[From February Issue 2014]
Ooku refers to the area within Edo Castle in which the shogun’s wives and concubines, and the women who attended to those women, lived during the Edo period (between the 17th and 19th centuries). Many people imagine that this place was a kind of harem, and it has been the setting for a number of TV dramas and movies that feature plots against the shogun and the jealousies surrounding him.
But “Ooku,” which was first serialized in the female-oriented manga magazine Melody in 2005, has an innovative story that turned these representations on their head. It is set in a world where the shogun is actually a woman and in which many men reside in the Ooku.
During the time of the third Tokugawa Shogun, TOKUGAWA Iemitsu, an epidemic of “blushing smallpox” swept the country. This brought about a switch in gender roles. This made-up sickness only affected men, and the mortality rate was especially high among young males. As a result, the male population decreased dramatically, and the female-to-male ratio soon reached four to one. The story begins when the disproportionately small male population has become a fact of life, about 80 years after the outbreak, during the reign of the eighth Tokugawa Shogun Yoshimune.
During this period only a very small number of elderly remember a time when there was about one male to every female. In order that they leave behind offspring, the small number of surviving males are treated with extreme care, and women take on the majority of work, including manual labor. Women still need to adopt a male name, however, in order to pass on their warrior or merchant class lineage. Even Yoshimune, who was originally named “Onobu,” adopts the male name Yoshimune as shogun.
One day, Yoshimune meets with the leader of the Dutch Trading Post, and is surprised to discover that not a single member of the trading post’s delegation to Japan is female. At this time Japan continued to be isolated from other countries, and neither nation knew much about the other. In the story, excerpts from the actual Dutch leader’s diary are quoted, including: “The women of this country seem very hard working” and “The shogun sounds like a young boy.” These historical facts lend a sense of reality to the fiction, making the reader wonder if the shogun could have actually been a woman.
The story revisits the era of the third Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu, and it gradually becomes clear how women began to take over the traditionally male role of shogun by adopting male names. While it’s enjoyable watching this mystery unfurl, one of the many attractions of the story is the depiction of love affairs between the shogun and the men at the Ooku.
This manga has also been translated into English. In 2009 it received the Tiptree Award, which is awarded to literary works, including science fiction, that provide us with a greater insight into gender roles. The series is still ongoing, and ten volumes of the comic version are currently available.