Book Review: Kikue Yamakawa’s Women of the Mito Domain
Kikue Yamakawa’s Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life (Amazon) is very informative about the social and cultural lives of the residents, especially the women, of the Mito domain prior to the Meiji Restoration. The book relies primarily on testimony from Yamakawa’s mother about her childhood. The work takes the reader from the experiences of young girls to life during marriage and into later adulthood. Yamakawa has also done extensive work on the period, gathering information or situations her mother could not have experienced or had access to. Some of the sections added to this addition of the book, which were not in the original, were even more interesting than the original text.
A study such as this is advantageous in that it offers the historian a depth that could not be accomplished in a work that looks at the nation as a whole. Women of the Mito Domain offers a model from which others doing similar studies can work. The detailed work, however, limits itself in that it cannot observe the national climate of culture, or be applied on a larger scale.
Many things are told in the book which are of interest that are not necessarily of any importance, but this writer does not find that as a fault. One who is not familiar with Japanese culture would generally not understand that the way a woman’s hair is done and what type of clothing with which she adorns herself is determined by her age. Also the complexity of doing one’s own hair is amazing.
Having watched The Twilight Samurai since finishing this book allowed the opportunity for what has been read to be seen also, Things such as needle working and the importance of schooling for females were incorporated into the movie and are points stressed by Yamakawa. In watching the movie alongside the reading, one is able to see the marriage and divorce process about which Yamakawa wrote.
The freedom men were allowed within the confines of marriage, during the period around which the book is oriented, is somewhat disheartening. While the author makes it clear that the women were not terribly discontent with the situation as it was just a part of life, one cannot help but feel sympathy for those women who had to stand by knowing their husbands were engaging in affairs with other women. Also this writer was surprised to find that the rules for divorce were as liberal as they were; it is, however, clear that men attained divorces much more easily than women.
Also of interest were the properties that the Japanese of the period thought were important when considering a mate. It seems that the degree of influence the male’s mother had in the situation, both before and for years following the marriage, could be most frustrating. Also, the hypocrisy involved in the qualities allowed in the male bloodline but looked down upon in the female bloodline was astounding.
Women of the Mito Domain does a very effective job of illustrating the roles of females in Mito. The depth and volume of information is highly impressive. Future readings about gender-role changes following the Meiji Restoration will prove to be more effectively understood following the reading of Yamakawa’s work.