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.


  1. I find it strange that in many reviews you harshly criticize and chastise authors for not sticking to the facts, yet in other reviews you embellish it. You wrote: "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."
    Please tell us your rational for using "local legends" as a source in this case. I'm sure many might find this somewhat hypocritical.

    1. In An Imperial Concubine's Tale, the author's text was created by using--and more importantly, interpreting--many different sources to create as full a picture of this woman's life as possible. The sources include official palace records, poetry by Nakako's family members, stories passed down in areas where Nakako once lived, shrine records, various records (including literary, diary/primary, and court) of the "dragon scandal," correspondence regarding Nakako, contemporary diaries and memoirs of the time period, etc etc.

      Equally as important as the sources used (and in some cases, more important, in my opinion!) is an author's ability to interpret, examine and deconstruct the information they have found through their research for their book.

      For example, when discussing the departure of Nakako and her maidservant O-Yasu from exile, Rowley covered what was known of their journey while pointing out the various "forks" in the story created by differing local legends about the fate of her maidservant O-Yasu. In one legend, O-Yasu--said to be heavily pregnant--does not travel all the way to the port with her mistress and lives the rest of her life hidden in a village. In the more prevailing legend, she does stay with her mistress until the reach the port, but dies quickly afterward from the physical and emotional strain of leaving Nakako. It is this legend that resulted in the local worship O-Yasu's spirit as a harbinger of safe childbirth and the construction of a shrine that was active for a few generations.

      It may be that the legends Rowley uncovered about Nakako's departure were not true--perhaps O-Yasu did travel all the way to the port with Nakako, perhaps she wasn't pregnant--perhaps she didn't even die for years afterward! But Rowley examines the lore for what it is--local legend passed down from generation to generation, rather than presenting either "fork in the road" as the truth simply because it was the information made available.

      It's all in the author's execution. Active interpretation of sources is, in my opinion, equal to and sometimes more important than the source itself. It's entirely possible to use local legends as a source, as long as the author (as Rowley did) is not only paraphrasing the legends and leading readers to believe that they are, or should be, considered the truth behind the story.