Episode 49 – Dr. Laura Nenzi (Tennessee)

Originally published on August 7, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Laura Nenzi, Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Nenzi is the author, most recently, of The Chaos and Cosmos of Kurosawa Tokiko: One Woman’s Transit from Tokugawa to Meiji Japan, published by the University of Hawai’i Press in 2015. Dr. Nenzi, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Laura Nenzi: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

TG: You published this book recently: The Chaos and Cosmos of Kurosawa Tokiko, and I was wondering if you could walk us through Kurosawa’s life a little bit, and then really emphasize what her position is in leading up to the Meiji Restoration.

LN: Yes. So, Kurosawa Tokiko was a base born woman who lived in Mito domain. She was born in 1806, and she died in 1890, so she lived across the Tokugawa-Meiji divide, and this in and of itself would not necessarily qualify her for a study. But what makes her (at least in my opinion) interesting is the fact that among other things (and this is not the only thing that makes her exceptional), she became interested in politics in the 1850s, and she became [a] vocal activist in the process that eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa. At the same time, none of the actions that she took changed the course of history in any way. So, she’s this strange case study of somebody whose actions, I believe, are quite exceptional and telling and worthy of consideration but in the end, the results are not there.

Aside from being a political activist (and this is not the only reason why I’m interested in her), she was also [a] rural school teacher. Her family ran a terakoya (one of those village schools that paid her to [teach] children of the local community and nearby villages). She was the first woman in the family, in fact, to run the terakoya, and she was also a prognosticator, a fortune teller. She consulted the hexagrams of the Book of Changes, she asked questions of the heavens, and she came up with answers.

And all these experiences combined influenced, also, the way in which she became a political activist. She became very upset in the late 1850s (in 1858) when treaties were signed with foreign powers. And at the same time, when former Mito domain lord Tokugawa Nariaki complained about the signing of these treaties and was sentenced to house arrest, Tokiko, like many other people in the Mito domain, was offended.

She decided to take action, to do something about it, and this is where her story becomes, to me, fascinating. She decided that she was going to appeal to none other than the emperor himself for the release of Tokugawa Nariaki from house arrest, and then she also wanted to denounce the policies of Prime Minister Ii Naosuke who, in her opinion, sold out the country to the foreign invaders. And so, she left her small village in Mito domain, and she travelled by foot all the way to Kyoto. It took her about a month. She connected with people who had connections the Imperial Court. She delivered a petition, which she wrote in the form of a chōka, of a long poem.

We don’t really know whether the petition reached the hands of the emperor, but the authorities knew about these acts of insubordination, and what they thought was an act that threatened the realm, that threatened the Tokugawa establishment and so, they sent out orders for her arrest. She was arrested a few days later in Osaka. She was imprisoned first in Osaka, then she was sent to Kyoto, interrogated several times, and then she was put in a cage and sent to Edo. She spent some time in Tenmatsuo Prison, then she was sentenced to banishment, and she was released. This is the end of 1859. She was not, in theory, allowed to go back home, which she did anyway after a short time.

And then she resumed her life, and lived through the Mito Civil War in 1864, she lived through the Tokugawa-Meiji transition ([the] one that happened in 1868). And then in the Meiji period, she had to negotiate with the changes that the new times brought because as a teacher and as somebody associated with prognostication and particularly in her case, the Shugendō tradition, these were two pillars of her identity that were profoundly changed by the policies of the Meiji state; the change in education and Shugendō was abolished. And so, she had to navigate these changes and attempt to preserve her identity in the face of change with creative solutions.

So to answer the second part of your question: what is the place of Tokiko in the Meiji Restoration? The short answer is that again, she didn’t really affect the outcome of anything. Yes, she went to Kyoto, but she never met, obviously, with the emperor, we don’t even know whether the petition reached the hands of the emperor. Even if it did, what she asked for (which was the release of Tokugawa Nariaki from house arrest) didn’t happen. So that could be the answer: she doesn’t really have a role, but that’s not my answer because that wouldn’t justify writing a book about her. And I argue that, to me at least, it’s not so much the results that count, which is arguably too conspicuous, but it’s the whole process: the fact that she could even conceive of such a plan, such an action, that she was able to pull it off to a certain extent, that tells us something about on the one hand, possibilities that had opened up for women, but also for commoners in general at the end of the Tokugawa.

At the same time, the fact that she was a woman played a role in the accusations that were levelled against her. So even though it’s been argued that the fluid time in the bakumatsu (of the late Tokugawa) created new opportunities for women (and I do agree with that), it’s also true that they had to fight for that, and that she was accused of doing things that went very much against the expectations of gender.

