Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 2

The First Volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers ends with the newly installed Shogun asking a question of an elderly monk. This question, though apparently simple, cuts straight to the heart of her kingdom, her culture, her history and her identity:

    – I wonder if this land was always the way it is now. I ask myself why it is that when a woman succeeds as head of her family — whether she be a merchant or a samurai or a village magistrate — she must take a manly name?  From reading the registries of this realm one would think the country was run by men.  (…) Like this, the true state of our country cannot be grasped. These registers are a distorted mirror indeed of our society, and I wish to abolish this custom of using manly names forthwith.  Unless…
    • – Unless there is a logic to the present custom…? —

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 1, pp 192-193

By using a term as mild as ‘a logic to the present custom’ the Shogun is making the problem sound like a question of legal etiquette, and to a certain extent it is.  But laws are never made in a vacuum, they reflect social attitudes that flow from individual upbringing, cultural climate and historical context. In fact, the logic of the present custom is also the logic of the world and by asking the old monk to explain this logic to her, the Shogun is effectively asking him to explain to her why it is that the world is the way it is.

3.  The Arrival of the Prior

In a clever structural move, Yoshinaga has the second volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers take place a number of years before the events described in the first volume, giving us a history within a history. Set in the immediate aftermath of the first outbreak of the plague that deprived Japan of 75% of its male population, the volume seeks an explanation for Japan’s illogical gender politics in the waves of triumph and tragedy that swept through the court of the first female Shogun.

The volume’s chief protagonist is Arikoto. Son of a samurai family, Arikoto is as ambitious as he is beautiful.  Indeed, his relative youth, Arikoto’s looks, charm and family connections have enabled him to secure a position as prior of a wealthy monastery near the Shogun’s Edo castle. Travelling to his new posting, the young prior visits Edo in order to pay his respects and begin to forge a political relationship that will serve both him and his monastery. However, upon being granted an audience with the Shogun, Arikoto is surprised to see that the Shogun’s face remains hidden at all times behind a bamboo screen. The young prior’s puzzlement grows even more acute when the Shogun’s former wet-nurse (now mysteriously going by the title of Reverend) insists that he stay a few days longer. Though the young prior is well treated by the Shogun’s court, it soon becomes clear that he is not so much a guest as a prisoner. Locked in his rooms under armed guard, Arikoto and his servants begin to worry.  Unsettling rumours circulate about the current Shogun.  He is said to have an explosive temper and he is said to favour beautiful boys over women. Has Arikoto done something to offend this powerful but terrifyingly unpredictable man?

The Prior’s worst fears seem about to be realised when the former wet-nurse and some guards appear at his rooms and compel him to have sex with a courtesan. By having sex, the young prior is breaking his vows and thereby excluding himself from the contemplative life of the monastery.  But if he is to be the Shogun’s concubine, why must he prove to the wet-nurse that he can have sex with women?

Eventually, a picture emerges. The Shogun died a number of years previously and, in order to preserve the Tokugawa clan’s control of the Shogunate, the wet-nurse has been passing off the Shogun’s only child as the Shogun.  This sole surviving heir is not only psychotic but also a seventeen year-old girl.

Using this jonbar hinge, Yoshinaga carefully constructs a version of the Ooku that combines elements of the traditional historical harem with elements taken from all-male environments such as the barrack room. The differences between this half-formed Ooku and the Ooku we were introduced to in the first volume of the series constitute a sort of living tableau of social change. A tableau that highlights the evolution of institutional attitudes to gender and so explains why it is that Yoshinaga’s alternative Edo period is so bizarrely inconsistent in its empowerment of women.

Instead of being a decadent world of sexless peacocks, the second volume’s Ooku is populated according to the logic of a traditional Shogun’s court. This means that, when the wet nurse was called upon to find ‘companions’ for a female Shogun she assembled a harem made up of the ambitious and militaristic second sons of senior samurai families. Sons who would not normally inherit any titles and so would make ideal companions for a male Shogun. This much more traditional all-male environment features hazing, physical bullying and many thigh-slapping comments about the need to break in the new Shogun and show her who is boss. Needless to say, these men do not appeal to a seventeen year-old girl.

As both a young man and a priest, Arikoto poses a substantial challenge to the Ooku’s existing dynamics; Instead of being physical active, Arikoto is contemplative and instead of being domineering, he is submissive.  Initially, this causes the other men to look down upon the former priest but as Arikoto’s quiet ways slowly begin to win him the trust of the Shogun, the social dynamics shift away from the macho and towards the Machiavellian. Soon, the former priest enjoys a position of social dominance that is ruthlessly policed by the priest’s pretty young servant.

