Saturday 27 April 2024

Review: Stranger in the Shogun’s City, A Japanese Woman and Her World, Amy Stanley (2020)

I know very little about nineteenth-century Japan, but I strongly identified with non-fiction writer Amy Stanley’s author note in her 2020 biography, Stranger in the Shogun’s City. Stanley writes about her excitement at uncovering the story of Tsuneno, a woman born in the early years of the nineteenth-century, through letters and other family records. As a writer of historical fiction, I too have felt that thrill of looking through an unexpected window into the past, when an ordinary person, not one of history’s great names, becomes real to you. It’s hard to know why particular people from the past are so compelling to us. But it made perfect sense to me that Stanley spent years of her life painstakingly uncovering what is knowable about Tsuneno and her family.

When I write that Tsuneno was “ordinary,” I don’t mean to suggest that she was boring. She married (and divorced!) several times—something that would have been unthinkable to many of her European contemporaries. She fled her family to move to the big city, Edo—now part of Tokyo. And, as far as her brother was concerned, she was a problem. She was independent, strong-willed, and opinionated, i.e., she possessed exactly the same traits as most heroines in historical fiction. 

But Tsuneno was not a political actor on a global stage. Historical shifts—in Japan’s governance, economy, and relationship with the outside world—shaped her life, rather than the reverse. Stranger in the Shogun’s City is more about transporting us back to Edo, a city that no longer exists, than bringing us into Tsuneno’s psyche, which outside of fictionalization is unknowable to us. As a novelist, I couldn’t help but wonder if Stanley had ever considered turning Tsuneno into a character. Did she have a sense of what she might have said, felt, and thought, beyond the letters that the records have left us?

I think it’s notable that some of the reviews of the book that I read online, and even the biography’s Wikipedia page, don’t mention its subject’s name. Yes, Tsuneno’s life acts as an effective vehicle for transporting us to nineteenth-century Japan, but I hope I remember her—not just the lost world she inhabited.

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