In the manga Ōoku, Yoshinaga Fumi imagines a world in which women rule Japan after most of the country’s men die of disease. The alternate version from the Edo period (1603-1868) has received awards and praise both at home and abroad.
A reversal of social positions
Manga artist Yoshinaga Fumi Ōoku (Ōoku: the inner chambers) tells the story of an alternate version of the Edo period (1603-1868) in which most of the male population is killed by Redface Pox, a disease that only affects males, during the reign of Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shōgun. Families of peasants, merchants and samurai lose their breadwinners and heirs, and Iemitsu himself dies, to be secretly replaced by his illegitimate daughter. The female shogun establishes a new society in which the social positions of men and women are reversed. (Spoiler alert: this article discusses the plot of Ōokuincluding the end.)
Japan has a long history of male-female inversion. In particular, there is the classic work Torikaebaya monogatari (trans. by Rosette F. Willig as The changing ones), written in the late Heian period (794-1185), in which a brother and sister both live passing for the opposite sex, as well as the various manga adaptations of the story. Tezuka Osamu’s 1950s manga Ribon no kishi (Princess Heart) features a protagonist with male and female hearts, whose personalities change when they are swapped. In the 1970s, Oscar, a noblewoman raised as a man, is a main character in Ikeda Riyoko’s seminal manga series. Berusaiyu no bara (The Rose of Versailles), set at the time of the French Revolution.
« Yoshinaga Fumi Ōoku stands out in that instead of just having changes in appearance, it presents a retelling of history in which the social positions of men and women are entirely reversed,” says manga researcher Yamada Tomoko of the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures at Meiji University.
After Iemitsu’s daughter takes over as shōgun (also using Iemitsu’s name), his former nanny Kasuga no Tsubone establishes the Ōoku – originally a name for the ladies’ rooms housing his leading wife and his concubines in the palace, but here with new meaning — to ensure that his line can continue. This parallels Kasuga’s role in reality, where she was prominent in the Ōoku, except in Yoshinaga’s version of the story, the “inner chambers” are quarters for males, chosen for their reproductive potential. The country goes into national isolation to prevent foreign powers from learning of the sudden reduction in the number of men. In another twist, Yoshiwara’s famous pleasure quarters become a place where ordinary women choose men to father their children. During this time, women perform physical labor.
“Instead of suddenly reversing male and female roles, Yoshinaga constructed a plausible and coherent world in which women took a central position that brought about social change.” Yamada said. “At the end, too, the story returns to the ‘true’ story we know. This kind of skillfully constructed story was unprecedented, which I think explains why it so quickly gained such appreciation in Japan and abroad.
Awards and acclaim
Five years after the start of serialization, Ōoku won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Award in 2009, and the following year received the James Tiptree Jr. Award (now the Sinon Award) for works of science fiction and fantasy that encourage exploration and expansion of the kind. It was the first time a Japanese writer had won the American award, and also the first time a comedian had done so.
“Alternate stories reversing the positions of men and women are common in science fiction. But applying that to the shōgun family and the Ōoku got SF readers talking from the very start of the serialization,” comments sci-fi critic and translator Ōmori Nozomi. “I myself was eager to see how this conceit would align with the Tokugawa family history and how Yoshinaga would serve it.”
In the series, all the shōguns from Iemitsu to Yoshinobu (the fifteenth and last) appear – Yoshinobu and two others are male – and the real story is woven into the story. At the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the destruction of top secret documents concerning the Ōoku, covering history from the time of Kasuga no Tsubone, completes a return to the old social positions of men and women. Saigō Takamori rewrote history to make all shōguns male, erasing the “shameful” version produced by women.
“A typical science fiction writer would probably change the names of the shōguns after Iemitsu and come up with a completely different story of the family that diverges from our story,” Ōmori says. “In Ōoku, however, the major events largely unfold following the story we know, while creating a compelling alternative. It was a new approach.
The James Tiptree Jr. award was based only on the first two books in English translation. “More manga was being translated at the time,” Ōmori continues. “Yoshinaga had a lot of American fans and news of her Tokugawa shogun story as the women spread quickly via word of mouth and blogs. Many science fiction writers read Ōoku in the English-speaking world as well. A notable reader who praised the series was NK Jemisin, later a three-time Hugo Award winner for Best Novel, who had been a Yoshinaga fan for years.
