Ôoku: Cross-Dressing in a Matriarchy
We’ve already discussed several speculative fiction pieces with cross-dressing characters in them. Yet, where a piece like BeruBara focuses on alternate history by adding in a few fictional characters to actual historic events, the world portrayed by Yoshinaga Fumi in Ôoku (大奥) is an alternate history in which most of the historical figures’ genders have been swapped. The author’s use of speculative fiction serves to illustrate contemporary issues of gender and sexism by showing them to us through a tilted mirror. How does cross-dressing function in a gender-swapped world?
Content: this section contains mild spoilers for the manga series Ôoku, and some spoilers specific to the plots of the Iemitsu (vol. 2-4) and the Ieshige-Ieharu arcs (vol. 8-10). The spoilers are primarily events that occur in the first volumes of each story arc (vol. 2 and vol. 8). (Keep in mind that because this is historical fiction, general information about said historical figures will contain some spoilers.) Some discussion of misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and domestic violence. All images safe for work.
A plague wipes out most of the young male population of Japan in the early Edo period (1603-1868), leaving an imbalanced sex ratio of 1 man to 3-4 women. Although the story is an alternate history, the timeline follows Japanese history and the reported personalities of the historical figures very closely. Over the course of a decade of social upheaval, women’s inheriting the positions of Shogun, daimyo, and heads of house becomes legalized by decree of the woman Shogun. About 30 years in, people start to forget that the sex ratio used to be more even and start using the “from time immemorial” and “traditional” excuses to describe gender roles in their world.
Unlike some utopian and dystopian matriarchies found in other SFF, Yoshinaga’s Edo-period Japan becomes a matriarchy born out of a patriarchy and a plague. Since the narrative is not a 1:1 switch–not a forgotten island inhabited by an ancient matriarchal society–there is a sort of vestigial misogyny lurking around the edges of society, as well as outside the country, since Japan appears to be the only area affected by the plague. Because of this history, the narratives about cross-dressing in Ôoku are even more complex than most media set in the slightly fantastical versions of the real world.
Iemitsu and Arikoto
When the third Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, dies suddenly of the Red-Face Pox, he is secretly replaced by his teenage daughter. For official functions, Chiyo (Iemitsu II) has a man in a mask stand in for her for interactions with the daimyo for the first several years of her reign. She is also forced to cross-dress to be a stand-in for her father when she’s with her advisors and around the castle, even though her gender is an open secret in the innermost chambers. Because Japan is still a patriarchal society at the beginning of the plague, Iemitsu II is only supposed to be a regent until she bears a male heir. Initially, her advisors are afraid the samurai will rebel against a female leader, and Kasuga, her unofficial chief advisor, is a huge misogynist despite being a woman in a position of power.
While Iemitsu is still acting in the shadow of her father, many of the heirs to samurai families cross-dress in order to be able to inherit their fathers’ titles or to stand in for their deceased brothers. When Iemitsu eventually legalizes female inheritance and comes out as as women herself, all the cross-dressing young daimyo no longer have to pretend to be men to keep their positions, and they return to wearing kimono for women of their rank–some with joy, some with indifference, and some with trepidation.
Interestingly, Iemitsu doesn’t complain about wearing men’s clothes for “work,” but she prefers to wear women’s clothing and hairstyles, which she does in her spare time. When she comes out as the “woman Shogun,” she switches to wearing fashionable women’s clothing and hairstyles full time, and lipstick becomes a major part of her look. Outside Edo Castle, women’s fashion has evolved during the time of her “regency” along with women’s increasing need for mobility. In this arc, the message is not that men and men’s clothing offers more freedom, but rather that being able to dress how one wants and be respected as a leader and a person is important.
Regarding men’s fashion, at one point early in the narrative, Iemitsu II frequently attempts to humiliate her concubines through misogyny: she is rightfully bitter that cannot rule because she is a woman, and so she takes it on them by taking every opportunity to feminize her concubines hoping to make them angry and to feel as helpless as she feels. This reaches a head when, near the end of vol. 2, she demands that the men wear wigs and women’s kimono to entertain her.
