Japan Week: The Shogun’s ‘Harem’: Life in the Women’s Palace in Nineteenth Century Japan

21 Feb ‘18
Image of the Scottish and Japanese flags

6.00PM - 7.00PM
Speaker: Ms Lesley Downer, author

Venue: Lecture Theatre B4, Cottrell Building, University of Stirling, FK9 4LA

The University of Stirling is delighted to welcome author and journalist, Ms Lesley Downer, to Japan Week to deliver a talk on The Shogun’s ‘Harem’:  Life in the Women’s Palace in Nineteenth Century Japan.

ALesley Downer talk (kimono)bstract

No westerner ever visited the Women’s Palace or even knew it existed. The women were sworn to secrecy and even after the palace closed down in 1868 very few ever revealed anything of their lives there. At its pinnacle it was home to three thousand women - far more than the number who populated the Topkapi Harem in Istanbul - but only one man, the shogun, could enter. It was an unimaginably different world, with its beauty, riches, Byzantine social codes and internecine struggles.

The Women’s Palace was a place of enormous luxury and beauty but it was also a prison. Once you entered you would never leave. Yet the women wielded enormous power. There were conspiracies, murders, even hauntings inside this gilded cage. Women sneaked out to meet their lovers or smuggled a lover in in a trunk, though there were dreadful punishments for those who were caught - crucifixion for the lovers, hara-kiri for the father of the offending woman, even if he knew nothing of the woman’s offence.

I will tell stories of the life and luxury and intrigue of the Women’s Palace. I will weave my talk around the story of Princess Atsu, the Satsuma girl sent at the age of twenty to be the shogun’s bride. Atsu had a secret mission to accomplish which set her against the shogun’s formidable mother, the most powerful woman in the palace. She is the heroine of my most recent novel, The ShLesley Downer, JW2018oguns Queen


To illustrate there are photographs and woodblock prints of the women and their gorgeous kimonos, furnishings and tea and incense ceremony implements.

Lesley Downer

Lesley Downer first went to Japan more than thirty years ago and her life has revolved around Japan ever since.  She is the author of many books on Japan, including Geisha:  The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Madame Sadayakko:  The Geisha who Seduced the West and four novels, The Shogun QuartetThe Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai, The Samurais Daughter and The Shoguns Queen, a prequel, chronologically the first in the quartet, published November 2016 and in paperback July 2017.


This event is part of the University of Stirling's Japan Week 2018. The event is free to attend and open to all, but places should be booked in advance here.

Getting Here

For information on car-parking, directions to the campus and public transport please see our Getting Here pages. To help you locate the venue, please see our Campus Map and Cottrell Building Internal Map.

Further information

Details of our other Japan Week events can be found on our Events Calendar. For further information, please contact us at events@stir.ac.uk or on 01786  467033 / 467055.

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