The best books on amazing women during the age of the samurai

Anne Walthall Author Of The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration
By Anne Walthall

The Books I Picked & Why

Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life

By Kikue Yamakawa, Kate Wildman Nakai

Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life

Why this book?

Want to know how samurai women managed their high status but meager incomes? This engaging memoir takes us inside the nitty-gritty of their everyday life that was frugal by necessity. We learn how samurai women dressed, the importance they placed on meticulous grooming, and how they dealt with in-laws, concubines, and a runaway daughter. It shows how in principle samurai women were expected to practice the martial arts with the naginata (a long, thin halberd), but in fact, they were too busy with household chores to receive more than token training.

For the history buff, the memoir also paints a vivid picture of the civil war that erupted in the Mito domain in 1864 and its devastating consequences for the women whose families ended up on the losing side. 


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Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World

By Amy Stanley

Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World

Why this book?

The fascinating tale of Tsuneno’s journey from respectable daughter and sister in a family of Buddhist priests to a hand-to-mouth existence in Edo—now Tokyo—could well have been titled “down and out in the city.” And she chose her fate. A fiery, headstrong woman, she endured three marriages that all ended in divorce, and when confronted with the possibility of a fourth, she ran away from her home in the storied snow country region along the Japan Sea to try her luck working as a maid. She detailed her adventures and her demands for money and clothes in letters to her brother, letters that Stanley has used to wonderful effect in recreating not only Tsuneo as an individual but also the world of people on the margin among whom she lived.  


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Woman in the Crested Kimono: The Life of Shibue Io and Her Family Drawn from Mori Ogai's Shibue Chusai

By Edwin McClellan

Woman in the Crested Kimono: The Life of Shibue Io and Her Family Drawn from Mori Ogai's Shibue Chusai

Why this book?

Picture a woman just emerged from her bath, wearing nothing but a loincloth with a dagger between her teeth, confronting three thieves who threaten her husband. This was Shibue Io, born the daughter of a wealthy merchant in 1816, who chose as her spouse a scholar and samurai bureaucrat. He had already been married three times and was eleven years her senior. He had erudition and prestige; she had wealth and enough willpower for both of them. Her story takes the reader through the intimate details of daily life of well-placed Edo families, the intricacies of family alliances complicated by the prevalance of adult adoption, and the challenges of surviving civil war and a forced move from Edo up to the frozen north. She is nothing short of unforgettable. 


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An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan

By G. G. Rowley

An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan

Why this book?

In recounting Nakanoin Nakako’s history, Rowley affords us insight into three worlds—the imperial court in Kyoto, a remote village on the Izu Peninsula, and a Buddhist convent. Born into a family of court nobles in early seventeenth-century Kyoto, Nakako’s life of privilege as an imperial concubine came to an abrupt end when the emperor discovered that she participated in wild parties and sexual escapades. Furious, he wanted her killed. Instead the shogun, his titular subordinate and de facto boss, sentenced her to exile on a distant island. She ended up working as a teacher for farmers before returning to the city of her birth fourteen years later and becoming a nun. Hers is the remarkable story of a resilient woman and her war-torn world.


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Bitter Bonds: A Colonial Divorce Drama of the Seventeenth Century

By Leonard Blusse

Bitter Bonds: A Colonial Divorce Drama of the Seventeenth Century

Why this book?

Few seventeenth-century women traveled as far as Cornelia van Nijenroode. Born on the island of Hirado off the coast of Kyushu around 1624 to a Dutch father and Japanese mother, she was taken by the Dutch East India Company to Batavia, Indonesia, in 1637. A family portrait now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam shows her with her first husband and daughters. Alas, he died young, leaving her prey to fortune hunters. When her second husband refused to allow her to continue with her commercial enterprises, she tried to divorce him, a struggle that took her all the way to Holland. Her story highlights the dangers of marriage when one is a wealthy widow, but also Cornelia’s grit in standing up to a legal system stacked against her.


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