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Isami's House

Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family

Gail Lee Bernstein
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 314
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  • Book Info
    Isami's House
    Book Description:

    In this powerful and evocative narrative, Gail Lee Bernstein vividly re-creates the past three centuries of Japanese history by following the fortunes of a prominent Japanese family over fourteen generations. The first of its kind in English, this book focuses on Isami, the eleventh generation patriarch and hereditary village head. Weaving back and forth between Isami's time in the first half of the twentieth century and his ancestors' lives in the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, Bernstein uses family history to convey a broad panoply of social life in Japan since the late 1600s. As the story unfolds, she provides remarkable details and absorbing anecdotes about food, famines, peasant uprisings, agrarian values, marriage customs, child-rearing practices, divorces, and social networks.Isami's Housedescribes the role of rural elites, the architecture of Japanese homes, the grooming of children for middle-class life in Tokyo, the experiences of the Japanese in Japan's wartime empire and on the homefront, the aftermath of the country's defeat, and, finally, the efforts of family members to rebuild their lives after the Occupation. The author's forty-year friendship with members of the family lends a unique intimacy to her portrayal of their history. Readers come away with an inside view of Japanese family life, a vivid picture of early modern and modern times, and a profound understanding of how villagers were transformed into urbanites and what was gained, and lost, in the process.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93942-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XVI)
    Gail Lee Bernstein

    One evening in early March 1993 I received an unexpected telephone call from Tokyo.

    “Did you know my older sister is in the hospital?” Tami asked. I knew that Toyo had been hospitalized since January, but I had been led to believe that she would recover. Tami informed me, almost matter-of-factly, that Toyo was dying. Seventy-two hours later I was on an airplane headed for Tokyo.

    Toyo was my “Japanese mother.” I had met her thirty years earlier on my first trip to Asia. In 1963, Japan was still a long way away—two weeks by ship from California—and...

    (pp. XVII-XX)
    (pp. XXI-XXII)
    (pp. XXIII-XXIV)
    (pp. XXV-XXVI)
    (pp. XXVII-XXIX)
  10. INTRODUCTION: An Agrarian Childhood
    (pp. 1-18)

    In the spring of 1890, eleven-year-old Matsuura Isami’s great-grandfather Daisuke, the retired village head, took him by train on his first trip to Tokyo. Accompanying them were Isami’s grandparents: Yoshi, who was Daisuke’s daughter, and Jinsuke, her husband and the current village head. The family group had awakened at dawn to start the trip, their path down the mountain aided by servants hauling luggage on their backs and carrying lanterns to light the way. At the town of Ishikawa, five miles down the mountain, they hired a horse-drawn cart to carry them fifteen miles west across the rice plain to...


    • ONE The House Isami Built
      (pp. 21-35)

      Early one morning at the end of april 1899, the second floor of the Matsuura sake storehouse caught fire. Flames leaped from it and quickly spread to the family’s wooden farmhouse, built a hundred years earlier. The blaze also consumed a neighbor’s house.

      Remarkably, despite the many family members and servants living on the grounds, nobody was injured. The cause of the fire remained unknown; Isami’s father, by then the househead, chose not to pursue the matter, preferring to look to the future. Fire was an ever-present danger in a country vulnerable to earthquakes and accustomed to building with natural...

    • TWO Kissing Cousins
      (pp. 36-47)

      In december 1901, Isami wed his cousin’s oldest daughter in a marriage arranged by his father, Yūya.¹ The fifteen-year-old child bride cried on her wedding day when the traditional bride’s hair ornament was placed on her head. She was a student, with her “hair still in braids,” when she regretfully told her school principal that she would not continue with her schooling because she was “going to be a bride.” She vowed, like Isami, to give her children more education than she had.²

      Isami’s young wife, Sagawa Ko, came from a family of village heads to the south of Asakawa,...

    • THREE Father of the Village
      (pp. 48-65)

      In the late 1920s, a journalist fromFujin no tomo(Woman’s Friend) magazine visited Yamashiraishi to interview the Matsuura for a story on “the good family.”Fujin no tomowas published by Hani Motoko, the founder of a new, progressive women’s school attended by three of the Matsuura daughters. Her magazine frequently featured articles on parenting and child-rearing. The reporter was assigned the task of determining whether the “large, multigenerational, rural, and long-lived Matsuura family” could provide clues to good parenting inasmuch as they “maintained a traditional lifestyle in old Japan, yet their children were successful in Tokyo, the heart...

