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Book Review:
"Women of the Mito Domain"

A Review of: Women of the Mito Domain, by Yamakawa Kikue

By: Marlene Harris


     The book Women of the Mito Domain by Yamakawa Kikue is an intriguing work about those who struggled through the rigors of life in the castle town of Mito during the turbulent times of Tokugawa-era Japan. Among the book's many virtues, it offers the reader an unflinching glimpse into life at varying levels in Mito during the 1800's. Covering the broader scope of events in and around Mito during that time, the introduction offers an expansive view of the political rumblings of the day that serves as an outstanding frame of reference for the rest of the book. In contrast to this, in other sections it highlights the nuts and bolts of life in a semi-rural outpost and in doing so offers numerous provocative insights into the daily lives and typical activities of women and others of modest samurai station. In a very vivid manner, it also presents how the disparate perspectives of the political and the everyday eventually collide. It clearly details how policies issued from afar and bitter political rivalry intruded upon the everyday and the toll it ultimately took on the unwilling, the unwitting, the moderate, and the completely innocent among the townsfolk. Overall, the book's comprehensive scope and frequently contrasting features make it both a unique and compelling reading.  
Politics as Usual
     The book begins with an ample introduction to the dark and murky political climate of Mito, an enclave ruled by an absentee daimyo. The town is occupied by his samurai retainers, their families and supporting concerns. The introduction serves as a sturdy supporting canvas on which the rest of the picture of life in Mito during the mid-1800's is painted. Mito is introduced via an expansive, yet gripping and fairly detailed account of the issues of greater magnitude. Once such issue outlined is odd alignment of the quasi-militaristic governement of the time, the powerful Bakufu, and the semi-impotent and largely ceremonial Imperial Court, and how their tentative relationship frequently consisted of opposing wills and goals. Also added to the compelx mix are the quirks in the dynamics of Mito's relationship with the Bakufu and how these quirks served to fuel various tensions. Other highlights include interesting tidbits about the ideologies of the various diamyo, the direct arm of the Bakufu line, and how these contributed to the later emergence of opposing outlooks in the Tengu and Student political factions. To round things out, there's the fascinating accounts of the events that sparked the multiple rise and fall cycles of these rival factions within this volatile system and the viciousness which accompanied them. These pieces of the historical puzzle give the reader full context and nicely illustrate the interplay of events and elements which shaped the larger course of life and events in Mito domain.

And Life Goes On...
      The accounts of the turbulent politics of Mito rendered in the introduction are buffered by the more temperate close-ups of everyday life generously sprinkled throughout the book. All types of topics are and activities are mentioned, including; how a family would prepare for and receive guests, how men and women were expected to wear their hair to indicate their rank and marital status, respectively, the lyrics of children's lullabies, numerous rituals and quirks involved in clothing and dress, the delightful simplicity of children's pastimes, the limited and monotonous daily routines of a housewife, and why a woman rarely had to venture outside of her home. Also presented are illuminating reports about the bleak economic dichotomy that plagued the samurai that originated with the mandate to provide support to specific amounts of staff and materials to maintain proper appearances, all on an impossibly meager stipend. Included also are how and why festive and revered holidays were celebrated, issues surrounding marriage and divorce, housework, needlework, abortion and infanticide, and what is typically eaten for breakfast. Additionally, the book also contains a number of captivating human-interest stories, such as the anecdote involving the robust and middle-aged Mr. Ishikawa's full-dress dance imitation of a youthful and famous lady of the court to the unabashed amusement of his wife's young needlework students. There's the touching account of Grandmother Nakayama's visit from a daughter she had left behind to her parents as a young widow in her teens. The sacrifice was
made so that she could honor a request to marry into a house with a fading lineage and little hope of future heirs if she did not comply.  The section highlighting the general conditions under which (male) students diligently studied and learned could serve as a reality check for many modern-day students. The descriptions of conditions at school portray the educational process of the day as spartan at best. It's revealed that the year-round schooling took place in essentially bare rooms sans temperature control in bitterly cold winters and steamy summers, with few and the most basic of tools to work and learn with. In spite of the hardship, the students managed to learn regardless. It is these sort of accounts that capture the human essence of life in Mito in a manner that nearly anyone can relate to in some manner. Few historical narratives seem to take this sort of angle of approach.