Says Ōmori: “Science fiction in the United States and Britain, which was dominated by male writers, has in recent years seen a trend of female writers producing alternate stories with women as protagonists. You could say that Ōoku was a pioneer of this trend.
After the completion of the 19 volumes, Ōoku won the Japan SF Prize in February 2022.
“It wouldn’t have had that impact if it was just an alternate story,” Ōmori says. “I feel like the end of Ōoku won it increased appreciation. He provided an answer at the end as to why, other than the inversion, there was so little deviation from our story. There’s the shock that our real story is an edited version by Saigō Takamori. This double inversion provides an amazing finale with that SF-style “sense of wonder”. The startling revelation kind of reminds me of the end of Planet of the Apes.”
Born in 1971, Yoshinaga began by creating parodies of The Rose of Versailles and slam dunk in dojinshi (self-published magazines) before breaking into the boys’ love genre, making her debut in a commercial magazine in 1994. She established herself as a mangaka in 1999 with Seiyō kottō yōgashiten (antique bakery); the hit series has been adapted into a television series, as well as a movie in South Korea.
“With derivative works, fans can make changes or links in the spaces between their favorite stories to make the original more meaningful to them or more fun,” Yamada notes. “For these fan communities, sharing their feelings like this is the greatest thrill. Yoshinaga has honed her skills for skillful proofreading in her dojinshi Activities.
“When I interviewed her about Ōoku, Yoshinaga said the story came from an idea she had in college to write a fantasy about a country ruled by a dynasty of queens. She gave it up after finding it impossible to build a world from scratch. But when she saw a 2003 TV drama that was also called Ōokushe thought she could write a parody of Japanese history.
The series includes a section devoted to medical efforts to eradicate Redface Pox, with an alternate version of “Dutch studies” scholar Hiraga Gennai, portrayed as a lesbian who dresses as a man, and a character called Aonuma, the blonde-haired blue. son in the eyes of a Dutchman and a prostitute. While contemporary readers will think of the current battle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, this part of the story also cleverly adapts real history. Yoshinaga’s account draws on the smallpox epidemics that were common during the Edo period, with Iemitsu and other shōguns catching the disease, as well as the development of the smallpox vaccine by British physician Edward Jenner. She was also inspired by the Ebola epidemics in Africa in the early 2000s.
Yoshinaga chose the setting because of his distaste for the way the system ensuring shogunal succession trampled on human feelings.
“Since his debut, Yoshinaga has always considered genre,” says Yamada. “As a fan of period dramas, she enjoyed the live action of 2003 Ōoku show, but felt the great difficulty of maintaining a direct succession through the line.
Yoshinaga depicts many male-female relationships related to succession, but in the case of the fourteenth shōgun Iemochi and Princess Kazu, there is a same-sex marriage between two women. Iemochi argues that a blood relation is not necessary to be parents and adopts a child.
Yamada comments, “It doesn’t have to be a male-female relationship. Children do not have to be related to their parents by blood, and they can be part of the family if they are brought up in love. Yoshinaga’s message to contemporary readers, via the setting of the inner chambers, is that this new type of family is possible.
As the history of female shōguns is erased after the Meiji Restoration, the manga’s final scene offers some hope. In 1871, aboard the mission ship Iwakura, Yoshinaga depicts a conversation between Taneatsu, a fictional character who had been the male consort of a former shōgun, and six-year-old Tsuda Umeko. Taneatsu tells the girl how women once dominated politics and encourages her to take on a political role in the future.
In 2007, three years after the start of Ōokubegan Yoshinaga Kinō nani tabeta (What did you eat yesterday?), which continues serialization today.
“I think it’s amazing that a work in a men’s comic that simply shows the everyday life of a middle-aged gay couple continues to draw in readers,” Yamada said. “Maybe at first there was a novelty factor, but now that the pair have moved on from their 40s to 50s, it feels like the characters and readers have aged together.
“For many years in Japan, shoujo [girls’] the manga encouraged consideration of gender and the place of women in the world. The genius of Yoshinaga Fumi comes from this tradition and is expressed in Ōoku and What did you eat yesterday? His willingness to persevere in creating these engaging works played a big role in changing readers’ feelings and values. »
(Originally written by Kimie Itakura of Nippon.com and published in Japanese on June 8, 2022. Banner image: The covers of volumes 1 and 19 of Ōoku (Ōoku: the inner chambers). © Hakusensha.)