Exceptional Females in Bakumatsu/Meiji Japan?

Curator at the Kyoto National Museum, Miyakawa Teiichi, spoke recently about Chiba Shusaku and his younger brother Chiba Teikichi (Sadakichi?) at a lecture arranged by the Kyoto Ryoma-kai. The two Chiba brothers were both kendo masters and it was at the Chiba dojo run by Teikichi in Edo that Sakamoto Ryoma spent time honing his own kendo skills. Chiba Teikichi’s son Jutaro became very close friends with Ryoma, and Jutaro’s sister, Sana, became Ryoma’s girlfriend, for a time. This was before he met Oryo whom he eventually married. Very little is known about the Chiba kendo school and Miyakawa-sensei is currently following several leads to discover more about it. He is particularly interested in the life of Chiba Sana and the depictions of her in nishiki-e prints and other media. In some of these Sana has been mistaken for a man because she was very competent with a naginata, a wooden pole with a curved blade on the end. Some believe that women like Sana were not very common in her time. Fighting does not seem to have been considered very lady-like, I suppose. In the same way,  Ryoma’s wife, Oryo, is believed to have been an unconventional type of woman. In Meiji period media she was often depicted carrying a western style umbrella with books under her arm. Ryoma had told her she ought to read more, apparently. This line of thought leads me to recall the class I took back in Sheffield about Tsuda Umeko (1864-1929). I learned that at the age of six, Tsuda travelled as the youngest member of the Iwakura Mission to the United States where she received her education. She did not return to Japan until 1882, and had forgotten much of her native language. Later on, she went on to establish the Tsuda College, which is still in existence today.

I have never much been interested in women’s studies or gender studies in particular. I have spent most of my time investigating “samurai dudes”, and that it should be surprising for a woman to do anything other than fit into the narrow-minded stereotype of wife/mother seems fairly irrelevent to me, if only because I don’t fit the stereotype myself and not many of my female friends do either, but that is perhaps the subject of another kind of blog.

My field, especially in Japan perhaps, is dominated by male figures, but I have never questioned, or found need to question that. It was only because the character of Chiba Sana was questioned that the issue of exceptional females in history was brought to my attention. My immediate reaction, however, was to ask whether she really was all that uncommon in her time?

I’ll wait for the next lecture from Miyakawa-sensei to find out more.

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One thought on “Exceptional Females in Bakumatsu/Meiji Japan?

  1. I have also wondered what roles did women play during the Bakumatsu / Meiji era outside of the “traditional” roles that we often see portrayed in films.

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