In 1609, a scandal broke out that shook the imperial court in the Japanese capital, Kyoto. Emperor GoYōzei had little temporal power. He spent his days in cultural pursuits such as hosting poetry parties in the imperial palace, a sprawling complex of buildings occupying an enormous compound. At the back was the women’s palace, home to his consorts and their gentlewomen and entirely run by female officials. His women attendants were all young, beautiful and aristocratic. They bathed the emperor, dressed his hair and served his meals. A roster, drawn up from among them, was assigned to spend the night with him in rotation.
GoYōzei had 16 concubines, one of whom was a young woman called Nakanoin Nakako. In the usual course of events she would have borne him a son, then retired to a nunnery. But in fact her life turned out very differently, as G G Rowley describes in this scrupulously researched and elegantly written account. Rowley specialises in making Japanese women and their stories known to English-speaking readers. She has written a study of Yosano Akiko, the feminist poet, and she translated Autobiography of a Geisha, the true and harrowing story of Sayo Masuda, a 20th-century geisha.
In An Imperial Concubine’s Tale, Rowley reveals a world very