Fantasy is often described as escapism, but the genre has great potential to expose a reader to different perspectives on their own society while drawing them into an exciting new world. The Twelve Kingdoms novels by Fuyumi Ono truly show this. The world of the Twelve Kingdoms is a masterful example of a fully developed, politically complex, colorful and varied fantasy world.
While many alternate worlds in fiction are based on Tolkien-esque Western fantasy and traditional RPGs, the intricate world of The Twelve Kingdoms draws on East Asian, particularly Chinese, mythology. Nor does the story rely on stock archetypes with its characters, featuring instead flawed, conflicted, and realistic people who develop greatly throughout their narratives—many of whom are women.
Three of the primary point-of-view characters are Youko Nakajima, a Japanese high school girl who rose from a hated minority to Emperor of Kei; Suzu, a girl from Meiji-era Japan also stranded in the Twelve Kingdoms; and Shouko, a spoiled princess who must learn how to live as a commoner when revolutionaries depose her father.
One of the most important things that really makes The Twelve Kingdoms stand out among other fantasy narratives is the story’s in-depth and intelligent exploration of lopsided social hierarchies and complacency in injustice. By exploring three different perspectives from three similar, yet very different young women, The Twelve Kingdoms tells a story of how people at all levels of society can create change.
Critique of Enforced Social Roles: “You’ll understand when you’re married”
The Twelve Kingdoms’ story arcs follow several different characters, but the most easily identifiable protagonist is Youko Nakajima, the heroine of Sea of Shadows and Skies of Dawn. Youko, a high school student, strives to please everyone around her by being the submissive and polite “good girl.”
When she is transported to the kingdom of Kou, alone in a hostile country and pursued by demons, she realizes she has no real sense of self. Because she built her life around avoiding rejection or conflict, she never let other people in or formed real connections.
When she sees visions of how people back home are taking her disappearance, she discovers many of her peers simply shrugged it off. Her vice principal points out that “by being all things to all people, Youko never got close to anybody,” and notes, “at some point it must have struck her as an empty way to live… I don’t think that would have been unusual at all for her to just want to disappear.”
He’s right. Youko is devastated to discover that living up to the expectations of her society has left her hollow. ‘’
Much of her conflict-avoidant personality comes from the rigid gender roles in her life, especially her chauvinist father and what he thinks a “good girl” should be: “A girl should be charming and chaste. That’s all that mattered. And humble and reserved and obedient to a fault. A girl needn’t be smart or strong.”
She admits she “believed it, too, for a long time.” However, when Youko must fend for herself free from the yoke of her father’s expectations, she sees how ludicrous and harmful his worldview was.
Youko’s mother Ritsuko, like many other women, is both constrained by these gender roles and complicit in enforcing them. Yet after Youko’s disappearance, Ritsuko gets in an argument with Youko’s father over his lack of respect for her efforts and lack of involvement in his family’s life.
When he accuses her of being “hysterical,” she shuts him down. This functions as an acknowledgement that one doesn’t have to go outside of Japan to start questioning and resisting “the way things are.” It only takes a push for Youko’s mother to realize just how wrong-headed her husband’s ideas are.
Women in the Twelve Kingdoms’ nations don’t face the same kind of restrictions and expectations that Youko and Ritsuko grew up with. Because children in this world grow on trees, rather than in wombs, they were never forced into the role of childrearing. They could be recognized for their other abilities.
Roughly half of those in political power and one-third of the military are women. This leads Youko to question her father’s restrictions and realize they were something imposed by her world’s specific social hierarchy, rather than something “natural.”
Exploration of Prejudice: “Nobody in this world can understand”
But the world of the Twelve Kingdoms is also not without its own institutional biases, many of which shed light on those in our own world. The Twelve Kingdoms encourages its audience not to allow their own struggles to blind them from the multitude of different oppressions other people suffer.
Systematic oppression crushes marginalized groups in a variety of different ways. The same authority that makes life hell for refugees also victimizes citizens with prejudiced policies. In practicing kindness to others who are struggling, those on the margins find ways to resist together.
Many people in the country of Kou hate the “outsiders” that are blown in from other worlds, called “kaikyaku.” Their emperor regards kaikyaku with disgust and uses them as scapegoats for any misfortune Kou may face. When Youko first arrives, she is captured to be taken before the magistrate, who would judge her and execute her if he decided she was “a bad kaikyaku.”
