Part 3: The New Culture
In the final installment of my look at the cultural revolution during Iemitsu’s reign in Yoshinaga Fumi’s manga 『大奥』 (Ôoku), I’d like to explore the political and cultural changes to the (female) Iemitsu’s Edo through the connection between fashion and political power.
The Woman Shogun
A person’s status is often reflected, whether by custom or by law, in one’s dress. For example, in some European cultures, binding up one’s hair or wearing long skirts was a sign of adulthood; covering one’s hair with a bonnet after marriage was another fashion norm. There were also consumption laws regarding whom could wear what colors or fabrics in a number of cultures. In Japan, unmarried young women wear the furisode, the brightly-patterned long-sleeved kimono, when dressing in Japanese-style formal wear, whereas older and married women opt for more muted tones and shorter sleeves or the black kimono with the family crest.
Today, class and status might be signified by the wearing of rings to signify the status of being engaged or married; a designer purse with the brand’s logo or shoes with a distinctive red sole might indicate class (namely, the possession of disposable income).
The social acceptability of fashions are another measure of a culture’s changes: think of the bobbed hair and loosened clothes of the 1920s and women’s physical mobility or the increasing normalization of pantsuits as practical office-wear for women in the last 50 years. Likewise, Yoshinaga shows in vols. 3 and 4 how the changes in Iemitsu’s appearance, as well as that of the women of Edo, reflect the changing culture.
At the beginning of vol. 3, Iemitsu still wears men’s clothes, keeps her hair in a top knot, and wears no makeup when she is dealing with matters of the state (3: 148-149).
However, the rest of the time, she wears a hair piece to make her ponytail longer and more in fashion with women’s hairstyles of the time; she also uses makeup, particularly lipstick; and wears women’s kimono. This reflects the odd position of Edo’s women—while more of them are taking on positions of power within their families and professions due to the diminishing number of men, there is still a gap in the reality of women’s power and the cultural way of thinking about women, as women in political power cross-dress to hide the fact they are women (3:206).
However, fashions in the town are changing with the times. Iemitsu goes into Edo one day (dressed as a woman), and notices the women shopping there are wearing their hair up and dressed with combs (3:140).
When she points this out to Denemon, her escort, he notes that it’s easier to move around with one’s hair done up; Iemitsu decides to try out this fashion for herself. If it were not necessary for women to be able to move around more, the updo hairstyle may not have taken hold, but since the women of Edo, both laborers and merchants alike, are much more active for work, a hairstyle that allows for easy movement has become fashionable. When Iemitsu decides to allow women to inherit the title of daimyô and comes out as a woman herself, she wears her hair in this new fashion with one of her new combs.
In front of the assembly, she explains the circumstances surrounding her initiallly acting as a regent for a future male heir. However, she declares that, as the first Iemitsu’s daughter, she was born to rule as Shogun. If the lack of men means the end of society, then she’ll go down with the ship, and she dares anyone to challenge the “Woman Shogun” (4:10). “Not one person raised his or her voice,” writes Yoshinaga (4:11).
A Gilded Cage
The changes in fashion and society, of course, do not affect just the women. The changes Arikoto makes to the ôoku also reflect the changes to men’s lifestyle via fashion, and the reopening of the famous brothel of Yoshiwara reflects the change in the position of the men of Edo.
In volume 2, Kasuga forced scholarly Arikoto into rigorous physical training—sword-fighting and archery—so he and the men of the ôoku could protect the Shogun. However, much to Kasuga’s distaste, Arikoto, who is the de facto head of the ôoku, organizes a chrysanthemum-viewing evening for the men. Kasuga catches the men all dressed up and setting up lanterns, and walks in on Arikoto dressing Gyokuei (“Otama”) in a beautifully embroidered kamishimo. (Gyokei, meanwhile, is wondering if his clothing is nice enough to “beat” Oraku, and Arikoto tells him that anything more elaborate than what he has on would look tacky.) (3:171-2)
When Kasuga asks what on earth the men who are supposed to protect the Shogun are doing, Arikoto responds that all they do everyday is sword-fighting and archery. “What’s wrong with the men who have to spend their whole lives in the ôoku having one single night of fun to enjoy the chrysanthemums?” he asks (3:174).
