Digital Japanese History

絵本水や空、耳鳥斎 画、3冊 (合1冊) ; 23cm、平安、八文字屋八左衛門、安永9 [1780]、、出典:国立国会図書館「NDLイメージバンク」 (

By Katsuhisa Oga

The following text is part of this Video Project.


In Japanese, there are many female figures that were influential in Japanese history, but one figure that is undermined and not referenced is Tenshō-in (1836-1883). Being the seishitsu, the official wife of the thirteenth Tokugawa shogun, Iesada (1824-1857), thought compared to other seishitsu she had an incredible influence in the politics of the Tokugawa regime. Also, being from the Satsuma domain, who later in history would go against the Tokugawa family, became an ally turned enemy who plotted to finish the Tokugawa family.[1] Being in the middle of the two sides, one side wanting change in the country and the other trying to save the political structure of it,Tenshō-in was able to find the solution of changing the country for the better while at the same time saving the Tokugawa family legacy.

The relationship with Iesada

When Iesada married Tenshō-in, it was a political marriage that forced two individuals together. Also, Iesada was seen as a unique character for an unknown reason—there is a theory that he had brain damage from a young age. Since they were both young, they were able to have a great relationship during a time in which Tenshō-in was able to understand the honor of the Tokugawa name[2]. Despite being called unique from others, Iesada’s respect for the Tokugawa name was considered to be loyal, which made Tenshō-in respect that honor until her death. However, on 14 August 1858, Iesada died at the age of thirty-four, only two years into the marriage with Tenshō-in.

The new arrival of the Shogun and the Hitotsubashi Conflict

After the death of Iesada, the thirteenth shogun Tokugawa Iemochi comes into power. Before becoming the shogun, there was a conflict between the Hitotsubashi and Nankin sides.  When Iesada was having health problems, the three families were debating over who should be the next shogun. Iesada was not able to have a son, so they would take the Tokugawa ruling of the three families.[3] The Tokugawa Gosanke involving the three families of Owari, Kii and Mito. The first shogun Ieyasu was concerned about the end of the Tokugawa bloodline. To prevent that from happening, he created three families that would have the Tokugawa blood. The shogun would be selected from the three families if the actual Tokugawa blood was to fall. Here the conflict came to be between the Kii-han that favored Nankinha and the Mito that favored Hitotsubashha. There were many inner conflicts on which family should be chosen. In the end Iemochi, who was from the Kii family, became the fourteenth shogun. The opponent of Iemochi, Yoshinobu, would become the fifteenth shogun afterwards.

 The relationship with Kazunomiya

After the death of Iesada, the fourteenth shogun Tokugawa Iemochi came into power. One of the huge things Iemochi did was to marry the Imperial family princess Kazunomiya. At this time, marriage between the imperial family and the Tokugawa Family was novel to the people of Japan.[4] The reason behind this marriage was the foreign threat to Japan, and the shogunate was forced to accept the foreign threat into the country. The country was torn between a more liberal and free system or the continuation of the Tokugawa family.[5] The Tokugawa family was concerned that their reign would end so they needed the help of the imperial family. The imperial family wanted to get the foreigners out of the country so, they make a pact with the Tokugawa family; if the Tokugawa family was able to expel the foreigners, they would accept relationship and the marriage. This political marriage completed the connection between the imperial family and the Tokugawa family.

However, when Tenshō-in first came to the Tokugawa family, their relationship had a huge conflict.[6] When Kazunomiya first sent her letter to Tenshō-in, it is unknown if she mistakenly or intentionally labeled the name only Tenshō-in.[7] Usually if you are writing a letter to someone you respect you would put the term sama 様 but Kazunomiya did not label this in the letter. Tenshō-in was furious over this action, and when she first met with Kazunomiya she sat in the kamiza, which in Japanese manners is the seat where the higher position sits. Kazunomiya was forced to sit in the shimoza and without a futon disrespecting the imperial family.[8] The conflict between the Tenshō-in’s ōoku and Kazunomiya’s midaidokoro came to a peaceful understanding when the Chōshu Seibatsu where the Tokugawa started a war against the Chōshu who were trying to overthrow the government.[9] At this time, Kazunomiya did the ōyakudo, a prayer in which one must go to a shrine without any shoes and pray for hundred days for the safety for another. Kazunomiya did this for her husband Iemochi, who was fighting in the war at Kyoto.[10] Tenshō-in respected the Tokugawa family and she always thought that Kazunomiya was looking down upon the Tokugawa family, which Tenshō-in took as an insult. This action earned the respect of Tenshō-in, and later in history Tenshō-in and Kazunomiya would team up together to help the Tokugawa name.

