Samurai women played a variety of roles throughout the Edo period. They were carefully educated, expected to uphold the honor of the warrior class, and many were trained in weaponry. However, even in the Warring States period, they were usually expected to defend their homes rather than venture out onto the battlefield. And as in many other cultures, samurai women were often used as political bargaining chips. The story of Abbess Tenshu reflects this.
Born in 1608 with the name Naahime, Tenshu was the daughter of Toyotomi Hideyori and his concubine. She lived with her father and their family, including his legal wife Senhime, until the Siege of Osaka. Tokugawa Ieyasu, Senhime’s grandfather, burned the castle and drove Hideyori to take his own life. Just before this, however, Senhime took the seven-year-old Naahime and escaped.
As Senhime was his granddaughter, Ieyasu allowed her to leave before her husband committed seppuku. Senhime then asked for Naahime to also be spared. Ieyasu had Naahime’s eight-year-old brother Kunimatsu beheaded, but agreed to spare Naahime. Naahime was officially adopted by Senhime and immediately sent off to Tokeiji temple, which had taken in and protected women fleeing dangerous situations for centuries.
At the temple, Naahime was renamed Tenshu Hotai, made a Buddhist nun, and taken under the wing of Abbess Naizan. Eventually, she would become the 20th abbess of Tokeiji. Although she remained in contact with politicians, scholars, and priests, she could not leave the temple. It was her sanctuary from the Tokugawa clan that had destroyed her family.
In real life, Tenshu went on to protect the women of another fallen clan, communicate with well-known priest Takuan Soho, and write poetry. In Tale of Ronin, Tenshu continues to be haunted by Tokugawa Ieyasu’s betrayal and her family’s deaths. Although she cannot leave Tokeiji temple, her tormented heart drives her to try and right this wrong regardless.