Episode 333 – The Oku

This week, we tackle one of our more unique subjects. It’s time to talk about an institution so secretive that most of its records were almost certainly destroyed to keep them away from prying eyes. No, it’s not some secret ninja clan: it’s the harem, or Oku, of the Tokugawa shoguns.


Seigle, Cecilia and Linda Chance. Ooku: The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women.

Beerens, Anna, Hanako Minour and Sassa Shizuko. “Interview with Two Ladies of the Ooku: A translation from ‘Kyuji Shinmonroku'”. Monumenta Nipponica 63, No 2 (Autumn, 2008).


The Chiyoda Oku, by the Meiji Era woodblock artist Hashimoto Chikanobu. The Oku as an institution captivated public interest at least in part because of its scandalous reputation — though these women don’t appear to be doing too much that’s scandalous.
The cell to which Ejima was confined during her exile in Nagano; certainly a substantial fall from grace, though I imagine that since her sentence was reduced from execution she didn’t complain too much.
This is a map from the Beerens article referenced above of the Honmaru of Edo palace, giving you a feel for the layout of the Oku.
A detailed floor map of the Oku stitched together from two images in the Beerens article.
Thanks to listener Chris for pointing out that this particular manga series (Ooku: The Great Interior) is available in English translation for those of you interested in learning more about how the institution is portrayed.



1 thought on “Episode 333 – The Oku”

  1. The ooku sounds a lot like the way Korean women were kept indoors at all times. Supposedly, the neolttwigi (that Korean seesaw thing) was created by the women so they could see outside the palace walls.
    In reading about imperial China, the concubine system does seem like a good solution to the problem of preventing a succession crisis. If you don’t have enough kids with your wife, just take the oldest son of one of your concubines. So many dynastic struggles of Europe could have been prevented with this kind of polygyny. Obviously, it didn’t solve ALL problems, since there was the whole regency destroying the Han Dynasty thing. But looking at it through our western postfeminist lens is detrimental to understanding the origin and purpose of such systems, instead of just poopooing them as neo-Confucian sexism. Of course, the Tuoba and Tang system of trying to prevent these scheming empress dowager regencies by killing the empress dowager once her son succeeded the throne is objectively horrible.

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