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Stranger in the Shogun’s City, by Amy Stanley.

March 22, 2020

Stranger in the Shogun's CityStranger in the Shogun’s City, by Amy Stanley.  Simon and Schuster, 2020.

Forthcoming July 2020

5 stars

A fascinating history tracing a restless Japanese woman who lived in the early 19th century and experienced her nation’s changing economy and social practices.

Amy Stanley is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University. Her Ph.D. is from Harvard, and she teaches Japanese History and Gender History at Northwestern University. Her books and articles have focused on women in Early Modern Japan (1600-1868).  Placing her subjects in global context, she has written about prostitution, adultery, geishas, and maidservants. She is a careful scholar who writes for both scholarly and non-scholarly audiences.

The central figure in Stanley’s new book is Tsuneno who grew up in an established family in northern Japan.  A restless and abrasive woman, she was divorced three times before running away to the city of Edo.  She struggled to find work and the means of survival in the city which at the time was transforming itself into the modern city of Tokyo. Although she was an obscure figure when she was alive, her letters to and from her family happen to have been preserved.  Through extensive research, Stanley has been able to flesh out her life and the world in which she lived. In the process she gives us a detailed picture of the lower classes in the city that was becoming modern and linked to the rest of the globe.

I was most impressed by Stanley’s ability to blend the biography of one little known woman with the larger story of globalization that transformed Edo/Tokyo during her lifetime.  In addition, Stanley’s deep knowledge of Japanese history makes it possible for her to describe in detail the daily life of people living through major events. Such details of the feel and texture of a time and place seldom make it into traditional histories, particularly histories of the “ordinary people.”  Stanley has done extensive research which she documents at the end of the book, but notes do not interrupt her text.  She writes as a storyteller, not an academic proving her point.  Her approach makes her book a delightful introduction to Japanese history.  I came away from this book with a greatly expanded understanding of the opening of global trade during her character’s life.

I strongly recommend Stranger in the Shogun’s City to academic and non-academic alike.  It will delight them as well as enlarging their understanding of a world we share.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2020 3:39 pm

    Sounds wonderful and a perfect example of what Vivian Gornick says in her book I just read about Memoir and Essay, the importance of “the situation and the story” in putting the personal narrative into the context of the contextual situation, while making it appealing to readers.

    Is this supposed to be biography or has it been made into fiction?

    • March 22, 2020 6:11 pm

      This is all carefully research history with footnotes in the back to document it. What I find interesting is how she has made it all read like fiction with the details–and people–that historians usually ignore. Such as “The sun was shining as they walked by the enormous gate.” That could be fiction or just background or maybe what she picked up from reading newspapers of the time. It is a different way of writing history. One that I admire. The only other one like this I have read was by an American scholar doing Chinese history where she alternated this “daily” kind of history with a more formal public account. But yes, how does the public narrative interact with the individual ones. I used to ask students to find out about how their family histories fit the national narrative since WWII.

      • March 23, 2020 3:39 am

        I love the addition of the details that the historians ignore, she could have been looking at photos, as that is a sensory detail that would create shadow in a picture, but so helps create a scene in the reader’s mind.
        I find myself so much more interested in history when understood in the context of a personal narrative. I am writing a story at the moment about family members who met in 1967 and 1968 and so I’ve been reading about those turbulent years, and find it so interesting as the backdrop to what was influencing people at the time, the coming of age of that post war generation.

  2. March 23, 2020 11:24 am

    I became an historian in the 70s when historians had just discovered women and the rest of the ignored and unheard. Our mission was to find and save the missing. Great fun.

    My favorite for your current story is Young, White, and Miserable, by Wini Breines. Scholarly history about how and why the daughters of the 50’s became the rebels of the 60s. Marge Piercy’s semi-autobiographical fiction about the period is also great. Hope they are available for you.

    Sorry I can never stop suggesting books.

    Just ordered myself Situations and Stories.

    So glad to have found you right now when I am isolated by the virus.


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