Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 5

At the end of volume one of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, the Shogun Yoshimune asks an elderly monk to explain to her “the logic of the present custom” of using male honorifics and titles to refer to female nobles.  After all, if women run the country while men are expected to do little other than provide an heir, why should women continue to pay lip service to the idea that men are running the show?  The monk’s answer is to read to the Shogun from a book entitled Chronicle of a Dying Day.

Despite its gloomy title, the history contained within the Chronicle has proved to be surprisingly up beat.  Indeed, the first four volumes of Ooku depict a vibrant and energetic culture that reacts to the loss of 75% of its male population not with civil war but with a flurry of social, economic and institutional reforms that usher in a veritable golden age of prosperity, peace and sophistication.  However, as volume four drew to a close, the apocalyptic character of the Chronicle seemed poised to assert itself as a ruthless and self-regarding Shogun appointed a man just as ruthless and self-regarding as her to serve as her head of household.

10.  The Story of Emonnosuke

The Shogun’s ineffectual and politically isolated consort saw in Emonnosuke a means of dealing himself back into the politics of the Ooku.  Physically beautiful, intellectually capable and adaptable enough to shape his identity to fit the whims of a notoriously capricious Shogun, Emonnosuke was supposed to be the ultimate political weapon in the war to control the Ooku.  However, this plan fatally underestimated Emonnosuke’s personal ambition as, once introduced to the court of the Shogun, Emonnosuke spurned the position of concubine in order to get himself appointed high chamberlain, a position held previously by the likes of Arikoto and Kasuga.

Arikoto and Kasuga were among the finest political minds of their generations; The neglected wife of an exiled samurai, Kasuga successfully re-invented herself as the architect of the first female Shogunate while Arikoto single-handedly transformed the Ooku from a shabby boy’s club with an unwelcome female leader to a place of refinement and cultivation designed to appeal to all of a young woman’s senses. Both skilled and ruthless in their own particular ways, Arikoto and Kasuga possessed the power to reshape Japan’s political culture but this power was invariably shaped and defined by the deep-seated belief that what they were doing was in the best interest of both the Shogun and the country as a whole.

Emonnosuke seems to lack any such belief.

Over the course of this volume, Yoshinaga guides Emonnosuke through an array of political tussles.  Forced to contend with favoured concubines, zealous fathers and a seemingly infertile Shogun, Emonnosuke wields his political skills with enough grace, insight and poise to leave us in no doubt that he is the legitimate heir to Arikoto and Kasuga.  However, while Emonnosuke ably deals with these problems, his skills seem to reveal very little about him as a person.  What are his values?  What is his agenda? Indeed, it is only by revealing the lot of the other men of Emonnosuke’s generation that Yoshinaga allows us to get a handle on the man behind the skillset.

Lord Asano is one of the few remaining male dominion lords in the realm. Loaded with responsibilities despite possessing limited skill and experience, Asano is eager to impress upon the female political class that he is not to be trifled with.  Refusing to show any sign of weakness and egged on by underlings who fill his head with misogynistic fantasies about the right of men to rule the world, Asano finds himself outwitted, goaded and humiliated by an elderly female courtier.  His political career in tatters, his honour besmirched and his lack of political skill affording him no other option, Asano attacks the old woman with his sword.  However, despite women now possessing more political power than men and the courtier having a higher standing than Asano, the Shogun treats the assault not as a squabble between political equals but as a gross act of physical abuse by a powerful man against a weak and defenceless woman.  Acting on an out-dated set of assumptions about the power dynamics between the genders, the Shogun has Asano disembowel himself while the old courtier is allowed to escape punishment.  This does not sit well with the Japanese people.

By the time of the current Shogun, the Japanese people have had several generations in which to get used to the idea that men exist purely in order to provide an heir.  Men and women having long-since swapped places, the taboos surrounding the use of physical violence against women have disappeared.  By refusing to treat both nobles as equal, the socially isolated Shogun has misjudged the public mood and made herself appear vindictive and prejudiced.  This perception prompts a group of men to arm themselves and take justice into their own hands.

Emonnosuke is a man of his generation.  Born to a penniless aristocratic clan, Emonnosuke spent his youth as a glorified prostitute, servicing the needs of wealthy female aristocrats in order to keep his family in the style to which they had become accustomed by generations of wealth and privilege.  However, despite having sole financial responsibility for his entire property, the young Emonnosuke was refused even the most basic right to self-determination.  By denying him the opportunity to rule his house despite his obvious political skill and forcing him to study at night despite his desire to be a scholar, Emonnosuke’s family created a man completely deprived of agency, a man for whom the acquisition of power was an end in itself.

