“Stranger in the Shogun’s City” by Amy Stanley

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Thanks to Random House UK and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Anyone who reads and researches a lot about Japan knows that there isn’t much tangible social history about those outwith the nobility. This book seeks to shine some light onto a life of an “ordinary” Japanese woman coming of age in the early 19th century. This was a time of huge political and social change in Japan and it was still largely closed off from the wider world and the social and cultural influences of the time. I say “ordinary” because Tsuneno was still rather privileged by the standards of the time, at the beginning of her life at least.

The book is clearly exhaustively researched and is based on the real letters and documents found in Tsuneno’s family archive. It follows her life from birth until death, focusing particularly when she moves from her rural village in the Snow Country, to Edo, (now Tokyo) after a series of disastrous marriages.

I really enjoyed the perspective of a working woman’s life during this time in Tokyo. Although Tsuneno came from privilege, she leaves that behind when she moves to Edo and works in a series of low paid jobs to try and survive, at some points only possessing one piece of clothing. It’s impossible not to feel admiration for her strength of character, and her force of will that remains unbroken through the numerous trials and tribulations she faces in her life. When I lived in Japan, I came across a phrase 出る杭は打たれる which translates roughly to “the nail that stands up must be hammered down, Tsuneno never allows this to happen to herself which is even more remarkable considering the times in which she lived and how easy it would have been for her to go back home to a life of relative wealth and comfort.

The book was written in a strange way at times. I can’t quite place my finger on what the issue was, something to do with the way the third person perspective conflicted with the imagined thoughts and motivations of Tsuneno. It took a bit of getting used to and if you like your history to consist of impartial facts based on evidence you may take issue with the approach the author has taken here to relate Tsuneno’s story.

I also found it a little strange how much focus there was on the fact that Tsuneno never had children despite her numerous marriages. I didn’t see any evidence that this was something that actually bothered her personally. Undoubtedly there would have been pressure on women at the time to have children but do we have any evidence that this was something Tsuneno herself despaired of? Considering her circumstances and yearning for freedom to make her own way, I can’t see that it was something she would have been upset about. Perhaps another example of when the author puts her own spin on Tsuneno’s story but it came up enough to be a little irksome.

A slightly flawed portrait of a truly remarkable woman. This book is not perfect, but it gives a rare insight into the world of Japan during this tumultuous period of history and gives a voice to someone sadly so often unheard.

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