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Re-creating the life of a 17th-century concubine

by Mark Schilling
AN IMPERIAL CONCUBINE’S TALE: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in 17th-Century Japan, by G.G. Rowley. Columbia University Press, 2013, 280 pp., $40 (hardcover)

As G.G. Rowley notes in the preface to her lovingly researched, elegantly written study of Imperial concubine Nakanoin Nakako, the history of her subject’s period, the late 16th and early 17th centuries, “has traditionally been written as the history of men.” In addition to the greater importance historians focusing on Japan have traditionally attached to the lives of powerful men — emperors ranking higher on the scale than their wives and mistresses — there is another, more practical reason, as Rowley admits: With men “there is so much more material to go on.”

Her own subject is a case in point. Despite living a long and eventful life, Nakako left behind no literary remains, not even a letter. “This makes difficulties,” Rowley notes, “though they are not insurmountable.”

Novelists or biographers with active imaginations would surmount them with invented speeches and scenes, thinking of a movie rights deal. Rowley, a teacher of English and Japanese literature at Waseda University, has invented nothing. Instead she not only scoured primary sources for any tidbits about Nakako, from the poems of her litterateur father, Michikatsu, to dry entries in court diaries, but also visited sites associated with her, including the Izu village where she lived in exile — and where descendants of a local family safeguarded manuscripts she had left in their keeping for nearly 350 years. Rowley’s anecdotal accounts of these visits, such as her conversations with the current abbess of Nakako’s Kyoto nunnery, add color to a story that could have been the usual academic trudge through the written record.

Not that Nakako herself springs to life, unfortunately; she remains a cipher to the end. But Rowley has vividly reconstructed her world, while making a convincing case for the importance of her story in illuminating the lives of the era’s aristocratic women.

That story begins with Nakako’s birth in about 1591, when her father, a mid-ranking noble, was living in exile in the countryside for an affair with an imperial concubine. Ironically, following his return to Kyoto in 1599, Nakako herself became a lady-in-waiting at the palace, serving Emperor Goyozei. In 1609 the emperor learned that certain of his courtiers and concubines, whose number by then included Nakako, had been engaged in scandalous behavior, such as viewing open-air kabuki dances and taking part in drunken orgies.

Two of the male courtiers considered ringleaders were executed, while Nakako and other concubines were banished to the island of Niijima (today a popular surfing resort, but then considered the ends of the Earth). Her boat, however, was wrecked in a typhoon and Nakako wound up in a village in the interior of Izu Peninsula, where she stayed for 14 years. After being pardoned, she returned to Kyoto and led a quiet life, finally taking vows as a Buddhist nun in 1641 and later becoming the abbess of the Hojiin Imperial Convent. She died there at about age 80 in 1671.

Re-creating the life of such a woman, which began when mighty warlords were vying violently for supremacy and leaving chaos in their wake, would have ordinarily been difficult-to-impossible several centuries removed, but Nakako had the good luck to be born into a family noted for its literary accomplishments, her father being a particularly noted exemplar. Considered a monument of scholarship in its time, his 3,000-page commentary on the Murasaki Shikibu classic “The Tale of Genji” was being consulted into the 20th century, while his poetry, including heart-stricken odes about his daughter’s exile, were celebrated and preserved.

Nakako was also fortunate in being present at the imperial court when its daily round was being recorded by its female palace attendants, giving later scholars a detailed view of their existence within the palace walls, though, as Rowley notes, “never explicitly mentioned … is the final duty of the day for palace attendants — attending the emperor in his bedchamber.” Also, the scandal that sent Nakako into exile occasioned much commentary and even inspired a fictional account, “The Tale of Kazan,” in which she figured as a character.

Finally, her place of banishment happened to be a corner of Japan with a relatively stable population and long memories. Even the story of Nakako’s maidservant, who became pregnant and stayed behind when her mistress returned to Kyoto, has been handed down to the present by the locals, while a shrine built to her memory still stands.

For all its wealth of information about Nakako’s life and times, presented with flashes of dry wit and no academic jargon whatsoever, Rowley’s account is something of a shadow play, with its subject forever hidden behind a screen. Her impeccable stagecraft and inspired direction, however, are worth the price of admission.

Mark Schilling is the senior film reviewer for The Japan Times and the Japan correspondent for Variety.