Ooku, The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women

by Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Linda H. Chance


"Until recently, avid viewers of Japanese prime-time television dramas could claim to know more about the Ooku, the women's quarters of the shogunal palace, than could students and scholars reading early modern Japanese history in English. This problem has been addressed ably by Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Linda Chance's detailed study of this little-known yet amply exoticized institution. ... The book's main contribution to the scholarly literature is the wealth of information it reveals about the distinctive nature of the Ooku, the changes in the structure and role of these quarters over time, and the details if offers about the lives and many of the notable and occasionally infamous women who comprised the Ooku ranks. ... While the book does a commendable job of explaining the development of the women's quarters and its internal operational dynamics, Ooku is at its best when piecing together the fragments of information that can be gleaned from various extant source sin order to describe the women who peopled the Ooku over time. ... readers can learn much from this thoroughly researched synthesis of an elusive but important early modern political institution." —Journal of Japanese Studies

“This is a wonderfully detailed history of the shogunal harem in Japan, from its origins in the early seventeenth century through its collapse in the late nineteenth. The study covers everything from job descriptions and employment procedures to struggles over money and power; and it does not shy away from discussion of the sex—or lack of it—at the heart of the Ooku’s raison d’être. The work is based on an exhaustive reading of Japanese-language sources, both primary and secondary. The authors have also consulted relevant material in English and French about similar institutions in other times and places (China, Korea, Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey) and from time to time offer a comparative perspective. Many of the primary sources consulted by the authors are still in manuscript form and exceptionally difficult to decipher, let alone interpret. Even printed primary sources are usually not annotated and difficult to understand. 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. The authors thus deserve high praise for their dedication to locating, making sense of, selecting, and translating a vast range of material for a scholarly audience.” - Gaye Rowley, Waseda University

"One of the least understood and often maligned aspects of the Tokugawa Shogunate is the Ooku, or 'Great Interior,' the institution within the shogun’s palace, administered by and for the upper-class shogunal women and their attendants who resided there. Long the object of titillation and a favorite subject for off-the-wall fantasy in historical TV and film dramas, the actual daily life, practices, cultural roles, and ultimate missions of these women have remained largely in the dark, except for occasional explosions of scandal. In crystal-clear prose that is a pleasure to read, this new book, however, presents the Ooku in a whole new down-to-earth, practical light. After many years of perusing unexamined Ooku documents generated by these women and their associates, the authors have provided not only an overview of the fifteen generations of Shoguns whose lives were lived in residence with this institution, but how shoguns interacted differently with it. Much like recent research on imperial convents, they find not a huddled herd of oppressed women, but on the contrary, women highly motivated to the preservation of their own particular cultural institution. Most important, they have been able to identify “the culture of secrecy” within the Ooku itself to be an important mechanism for preserving the highest value, ‘loyalty,’ that essential value to their overall self-interested mission dedicated to the survival of the Shogunate itself." - Barbara Ruch, Columbia University

"The aura of power and prestige of the institution known as the ooku—the complex network of women related to the shogun and their living quarters deep within Edo castle—has been a popular subject of Japanese television dramas and movies. Brushing aside myths and fallacies that have long obscured our understanding, this thoroughly researched book provides an intimate look at the lives of the elite female residents of the shogun’s elaborate compound. Drawing information from contemporary diaries and other private memoirs, as well as official records, the book gives detailed descriptions of the physical layout of their living quarters, regulations, customs, and even clothing, enabling us to actually visualize this walled-in world that was off limits for most of Japanese society. It also outlines the complex hierarchy of positions, and by shining a light on specific women, gives readers insight into the various factions within the ooku and the scandals that occasionally occurred. Both positive and negative aspects of life in the “great interior” are represented, and one learns how some of these high-ranking women wielded tremendous social as well as political power, at times influencing the decision-making of the ruling shoguns. In sum, this book is the most accurate overview and characterization of the ooku to date, revealing how it developed and changed during the two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule. A treasure trove of information, it will be a vital source for scholars and students of Japan studies, as well as women’s studies, and for general readers who are interested in learning more about this fascinating women’s institution and its significance in Japanese history and culture." - Patricia Fister, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto

"Offers a useful and essential supplement to [Conrad Totman's] Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu and demonstrates that at least by the second half of the Tokugawa period, the 'occasional pressures' [...] had become a routine part of the process by which men advanced in office; moreover, office seekers, whether male or female, had to pull strings in the Ooku (female space), the Omote (male space), or both. Seigle is to be commended for having dug through so many diverse sources, many in manuscript form, during the course of her research and for having brought to light what is known of the women who lived and worked in the Ooku in exhaustive detail [...] this book has much to recommend it." - Monumenta Nipponica


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