Saturday, May 29, 2021

Book Review: An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley


Cover for 'An Imperial Concubine's Tale' by G. G. Rowley

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2013 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

Life in early 17th century Japan could be precarious and wild, even for those who were privileged enough to live and work in the imperial palace. The wilderness of the court, however, was vastly different than the wilderness outside the protected imperial walls. To live in the imperial court was to live in service of the emperor, to pledge one's entire self to live according to the stringent rules of society.

Men and women needed to ensure that they never overstepped the boundaries of their station and prescribed roles at court. Violating these boundaries risked punishment which could range banishment or confinement, even to execution; the cruelty and severity of the punishment often rested on the good will and mercy of the emperor.

An Imperial Concubine: Scandal, Shipwreck and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan
by G. G. Rowley is a painstakingly researched examination of the life of a remarkable woman who lived in 17th-century Japan, and whose involvement in a great imperial court scandal would change the course of her life forever.

Nakanoin Nakako was a noblewoman who entered into the service of the imperial court when she was around 11 years old. The Imperial Daily Records of January 19th, 1601 mark her entry into this vast and complicated world simply: “The young lady, daughter of the Nakanoin, entered [the palace]; she was received in the anteroom with congratulatory cups of sake and strips of kelp."

The life the young Nakako entered was one solely centered on the emperor. When she became of age, she might fulfill duties such as serving meals to the emperor, bathing and clothing him, presented his gifts and providing entertainment. Women of age might also attend to that duty inherent to the role of an imperial concubine, but these duties were not recorded in the otherwise meticulous Daily Records.

Nakako's rigid yet luxurious life as an imperial concubine was altered forever by what would eventually be known as the "Dragon Scandal." In the 6th month of 1609, a series of hurried, almost frantic entries in the diaries of courtiers record the growing rumors circulating about "lax behavior" on part of the imperial palace attendants.

By the end of that month, the imperial concubines were forbidden to leave their apartments due to the beginnings of an investigation. At the beginning of the 7th month, the entries in the Daily Records mark an ominous note: "1st day: … His Majesty took his morning cup of sake. No meal was served because no one could be found."

Three days later, the Dragon Scandal finally broke. Five women, including Nakako, were sent into the custody of their families to await further instructions from the emperor. The women were accused of "lax behavior." The nature of these accusations varied from source to source, but the broad accusations included: leaving the imperial palace to attend private parties in the homes of male courtiers; attending kabuki dances outside of the palace; and, most damaging of all, possibly having sexual relationships with men who were not the emperor.

Whether or not Nakako or any of the people accused were guilty is unknown and legitimately irrelevant: they were punished, regardless. The initial punishment set for this behavior was execution for all parties involved, men and women alike. However, the emperor was persuaded to only execute two men of a lower rank, while the rest of the accused--including Nakako--were sent into exile.

Nakako was banished to the island of Nijima, but she would never make it there. The boat transporting her to her new home shipwrecked in the harbor of Nagatsuro, at the tip of the Izu Peninusula. A village nearby would become her home for the next 14 years. Information about Nakako's life there is scarce but invaluable. Rowley was able to find contemporary accounts that describe a relatively peaceful life: Nakako directing the dancing for harvest festivals and on some occasions, dancing in the festivals herself. She was known in the village as Nakako-hime--or princess Nakako.

In 1623, Nakako and the other women punished in the Dragon Scandal were pardoned and allowed to return to the capital. Nakako was a young women of 18 or 19 when she was exiled; by the time she was pardoned, she was in her early 30s. Her life after her pardon is something of a mystery: she drops off official records, and nothing is known about where she lived or what she did. Rowley believes it is likely that she lived quietly with at her family home.

In 1641, Nakako again appears in the records: Eighteen years after she was pardoned for her apparent role in the Dragon Scandal, she joined an aristocratic convent. She would become an abbess of this same convent. She died in 1671, around the age of eighty, outliving the rest of her family.

Nakako is an elusive figure. She did not leave behind extensive written records. She did not play a drastic, country-altering history that often leads historians to treasure troves of information. Yet she did exist. And Rowley has managed to uncover her story through scraps of contemporary records: notes in the Daily Records about her entry into the imperial court and subsequent banishment; poetry; diaries mentioning the tumultuous events of the court; local records and in some cases, local legends passed down for generations about "princess Nakako" and her journey. The end result is a shining light, however incomplete, on a figure who otherwise may have been lost to history.

Rowley takes on the remarkable task of not only telling Nakako's story, but fleshing out her world by researching the lives of her contemporaries in order to provide a glimpse of what her life would have been like. Readers may be left wishing that there was something in Nakako's own hand to take in, something written by this woman whose life ebbed and flowed on the whim of the imperial court and the emperor's wishes. Yet the wispy traces of Nakako, a young woman in the prime of life banished from all she has ever known and torn from her family, make her more enigmatic than ever.

This poem, composed by Nakako's father after he received a letter from his daughter, explaining her banishment, records the despair at Nakako's parting from her family and former life:

Could even the
Expected eternal parting
Compare with this?
I wonder at such a moment
Coming in my own lifetime.

I highly recommend An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley for readers interested in 17th century history, Japanese history, or women's history.

[I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a review]

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