Ooku, The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women

by Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Linda H. Chance


The institution of the “Great Interior,” or Ooku, was the residence for the Tokugawa shoguns’ wives, concubines, mothers, daughters, and their female servants for close to three hundred years, from about 1600 to 1868. “Great Interior” also referred to the network of its residents. Run by and for women, yet situated at the apex of the Japanese social order, as the samurai warrior class and its ruling shogun designated themselves, the Ooku was simultaneously a world hidden from public view by well-guarded walls and a focus of enduring questions about its customs and power.

The Ooku was built, and its rules developed, to protect and promote the women of the shogunal household, and to project the masculine authority of the shogun as the head of the premier military family. Samurai attitudes toward and views of women prior to these three centuries, Tokugawa period Neo-Confucian ethics, the societal emphasis on female virtue according to Confucian and Buddhist precepts, and women’s own self-evaluations, all infused the character of the Ooku.

The focus of this study is the power structure, formal and informal, of the women who lived in the Ooku, especially the core phalanx of this institution, the ladies-in-waiting. They constituted the larger part of the Ooku staff who forged its character. Most of them were the daughters of knighted-class samurai (hatamoto, bannermen) and were brought up to dedicate themselves to their Tokugawa master and mistress, many of them for life, never forming any personal relationships with men. This single-minded loyalty united the young women in the Ooku, who prove to be on the whole well-disciplined, well-intentioned women, faithful to their duties and respectful to superiors in the hierarchical structure, who steadily grew more powerful through the Ooku’s history. The role of these ladies is key to understanding this remarkable, long-sustained institution, which grew during a time when the notion of women leading an institution was very much out of character. Their power was a hidden phenomenon few people paid any attention to for many generations.

In the last several decades, scholars of all areas of Japanese studies, but particularly historians, have paid extraordinary attention to the Edo period, which roughly coincides with the time the Ooku existed. Whereas the early feminist investigation of Japanese history in the 1970s emphasized the patriarchal nature of Japanese society and designated women as the oppressed class, more recent studies have made great strides in reevaluating and celebrating them, stressing the positive aspects of women’s lives in Japanese history and highlighting their contributions to the civilization and culture as well as the socioeconomic and even political development of Japan.

The “Great Interior,” both an enormous space and a set of rules and protocols, existed to protect the aristocratic wife of the ruling shogun and to secure an heir by concubinage in order to sustain Tokugawa prosperity. Organized as tightly as the samurai in a bureaucratic structure, women there led disciplined and professional lives. Unlike their counterparts in the imperial court, however, these samurai women wrote little themselves because they had sworn upon entry to the Ooku not to speak or write of what they saw or heard. The primary records of their institution were destroyed at the end of the shogunate. Reconstructed through original research in manuscripts legible only to the highly trained few, diaries, historical records, and testimonies about life in the Ooku offered long after its demise, the account in this book details not only the physical and organizational layout, but also the aspirations and expectations of women who lived in this singular hierarchical world. Bound to serve for life, held to standards of loyalty and tradition, these women at once complete and complicate the understanding of the era.

The field of early modern Japanese studies is burgeoning, but the number of scholars who have the linguistic skills to deal with such a wide array of manuscript materials in out-of-the-way archives and present the results of their research in English is miniscule––this makes this book all the more valuable given how the authors have made painstaking efforts in locating, making sense of, selecting, and translating a vast range of material for a scholarly audience. The book will thus be an invaluable, essential resource for those in Asian studies, specifically Japanese studies, and women’s studies. Specifically, it will be essential reading for all those interested in Edo period history and in gender studies of Japan more broadly. It is also important for the comparative history of palace women, and for studies of the early modern world, which increasingly take a global approach.

Watch Drs. Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Linda H. Chance speak about the book!


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