A Japanese Princess

February 12, 2005

By Miku Miyano

Have you ever visited a grave within the grounds of a temple, mosque, or church? If the grave is a famous person’s, it can become a tourist attraction. Let me tell you about one example in Kyoto, the grave of Princess Sen. She sleeps in the premises of Chionin temple, which is the head temple of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect of Japanese Buddhism. The reason why Sen is buried there is that she was a grandchild of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japanese military leader and statesman, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Tokugawa family were Jodo sect believers.

Photo of Gravesite of Princess Sen

The Gravesite of Princess Sen

But who was Princess Sen? What kind of person was she? With such knowledge, you will be able to enjoy your sightseeing at Chionin Temple even more.

Princess Sen (“Senhime” in Japanese) was born in 1597, the first daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada, Ieyasu’s son. From the start of her life, Sen’s fate was always related to men. At just seven years of age she was married to Toyotomi Hideyori in a political arrangement. As a result, she went from her home in Edo to faraway Osaka Castle. The marriage had all been arranged by her father. In those days, the Tokugawa family often fought against the Toyotomi family, so the marriage was a convenient one aimed at keeping the peace. Sen’s married life was not comfortable, however, because she was a kind of hostage. And it did not last very long.

In 1615, when Sen was 18, the two families clashed again for control of Japan in the Summer Battle in Osaka. The Tokugawa clan won the war. During the fighting Princess Sen stayed with her husband, but eventually Shogun Ieyasu, fearing for her safety, had her rescued and returned to his home. When she arrived, she begged Ieyasu to forgive her husband, but he did not agree, and after all, the defeated Hideyori committed ritual suicide. The man who had saved Sen, Sakazaki Naomori, had been promised her hand in marriage by Ieyasu, but Sen refused to comply, and soon after the incident, she married instead the handsome Honda Tadatoki. Sen then went to Himeji Castle to live with him. This second marriage was happier than her first one because she actually was in love with Tadatoki. This was Sen’s first time to decide to do what she really wanted to do by herself.

Sen and Tadatoki had two children: Katsu, a daughter (and herself a princess) and Kochiyo, a son. But Princess Sen’s good fortune did not continue for long. In her next tragedy, she lost Kochiyo when he was only three years old. Sen herself was just 25 years old at the time. Then, five years after her son’s death, she also lost Tadatoki when he died of tuberculosis.

In a mere 30 years, Sen had experienced the deaths of two husbands and a son. Full of grief, she went back to Edo, cut off her hair, and determined to become a Buddhist nun. Under the name “Tenjuin” she lived a quiet life of contemplation until the age of seventy. Meanwhile, her daughter, Princess Katsu, married Ikeda Mitsumasa, feudal lord of Okayama and Tottori.

Photo of Gravesite of Princess Sen

Princess Sen's Gravestone

Most women in Sen’s day did not have power. They were almost never allowed to do as they liked. Accordingly, these women had to be very strong — strong enough to endure everything that came their way. Princess Sen was a respectable woman. She married the man chosen by her father, tried to help her husband, loved her children and was sincerely religious. I have found that she played a role in the history of women in Japan, and I hope that her story will help you to understand this aspect of Japanese culture. Please remember it when you visit the site of Sen’s grave in Chionin Temple. Finally, I’ll tell you a useful Japanese sentence:

“Senhime-sama no ohaka wa dochira desu ka?” which means “Could you tell me where the grave of Princess Sen is?”

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