Fun fact: my library copy of this book is bound upside down and backwards, which is not technically a problem, but makes me very uncomfortable when I’m reading what appears to be an upside-down book backwards.
Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven, Japan, 1858, Kathryn Lasky, 2004.
This is a fairly short one (under 130 pages), but Kathryn Lasky is a good enough writer that it doesn’t feel clipped or shortened. One of her particular gifts is a wonderful eye for sensory details and inclusion of colours and scents, which I think is especially lovely here, but good in all of her books, of course. Additionally, traditional Japanese poetry (where the emphasis is on leaving things unsaid and using short phrases) is a plot point in this book, so the trimmed-down narrative style really works here.
Here’s my standard disclaimer: I know next to nothing about Japanese history, but this book takes place in 1858, just a few years after Japan’s reversal of their isolationist policies in 1853, so it’s of course a time of ongoing political and power struggles. Kazunomiya, or Chikako (her nickname), is the younger half-sister of the Emperor, which means she has been betrothed to be married to the prince Arisugawa ever since they were small children and has been brought up to live at court—learning calligraphy, poetry, music, and history.
Chikako’s mother was the late emperor’s favourite consort—even more of a favourite than his first wife, the mother of the current emperor, the Dowager Empress. So the court is full of intrigue and gossip and deception, and Chikako and her mother and auntie prefer to stay out of it as much as possible. In the spring, they have a tea party and have Lady Tomaki, who is Arisugawa’s cousin, but weirdly, the ladies all talk about how short and immature he is the whole time. As usual, they leave Chikako in the dark about everything, until a few days later at the cherry-blossom viewing party. There, everyone is tense and awkward and the dowager empress again starts talking smack about Arisugawa, and all Chikako can puzzle out is that it must have something to do with the white Americans who are making such trouble at the court.
As it happens, they are trying to break Chikako’s engagement to Arisugawa and make a betrothal with a young man, Yoshitomi, who will in all likelihood be the next shogun. Chikako freaks out when she leaves, pointing out that it’s horribly insulting of the emperor’s wife and dowager empress to take over all of this, and how she doesn’t want to have her birthday changed to make it more auspicious for a betrothal to Yoshi. She’s depressed and doesn’t want to talk or do anything, until the middle of April when her auntie tells her to put on her traveling cloak and takes her to a Buddhist temple. And who does she meet there but Arisugawa! Yes! Then they exchange secret poems with each other, and it’s all extremely romantic and star-crossed. But Chikako is still expected to turn up to events and play nicely with Yoshi, even though she complains that he’s boring and isn’t one speck interesting.
Lady Tomaki, who is the emperor’s favourite consort, becomes pregnant by him, which causes no end of trouble and strife among the ladies there. In the midst of all the drama about this and the strife between the Americans and the court, Yoshi approaches Chikako and says that as much as he admires her, he knows she’s in love with Arisugawa and he is in love with another girl himself—so can they be friends? Yes, they can be friends. And then, one night, Yoshi asks her for a favour—a samurai has been drugged and left sleeping in Lady Tomaki’s quarters, to imply that she is unfaithful to the emperor, and Yoshi wants to drag him out to protect his cousin’s honour. So he and Chikako and her servant Keiko and Keiko’s huge brother manage to drag out this enormous samurai and leave him in the garden. On the way, Chikako bites through her own lip, and Yoshi says she has bushido—the samurai’s code of honour.
In June, the dowager empress announces that Chikako will have her teeth-blackening ceremony in November, which is the symbol of entering womanhood and a terrible insult, because traditionally this is arranged and announced by the girl’s mother. And it usually precedes marriage by a year or so, so she’s confident they’re going to make her marry Yoshi instead. While she’s depressed by this, she still manages to see Arisugawa every so often and believes they are falling deeper in love every time—so many things aren’t so bad. The court packs up for their summer villas, but Chikako’s auntie grows very ill there, so ill they call a doctor and an exorcist to rid her of the evil spirits clearly plaguing her. The exorcist brings two assistants, including a girl about Chikako’s age who is given no name, whose job is to absorb the evil spirits. Thanks to this, her auntie recovers slowly, and Chikako can relax and practice her music for her aunt to listen to.
Then bad news from Yokohama, where the shogun allows an American ship into the harbour and nearly causes a major rift between the emperor and the shogun. Chikako is afraid that they’ll force her to marry Yoshi to fix things, but then at the Star Festival, she spots Yoshi in disguise in the crowd, holding hands with the untouchable exorcist’s assistant! He sees her seeing them, and Chikako is so horrified that he would touch a girl of such low birth that she doesn’t even know what to do.
Things are taken away from her for a while when her auntie suddenly takes a turn for the worse and calls for a tea ceremony, then dies in the middle of it. Poor Chikako is distraught by this loss, and Yoshi comes to pay her a sympathy visit, but all she can think about during it is how Yoshi is destroying his life and karma by spending time with this untouchable girl.
Yoshi is named the new shogun in August, and all everyone can talk about is when their wedding will take place. Chikako is miserable with this—first breaking her engagement, then losing her aunt, then being forbidden to leave the palace grounds, then having her teeth-blackening ceremony ruined by the dowager empress. Then who comes as their unlikely friend but the Emperor’s wife Kujo, who tells them that thanks to the ongoing issues the emperor has been made completely powerless and the dowager empress will have Chikako married to Yoshi to remedy this as quickly as possible. Poor Kujo is so under her mother-in-law’s thumb that she is willing to do anything she can to spare others this fate.
The wedding is planned for two years’ time, and Yoshi meets Chikako to tell her a little bit about the untouchable girl, Yukiko, and tell Chikako that he thinks Japan is changing for good. She begins to think that there is an untouchable spirit in them that the dowager empress can’t crush—in all of them, maybe. She comes up with a secret plan to show up the dowager empress—she and her mother and theempress Kujo all consult with the astrologers and hold Chikako’s teeth-blackening ceremony themselves, with just them and Lady Tomaki and a priest and a nun in attendance. It’s all perfect, and exactly the way she wanted it, and then two days later Chikako is called into the dowager empress’s rooms for her “official” ceremony. And she waits, and waits, and waits, and finally smiles at just the right moment to show off her already-blackened teeth! The dowager empress completely loses her shit, and Kujo tells her that it would be such a grave dishonour to the parents of the girl to disallow her the chance to arrange the teeth-blackening ceremony that it would cause that person terrible karma—and they just didn’t want to cause the dowager empress that bad karma. Wow. That is some next-level diplomacy right there. And as Chikako puts it—bushido!
Then there’s a gap of three years and Chikako writes again that while she still loves Arisugawa, she is being sent to finally marry Yoshi, but she knows in her heart that she will always love Arisugawa and Yoshi will always love his untouchable girl, but there is nothing else they can do.
In the epilogue we learn that there’s very little known for sure about Kazunomiya’s life—she was married to the shogun Yoshi, who died only a few years later, and entered a Buddhist monastery in the final years of her life after the imperial restoration and died at only thirty-one.
Rating: B-. There’s a lot to enjoy here—the writing is very nice, you really do learn a good chunk subtly about what was going on in Japan at the time, as I mentioned the evocative writing about nature and the palace is very effective. But ultimately it’s a fairly short book, without a huge amount of character development, and what struck me is that for a book that’s all about subtlety and what’s left unsaid, there isn’t a tremendous amount of deep introspection, which is what I expected. Yes, yes, it’s a kids’ book, but a little would not have gone amiss! So all in all, not my favourite Royal Diary, but a pretty solid contender.