Seminar “The Lives of Samurai Women of the Edo Period”

Seminar “The Lives of Samurai Women of the Edo Period”

An IGS seminar entitled “The Lives of Samurai Women of the Edo Period” was held on November 8, 2016, at Ochanomizu University. It was organized by Professor Laura Nenzi (Specially Appointed Professor, IGS/Professor, The University of Tennessee), featuring a lecture in English by Professor Luke Roberts (University of California, Santa Barbara). Roberts researches the history of the Tosa domain in the Edo period (present-day Kōchi Prefecture). He looked into the official records of the domain government and the private records of the Mori kin group, which served Yamanouchi Daimyo as mountain guards, and discovered much about the lives of women in samurai house by comparing these records.

There were at least two different versions of the lineage of the Mori family. One was recorded by the domain government and the other was the private records of the Mori family. The government-use version was made to keep records of the service to the lord of the men in that house. The names of all male heirs were entered into it. Their marriages and the criminal records were also registered. Marriages and criminal records were the only entries where women appeared in the lineage, and they were not identified by their names but referred to as someone’s daughter. This indicates that the important factor about a woman in this lineage is her matrimonial relations. Another interesting point is that even for men, there was no information recorded on their age.

On the other hand, the family-use version included the names of the women and all family members’ ages. Some religious or cultural practices required this information. For example, the Buddhist practice of holding memorial services required knowing what year the person died, so that the year of birth and death needed to be recorded. These entries enable us to discover the roles of women in the household, which are erased from the government’s records.

Mori Kuma actually managed the household like a head of the family but this fact was not found in the government’s records, as she was a woman. When Kuma’s husband died, his concubine’s son inherited the household, but this successor and his wife died young, leaving juvenile offspring. The oldest boy inherited the household, and despite his young age, he had to go up to Edo with the lord for sankin-kotai (a daimyo’s alternate-year residence in Edo). At this point, Kuma, who was the grandmother of the successor, was the only adult in the family and needed to be in charge of household management. As she was the second wife of a much older husband, she was not too old to take responsibility. Not long after that, another tragedy struck the family. A great fire burned down the entire castle town, including the Mori home. Kuma worked hard to rebuild her house and save the family from other sufferings by obtaining assistance from the Mori clan and her parents’ house, the Yoshida family. She even managed to have the second son set up in an independent house. It was a remarkable achievement. It is not difficult to presume that many mothers must have stood in for their young sons, taking responsibility to manage their houses. Knowing the age of the family members is the key to discover such facts. As the government-use lineage did not record that information, the existence of women’s leadership has been hidden. This means that the government maintained in their official record an ideology of a male-oriented society and paternalism.

The class system also worked to erase women’s marks from governmental records. Mori Umeno, whose father was a high-ranking commoner serving the domain as a port tax official, was the third wife of her husband. Although she was at first a servant in the house, their marriage was celebrated by the Mori and she was recognized formally as wife in the Mori clan. This fact was clearly written in her husband’s diary. The domain government, however, did not legally admit this marriage. Answering enquiries from the husband, they told him not to bring up the subject. Years later, when Umeno’s son inherited the household, she was recorded as his mother and her husband’s concubine. This did not mean that her position in the house was lowered. After her husband’s death, she took an important role in the house, arranging the marriage of an adopted heir. She was sociable and maintained relationships with the Mori clan and her natal home. In her son’s diary, it is written that a hundred and five mourners attended her funeral. This is another example of women’s lives that did not appear in the government’s record.

The government-use lineage was finalized through a process of drafting and negotiation. Currying the government’s favor and steering wide of contradictions with the law were prioritized over actual facts. Roberts suggested that this was more like information management than telling lies. Official records served governments and male samurai society to create an image of stable paternalism and men’s controlling power.

This organization can be observed in the punishment of women’s crimes. Although women appeared in the government’s crime records, it did not directly punish them. It asked the male head of her family to fulfill his executive responsibility. For example, when a wife committed a crime, her husband needed to punish her, and then the government punished him for his failure to manage her. Undesirable behaviors among men were handled in the same way, and the house took responsibility. When serious trouble occurred, much time and effort was spent to keep it secret. Tactical political skills were exercised in negotiations between the house and the government. Official governmental records tell you nothing of such below-the-surface activities, but private journals or essays may keep detailed records.

Mori Nao married a man from the Maeno family who was very abusive. Nao asked her mother for help but the mother persuaded her to try to endure. When Nao escaped from the Maeno for the second time, her mother agreed her to divorce and asked her sons and Mori relatives to assist her. At that time, only husband could divorce his spouse, and women did not have the same rights. The Mori clan united to persuade the Maeno family and looked for a way to move the government of the domain to support them. The Mori’s tactics worked and the government unofficially pressured the Maeno family, stating that if they could not get the couple divorced, the government would have made the incident public. Meanwhile, the Maeno tried hard to make the husband to write the letter of divorce and convinced him that the divorce was a part of his duty to the lord. The husband kept refusing to write the letter, saying he did not care about his duty to the lord. In the end, the Maeno built a cage in the garden and locked the husband in there for two mid-winter months, until he finally wrote the divorce letter. A male member of the Maeno family recorded all the details of this incident, but, interestingly, he did not use Nao’s name in the document. Roberts happened to learn it in the Mori’s family-use lineage, which helped him to link two families to this story. This also is another example of a woman using her power. As Nao’s mother had control of the household, she could move Nao’s brothers and the Mori relatives and obtain a divorce.

Thus, private documents, including diaries and letters, preserved in houses, show us several different aspects of samurai women’s lives. For example, there were many descriptions of the daily life of Mori Etsu, a granddaughter of Kuma, in her brother’s diary, telling us liked fishing and often went out for it. He even wrote down the list of the distribution of mementos of Etsu, who decided to give what to whom of her possessions when she died. The list indicates which people were valuable to her and who was close to her. The names in the list may reveal what personal networks women had among their relatives and friends.

These stories help us understand that samurai women had a certain power to attain what they wanted by employing the power of their personal networks. The paternalism of the Edo period did not always succeed in depriving women of their power or make them quiet. The seminar was also an opportunity for the audience to learn about Professor Roberts’s method of reading historical documents. For instance, reading a governmental record as well as private records and making a comparison of them enables us to understand the aim and social meanings of the governmental records. In terms of personal documents, although surviving diaries and essays by male hands outnumber those of women’s, a considerable amount of description of women in their family was written in men’s documents too. These writings allow us to reconstruct the image of vital samurai women, who tend to be hidden behind the ideology of paternalism. After the presentation, many questions were asked of Professor Roberts and a lively discussion was conducted. It seemed that the entire audience enjoyed his talk and learned from it. His joy of discovery seemed to be shared among the participants.

Kumi Yoshihara (Project Research Fellow, IGS)

Luke Roberts

Date/Time: Nov. 8, 2016 19:00-20:30
Seminar Venue: Room 125, Main Building, Ochanomizu University
Language: English only
Luke Roberts(University of California Santa Barbara) “The Lives of Samurai Women of the Edo Period”
Coordinator/Moderator: Laura Nenzi(IGS, Ochanomizu University/ University of Tennessee)
Organizer: Institute for Gender Studies, Ochanomizu University
Number of Participants: 25