Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 3

Volume One of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers posed a question of both its world and ours.  That question was why there is such a thing as gender inequality when gender inequality is so manifestly absurd.  Yoshinaga asks this question by having her characters delve into the past of a fictional Edo-period Japan in which the male population has been reduced by 75%.  The characters look to their history in search of an explanation for their society’s irrational reluctance to abandon the myth of masculine superiority despite the fact that men no longer hold any positions of power.  Why do these Edo-period Japanese still pay homage to the male ego?  By revealing the process through which old values persist in the face of radical social transformation, Yoshinaga sheds some light in our own continued fondness for stereotypes and myths of sexual difference.

Volume Two of Ooku: The Inner Chambers began the process of answering this question by showing us how the court of the Shogun struggled to reconcile itself with the reality that a young woman now ruled Japan.  Following the relationship between the beautiful former priest Arikoto and the troubled young Shogun who is slowly being driven mad by the fact that her position refuses to allow her to be a woman.  In the second volume, Yoshinaga sets up a tension between politicians as thinking and feeling individuals and politicians as channels for social and institutional change.  This tension results in the paradoxical situation that the Shogun must be a woman and yet can only be a man. As a former priest with values totally different to those of the traditionally militaristic ruling class, Arikoto tries to resolve this paradox by helping the Shogun to come to terms with her position by balancing her needs as a woman with the needs of the government to both maintain legitimacy and reflect the changing nature of the outside world.

Volume Three of Ooku: The Inner Chambers deepens this analysis by focussing its gaze upon the changes taking place in Japanese society outside of the Ooku and on the impediments to change that exist within the Ooku itself.

5. The Story of Reverend Kasuga

In Ooku’s second volume, Reverend Kasuga is presented as a remnant of the previous administration.  Wet nurse to the last male Shogun, she is the person who placed his illegitimate daughter on the throne and contrived to keep secret to true gender of the new Shogun.  In the third volume, Yoshinaga provides us with some psychological context for this astonishing act of will on the part of a woman who moved smoothly from household servant to kingmaker without an instant’s hesitation.

Kasuga, we are told, was the wife of a samurai who picked the wrong side in a local squabble.  Cast into exile for his bad advice, the Samurai suddenly finds himself without purpose.  This existential crisis leads him to lose interest in running his household resulting in chaos as his mistress takes it upon herself to start beating his children and demeaning his wife. After murdering the mistress, Kasuga flees and takes up the position of wet nurse in another man’s household.  Literally scarred for life by her impressions of what can happen when a household lacks strong leadership, the young Kasuga sets about building herself and her charge a powerbase.  When her charge becomes the heir to the Shogunate, Kasuga encourages the children of prominent noblemen to become his friends.  Loyal to the Shogun and loyal to her, these children grow up to become the council of the six, a ruling body that sits beneath the Shogun and implements his decisions.

In the third volume, Kasuga is presented as a fundamentally reactionary character.  Terrified of what might happen if the Shogunate showed any signs of inner turmoil or weakness, Kasuga uses all of her political skill and influence to ensure that the Shogunate hide all trace of internal change from the outside world.  In order to maintain this veil of constancy, Kasuga stage-manages an elaborate deception whereby a female Shogun might come to pass as male.

By rising to prominence despite his ‘unmanly’ values and by encouraging the Shogun to express her femininity, Arikoto effectively places himself on a collision course with this decidedly reactionary figure.  Because he serves as a catalyst for change inside the Ooku and because he encourages the Shogun to express herself as a woman, Arikoto seems to pose a threat to everything that Kasuga has worked for.  He is change.  He is chaos.  But he is also a reasonable man…

Elegantly avoiding the Manichaean simplicity of progress vs. conservatism, Yoshinaga refuses to allow these two characters to fight from entrenched positions.  Both are too cunning and subtle for that. Instead, the pair engage in an exquisitely choreographed political fencing match in which Kasuga strikes repeatedly at the core of Arikoto’s emotional being.  Knowing full well that the Shogun’s lover has more political influence over the Shogun than she does, Kasuga sets out to hurt Arikoto’s feelings but also to change his mind. Arikoto’s weakness is that while he enjoys the complete trust of the Shogun, he has yet to impregnate her and it is the job of the Shogun (all Shoguns in general, but this Shogun in particular given her sex) to provide an heir and thus ensure a smooth transition of power between the generations.

Arikoto tears himself apart over the need for the Shogun to take another lover but while emotionally he cannot bear the idea of sharing the Shogun with another man, Kasuga’s arguments eventually hit home.

She is not just a woman… she is the Shogun and, as Shogun, her person is not her own.