Not content with having secured his position in the Ooku, Arikoto sets out to confront the Shogun over her violent outbursts and terrifying unpredictability. Using the bond of empathy created by the fact that neither the Shogun not the former Priest want to be in the Ooku, Arikoto comes to realise that many of the Shogun’s problems stem from the fact that the institutions of Japanese government are preventing her from being a woman. In order to preserve the illusion that the Shogun is a man, the Shogun is referred to by a male name, a male title and male honorifics.  No matter how beautiful or feminine the Shogun becomes as she grows up, she is forever trapped beneath the weight of the impossible expectation that a woman can be a male Shogun.

These tensions between identity, gender and social expectation come to a head when the Shogun organises a fancy dress party in which her Grooms of the Bedroom are forced to dress up as women. While Arikoto’s burly companions are angered and humiliated, the beautiful former priest wears his make-up and kimono with considerable grace. A grace that speaks of both a profound understanding of the ways in which the Shogun has been forced to deny her nature and of a willingness to look past traditional expectations and forge a new identity.

As Raymond Chandler once put it, the world is not a fragrant place and we must accept the things that we cannot change and confront the things we have the power to alter. The second volume closes with a beautifully unadorned piece of writing by the translator Akemi Wegmuller:

    • It was a love that began like two cold, hurt, bedraggled chicks huddling together for warmth

— pp. 229

4. The Logic of the Custom

The First Volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers presented us with a world that was not only decadent but also profoundly irrational. It was a world in which colossal demographic changes had fundamentally altered the power dynamics between the genders and the social roles that the different genders were expected to fill. However, despite men being reduced to the status of stud horses and decorative courtesans, Japanese society continued to be structured in such a way as to pay deference to an all-male warrior class. A class that was now completely populated by women and so had become political rather than martial in nature.

The Second Volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers begins to offer us an explanation as to why the process of social change has been so slow and why the aesthetics and values of Japanese society have failed to keep up with the kingdom’s demographics. The explanation is systemic in nature.

One version of the systemic approach to social change can be found in the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel is traditionally interpreted as accounting for change in terms of a triad comprising Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis. All change, according to this model, results from a reaction to a fundamental idea such as, for example, the French Revolution. Having imposed itself upon the spirit of the culture, the idea then generates an antithesis such as the tyrannical show-trials and purges that arose under Robespierre during the period known as The Terror.  These purges and trials are fundamentally at odds with the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity under which the Revolution took place, and yet they emerged organically from the fact that the Revolution occured. Thesis and Antithesis then battle for dominance until a compromise is reached and a Synthesis (such as France’s constitutional republics) emerges. Described in these terms, the Hegelian model seems oddly magical in character:  where might these battling entities come from and how can they reach a compromise if they are nothing more substantial than ideas wafting on the cultural breeze?

This sense of magical unreality is due to the fact that the concept of the triads is actually a distortion of Hegel’s theory.  Hegel did not see these triadic elements as clear and distinct but as increasingly complex versions of the same idea. The Antithesis is not so much a seperate entity from the Thesis as a manifestation of that Thesis’ inner contradictions.  For example, Robespierre could never have operated under the Ancien Regime Monarchy as the Ancien Regime pooled its authority and power at the court. It was only when this power was stripped from the aristocracy that Robespierre was able to wield it and it was only when a constitution curbing the powers of the executive was put in place that the likes of Robespierre were expelled from French politics.

Yoshinaga’s Thesis is that a country with highly ritualised gender politics could undergo radical change in the wake of a plague that causes massive demographic upheaval. The Antithesis to this idea is that, despite society reacting to the demographic change in such a way as to continue functioning, the rituals surrounding the country’s gender politics do not need to change in order for that society to function. They do not need to change because they embody values that transcend mere demographics. Volume two of Ooku: The Inner Chambers describes some of the initial tensions between Thesis and Antithesis such as the absurdity of a system of government that elevates a seventeen year old girl to a position of supreme executive power only to then hide that girl’s sex from her subjects.

However, while Ooku beautifully describes the systemic struggle for social change, it also seems to be suggesting that individuals have an important part to play in this process. Arikoto and the Shogun are not mere vessels for faceless social forces, they are also people with individual psychological quirks that can shape the process of change.  For example, the fashion for men to be both pretty and well-dressed depicted in volume one is clearly the result of the fact that the first female shogun was a woman with very specific tastes in men.  Because she favoured young pretty men at the expense of older and more physical ones, the Ooku reacted and embodied those tastes in a set of fashions that slowly solidified first into conventions and then into almost ritualistic strictures.

By stressing the role of the powerful individual in social change, Yoshinaga is seeking to explain the injustices of our own current gender and sexual politics. Indeed, what is the first female Shogun’s fondness for pretty men if not an analogue of Queen Victoria’s entirely apocryphal refusal to make lesbianism illegal on the grounds that she found it inconceivable?

Ooku: The Inner Chamber – Volume 2 continues the excellent work started in volume one by maintaining the high standards of its art, its writing, its story-telling and its intellectual scope.  This is not only an ambitious piece of writing, it is also a profoundly moving and human work of art.