Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley


I took a long time reading this wonderful book so that I could savor it bit by bit. It is a history of a working woman, born in 1804 in snow country in Japan to a Buddhist priest. Japan was in a long peaceful period when the Shogun ruled from Edo (now Tokyo) and the emperor was in Kyoto (1603-1867). What is known of Tsuneno comes to us through her many letters and those that her family wrote about this troublesome daughter and sister. This period of Japanese history is known to me through my love of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints which flourished during that time.

Though she speaks and reads modern Japanese, Amy Stanley struggled to read the brushstrokes of the archive of the family letters and it took the help of many colleagues to decipher them. Then there’s trying to understand the story of this exceptional woman who lived in such an alien culture. The historical background provided by the author was key to understanding Tsuneno. Still, we’re left with so many questions.

Tsuneno was married to the head priest of a distant temple when she was 12 years old. She had been married to him for 15 years with no children when he divorced her and sent her back home to her village of Echigo.  When this occurred her brother Giyū had succeeded her father as head priest of her home temple and his letter to her husband was cordial enough. Perhaps the most notable hole in the archive is any mention by Tsuneno about her life with her first husband. Her second marriage was to a wealthy peasant which ended during what was later called the Tenpō famine. Though she wasn’t in danger of starving, it was a devastating, multi-year event. Her third marriage was brief and she returned again to the family fold.

In the most momentous act of her life, she decided to run away to Edo to make her way on her own. At that time there were men who worked seasonally in Edo but returned to their villages. Her two weeks of walking to Edo from the town near her village was harrowing and after she arrived in Edo, she spent years writing home to beg for clothing and money for food. Her fourth marriage was to a man named Hirosuke she chose herself, and with hard times that came to Edo, she had reason to regret that choice. In a complaint that could have been written by anyone at any time, she wrote this about him:

“I know that I fight with Giyū, and that we don’t get along,” she wrote later. “But he’s still my brother! And it makes me angry when Hirosuke says terrible things about him day and night, when he himself is a complete idiot. I’m fed up,” she wrote. “Just completely and thoroughly sick of him.”

They were divorced for two years, then were remarried until her death in 1853.

For a time Tsuneno lived in the theater district in a house that had been owned by a well-known actor, Hanshirō. I was pleased to find a couple of woodblock prints of him, this one done by Shunshō.

Amy Stanley, Stranger in the Shogun’s City, Scribner, 2020, 324 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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