 The 大奥 relationship

Ōoku refers to the women’s quarters of the Tokugawa regime and the section where the women connected to the reigning shogun side.[11] This quarter was to support the Tokugawa family in all ways. They were responsible for the education of the family members, and most importantly the shogun himself.[12] In the ōoku, the shogun was the only man allowed in the quarter, indicative of how important of a figure the shogun was.[13] The shogun was able to have several wives including the seishitsu (main wife) and the sokushitsu (secondary wife). For these two figures, it was important that they were able to have the Shogun’s son for the future of the Tokugawa family. Although the seishitsu is the higher-ranking figure, her position was subject to change if she could not provide a son for the shogun; the sokushitsu would surpass the seishitsu in status if the sokushitsu was to give birth to the son of the shogun.[14] In Iesada’s case, his only wife was Tenshō-in and he did not have any sokusitsu. Tenshō-in was bullied by these ōoku members because she was an outsider from the Edo family. However, she attained her status at ōoku through her charismatic attributes.

The conflict of seen as former Satsuma 

In the Tokugawa family, she was often seen as a spy for the Satsuma family because Satsuma was once an ally of the Tokugawa family and betrayed them to become an ally of the Chōshu. These two clans were known to be huge rivals during the Sengoku period, and due to the power of Sakamoto Ryōma they were able to have an alliance. Because of this betrayal, the Tokugawa family believed that it was important for Tenshō-in to go back to the Satsuma since her original family and the Tokugawa family would go to war. However, Tenshō-in was willing to support the Tokugawa family until her death.

The Dismantlement of the Tokugawa family

As the conflict with the Chōshu got uglier, the alliance with the Satsuma that created the Satchō Alliance was now becoming a huge threat to the Tokugawa family.[15] During this whole incident, the fourteenth shogun Iemochi died from disease and was replaced by the fifteenth shogun Yoshinobu. At this moment, the imperial family was getting frustrated with the Tokugawa family because of how unsuccessful the Tokugawa was in forcing out the foreigners and the rebels who were trying to globalize Japan. Iwakura Tomomi, an anti-government figure in the imperial family, started to find other groups that would help the imperial family. The Kōmei emperor, the brother of Kazunomiya, died from a disease and the imperial family began to turn their backs on the Tokugawa family. An alliance was formed with the Satchō Dōmei, which created the new government group that was known as a huge threat to the Tokugawa government. Although considered to be an enemy, no one was able to attack the imperial family at this time due to religious factors. The Tokugawa lost the huge backup they had and began to lose their power.[16] Shogun Yoshinobu started to ask for support from Kazunomiya and Tenshō-in. Kazunomiya began to negotiate with the imperial family, while Tenshō-in began to negotiate with the Satsuma.[17] At the same time, the new government alliance started to move to Edo to finish the revolution they had started. As the alliance was only twenty-five kilometers away from Edo, where they were planning to demolish the whole city and initiate the end the Tokugawa reign, Tenshō-in sent a letter to the leader of the Satsuma army Saigō Takamori. In the letter, she wrote about saving the Tokugawa name in honor of her late husband Iesada, and asked for a peaceful talk with the new government army. On 13 March 1868, two days before the planned demolition of Edo, the government representative Katsu Kaishū went to negotiate terms with the new government alliance. After negotiation, the Tokugawa accepted the opening of the gates to Edo castle, meaning that they would officially surrender to the new government alliance and end the 265-year period of the shogunate. The peaceful surrender would not have been possible if Tenshō-in had been back in Satsuma. From a position of seeing both of her families fighting, she felt no shame in helping both families and bringing peace to Japan.

