SPOILERS: Discussion of events in Ōoku, Volumes 1-7.
Fumi Yoshinaga’s ongoing manga Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, serialized in josei magazine Melody since 2005, traces the events of medieval Japanese history with one big twist: the Redface Pox has killed most of the men in Edo, leaving women with the power of the shogunate.
Three hundred years of politics and progress play out against the backdrop of the titular Ōoku—the shogun’s harem of three hundred men—as each successive shogun grapples with her legacy while the men of the harem scheme for the attentions and affections of their liege. Ōoku treats women in the highest offices of the land as a given and goes from there, examining how each woman placed in the ultimate position of power adapts to institutions that are inherently patriarchal.
In too many narratives, both fictional and historical, women taking on traditionally male roles are outliers, forced to represent their entire gender, and media about powerful women often focuses on whether women can succeed as leaders. Every success or failure is not only their own, but a referendum on whether a woman belongs in the position they’ve attained.
Ōoku frees its characters from the burden of representation by presenting a multitude of female rulers. By doing so, it’s able to extend its analysis from whether or not a woman should rule to examining how they rule when the very system that grants them power is fundamentally biased against them.
Further strengthening its narrative, the lives of Ōoku’s female shoguns hew as closely to history as possible. The story’s first female shogun, Iemitsu, makes it possible for women to openly rule instead of masquerading as men, but convention dictates that each female shogun takes on a male name (the name of their real-life counterpart), making the historical records of Ōoku’s world look no different from our own.
When Yoshimune insists upon extreme frugality to preserve the shogunate’s dwindling treasury and Tsunayoshi faces the death of her first child, their lives are following the same paths as history. That faithfulness makes Ōoku’s matriarchy seem eminently plausible: Yoshinaga presents the lives of her fictional female shoguns as if they’re actual history, and, reading Ōoku, it’s easy to believe her.
In many ways, Ōoku is more the story of this alternate Tokugawa dynasty than any individual character. As shoguns come and go across Ōoku’s many volumes, the structure of the Tokugawa shogunate remains the same.
The shogunate maintains, along with that immovable hierarchy, its original patriarchal values, including the particularly damaging preference for primogeniture and biological heirs. Ōoku’s insistence on thinking in the long term invokes the way that generation after generation of women in our world must fight the same battles—for representation in the public sphere, respect in their households, and control over their own bodies—against a society that often seems immovable.
Case in point: Even a hundred years after the first female shogun comes to power, Shogun Yoshimune still has to pretend to be a man when she speaks to foreigners, even though there is no one left who remembers a time before a female shogun. The society of Iemitsu’s era had normalized sexist ideas—including the belief that foreigners would not respect a female head of state—to the point where they were considered neutral traditions rather than politically charged conceptions of gender, and passed those beliefs on throughout the generations.
Iemitsu had the strength and ability to force her society to accept the idea of women as rulers, but that one change was not enough. Her descendants in turn must undergo their own struggles for equality.
Ōoku explores the tension between a female shogun’s power and the social structures surrounding her in an echo of a modern-day struggle. Women have entered the highest echelons of leadership but still face pervasive, insidious societal standards. People often assume that getting a woman to a high-ranking position is the ultimate goal, as if the mere act of appointing a female boss can solve larger issues of sexism.
However, even the most powerful women must still grapple with institutions that are fundamentally biased against them. Just as many workplaces are structured with the assumption that executives with children will have stay-at-home partners, the shogunate in Ōoku is structured with the assumption that having direct biological heirs is easy and important, instead of the dangerous and difficult task it was for women of the time.
No shogun exemplifies the difficulty of that struggle more than Tsunayoshi, whose psyche has been irreparably damaged by those lingering patriarchal standards. Tsunayoshi’s father, who was born before the Redface Pox, has always told her that her value is in her beauty and ability to birth heirs. Because she internalizes the idea that women should not wield political power, she doesn’t study politics, and therefore makes the disastrous edict to feed stray dogs as her people starve.
Ōoku does not excuse Tsunayoshi’s mistakes, but instead examines how even the right to rule could not prevent her from becoming the kind of person who would make them. Though Tsunayoshi has the power to order almost anyone in the realm put to death, violence cannot solve the emotional damage she’s suffered from the cultural norms her father taught her.
Though Ōoku is cynical about the ability of individuals (no matter how powerful) to enact change, there’s something refreshing, even hopeful, in the way it refuses to simplify the difficulty of existing in a society that was not built for women and women’s needs. Over and over, women have been told that if they only work hard enough, the power they earn will confer upon them some kind of immunity from the patriarchy; that once they are senators and CEOs things will be better for them and every other woman who follows them. This goes hand-in-hand with the flip side of that rhetoric, which is that if a powerful woman is still affected by sexism, she hasn’t done enough and needs to work harder.
Ōoku doesn’t blame Iemitsu for being unable to change the tradition of hiding a shogun’s gender from foreigners. It doesn’t even blame Tsunayoshi for succumbing to the harm patriarchal standards have enacted upon her. When Tsunayoshi admits that she has been a weak person and a bad ruler, Ōoku treats that moment with sympathy and care instead of judgment, refusing to condemn her for being shaped by a society that has actively done her harm. Yoshinaga’s shoguns are given the freedom to fail.
Each of Ōoku’s shoguns have to rule through an institution that was primarily and fundamentally shaped for the patriarchy, and institutional change is difficult and often takes generations just to begin. Nevertheless, despite all that’s set against them, the shoguns survive, because they must, and each leaves her own mark on history, her own legacy for the women who come after her.
They cannot smash the entire system their lives have been built upon in just one lifetime, but their worth is not predicated upon their ability to change society. They are worthy of empathy, of tenderness, of having their stories told, just by virtue of their existence.