Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family

Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family

Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family

Isami's House: Three Centuries of a Japanese Family


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 House describes 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.


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 only a generous fellowship for doctoral dissertation research enabled me to visit, at last, the country I had been studying since my undergraduate days. I found lodging with the assistance of a fellow graduate student, who wrote to her Tokyo friend, who phoned his aunt, who contacted her friend, who agreed to take me in. the aunt’s friend was Toyo, the sixth of fifteen children born to the Matsuura family, whose male househeads had served for 265 years as headmen, or shōya, of a mountain village in northern Japan.

Toyo provided much more than food and shelter. She taught me conversational Japanese, cared for me when I was sick, arranged for my recreational and social activities, and introduced me to the members of her large and amiable extended family—the twelfth and thirteenth generations of Matsuura. Her twenty-year-old daughter, Yōko, was like a younger sister to me. Whenever I returned to Japan, I stayed in Tokyo with Toyo, visited Yōko, and socialized with Toyo’s many siblings, nieces, and nephews, who, when they got together for family events and invited along their in-laws, could number as many as fifty. When Toyo and her husband went to San Francisco on a holiday in the 1970s, I flew to the airport to meet their plane. We exchanged New Year’s cards and occasional gifts, and in January 1993 . . .

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