Part 1: The Sexual Revolution Within the Ôoku
There’s a line in Volume 1 that really defines the larger work of Ôoku, where a character notes that the men there kept like goldfish: a luxury item to have simply for the sake of having. For the third and (part of) the fourth volumes of Ôoku, I’d like to shift the focus from the narrative itself to the larger cultural issues presented in the volume. No work of art or literature exists in a vacuum, and the third and fourth volumes of Ôoku address the present issue of “herbivore men” and their counterpart, “carnivore women.” Unlike Otomen, though, the story of Ôoku is not directly about this issue, but there’s no denying the connection between contemporary culture and the work. The content of this volume is largely meant to explain the changes in Japanese (alternate history) culture caused by the Red Pox, or how the culture in the world that Yoshinaga created evolved from the Shogunate of Iemitsu to that of Yoshimune.
I’d like to address this in multiple parts—first the sexual revolution within the ôoku; next, the changing political and social world; and finally the lasting cultural impact that the revolutions within and without the castle have on the world. The issues addressed here are fairly lengthy, so I’ve divided up Part 1 into subsections. Spoilers are a given; also, one image contains some potentially NSFW cleavage.
Merely a Plaything
The plot of this volume focuses on the building of the ôoku. Although Iemitsu and Arikoto are very happy together, Arikoto is infertile, and Kasuga is bent on Iemitsu producing an heir. Against both their wishes, the lovers are parted, and new additions come to the ôoku. Iemitsu produces an heir with her new concubine, but she and Arikoto secretly continue their affair. In what I found to be a sweet moment, Iemitsu promises Arikoto that no matter whose child she bears, she is his and his alone—however, the rift between them grows.
One of the aspects of the manga that I really like is the scenes of the lives of the commoners. While the manga focuses on the Shogunate and the daily life of those in Edo Castle, the cuts to life outside the castle—the famine, the pox, the farmers and merchants—are crucial to the world-building, as the castle and harem are very insular.
Sutezou is introduced to us as the youngest son of a tailor who specializes in making collars for kimono. Instead of helping his parents mind the shop, he prefers to go out on the town with his lover. Instead of attributing this behavior to laziness or personality, though, his father reprimands him for acting frivolously—and femininely. The same thing happens earlier in the manga with another character’s son, and it certainly echoes the “kids these days” attitude of society toward herbivore men.
Sutezou is approached by Kasuga to join the ôoku because of his striking physical resemblance to Arikoto. Personality-wise, Arikoto is more intellectual and stoic, and is, to use a college-admissions phrase, well rounded in his interests in arts and culture, his physical ability, and his intellectual capability. Sutezou, on the other hand, speaks thick, casual Edo-ben, has an eye for fashion, and loves sweets.* Edo-ben aside, the latter two aspects are associated with femininity (and herbivore men) in Japanese culture.
The female name (see Volume 2) Iemitsu gives Sutezou, Oraku (お楽), really reflects his personality, as he comes off as not very deep or serious; the name also reflects Iemitsu’s feelings about him. To her, Oraku is her plaything, a bit on the side, not worthy of the love and respect she gives Arikoto.
Yoshinaga goes on to show that Oraku is not a special case. She explains that a trend of favoring and pampering sons, sheltering them and treating them as the treasures of the family, has started (vol. 4). Oraku is sort of a forerunner of this—while not pampered by his parents, he longs for a life of leisure that he could attain by becoming a husband, or, in his case, a concubine.
My Body, My Choice
As for Iemitsu’s role in the sexual revolution, the Shogun has some amazingly culturally relevant moments in this volume, and Yoshinaga really speaks to contemporary women’s issues through Iemitsu.
In the last decade, Japan’s issues with women’s bodies have focused on the Pill and the birth dearth. Japan did not legalize the birth control pill until 1999, which has been available in the US since 1960. Meanwhile, the way the birth dearth—that is, Japan’s low fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman at the time the manga was published—has been repeatedly blamed on women.** We are too selfish, prioritizing our careers over finding a husband and bearing children, say the media and government officials, all the while ignoring the research that says that women want to have 2-3 children but the lack of adequate governmental and societal support for working parents (parental leave, better working hours, childcare) to make this a reality. There is certainly no dearth of literature on this, and I’ve put a brief bibliography at the end of some sources.
Iemitsu finds herself in a similar situation. Arikoto appears to be infertile, though Iemitsu suggests that she may be the one “at fault” for their lack of heirs (vol. 3, p. 70), citing the difficulty of the birth of her daughter who died shortly afterward. Kasuga, the wet-nurse of Iemitsu’s father (also Iemitsu), and the person who is actually in charge of the Shogunate, tries to get rid of Arikoto, and in an effort to save his relationship with Iemitsu, he suggests that she sleep with other men in order to produce an heir. Iemitsu is horrified by the thought, and beats Arikoto, yelling, “I’ll be the only one to choose if other men are to have me!” (vol. 3, p. 67).
