Tuesday 29 November 2016

The Shogun's Harem by Lesley Downer

Our November Guest is Lesley Downer, who will become a regular History Girl next year.

Photo credit: Jill Shaw
Lesley Downer lived in Japan for many years. She tramped around Basho’s Narrow Road the Deep North, lived among geisha, interviewed sumo wrestlers and enjoyed the glitzy life of Tokyo. She is the author of many books on Japan, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West and The Last Concubine, short listed for Romantic Novel of the Year. Her new novel, The Shogun’s Queen, takes place largely in the Women’s Palace.
Lesey is currently  a visiting lecturer, teaching on the MA programme in Creative Writing (non-fiction ) at City University in London and lives in London with her husband, the author Arthur I. Miller.


Unravelling the web of secrecy around The Shogun’s ‘Harem’

The shogun celebrating New Year's Day with his women (from the Chiyoda No Ooku triptych by Toyohara Chikanobu, 1838 - 1912)
The heroine of The Shogun’s Queen really lived. In a way she was a bit like Princess Diana. She started life as a commoner, in fact very minor nobility, much like Diana, and grew up in relative freedom. Then, when she was 17, like Diana she was chosen to marry the ruler of the country - not the ruler-in-waiting, like Prince Charles, but the actual ruler, the shogun. Like Charles, this ruler didn’t actually wield much power at all. He had a whole government that did the ruling.

Traditionally the shogun would have been married to an imperial princess, a member of the emperor's family. (The emperor was a Pope-like figure who lived in seclusion in Kyoto while the shogun, who lived in Edo, now Tokyo, was the temporal ruler.) Imperial princesses were used to a life within walls. They were born and grew up in their palaces and never left, in the same way that our queen can’t just go to the shops like an ordinary person. It’s said that one emperor once climbed to the top of the topmost tower in his palace to take a look at the world outside.

When she married the shogun the imperial princess would have stepped into a palanquin and left her palace for the first time. She would have had her only glimpse of the big wide world through the slats of her window as she was carried the 450 kilometres to Edo.

Gate that led to the Women's Palace in Edo Castle, now the Imperial Palace Tokyo
 But for commoners like my heroine, Atsu, life was quite different. In Japan in those days the lower you were on the social scale the freer you were. In the mid nineteenth century a peasant woman named Matsue Taseko, who happened to be a poet, informed her husband she was off to Kyoto and walked through the mountains alone. There she hung out with lords, ladies, poets and even the women of the Emperor’s court and wrote poetry. Later she went to Edo. Sometimes her husband went with her, sometimes not. He raised no objections to her independent lifestyle.

For Atsu it must have been thrilling beyond imagination to be taken to live in Edo Castle - but she would also have soon discovered that there was no way out. Once you were in, you didn’t come out.
Edo Castle was Japan’s Versailles. It was as magnificent and lavish as Kublai Khan’s fabled Xanadu. A vast complex of palaces and gardens a mile across and four miles in circumference, it was where the shogun lived and, with the help of an army of government officials, ruled the country. On maps its exact location was never marked. It was always hidden behind the coat of arms of the shoguns, the ruling Tokugawa family - three hollyhock leaves in a circle. It was a place of spectacular wealth and power and glitz and glory.

Gardens at Katsura Rikyu - akin to what the gardens in the Women’s Palace must have looked like

The holy of holies, the innermost sanctum within that complex, was the Women’s Palace, the ooku - Great Interior.

The white-walled buildings with their dove-grey tiled roofs were surrounded by landscaped pleasure gardens, threaded with streams and lakes where women glided in red-lacquered barges. There were moon-viewing pavilions, stages for Noh plays, tea ceremony huts and artificial hills, of which Momijiyama - Maple Mountain - was most renowned for its beauty.

