Lesley Downer’s The Shogun’s Queen and the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan


shoguns-queencoverThe Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer is the story of Atsu, third wife and consort of the 13th Japanese shogun (ruler), Tokugawa Iesada, and it’s a fascinating account of one of the most tumultuous periods in Japanese history, beginning in 1853. Downer, who lived in Japan for fifteen years, has written many books about the country and its culture, including four novels, and spent years researching this particular story in order to make it as accurate and true to history as possible.

For nearly 250 years, Japan had successfully implemented an isolationist policy. They had refused to allow any foreigners to trade with them except for the Chinese and a handful of Dutchmen, who were confined to Dejima, a tiny man-made island in Nagasaki harbour. And during those two and a half centuries the powerful Tokugawa clan and their allies succeeded in maintaining the status quo, keeping peace by way of strict rules and regulations which cleverly prevented any rebellion or protest.

I asked Downer how the isolationism came about and she said, “Westerners were originally expelled from Japan in 1639 because Portuguese Jesuit priests had been fomenting rebellion and the Christian converts were considered subversive. After that, only the Dutch were allowed in and they were Japan’s window on the west. At the same time the then shogun banned guns. I think the Japanese were set against trade with the west because they were afraid it would be the foot in the door.”

Nothing lasts forever, though, and change was forced upon the Japanese when in 1853 the Americans sent Commodore Matthew Perry with a small fleet of ships, among them steamships (which the Japanese called “black ships”) that were bigger than anything the Japanese had ever seen before. The foreigners also had modern and more powerful weapons, and threatened to use them if they didn’t get their way. What they wanted was for Japanese ports to open up to trade, to establish diplomatic relations, and for Americans to be allowed to live in Japan and do business. (As part of that, they also insisted Americans should be tried by their own courts, should they transgress in any way while in Japan.) Their demands, understandably, caused resentment and anger, and opinions were divided as to what the response should be.

author photo

author photo

In The Shogun’s Queen, Downer explains that the Japanese “were aware of how India and China had been overrun and exploited by the western powers and were desperate not to be colonised themselves. (And indeed they succeeded in this, while India, China and Africa were all conquered.) They knew that the western powers were militarily stronger than Japan and didn’t want to run the risk of being invaded.” During the course of the story, the reader reaches a deep understanding of why this was such a momentous and difficult time for the Japanese. There is also a sense that they were deceived, since the Americans used additional means of persuasion which turned out to be based on false information.

The Japanese considered their own culture and way of life more refined than those of any ‘barbarians’ and didn’t want it influenced. Personally, I had always thought of the Japanese feudal system as harsh and favouring the rich, but when I mentioned this to Downer, she disagreed. “I don’t think it was a harsh way of life – I think it was great. Ordinary people in Edo had a fine time. Okay, it was tough being a farmer, you had heavy taxes to pay – but so did farmers in the west; and at least the Japanese weren’t serfs like in Russia or slaves like in the southern US. There was a higher literacy rate than anywhere in the world, fabulous woodblock prints and literature being produced by commoners, lots of lovely shops in Edo, Osaka and all the other cities where you could buy anything you fancied, lots of people living very cultured lives. In the mid-19th century a peasant woman who was a poetess went to Kyoto and sat down and wrote poems with aristocrats and was accepted into their midst – and her husband let her go. I would love to have gone then!”


Plum blossom in Kyoto

“While the more conservative Japanese felt that foreign influence would undermine their culture, there were also many intellectuals who were fascinated by the west. There were schools of Dutch learning and scholars who spoke and read Dutch and studied all things western.” Some of the lords, like Lord Nariakira (who features strongly in the novel) “felt they could make use of the west’s technological innovations – brought on the Dutch ship that came most years to the trading base on Dejima. But they also all felt that these were just material things. As far as they knew, the west lacked the philosophical and religious basis of Japanese culture. They had not yet encountered western arts and literature. The mercantile Dutch only brought goods to trade. So as far as the Japanese were aware there was no higher culture in the west and they saw them as focussing solely on developing more and more powerful and deadly weapons – a militaristic culture.”

As for life being cruel under the Japanese feudal system, Downer also pointed out that “until the late 18th century we still had tumbrils going down Oxford Street and well-attended hangings at Tyburn. There were certainly tough laws in Japan which meant that people were careful to be orderly and not break them, but many laws were theoretical. For example, a samurai could legally test the blade of a new sword on a peasant’s neck, but very few ever did so because there was far too much paperwork if you did.” Also, “the French Revolution was not long over, the Americans still had slaves, and the British were shipping opium to China and going to war when the Chinese government tried to ban this import – and using that as an excuse to take land, starting with Hong Kong. Lord Elgin suppressed the sepoy rebellion (which involved killing a lot of Indians) on his way to China, popped over to Japan to sign the Treaty of Amity and Friendship, then went back to China and in 1860 had the exquisite Summer Palace in Peking looted and burnt to the ground, killing the 300 eunuchs and palace maids who were inside; so we were not so non-violent ourselves!” Indeed!

