Woman in the Crested Kimono
After studying Mori Ogai's biography of Shibue Chusai, a 19th century Japanese doctor in service to the Tsugaru Shogunate, the author of this book, Edwin McClellan focuses on the life of his wife Io. McClellan covers the span of her difficult and remarkable life from her marriage to Chusai, the lives of her children, and her latter days spent moving all over Japan with her family, trying to stay alive. Japan at this time was going through significant changes as power was wrested from feudal landlords given back to the Emperor Meiji. As a result, Io's entire life changed; born in affluence, she and her family lost both their status and their income in the restoration. What is amazing about Io is how unconventional she is- how her story resists the stereotype of the demure, powerless woman. Io is not afraid to carry a dagger and pull it out and threaten to use it on those who will hurt her. And after her husband's death she declines invitations to live with relatives, opting instead to maintain her. She is exceptionally well educated, and learns to read English in her sixties.
But McClellan also places Io's story within its historical context, reminding us of the real limitations she faced because of her sex. In the end, Io is portrayed as a woman who combines strength and courage with tolerance. These are the exact qualities she needed to survive, and her possession of them helped portray her unrivaled success.
Woman in the Crested Kimono is a wonderful books that wrests the historic and the thoughtful together. Shibue Io’s story gives the reader a poignant description and vision of Meiji Japan and the pleasures and pains that came along with it. It is not a political piece written towards the old aristocracy or the rapidly develping Tokyo government, it is simply a mosaic of events in one woman’s life. Perhaps our understand of history and the period is best comprehended through this real life experience.