Inside there was a labyrinth of chambers with sliding painted screens for walls, coffered ceilings glimmering with gold leaf and floors of fragrant rice straw tatami mats. The women had an endless supply of tasteful yet hugely expensive kimonos. The shogun’s wife changed five times a day. They were surrounded by gorgeous artefacts, perfumes and incense, lacquered chests and shelves, priceless tea ceremony ware and exquisite vases. They were constantly given gifts by petitioners hoping they might intercede with the shogun on their behalf. They were surrounded by beauty; and these treasures have been preserved and are in the Tokugawa museums so we can glimpse their lives from these.
In museum catalogues they are always presented solely as works of art, treasures, and sometimes it’s mentioned that they belonged to ‘the shogun’s household’.

Gilded screens at Nagoya Castle - akin to what the Women’s Palace must have looked like
 What is not mentioned is that that household consisted entirely of women and that the shogun was the only man who could ever enter. In the Forbidden City in Peking and in the Topkapi Palace, the sultan’s harem in Istanbul, there were eunuchs. But the Japanese never had the custom of castration. Maybe they didn’t like the idea of doing something so traumatic to a man. In the Women’s Palace shaven-headed ‘companion priests’ - effectively nuns - took the place of eunuchs and were the only women allowed to cross between the men’s and the women’s palaces.

So the treasures remain. But as for the life that went on around them, there is very little information. For the palace was shrouded in secrecy. No westerner ever visited or heard the tiniest whisper of it or even knew it existed. The women took an oath never to tell of anything that went on there and even after the palace closed down for good in 1868 and they were thrown out into the cold very few ever revealed anything about their lives.

In the 1890s the son of one ex-lady-in-waiting published a book called Mother’s Stories of the Castle and scholars at Tokyo University interviewed two women who had served there. Recently a couple of scholarly works have been published in English, unearthing as much as can be found on life in the palace.

From their information the interviewers put together plans of the palace. There were the shogun’s apartments (known as the Little Sitting Room, though they were far from small), the wing where the shogun’s wife lived and another wing in a different part of the palace where his mother lived. Then there were offices where women officials carried out day-to-day administration, and - by far the largest area - the private chambers of the ladies and their maids. In all there were well over four hundred rooms. Only the highest-ranking ladies and the mothers of the shogun’s children had their own rooms. The rest shared. All the ladies slept surrounded by maids, ready to serve them when required. Only people of no consequence slept alone.

Ladies of the Women’s Palace (from the Chiyoda No Ooku triptych by Toyohara Chikanobu, 1838 - 1912)
There were also great halls, reception rooms, shrine rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, and huge baths with areas for reclining. On the opposite side of the palace from the shogun’s entrance was a heavily-guarded gate which led to a bridge across the moat. Here the women came and went on the few occasions when they were allowed to go out and merchants brought silks, make up and other goods to sell.

It was a place of unimaginable luxury but also a place of great unhappiness. There was plotting, intrigue, jealousy, whispers behind hands, women ganging up on each other, even murders and - it was said - hauntings. Bodies were found down wells, boy babies were smothered at birth on the orders of women who wanted to ensure that their son, not someone else’s, became the next shogun. A striking number of boy children - most, in fact - died at birth or in infancy.

The shogun only chose a few girls as his concubines - Ienari had 53 children by 27 concubines - but all the rest had to remain virgins. Once in the 1840s the finance minister was trying to enforce austerity measures and asked the women to cut back on buying expensive kimonos. He was told in no uncertain terms by the formidable chief elder that the women suffered enough from their enforced celibacy and were entitled to as many gorgeous kimonos as they wanted in compensation.

All these women assumed life in the Castle would continue just the same for ever. Like us today, no one imagined that their world would come to an end. But in the 1860s the country erupted into civil war and in 1868 the palace was closed down and the women thrown out onto the streets. In the upheaval that followed people completely forgot that the Women’s Palace with all its luxury and beauty and backbiting and tragedy had ever existed. Edo Castle became the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and all that remains of the Women’s Palace is the vast lawn of the East Gardens there.


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating - what an extraordinary world!

Ruan Peat said...

This all seems another world and the glimpse you have given us is fascinating. I must get some of the works already written and find out more. Thank you.