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Koume’s World: The Life and Work of a Samurai Woman Before and After the Meiji Restoration

Book cover: Title; background ink painting of a samurai woman
From the publisher

Kawai Koume (1804–1889) was an accomplished poet and painter and a wife, mother, and grandmother in a lower-ranking samurai family in the provincial castle town of Wakayama. She was an eyewitness to many of the key events leading up to the Meiji Restoration and the radical changes that followed, including the famine of 1837, the great earthquake of 1854, the cholera epidemic of 1859, and the departure of samurai to fight in the civil wars of the 1860s. For more than fifty years, she kept a diary recording her family’s daily life—meals and expenses, visitors and the weather, small-town gossip and news of momentous events.

Through Koume’s eyes and words, Simon Partner opens a window on social, economic, and cultural life amid some of the most dramatic periods of Japan’s transformative nineteenth century. Koume’s World vividly portrays the everyday activities, social interactions, information networks, cultural production, and household economy of a samurai family across the Tokugawa-Meiji divide. Partner’s narrative offers a remarkably detailed portrait of the dynamic working life of a female artist and household manager while also giving a regional perspective on the upheavals surrounding the Meiji Restoration. A compelling microhistorical study of gender, economy, and society in nineteenth-century Japan, Koume’s World is a compelling account of how one woman experienced both mundane routines and drastic social transformations.

Editorial Review

Simon Partner’s latest biography offers a fresh look at nineteenth-century Japan through the diary of a Wakayama artist. In elegant prose, Koume’s World reconstructs how this prolific painter gained the respect of her castle-town community and helped steer her family’s fortunes through tumultuous times. A valuable addition to the slim shelf of English-language volumes on Tokugawa women's lives. -- Kären Wigen, Stanford University

Simon Partner’s Koume’s World is a tremendously interesting account of the daily life of a samurai woman based on her detailed diary about how she took care of her household, engaged in painting and poetry, and observed her world. Partner employs many other sources to present an uncommonly sensitive view of regional urban society, in this case the understudied and fascinating city of Wakayama, which he reveals in its normal rhythms and the riveting drama pervading the collapse of the Tokugawa regime and the dynamic society of the early Meiji era. -- Luke Roberts, University of California, Santa Barbara

Simon Partner’s wonderfully engaging Koume’s World is chockablock with surprising details about the uncertain fortunes of a poor but respectable samurai family during a time of unprecedented change. Based on the matriarch’s diary, this book opens a window onto the travails of samurai in real life in mid-nineteenth-century Japan. -- David L. Howell, Harvard University

About the Author

Simon Partner is professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of three previous books that chronicle modern Japanese history through the lives of ordinary people such as farmers, shopkeepers, and housewives, including most recently The Merchant’s Tale: Yokohama and the Transformation of Japan (Columbia, 2018).


Faculty Publication, Humanities, Japan, History