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  • Ōoku: The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women by Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Linda H. Chance
  • Anne Walthall
Ōoku: The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women. By Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Linda H. Chance. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2014. 374pages. Hardcover $119.99; ebook $8.99–$59.99.

As a world of women hidden from the public gaze yet enclosed within the seat of the shogun’s power, the Ōoku (great interior) has fascinated purveyors of popular culture from the early eighteenth century to the present. In just the last ten years or so, a play, a movie, and a television series titled Ōoku have depicted this space as a site of competition, drama, and intrigue. In 2008, the NHK Sunday-night historical fiction series Taiga dorama, which presents a new year-long story annually, aired Atsuhime, featuring the woman from a collateral house of the Shimazu rulers of Satsuma who, after her adoption by the Konoe family of Kyoto aristocrats, became the wife of the thirteenth shogun Iesada. Known to history as Tenshō-in, she lived through the last days of the shogunate. With a script by Tabuchi Kumiko, the show proved so popular that NHK commissioned Tabuchi to craft a second script, that for Gō: Himetachi no sengoku, which aired in 2011 and featured the wife of the second shogun Hidetada.

These dramas are far removed from any conceivable circumstance in today’s world. Prominently featured are the jingle of bells, the unlocking of a door, and the appearance of a single male figure, the shogun, at the head of a long hall lined with kneeling women dressed in gorgeous kimono. This scene signifies the entrance to an alien time and space. Yet beyond this outward show of difference, the scripts for these dramas depict women’s motivations and emotions in terms of today’s sensibilities. Either the women are just as conniving and catty as those portrayed in late-night television dramas that have modern settings, or they represent the idealized feminine virtues of self-sacrifice, obedience, and blind devotion to duty. In all cases, the message is that what women really want is love according to heterosexual norms.

Even the recent innovative depiction of the “great interior,” the ten-volume manga Ōoku, by Yoshinaga Fumi, does not escape these conventions.1 Yoshinaga imagines a Japan in which disease has wiped out forty percent of the male population, including the shogun and most daimyo. From the third shogun Iemitsu to the tenth shogun Ieharu, all the shoguns are women, and the Ōoku is stocked with men; though they are female instead of male, the shoguns retain their historical names. Yoshinaga cleverly incorporates all of the era’s major figures and incidents, from the Meireki fire of 1657, to the fifth shogun Tsunayoshi’s laws of compassion, to the Akō incident (depicted in the fictionalized account Chūshingura), to the eighth shogun Yoshimune’s reforms. She [End Page 284] begins with Yoshimune as a serious-minded leader and then goes back to the days of Iemitsu, a petulant adolescent. Some of the outstanding secondary characters include an easily aggrieved Keishō-in as Tsunayoshi’s father; the notorious Ōoku administrator Ejima as a large, hairy male; Arai Hakuseki as a schoolmarm; and Hiraga Gennai as a woman dressed as a man who passes freely between male and female space. Yet despite the verisimilitude with which Yoshinaga recreates Tokugawa politics and society, albeit with gender role reversals, the men in the Ōoku conform to present-day stereotypes of competition and intrigue. So far the series has been made into two movies with live actors. The first features the pop star Ninomiya Kazunari in the role of a star-crossed lover on whom Yoshimune takes compassion. The second depicts a spoiled and perverted Tsunayoshi redeemed by the sincere love of her chief attendant.

A focus on individuals—their personalities and relationships—is not specific to popular culture; it also constitutes one way to write history, as Ōoku: The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women, by Cecilia Seigle and Linda Chance, demonstrates. Seigle spent more than two decades doing research on the Ōoku and its inhabitants...


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