If I may add one more thing, I think that the combination of rational action, but also her constant questions that she asks to the heavens also tell us a new story or give us a new way of looking at political activism in the late Tokugawa. We’ve had stories about the rational shishi: the men of determination, the samurai who have a plan and enact it. And then I’ve read stories about the frenzied masses that go on pilgrimages and break into the homes of rich merchants and they don’t have a face, they don’t have a name. They’re just very emotional. And I think she sits in between these stories of rational actors and irrational (for lack of a better word) emotional actors.

TG: And she talks about this desire to heal the cosmos. Is this seen as a yonaoshi (the world-redeeming) aspect?

LN: To a certain extent, yes. Her cosmos is more limited, so her desire to heal is focused on, I guess, a low level and intermediate level. The low level is her own body. When she writes this, she’s physically sick and in prison. And the intermediate level is the country, so she says something along the lines of: “If I cannot heal the bug that I have in my body, then we cannot heal the country.” So, it’s not a cosmic approach. I guess the superior level is not that, but she’s very much focused on the fate of what she calls the tenkakokka (the country at large).

TG: And one of the things that makes her so remarkable and so exceptional is, as you write about, she’s one of the only women that we know of during the Tokugawa period who’s actually convicted of a crime. Is that right?

LN: Yes. She’s convicted of slandering a Tokugawa official, she’s quite outspoken in the petition that she wrote for the emperor, she names names, and that’s surprising. Usually, accusations were made, but they tended to be indirect, and she mentions Ii Naosuke as the culprit. She says he committed evil acts (akuji), that he’s corrupt, that he squandered resources. So she’s accused of that, of slandering a high level official. Then, she’s also accused, and this is something they cannot prove and she denies, of having written a petition that potentially included encrypted messages, and this brings us back to the issue of gender.

Nobody can believe that as a woman, she could have conceived of this mission just on her own and pulled it off on her own. And it is true that she has a network of friends and colleagues and poets that she relies on, but they think she’s been sent by Tokugawa Nariaki or by the wife of Tokugawa Nariaki. It’s just the issue of gender comes up many times over in the accusations that are levelled against her. Something that obviously is never part of the accusations levelled against the male shishi. They are accused of threatening the Tokugawa. That’s it. And in her case, she’s in trouble twice for what she does and for who she is, for her gender.

TG: And so in many ways, like you said, she’s extraordinary, exceptional, but how singular? I mean, as you were saying before, she also represents the new possibilites for commoners at the end of the Tokugawa period. So, we’ve talked about how extraordinary [she is]. In what ways is she ordinary?

LN: I like to think that she’s extraordinary but at the same time, let’s not forget that nothing of what she does really affects the outcome of the Restoration. Yes, her side wins, but certainly not because of her.

TG: (Laughter)

LN: And a testament to that is the fact that she was relatively unknown even when I started researching her, which would be late 2006/early 2007. I spoke to several people who had never heard of her, and there was not a whole lot of literature on her either. So, she’s certainly fallen through the cracks of history. I’m glad I could rescue her.

The people who have kept her memory alive are the locals in what is now the town of Shirosato, or former village of Suzukoya. Those local activists have always been very active in trying to preserve her memory. They were, up until a few years ago, even preserving her native home, in which the Kurosawa family lived until the 1960s. It was still standing the first time I visited in 2007. It was treated as a small museum of sorts, and you could go in and see the room where she used to teach the children of the village. And then things changed, and the land had to be sold and the house fell into disrepair, and there was the earthquake in 2011. So, it’s not looking so good now, but I’m digressing. Yes, I think she’s exceptional, and at the same time, she didn’t achieve anything, so that’s quite the combination (laughter).

TG: (Laughter) As you mentioned, it’s important to rescue her from being forgotten, and having this kind of microhistory approach, I think, is an excellent way to do that because through this story of Kurosawa Tokiko, we get a very different view of the Meiji Restoration. Can you talk about the microhistory methodology or how that view of the Meiji Restoration changes from the perspective of this one individual?

LN: Yes. So, there is no precise definition of what microhistory is. As I was writing the book, I read as much as I could on microhistory, and nobody seems to agree exactly on what constitutes microhistory; what does the “micro” in microhistory mean? Does it refer to a really really short period of time? Are we going to write the history of 10 minutes in the life of a person? Or is it the story of a really small village? Or is it the story of insignificant individuals?

So, there’s no agreement on what microhistory is, but I think definitely, this is a microhistorical study. It’s based on documentation that is circumscribed, and it’s produced by somebody who, again, has not been in the spotlight. And I think by focusing on her, I have noticed that new narratives were emerging. Like I mentioned earlier, she sits at the intersection of the focus of the famous shishi and the alleged folly of the masses.