When Emonnosuke was first introduced at the end of volume four, his supreme ruthlessness and adaptability spoke of a degree of cynicism that bordered on the psychopathic.  Here was a man who seemed to serve no master save his own ambition.  However, by showing us the condition of the men outside the Ooku, Yoshinaga allows us to realise that Emonnosuke’s pursuit of power for its own sake is not an act of cynicism but of defiance against a political system that has moved from oppressing women to oppressing men.  As Emonnosuke himself insists in an affecting encounter with the Shogun, he wanted to prove that he could be her equal.  In a society where a minority are denied to power, the acquisition of power by that minority becomes a supremely moral act.  Emonnosuke is no psychopath… he is an idealist.  A zealot.

11.  The Story of Keisho-In

One of the more surprising re-introductions in volume four was that of Keisho-In.  First introduced in volume two as Arikoto’s page and enforcer, Keisho-In returned in volume four as father to the Shogun Tsunayoshi.  Utterly devoted to his daughter and skilled in the ways of the Ooku, the older Keisho-In plays the role of principle antagonist to the young and ambitious Emonnosuke.  However, where Emonnosuke’s principles remain hidden for much of the book, Keisho-In’s are only too clear.

Keisho-In is an old man obsessed with his genes.  As a youth, it was foretold that Keisho-In would become the father of a Shogun but while this prophecy came to pass, Keisho-In’s line seems destined to end when the youthful Lady Matsu is swept away by a fever.  Obsessed with getting his daughter to produce another heir, Keisho-In begins an arms race with Emonnosuke as both men redouble their efforts to get the ageing Shogun to conceive.  Initially, this results simply in the introduction of more and more beautiful concubines but before long, the refinement established by Arikoto turns to decadence as the men of the Ooku begin to engage in a series of increasingly demeaning and surreal competitions in the hope of both attracting the Shogun’s attention and getting her in the mood.

As wrestling matches and carp-catching competitions succeed each other, the Ooku becomes a place not of refinement and beauty but of sordid exhibitionism.  By helping to create a culture in which men are little more than playthings, Keiko-In (himself a monk and a concubine) forces the Ooku further and further out of synch with Japanese society.  Indeed, if the Shogun is encouraged to look upon men as mere things is it really surprising that she should react with such prejudice to a squabble between nobles of equal rank?

By sacrificing the dignity of his fellow concubines for the sake of a grandchild, Keiko-In effectively helps to unravel the fragile equality of the sexes won by Arikoto and Shogun Iemitsu.  From accepting that both men and women can rule, Japanese political culture has moved to seeing men as little more than chattel; beasts unworthy of ruling and deserving of nothing but contempt.  However, Keisho-In’s obsession with his DNA goes much further than this… it is also destroying the economy.

When faced with the death of Lady Matsu, Keisho-In summons the mystic who once foresaw his becoming father to a Shogun.  When asked to explain the end of his line, the monk replies that Keisho-In is being punished for the crime of killing a cat.  Devastated, Keisho-In convinces his daughter first to make it illegal to kill animals and then to feed the hundreds of stray animals that roam the Japanese countryside.  This sudden concern for animal welfare combined with the increasingly lavish balls staged by the Ooku effectively bankrupts the country, forcing it to devalue its currency and sending the entire nation into a state of social and economic unrest that closes the golden age so patiently engineered by the great Shogun Iemitsu.

As the reign of Shogun Yoshitsuna comes to an end and we are forced to wait till July 2011 for the sixth volume to be translated, we are reminded of the need for balance in all things.

Shogun Iemitsu needed to be a woman but had to be a Shogun.  By reconciling the two sets of needs she not only achieved a degree of happiness and fulfilment denied her successors, she also made it possible for other women to be themselves whilst taking over positions that had previously been the sole preserve of men. By tending to be either women or Shoguns without ever managing to balance the two sets of demands, Iemitsu’s successors doomed their reigns and damaged their realms. Yoshitsuna was ruthless, decisive and intelligent but her lack of basic humanity allowed her Shogunate to be hollowed out creating a moral void that was filled by the ambitions of lesser men.

Volume five of Ooku: The Inner Chambers is easily the most morally and socially complex book of the series.  While the previous books in the series were content to present us with a tension between traditional values and demographic reality, volume five suggests that even when abstract values do begin to line up with concrete demographic reality, there are still likely to be serious moral repercussions.  Indeed, Yoshinaga’s Edo-period Japan has now reached a point where women have the power to rule but is this situation really any better than the old one when all that has changed is that the oppressors and the oppressed have simply changed places?   In volume one, it seemed incomprehensibly sexist that a society run by women should pay lip-service to the myth of male superiority but in volume five we see that far from being a simple slight against women, this lip-service also serves as a moral fig leaf concealing the fact that the men of Japan are being treated like animals.  The Shogun’s decision to punish a male courtier while allowing a female courtier to go free speaks of a gender imbalance that goes far deeper than demanding that female nobles be referred to as ‘My Lord’.