Chapter One: Faraway Places Chapter One FARAWAY PLACES
aby gifts arrived at the Rinsenji temple in the spring of 1804, during the early thaw, when the paths through Ishigami Village were choked with mud. The number of presents was limited. This was, after all, the birth of a second child—and a girl. Four-year-old Giyū, his mother’s firstborn son, arrived in the dead of winter, and still the temple was swamped with deliveries, package after package of sardines, sake, bolts of cloth, seaweed, dried persimmons, and folding paper fans. That was appropriate. This new baby, born on the twelfth day of the third month, received simple, mostly homemade things: sticky rice cakes, sake, a set of baby clothes, dried fish flakes.
didn’t have a name during the first week of her life. It was too soon, when so many infants
didn’t survive. It would be bad luck, as if the family were trying to hold on to something that wasn’t quite theirs. Once the baby lived for seven days, then it would be time to celebrate, to give her a name and welcome her to the community.
When the week of anxious waiting passed, Emon and his family held a small gathering. No records of it survive, but such events were
customary, and the temple family fulfilled all the usual social obligations. The guests would have been an assortment of wives and mothers from Ishigami and the neighboring villages: strong peasants, including the
midwives who had attended the birth, and probably a few more refined ladies, Buddhist priests’ and village headmen’s wives. The baby girl was so new to the world that she didn’t yet recognize any of the people who would later become fixtures in her life. She may have slept through the festivities. But considering the personality she grew into later, it also seems likely that she opened her eyes, looked around at the tight circle of women, and wailed.
For a name, the girl’s parents had chosen something slightly sophisticated and out of the ordinary: Tsuneno. It was three syllables instead of the more common two, and it took two Chinese characters to write. This child would be the only Tsuneno in her family, most likely the only one in any of the farming villages that surrounded the temple. As long as she kept her name, she would never be confused with anyone else.
In the first months of her life, baby Tsuneno had everything she needed. Her family had old clothes and rags to piece together for
diapers, so she could be changed whenever she was wet. She had a mat to sleep on, instead of a dirt floor, and enough firewood and charcoal to keep warm in the long winters. She had a wardrobe: loose cotton robes made up in a tiny size for babies and toddlers. There were lamps and candles to illuminate the shadowy rooms of the temple at night, and on snowy days she could sleep under a puffy patchwork blanket. In the summer, there were mosquito nets over her futon. Her mother could eat enough to produce breast milk—babies typically nursed until around the age of three—and if she couldn’t or didn’t want to breastfeed, her family could hire a wet nurse. They could also pay a village girl to work as a nursemaid. She could wear Tsuneno on her back and sing her plaintive
country songs, and Tsuneno could regard the world from over her shoulder.
There was so much to learn. First, the things that babies need to know: mother’s face; father’s voice; her older brother’s name, Giyū. Next, lessons for toddlers, new vocabulary and rules. The word shōji
for the paper-covered sliding doors, clattering and delicate, that she shouldn’t push her fingers through. Tatami
for the mats on the floors: they rippled under her bare toes, and she had to remember not to pull at the sweet, grassy straw. Tansu
was the word for the dresser, which was not safe to climb on, and hibachi
was for the charcoal brazier that was too hot to touch. Ohashi
was for chopsticks. There were two words for bowls. Owan
for the dark, glowing lacquer ones, which were surprisingly light, and osara
for the smooth porcelain, which could break. It was important to be careful.
Tsuneno also learned social rules, some beyond language, that alerted her to her family’s place in their small village. She could get a sense of her status through her neighbors’ deferential bows and the quick envious glances of other children. Adults knew the details, and the few who had the time and space to contemplate could perceive the outlines of a longer story. A hundred and fifty years earlier, when Tsuneno’s father’s ancestors were the Ishigami Village headmen, the main difference between rich and poor peasants had been one of degree: some owned land and others were tenants, but most shared a common occupation, farming, and a similar lifestyle. That had changed by the time Tsuneno’s grandfather was born. Prosperous families were finding new places to invest their money and new ways to multiply their fortunes, often at their neighbors’ expense. They had opened workshops for the production of Echigo chijimi
—a kind of fine hemp crepe, bleached on snowfields—or they had become textile dealers, middlemen between producers and merchants. They bought local rice and brewed sake or bought eggs and sold them to city people. Or, like Tsuneno’s family, they invested in religious education, established temples, performed funeral services, and collected offerings. When they made money from these endeavors, they opened pawnshops, lent money, and, most important, invested in land. Already in Tsuneno’s great-grandfather’s generation,
half the land in Ishigami Village was held by people in other places. By the time she was a child, one family—the
Yamadas of Hyakukenmachi, an easy walk downriver—had holdings in nearly thirty villages.
Tsuneno’s parents and grandparents were investors and planners. They had to be, since even substantial fortunes could be lost quickly through bad harvests and mismanagement. But families like theirs also
spent money freely on the small things of everyday life. They bought sets of bowls and plates for a few hundred coppers each. They bought books, too, to be read and lent to the neighbors, and low desks for writing. They spent heavy, ridged gold coins on futons, thick blankets, and finely woven mosquito nets, and they also purchased silk kimonos and obis for special occasions and heavy coats for the winter. With the small change left over, they bought snowshoes and wooden clogs for the children. When the tea had been drunk, the bowls had broken, the coats had worn out, and the mosquito nets had torn, they bought more. Consumption had become an endless occupation, and their houses filled with more and more things for their children to name and count.