The risk when taking the microhistorical approach that looks at somebody like Tokiko is to turn her into a model for how commoners behaved or a model for how women experienced the Tokugawa-Meiji transition. I was very careful not to do that, and I have colleagues who disagree with that. They thought: Why do we need to tell the story of somebody who did not achieve anything and is not representative of a larger group? I disagree with them. I thought that every time I read something by her, some new avenues of investigation opened up. So, there’s something to be gained by looking at the big textbook moments of history as they were experienced by somebody who very often was on the sidelines, very often was affected by contingencies of the everyday that had nothing to do with what was unfolding, say, in Edo at that very moment.

I had a lot of fun reading her diaries, looking at the dates and what she was doing on the same exact day when, say, the treaties were signed, or when some important event happened, and she’s pickling eggplants or she’s airing out her books. But then, she’s not oblivious obviously. And she knows what’s going on, and so eventually, she reacts. So, her life is affected by these big textbook moments of history, but also affected by things like personal joys, family-related events, etc. And it was a nice way of, I think, adding some nuance to a story that we’ve read many times, whose narrative we know, but this was a different way of looking at that whole story.

TG: So, if we could pivot to teaching, I’m curious to hear how you bring Tokiko into your classes when you teach about the end of the Edo period and into the Meiji period.

LN: So, I teach [a] class, which is modern Japan. It starts with Tokugawa. We don’t cover a whole lot of Tokugawa, and then we cross the divide. I do talk about Tokiko in that class. The emphasis in the modern Japan class is on conflict and resistance to the policies of the modern government of Meiji. And it’s not that she resists openly obviously, but I was mentioning earlier some tactics that she uses to preserve her identity in the face of change: so, the fact that, for example, a national school system is created and now you have to have certification to be a teacher. How does that affect her? She’s been running the terakoya for, at this point, almost 20 years. And so, she has to devise ways to keep her identity as the local village teacher, and for a while, she becomes an elementary school teacher until the requirement for certification becomes effective and the grace period expires. Also at that point, she’s in her late 60s/early 70s, so she cannot be part of the modern school system anymore, but she still teaches private classes in her house (the terakoya room of her house). So, that’s one example of how she negotiates between the new and the old, and she preserves her identity adapting. That’s an example that I offer.

And the other example is the way in which she tries to preserve her identity as a fortune teller, as a spiritualist, as somebody who had also that identity defining her position in the village. Shugendō is abolished, so she cannot latch onto that anymore. But in the 1880s, she applies to become the local representative of Ontake-kyō, which is a religion that has a lot in common with Shugendō in terms of [the] notion of sacred mountains and ability of specially trained individuals who cross the boundaries between this world and the other world etc. And so, that’s one way in which she remains the same, but at the same time, in creative ways that adapt to change. So, she makes cameos here and there in my class. She’s not the main focus of attention I’d say (laughter). There are bigger stories to tell, but she’s there.

TG: The metaphor you use in the book of the little bird…

LN: That’s right (laughter).

TG: jumping around, flying around, and I guess she’s kind of flying through your syllabus as well.

LN: Yes, she appears. So, when I talk about the education of commoners in the Tokugawa period, she appears as, you know “there are rural school teachers,” and then I don’t tell them anything else. Then, she returns when I talk about Meiji changes in education: Remember her? Well, that’s how she adapts. She’s an example of how these new policies have to come to terms with the reality on the ground. There are no other other teachers. You have to hire the old one[s].

TG: You mentioned you emphasize resistance a lot. I’d love to hear more about that. And what are some of the flashpoints in particular that you land on throughout your narrative?

LN: I think if any of my former students are listening to this podcast right now, their eyes are rolling because (laughter)…

TG: (Laughter)

LN: …every time I introduce a new policy of the Meiji government, I also introduce a list of people who resist for this or that reason because it doesn’t please everyone. And so, I talk about conscription and of course, there’s plenty of literature on resistance to that and people trying to get out of universal conscription for all sorts of reasons. School system: I pillaged the wonderful book by Brian Platt Burning and Building for that lecture, so there’s resistance to that. Religion: especially in early Meiji with the attempts to separate kami and Buddha, there’s plenty of resistance to that.

Anything you can think of, somebody’s going to be upset, and is going to try to resist openly or sometimes just with passive aggressive non-compliance or false compliance. So, I emphasize that a lot. The whole class is taught on this idea that nothing ever goes smoothly. There’s always going to be someone contesting that, and that continues into more recent times. Every time an issue arises – like, guess what! – there are also people opposing this!

TG: (Laughter)

LN: I’m a contrarian I guess.

TG: (Laughter)

LN: (Laughter)

TG: I understand you’re also teaching a history of Tokyo class, and this is something that’s very near and dear to my own research interests. So, I’m curious. In your Tokyo class, how are you teaching the history of Tokyo? What are some of the narratives that you’re using?

