Part 2: Political Power and Female Daimyô
As the events happening within the ôoku reflect the changes in sexual culture this reimagined Edo Period, Yoshinaga, with her wonderful knack for world-building, shows the full societal impact that the decimation of the male population and the unbalanced sex ratio have on the greater political and social culture.
Exceptions and Norms
In terms of the political, when Iemitsu (Chie) replaces her father (also Iemitsu), Kasuga, her father’s wet nurse and the real power behind the Shogunate, makes Chie dress like a man and pretend to be her father, even taking his name as her own. Iemitsu, as I noted in my review of the second volume, knows that no one takes her seriously as the Shogun, and the third volume reveals why: despite their growing numbers and expansion into all realms of the workforce, women during Iemitsu’s secretive reign still lack political representation.
However, Iemitsu is not alone in her political cross-dressing—in above scene, we see that many of the daimyô, the lords who report to the Shogun, are bringing their daughters, disguised as men, to Edo Castle. With this in mind, why not open up the lordship and positions of political power to women as well?
The connection between social change and political power is complex: real political change has to be both legally sanctioned and socially supported.* In the world of Ôoku, much of the social power is now in female hands: women head many households, run their own businesses, and do the bulk of the manual labor. The social support system is in place, but in the political/legal realm, the appointment of women as daimyô apparently has to come from the Shogun. Kasuga, despite her position as a women in power, opposes the idea.
According to Kasuga, the reason why Iemitsu is actually holding the position of Shogun is not because Kasuga is hoping to let women, now the majority of the population, have equal political power, but because she hopes Iemitsu will produce a male heir to become the “real” Shogun. That is, Kasuga actually opposes letting women take control because she believe daimyô-ships and the Shogunate are men’s jobs.
Marginalization and Empowerment
The social issues that Yoshinaga explores in Ôoku are based on and relevant to our contemporary world, and in Vols. 3 &4, she also explores the question “Why would a woman in power oppose the empowerment of other women?”
In my experience, women in political power who oppose measures meant to empower and help their “fellow women” tend to occupy positions of majority or power in terms of socio-economic class (including being in a majority ethnic group, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation). For example, women politicians who oppose access to affordable health care may have had good coverage at their jobs (or, if they are married to men, via their husbands’ jobs). I dislike using Sarah and Bristol Palin as easy examples, but they are the perfect case of women who had the luxury of familial and financial support in the face of unplanned pregnancies–but instead of recognizing their luck to be in such a position, they act as if all women can and should follow suit, promoting abstinence and funding cuts to Planned Parenthood and, during her time as governor, to sex-ed programs in Alaska, instead of attempting to make preventative and sexual health services affordable and accessible for other women.
As for Japan, in Part 1, I mentioned the blocking of the Pill in Japan till 1999 (see the bibliography in Part 1 for more information). However, political power isn’t just about sexual health issues: under the Japanese Civil Code, it is currently illegal for a married couple to retain their surnames. (Either the man or the woman may change, which is a step up from the laws of many US states, but one party must change. Homogamous marriage is not recognized in Japan, either.) ** Japanese female politicians who block the separate-surnames bill may have married prior to their careers taking off or married into a powerful family.
Or, like Kasuga, they may hold these beliefs because of how they were raised and how they currently evaluate what the roles of men and women “should” be. For example, while a man with power would find his selection of a wife with a career of comparatively lower prestige and salary socially acceptable, not all powerful women feel that an herbivore man, or a man who earns less or occupies a lower prestige class than they do to be a desirable mate. (Of course, this is ultimately individual choice, but our thoughts about prestige and desirability do have deep roots in social norms.)
Also, one’s sex itself does not determine how one will wield power; rather, if there are differences, they are a product of personality and societal gender. In the US, giving women the vote was supposed to make politics more compassionate, according to Progressivists, and yet in the real world and in the world of Ôoku, there are equal numbers of compassionate people as there are ruthless and cruel ones—regardless of sex or gender.***
Against Kasuga’s wishes, the daughters of daimyô are ultimately allowed to inherit their fathers’ titles, and the political world begins to reflect more closely the sex ratio of society. This reminds me of countries that have attempted to use a “gender quota” system for Parliament. While it seems a bit odd that a target number of female candidates is set, and some people feel that it should not be a set number but a “let the best man win” sort of affair, women make up 50% of the population, and yet are underrepresented in positions of political power. In comparison, in the US, 20% of the Senate and House seats are occupied by women; in Japan, 54 seats, or 11% of the seats in Parliament, are held by women.
Women are marginalized in politics, and to answer the question that is often begged of these statistics, the reason why the collective whole of women do not stand up and take “our half” is not just because we lack equal opportunities, but because there is no collective “sisterhood” of women. “What women want” is largely based on class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity rather than on the virtue that we all have ovaries and uteri (and even that excludes male-to-female and gender queer people). **** In Ôoku, there is no collective female identity. Iemitsu is the Shogun; Kasuga holds much of the power but doesn’t think of herself as a woman in power. The farmers hold an attitude of “carry on!” The townswomen, from the fish-seller to the shopkeeper, are not congratulating themselves on a great victory for womankind, but are doing what they need to do to keep their businesses running–as are the heiresses to the daimyô.
Take My Revolution
Instead of presenting the sexual and cultural revolution as women forcefully taking their “rightful” place in society, Yoshinaga presents the revolution as women initially filling in the gaps that were left by men, and then normalizing their new roles in society. When Iemitsu comes out as female at the end of the third volume, she decides to hold the Shogunate as a woman, and more importantly, without apology for being one. She is not an “exceptional woman,” even: she is the heir to the Shogunate and now she is the Shogun, and that is that. With her daughters for heirs and the opening of the lordship to women, the political aspect of the sexual revolution is complete.
Next, I plan to explore the last phase of the revolution: the convergence of the sociocultural changes in the ôoku and in Edo society.
*A good example of this in the US is the 15th Amendment, which reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Ratified in 1870, this created the legal standard for non-white men to vote, but obviously did not automatically change social views of race or eradicate racism by virtue of its existence, as evidenced in the Civil Rights movement’s efforts to get Black voters safely to the polls in the 1960s.
**What tends to happen is that the wife will enter her husband’s family registry, legally changing her name but using her former name for business. This is not a good, permanent solution, though–if you have a passport, have to fill at legal documents for taxes or work but are known under a different name, it can be stressful and confusing.
***Arikoto is perhaps the most compassionate character so far; Yoshimune is compassionate as well, even though she doesn’t let anyone boss her around. Iemitsu and Gyokuei both have a cruel streak, and the men who rape Gyokuei are most definitely cruel. Kasuga is ruthless and cruel, and one of the least sympathetic characters, even though Yoshinaga fleshed her out with some excellent back stories.
****For more on the interactions of gender/sex, class, and race, see Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods.
More on Ôoku