In Tsuneno’s house, which was attached to the temple, some of those everyday things were funded by donations from parishioners, who gave cash, rice, and vegetables in gratitude for the Buddha’s compassion. Snow country people were known for their piety, not only because their lives were so difficult but also because the revered founder of the True Pure Land sect,
Shinran, had lived there for a time in the early thirteenth century. He had been exiled from the capital for his heretical teaching that salvation depended on faith alone: anyone who called on Amida Buddha could be reborn in the paradise of the Pure Land. Even worse (at least from the standpoint of the clerical establishment), Shinran rejected priestly celibacy. Instead, he had married an Echigo woman, Eshinni, who established the role of the priest’s wife as a religious leader.
Some adherents of other Buddhist sects—such as Zen, Nichiren, and Shingon—still looked down on True Pure Land believers. Those who belonged to austere monastic traditions, in which clerics refrained from eating meat and remained celibate, often thought True Pure Land priests like Tsuneno’s father were too invested in worldly success, too covetous of riches, and too indulgent in earthly pleasures. True Pure Land priests had wives and children, and they enjoyed a lifestyle much like that of prosperous laypeople, all funded by gifts from parishioners. (“
This is truly a sect that treats the people with extreme greed,” a critic wrote.) But even those who condescended to True Pure Land believers could recognize the strength of their devotion. They
tended to raise large families, believing that infanticide—fairly common among other peasants—was a sin. In some circles, this was regarded as an admirable commitment to principle. In others, it was a sign of irrational zealotry or even barbarism: raising large broods of children as if they were dogs or cats.
In the end, Tsuneno’s parents had eight children who survived infancy. Childbearing was part of Tsuneno’s mother’s vocation, as central to her faith as singing hymns and saying prayers. The True Pure Land sect’s scholars taught that raising a child to become a priest or priest’s wife was a gift to the Buddha equal to “all the
treasures that fill three thousand worlds.” So Haruma tended to her babies, and then her growing children, while she fulfilled the other duties of a village priest’s wife. Every day, she placed offerings of food and flowers on the altar before an image of Amida Buddha. She kept house, entertained parishioners with tea, and ministered to the women of the village. As the “guardian of the temple,” Haruma taught her sons and daughters that devotion could be embodied, that consistency and discipline were testaments of faith.
Tsuneno and her siblings learned about religious implements the way that peasant children learned about threshers and fishing nets. Their days were perfumed by the smoldering incense on the altar and punctuated by the deep, hollow sound of the bell calling people to the main hall for worship. Tsuneno learned to roll the cool beads of a rosary between her palms as she prayed. She memorized the first, most important prayer, Namu Amida Butsu (Hail Amida Buddha),
something even a toddler could say.
Outside the temple, Tsuneno learned things that all Echigo children knew. She grew up speaking the
local accent, switching around her i
’s and her e
’s just like everyone around her. In winter, she learned to “
paddle” through powdery snow in straw snowshoes and to clear a path by “digging” rather than “shoveling.” In spring, when the snow froze hard, she learned how to walk on ice without slipping and how to laugh at her little brothers and sisters when they fell. She probably knew how to win a snowball contest, how to design a snow castle, and how to build a little cooking fire by scooping out a hollow in the snow and spreading rice bran under the kindling. If she didn’t, her brothers certainly did.
One of Tsuneno’s older brothers,
Kōtoku, had been adopted by a doctor’s family living in the nearby town Takada, where a local lord had his castle. Most of the town’s twenty thousand residents lived in dark, narrow town houses tucked behind unbroken rows of eaves. In winter, they climbed to their rooftops to clear the snow, then dumped it out into the middle of the road. Kōtoku could have taught Tsuneno how to scramble up to the top of the snow heap.
By midwinter, it was so high that they could look down at the rooftops and out toward the mountains.
There was a measuring pole ten feet high set out in front of Takada Castle, and in the worst winters snow buried it completely. Echigo’s children learned to speak of blizzards and frozen horses as if such things were ordinary. They were not impressed with giant icicles, even when they grew inside their houses, extending from the rafters nearly to the floor. They were accustomed to spending days in the dark because all the doors and windows were snowed over and couldn’t be cleared. Little girls filled the dull stretches of time with singing and clapping games or with stories: Once upon a time, a fisherman named Urashima Tarō rescued a turtle. A woodcutter and his wife found a tiny baby inside a hollow bamboo stalk. A weaver girl fell in love with a cowherd.
An outsider might have thought the winters were quaint, even cozy, and children may not have minded. But for their parents, there was nothing romantic, or even pleasant, about the winter. It was a test of endurance. The region’s most famous author, Suzuki Bokushi, wrote: “
What enjoyment is there of snow for us in Echigo, where foot after foot falls year after year? We exhaust ourselves and our purses, undergo a thousand pains and discomforts, all because of the snow.”
But at least everyone knew what to expect. It would be “
freezing from equinox to equinox,” as the older people said, and sometimes farmers would need to shovel out the fields so that they could plant their rice seedlings. But eventually the rivers would thaw, the ice would retreat from the valleys, and in the fourth or fifth month all the flowers would bloom at once.
In the short summers, when the snow had cleared, Tsuneno learned the contours of her village. Ishigami extended to the shorelines of
Big Pond and Little Pond, the reservoirs used to flood the rice fields in the spring. Like all children, she first measured distance in time and footsteps—she could walk all around Big Pond within the space of a morning—while the adults around her rendered the same distances in numbers and noted the figures for their records. To Tsuneno, Big Pond was just a vast glittering lake, but to men like her father, the details were important: the height of the embankments, the surface area of the water, the level of rainfall, and the date on the calendar when the floodgates would be open and the muddy fields would fill with water.
