Last August, I put up a post about Ooku, which is a manga written by Fumi Yoshinaga. Briefly, Ooku is an alternate history set in 18th Century Japan. A plague called the Redface Pox has killed off 80% of the male population. As a result, women are now in positions of power. One is even Shogun. Men, who are now precious “seed providers”, are carefully protected. And the most beautiful men are chosen to sexually serve in the Ooku, the Shogun’s Inner Chambers.

This year at
Wiscon, which is a feminist science convention held every year in Madison, Wisconsin, the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award will be presented to Ooku: The Inner Chambers Volumes 1 and 2, and to Greer Gilman’s, Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter Tales

For those who are not familiar with the TipTree award, it’s an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores the understanding of gender. The award is named for Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr., at a time when it was not de rigueur for women to write science fiction.

I’ve not yet read Volume 1 of Ooku, but I have read Volume 2 and it’s an amazing story. In Volume 2, which takes place at the start of the plague, a young Buddhist monk named Arikoto is calling upon Lord Iemitsu. Arikoto has no idea that Lord Iemitsu is, in fact, a young woman named Chie, who is being forced to wear men’s clothes and pretend to be the catamite of Lord Iemitsu, her father, who died from the Redface Pox. She is, however, the true ruler. Arikoto, due to his stunning beauty, is forced (in a most horrific way, I must say) to give up being a monk and, essentially, become a concubine of Chie’s.

I’m looking forward to reading the other volumes in the series as I like the fact that it’s not one of those simplistic, hits-you-over-the-head with its feminist rhetoric that some novels, who attempt this kind of experimentation, sometimes employ as a way to get their message across regarding gender. There is a complexity and a subtlety to what’s happening to the relations between men and women in 18th century Japan as a result of this plague.

Here’s a quote from Wiscon’s newsletter regarding Ooku and it’s having been awarded the James Tiptree Jr. Award.

“Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers (Volumes 1 & 2) explores an alternate version of feudal Japan, in which a plague has killed three out of every four boys. In this world, young men are protected and sheltered; women have secretly taken positions of authority and power. The Japanese ruler or shogun and the feudal lords are women and much of the story takes place among the men in the shogun’s harem.

The title of the work refers to the living quarters for the shogun’s harem, contained within Edo Castle. The selection of Ooku: The Inner Chambers marks the first time that manga has been chosen for the Tiptree Award. Though no one on the jury is an expert on manga or on Japanese history, the jurors fell in love with the detailed exploration of the world of these books, a world in which men are assumed to be weak and sickly, yet women still use symbolic masculinity to maintain power.

Throughout the two books, Yoshinaga explores how the deep gendering of this society is both maintained and challenged by the alteration in ratios. “The result,” juror Jude Feldman writes, “is a fascinating, subtle, and nuanced speculation with gender at its center. Ooku was awarded the Sense of Gender awards by the Japanese Association of Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005), the Excellence Award at Japan’s Media Arts Festival (2006), and the Grand Prize in Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize (2009).”


3 Responses to Ooku

  1. The names Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree sound familiar to me. I must have heard about her at some point.

    The manga sounds quite interesting. And I wasn’t aware there was a feminist Science Fiction Convention. Thanks for all the info!

  2. Jenna Reynolds says:

    I picked up Volume of 1 of Ooku from the library yesterday and started reading it. Fascinating stuff! The Shogun, a woman, has hundreds of beautiful young men hidden away in her inner chambers and no other women are allowed to see them. Women must pay male prostitutes in order to become pregnant and only wealthy families can afford the luxury of securing a son-in-law for their daughters.

    Wiscon has been around since 1977. I believe it still is the only feminist science fiction convention in existence. I’ve been going every year since 1998. Of course living in the city it’s held helps.

    Sometimes, I have to admit, I have come away from the con a bit frustrated. I’m not fond of fanatics or people who refuse to even consider another point of view, and I don’t care if they’re conservative or liberal, right or left, red or blue. There is never just one way of looking at anything, but overall it’s an interesting convention and it can often get one to thinking.

  3. Nodding in full agreement to everything you just said.

    Couldn’t agree more. And perfectly stated.

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