Three of the concubines are from samurai families and are considered to be “manly” types; they dislike Iemitsu’s feminization of their names and the way they are treated by her (the same way men treat women, ironically). They take out their anger on Iemitsu’s newest concubine, Arikoto, whom they frequently mock for looking less “manly,” for being a former aristocrat as well as a former priest, and for not being sexually experienced. Arikoto is, in many ways, beyond gender. While he doesn’t like Iemitsu’s anger, her attempting to misgender and femininize him doesn’t make him angry the way it does the other men, who are as insulted by being misgendered in this way as a boy might be for being told that he runs or throws “like a girl.”
In the cross-dressing scene, Arikoto does Iemitsu’s bidding to wear the clothes without question because he’s not invested in “protecting” or “proving” his masculinity. In throwing off the shackles of gender conformity, he uses the moment to genuinely connect with her as a person. Unlike the other men, he isn’t threatened by Iemitsu’s power or her crossdressing. (For an in-depth look into gender and fashion in Ôoku, see here.)
While clothing–particularly the shape and cut of it– is still highly gendered throughout Ôoku, Iemitsu’s preferences help reinvent feminine clothing as just as valid as men’s clothing, and Arikoto’s good fashion sense help elevate men’s fashion to the pageantry of the women’s. Both Iemitsu and Arikoto help to dismantle the gender binary by removing gender from concepts and personality traits: anyone can be strong or weak; anyone can be fashionable; anyone can be intelligent; anyone can be good at martial arts; anyone can be jealous or forgiving; anyone can make sacrifices or be cowardly. Although society eventually reinvents some of the binary on its own, it’s not a simple inversion of a contemporary or historical binary. In the case of this arc, cross-dressing is used by the characters to attempt to reinforce the patriarchy but, narrative-wise, actually acts as a tool in dismantling the patriarchy.
Yoshimune and Japan’s Position in the World
In this alternate version of Japan, the gender binary does get rebuilt in a different way as the years go on, yet the world outside Japan without any changes to the sex ratio; the outside world’s changes regarding gender are basically the same as they are in history. Cross-dressing to cover up the gender imbalance returns 100 years later as Yoshimune (8th Shogun, in office 1716-45) allows some foreign trade. Because Japan is the only country that seems to be affected by the pox and the Shogunate is afraid they will be invaded, Yoshimune cross-dresses to avoid suspicion from the Dutch when she meets with them. Yoshimune generally doesn’t care about fashion, but the incident sparks her interest in the history of the plague and the Shogunate.
Hiraga Gennai and Dutch Medicine
In real life, Hiraga Gennai (1728-80) was a sort of Nikola-Tesla personality: he was an author, inventor, scientist, humorist, and erotic artist. Yoshinaga’s reimagined Gennai is a queer woman1 who cross-dresses as a man–partially in order to get access to knowledge about Dutch medicine, which is only taught to men; partially because of her preferred gender expression; and partially because it allows her better access to pursuing women.
Gennai is an example of someone who doesn’t quite fit into Edo sexuality and gender, even though it was more fluid in some ways, as we’ve discussed already. While intense homosocial friendships, including romantic and sexual relationships, among women aren’t uncommon at this time in history in the manga, Gennai’s refusal to act in her “rightful place” as the heir to her family by marrying a man makes her brother resent her. To him, Gennai is an eccentric who refuses to “grow up” and have an “adult relationship” to carry on the family line. What’s worse (to him) is that she wants to prevent other women of higher standing from doing the same because they’re too busy being with Gennai. Through his judgment of her, we see a reflection of the same narrative surrounding Japan’s birth dearth: that women are being selfish and focusing on careers instead of marriage and children for the “good of the nation.”