Yoshinaga comments on the following page that Arikoto’s appreciation for fine things was what eventually led the ôoku to become the frivolity that the eighth Shogun, Yoshimune, finds when she becomes the Shogun (3:175). As I stated in my posts on the film and first volume, any group of people, women or men, kept in luxurious isolation with the sole purpose of competing for romantic partners, are likely doomed to a life of frivolity in attempting to outdo each other and also amuse themselves. We’ve seen evidence of this cattiness in volume 2 through the cruelties the men of the ôoku inflict on Arikoto and Gyokuei, but the answer to the question of the ôoku’s luxury and fashion ultimately lie in Arikoto’s attempt to show the men a good time.
The ôoku is one gilded cage, and the brothel of Yoshiwara reflects the change in men’s role outside the castle. On Iemitsu’s trip to Edo, the comb-seller also tries to pimp out her own son for the price of 8 ryo to “the princess” (3:142-3). Iemitsu is disgusted, but intrigued that the shopkeeper and her son seem to be doing this on a regular basis. As she discusses this with Denemon, they pass by Yoshiwara, where Kasuga bought the courtesans who came to “play” with Arikoto and his monks in volume 2. Yoshiwara is much changed, with female pimps selling old, sick, and mentally ill men to women desperate for children. With the male population decimated and status of women raised, there’s no demand for female sex workers and barely any women who would be sold into a brothel for financial reasons. (Additionally, with a mostly female population, women who prefer women would probably be able to engage in relations more freely, further contributing to a lack of demand for Yoshiwara’s services.)
However, men are in higher demand as “studs” (種馬, literally seed-horse) as well as for sex for pleasure. As we see in later volumes of the manga, the comb-seller is not the only one selling her son for sex. With this in mind, Iemitsu arranges for 100 men to taken to Yoshiwara and held there to work as prostitutes in order to meet the sexual demand for men (4:13-5).
While it’s fun to think about how the world would be if historically patriarchal societies were matriarchal, Yoshinaga’s world-building actually reveals how the interaction between society and gender works. In Ôoku, the Red Pox causes significant changes in the sex ratio and population, which lead to changes in the culture. More importantly, Yoshinaga shows how the changes in gender roles come from the bottom up–families coddling the “treasure” of the family but also selling them, often against their will—as well as from the top down—Iemitsu’s installation of herself as a female shogun, her legally allowing women to receive hereditary titles, and reopening the Yoshiwara brothel with male prostitutes.
While there is some leniency in gender roles at any point in history, it’s often hard to see how roles change within the course of a few decades or a hundred years. I’d like to point out the existence of books from the 1980s about how to deal with a “woman boss” as evidence of this. In 2011, very few people would find having a female boss strange in and of itself, but at the time these books were written, it was obviously a issue that merited advice books.
Furthermore, changes in gender roles are not always an ideal or equal course of progress. In Yoshinaga’s Edo period, women are liberated, but many of the men become chattel. Before anyone assumes that the liberation of women leads to the repression of men, I would like to note the current dialogues about masculinity in modern US and Japanese society as evidence to the contrary. The idea that the popular form of masculinity of the 1980s (and 1950s) is outdated and represses men is slowly gaining some ground win both countries. However, the herbivore men of Japan are considered a cultural phenomenon, not a social movement, whereas The Achilles Effect and The Good Men Project (or was when I wrote this) are internet-based movements that problematize masculinity in its present form.
Ôoku is hardly a misandrist revenge fantasy: Yoshinaga’s whole point is that gendered role reversal is not equality. In showing the reader (and Yoshimune) how the world of Ôoku, Vol. 1, came to be, Yoshinaga explores a lot of the same issues regarding social and political inequality both sexes deal with today, from fashion and sexual agency to representation in political and legal rights. Yet, it’s how she shows the social changes that occur within Iemitsu’s lifetime that interests me: how and to what extent traditions change; and how biology doesn’t determine gender but does regulate people in terms of producing offspring and heirs. Social change is a process, and while the events that happen in Ôoku are ultimately alternative history, I feel that the manga’s critical examination of the multitude of factors that led to social change over time is a crucial factor in understanding our own gendered world, past and present.
「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).
More on Ôoku