Friday, 14 July 2017

Breaking through a wall of silence: Researching the Women’s Palace in old Tokyo by Lesley Downer

The dimensions of the Seraglio and the extent to which it exerted a malign influence upon the conduct of public affairs may be measured by the number of its inhabitants. 
A History of Japan, 1615 - 1867, by Sir George Bailey Sansom (1963)
Only existing photograph of
a lady of the shogun's court
(Life in the Women's Palace
 at Edo Castle

In a couple of weeks my new novel, THE SHOGUN’S QUEEN, will be published in paperback. It’s set in the Women’s Palace in old Tokyo, a place surrounded by secrecy and about which until recently almost nothing was known. In fact it was treated rather like a shameful secret.

I’m not sure when I first stumbled upon the fact that the shogun - the de facto ruler of Japan for several hundred years - had had a harem or something very akin. I’d lived in Japan for years, absorbed myself in the history, literature and lore, had written books, even lived with geisha, yet never heard a word of any harem. 

It seems three thousand women lived in the O-oku, the ‘Great Interior’ of Edo Castle, in the city we now call Tokyo. They all swore an oath of secrecy, never to speak or write of anything they heard, witnessed or experienced. In 1868 the castle was handed over to the enemy after a bitter civil war. The occupants were expelled and everything that had gone on was expunged from the history books. Most of the women had come from families on the losing side and many found themselves homeless. Most kept silent till their deaths. 
Shogun being served by his ladies - tableau, Nijo Castle, Kyoto

A search of the library at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, revealed a single book on the palace, entitled Life in the Women's Palace at Edo Castle. In old age one of the ex-ladies-in-waiting had broken her silence and spoken to her son and a couple had agreed to be interviewed. 

I could almost hear the croaking voices of the old ladies as they explained the etiquette and protocol, the hairstyles, clothing and duties of each rank of lady, ruminated over which classes were high enough in rank to enter the presence of the shogun and his wife and which were not. They described the recruitment process, the three daily audiences, the annual festivities, the parties. 
Nun with shogun (Life in the Women's Palace at Edo Castle)
Very few of the three thousand women, they explained, ever became concubines. Concubines were chosen usually by rank but sometimes when the shogun happened to spot a particularly lovely girl in the gardens or even out on the street. Ienari, the thirteenth shogun, set a record with fifty three children born to twenty seven concubines - though only the concubines who bore children are listed in the records and he probably enjoyed the company of many more.

Whether you were a concubine or the shogun’s wife, sexual activity ended at the age of thirty. There were tales of frustrated ladies-in-waiting, condemned to a life of celibacy, who sneaked out to sleep with handsome monks, carpenters or kabuki actors and were harshly punished with exile or even execution. 
Himeji Castle women's quarters

I was struck by the fact that unlike the harems of the Topkapi in Istanbul and the Forbidden City in Peking, there were no eunuchs in the women’s palace or anywhere in Japan. Four nuns - shaven-headed and officially desexualised - acted as intermediaries between the men’s and women’s palaces but the O-oku was run not by them but by seven hard-smoking elders who had once been concubines. In Japan the women ran their own affairs. 

I would have given anything to have seen the palace. But not only had the castle been taken over by the enemy, it had burnt down many times. There was nothing left. 

I started off by visiting Himeji Castle in Japan. Every lord, I discovered, had had a harem, and the buildings that housed the harem of the lord of Himeji are still there, though they are empty now, just bare wooden walls and tatami-matted floors with nothing left to imagine of the life. 

Then I went to Nijo Castle in Kyoto. Magnificent though it is, this was just the shogun’s pied a terre, a mere shadow of the splendour of Edo Castle. The painted transepts and gold encrusted screens, designed to impress visitors, are still in place in the grand audience halls. 

Bridge and Great Gate, Women's Palace,
Edo, late 19th century
The women’s quarters, conversely, are much quieter and calmer, domestic in mood, walled with screens painted with ink-brushed scenes of country life and peopled with mannequins of the shogun and his women in lavish kimonos. I spent a long time there, imagining the jealousy and back biting, picturing the women tiptoeing around fearful of putting a foot wrong while all the while hoping they would be spotted by the shogun and elevated to concubine. 

And finally I went to Edo Castle, now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Where the women’s palace once stood - with its white walls and ranks of dove grey roofs, its thousands of women in exquisite kimonos rustling through the corridors and across the walkways - is now the East Gardens. I crossed the bridge that spans the moat to the Great Gate where merchants used to wait. 
'Site of Oh-oku'

Inside there is nothing but an endless expanse of lawn marked at one end with the granite foundation stones of what was once a five-storeyed tower. I paced out the area, awed at the vast size of the place. Then I walked down Tide-Viewing Slope up which the women were carried in painted palanquins before entering the palace, never to leave again. 

Finally I discovered a small sign, half-hidden inside a hedge. It read ‘Site of Oh-oku,’ final confirmation that thousands of woman had once whiled away their lives here, on what is now an empty expanse of lawn.

Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, is set in the Women’s Palace. It comes out in paperback on July 27th. For more see


Gillian Polack said...

I walked that area when I was in Tokyo and didn't realise. The friends I was with were locals, but not history people. Your post changes the way I remember what I saw.

Michelle Athy said...

I was in Tokyo in March and we were on the Imperial Palace grounds and this was never mentioned. Really fascinating.

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating. Looking forward to your book... Three thousand women! What a waste of good lives!

Leslie Wilson said...


Clare Mulley said...

So glad that you are filling a page which feels it has been erased x

Essie Fox said...

Absolutely fascinating.