destiny, or by historiographical interpretations, all found themselves in transit. The cases examined in this panel deepen the historical political narrative through the lens of women who lived lives punctuated by major transitions, helping to complicate the broader narrative of the status of women in early modern Japan.

The Seventeenth–century Transformation of Female Officials in the Ryukyu Kingdom
Gregory J. Smits, Pennsylvania State University, USA

Owing to their perceived spiritual power, certain women in the Kingdom of Ryukyu enjoyed great prestige and wielded significant political power, whether at the level of villages or as officials of the central government in Shuri. Indeed, without a female counterpart, the king would have lost his power to rule (seji) because it was a female relative (usually a sister) who transferred this power from the sun to the king. Reflecting native Ryukyuan religious beliefs, the high priestess was usually the king's sister or other female relative, not his wife. During the seventeenth century, Ryukyu’s connections with both China and Japan became vitally important for the kingdom’s survival. In this context, Ryukyuan reformers sought to ground the king’s authority not in the religious power of the sun-as-deity (teda or tiida) but in Confucian morality. The one-time Son-of-the-Sun transformed into a Confucian sage who no longer depended on a female relative for his power. At the same time, the principal wife of the king began to serve as high priestess. In this paper, I argue that the entire hierarchy of female officials became clearly subordinate to their male counterparts as part of a broader ideological transformation in Ryukyu that began in the late seventeenth century.

Tsuneno’s Journey: Rethinking Status, Mobility, and the Household in Tempo-era Japan
Amy Stanley, Northwestern University, USA

The family who ran the Shin temple Rinsenji in Echigo was blessed in many ways: they were wealthy, prominent, and learned, and they enjoyed access to a network of religious connections that extended across Japan. But their daughter Tsuneno was a constant source of aggravation. Born in 1821, she was twice married and twice divorced by the age of 18, when she ran away to Edo in the company of a charming young man who stole her clothes and abandoned her. Her parents found her a safe place to stay at a Shin temple affiliated with Rinsenji, but she soon fell in with a gang of disreputable people and left to work as a waitress at an illegal geisha house. Finally, she remarried one of her ex-husbands, a ronin who greatly exceeded everyone’s expectations when he entered the service of the famous city magistrate Toyama Kagemoto. This paper analyzes Tsuneno’s correspondence with her family in order to illustrate how women who lived during the turbulent Tempō era were able to move through spaces, status groups, and social categories. It also seeks to reassess the early modern household, usually considered a stable, bounded entity, by arguing that the institution was extremely fungible and capable of connecting far-flung people joined in temporary relationships.

Making sense of transit: the life of Naitō Jūshin’in, daughter, wife, and sister of Daimyo
Bettina Gramlich-Oka, Sophia University, Japan

Naitō Jūshin’in (1800–1880) belonged to a distinct group of privileged women who lived through the Bakumatsu and early Meiji period and who were required to leave their homes in Edo when the alternate attendance system was suspended. In the paper I will introduce and discuss Jūshin’in’s perspective of her transitory life, with focus on the years from 1863 until 1872. Jūshin’in’s life was privileged but certainly shared by many upper class women. Born in Edo as one of the many children to the thirteenth lord of the Hikone domain, in 1815, with her marriage to Naitō Masayori (1796-1834), lord of the Nobeoka domain in Hyūga (in Kyushu), she moved to his mansion in Roppongi. Suddenly widowed and without any children in her thirties, she was involved in solving the political crisis by adopting her younger brother as her husband’s heir. Jūshin’in’s also shared the experience of the turbulent years of the 1860s with her female peers. In 1863 Jūshin’in had to leave Edo to “return” to her domain, a place she has never been. Since the shogunate revoked the suspension of alternate attendance soon after, Jūshin’in was on the road again in 1865, heading back to Edo. Only three years later she would once more leave for Kyushu only to return in 1872 to a city that had been renamed Tokyo. Via reading her accounts I examine how Jūshin’in, who embodies the link of two daimyo houses, navigated her transitory life.

The Many Reincarnations of a Bakumatsu Woman: Mobility and Female Agency in Historical Interpretation
Laura Nenzi, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA

This paper examines the case study of Kurosawa Tokiko, a woman and political activist from the late Tokugawa period, and the various ways in which the story of her political awakening and of her subsequent 1859 undercover journey from Mito to Kyoto was told and retold in the twentieth century. The many historiographical reincarnations of Tokiko as a “woman in transit” reveal various and sometimes contrasting degrees of agency and ability to call the shots – she is alternatively portrayed as a victim of circumstances or hailed as the epitome of a free, independent, untamed spirit that all women (and even some men) should emulate. The various mutations of Tokiko in history suggest that female agency is a slippery notion and that the same individual could be presented as the maker of his or her own destiny or as a pawn in a game played by others simply by the use of a few strategic keywords and meaningful visual representations.