Empress Shôshi

Shôshi (988-1074) was Michinaga's eldest daughter by his wife Rinshi. Her father plunged her into a political marriage to Emperor Ichijô when she was eleven years old, arranging it so that her brilliant court entrance took place on the same day that her cousin, Empress Teishi, gave birth to a son. These two women, Shôshi and Teishi, are often described as Ichijô's rival empresses, but the rivalry was exclusively a reflection of the political ambitions of the men behind them—Teishi's brother Korechika, and Shôshi's father Michinaga. Regardless of how he felt about his extremely young new empress, there are many indications that the emperor chafed under her father's thumb. Still, Michinaga did everything in his power to entice Ichijô to favor his daughter. To that end he furnished her apartments with the most splendid and lavish works of art, and invited ladies with literary reputations to join her salon—including, most famously, Murasaki Shikibu, whose tales of Genji were the talk of the court. What better way to lure the emperor than by spinning tales that intrigued and entertained like those of Scheherezade? The more time the emperor spent in Shôshi's apartments, the more likely it was that Michinaga would eventually be rewarded with an imperial grandson. And thus it happened, although it was nine years before Shôshi became pregnant.

   Murasaki's characterization of Empress Shôshi from her Diary sketches a dignified young woman with a serious bent. The empress was interested in Chinese literature and even had Murasaki tutor her in some of the classics. Her concern for keeping up appearances is mentioned frequently—even to the point of becoming a criticism. By her later years of court service, Murasaki was complaining that Shôshi's excessive emphasis on propriety had killed the spark of creativity among her ladies-in-waiting, and that even when the empress had come to realize herself that she may have been too strict, by then it was impossible for anyone to change.

   Shôshi became Dowager Empress after Ichijô died, and then took nun's vows in 1026 when she was 38 years old. She lived the remaining 46 years of her long life as the Buddhist nun Jôtomon'in.

   (Some English works render her name in its pure Japanese form, as Akiko. See names.)

 
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