Asian Names Part II – Who is Tenshōin

For those who have saw the 2008 NHK Taiga Drama chronicled the life of this extraordinary woman, the evolution of her name changes were clearly illustrated. In this post, I will attempt to clarify a few discrepancies between historical facts and the television version. For those who doesn’t know who he was, here’s a brief summary:
Tenshōin is actually the Buddhist title she acquired after her husband died. Her husband happened to be Tokugawa Iesada (徳川家定), the 13th Shogun and the supreme military ruler of Japan. After his death  Tenshōin became the advisor to the next Shogun, 16-year-old Iemochi (徳川家茂) and exercised tremendous influence in national politics.

Portrait Tenshōin (1836-1883)

The O-Katsu Stage
She was born in Satsuma domain, present day Kagoshima Prefecture to Shimazu Tadatake (島津忠剛) and O-Yuki (お幸). Her childhood name was Katsu (一) and if you have watched the drama, you would hear at the beginning everyone called her O-Katsu. The ‘O’ is not part of her name but her status: an unmarried daughter of a first-class retainer. In another word, her father is not a daimyo (head of the domain and clan), but at the highest level of retainer status. For over 6 centuries the Satsuma domain was ruled by the Shimazu clan. Her family, also a Shimazu, was a cousin to the daimyo. Being one level below the leader, their daughters all carried the ‘O’ title. O-Katsu actually had three younger sisters: O-Kuma, O-Ryu, and O-Sai. So at this stage of her life, her real name is Shimazu Katsu. Notice that her mother’s name also has a ‘O’ prefix, meaning she too came from a family of equal status. In Japan of the 1800s, being born to a certain status dictated who they could married, and thus what their lives would be like. O-Katsu was of no exception.

The Atsuhime Stage
In 1853, then head of the Shimazu clan and daimyo of Satsuma, Shimazu Nariakira (島津斉彬), adopted O-Katsu as his daughter, and this was not because he had a kind heart. Nariakira had the ambition of influencing the Shogun’s and the Emperor’s courts, thereby extending his power beyond his domain of Satsuma. O-Katsu was to be arranged into marrying the 32-year-old Shogun Iesada, and provided Nariakira with an intimate access to the Shogun. After O-Katsu was formally adopted, she was given a new name: Atsu (篤), and since Nariakira was of daimyo rank, his daughter would carry the title ‘hime’, meaning princess, behind her given name. Henceforth she would be address by everyone other than her superiors as Atsuhime, or Princess Atsu.
But what did her father, Nariakira, called her? He called her O-Atsu, because he ranked higher than her. At this point, her legal full name became Shimazu Atsuko, the suffix ‘ko’ signified lady of high status. But that’s still the short form, the longer version is Minamoto No Atsuko, because in ultra-formal occasions, like greeting the Emperor, the Shimazu clan will revert to their original ancestral name to reflect their lineage tracing back to the Minamoto Shogunate of the 11th century.

The Konoe Stage
Although Nariakira’s plan to marry Atsuhime to the Shogun was enthusiastically received by the Shogun’s court and the Ōoku (大奥), the Shogun’s private household, there were plenty others who opposed to the Shogun marrying a retaining daimyo’s daughter, since traditionally the Shogun married women from Imperial household in Kyoto. To compensate for this Nariakira arranged Atsuhime to be adopted again by Konoe Tadahiro (近衛忠煕), his brother-in-law, because Konoe is one of the three prestigious families with blood ties to the Imperial court. So in 1856, after being Atsuhime for three years, she was to again change her identity. This time her full name became Fujiwara No Sumiko, or Sumiko of the ancient and sacred Fujiwara clan, who were supposed to be the descendants of the sun god Amaterasu. This is the name she carries upon entering Edo castle and the Ōoku, preparing to wed the Shogun and thus becoming the first lady of Japan.

Actress Miyazaki Aoi as Tenshōin in TV drama “Atsuhime”  

The Midai Stage
Midai Dokoro was the highest ranking woman in the Ōoku, commanding over a thousand women that included mistresses and handmaidens. Some viewers of the drama ‘Atsuhime’ were puzzled by the fact that even her mother-in-law, Honshuin, the birth mother of the Shogun, had to sit at a lower position and bow to her. This is because Honshuin was a concubine of the previous Shogun and not a Midai, so she subordinated to her daughter in law, who was a Midai.
Unfortunately, she was Midai for merely a year and a half because Iesada died in August, 1856. Atsuhime, at the tender age of 21, was suddenly widowed.

The Tenshōin Stage
As of the custom of the time, the Midai converted herself to a Buddhist nun following her husband’s death. It symbolized that her earthly existence had ceased along with her husband, and she would devote the remainder of her natural live devoting to Buddha and in prayers. All her earthly name would also cease at this point, and she would take on a new buddhist title: Tenshōin, to pair with her husband’s buddhist title: Onkyōin.
Unlike most of her predecessors, Tenshōin remained active in politics and the court. She became the official mother of the next Shogun — Tokugawa Iemochi (徳川家茂), and actively assisted him in dealing with the affairs at a turbulent time. When signs of the time were clear that modernization was inevitable and the Shogun’s rule must come to an end, it was Tenshōin’s who agreed to handover power to advert further conflict and thus avoided civil war. By this act she was credited for standing on the right side of history, and saved millions of lives. Afterward she lived a quiet life, and died peacefully in 1883, at the age of 48. It was said that at the time of her death, her estate consisted of only 3 yen, about 10 cents today.
This is truly a remarkable woman.

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  • brokersfeed  On July 2, 2013 at 3:23 am

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    • Don Luis Perenna  On August 31, 2013 at 4:53 pm

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