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 gowns.
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 town.
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.
It was this second meaning that was more characteristic of my grandmother. Chiyo's teaching career was short – Chonosuke whisked her off to his first overseas post, Tientsin (now Tianjin), in neighboring China, where he had been appointed vice consul.
That was the year of the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing, and no sooner had the Yada family settled down in Tientsin than the fledgling diplomat had to send his wife and children back to Japan for their own safety. Meanwhile, Chonosuke accompanied an international rescue force that fought its way to Beijing and freed the foreign embassies that had been besieged by Boxer rebels in the capital city.
The next posting was Mexico. Chiyo's mother stepped in at this point and offered to take care of the Yada children until Chiyo and her husband had settled down comfortably in their new home.
Later, the boys accompanied their parents to Vancouver. The girls joined them in Ottawa and New York.
It was in the latter two cities that Chiyo's native intelligence, wit, and grace really came into their own. She was an exceptional hostess at diplomatic functions, but also made her mark in neighborhood relations, volunteering recipes for sukiyaki or tempura, and mobilizing women in the small Japanese community to sew bandages for wounded soldiers during the first World War (Japan was an ally then).
When Chonosuke retired from the diplomatic service, he returned to his native village, where his spendthrift younger brother had just lost the family farm. Chonosuke had been inclined to repurchase the farm and lecture the prodigal by mail. But Chiyo insisted that the two of them should go back to the village and show that their years of glamorous diplomatic service had not deprived them of their capacity for hard manual labor.
They spent the hot summer knee-deep in the muck of the paddy fields – hoeing, weeding, carrying fertilizer – Chonosuke grumbling at first, but gradually getting into the spirit of things. The brother, embarrassed, mended his ways for good.
That, my mother said, was Grandmother Chiyo's crowning achievement as a woman of Meiji.
• Takashi Oka is a former correspondent for the Monitor.