As the men in Ishigami made measurements and drew
brightly colored maps of local rice paddies and pathways, all of the Japanese islands were being charted and measured more precisely. Just before Tsuneno was born, the cartographer
Inō Tadataka had surveyed her part of Echigo, equipped with a compass, a sextant, and his knowledge of the stars. He had followed the Sea of Japan coastline from the northern tip of the main island of Honshu down to the port of Naoetsu and turned inland toward Takada. From there, he set out for the mountains, naming the villages he passed and noting the number of buildings in each. Later, he turned his
surveyor’s diary into a
map of southern Echigo, which he presented to the shogun. He rendered all the turns and inlets of the Sea of Japan coast, the town of Takada, all the little villages along the Northern Highway, and the distinctive peak of Mt. Myōkō, a familiar sight on the horizon whenever the clouds cleared. But Ishigami Village was still too small and remote to have a place on his map—even Big Pond and Little Pond were blank space. They would have to wait a few decades to appear on a comprehensive map of the province, and by then Echigo would be called Niigata Prefecture.
Meanwhile, a child could make her own map of the woods and fields around Big Pond, noting the cicadas seething in the grass and the clicking black dragonflies tracing circles over the water. Stands of cedar trees bracketed the shore; water chestnuts and lotuses floated on the water’s surface. There were also other, mysterious things. They lurked in dark forests and in the depths of the ponds. Tsuneno couldn’t see and touch them, but she knew they were there. All the children did—it was common knowledge. Water sprites splashed in Big Pond, and goblins with long red noses darted among the trees. Even ordinary animals had hidden lives. Badgers were tricksters, and foxes could turn into beautiful women. An industrious rabbit lived in the full moon and spent every night pounding sticky rice cakes.
In books, the forests were no longer enchanted. Precise illustrations of all the plants and animals appeared in thick, dense volumes, which were available for purchase from traveling booksellers. Like cartographers,
Japanese natural scientists were charting the world of Tsuneno’s childhood, making detailed observations and measurements. They classified what they found as medicinal herbs, “products,” or natural objects, inspired by the categories named in Chinese texts. But that would soon change. Far away in Bizen Province, a boy a little older than Tsuneno was studying “Western learning” and puzzling out the foreign sounds and letters of Dutch books. In time, he would write a Sutra of Botany
, arguing that the Japanese should adopt the classification system devised by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus. For the first time in Japan, the cedars in the forest and the lotuses on Little Pond would be called plants.
For Tsuneno, there were no “plants,” but there were other kinds of knowledge waiting between the pages of books. When she could be trusted to sit still and not spill her ink, probably around the age of
seven or eight, she began her formal education. This was not taken for granted in rural Echigo. Only a few years before Tsuneno was born, a woman from a nearby village was
forced to apologize to her in-laws for wasting time learning to read and write. But Tsuneno was not an ordinary peasant.
A sophisticated girl, and a desirable bride for a priest or village headman, would have to be able to write graceful letters, read poetry, and, in some cases, even keep family accounts. What if Tsuneno’s mother-in-law kept a housekeeping diary and expected her to follow written instructions? Or what if Tsuneno didn’t know how to arrange plates on a tray properly and wanted to look up the answer in a manual? There were expectations for womanly competence, and Tsuneno had to keep up. Parents all around were purchasing copybooks and hiring tutors, and their daughters were practicing literacy: drafting simple letters to their friends, entering numbers in ledgers, and keeping short diaries.
By the time Tsuneno first knelt at a desk to dip her brush in ink, her brother Giyū, who was about four years older, had already begun lessons. He and Tsuneno might have attended the same
village school, since teachers in some places taught boys and girls together, or one or both of them might have studied with a tutor at home. But even if they sat side by side, they followed different curricula. Both siblings started with the forty-eight letters of the Japanese phonetic alphabet, which were much more difficult to master than they seemed because each of them could be written in a number of forms. From there, Giyū might have continued with the Primer on Names
so that, in the future, he could correctly address the ordinary Kōheis, Denpachis, and Jinbeis who populated the countryside. Then he learned how to write the names of the provinces, as well as the
counties of Echigo and the neighboring villages. He already knew these places as collections of trees, fields, and houses—they were home—but now he would learn how officials saw and classified them. Eventually, the shapes of the characters would become as familiar as the mountains on the horizon, and he would barely have to think about how to move the brush when he identified himself in an official document: Giyū of the Rinsenji temple, Ishigami Village, Kubiki County, Echigo Province.
In order to understand his place in the world, Giyū also had to learn about the political structure of the realm.
He came to know, vaguely, that he lived in the land of the gods, the ancient deities whose ranks included everyone from the Sun Goddess, mythical progenitor of Japan’s emperor, to the local guardians of ponds and mountains. Although Giyū was a Buddhist, the profusion of other gods would not have bothered him. Most ordinary people thought of “the gods and the buddhas” in the same category, and the veneration of Japanese deities didn’t interfere with their devotion to the Buddha.
The gods’ territory was indistinct. Giyū might have guessed that their realm roughly corresponded to the dominion of the emperor, whose family had ruled Japan for over a thousand years. The emperor appeared in history books and literature, but in Giyū’s time he was not a politically important figure. He lived cloistered in his palace in the city of Kyoto, composing poetry and conducting esoteric rituals. The real power in the realm was the shogun, the military leader who ruled from Edo Castle. He directly administered about a third of the land in Japan, including Giyū’s own village: the taxes that Giyū’s father paid went to the shogun’s coffers in Edo. The remainder of Japan was carved into domains administered by powerful lords. They collected their own taxes, and
some of them were more amenable to the shogun’s authority than others, though they all performed their obedience by spending one year out of every two in attendance on the shogun in Edo. In all, there were nearly three hundred domain lords, far too many for Giyū to remember. And since most domains didn’t have contiguous boundaries, he couldn’t study their shapes on a map. But he had to know the important domains in Echigo Province, especially Takada, since it was the closest.
