Life in Imperial Japan
By G.G. Rowley
Columbia University Press, $40.00, 255 pages
The 17th century was a time of turmoil in Imperial Japan, but also a time of great peace. It brought an end to wars that had ravaged the countryside for years and gave rise to the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted for hundreds of years. At the same time, it was a period of stability and renewal for the Emperor of Japan. For years he and many of the noble families had lived in near poverty. In this book we get to see inside the world of the Imperial Court: how it operated and what life was like. Unlike the rulers of most other countries, the emperor of Japan never had real power. Instead the position held more of token power, granting legitimacy to the real rulers of Japan. That’s why the emperor was kept, generally on a short leash. In this book we view the court from the life of one woman, a concubine in the court of the emperor, who was caught in a scandal and sent into exile, eventually to return as a Buddhist nun. That is only about a third of the book; the rest covers life in Japan, the Imperial Court, politics and more. It is hit and miss throughout. I wish the author had picked a way to go.
Reviewed by Kevin Winter