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  • An Imperial Concubine’s Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G. G. Rowley
  • Christina Laffin (bio)
An Imperial Concubine’s Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan. By G. G. Rowley. Columbia University Press, New York, 2013. xviii, 255 pages. $40.00, cloth; $39.99, E-book.

After concluding her biography of Jane Franklin Mecon (1712–94), sister of Benjamin Franklin, the historian Jill Lepore notes, “in writing this book, I have had to stare down a truism: the lives of the obscure make good fiction but bad history.”1 In constructing the life of a seventeenth-century Japanese noblewoman, Gaye Rowley faces a similar conundrum: how does one recreate the history of a woman when there are scant materials documenting her life? Rowley’s response, An Imperial Concubine’s Tale, is an ambitious attempt to weave together disparate sources into a narrative revealing the life of a courtier, concubine, and nun known as Nakanoin Nakako (ca. 1591–1671).

The focus of the book, Nakako, was an imperial concubine to Emperor GoYōzei (1571–1617, r. 1586–1611), who became embroiled in the “dragonscale scandal” (gekirin jiken) of 1609, an incident in which five imperial concubines and nine noblemen were discovered to have indulged in “illicit sexual escapades” (p. 2). Nakako is the only woman in the scandal whose life can be reconstructed, and, happily for the reader, her life is both eventful and illuminating. After various machinations between imperial and shogunal authorities, at the age of 18 she is banished to the island of Niijima in Izu. A typhoon leaves her ship beached on the Izu Peninsula, where she spends the next 14 years in the care of a village headman and his family, until her reprieve and return to the capital in 1623. Eighteen years later, she takes the tonsure and eventually becomes the abbess of Hōji’in convent (in Kyoto), living on until about the age of 80.

Although Nakako represents the central figure in Rowley’s analysis, the book offers extensive commentary on the historical transformations taking place amid competing political, economic, and military interests. The author’s strength is in carrying out painstaking research, drawing from [End Page 450] myriad sources and utilizing her knowledge of the intricacies of late medieval (1467–1603) and early modern (1603–1868) history to offer a new perspective on these periods. Rowley explains the motivations for her project as follows: “Attempting to bring into sharper focus the dim and discontinuous contours of one imperial concubine’s life opens a new window on the past, through which we can see events, institutions, people, and even texts that would otherwise remain invisible” (p. 3). One would hope there is no longer any need to assert the importance of women’s history, but much work remains to be done in terms of excavating past women’s lives, experiences, and contributions, particularly before the modern era.2 Faced with the challenge of limited sources describing Nakako directly and nothing in her own words or hand, Rowley offers the best approach under the circumstances, bringing together a wealth of records that enable her to sketch out the events and narratives surrounding the “dragon-scale scandal” as it pertained to one woman’s life.

As Rowley notes, Nakako’s story has not yet been told within the scholarly community in Japan. To date, the dragon-scale scandal and Nakako’s involvement have only been included in institutional histories of Japan in order to demonstrate the tensions between Emperor GoYōzei and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) as an example of court-shogunate relations. The tale of this scandal has thus been one of male actors, despite the fact that women are at its core. Through her eight chapters on the life and times of Nakako, Rowley attempts to remedy this imbalance.

The introduction explains, in brief, the dragon-scale scandal and Nakako’s life, as well as the political events leading up to GoYōzei’s enthronement. Chapter 1 describes Nakako’s father, Nakanoin Michikatsu (1556–1610), and how his own sexual escapades led to his banishment, protection by the warrior and scholar Hosokawa Yūsai (1534...


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pp. 450-454
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