Giyū studied some basic Buddhist doctrine, since he was destined to be a priest. Later, he would go to a main temple to be ordained. For now, still at home, he puzzled over the language of official correspondence, an awkward classical Chinese-Japanese hybrid style that no one ever spoke, a vestige of the time when classical Chinese was the sole language of government. Japanese and Chinese shared a set of complicated characters, but they were completely different languages with different grammars. Giyū sometimes had to rearrange the order of the characters when he read the hybrid style out loud. “With fear and trembling we humbly present the following request,” he read, half-backward, learning the correct way to open a petition to the authorities. He would use the same hybrid style, with fewer obsequious flourishes, for the certificates and contracts that sealed everyday agreements among commoners: “An Agreement to Send a Person into Service,” “An Agreement to Borrow Money,” and “An Agreement to Sell Land.” There were correct forms for all of these documents, but luckily they could be looked up in a
Giyū also studied straight classical Chinese, because it was still the language of ancient history and philosophy. He could write poetry in the Chinese style, an accomplishment that made him proud.
He bound his compositions in a book and wrote his name with bold characters on the cover. Judging from some of the references he made in later letters, he was interested in Confucian treatises, which distilled the wisdom of the ancient Chinese philosopher who taught about the cultivation of the self, the virtues of good rulers, and the correct conduct of relationships. Parents were to be obeyed and venerated, and, conveniently for Giyū, who eventually had eight younger siblings, older brothers were to be respected.
Tsuneno and her younger sister Kiyomi, who was close to her in age, learned some of what Giyū and their other brothers did. They studied basic Chinese characters—they, too, could write “Ishigami Village” and “Rinsenji”—but they never had to study the convoluted language of bureaucratic memoranda or copy out petitions for tax relief. They probably didn’t study much classical Chinese, either, although Tsuneno must have acquired at least a passing familiarity with The Classic of Filial Piety
, an ancient Chinese text that purported to represent a conversation between Confucius and one of his disciples on the importance of revering one’s mother and father. Years later,
Giyū quoted the famous first passage to her in an angry letter, confident that she would understand the reference.
But Tsuneno and Kiyomi also learned many things their brothers did not. They must have encountered primers for girls, which were so popular that the
most famous were reissued and reprinted hundreds of times. The main text in each book was always dull and didactic. “
The only qualities that befit a woman,” The Greater Learning for Women
said, in gracefully rendered, meticulously glossed Chinese characters, “are gentle obedience, chastity, mercy, and quietness.” Luckily, there were always appendices with more interesting content. The Treasure Chest of the Greater Learning for Women
had illustrated versions of the most famous chapters of the eleventh-century classic The Tale of Genji The Women’s Amazing Library
had an entire section about removing stains: for lacquer, use miso soup; for tooth-blackening powder, warm vinegar.
There were also pages and
pages of pictures. Some depicted contemporary women from all kinds of backgrounds—aristocrats, samurai, and commoners—looking stunningly beautiful as they worked at traditional women’s occupations. Among them were tidy mothers teaching children to write their first letters; vain young women examining themselves in mirrors; industrious peasants spinning cotton or scrubbing laundry in great bamboo tubs; waiflike girls raking salt from the seashore; tough city women hanging noodles, dyeing paper, and stringing rosaries; and naked abalone divers plunging into the waves, their hair streaming behind them. Occasionally, there was a sullen little girl moping while her mother worked. There were also historical figures and characters from fiction: delicate, round-faced ladies wearing heavy, twelve-layered robes, the heroines of The Tale of Genji
. There were even, on occasion, foreigners: paragons of feminine virtue from ancient China, who wore strange gold ornaments and appeared near craggy mountains, often accompanied by elderly, neatly bearded men.
Each page was another lesson in the brilliant variety of women’s experiences, a glimpse into a life in another place, and occasionally another time, among a different kind of people. The ordinary shops and windy salt fields, the well-appointed rooms looking out into gardens, the city courtyards where women were hanging noodles to dry, even the fishing boats—they were like nothing a sheltered girl from inland Echigo had ever seen. Tsuneno knew she had as much chance of encountering these things as she did of traveling to ancient China and speaking to the sages: she was expected to grow up and marry into a family much like her own. The very first line of The Greater Learning for Women
instructed the reader not to hope for anything else. “
To be a woman is to grow up and leave for another household,” that is, to marry. It admitted no other possibility. So while her brothers studied the practical administration of the shogun’s realm and the divine mysteries of the Pure Land, Tsuneno also divided her imagination between two opposed spheres: the confines of the marital household, a world of thrift and dull obedience, and the expansive universe of female beauty, furnished with gold, exotic prints, and brocade, and available—at least in theory—to every little girl.
To make her way in either world, Tsuneno would need to be able to sew. Fortunately,
making up an unlined kimono was not particularly difficult. Most of the seams were straight, there was only one standard size for the fabric, and the piecing was simple: squares, right triangles, and rectangles. But there was always a
right way and a wrong way to sew, just like there was a right way and a wrong way to sleep, walk, and open a door. Girls should sleep with their arms and legs pulled in close to their bodies, walk so that their footsteps could barely be heard, and open doors so that they made as little noise as possible. Sewing was one more form of discipline and self-cultivation, which could chafe at a little girl who would rather look at the pictures in books or go play in the snow. But as the venerable Greater Learning for Women
said, and most of the other books repeated in some form or other, “
Of the many skills necessary to become a woman, needlework is the most important.” Many years later, a woman who recalled her childhood in the countryside would say, “
I was bad at sewing and calligraphy, and was scolded at home, told ‘you’re not a girl.’ ”
right way to sew was with loose stitches for kimonos, so that they could be taken apart easily to be washed, and with tiny invisible stitches for handkerchiefs. For tricky silk crepe, which could stretch out of shape when seamed, the correct approach was to stitch a perfectly straight row along the edge of the fabric to guide the hand. For crinkly silk, it was to wipe away wrinkles with a dampened handkerchief before beginning. For thick fabrics, it was to use hempen thread rather than silk. The right way to sew was quietly, with perfect attention to the task at hand, so that seams could be matched up neatly. To avoid tangling the thread into knots that couldn’t be undone. To measure carefully so that fabric wasn’t cut in the wrong place, so that mother didn’t have to smooth out the scraps and recycle them in a patchwork coat or as diapers for the new baby.
