Author and Journalist

The Shogun’s Queen Blog Tour

When Love was the Forbidden Fruit

Friday, 20 October, 2017· Last Updated on: Thursday, 19 October, 2017

in Blog, The Shogun's Queen Blog Tour

“He turned away into the darkness and she heard his voice above the ripple and roar of the waves. ‘Okatsu-san, Okatsu-san. Don’t forget me.’
She gave a sob and closed her fingers around the hilt of the dagger and said softly, ‘I won’t, I swear it. I won’t.’”

The Shogun’s Queen

A bride on her wedding day

A bride on her wedding day wears a white hood to tamp down the horns of jealousy. 
By שנילי Eli Shany אלי שני (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

A flamboyantly dressed courtesan

A flamboyantly dressed courtesan. Married women had to look demure.

How do you fall in love when there is no word for ‘love’ in your language?

The Shogun’s Queen is a love story set in a world in which there was no word for ‘love’, no concept of ‘love’.

I was amazed to discover that this was the case in Japan all the way up to the mid-nineteenth century, when my story is set. There was a word for ‘desire’, a word for ‘lust’. But there was no word for that madness that sweeps you off your feet when you’re least expecting it, that inspired knights in armour to take a lady’s glove into battle and drove gentlemen to drop to one knee and beg a lady to marry them, that sent couples rushing off to Gretna Green in defiance of their parents’ wishes.

It was not that Japanese didn’t fall head over heels in love. But to the government of the day love was so dangerous, so likely to threaten the order of society, that they banned it, made it illegal or at the very least contained it.

When people did fall in love they knew they were committing a crime or at the very least making a terrible mistake. It could only end badly. And that made it all the more fatally attractive. Love was the forbidden fruit.

Falling in love wasn’t something you expected and wanted to happen. No one looked for Mr or Miss Right, no one expected to meet the perfect person and settle down and marry.

Love and marriage didn’t go together like a horse and carriage. Love was to be feared. It was not a welcome, joyous thing but a dreadful curse.

Young people expected their parents to arrange a marriage for them and trusted them to find a suitable husband or wife. Usually you were allowed to say ‘No’. No one twisted your arm unless you were of such high rank that you were married off in a political marriage.

And people certainly didn’t expect to love their husband or wife. Love was not something a man felt for his wife. That would have been disrespectful. Respectable married women wouldn’t have dreamt of ‘tarting themselves up’. That was what geishas and courtesans did. All the women shown in woodblock prints wearing gorgeous flamboyant kimonos and with their hair studded with hairpins are ladies of the night, not respectable women.

Manami as a geisha.

Manami as a geisha

Ordinary women didn’t hope for happiness but tranquillity. They assumed they would have children and would devote themselves to them. That was the purpose of marriage. Life was about doing your duty, about giving, not getting, doing what was required of you, not rocking the boat. It wasn’t about happiness, let alone love.

Me with Manami

Me with Manami. She gave up being a geisha to get married and, as a wife, now dresses demurely indeed.

When people did fall in love, it came as a shock. You wouldn’t know what had happened, what was happening to you. And that made it all the more thrilling, that it was a forbidden experience. Even someone who’d always been well-behaved and obedient might be tempted to reject everything and follow her heart instead of doing what she was supposed to do in a society where everyone followed the rules.

If you did fall in love you knew you would not be able to spend your life with the one you loved. You’d both be married off to other people. You would have to keep your love secret and spend your days silently yearning, maybe managing a secret meeting every now and then. Some people chose to run away and commit suicide together so they could be together in death. It was called ‘love suicide’ and to the Japanese of those days it was an extraordinarily romantic thing to do.

The Shogun’s Queen is about a woman who defies convention. She falls in love. And that brought her face to face with the dilemma that underlay all of Japanese society at that time. There was a terrible choice to be made. Should she do what she knew was right? Or should she follow her heart, abandon her family and duty and run away with this man she had fallen so passionately in love with?

For her the stakes were higher still. The fate of Japan itself was in her hands. And that’s the dilemma at the heart of The Shogun’s Queen.

Thanks to Nicole Sweeney. A version of this post was first published in her blog

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Living with the Geisha of Kyoto – The Inside Story

Friday, 6 October, 2017· Last Updated on: Friday, 6 October, 2017

in Blog, The Shogun's Queen Blog Tour

Dark alleys wound between wooden houses with lanterns hanging outside, no doubt tea houses where geiko, the famous geisha of Miyako, entertained. Women in exquisite kimonos clattered by on high clogs, long sleeves swinging. Atsu listened for the tinkle of a shamisen plucking out a plaintive melody. She caught the scent of incense on the breeze …

The Shogun’s Queen

Kyoto at blossom time

Kyoto at blossom time

Travelling by palanquin on a long journey right across Japan, Princess Atsu, the heroine of The Shogun’s Queen, is full of excitement when she realises she is to visit Kyoto. The ancient capital, in her day it was a beautiful city of temples and palaces right at the heart of the country. Poets wrote of its beauty and called it the City of Crystal Streams and Purple Hills. It was famous then and is famous now as the city of geisha.

