“In the Shelter of the Pine: A Memoir of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and Tokugawa Japan” by Ogimachi Machiko, translated by GG Rowley


If you are in Tokyo and you’re riding on the Yamanote Line, you are likely heading to one of the major shopping destinations on that line, such as Shibuya, Shinagawa, or Tokyo Station. If you are going to Tokyo Station, you will pass through Komagome, once a place in the country where people had villas with gardens. It was where the noblewoman Ogimachi Machiko (ca 1679-1724), second concubine to Lord Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (1658-1714) composed her classic memoir, In the Shelter of the Pine, covering the years from 1690 to about 1710.

It is here beautifully and sensitively translated by Gaye Rowley, who teaches at Waseda University in Tokyo. The Rikugien Garden, where they once lived and which was created by Yoshiyasu in 1702, is still considered one of Tokyo’s most beautiful, and is one very good reason for stopping off at Komagome, but it’s not that well-known to tourists. The name means “the six poems garden” (Machiko calls it “the garden of the six styles”) and it reproduces scenes described in those poems. Machiko, who came to love the place very much, records one of Yoshiyasu’s poems about the garden:


Tidings on the wind do not disturb the branches here in this abode:
how still the cherry blossoms, and peaceful, as is my heart.


For her, too, it was a place of peace and contentment.


In the Shelter of the Pine: A Memoir of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and Tokugawa Japan, Ōgimachi Machiko, GG Rowley (Columbia University Press, August 2021)
In the Shelter of the Pine: A Memoir of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and Tokugawa Japan, Ōgimachi Machiko, GG Rowley (trans) (Columbia University Press, August 2021)

Machiko’s relationship with Yoshiyasu seems to have begun around 1693, as their first child was born in 1694. No shame was attached either to “illegitimate” children or their mothers in Tokugawa Japan; Yoshiyasu was married, and at the time when Machiko became his concubine he had already had a son with his first concubine, as his wife was unable to have children.

Machiko was intelligent, observant and well-educated; she had a particular love for classical Japanese literature and was heavily-influenced, as were so many others, by Murasaki no Shikibu’s massive 11th-century novel, The Tale of Genji, in which the female narrator “speaks” directly to her readers, thereby creating a sense of immediacy which draws the reader into the world of Genji, the “Shining Prince”. Machiko’s very own shining prince is Yoshiyasu, and she, the narrator and his constant companion, is there, rather as James Boswell was to Samuel Johnson, sharing in almost everything he does (the first three chapters relate episodes which took place before the relationship started), sometimes discreetly and sometimes just a little more overtly, yet certainly enough for readers to get some idea of who she is in her own right. It could be said for Machiko, moreover, as Rüdiger Safranski pointed out in his biography of Goethe, that “literature had become a medium of existential guidance,” and for the authors, “their life was part of their work and was itself a work of art.” Using The Tale of Genji as the medium, Machiko gives us her life in a book which, as Rowley states, is pretty much “a non-fiction novel”. The immensely popular Tale of Genji thus served as the Japanese equivalent of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, with Machiko taking on the role of the narrator.

At the same time, as the helpful introduction by Rowley points out, “In the Shelter of the Pine is decidedly not a ‘warts and all’ portrait of Yoshiyasu.” Like the fictional Genji, who nonetheless has a few warts, Yoshiyasu is depicted as being always loyal and loving, a considerate master, and a man who devoted his life to the service of the Shōgun Tsunayoshi, by so doing advancing the power and fortunes of his own family, who were relatively unimportant in the complex hierarchy of Tokugawa society. Yoshiyasu also carefully cultivated the attention of both the Emperor Higashiyama (reigned 1687-1709) and his father the Retired Emperor Reigen (reigned 1663-87) in order to serve Tsunayoshi better; he was thus able, through his court connections (and, it turns out, Machiko’s as well), to get favors done for the Shōgun’s family as well as his own.

A high point in Yoshiyasu’s life was when the Retired Emperor Reigen himself condescended to read and favorably comment upon his poetry, examples of which are liberally-sprinkled throughout the book, together with poems by other people connected with Yoshiyasu or the imperial court. “His Majesty the Retired Emperor is a poet of rare skill,” Machiko commented, “not only by the standards of the present, but also by those of the past.” She noted further that Reigen’s own poetry tended to be traditional in form (he didn’t like the new-fangled haikai, the ancestor of haiku) and, when he chose poems to be included in a thousand-poem sequence, she noted that “he has simply chosen those poems that do not break any formal rules of composition,” namely waka poetry, particularly the 31-syllable tanka. It was her father Kinmichi who had asked Reigen to look at the poems, and that the Retired Emperor did so is an example of Machiko’s useful connections with the court.

Poetry, both Japanese and Chinese, was an integral part of Machiko’s life, too, and discussions of it pervade her book. She herself, sometimes at Yoshiyasu’s request, composed poetry, but modestly refers to it as “glib”, and says that “Living in his exceptional shelter, I gathered the poems I wrote like fallen leaves—how presumptuous of me!” At one point, however, imagining Yoshiyasu surveying the garden at Komagome, she writes,“To compose poetry in such a peaceful place, with nary a care in the world—how delightful that would be!”