What Arikoto comes to realise is that tradition is not simply an arbitrary set of values.  Tradition is also the cumulative wisdom of countless generations all striving for greater power and greater autonomy.  Beneath many hidebound ‘values’ and unmolested holy cows lurk profound insights into human psychology and how the world functions.  The challenge facing this new breed of female Shoguns is a challenge that has always been faced by people in power, namely to work out which aspects of tradition retain their usefulness and which are cancerous growths that need to be cut from the body politic. Because Edo-period Japan had arbitrarily ruled women out of positions of power, women have never before had to face this dilemma.

What Arikoto discovers as he comes to replace Kasuga at the heart of the Ooku is that change is not simply a matter of the individual confronting antiquated values, it is a careful process of negotiation between individual autonomy and institutional effectiveness.  The Shogun cannot be herself until she has first remade the Shogunate in her image.  An image of feminine power that emerges throughout the course of the third volume.

6.  The Story of Sutezo

As the internal culture and politics of the Ooku convulse and convulse again, Japan is changing.  At all levels of Japanese society, women are coming into their own and filling the economic niches abandoned by men as a result of the waves of Redface Pox that decimated the country’s male population.  However, because women are taking on new social and economic responsibilities, their behaviour patterns are changing.  Indeed, outside of the Ooku there are now female fishermen who proudly wander about the place half-naked and there are even female warriors raised from birth to play the role of oldest sons to a generation of samurai nervous about their lack of descendants. These women are discovering that by taking on different roles in society, their conceptions of femininity must change too.

However, while women have changed the way they act and the way they see themselves the same can also be said of men.  In one harrowing scene, the Shogun passes through a town where the old and the sick whore themselves out to impoverished women desperate to have children even if it is with the most wretched of sperm donors.  Despite being poor and despite having to reinvent their ideas of femininity, the women of Japan still feel the ticking of their biological clocks.  A ticking that is also heard by richer women who are more than willing to pay through the nose for a better class of sperm donor.
Sutezo is part of a generation of men that have come to realise that they can make a living by offering themselves to women.  Born to a pair of second-hand kimono retailers, Sutezo is rustic in his manners, unsophisticated in his thinking but beautiful in his appearance.  To his parents’ considerable shame, he makes his living by sleeping with wealthy women.  Initially brought into the Ooku because of his extraordinary physical resemblance to the sterile Arikoto, Sutezo’s arrival at court constitutes a change in the court’s relationship to the wider world.

Traditionally, the Shogun’s male retinue is made up of the younger sons of noble houses.  As Kasuga’s political empire building suggests, raising these younger sons alongside the Shogun is a means of forging a personal bond between the Shogun and the leadership of the various noble houses.  Because they are men and the Shogun’s sex is a secret, Kasuga brings in the first set of potential lovers not as concubines or catamites but as attendants.  As a result, the female Shogun’s concubines occupy positions that would once have been held by noblemen.  The decision to draw the Shogun’s attendants from such a narrow social circle serves to bind that circle to the Shogun but it also means that the highly protected and isolated Shogun will never really get a chance to talk with someone other than a member of the nobility.  However, because of the lack of male nobles, Kasuga is forced to recruit concubines from non-traditional places.  Places such as the priesthood in the case of Arikoto and the lower-middle classes in the case of Sutezo.  By creating a mechanism whereby the lower orders might rise to the status of companions to the Shogun, Kasuga inadvertently creates a feedback loop whereby the Ooku may be influenced by the outside world.  Arikoto was the first to imbue the Ooku with non-Samurai virtues, but Sutezo, as the second to do so, was no less significant.

As a professional concubine, Sutezo is immediately responsive to Arikoto’s refinement and elegance.  Looking at the older man’s dress, Sutezo sees not the affectation of a dandy but the professional attire of a man who owes his position to his physical beauty and refinement.  Despite his resemblance to Arikoto, Sutezo is an uneducated man and boorish man and he is painfully aware of this shortcoming.  This means that his reaction to the world of the Ooku is different to that of the higher-born men who live there.

As a member of the lower orders, Sutezo has no real sense of honour.  He is motivated primarily by the desire for a soft life and nice clothes.  As a result, the greater pay and improved conditions offered by life in the Ooku seem to him like a great step up compared to the life he might otherwise have had on the outside.  This attitudes towards the Ooku itself is a radical departure as prior to Sutezo’s arrival, the men of the Ooku were rich and accomplished individuals who saw retreating to the Ooku as either a hardship to be endured or a sacrifice to be made for the sake of the country.  Sutezo’s pragmatism helps to professionalise the position of male concubine and thereby creates a system through which men might reinvent masculinity just as the economic necessities of the wider world have forced women to reinvent femininity.

The third volume ends with Kasuga ordering the creation of a book that might chart the final days of the Shogunate but, far from being moribund, the culture of both the Ooku and Japan as a whole seem to be flourishing.  Change is everywhere.  The question now becomes, why did that change stop?  Why did the ‘outing’ of the female Shogun not sweep away the last vestiges of male privilege?  The answer will come in future volumes.