Woman in the Crested Kimono: The Life of Shibue Io and Her Family Drawn from Mori Ogai’s Shibue Chusai – Edwin McClellan

Woman in the Crested Kimono: The Life of Shibue Io and Her Family Drawn from Mori Ogai's Shibue Chusai

The energetic bow gently caresses the nimble strings of the erhu weaving the genius of Jia Peng Fang ; the melodious rendition of ‘Furusato’ bustling through my ears trickling into a vaporous trance clouding my hunt for split-ends at the stroke of midnight. With a couple miserable strands of hair in my palm, I childishly pondered on the ways Shibue Io must have done her hair, embellishing it with handsome ornaments. As fascinated as I stand by the enigmatic life of Io, my mind wanders on similar wavelengths of the author (McClellan), nascent colours canvassing my imaginary portrait of Shibue Io. The pallid silence around me began embellishing itself with myriad shades of Io and her survival during the Tokugawa civilization. Walking through my several analytical wanderings about the chronological Edo era , I let out a transitory thought bewitched by the pen of Ogai Mori; a man whose literature being mostly influenced by General Nogi’s honorable life had being mesmerized by much genteel Shibue Io. Although, Ogai’s motivating literary sketch of Shibue Io was through the incessant channels of her son’s nostalgia and her husband’s archives, still what Ogai brought was the spring of a long lasting cultural memory, solidifying in the company of every imminent year.

“ She was an astounding sight to behold. Naked except for a loincloth tied around her waist, with a large dagger in its sheath clenched between her teeth, she was just bending down to pick up two wooden buckets……………..filled with boiling hot water……………. “Thief !!”…….

The charming personality of Io could be seen through a rather intriguing episode involving brash nudity. The imperative crisis had called on Io to act immediately and although the audacious act took momentous courage, the modest upbringing would bring sheer coyness to Io with the slight mention of the amusing event. Born in 1816 as Yamanouchi Io, was Shibue Chusai‘s(1805-1858) fourth wife. Having acquired “tomboy” traits owing to her intensive martial arts training and other academic privileges, the life journey of Shibue Io is not only captivating but memorable. From being the young ‘churo’(female attendant) in the daimyo family of Lord Todo’s mansion to capturing the ash-throwing “demon” in the castle corridors and then later as the esteemed wife of ranked Shibue Chusai, Io showed grace and integrity when she rejected dependency from Hirano Sadakata ( Chusai’s brother-in-law) in her days of widowhood. Elucidating further on Chusai and Io’s life revolving within familial boundaries and external acquaintances, McClellan elaborates on socially notable customs of “adoption of male heirs” to either stabilize a declining family name or for motives of reputed upgrading. The belligerent atmosphere of social stratifications and hierarchical ranking with the Lords or ‘daimyo’ being the supreme elite followed by the ‘samurai or warrior class viewed Io’s boisterous personality being confined to modest refinement and customary obedience. The benevolent Shibue Chusai, who appeared to have been much liberal for his times and contrasting the persona of a “true bushi”, was an ideal outlet for the survival of Io’s obstinate and sometimes aggressively unfeminine personality.

Out of the many ironies in Io’s life, one that gained prominence was the striking similarities between the fierce personalities of Io and her least favoured daughter- Kuga. Kuga’s aspirations for a liberated , independent and furthermore for desiring a venerable subsistence in the institutional hierarchical conventions equated mindful possibilities of Io’s sovereignty and superiority establishing new avenues , if only, not being restricted by the recognizable generation demarcation. Io’s relationships with her progeny and step-children dwell within the limits of human tendencies of approval and valid disapproval. However, besides Tamotsu, Io’s bond with her step-son Yajima Yutaka was tightened by empathic responses to the adverse matrimonial and personal circumstances endured by Yutaka.

“Usually a biography ends with the death of the subject. But in honouring a man of the past, one cannot but ask what became of those whom he left behind…………. It is my wish then, to continue this narrative and to describe the fate after Chusai’s death of his offspring, his wife and relation, his colleagues and friends.

Appreciative as I am, thanking the prospects of Ogai Mori not being able to put his pen down and continue penning the chronicles of the Shibue family long after Chusai’s demise. Ogai bestowed Io, her rightfully deserved place in Japanese literature and historical heritage. Accentuating on Ogai’s rewarding merit, McClellan perfectly asserts , “ Io was not in the ordinary sense a distinguished or a famous person; so that had it not for Ogai’s chance encounter with her, we would never have know about this remarkable woman; so brave and so proud.” How true and commendable!

McClellan referring to Ogai’s scrupulous notes Shibue Chusai illustrates well defined and methodical sequential records of life and times of the Chusai family who were the daimyo retainers of the Tsugaru contingent during the establishment of Tokugawa Shogunate period and their political and social capabilities through the turmoil of the Meiji Restoration(1868) with the newly constructed prefectures (ken) and abolition of a domainal (han) society.

However, the crucial foundation of this manuscript pioneers on the domestic grounds depicting a cerebral, tomboyish yet coy, merchant class woman marrying a scholarly doctor (Shibue Chusai) of the daimyo class and her ordeals in the course of the altering Japanese society. McClellan evocatively raises Shibue Io from the mundane and incessantly extensive conjugal workload bequeathing her existence with justifiable significance beyond the universality of domesticity. The layered biographical sketch of Shibue Io peels the outer chauvinist layers of a patriarchal society demeaning the industrious lives of women through markers of possessing “feeble bodies” and devoid of any significance beyond the matrimonial walls of a household. The unconventionality of Shibue Io in a despotic conventionality separated from domestic humdrum achieving credence in the public domain reveals the inner quintessence of a woman, passionate and brave with a strong heart, vital to her family’s survival in changing times. Shibue Io certainly lived with some sort of feminist panache even through her penurious years. And, then I quietly contemplate over the fates of Kuga, Miki, Tetsu, Shibue’s ex-wives and other related female counterparts their precious lives fading with little or no recognition at all.

“What Io might have thought about women’s rights as such, one is not told, nor it is imagining what she might have thought……….. Perhaps she was born too long before the advent of even limited democracy in Japan to have any advance views on the question.”

It is quite fitting for me to proclaim that I did not merely read a book. In fact, I cherished the fragmentary reminiscences of the spirited and wilful Io. Along the path, I reckon I got bit greedy. I yearned to know more beyond Tamotsu’s recollections of his mother, the articulacy of Ogai Mori and the edifying script of Edwin McClellan. Maybe, deep down in my feminine despairs I secretly hoped for a feminist conqueror. My eccentric self adhering arrogance ignored the veracity of women in the 19th century Edo who were conventionally indoctrinated to feel inferior. Was I being selfish and expecting the unexpected from the life of Shibue Io? After all, Io was a vivacious woman who taught herself the English language while in her maturing sixties. Nevertheless, in the end I was undoubtedly glad, not only for having a split-end free hair, but for being able to comprehend the life of a woman who took pride in her family’s crest of ‘three oak leaves’, a resourceful mother, a filial daughter and a sophisticated wife who had the balls to thrive in the patriarchal 19th century Edo era with gumption, while some men thriving in the esteemed domainal society were still trying to grow a pair for themselves.

3/5***

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