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  • Coercive Sex in the Medieval Japanese Court:Lady Nijō's Memoir
  • Hitomi Tonomura (bio)

In 1271, the retired emperor Go-Fukakusa-in (1243-1304; r. 1246-1259) entered the room of Nijō (1258-after 1307), a female companion-protégée who was then fourteen years old, and forced himself upon her. "He handled me so mercilessly that my thin gown was being badly torn, and soon I would be left with nothing in this world, not even my name, as dawn came upon my feelings of bitter despair," wrote Nijō in her memoir, Towazugatari (Telling Without Being Asked), completed thirty-five years later.1 By thus exposing the circumstances of what were possibly her first sexual relations, Nijō left a record of coercive sex written from the "recipient's" perspective, something rare among premodern Japanese literary works. [End Page 283]

More than seven hundred years later, Nijō's description of the apparently violent act often prompts modern readers to debate if it should be called rape. Margaret H. Childs, who carefully assesses the aggressive behavior of earlier classical romantic heroes, such as Hikaru Genji in The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), against the context of a social dynamic that placed a high value on women's vulnerability and passivity, regards the incident involving Nijō as rape.2 Nishizawa Masashi also calls the act rape and exercises his own voyeurism in describing it: "The scene in which Nijō is forcibly stripped entirely naked and violated as in a rape (reipu/gōkan) [is] a daring expression imbued with a typically medieval exhibitionism," which, he holds, contrasts with the more tasteful writings of earlier times.3

By focusing on this passage in Nijō's memoir, which admittedly raises the lexical issue of the definition of "rape," this article explores how a modern reader might attempt to do justice to Nijō's authorship and subjectivity as situated in a particular set of social and political circumstances and beholden to certain literary conventions. The sexual incident, whether or not we call it rape, reveals the gender- and status-based relations of power that shaped Nijō's world and defined the cultural parameters she came both to endorse and resist. Her story serves as a portal through which to understand the life choices of a medieval court woman as she navigated through masculinist prerogatives deeply embedded in the structure of imperial and bureaucratic authority.

The complexity of Nijō's work calls for an analytical method that combines attention to its historicity and literary constructiveness. After a brief review of some of the issues involved in defining "rape," we will therefore begin our consideration of her account by examining the political, social, sexual, and familial context from which Nijō-the-author emerged. Having familiarized ourselves with the verifiably historical role of the characters featured in the memoir and assessed their relationship to its heroine, Nijō-the-protagonist, we will turn to the scene of the initial sexual encounter with Go-Fukakusa and investigate its layered meanings, first, by following the sequence of events as organized by the author, and, second, by probing deeper into her narrative strategies and intertextual references to classical works. Through this process we may hope to decode the memoir's meta theme: Nijō's narrative assertion of her sexuality as it was shaped in relation to the demands of court life. This meta theme will serve as the axis for our consideration of the remainder of Nijō's account of her life. Her authorial intentions, in our reading, become articulated towards the memoir's end as she resituates her sexuality in regard to Go-Fukakusa. We will return [End Page 284] to the question whether or not the episode with Go-Fukakusa was "rape" in the conclusion.

Defining "Rape"

One of the major stumbling blocks in our discussion of rape is the murkiness of its meaning. With what criteria do we, living in the twenty-first century, assess Go-Fukakusa's action as presented by Nijō? Terminological variations found throughout history and across societies suggest an interpretive fluidity for the act that we call "rape." The way any society articulates, defines, or approaches this form of violation depends on multiple factors...


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pp. 283-338
Launched on MUSE
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