My Grandmother Chiyo was a woman of Meiji, my mother used to say.
For my generation, it's a term redolent with nostalgia, but it
sounds like ancient history to the iPod-toting youngsters of today.
Meiji connotes the springtime of modern Japan. He was the emperor
who reigned from 1868 to 1912 and who presided over the
transformation of his country from an isolated, feudal society
dominated by the samurai, or warrior caste, into a 19th-century
version of the modern world with railways, steel mills, and Parisian
I remember when I was a child, seeing Grandmother Chiyo weeding
her garden and brushing caterpillars off her tea bushes at the crack
of dawn. She wore a nondescript blue smock, but her large, dark eyes
were intense and concentrated on the task at hand. Sometimes I would
see her in the evening, with coifed hair and wearing an elegant
evening gown, preparing to go off to a party with Grandfather Yada.
Chiyo was born early in the Meiji era, when women began to be
freed from their long years of subordination in a male-dominated
society. The freedom was far from total, but compared to women's
status during feudal times, it was revolutionary. Chiyo was one of
the first women in her town to graduate from normal school (the
equivalent of a teachers' college) and - even more extraordinary -
to marry for love, not by arrangement.
Chonosuke, her husband by choice, was extraordinary in his own
way. The son of an impoverished tenant farmer, he spent some months
in a village school run by the landlord. At the age of 5, he was
spouting Confucian texts from memory. Impressed, fellow villagers
pooled their funds to give him an education in the nearest large
The school Chonosuke attended was run by Chiyo's father, a noted
Confucian scholar, and eventually he became Chiyo's sweetheart.
After graduation, he went off to university in Tokyo and then, after
passing the difficult foreign service examination, returned to the
town of Matsue to ask for Chiyo's hand.
"Woman of Meiji" meant more than just being born during a
particular emperor's reign. Usually it connoted old-fashioned
virtues - women who were strict with their children, loyal to their
husbands, and who maintained a certain decorum in their daily lives.
But it also symbolized emancipation - women who could have careers
or become flamboyant writers, or who, even as wives, carriedabout
them a certain air of independence and individualism. …