Tsuneno and Kiyomi had three little brothers, so they had to be careful with their tools and not leave them lying around for the toddlers to find.
Needles were sharp, and they were also expensive, because they had to be forged and tempered by skilled artisans. When a needle broke it had to be disposed of carefully, or even donated to the Buddha, which would make an appropriate end to its service. There were less exalted tools, too: flat wooden rulers, knives to cut through fabric, puffy pincushions, and sharp little hooks to pull out stitches. When they weren’t needed, they were kept in lacquered boxes or sewing chests with tiny drawers. But they came out nearly every day, because there was always sewing to be done. In varying stages of difficulty, it was enough to keep a little girl busy: the manufacture of children’s clothes and little bags and billfolds, aprons for the servant girls, and quilted winter coats and blankets; the laundry sewing, when kimonos were taken apart to be washed and then pieced back together; the cycles of mending: letting the fabric out of seams, replacing cuffs and hems and linings, and patching tears and holes.
Most of this was daily upkeep, the ordinary tasks of running a large household in a place where most clothes were not purchased ready-made. But there was also an element of planning for the future. Whatever the three sisters made for themselves would one day be added to their trousseaus. At their weddings, the coats and robes and socks and handkerchiefs
would be displayed at their in-laws’ houses for all the neighbors to see. There would also be shoes and furniture, futons, boxes of tooth-blackening powder, fresh ink and paper for writing, and possibly a box of gilded clamshells whose insides were painted with lines from famous poems. They were meant to be used for a matching game, in which the first and last lines of the poem were paired, just as the bride and groom would be on their wedding night. The trousseaus would also contain a sewing box for each sister, so that they could start their own households and make new lives elsewhere, without their parents and brothers and without one another.
Yet sewing lessons suggested other possible futures for little girls who were attuned to them. Needlework was a skill that could be turned in a few different directions—seamstresses worked in the employ of many wealthy households, and poor women in cities supported themselves through piecework. Women who learned to weave or spin could migrate to towns like Kiryū in Kōzuke Province, which was home to great silk-weaving workshops. But even for a girl who never planned to work for wages herself (and Tsuneno had no reason to believe she would ever have to), sewing created new possibilities, if only in the imagination. It was tedious to piece together yet another old robe after it was taken apart to be washed, but it was always possible to daydream about making similar stitches in lavender silk, with a pattern of delicate white cherry blossoms, and pairing it with a red lining with a geometric pattern, and maybe a light pink underrobe. Or a plaid seafoam green, with a purple polka-dotted hem, paired with a dull brown obi.
The illustrations in the primers for girls weren’t in color, but the elegant women reading by the gardens must have been wearing something like that, or even something better, which no one in Ishigami Village could possibly imagine. What were those women reading? What did they talk about? Where would they go next?
What kind of life could Tsuneno have if she could dress like that?
As Tsuneno practiced her stitches, she was also piecing together the remnants of Japan’s cosmopolitan past. By the time she left her childhood behind, she had
dozens of pieces of clothing packed away in a standing dresser and overflowing into other chests and baskets. She had a lined robe in wisteria-colored silk crepe, printed with a fine pattern, and another in black, in a different fine pattern. She had one in stripes with a Chichibu silk lining and another in a coarse silk weave. She had over a dozen cotton-padded robes for winter, in reddish “hawk” brown, in the duller shade of “tea,” in white-figured satin, and in all kinds of stripes. For layering, she had over-robes in light pink damask and deep black satin, and for summer, unlined robes in striped and patterned pongee and cotton. Every single piece was of domestic manufacture, but
they all owed their existence to an era of global trade that had long passed by the time she learned to sew.
The cotton that formed the majority of Tsuneno’s wardrobe was not native to the Japanese islands. Instead, it had been introduced from South Asia by way of China and Korea sometime in the fifteenth century, and it was cultivated widely by the sixteenth century, though not in quantities sufficient to meet the demand for clothing. Silk had been produced in Japan since ancient times, but in the case of this textile, too, demand for finished cloth outstripped the supply. As a result, Japan started to import vast quantities of Chinese silk. In those days, during the tumultuous Warring States Period, the Japanese were notorious pirates and ambitious traders. Setting sail from Japan’s Inland Sea, they had raided the Chinese coastline and ranged as far as Southeast Asia, where they traded camphor, rice, and silver in exchange for guns, deerskins, gunpowder, textiles, and sugar. The precious metals that fed this trade were hauled out of newly opened Japanese mines at a staggering rate. Violent boomtowns sprouted up across the archipelago, populated with greedy prospectors, bandits, and overwhelmed administrators. What began as regional commerce in the South China Sea—Chinese silk in exchange for Japanese silver—became a global trade in the early seventeenth century. The newly formed Dutch East India Company, which established trading posts throughout the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, began to send ships loaded with silk thread and Indian cotton textiles to Japanese ports.
But in the middle of the seventeenth century, after the Tokugawa family of shoguns was securely ensconced in Edo, Japan retreated from the tumultuous arena of global politics and military conflict. By the 1630s, the shogunate had become increasingly concerned about the influence of Christianity, which it viewed as an evil foreign religion, after a group of rebels that included a number of prominent Christian converts launched a massive uprising on the southern island of Kyushu. The shogun issued edicts barring Western traders and diplomats from Japanese soil, with the exception of the Protestant Dutch, who were permitted to come to port at the southern city of Nagasaki. They had earned this exemption by convincing the Japanese that they, unlike their Catholic competitors, had little interest in proselytizing. Around the same time, the shogun forbade his subjects to travel beyond the Ryūkyū Islands in the south and Korea in the west. This meant that Japanese who remained abroad at the time of the edict were effectively exiled.