Nijo Castle interior

Nijo Castle interior

Against this backdrop, The Shogun’s Queen tells the story of Atsu, a girl from the southern Satsuma region who rose from relative obscurity to become the Shogun’s wife. As the author herself says in the Afterword, ‘History is written by the winners … In Japan history is the stories of battles and rulers – of men.’ That makes this novel all the more fascinating and it is clear Downer has done an enormous amount of research to try and piece together Atsu’s story and give her a voice.

Right from the start, the reader is made aware that Atsu is a very unusual girl – not a timid creature, forever doing as she’s told and blending into the background the way most Japanese girls of the period would have. Instead she has an inquisitive and quick mind, a free spirit, and the courage to break some of the rules that try to hem her in. But she is also of the samurai class and when it comes to doing her duty, she knows she has no choice in the end. Honour is everything and although she is asked to sacrifice a lot, she does what she considers to be right and tries to do her best in every way.

Atsu’s story is incredibly poignant because although she is elevated in rank through a series of adoptions (a practice that was common in Japan) until she is fit to be married to the country’s ruler, this ‘honour’ comes at a very high price – the fact that the ruler in question isn’t quite what she had expected.


Edo Castle

Through Atsu’s eyes, the reader is shown what is happening in the country as a whole, as well as in her world inside the shogun’s enormous castle in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The incredibly luxurious lifestyle is vividly brought to life – amazing opulence, soft tatami mats, gilded and painted screens, ornaments, silk kimonos and acres of well-tended gardens, all set in a compound so vast it is like a small city. But the author also describes the in-fighting, the factions, the stifling protocol, the tedium and the sheer spite of hundreds of women who have nothing to do except intrigue, and in the end, it seems almost fitting that it should disappear. I found it very sad nonetheless.

Downer told me “I’ve spent nearly fifteen years looking at the fifteen years between the arrival of Perry and the so-called Meiji Restoration of 1868. As far as I can see many enlightened Japanese were well aware that Japan needed to open to the west – Lord Keiki [also featured in the story], who became the last shogun, Yoshinobu, was a leading figure here. In the end the clans that opposed the Tokugawa – primarily the Satsuma and Choshu – overthrew the shogun with the help of the British. The French were supporting the shogunate side. But even if the Tokugawa side had won, Japan would still have quickly started to acquire western technology and western ways. Many of the shogun’s chief advisers, who were killed in the civil war, advocated precisely the modernising of Japan.”


The palace of women

The Shogun’s Queen is an extraordinary story, which gives a unique insight into those last few years of the Japanese feudal way of life. Even though I am one of those ‘barbarians’ that now come and go freely in Japan thanks to Commodore Perry, I could feel the pain and confusion as their perfect order was threatened, and as someone who loves Japan and history, I couldn’t help but regret the loss of all that is described in this book. The great thing, however, is the way the modern Japanese nation has somehow managed to preserve so many of the traditions and customs prevalent during the shogunate and combined them with modern life and western ways.  I asked Downer why she thought the Japanese had succeeded in doing this so well? She said, “I agree that it’s extraordinary. I’d say it was because they managed not to be colonised and therefore maintained their pride – and also because their culture – like the tea ceremony – is so unique. The Japanese sense of their own uniqueness probably helped. And maybe also because it’s an island. People say that Sri Lanka and the UK too are a bit different from continental countries – we are more aware of our own distinctness. Early on, the west discovered woodblock prints and other forms of Japonisme, which became huge. (Though then again Chinoiserie had been huge before and that didn’t save China.) So we on our side too celebrated Japanese culture which perhaps helped to strengthen it.”



About the contributor: Pia Fenton (pseudonym Christina Courtenay) writes historical romance, time slip and YA contemporary romance, all published by independent publisher Choc Lit. She is half Swedish and was brought up in Sweden. In her teens, she moved to Japan where she had the opportunity to travel extensively in the Far East. Christina is a former chairman of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association. Her novels Highland Storms and The Gilded Fan have both won the RoNA Award for Best Historical Romantic Novel of the Year (in 2012 and 2014 respectively). Her latest novels are The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight (historical/time slip) and New England Dreams (YA contemporary romance). You can find out more on her website or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.


Posted by Claire Morris


  1. Marius Kwint
    October 18, 2016

    Very interesting: brings to life the imperial background to processes of globalisation and ‘free’ trade, and how individuals and societies deal with circumstances in which they have little or no choice. The Shogun’s Queen looks like a must read.

    • Christina Courtenay
      October 18, 2016

      It’s a great book, Marius, I highly recommend it! Thank you for your comment.