Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 4

With the opening volumes of Ooku: The Inner Chambers, Fumi Yoshinaga attempts to answer the question of why it is that a culture’s values do not automatically keep step with its demographics.  For example, why would a version of Edo-period Japan in which 75% of the male population had been wiped out by a terrible disease continue to pay lip-service to the idea that men are still running the show?  Alternatively, why would a society in which women shoulder the same political, social and economic responsibilities as men continue to tolerate sexist attitudes and language in the way that our society does?

Over the course of the first three volumes of Ooku, Yoshinaga lays out a model of social adaptation whereby tectonic changes in the nature of society generate social pressures that interact with political institutions and elite psychologies that serve to either slow or accelerate the rate at which a society’s values change to reflect its demographic realities. In Arikoto, the cause of social progress had a worthy champion but in the Reverend Kasuga, the forces of social inertia had an equally forceful defender.  It is in the political wranglings of the Shogun’s court and the relationship between that court and Japanese society as a whole that social trends are born and broken.

The fourth volume of Ooku opens on a note of progressive triumph.  With the reverend Kasuga dead and liberal Arikoto the animating spirit the culture of the court, the first female Shogun Iemitsu decides to cast aside Kasuga’s elaborate deceit and rule openly as a woman. By doing so, she also makes it acceptable for the daughters of noble houses to both assume the leadership of their clans and take up positions in government.  However, despite the forces of social progress seeming poised to sweep all before them, we know from Volume One that something happened between the rule of the first female Shogun Iemitsu and the rule of the seventh female Shogun Yoshimune to stop social change in its tracks and trap Edo Japan in a state of arrested development where women enjoy complete political control over a culture that has enshrined male supremacy in both its language and its symbolism. The fourth volume of Ooku sees Yoshinaga beginning to explain how the process of social change described in the first three volumes of the series was arrested. She does this by stepping back from the court of the first female Shogun in order to adopt a more wide-angled historical perspective allowing her to examine how the twin influences of Arikoto and Kasuga play themselves out over the ensuing generations.

7. The (Real) Story of Lady Iemitsu

The fourth volume begins by addressing a great narrative injustice.  Indeed, by using Arikoto as principle protagonist and having him confront both the influence of Kasuga and the psychological problems of the first female Shogun, Yoshinaga effectively deprived her first female Shogun of agency.  In the conflict between progressives and conservatives, Iemitsu was nothing but a McGuffin.  As a young woman with psychological problems that needed to be overcome, she was little more than a plot point. Thankfully, the introduction to Volume Four sees Yoshinaga addressing this injustice by giving Iemitsu her dues.

In a few short pages, Yoshinaga reminds us that the first female Shogun was a truly remarkable character.  Beset by terrible psychological problems and a world both new and hostile, Iemitsu displayed astonishing personal strength at a time of national crisis.  However, while her astonishing strength allowed her to re-shape the Japanese state, this strength and sense of responsibility also made it impossible for her to live her life with the man she loved.  The fact that Iemitsu’s greatest weakness came from her greatest strength makes her story a profoundly tragic one:

      The country’s first female Shogun, who had played an active role in governing the country while undergoing numerous births and miscarriages – who had lived as though she were pouring her very life into the realm – died at the tender age of twenty-seven.

– Pp. 37

While the Shoguns who followed in Iemitsu’s footsteps possessed some of her characteristics, neither of them displayed her astonishing capacity to be both a Shogun (an institutional figure) and a woman (an individual).

8. The Story of Lady Chiyo

When Shogun Iemitsu dies, her eldest daughter Chiyo is only a child herself.  Not yet ready to assume the reins of power, Chiyo clings to Arikoto while allowing the coterie of ministers known as the Council of the Six to assume full control of the realm.

Luckily for Japan, the Ministers are supremely capable.  In fact, they are so skilled in the intricacies of statecraft that they effectively isolate the Ooku from the outside world.  When insurrections take place and cities burn down, life in the Ooku is almost completely unaffected; Kimonos are purchased.  Cherry blossoms are viewed. The Ooku becomes further disconnected from Japanese society by Lady Chiyo’s apparent lack of sexual appetite.  Indeed, despite the urgings of her senior ministers and her attendants, the teenaged girl seems oddly reticent to assume her responsibilities either as head of government or as provider of a legitimate heir whose existence might reduce the chances of the realm falling into civil war upon her death. Initially, the ministers approach Arikoto to try and engage the Shogun’s interest in matters of state but while Arikoto knows how to prod the Shogun into making decisions, he is completely oblivious to the fact that he is part of the problem.