After facing discrimination and betrayal, Youko begins to believe that everyone in this world is evil and untrustworthy, without realizing some people born there deal with prejudice as well. Hanjyu (“half-beasts”) also face severe prejudice in Kou, as they’re prohibited from attending school, working, or owning property.
When a hanjyu called Rakushun empathizes with Youko’s plight, Youko doesn’t respond by trying to understand his struggles as well. Rather, she questions whether his motives in trying to help her are “impure” because he’s also traveling with her in an effort to find a job and livelihood.
Suzu, another kaikyaku transported to this world during the Meiji era, further exposes the futility of approaching life with a victim complex. Unlike Youko, Suzu can’t understand the languages of the Twelve Kingdoms. Stranded in a strange place with no resources, she makes no attempt to learn to understand this world and its people. She becomes complacent in her misery, often stating that no one in this world could possibly understand her or have suffered as much as she.
Both Youko and Suzu learn they are wrong. They are not more “special” simply because they came from another place. Suzu forms a relationship with a young refugee who lost his village and discovers he’s facing harsher struggles than she is in many respects.
Youko realizes that she can’t ignore the fact that the people she meets have their own lives and motivations and exploit them for her own ends simply because she has suffered at the hands of some of them. It can be tempting to lash out and isolate oneself from all others after being hurt so many times, but doing so allows those doing the hurting to continue, while also abandoning their other victims.
Power and Politics: “The Mantle of Responsibility”
After Youko breaks free of the role of “good girl,” another role comes to claim her. Youko was chosen by the gods to receive power, but it’s not without a price. She’s been designated emperor of the kingdom of Kei, but if an emperor refuses the gods’ call, not only will they eventually weaken and die, but the kingdom will fall into chaos until a new ruler takes the throne.
Youko could simply decide she has no choice but to accept her new role. Instead, she refuses to take the gods or her forced death sentence into consideration, saying: “If I simply do what is convenient for everybody else, let everybody else determine what my life will be, then I won’t be shouldering the responsibility myself.”
She doesn’t want to use this as an excuse to run away from her problems in Japan. She believes she can change things there and fight for a place for herself. Since she’s still growing as a person, she wonders whether she can truly be the emperor the people of Kei need.
Youko chooses to become emperor only after her friends explain it is her willingness to question herself and grow that make her a good candidate. Her awareness of her own shortcomings and desire to change shows she has enough maturity to handle the job. The idea that what makes a good leader is not power or strength, but the self-awareness, flexibility, and willingness to make personal sacrifices shouldn’t be a radical one. However, it’s sadly rare to see this truly carried forth in either fiction or real life.
One other essential quality Youko has as a leader is the understanding that she needs other people to provide skills and knowledge where hers are insufficient. Youko’s story doesn’t end when she unseats the impostor sitting on her throne—in fact, her struggles are just beginning.
The Twelve Kingdoms acknowledges something a lot of “royal” fantasies overlook: one person alone cannot govern effectively. Kings who ignore their advisors inevitably become corrupted, sicken, and die. A wise government needs the input of several different kinds of people.
Youko struggles to find staff and advisors she can trust as having her and the kingdom’s best interests at heart. The series also acknowledges that a lot of these other people have conflicting agendas and some of them may be corrupt. Even a well-intentioned ruler can’t always see when they’re being manipulated, especially one as inexperienced as Youko.
As she begins ruling Kei, she falls back into her old pattern of doing what’s most convenient and pleasing to others in power. However, Youko also realizes she’s doing this, which shows just how much she’s already grown. Youko’s story is a coming-of-age tale, one where true maturity comes with questioning one’s assigned role in social structures and resisting one’s own complacency in those roles.
Her uncertainty leads her to question the whole system. She doubts she can learn to rule a troubled country she knows nothing about while isolated from her own people in an elegant palace. Instead, she decides to descend from the palace to learn about the common people’s needs and opinions.
By tossing aside the arbitrary boundaries between herself and her subjects, she treats them as peers, finds out what issues the most pressing, and leans which members of her court are exploiting them behind her back. She also makes efforts to expand her knowledge about the world she lives in with both hands-on experience and consistent tutoring.
Privilege in a Broken System: “You should have informed yourself”
One of the strongest positions The Twelve Kingdoms takes is that, for people in power, ignorance is always willful. It is especially important for those who who have advantages in the current political and social system to question that system, acknowledge the role they play in it, and take responsibility.