    • FOUR Strong Wives
      (pp. 66-80)

      Taihen! taihen!something awful has happened!” At the sound of ten-year-old Tami’s cries, household members rushed out to the garden, where only minutes before, her grandmother Miyo had been weeding. In her early seventies, Isami’s mother faithfully worked in the garden every morning in the summertime, just as the servants cleaned house before eating their first meal of the day. To teach her youngest granddaughter good work habits, Miyo had also awakened Tami early every morning so that she could weed before the school day began. But on this day, ignoring Isami’s advice not to exert herself, Miyo had gone...


    • FIVE Urban Studies
      (pp. 83-96)

      Once a month isami made the long trip from the countryside to Tokyo to check on his children’s progress. Around the age of ten, they were all sent to Tokyo for schooling. “In those days,” Tami reflected, “you couldn’t have pursued education otherwise, but these days no mother would live apart from children who are only ten or eleven years old.” Fuki and Mina remembered how their father would appear unexpectedly in their classroom or at school concerts. “He was an original,” they agreed. “He never imitated anybody.” Unusual even among urban middle-class fathers for his attention to their schooling—...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • SIX The Marriage Pipeline
      (pp. 97-108)

      Isami subscribed to the traditional view that parents were responsible for arranging their children’s marriages, and he had definite views on how to go about doing so. Progressive in his views on education, he was conservative in his control over the timing of his children’s engagements and the choice of their spouses. Isami’s first rule of marriage arrangement was to observe order of birth, which he did in all but Yūshirō’s case. In Toyo’s case, four of her older siblings, including her oldest sister, were already married, and five younger sisters were waiting in line behind her; Isami reasoned that...

    • SEVEN Frugality and Fancy Schemes
      (pp. 109-120)

      Although worried about their dwindling finances, Isami and Kō could not resist attending the 1934 wedding of close and prominent relatives in Wakayama, in the southwestern part of the main island. The bride was Isami’s niece, the oldest daughter of his sister Moto. Her paternal grandfather was Isami’s uncle Ishii Bungorō, a Seiyūkai Party politician; her father, Ishii Itarō, whose studies had been funded by Isami’s parents, was consul-general in Shanghai. He, too, was strapped for cash to cover wedding costs and complained that the Japanese diplomatic corps in China was poorly paid.¹

      Despite their own money anxieties, Isami and...


    • EIGHT Outposts of Modernity
      (pp. 123-136)

      Toyo’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law Ikuko arrived in the charming port city of Qingdao (Tsingtao) in the summer of 1935 to spend a one-month holiday with Toyo and her husband shortly after Masafumi’s employer, Mitsubishi, transferred him there to work in a branch of its import-export trading company. Ikuko relished the “free feeling” of the city so much that she returned again in 1941. She recalled Qingdao as an exciting city, filled as it was with the people and culture of many different nationalities. Foreign couples strolled arm in arm, White Russian shopkeepers plied their wares, and theaters showed foreign films.¹...

    • NINE Isami’s Children in Harm’s Way
      (pp. 137-145)

      Kōjirō and his younger brother yūshirō met for the first time in nine years over a relaxing dinner at a Bandung hotel in May 1942. Both had been drafted into military service immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, and by coincidence both had been sent to the Netherlands East Indies. Neither was enthusiastic about serving in the war. Better educated and more worldly than many of his countrymen, Kōjirō, in particular, was immune to the patriotic excitement sweeping over Japan in the wake of their country’s successful attack on the American naval base in Hawaii. His company had transferred him...

    • TEN Hard Times on the Home Front
      (pp. 146-158)

      In a poem written in 1944, in the midst of a war with the Allied powers that he knew his country could not win, Isami described almost elegiacally the mass urban exodus of people, mainly women, in search of food and the tranquility and plenitude of the countryside:

      Carrying edible plants in abundance to the people who have come from the capital, the older sister sees them off.

      Thinking about their son and husband on the battlefield, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law sewtabi.