Though a progressive thinker who encouraged Iemitsu to live openly as a woman, Arikoto is neither a democrat nor a worldly man.  Born to a family of Kyoto aristocrats and raised as a Buddhist monk, Arikoto’s sensibilities are affected to the point of being completely disconnected from the realities of day to day life.  With the death of Kasuga, his authority over the culture of the Ooku became complete but without any political opposition, Arikoto’s cultural hegemony quickly becomes decadent and solipsistic as the culture of the Shogunate stops paying any attention to the world outside the Ooku itself.  Isolated by ministers and deprived of the influx of new perspectives that accompanied the arrival of new concubines such as Sutezo in Volume two, the Ooku rapidly becomes a sickly utopia of inward-looking beauty.

Lady Chiyo cements this cultural insularity by falling head-over-heels in love with Arikoto.  A love completely lacking in the balance provided by the sense of responsibility that made her mother such a great Shogun.  Suddenly aware of the toxicity of his own power, Arikoto resigns his position in the Ooku and takes to a monastery where he lives to a ripe old age.

9. The Story of Lady Tsunayoshi

Never able to get over her love for Arikoto and unwilling to assume her responsibilities as an institutional figure, Lady Chiyo died childless in her forties allowing the Shogunate to pass to her half-sister Tsunayoshi.

Chiyo’s ineffectual nature and disinterested character were so pronounced that she rapidly acquired the nickname Lord Aye-Do-So. Tsunayoshi never runs that risk.  Ruthless, decisive and brutal in both her actions and opinions, Tsunayoshi rapidly assumes full control of her own government and sets about purging the noble clans of any disloyal or overly powerful figures that might have acquired dangerous ambitions during her sister’s weak rein. Seemingly mindful of her obligations to the institution of the Shugunate, Tsunayoshi dallies with so many concubines that she rapidly becomes bored with the inhabitants of the Ooku and starts paying visits to her senior nobles on the understanding that they will lay on fresh men for her to pleasure herself with.  However, with Lady Chiyo’s rule having severed the ties that bound the Ooku to the wider culture and Arikoto’s influence having encouraged a sense of self-indulgent detachment from the world, Tsunayoshi’s rule rapidly comes to embody a form of solipsism which, though different to that of Chiyo’s, is no less toxic.

When Tsunayoshi falls in love, she does so with first the husband and then the son of one of her nobles.  Paying frequent visits to the household of her follower, Tsunayoshi ignores both the human cost of her lust for another woman’s husband and the political repercussions of the favouritism she displays in buying off the noblewoman using lands confiscated during the purges.  Feeling the power flowing from the Ooku and the government as a whole, Tsunayoshi’s official consort attempts to install in the Ooku a new concubine who might capture the Shogun’s attention and so allow her solipsistic power to be counter-balanced.
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The concubine chosen to lure the Shogun into behaving herself is Sir Emonnosuke, a man who made a name for himself at the imperial court in Kyoto.  Initially, Emonnosuke’s introduction is a breath of fresh air.  Politically skilled, fiercely ambitious and astonishingly handsome, Emonnosuke rapidly wins the interests of the Shogun just as Arikoto won those of her mother.  However, despite his extraordinary physical resemblance to Arikoto, Emonnosuke is a very different beast.  Where Arikoto was cultured, refined and educated, Emonnosuke’s culture, refinement and education are all affectations adopted purely in order to win the interest of the Shogun.  Delve below the surface of Emonnosuke and you find neither love of culture, interest in scholarship nor aesthetic sensibility, you find only the burning fires of ambition.

And perhaps this is what Tsunayoshi sees in Emonnosuke.

The fourth volume of Ooku: The Inner Chambers ends on a remarkable cliffhanger.  Having chosen his moment perfectly, Emonnosuke basks in the affection of his Shogun despite being too old to serve as her concubine.  Not to be denied her favourite, Lady Tsynayoshi elevates Emonnosuke to the rank of Chamberlain, a rank of complete authority over the culture of the Ooku held previously by Arikoto and Kasuga.

Disconnected from Japanese culture and the feedback provided by both the realm’s nobles and the uptake of new concubines, the court of the third female Shogun seems poised to become an echo chamber for the whims of a ruling clique devoid of interest in anything aside from the accumulation of power and the satisfaction of their own desires. Politically powerful and yet completely irresponsible to the changing face of Japanese society, the rule of Shogun Tsunayoshi seems poised on the edge of solipsistic tyranny.  But we shall have to wait until next week and the next volume to see what effect this has upon a Japan that is still struggling to cope with radical social, political and demographic change.