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The Weak Body of a Useless Woman

In 1862, fifty-one-year-old Matsuo Taseko left her old life behind by traveling to Kyoto, the old imperial capital. Peasant, poet, and local political activist, Taseko had come to Kyoto to support the nativist campaign to restore the Japanese emperor and expel Western "barbarians." Although she played a minor role in the events that led to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, her actions were nonetheless astonishing for a woman of her day. Honored as a hero even before her death, Taseko has since been adopted as a patron saint by rightist nationalists.

In telling Taseko's story, Anne Walthall gives us not just the first full biography in English of a peasant woman of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), but also fresh perspectives on the practices and intellectual concerns of rural entrepreneurs and their role in the Meiji Restoration. Writing about Taseko with a depth and complexity that has thus far been accorded only to men of that time, Walthall has uncovered a tale that will captivate anyone concerned with women's lives and with Japan's dramatic transition to modernity.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Foreword by Catharine R. Stimpson Acknowledgments Introduction Pt. I: Life in the Ina Valley 1: The Making of a Poet 2: Taseko's Political Heritage 3: Married Life 4: The Farm Family Economy 5: The Nativist Encounter 6: Nativist Texts and the Female Reader Pt. II: Kyoto, 1862-1863 7: Autumn in Arashiyama 8: A Peasant Woman at the Emperor's Court 9: Beheading Statues 10: Going Home Pt. III: Taseko and the Meiji Restoration 11: On the Sidelines 12: Kyoto, 1868 13: Famous Friends 14: Political Intrigues and Conflicting Visions Pt. IV: Taseko in Modern Japan 15: Taseko in Old Age 16: Remembering Taseko Epilogue Notes Index


Matsuo Taseko's (1811-1894) actual deeds are the stuff of remarkable insignificance. With her children grown, she undertook a trip to Kyoto in 1862 for a number of reasons, including a tour of sights described in classical poetry. She was also a devout disciple of a nativist movement that revered the emperor, so she keenly desired to visit the imperial city. Once there, she befriended several of this movement's members, but some of the most fervent patriots among them committed an act of vandalism that put all of them in danger. After several months in hiding she returned to her home in the Ina Valley in central Japan. Later, after the Meiji restoration, Taseko's Kyoto connections made her a woman of influence in political circles. When she died, biographers transformed her into a national hero and "good wife and wise mother." Walthall's meticulously researched biography, the first in English, relies on a wealth of materials, including family diaries and Taseko's journals and poetry, to illustrate the social and cultural moment of her life. Readers need an understanding of this convoluted period of Japanese history to appreciate some references. The inherent confusion is not aided by some truly convoluted writing and by unfortunate irregularities (the shogun's bride is described variously as the emperor's sister or daughter). (Dec.)

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