Book Reviews

Isami’s House by Gail Lee Bernstein

University of California Press

Isami’s House is one of those rare "crossover" books, a work that appears at first to be a scholarly treatise of one middle-class Japanese clan’s dynasty, but manages instead to tell a story so engrossing, so full of triumph and tragedy, that it will satisfy and entertain the everyman (and woman) in all of us. Author Gail Bernstein’s greatest coup is that even the most disinterested readers of Japanese history are likely to find themselves thoroughly, and painlessly, educated by the tale. 

Isami and his wife
Kō, who were married in 1901, are at the center of a narrative that spans three centuries of a "rural elite" Japanese family. By following the fortunes of their ancestors at the end of Tokugawa era, and in far greater detail their life after the birth of their 15 children, both before and after WWII, the book elucidates how villagers were transformed into urbanites. As we follow their daily lives and decisions, the reader understands the ways that individuals had to cope with these dramatic changes, and what was gained and lost in the process. Food, famines, marriage customs, agrarian values, social layout of homes, childrearing practices, and social networks come to life in the family members’ personal and absorbing tales. The book is densely packed with information, but not densely wrought. We grow to know brave daughters as well as dutiful ones; ambitious, successful, and also lazy sons; flashy rebellious aunts; and ne’er-do-well husbands. And often we come to understand some of the reasons they became that way.

Because so much of the book centers around Isami’s traditional role as the patriarch, who must make sure his gaggle of children are educated and then wed, it’s a surprise to slowly realize that in many ways, this is more the story of the women in the family—the daughters. Isami’s relative comfort in life gives him the freedom to be an equal partner in the rearing of his children with
Kō, a philosophy he embraces. He is obsessed with the paths his children take not only out of love, but to also ensure that his dynasty will prosper and survive. Isami believes his daughters need to be well educated, so that they can be suitable marriage partners to sophisticated city dwellers, the population that he sees will be the future of Japan.

The success of the book must be attributed not only to the author’s clear writing and meticulous research and analysis (Bernstein is professor of history at the University of Arizona), but also to the close personal relationship she had with several of Isami’s daughters for 40 years. This gave her unparallel accesses to the thoughts and dreams of Isumi and
Kō, and to the intimate family stories and secrets of previous generations right up to the present.

The book ends on a precarious note, which gives the reader a deep understanding of the instability that Japanese culture finds itself in 2006, if it doesn’t begin to adapt to changes and challenges that face it.

For example, even though the modern granddaughters of Isami and Kō were resisting a marriage system that lacked sufficient attention to love, their own mothers, Isami’s daughters, ironically did not enjoy the physical and emotional intimacy that Kō and Isami had in their own—arranged—partnership in 1901. This is because post-WWII men placed devotion to companies and nationhood above close ties to their wives in importance. Post-war wives have suffered greatly under this system, but this attitude and work ethic also allowed Japan to climb out of the morass of post-war despair to its current status as a world economic leader. Now, many young Japanese women want to embrace Western-style feminism even further, in a social structure that is largely not prepared to support them. And the Japanese school system is infamously rigid, and doesn’t prepare children for the new economic realities of our shrinking world that depends on flexibility and cooperation between nations. Yet despite the fact that many young Japanese kids seem adrift, one of Japan’s greatest exports these days is its popular culture, such as anime and manga, which young Americans have embraced with great fervor. Bernstein’s book puts this complex, contradictory culture with its uncertain future in context, by allowing us to understand its people’s past.

Reviewed by
Kathryn Olney