At the same time that the shogunate limited foreign travel, it tried to maintain, and even expand, foreign trade. But Japan’s mines were failing, and within decades the shogun’s men began to worry about the quantity of precious metal leaving the archipelago. In 1668 the shogunate
halted the export of silver entirely, and restrictions on the export of copper followed in 1685. Meanwhile, new edicts
curtailed silk imports from China. Within decades, Japan produced enough silk, and then cotton, to satisfy its own market. Dutch and Chinese ships still arrived at Nagasaki bearing luxury textiles, but much of the trade shifted to ginseng and sugar, medicines and foreign books, all things that Japan could not generate itself.
Yet more than a century later, memories of an earlier era of global trade in textiles still surfaced unexpectedly in Tsuneno’s wardrobe. She had a robe in
Nankin stripes, which referred to the Chinese city of Nanjing, a major silk-producing area. She also had a few sets of Santome stripes, which were named after the seventeenth-century Portuguese colony of São Tomé, near Madras. Before the Dutch East India Company trade, Japanese had not been accustomed to wearing stripes at all; even
the word “stripes,” shima
, came from the word for “island,” signifying that the textile design had come from abroad.
The reminders of seventeenth-century trade were elsewhere in Tsuneno’s world, too. The tobacco grown in villages near Ishigami, which filled the long pipes of sophisticated women, originally came from the New World. So did the sweet potatoes grown on sunny hillsides, which supplemented the diets of poor peasants and were sold on city streets. The
clocks that some wealthy families had in their homes were domestically manufactured adaptations of European models. There was also a range of products, most very expensive, that came in through more recent trade. These included the swatches of calico that fashionable women wore sewn into fantastic patchwork robes; the
eyeglasses sold in city stores and, occasionally, by peddlers traveling the countryside; the magnifying glasses that appraisers could use to examine the scratches on swords; the telescopes that allowed aspiring astronomers to study the heavens; and the Dutch books that had taught the cartographer Inō Tadataka about surveying and would one day inspire a young scholar to write a Sutra of Botany
Due to the influence of an earlier era of global connection and the continuing presence of a few important trade goods, everyday life in Japan was still connected to the material culture of the rest of the world. Japan, like Europe or North America, was a place where young women wore cheap cotton prints to work, prosperous men carried watches, and people consumed sugar with tea. But in Japan, women wore their cotton prints as kimonos with wide silk sashes, the watches counted uneven hours named for the animals of the Chinese zodiac (the Hour of the Dog, the Hour of the Horse), and the sugar came in brightly colored rice flour dumplings served alongside unsweetened green tea. The German physician
Engelbert Kaempfer, who had resided at the Nagasaki trading settlement for two years in the late seventeenth century, was not exactly correct when he described Japan as a “closed empire.” But it was a sheltered place, inaccessible to most foreigners and at a remove from global markets. Its cultural practices reflected the distance.
Yet during the years of Tsuneno’s childhood, the world was coming closer all the time. The only boats on Big Pond were little skiffs belonging to local fishermen, but on the surrounding seas the water was crowded with more and different kinds of ships. Fortified hulks carried
opium from Calcutta to the southern coast of China, where they anchored in coves and awaited the rowboats that would smuggle their black, sticky cargo ashore.
Canoes traveled along coastlines from the Arctic to Alta California loaded down with sea otter skins, which were traded to merchants on American ships with tall wooden masts and complicated rigging. They brought the otter furs to Hawai‘i and Canton, shipped North American ginseng to China, delivered Fijian dried sea slugs to Manila, and brought Kaluan wood to Honolulu. Whalers, outfitted with harpoons and giant cauldrons, chased their prey all over the northern Pacific, while seal hunters drifted into inlets, scooped up the animals from rocks, and clubbed them to death. Meanwhile, boats of almost every description carried people from one end of the ocean to the other, sometimes against their will. Merchant vessels kept Indian prisoners among the cargo and delivered them to a penal colony in Penang, and massive British ships used the technology of the Atlantic Ocean’s slave trade—shackles, iron collars, and chains—to transport London’s
convicts to Australia’s Botany Bay.
As this traffic circled closer to the Japanese archipelago, children along the coasts that Inō Tadataka had so carefully surveyed began to encounter new, bigger boats with triangular canvas sails and strange flags. In 1807,
people in Hitachi Province, bordering the Pacific, sighted a foreign ship along their coastline for the first time since 1611. Over the next forty years, they would see over a hundred more. Most of those who made their way into Japanese waters were whalers working the “Japan Grounds” in the northern Pacific. Herman Melville, who was fascinated with Japan, wrote about the ships and their crews in Moby-Dick
If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is to the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due.” But there were also adventurers and surveyors, including a group of
Russians circumnavigating the world, fortified with wild garlic and salted reindeer from Kamchatka, eager to name Japanese capes and mountains after Russian military heroes.
Most of these ships didn’t land. The
few whalers who tried to come ashore wanted provisions, particularly fruits and vegetables to ward off scurvy. The ordinary Japanese who encountered them learned that they liked sour plums, hated fried tofu, and smelled terrible. The Russians, less desperate and better supplied, wanted to establish diplomatic relations and trade, and the officials who encountered them learned that they were imperious, demanding, and hostile to questioning. Both groups of interlopers were given basic provisions, but they were all sent away and asked not to return.
