The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo is a collection of stories on a segment of the population usually overlooked in tales of Tokugawa Japan--women. These are not stories of samurai, feudal lords, or men visiting courtesans in the pleasure quarters. Instead they are revealing portraits of a handful of women trying to make a living in unforgiving economic times. Despite the subtitle, the stories are only occasionally about love; their focus is more often on creativity. The characters' occupations are varied, but all are in creative fields that allow a good measure of independence. Each woman takes an artisanal approach to her work, whether it be as schoolteacher, calligrapher, singer of joruri ballads, designer of custom hairpins worn with kimono, painter of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, or restaurant owner.
The stories take place in late Edo--more specifically, in the first half of the nineteenth century. This was a time when Japan was still closed to the West and society was rigidly hierarchical, with the class to which these characters belonged--artisans and craftspeople--far from the top of the social heap. As women, then, they are doubly marginalized. But here marginalization sometimes brings freedom to experiment, and others' low expectations become in fact a motivating force amid hardship and self-doubt.
At a time when Japan is experiencing runaway inflation and even, in some parts of the country, famine, and when one employee has started to steal from her, the restaurateur struggles to keep her business afloat, and begins to question her own artistic approach to cooking. "She was sure the starving masses would not pause to appreciate the Moegi's ornate serving dishes ... They would not notice the seasonal presentations of autumn leaves and how the cold noodles had been arranged to look like a flowing river. They would laugh at her, saying she was just playing with food."
The calligrapher's job is to copy out the drafts of books by popular writers before they are carved onto wooden blocks for printing (so when they are printed, her handwriting will essentially be the book's "font"). When her publisher accuses her close friend, an author, of plagiarism in his newest book and she is unable to locate him to warn him of their intentions to renege on publishing it, she takes it upon herself to quickly rewrite the offending chapter. When he finds out what she's done, far from being grateful, he is incensed that a woman and a mere calligrapher has dared to revise his work.
Each story focuses on one woman, yet the stories are linked by the women's ties to one another--in some cases a business connection or rivalry, and at other times a bond of friendship.
The translation doesn't feel like a translation at all. It is consistently understated and workmanlike, as in this recollection, by the woodblock-print painter, of her late father: "Yohei had been a man of few words, a trait that had earned him the nickname `the Clam.' Even if he were alive and Oichi were to tell him about her new commission, he wouldn't have said `congratulations' or anything like that. Instead, as he sat eating his dinner, his sunburned face would have broken into a smile and he would simply have held out a cup of saké for her. She wished she could see Yohei's smiling face again."
These may be fictional characters, but they feel vibrant and real, and this intimate look into their lives makes us want to know more about the colorful characters who once peopled the great city of Tokyo, and about the lives of its inhabitants today.