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Exploring Koume's World with Professor Simon Partner

Simon Partner, a member of APSI's core faculty and professor of history at Duke, is an expert on late 19th and 20th-century Japanese history whose research focuses on multiple topics, including the growth of consumer markets, technology and social change, and Japanese rural society.

His latest book, published in December 2023, is Koume's World: The Life and Work of a Samurai Woman Before and After the Meiji Restoration. To learn about the early stages of his research, we strongly recommend reading his essay, "My Pandemic Year at Nichibunken."

Recently, we caught up with Professor Partner to learn more about Koume's World and the factors that led him to write and publish this important contribution to the literature on Japan's 19th- and 20th-century history.

The following interview has been lightly edited.

APSI: How did you become interested in this subject? Why did you choose to focus on Koume’s diary?

Simon Partner: My previous book, The Merchant's Tale, was a history of a (male) merchant/shopkeeper in Yokohama in the mid-19th century. After completing that project, I wanted to cover the same period from a female perspective.

Women’s voices are particularly hard to find, but I was lucky to find a wonderful diary kept by Kawai Koume, a well-educated but little-known artist and housewife from the middle decades of the 19th century.

APSI: Geography is an often-overlooked element of history. Can you talk about the significance of Wakayama and Kishū domain for this period of Japan’s history?
Blooming cherry blossom tree in front of a Japanese castle
The reconstructed concrete tenshu (keep) of Wakayama Castle (和歌山城). image credit: "Oilstreet" CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0

SP: There are several things I found fascinating about placing the story in Wakayama. It allowed me to get a truly decentered view of the great events of the mid-nineteenth century, how they were perceived and experienced in a regional city.

Wakayama was certainly an influential domain (its lord was a senior member of the ruling Tokugawa family), but it was not a center of pro-Tokugawa or anti-Tokugawa activism. Rather, the domain and its residents were caught up in events far outside their control.

The regional focus also allowed me to study the flow of news and information (and misinformation) across Japan, adding context to my understanding of the developing perceptions of foreign, national, and regional politics.

APSI: Kawai Koume is described as an accomplished poet and artist as well as being a wife, mother, and grandmother. Would you describe Koume as being a typical woman of her time and social class? How was she special?

SP: Koume was certainly not typical. She was unusually well-educated, and, although not wealthy, she came from a respected line of domain scholars which guaranteed her a position in the local cultural elite.

Moreover, since Koume had no brothers to inherit the family’s hereditary status and stipend, the family adopted her husband as heir. This position as wife of an adopted son lent a privileged status to Koume, who continued to live in her natal home throughout her life.

Koume was also a talented artist and poet, with a local reputation as a leading female cultural figure. That said, I was constantly surprised in my research by how many examples there are of “untypical” women who appear to flout or overcome many of the conventional restraints on women dictated by Confucian social codes.

Indeed, scholars of Tokugawa-era women’s history have concluded that the traditional image of Tokugawa-era women as forced into a lifetime of obedience – “obedience, while yet unmarried, to a father; obedience, when married, to a husband and that husband’s parents; obedience, when widowed, to a son” (Basil Hall Chamberlain) bears almost no resemblance to the complex realities of Tokugawa-era society.

Like the subjects of all my books, Koume was a unique individual, with her own desires, prejudices, accomplishments, and frustrations. Seeing the events of the period unfold through her eyes can help us understand the wide range of perceptions and experiences that made up the social culture of mid-nineteenth century Japan.

APSI: One of the reviewers noted the paucity of English-language publications about the lives of women during the latter part of the Tokugawa shogunate. Please share some of the research challenges you encountered for this project and how you overcame them.

SP: I don’t altogether agree with the reviewer’s statement. There are a surprising number of excellent books in English on late-Tokugawa women’s lives, including those by Anne Walthall, Laura Nenzi, Yamakawa Kikue, and Amy Stanley. Biography based on diaries or letters is one of the few points of access into the realities of women’s lives, so this type of history has been the focus of several important studies – many more than for men, other than famous or “great” men.

But with this type of research there are always challenges, mostly the lack of information sources beyond the diary itself. Wakayama samurai society has not been extensively studied, and I found the local politics and social hierarchies very confusing at times. Moreover, American bombing in 1945 wiped out the Tokugawa-era landscape of the city, making it harder to understand the social geography of Koume’s life.

Luckily, several of Koume’s paintings have survived, which helped me see her life and work in a different context. And I was fortunate to meet two of her descendants, who were able to give me some additional information on the family.

APSI: What surprised you most during your research or writing?

SP: Two things. First was Koume’s deep sense of belonging within her social milieu. Despite her frequent frustrations as a professional artist, she managed to live a life of relative freedom and self-realization without ever seeing the need to question the foundations of the social structure in which she was raised.

Second, I was surprised by the enduring social stability of Wakayama despite the enormous upheavals of the last 150 years. I felt that many of the local historians and others I met in Wakayama during my research have that same sense of unquestioned belonging to a conservative but nurturing social environment.

A couple of additional surprises relating to the family’s household economy: the enormous proportion of their income that they spent on sake; and the very high income they received by selling their own, and their tenants’, poop to local farmers!

APSI: Your book looks at a very tumultuous time in Japan’s modern history, providing a glimpse into how ordinary “upper middle class” Japanese responded to famine, earthquakes, and a pandemic. Are there any parallels or lessons that modern-day readers can take from Koume’s experiences?

SP: The COVID pandemic hit as I was in the midst of my research in Japan in 2020. In 1859, just as Japan was opening new ports to foreign trade amidst huge tension and controversy, the country was hit by a devastating cholera epidemic. Koume lost her own granddaughter at the height of the epidemic.

Before COVID, I was struck at the irrational and seemingly counter-productive response of the citizens of Wakayama to the epidemic – huge congregations of people, fights between neighborhood gangs, dancing in the streets, wearing strange clothes, etc.

But then, seeing the chaos unfold throughout the world (but particularly in the USA) I found myself re-evaluating “pre-modern” irrationalism. It seems people respond to fear, desire, threat, and opportunity in much the same ways regardless of our supposed stage of development.

APSI: What do you hope your readers take with them when they finish this book?

SP: More than anything I want them to enjoy Koume’s story. I have tried to present her as a fully-realized human being, with all the complexity that goes with that. If her story also offers some insights into the events of the mid-19th century, so much the better.

APSI: Please share some information about your current research projects or interests.

SP: I’ve been taking a break. Will be spending the second half of this year formulating the next project.

APSI: What is the most recent book you read?

SP: Agatha Christie’s “The 4:50 to Paddington” – while sick with the bronchial cough everyone seems to have had.

APSI: Is there a book (other than Koume's World) that you recommend for scholars or students interested in this subject or time period in Japanese history?

SP: Amy Stanley’s “Stranger in the Shogun’s City” for another woman’s history. My own “The Merchant’s Tale” for a different take on the 1860s, through the eyes of a Yokohama-based merchant/shopkeeper. For the story of one of Yokohama’s most colorful foreign residents, Frederick Schodt’s “Professor Ridley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe.”