This situation reminded me of one of the other examples that came up a lot in the mid ’00s: Crown Princess Masako’s “failure” to produce a male heir. (Tim Larimer’s 2004 “Japan’s Latest Craze” does a great job summarizing the issues.) Masako, an educated career woman, was 31 when she married Crown Prince Naruhito. Perhaps if she had married a “normal” man, not having any children or just having one child would have been a perfectly acceptable life choice, but there was intense pressure on her—and other women who marry into powerful traditional families—to conform and produce a male heir. Even before the birth of her nephew, who will be in line for the throne before her daughter, Masako withdrew herself from the public eye due to emotional issues.
While I can’t speak for Masako’s personal feelings about her “duty to the state,” Iemitsu, however, isn’t interested as using her body as a tool of the Shogunate at first. Though she isn’t opposed to having a child, she doesn’t want to abandon Arikoto, the only one of the harem she favors, to do so, and the thought of sleeping with a “normal” man completely repulses her.
Arikoto is precisely what all the men she knows are not—even if he is not her equal in station, he values her highly, treats her like an equal human being, and is kind, loving, gentle, and attentive, a sort of Edo-period “predecessor” of Masamune Asuka from Otomen. The glimpses of their love scenes are very tender and come off as gender neutral—no talk of women or men, or of gendered power and position, just two people in love.
Sadly, though, the burden of childbearing is not equal in heterogamous relationships, and Iemitsu eventually decides to sleep with Oraku in hopes of producing an heir—and so she can go back to being with Arikoto. Although this is due to pressure from Kasuga, Iemitsu decides that she’s going to conduct this affair on her own terms. Arikoto tries to warns Oraku that Iemitsu is easily angered and it’d be better if he didn’t talk to her, but Oraku tries to woo the Shogun with what comes off as a cheesy pick up line. Iemitsu is not amused and violently knocks Oraku to the ground. As she disrobes, she says, “You aren’t going to take me. I’m going to take you.”***
I think that Yoshinaga has really effectively illustrated some of the complicated issues modern women in heterogamous relationships have. We have more reliable means to control when and how many children (if any) we have than ever, but this area is, sadly, one that cannot be argued to be equal due to the nature of human biological processes. Even if the woman in the relationship is in a more powerful societal position, or even if the male partner becomes the primary caregiver, the physical aspect of childbearing is still her burden. (Barring adoption, of course, but that is not seen as an option for Iemitsu or the imperial family.) Women are blamed for the birth dearth, but I fail to see how the state has a right to tell women (or men) what they are and aren’t allowed to do with their bodies. Yoshinaga has a talent for illustrating social issues in a verbally concise and elegant way within stories that are not specifically about these issues.****
Oraku and Iemitsu’s conduct and relationship serve to show the sexual aspect of the cultural revolution that is happening with Edo Castle. Iemitsu’s assertiveness in her sexual relationships and her position of power in her romantic ones reflects the cultural rise of the “carnivore woman.”
In the next sections, I will discuss the changes in the political world that provide the women other than Iemitsu with cultural agency, and then discuss the cultural changes in the world outside the castle.
「大奥」第3巻、第4券 (Ōoku, Vol. 3 & 4)
By YOSHINAGA Fumi (よしなが ふみ）
Published 2007/12/20 (Vol. 3) and 2008/12/24 (Vol. 4) by JETS COMICS (subsidiary of 白泉社).
This review refers to the original Japanese version, available at Amazon.co.jp.
*As the son of a tailor, this is hardly surprising, but the other men of the ôoku find it a bit odd.
**For current (est. 2011) comparative statistics, see the World Factbook on the CIA website. In contrast to Japan’s 1.2, one of the lowest on the list, the US average is 2.06; the UK is 1.91; Australia is 1.71; Canada is 1.58; and China is 1.54. (Korea, Italy, and Germany’s rates are closer to the Japanese rate and have been discussing this issue as well.)
***This is a fairly liberal translation, and it’s hard to render the Japanese into English. She literally says “You will not embrace me. I will embrace you” (「お前が私を抱くのではない。わしはお前を抱くのだ。」) in Japanese, but I feel like take is a better rendering for ease of understanding here.
**** See Kinou Nani wo Tabeta? (「昨日何を食べた?」, What Did You Eat Yesterday?), a contemporary piece about a lawyer who loves cooking and his hairdresser boyfriend. The manga is mainly about food and relationships but tactfully addresses a number of social issues concerning the characters’ sexuality.
Allison, Anne. (1996). Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Miyazaki, Tetsuya, et al. (2006). “What Can We Do About the Baby Bust?” Japan Echo 33.1: 14-19
—. (1996). “Antiphonal Performances? Japanese Women’s Magazines and Women’s Voices.” Skov, Lisa, and Moeran, Brian, ed. Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press:143-169
Uno, Kathleen S. (1991). “Women and Changes in the Household Division of Labor.” Bernstein, Gail Lee, ed. Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press: 17-41.
White, Merry I. (2002). Perfectly Japanese: Making Families in an Era of Upheaval. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Yamada, Masahiro. (2006). “The Real Story Behind Japan’s Marriage Crisis.” Japan Echo 33.1: 20-24.
Also, see this interview with Judith Butler, particularly her comments on biology and pregnancy.