LN: So I came up with this idea of teaching the history of Tokyo class many years ago. I was finishing my PhD and I was applying for jobs, and one of the departments of the schools that I applied for had a very strong program in urban history. And so, I thought that to be an appealing candidate, I should let them know that I can totally teach the history of Tokyo, which of course I couldn’t at the time. But I went to the library and I picked up every book I could find, and I started making the syllabus. And then many years later, I’m actually teaching that class in a different school and different department. And it’s my favourite class to teach. If I could teach it every semester, I would.

So, after this premise to answer your question, I’m an Edo historian first and foremost. My history of Tokyo class starts with Edo, and we have a 16 week long semester. I would say Edo occupies eight or nine weeks of that. So it’s evenly split between Edo and Tokyo. The focus is on spaces, and the ways in which certain spaces or buildings tell the story of the evolution of a place from a samurai city to a city of commoners and chōnin, and then of course, how the city changes with the Meiji period, how the construction of materials appeared, architectural styles, new modes of transportation.

There’s a lot of emphasis on, also, social aspects of this: how people react to these changes. I would say that in this particular class, I focus more on space and architecture though, and so probably, the narrative that the students get out of these in so far as the Tokugawa-Meiji transition is concerned is one of change.

Yes, I can tell them that the tenement homes in the Low City remain the same, but then I need to focus on places like Tokyo Station or changes in Ueno Park etc. So, there’s not a whole lot about resistance to changes, which is something I emphasize more in my modern Japan undergraduate class. So, I’m very careful to remind them that the changes of the Meiji period involve monumental architecture, that for a lot of people, the reality, the architectural reality that  surrounds them remains very much the same for a long time. And then we take it all the way to the present day. Last time I taught it, we were already looking ahead at the 2020 Olympics and how those are changing the geography of Tokyo yet again.

TG: I was thinking, as you said, about half of the class is on Edo, which really makes sense because if we look at all of Tokyo’s history since Ōta Dōkan built the first Edo Castle, half of Tokyo’s history is really taken up by the Edo period.

LN: Right, and I unfortunately have to stop at a certain point because I could certainly go on forever, and I’m an Edo historian by training, so I could spend the entire semester just on Edo. I will refrain from doing that. (Laughter)

TG: (Laughter)

LN: But even so, I have to say that I don’t get to cover everything that I would like to cover about Tokyo. So my last lecture, every semester includes a list of “And these are all the things I did not get to talk about.”

TG: (Laughter)

LN: And these are all the things I did not get to talk about! Sixteen other points. We need another eight weeks! (Laughter)

TG: (Laughter) Considering that you are a historian of Edo, as you said, I’m a little surprised to hear that you emphasize the sharp transitions and the sharp ruptures in the space of Tokyo coming with the Meiji Restoration. I thought maybe, you would have taken the more Edogaku approach, looking at all of the antecedents of Tokyo urban modernity in Edo or looking at some of the holdovers, the legacies of Edo for Tokyo, looking at the plot layouts, looking at the street design. Tokyo doesn’t change that much, and even today, when you walk around Tokyo, you can still see the palimpsest of Edo.

LN: Right. I do have a unit in the second half of the semester about memory and so, I’ve taken that to Edo a little bit. So, these are places in Tokyo where you can go now, where the narrative of the Edo past is kept alive for commercial reasons, not necessarily in a way that is 100% historically correct, etc. So, I don’t let go of Edo that easy.

TG: (Laughter) Yes.

LN: I have a lot of fun with the space of Ueno, depending on when you look at it as completely different meanings, so that’s one of the fun things about spaces of Tokyo that you can dig and uncover. And that’s why my class will never end because there’s always another story that I can tell.

TG: What’s your favourite part of Tokyo?

LN: My favourite location-wise?

TG: Yes.

LN: I’m very partial to Ueno. Yes, you will find me sitting around Ueno Park and Shinobazu just staring at the water.

TG: (Laughter)

LN: I enjoy that a lot.

TG: I was going to say, I don’t actually make it up to Ueno too often.

LN: I do. At least every time I go, at least one quick trip to Ueno. I don’t know why. It’s a glorious mess, I guess if I had to describe it in two words. I like it. It’s a glorious mess. More recently, I spent 10 months in Tokyo last year, and I was living in Tsukishima. This was not my choice. The university that invited me there found me a place, and I resisted (laughter). I didn’t want to go there.

TG: (Laughter)

LN: And then actually, once I moved there, I realized how much I liked it. I thought: Oh my god I’m literally across the Sumida River. That’s…

TG: (Laughter) You banished yourself to the outskirts (laughter).

LN: Yes, but it’s like you just cross the bridge and you’re there (not far removed there), within walking distance of Ginza. But still, it was a new part of Tokyo that I have not experienced.

TG: And one that was very important during the Edo period!

LN: Right. So again, new stories that unfolded.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Laura Nenzi, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, August 7, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-49-dr-laura-nenzi-tennessee/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.