Staying with the Shogun’s family until her death

After the peaceful surrender, Yoshinobu was exiled to his former family, the Mito family, signaling the end of the Tokugawa shogun’s reign.[18] Tenshō-in stayed in Edo, and was released from all status obtained within the ōoku by the new government. Until her death, Tenshō-in lived in the Tokugawa house, in present-day Tokyo, where she put her focus on educating Tokugawa Iesato, forcing him to study at foreign universities to provide him with the most specialized education.[19] Iesato would later become one of the influential figures in creating the Japanese Red Cross and many other established foundations.[20] On 20 November 1883 Tenshō-in died from intracranial hemorrhage at the age of fourty-nine. Her body was buried at Kaneiji, right next to Iesada’s grave.[21]


The influence of Tenshō-in was able to create the non-violent surrender while saving the Tokugawa name and the bringing change to the country. She was an influential figure that had communications with conservative rebels who were trying to change the landscape of Japan.

[1] Haraguchi 2009.

[2] Haraguchi 2009.

[3] Miyao 1984.

[4] Suzuki 2007.

[5] Nagakura 2009.

[6] Suzuki 2007.

[7] Haraguchi 2009.

[8] Uematsu 2008.

[9] Uematsu 2008.

[10] Uematsu 2008.

[11] Beerens 2008.

[12] Beerens 2008.

[13] Yonemoto 2016.

[14] Beerens 2008.

[15] Uematsu 2008.

[16] Miyao 1984.

[17] Yoshiya 1975.

[18] Kawaguchi 2007.

[19] Kawaguchi 2007.

[20] Kawaguchi 2007.

[21] Kawaguchi 2007.


Beerens, Anna, Minaura Hanako and Sassa Shizuko. “Interview with Two Ladies of the Ōoku: A Translation from ‘Kyūji Shimonroku’.” Monumenta Nipponica 63:2 (2008), 265–324.

Haraguchi Izumi 原口泉. “Gekidō no bakumatsu o ikinuita Tenshō-in Atsuhime: sono yonjūhachi no shōgai to wa” 激動の幕末を生き抜いた天璋院篤姫: その四十八年の生涯とは. Japan Society of Stomato-pharyngology 22:1 (2009), p. 1–2.

Kawaguchi Sunao 川口素生. Tenshō-in to Tokugawa shōgun-ke 101 no nazo 天璋院と徳川将軍家101の謎. Tōkyō: PHP Kenkyūjo, 2007.

Miyao Tomiko 宮尾登美子. Tenshō-in Atsuhime, dai ni-kan 天璋院篤姬, 第 2 巻. Kodansha, 1984.

Nagakura, Shin’yu 長倉信祐. “Tenshō-in Atsuhime to hokke shinkō: Tsukubasan honshōji no enkaku o megutte (dai nana bukai, dai hachijūnana-kai gakujutsu taikai kiyō)” 天璋院篤姫と法華信仰 : 筑波山本證寺の沿革をめぐって(第六部会,第六十七回学術大会紀要). Journal of Religious Studies 82:4 (2009), 1178–1179.

Suzuki Yukiko 鈴木由紀子. Saigo no ōoku, Tenshōin Atsuhime to Kazunomiya 最後の大奥 天璋院篤姫と和宮. Gentōsha, 2007.

Uematsu Midori 植松三十里. Tenshō-in to Kazunomiya 天璋院と和宮. Tōkyō: PHP Kenkyūjo, 2008.

Yonemoto, Marcia. “Ōoku: The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women, by Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Linda H. Chance.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 42:1 (2016), 136–140. 

Yoshiya Nobuko 吉屋信子. “Tokugawa no fujintachi” 徳川の夫人たち. Orig. pub. in Asahi Shimbun (1966.1–1968.4). Repr. in Yoshiya Nobuko zenshū, dai 8kan 吉屋信子全集 第8巻. Asahi shimbunsha, 1975.