15-year-old maiko Ko-ume all dressed up for her debut

15-year-old maiko Ko-ume all dressed up for her debut

I didn’t need to do any further research to write about Kyoto and its geisha. Ten years ago I lived there for months, researching a book I wrote on geisha, and I still go back regularly to visit my geisha friends.

I always stay in the same place – a small inn that was once a geisha house. My upstairs room there has only three walls. The fourth is a row of sliding glass doors which do a very poor job of keeping out the cold in winter and the heat in summer. You can hear every noise from the street outside. The doors open onto a narrow balcony where I stand and look down at the maiko clip clattering by on their high wooden clogs, chattering and laughing.

Maiko are apprentice geisha. Underneath all the paint and gorgeous costumes they are just teenagers, fifteen or sixteen years old. But they are magical creatures. They wear their hair stretched and oiled and back-combed into two stiff wings by the local hairdresser, who tucks in wads of yak’s hair to give extra volume. In the evening they paint their faces with thick white make up painted not up to the hairline but in a perfect oval and they shimmer magically in the dark. They dab just the middle of their bottom lip with a petal of bright red, to give their mouths a pouting, bee stung look. They wear brilliant long-sleeved kimonos with bells that tinkle as they walk and a stiff obi (sash) tied into a huge bow at the back with the ends hanging nearly to the ground. They’re walking works of art.

Even at fifteen or sixteen these young girls are graceful, self-assured and confident. Once I was walking down the narrow street lined with dark wooden houses with paper lanterns hanging outside. It was beginning to rain and I’d forgotten my umbrella. Tomoko, a sixteen-year-old maiko from a country town, ran over and walked beside me, holding her oiled paper umbrella over my head to make sure I didn’t get wet.

Maiko on the 'narrow street lined with dark wooden houses' where I lived in Kyoto

Maiko on the ‘narrow street lined with dark wooden houses’ where I lived in Kyoto

Maiko in a hurry

Maiko in a hurry

Later she showed me the room she shared with another maiko in the geisha house where she lived. She had a hard wooden pillow to stop her hair being mussed and photographs of film stars and pop stars tucked along the mirror. A famous Japanese pop star had come to Kyoto and she’d been chosen to sit next to him, pour his drink and chat to him. Tomoko was a not particularly well-educated country girl but as a maiko she was able to mix with the richest, most powerful men in the country.

People often ask me what geisha do. The word ‘geisha’ means ‘artiste’. Geisha are professional dancers and singers who practice the traditional Japanese arts of music, dance and theatre. They are always practicing, always attending classes, always eager to refine and perfect their art. They are also skilled at the art of conversation, at keeping conversation light and entertaining. They are the perfect hostesses, in fact.

They are also rather good at flirting which, certainly in old Japan at least, was the preserve of professionals. Well behaved respectable ladies didn’t flirt. But only the most foolish man forgets for a second that geisha tell ALL the men how handsome they are and how much they love them. They are actresses, playing a part. The chance of actually going home with a geisha is very slim indeed.

In the end I collected my experiences into a book about geisha and went on to write many more books about the extraordinary world of the women of old Japan. The most recent, The Shogun’s Queen, is set largely in the vast harem in Edo Castle – a place where three thousand women lived and only one man, the shogun, could enter. But that’s another story.

A version of this article was first published in Lauren Anderson’s

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The Once and Future City – A Visit to Edo, Modern-Day Tokyo

21 September 2017
The Once and Future City – A Visit to Edo, Modern-Day Tokyo

To her Edo was a magical place, a city of dreams where brilliant men and beautiful women lived. She gazed transfixed at the map with the perfect cone of Mount Fuji, mystical and beautiful, etched above the network of streets. Together they traced the maze of canals that wound round and round like a snail’s […]

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Edo Castle – Japan’s Versailles

15 September 2017
Thumbnail image for Edo Castle – Japan’s Versailles

Edo Castle was like Louis XIV’s Versailles, a place of fabulous riches, of unimaginable beauty and luxury. Its mammoth granite battlements and gleaming roofs towered above the great city of Edo, the largest city in the world – which we now call Tokyo.

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Concubines, Geisha and Me – Living as a Woman in Japan

8 September 2017
Concubines, Geisha and Me

Atsu smelt kyara and sandalwood, musk and ambergris mingled with camphor and a dank mustiness. Glistening heads with black hair coiled into glossy loops stretched into the gloom. There were several hundred women on their knees but the room was totally silent. The Shogun’s Queen In Japan until recently men and women led very separate […]

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A True Japanese Ghost Story

4 September 2017
Lantern ghost

When Atsu started to drift off she saw looming faces and felt cobwebby fingers brushing against her skin. She felt the wind of spirits rushing by and a roar like the crashing of waves on the beach. It was the cries and moans of all the babies who’d died here. The Shogun’s Queen The Women’s […]

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Tea the Japanese way

25 August 2017
Tea the Japanese way

Princess Konoe lifted the lid of the tiny porcelain tea jar and a fresh sweet scent wafted out. ‘Uji tea,’ she said brightly. ‘The finest in the land. Have you ever tried it?’ Atsu shook her head. ‘An urn of this same tea is sent up to the Great Ruler in Edo every year. All […]

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