The highlight of her poetic endeavors was when, at Yoshiyasu’s suggestion, she sent some poems to her brother, who showed them to the Retired Emperor; Reigen was impressed that a woman wrote the poems and said “You don’t say! How astonishing! There can’t be many such. I shall look at them myself.” He read the poems, “looked over them time and time again,” and finally “went so far as to order that they be placed in the imperial archives for ever.” Machiko was, to say the least, gobsmacked. “To what can I compare my feelings when I read this?,” she wrote; “I just managed to get out the words ‘oh what an honor!’” On the other hand, she asked for proof of what Reigen had said, and the Retired Emperor duly had the poems copied and authenticated for her. Yoshiyasu was equally overcome when Reigen praised his poems, too.


Of course, poetry isn’t the only aspect of Machiko’s life. Her position as Yoshiyasu’s concubine also involved her in politics and with the imperial court. Machiko was an aristocrat, for a start, and Yoshiyasu came from a samurai family of no great distinction, getting to where he was by sheer hard work, determination and devotion to the Tokugawa regime. He became what we would now call an “adjutant” to Tsunayoshi, looked after some of the Shōgun’s family members and played a role as an intermediary “between the shogun and the Council of Elders, the highest governing body of the shogunate.” Machiko’s connections, moreover, provided Yoshiyasu “with access to the learning and immense cultural prestige of the court.”

At the same time, as Rowley points out, she was “a lively companion” to Yoshiyasu, and her book would have been useful to people’s perception of him. Rowley notes that it “provided a sympathetic portrait of the private face of a man whose reputation was otherwise forged  in the public realm of shogunal politics.” Thus we don’t find any lengthy discussions of politics in Machiko’s book—it’s essentially a human document about a man she loved and admired, and whose private qualities she knew perhaps better than anyone else. In the Shelter of the Pine presents Yoshiyasu as he would like to have been seen, but there is no reason to think that Machiko saw him any other way; if there are any hints of irony this reviewer certainly missed them! For her he was a real-life Genji.

In the Shadow of the Pine gives us a portrait of a highly-refined, structured and rather formal world, brought to life for us by a learned and delightful guide, who navigates that world with ease and charm. There are numerous descriptions of ceremonies involving Yoshiyasu, the Shōgun and the imperial court, records of births, deaths, funerals, celebratory events and never-ending networking, some of which may look merely social, but may also have political purposes behind its congenial façade. The “natural” tone of the book is enhanced by Machiko’s occasional use of phrases like “Oh yes—I almost forgot,” which makes readers feel as if they are sitting with her and she is talking to them directly. She is also adept in evoking natural beauty and the perfectly-balanced serenity of the garden which Yoshiyasu has created:


The gentle slope of the surrounding hills, the rocks and trees—nothing stands out as too conspicuous or too high. Trees with branches that spread out delightfully as they grow have been chosen and planted here and there. The spring wells up and never runs dry—just looking at it, how could you be troubled by anything?


This garden represents, for Machiko, what she would like life to be, and which, for her as she lived in her world of gardens and poetry, it was. When sadness intervened, which of course it did from time to time, her griefs and fears could be assuaged by communing with it. “You feel as if you’re in the cool of the Buddha’s own hand,” she enthuses, and it’s all due to Yoshiyasu’s creativity and thoughtfulness—he chose the trees and he planted them.


There are, of course, sad interludes, particularly when young children or youths died. The death which hit Yoshiyasu and Machiko hardest was probably that of the Shōgun himself. Tsunayoshi had decided to make some land-grants to Yoshiyasu’s sons, but he fell ill before he was able to make his usual visit to the family, and died (1709). Machiko describes the funeral in detail, but before she does she tells us how she feels. “Even as I include these details,” she writes, “I am overcome with tears—how fleeting it all was,” adding “and how shameful to be assailed by so many sad thoughts as I toss and turn sleeplessly on my pillow.” Of Tsunayoshi himself she wrote rather hyperbolically “in his governance of this vast land of Japan, not once did he err … his thoughts being first of all with the common people, never ceasing to wish they be free from cold and hunger.” Yoshiyasu wrote a poem which said it all:


Even the dew, the profound blessings of My Lord, has vanished and now
all that remains are the tears that fall and soak through my sleeves.


With grief comes formal hyperbole—when Keishoin, “Her Ladyship of the First Rank” dies, Machiko writes of her that “her glory was second to none,” but she nonetheless feels unable to describe “how the entire world lamented her loss.”

After Tsunayoshi’s death Yoshiyasu retired and took up Zen, something which he had been contemplating for some time, and a decision which the new Shōgun, Ienobu, allowed him to do. He had always had a deeply spiritual side, and in the spring of 1709 he moved permanently to the “mountain village” at Komagome. “Never again shall I step back into the secular world,” he wrote in a poem, and at that point Machiko ends the actual narrative, but the book doesn’t end here. The last chapter, entitled “Moon and Flowers”’ gives us a picture of the four seasons of the Rikugien Garden, which she illustrates with quotations from Chinese and Japanese poetry. Rowley sums it up beautifully:


The effect is to transport the Rikugien and those who dwell there
to a timeless realm where nature is both beautiful and bountiful,
and high and low alike delight in their lord’s benevolence.


One might be forgiven for thinking that in this last chapter Machiko and Yoshiyasu have recreated, as far as it can be done, the world of the Shining Prince.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.