Gennai’s dressing as a man is also complicated by the fact that men are considered to be the weaker sex at this point in time, about a century after the plague began. Yet gender roles aren’t quite that simple; historical and contemporary misogyny does not translate directly into misandry in the manga. Men are considered delicate because of their susceptibility to the Red-Face Pox, but as far as bodily strength goes, we see in prior arcs that the idea that concubines should be able to protect the Shogun and learn martial arts has a long tradition. Thanks to Arikoto’s legacy, fashion is a pursuit of both women and men alike. Men, however, are barred from some careers outside of the ôoku; for example, high-class cooking isn’t “suitable” for them in the way that sexism keeps women out of or makes careers in culinary arts more difficult and attempts to relegate women to home cooking (see vol. 8). Meanwhile, the fire brigades of Edo are all male because women don’t want to volunteer when they have day jobs to do and families to feed.
Despite the fact that men are the “weaker sex,” the rearrangement of character traits and appearances that what we would consider to be “masculine” or “feminine” helps Gennai “pass” as a man and still retain some privileges despite dressing as a less privileged sex. For instance, the shift in masculine beauty from muscular, hairy men, to slender, slighter, smoother men makes Gennai, who is slender herself, appear to be a good-looking man by the standards of the day. Similarly, the actresses in kabuki who act as “otokogata” are shown to be well loved by their female fans because they present a sort of beautiful masculinity that fits better with the beauty standards than some men do. However, unlike Takarazuka’s otokoyaku, these actresses are representing not just an idealized version of men but also a scarce commodity in a world with so few healthy young men. Gennai is able to blend in well because the beauty standards are in her favor.
Gennai also benefits from a modified version of masculine privilege because of the sexism outside Japan: men are only ones who can study Dutch medicine and interact with the Dutch because of their social power in Europe and because Japan is still trying to hide the fact that it is run by women. She is allowed to study, to some extent, Dutch medicine and gains access to the some of male-only spaces of the ôoku where she helps set up a Dutch medicine and Dutch studies program that a male scholar of Dutch medicine teaches.
However, like many people who don’t fit into gender norms, Gennai does experience fear and loathing directed at her gender identity and sexuality.2 When she has a fight with her actress lover (possibly an otokogata, as the historical figure on whom she is based, Segawa Kikunojo II, was a popular onnagata), Kikunojo seems to focus her anger at Gennai’s personal actions onto Gennai’s gender noncomformity, claiming that Gennai is a disingenuous person because she doesn’t conform and saying Gennai has ruined her.
Kikunojo’s rage is reminiscent of anti-queer rhetoric and violence directed at gender-nonconforming queer people and trans individuals, specifically regarding how they are treated by cisgender (often) straight-identified partners (potential, ex, and otherwise) and society, as if said partners were “tricked” into loving or desiring them. While Gennai has many friends and acquaintances who genuinely care for her, Kikunojo’s rejection of Gennai’s gender identity when their relationship sours is a real example of the danger that the gender binary and forced heteronormativity presents to gender non-conformists and queer people.
Like Iemitsu, Arikoto, Yoshimune, and the rest of the cast, Gennai is a fully realized character. She is not just tossed into the cast for lip service to diversity nor is she fulfilling a trope. In fact, all of Yoshinaga’s characters fly in the face of the “strong female characters” trope (or, given the gender swap, the “strong male characters” trope). Ôoku’s narratives about cross-dressing and gender are also able to go beyond those of some other speculative fiction we’ve discussed because of the breadth and depth of the work, which shows over a century of social change with a huge and diverse cast of characters. Yoshinaga breaks down the false gender binary by showing us how another version of the binary is literally built piece by piece. In this narrative, ideas about masculinities and femininities have changed greatly, and the tales of those who do and do not conform to the new standards show us new ways of thinking about contemporary gender and cultural criticism in our own world.
Next time: in the wrap-up, we’ll add some suggested reading/watching for works about gender expression and identity that didn’t make it into this series.
1. Gennai verbally self-identifies as a woman and uses female pronouns. She expresses attraction only to women. Before she starts living as a man, her appearance as a child is gender variant and she gravitates toward androgyny.
2. Perhaps queerphobia–this is a combination of homophobia and transphobia, a fear of those who don’t fit into heteronormative genders, gender expressions, or sexualities. Kikunojo is upset about her attraction to and relationship with Gennai, Gennai’s gender nonconformity, and Gennai’s sexuality.