      Isami felt a certain pride in taking in relatives from the capital and showing them the “prosperity of...

    • ELEVEN Surviving Hiroshima
      (pp. 159-168)

      On august 6, 1945, when the world’s first atomic bomb exploded without warning 1,870 feet over the center of Hiroshima, Toyo and her family were at home, less than two miles from the nucleus of the blast. Together with other Mitsubishi employees, they had made their way back from Manchuria to Japan in the waning days of the war. A number of Masafumi’s relatives, including his mother, were among the city’s population of 350,000, and his company’s office was located in the downtown area. Although Hiroshima was the seventh largest city in Japan, it was one of only three major...

    • TWELVE Missed Fortunes
      (pp. 169-180)

      Shortly after his wife ko’s collapse, Isami abruptly resigned from his position as village head. “People were starving” was the only explanation he offered for his unexpected decision to quit office at the end of January 1946. He added that he wanted to serve as campaign manager for a candidate from the local area running for a seat in the Lower House of the Diet. Presumably the candidate was concerned, as Isami was, with the problem of how to feed the population, and, if elected, he might acquire the power to do something about it.¹

      Given Isami’s previous reluctance to...

    • THIRTEEN Making History
      (pp. 181-192)

      After yatarō’s death in 1958, his son Tomoji became Isami’s fragile hope for the family’s future. Twenty-seven years old when his father died, the new head of the Matsuura household, however, was poorly educated and, in his Aunti Tami’s words, “without a plan.” In contemporary American English parlance, he was clueless.

      Tomoji was actually Yatarō’s second-born son, as thejiin his name conveys; the first son died at the age of five. Isami had tried to supervise Tomoji’s education after Yatarō moved his family from Tokyo to Yamashiraishi toward the end of the war. To nobody’s surprise, the boy...


    • FOURTEEN Absent Husband
      (pp. 195-204)

      Kōjirō peered out the window as his plane sped through the evening sky on its final approach to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The bright lights of the capital city below enthralled him. Coming from Indonesia, where “the light from electric bulbs was so dim, it was hard to read the newspaper at night,” he had the feeling that he “was returning to modern civilization from primitive times.” It was 1960, and he was entering his native country for the first time in eighteen years. The customs inspector looked at him suspiciously after glancing at his passport; no entries had been stamped...

    • FIFTEEN Couples and Uncouplings
      (pp. 205-216)

      In october 1950, after nursing her mother-in-law through the terminal stage of cancer, Toyo collapsed. Isami dispatched Tami to Hiroshima to assess the situation. Tami suspected that the source of Toyo’s distress was a combination of exhaustion and malnutrition, but she also suggested that Toyo’s husband may have contributed to her poor health. Masafumi had been drinking heavily and behaving irrationally. “He complained that the house was dirty,” Tami said, “and he set fire to the drapes with his cigarette lighter.” Tami vaguely remembered dousing the fire with water.

      The family arranged for Tami to bring Toyo and her young...

    • SIXTEEN Mothering
      (pp. 217-232)

      Toyo was healthy and energetic when I arrived at her doorstep in the fall of 1963. She was a part-time “leader,” as teachers were called, at the Seikatsu-Dan, a progressive kindergarten in Tokyo that employed many Freedom School graduates and followed Hani Motoko’s pedagogical principles. With twenty-year-old Yōko in junior college and Masafumi in Hiroshima most of the time, Toyo had finally managed to satisfy her desire to work outside the home and to have money of her own, and she was enthusiastically committed to the kindergarten’s goal of teaching children self-reliance at an early age.¹

      After they had returned...

    • EPILOGUE: Kin Work
      (pp. 233-242)

      During toyo’s three-month hospitalization, her youngest sister Tami’s home became a central command post for the network of relatives eager to lend their support. Yōko reported daily to Tami, who then transmitted medical bulletins to her siblings, beginning at eight o’clock in the morning, when the telephone would start ringing. Toyo’s siblings and nephews pooled a fixed sum of money for Yōko to use as cash gifts to hospital nurses and pocket money to splurge on taxicab rides to the hospital. When I arrived in Tokyo to see Toyo after Tami had contacted me about her weakened condition, Toyo’s siblings...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 243-268)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 269-283)