Concubines in Imperial Japan: The Toll of Perfection

Recruited at age 14, the concubines were locked up in the palace and appointed to join the “demi-god” in bed from time to time. And, if possible, give him a male heir. In Imperial Japan, this was the fate of the sokushitsu (“secondary wive”). The mistresses of the Emperor were carefully chosen among the prettiest and most talented girls in the Empire. One of their usual names, metake (“borrowed uterus”), leaves no doubt about their function. It was incumbent upon them to ensure the continuity of a lineage that the legend says to be “uninterrupted for 10.000 generations”.

Mental Post-It:  Komachi is, to this day, a synonym for feminine beauty in Japan. The perfect beauty must have the following traits: pale skin, round face, straight eyebrows, double eyelids, little nose, little mouth with full lips. These physical attributes,  as well the intellectual and spiritual ones (refinement, elegance, sensitiveness), were possessed by Ono no Komachi (born around 834 AD). She was not only extremely beautiful but also one of the Rokkasen — the six best waka poets of the early Heian period.

Heian women period Japan dynasty
Women from Heian period

According to the historian Kenneth Ruoff’s The People’s Emperor, 2003, “nearly half of the Japanese rulers were born from concubines”. And for good reason: until the threshold of the twentieth century, members of the imperial clan were struck by the double scourge of low birth rates and high infant mortality. Emperor Meiji (1852 -1912) was not spared by the fate: only five of his fifteen children reached adulthood.

The causes were obvious:  The age of mothers (the youngest were only 14), the prohibition to operate the imperial child and, of course, the ravages of consanguinity. To avoid sharing power, the unions between imperial spouses were sometimes very close together, especially in the first centuries. So a half-brother could marry his sister, or an uncle, his niece.

The concubines were recruited in the nobility

The history of concubines merges with that of the Japanese monarchy. Recruited into the ranks of the nobility, they formed a very closed group within the ooku, the private domain of the palace, which housed the spouse. Some of them passed on to posterity. Like Lady Nijo, a concubine of the Emperor Go-Fukakusa (1243-1304).

Surprisingly free, she collected lovers with impunity until the day she made the mistake of tinkering with the younger brother of the monarch. Driven from the courtyard, she redeemed herself by becoming a Buddhist nun.

Obviously, religion offered an honorable exit to fallen favorites.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Lady Nakako, one of the mistresses of Emperor Go-Yōzei (1572-1617), was surprised in full swing with a handful of courtiers. Exiled on a desert island, she ended her life as abbess of a convent.

In fact, very few of these sokushitsu hit the headlines. “Most of them,” says historian Elizabeth Abbott in A History of Mistresses (2004), “lived and died without leaving any trace.” Their tasks were multiple: they had to, for example, assist the monarch during his grooming or help him get dressed. The sokushitsu “took office” on the threshold of puberty and retired around 30 years old. During their brief career, they would risk their lives during childbirth or face the humiliation of infertility or miscarriage. Two of the nine concubines of Emperor Meiji died in childbirth, while four of them never conceived.

The young Hashimoto Natsuko was one of these meteorites: to mark her entry “into office”, in March 1871, this daughter of a dignitary received from the hands of the “celestial sovereign” a cup of sake and silk clothes. Three years later, in 1875, the palace announced her death and that of her newborn. She was only 17 years old.

Concubines had to give up their maternal rights

These young ladies were doomed to darkness and had to limit their outings as much as possible.  Even access to the emperor’s bed was regulated: the decision belonged to the first lady of the court. It was she who warned the elector of a terse: “Now it’s your turn!”

But the most painful of the constraints of the office was to abdicate their maternal rights. Emperor Meiji was born of a concubine, just as his father and grandfather had been, and so would his son, the future Emperor Taisho (1879-1926). Each of these “surrogate mothers” had to solemnly “yield” her child – daughter or boy – to the monarch’s main wife.

The rule was so strict that it prevented Emperor Meiji from visiting the deathbed of his biological mother, Nakayama Yoshiko, who had disappeared in 1907. A few years earlier, in 1900, this venerable court lady had been awarded the “Grand Cordon of the  Order of the Precious Crown“, an honor reserved for women of the imperial family. Giving birth to a “demi-god” offered some advantages. Or was it just a consolation prize for having her child taken away?

“The Order of the Precious Crown” (宝冠章 Hōkan-shō) is a Japanese order, established on January 4, 1888 by Emperor Meiji of Japan, and the lowest ranking of the Japanese orders currently awarded.

In 1940, Yanagihara Naruko received the same eminent distinction. The natural mother of Emperor Taisho was then 81 years old. Entering the service of Emperor Meiji at age 14, she had previously given him two children in four years, both of whom died at a young age.  She was considered the most cultivated, intelligent and elegant of all concubines in the palace.

A print of the artist Tsukiola Yoshitoshi represents her at bedtime, bending over a lantern of paper about to go out. The image seemed so suggestive to the palace authorities that it was removed from the public for more than a century! At the time of the portrait, in December 1878, Lady Naruko was at the height of her influence: at just 19 years old, she was pregnant with the child who would one day attain the supreme consecration.

She was relayed by Sono Sachiko, who kept the favors of the monarch for a long time. It was with this young aristocrat fifteen years his junior that he conceived his last eight children: two boys and six girls. However, only four of them escaped early death.

Empress Shoken, very committed to the education of girls, marked the simultaneous decline of the concubinage and the adoption of Western lifestyle. In 1886 she made her first public appearance in a corset dress and imposed Western style in the imperial residence. The concubinage was banned in 1898. Fortunately, that was not the end of the Imperial Dynasty: Emperor Taisho had four sons with his wife, Empress Teimei, all of robust constitution.

Empress Shoken Japan Meiji
Empress Shoken

When Japan’s first monogamous ruler succumbed to a heart attack in 1926, his “natural” mother, Yanagihara Naruko, was exceptionally admitted to his bedside. She died in 1943, followed four years later by Lady Sachiko. The former favorite of Emperor Meiji was 80 years old. Thus the last of the concubines was gone.

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