Ono presents the political system of the Twelve Kingdoms as deeply flawed, even broken. The gods control the system but are largely inaccessible and seemingly don’t care much about “short-term” mortal suffering. While an Emperor who strays from the “path of righteousness” and stops being “good for the people” will eventually sicken and die, the process is slow and the entire country suffers horribly in the meantime.
Nowhere is the broken system more evident than in Shoukei’s story. Shoukei, the princess of Hou, lived a carefree, luxurious life until her parents were killed in a citizen uprising. Unbeknownst to Shoukei, her parents were abusing their power and executing citizens for petty crimes. Their body count became so high people could no longer wait around for the gods to dispose of them.
Shoukei resents being stripped of her luxuries and cast out. She doesn’t understand why she is being “punished,” stating she “didn’t do anything.” But that’s precisely the problem: she accepted the finery she received at the expense of the kingdom without ever questioning her father’s abuse of power.
Shoukei initially sees living a lower-class life as a humiliating and degrading punishment. But as she sees more of the world, she comes to understand the life she lived before was truly shameful. Rakushun, a common citizen who’s never been to Hou, has to teach her basic things about her own country. He points out this is “far more embarrassing” than a tattered wardrobe. Shoukei was supported by the labor of these people, yet she devalued them and took them for granted. She had no right to wield power over people whose lives she didn’t even understand.
Like Youko and Suzu before her, Shoukei decides to change herself and take action. These displaced teenage girls come together, bond over their shared struggles, and turn them into something powerful. Youko, Shokei, and Suzu become revolutionaries together.
The Call to Revolution: “Being alive is not enough”
When it comes to tearing apart social hierarchies and resisting injustice, revolution is the name of the game, and The Twelve Kingdoms is all about it. The idea of citizens banding together to take drastic action against those in power pops up everywhere in the text. Youko even runs into a fellow kaikakyu who was transported during the 1969 protest at Yasuda Hall who doesn’t want to discuss Japan because “it’s the country I ran away from when I tried to start a revolution and failed.”
Revolutions don’t always fail, especially when those behind them keep fighting and gain support from others. But, as Suzu knows from personal experience, it’s easy to normalize being mistreated by those in power and to see it as only natural. As Suzu puts it: “You reflexively became afraid of the pain. So you soldiered on in order to escape the pain. But at the same time, the soldiering on began to feel like an accomplishment, when nothing was actually changing.”
But one is never alone in their suffering, and things are never hopeless. Youko, Suzu, and Shoukei’s journey result in the three of them coming together and rising up. They join the common people in their quest to drag a corrupt official who’s abusing the citizens down from his post. Even with no special powers, Shoukei and Suzu’s newly gained determination and self-reflection makes them valuable allies to Youko and the movement.
Despite her authority and her magic sword, Youko could not have bought this man down without the people. She was too constrained by the faults of the political system and the deceptve agendas of politicians. Instead, she uses her privilege to become an ally to the citizens as they revolt.
The Twelve Kingdoms offers a vision of revolution and change, accomplished not by the privileged and powerful, but through marginalized classes taking collective action. There is no one savior, only determination and belief in a better world.
The Heart of The Twelve Kingdoms: “We are all the captains of our own souls”
Themes of equality, collective action, and unity in the face of oppression permeate the sprawling, varied storylines of The Twelve Kingdoms. It’s fitting that Youko’s first official royal proclamation, which will characterize her reign, is to eradicate the law that people must bow when speaking to her. It highlights her intention to erase ranks and social boundaries and meet people on more equal terms, as Youko declares:
I do not understand people who cannot feel secure in their positions without forcing others to grovel before them. No man is anyone’s slave. No man is born to be a slave.
Those who are oppressed and do not yield; who face disasters and do not break; who suffer injustice and do not fear to answer injustice with justice; who are ruled by beasts and do not fawn at their feet—these are the kinds of free people I wish the citizens of Kei to become.
We are all the captains of our own souls. And our first command is to hold our heads high in the presence of others.
Youko’s words resonate here because they’re true. All over the world now, those in power are seeking more ways to oppress and marginalize the people they rule over. The narrative of The Twelve Kingdoms and its celebration of empowerment and justice is one the world sorely needs, today as much as ever.