Japanese sailors, setting to sea in increasingly large, sturdy, and well-supplied boats, found themselves meeting with foreign ships or drifting to faraway shores. During severe storms, Japanese crews would cut down their masts to avoid capsizing, which left them at the mercy of the currents. Some sailors drifted for months, surviving on fresh fish, seabirds, and whatever they had in their stores, and landed in the Philippines, the Aleutian Islands, or the Olympic Peninsula. Others were rescued by passing vessels and suddenly found themselves among crews of strange men speaking English, Russian, or Spanish. A few Japanese castaways managed to be repatriated, occasionally by foreign captains who had ulterior motives, such as opening trade relations. The returnees were subjected to prolonged interrogation by samurai officials, who gathered their intelligence on foreign lands and then often forbade them to speak to others about what they had seen and heard.
Japanese officials’ anxiety about the outside world mounted around the turn of the nineteenth century, fueled by encroaching ships and new knowledge. The samurai
Honda Toshiaki, who was, like Tsuneno, a native of Echigo Province, wrote startling tracts urging Japan to begin an aggressive program of exploration, expansion, and foreign trade. He proposed to establish commercial relations with Russia and send Japanese trading ships across the oceans. He wanted to colonize the far northern island of Karafuto (now Sakhalin), following the example of England, “a nation about the same size as Japan” that had built a maritime empire. But he was an iconoclast who did not resemble any of the people Tsuneno knew. He thought that priests chanting in Sanskrit sounded “like croaking frogs” and complained that Buddhism caused people to “waste their time in total ignorance.” He also insisted that Chinese characters were overly complex and made people inclined to dilettantism; he suggested that all Japanese should be written in a phonetic alphabet. Shogunal officials did read his work, but they thought he was eccentric, and they did not heed his advice.
When the Napoleonic Wars finally reached Japan, in the form of a British warship, the shogun’s men were not prepared.
The ship sailed directly into Nagasaki Harbor, flying a Dutch flag, in early autumn of 1808. The samurai assigned to naval defense stood down, thinking it was a Dutch East India Company vessel. They were shocked when the sailors disembarked and took Dutch hostages—part of the hostilities in Europe—but they had no choice but to offer provisions in order to secure the safe return of the Dutchmen. The ship was so well armed and fortified that it looked to them like a floating castle. In the end, the harbor magistrate committed suicide to atone for the gravity of his error. Meanwhile,
Russians, spurned in their efforts to open trade, conducted a series of raids in the far north, burning villages and disrupting fisheries. At one point, they planned to kidnap all the Japanese occupants of Karafuto and send them to Alaska to establish a colony there. This never came to pass, but the shogun’s men were alarmed and determined not to be caught off guard again. When the Russian naval ship Diana
landed on an island off the coast of northern Hokkaido in 1811, the Japanese took the crew hostage and kept them prisoner for three years, asking again and again about Russian intentions in the north.
Finally, in 1825, the shogunate issued the Edict to Repel Foreign Vessels, which instructed Japanese to fire on all Western ships attempting to cast anchor in any port other than Nagasaki. Any vessel that landed was to be burned, and the crew was to be executed.
While little girls in places outside of Japan learned to fear cast-iron cannons, “
disease boats” bearing mysterious illnesses, and the “
white men with horrible looks” who might haul them into ships and carry them away, Tsuneno could not have spent much time wondering about red-whiskered foreigners. They had no place in Ishigami Village, and they did not appear in any of the stories she was told. The goblins in the woods and the water sprites in Big Pond must have seemed more real. In any case, there were other things to fear, like hungry bears in summer, and sudden avalanches that buried entire villages in the winter, and epidemic diseases, like measles and smallpox, that ravaged families. At Rinsenji, Tsuneno’s three-week-old baby sister,
Umeka, died in the early spring of 1815, when Tsuneno was eleven. Her father, Emon, had been away for the baby’s birth and never met her; her brother Giyū, only fifteen years old, was left in charge. It was the first time he had to shoulder the responsibilities that would be his when he succeeded his father as head of the household. He arranged for another temple to conduct the funeral services, accepted the candles, vegetables, and coins that his neighbors sent as consolation gifts, and kept track of how much he had spent on rice and tofu to feed the mourners.
As her family prayed for Umeka’s rebirth in the Pure Land, Tsuneno could turn her thoughts to an equally alluring and faraway place: the shogun’s capital of Edo, the greatest city in the realm. Edo was where most of the books in her father’s collection were published, where villagers migrated to work as servants and laborers in the winters, and where the Echigo crepe sellers went to meet wholesalers. A single city block there could contain more people than lived in all of Ishigami and the two neighboring villages combined.
Tsuneno’s corner of Echigo Province seemed remote, but it was only about two weeks’ walk over the mountains to the capital, and news always came back, not only in books, prints, and maps but also with migrants who walked the highways home in the spring, carrying the latest gossip along with small fistfuls of gold coins. They told their neighbors’ wives and children of the strange customs in a place where it almost never snowed, where
black demons walked the streets on New Year’s Eve, plain for everyone to see, and an exorcist might snatch one up and throw it into the sea. They related the amazement they felt when they saw the riverbanks explode with bright white plum blossoms and green willows in the early spring, or when they ventured outside on winter nights to find
naked young carpenters running through the streets, chanting the prayer to Amida Buddha and stopping intermittently to douse themselves with water, offering their momentary suffering as a testament to their faith. No one in Echigo would have done that, no matter how pious they were—they would have frozen to death.
those who returned from the city told stories about Edo’s prosperity: its rows of stores extending for miles in every direction; its hordes of vendors, bearing things they’d never seen and didn’t know they wanted; its cavernous merchant houses; and its multitude of hairdressers, street cleaners, night soil collectors, and laundresses, who seemed to be everywhere, offering services and demanding tips. In Edo, there was an unimaginable number of things to buy, but there were even more ways to make money, and sometimes it was hard to distinguish between labor, entertainment, and extortion.
