Thursday, April 25, 2013

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

[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

Life in early 17th century Japan was a wild place, even for those privileged enough to live and work in the imperial palace. The wilderness of the court, however, was much vastly different than the wilderness of life outside the protected imperial walls. To live in the court was to live in service of the emperor and to pledge one’s self to live according to the rules of society. Both men and women needed to be careful never to overstep the boundaries of their station-if they did, they risked punishment which would range from the death penalty to banishment—the cruelty of the punishment usually 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 look at the life and world of an often overlooked, and yet nonetheless remarkable woman living in 17th century Japan. Nakanoin Nakako was a noblewoman who entered into the imperial service when she was about 11 years old—the imperial Daily Records of January 19th, 1601 mark her entry 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 she entered into was one centered on the life of the emperor; when she became of age, she would be fulfill duties such as serving the emperor his meals, presenting gifts to the emperor, bathing and clothing the emperor, and entertainment. Women of age, of course, would also attend to that duty inherent to the role of a concubine, although this duty is never recorded in the meticulous Daily Records.

Nakako’s life as an imperial concubine would soon be altered forever by what came to be known as the dragon-scandal. In the sixth month of 1609, a series of hurried entries in existing diaries of courtiers record the many rumors which were circulating about the “lax behavior” of imperial palace attendants. By the end of that same month, the imperial concubines were forbidden to leave their apartments due to an investigation. And by the beginning of the seventh month, the entries in the Daily Records turn ominous: “1st day: … His Majesty took his morning cup of sake. No meal was served because no one could be found.” It was not until the fourth day of the seventh month that the dragon-scandal finally broke. Five women, including Nakako, were restricted to the custody of their parents to await further instruction from the emperor. What, exactly, was the “lax behavior” they were accused of? Although the exact nature of the accusations varies from source to source, the women were essentially accused of leaving the imperial palace to attend parties in male courtier’s homes; attending then-taboo kabuki dances outside of the palace; and potentially having sexual relations with courtiers other than the emperor. At first, the emperor had a mind to execute all of the guilty parties in the scandal, including the women. However, he was eventually convinced to only execute the two men of lowest rank, while subjecting the rest of the men and women to exile. 

Nakako herself would never make it as far as the official site of her banishment, the island of Nijima. Her boat shipwrecked in the harbor of Nagatsuro, which lies at the tip of the Izu Peninsula; a small village nearby would become her home for about 14 years.  Not much is known about her life there, but contemporary accounts do record some instances of a peaceful life; Nakako directed the dancing of the villagers at harvest festivals, and even danced to entertain them herself. She became known as “Nakako-hime”—or princess Nakako.

In 1623, Nakako—and the other women implicated in the scandal—were pardoned and allowed to return to the capital once again. Although she was a young woman of 18 or 19 when she was exiled, she was now a mature woman in her early 30s. Unfortunately, Nakako herself drops off the record for more than a decade after her return to the capital. It is likely that she lived quietly at her family home with her mother, brother, sister-in-law and her family. In 1641, however, she reappears: eighteen years after her pardon from exile, Nakako joined an aristocratic convent. She eventually became an abbess and died in 1671, the longest-lived of her family in her generation, around the age of eighty.  

Nakako did not leave behind extensive written records. Her story is primarily told through scraps of contemporary records, such as notes in the Daily Records, poetry, diaries, local records and even local legends. With some authors, this gap in historical records might result in an empty and sparse retelling of her life. Rowley, however, has the remarkable ability to flesh out the world of Nakako by using research on the lives of her contemporaries—such as the lives of imperial concubines in service of the emperor—in addition to documentation that still survives from contemporaries, including Nakako’s own father. While I’m sure readers will be left wishing that they could read something written by Nakako’s own hand, there is something almost enigmatic about the fact that all we have of her are these little traces, these little wisps, of who she once had been. A young woman, full of life, banished from the world she had known and torn from her family. This poem, composed by Nakako’s father after he received a letter from his daughter after her banishment, records his despair at their parting:

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.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Hélène Berr

On the metro today I wondered: Will anybody ever be able to understand what it was like to live through this appalling tempest at the age of twenty, at the age when you are ready to grasp life’s beauty, when you are completely ready to trust in humanity?
 --Hélène Berr

I apologize for the total lack of updates in the past few months. Life has been overwhelming and I've been neglecting traditional blogging, for the most part, because it is harder to keep up with than micro-blogging. I am currently working on a review for An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley.

Today, however, I'd like to deviate a little from the typical book posts on Inviting History by talking a little bit about Hélène Berr ((27 March 1921 – April 1945). Hélène Berr was a young French Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her journal, published in English in 2009, documents her life in a city which becomes increasingly hostile and increasingly limited to Hélène and other Jewish people living in the city. Her journal is something of a journey:

At first, her musings and day-to-day recollections reflected relatively little of the anti-Semitic policies which were being employed with increasing frequency by the occupying Nazis. She wrote of love and boyfriends, of literature and music, of worrying about passing her examinations. But her diary changed as the world changed around her. Jewish French citizens were forced to wear the yellow star, and told they may only certain cars of the Metro stations. Little by little, their freedoms are restricted or taken away entirely. Jewish citizens were eventually banned from public parks, from the theater, from crossing certain areas of Paris, and from going out at night. Hélène recounted how her non-Jewish friends tried politely not to stare and how some strangers smiled broadly at her in the street, while others pulled their children away as she passed.

Hélène, despite the harsh conditions under which she was now living, struggled to remain normalcy--as did everyone in occupied Paris. She worked at the library, listened to music, attended lectures when she was allowed, and fell in love. She worked both officially and underground for UGIF (the General Organization of Israelites in France) - filing papers, answering phones, sorting suitcases sent back by deportees, and secretly helping to place Jewish children with Christian families to be kept safe. Although those working for UGIF are supposed to be “safe" from deportation or imprisonment, it became more and more clear that no Jewish man, woman or child in France was safe from internment, deportation, and death.

Hélène’s family was finally arrested in the spring of 1944. Hélène was first held at the Drancy interment camp, then deported to Auschwitz, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen. She contracted typhus and was beaten to death by a guard for not being able to get out of the bunk, five days before the liberation of the camp.

Her last full entry in the journal details a conversation with a former camp prisoner she encountered, who told her about the execution of Russian prisoners of war at his camp: Each morning, they were rounded up and made to stand. Those too weak to stand were shot. Healthier prisoners that held up the sicker ones had their hands beaten with rifles, and those sick prisoners were then put into the wagons with corpses and thrown alive into pits. Their bodies, alive and dead, were covered with a layer of quicklime.

The last words in the entry: Horror! Horror! Horror!