Control Issues   

     One of the more riveting, not to mention disturbing features of the book are the reports of the many instances when haughty ideologies and invade the human and everyday essence of  Mito. From the harsh edicts hurled at the already too constrained lives of the populace, to the impact of the furious factional discord on the moderately inclined, the uninvolved, and the unknowing, tales of cruelty, incongruent power-mongering, and mindless vengence abound. There's the unnerving tale of the young retainer who was murdered by an unknown assailant as he returned home from being a part of a cultural act forbidden by the rigidly pragmatic daimyo Nariaki; the tea ceremony. At the time it was speculated that he was killed due to his father's flagrant disregard of the mandate. There's also the startling story of the daughter-in-law whose love of playing music, which she had learned during her early life in a higher ranking samurai house,compelled government officials to order the family she had married into to “divorce her”. Ignoring the order, the young woman and her husband to ran away to live with her family in Edo to escape this punishment.  It's noted that, luckily for the family, her husband was merely an heir as opposed to the head of the household, as the family's stipend would have been stripped from them for their ignoring the mandate and for possibly aiding and abetting the fleeing couple. There are also numerous accounts of the violence of the Tengu and Student factions as they clashed and struggled for supremacy and the recurring retaliation they heaped on those accused
of alliances with the opposing side. The furious political squabbling placed the innocent and the those of moderate inclination in some predictably heinous situations, which are vividly captured in  accounts that are mind-boggling in their cruelty and/or implications. One such account that of the three-year-old son of a Tengu faction member who attempted to evade the executioner's sword by keeping his neck tucked in tight, and was tricked into distracted compliance by  a guard dangling a piece of candy in front of him. There's the anecdote of the girl who would sit for hours covering her head and ears with her nightclothes to muffle the sound of the executioners
sword as it fell on victim after victim who's last breaths were drawn while seated at the edge of a large pit. There's the unsettling mention of the child who, a mere toddler when imprisoned, could not relate to what others were referring to when they talked of horses, dogs, or oxen after her fortunate release after four years. However, these are just a few of the stories waiting to confront the sensibilities of the modern reader, there are more. There are reports of children executed as their parents watched, an 82 year-old mother thrown into prison because of the political affiliation of her son, young girls becoming accustomed to and undisturbed by the sight of the decapitated heads of previously victorious faction leaders nailed to the prison gate in a sweep of vengence dubbed the “divine retribution” by their formerly vanquished rivals. These are just some of the eye-opening insights into the very dark side of samurai life in the Mito domain offered within the pages of the book.

 A Misnomer

     In summary, Women of the Mito Domain is something of a misnomer in that it constitutes so much more than simply an account of just the women of the time. However, the role of women and their essential and unsung everyday activities, in this book and in history in general, should not be ignored or understated.  The spirit with which these women endured and the hardships they suffered due to politics that they were largely kept ignorant of should not be lost in the wake of tangled events left by the more boisterous and destructive of their men-folk, as is frequently the case. The human cost and tragic consequences of political violence and single-minded ideologies should always be included as vividly as it is in Women of the Mito Domain as a reminder of why it isn't sane to pursue that style of behaving. The book is a recommended selection for all types of readers due to this uncommon content as well as it's variable scope, and agreeable style. It contains more than enough to capture and keep the attention of those interested in surveys of everyday life and social conditions, samurai history buffs, those interested in women's issues, and the more general reader alike. It would also be an illuminating selection for those involved with serious scholarly investigations into history and the impact of political maneuverings on social conditions and the dynamics of daily living during difficult times.