Edo was familiar to the men in Tsuneno’s family, who could speak with authority about friends and temples and city neighborhoods. They had connections in Kyoto, the emperor’s city, as well: the head temple of their sect was there, and they had made the necessary pilgrimages several times.
Emon had been there when he was a young man, and Tsuneno’s brother
Giyū went as soon as he was ordained, in 1821. But the family had more associations in Edo, which was closer, and which loomed larger in the minds of most Echigo people.
Tsuneno’s uncle, the black sheep of her father’s generation, had been adopted into a temple family in the downtown neighborhood of Asakusa years before she was born, and the family kept up correspondence with a few Edo temples. Tsuneno’s little brother Gisen would be sent there to study one day. He wouldn’t inherit the temple—he had too many older brothers—but he could be very well educated, and it would also be useful for the family if he made the circuit of True Pure Land religious institutions and kept up with the latest news.
None of the women in Tsuneno’s family went to Edo, or if they did, their trips never made any impression in the temple’s archive. But the capital meant something to them, too. For women who had spent their lives in provincial villages, “Edo” was an invocation of a different kind of life. It was shorthand for fashion and sophistication among country girls who did their hair in the “
Edo style,” even though it had little resemblance to how city women wore theirs. It was an
entertaining story for mothers and daughters who sat by the hearth on winter nights interrogating well-traveled guests about how city people celebrated the New Year. It was both an opportunity and an
impossible standard for young women whose Edo-raised teachers told them that they wore their obis too low, spoke too roughly, greeted guests inappropriately, and didn’t even understand how to walk down the street. Most of all, it was a dream of escape for the rebellious, discontented, and desperate women who felt they had nothing left to lose.
Miyo, a village girl in Echigo, hated the fiancée her older brother had chosen. She begged to be sent into service in a distant province, perhaps envisioning a future in Edo, where many of her neighbors had gone to work.
Riyo, an unhappy wife in Sagami Province, abandoned her husband and took off for the city with her two-year-old. She found a job as a wet nurse for a samurai family and started over.
Taki, a pawnbroker’s daughter in Musashi Province, ran away with her husband, who didn’t get along with her parents, and the pair settled in a rented back-street tenement.
Sumi, a peasant girl from Hitachi Province, absconded with a man who promised to take her to Edo. When her older brother came to look for her, she told him that she didn’t care what kind of work she had to do or even if she died—she would never leave the city.
Michi, a peasant daughter sent to serve a high-ranking lord, flatly refused to return to the countryside. She said there was nothing for her to do back home, so she married an Edo samurai and stayed.
There were others, too, women in unimaginably faraway places who flipped through pictures, listened to stories, envied their brothers, and plotted their escape. By the early nineteenth century, this was a
long and broad tradition, running from the rural women who streamed into Venice in the wake of the late-seventeenth-century plague epidemic, through the English dairymaids who left the countryside for London in the seventeenth century, to the country girls who crowded into Paris during the Age of Enlightenment. In 1616, an English maidservant testified that she had “
come from her father against his mind to dwell in London.” In 1644, a
Finnish girl ran away from a detested husband and entered service in Stockholm; when her husband came to look for her, she fled the city with her new master.
Marie-Anne Lafarge left her village for Aix in the 1780s because she believed that her parents favored her brothers and sisters.
Annushka, a contemporary of Tsuneno’s, abandoned a faithless lover in the Russian countryside and went into service for a Frenchwoman in St. Petersburg.
For young girls who hated village boys; daughters whose fathers beat them; bored women who couldn’t face another day staring at barley fields, cows, or rice paddies; dreamy teenagers who wanted the dresses they’d seen in pictures; wives whose husbands were boring, abusive, or just too old; and brides who were disappointed on their wedding night, the city was a beacon. It was a possibility. It was a story they told themselves about what might happen in a crowded, anonymous place where not everyone was a peasant, where no one knew their families, where they might disappear and reemerge as entirely different people. Wherever the rise of the market economy had expanded the territory rural women could traverse in their own imaginations, they left. They believed that something different—something better—was waiting.
Tsuneno couldn’t imagine any of these women, though they certainly lived in the same world as she did. They, too, had learned to sew with silk and cotton thread (though probably not many had learned to read). They, too, wore printed stripes, drank tea, and ate sugar when they could afford it. They were following similar pathways through different landscapes, moving through places Tsuneno would never visit, speaking languages she would never hear. She was preoccupied with familiar things: the brothers she loved and resented, the snow that fell year after year, the dragonflies on Big Pond, the books in her father’s library, the needles in her mother’s sewing box, the silk robes packed away in her chest. The incense on the altar. The village that was yet to appear on a map of the province. The cedar trees that were waiting to be “plants.”
Yet somehow, amid all of this, in a place that was being categorized and mapped, in a country where the outlines of the natural world were being retraced and the stakes of a new age of empire were just becoming clear, she, too, looked up and imagined a different kind of life. Was it the pictures in her books? The habit of envisioning the Pure Land, which inspired her to imagine other distant realms and better possibilities? Or was it some overheard conversation about the city, possibly concerning the plans for her little brother Gisen’s future? Maybe it was just a vague sense that a life like her mother’s would never be enough.
Or maybe it was years later, when all her conventional plans for her life had collapsed, when she was staring down a future that suddenly seemed unbearable, that the idea took shape in her mind. Whatever the reason, at some point Tsuneno came to understand the problem that would define the rest of her life, and to perceive it as something that had been true for a long time. It was one of the first things she ever wrote in a letter, something she had already told her family many times before she finally put it in writing: “
I wanted to go to Edo, but you wouldn’t let me go.”