Red-face smallpox in Ōoku: The Inner Chambers explained

In Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, the outbreak of a disease called red-face smallpox changes traditional Japanese society in a way that was earlier unimaginable.

In 1716, in Japan, it is women who hold positions of power, including that of the shogun, while men’s main function is fathering children. People believe that this is how things have always been in this country, but the eighth shogun wonders if that is the case.

She meets the chief scribe, and he gives her a journal called “The Chronicle of the Dying Day”, which is an account of what was thought to be the doom of the country when a red-face smallpox epidemic struck.

God’s punishment

A boy named Sadakichi finds mushrooms in the wilderness. It was said that eating the first find prolongs one’s life, so Sadakichi decides to take the mushrooms home for his mother.

Ōoku The Inner Chambers red-face smallpox
Sadakichi collects the season’s first mushrooms

However, he is attacked by a bear and dies when he is brought home. A few days after that, his brothers and his father catch a strange disease one by one. They get a high fever first and then their bodies get covered in red pustules.

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Sadakichi’s brothers and father die, but his mother and sister are not affected by the disease. Soon, the other men of the village also fall sick and die. 

Sadakichi’s mother believes that he was punished by the God of the mountain with a plague, and he brought it to the village. The plague spreads and it claims the lives of numerous men around the country, including the shogun.

The disease usually affects young men, but in rare cases, even older men can catch it. As there is no remedy, the male population of the country declines at an alarming rate. It slowly gets stabilized at one-fourth of the women’s population 80 years later.

A new world order

With men dying everywhere, women have no choice but to step out of their houses to work in their place. Additionally, the families that have not lost their sons begin to keep their sons indoors in order to prevent them from catching the disease.

New trends emerge due to a scarcity of men. Families begin to rent out their sons to women who wish to have children for money. Now, it is men who draw attention on the streets, not women.

The Ōoku was once women’s quarters, where women who served the shogun lived. Now, it is transformed into men’s quarters; young samurai from all over the country are brought here to serve as the last line of defense in case of an attack on Edo.

With time, the Ōoku also changes. It becomes a place that houses men who serve as the shogun’s concubines. When the third shogun dies, his illegitimate daughter takes his place, and since then, women have been inheriting the shogunate.

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Titled lords bow to the first female shogun

The third shogun announces that women will inherit the titles that were traditionally inherited by men until the male population increases again.

Earlier, after losing their sons, feudal lords feared that their families will lose their titles, so they made their daughters take their sons’ names and pose as them. They no longer need to do that.

Like the third shogun, women with titles retain the male names that they were given when they were pretending to be men. It then becomes a practice for women to take male names when they inherit titles and be called lords, not ladies. 

Although this was supposed to be a temporary measure, it ends up becoming the norm. Society is now matriarchal; women become the heads of households, and trades, occupations, as well as titles are passed from mothers to daughters.

With the difference in the number of men and women, the institution of marriage collapses, and having a husband is considered a privilege. As men now have only one function in society, in farming villages, old men are considered a burden and not valued. 

The red-face smallpox not only takes several lives but also reverses gender roles. By the time the eighth shogun’s reign begins, it becomes impossible for people to imagine a world where there were as many men as there were women.

Also Read: The third shogun’s replacement in Ōoku: The Inner Chambers explained