Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
For more than twenty years Japan had been isolated under its Chained-in Country policy. Foreigners were not to be trusted and virtually all foreign trade was prohibited. In 1846, Princess Kazunomiya was born into this world of international isolation. As the princess matures, her own sense of being isolated in the cloistered world of Japanese royalty mirrors her country’s Chained-in policy. Kazunomiya’s diary tells her story of royal intrigue, arranged marriages, and family loyalty set in a world of ceremony where beauty and literature are celebrated.
As Kazunomiya matures, she feels more and more like a pawn with no control over her own destiny. Her arranged marriage to a young prince she has fallen in love with is canceled, and a new husband is chosen for her to cement the connection between her royal family and the army. When she is forced to move from the city of her birth and relocate miles and miles away, her poetry recalls her deep sadness and longing for the beauty of her home.
For her fifth book in the Royal Diaries series, Kathryn Lasky presents young readers with an inside look at Japan in the 1800s with a special focus on the Emperor of Japan and his constant struggle for power in a world where foreigners and some of his own countrymen were constantly trying to wrestle away power and open Japan to the whole world.
“I don't feel like doing anything and usually this is my favorite time of year,” writes twelve-year-old Princess Kazunomiya on the rice paper pages she keeps in an embroidered case. It is spring, 1858, in Kyoto, Japan, and Kazunomiya, half-sister of the Emperor, feels something is not right within the Imperial Palace where she lives. She has been promised in marriage to Prince Arisugawa since she was four years old, and her birthday has been changed in order to be compatible with his. Now Kazunomiya overhears plans being made for her to be married instead to young Tokugawa Yoshitomi (Yoshi), next in line to be shogun, Japan 's powerful warlord. When she learns that this marriage to Yoshi is strictly for political reasons, to strengthen the position of the Emperor with the shogun, Kazunomiya is confused and angry. Meanwhile, presumably to cheer her, Kazunomiya's lady-in-waiting, the elderly Auntie Umi, arranges for her to secretly meet Prince Arisugawa on several occasions. The young couple become very fond of each other and send many waka poems back and forth when they're apart.
On a moon viewing night and at a formal tea ceremony, Kazunomiya is introduced to Yoshi, and she is not impressed. “He was perfectly nice, but so dull.” Later, Yoshi confronts her informally and reveals that he knows she favors Arisugawa, and he, too, has “another who has captured (his) heart.” He asks if they could, perhaps, become good friends. Kazunomiya is surprised and delighted, and she says, “How wonderful it is that he is so completely honest. It is so rare, so rare in this court full of deceit and treachery.”
The old shogun dies, and Yoshi becomes his successor. At this time, an American ship enters a Japanese harbor, something that had never been permitted before. The fact that the shogun allows this to happen indicates that he may not be devoted to the Emperor. Kazunomiya writes, “Whatever happened to those who shouted, 'Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians.'? What is to happen to my marriage to Yoshi? I have many mixed feelings about this. Arisugawa is my true love, but I certainly do not want Yoshi to be my brother's enemy.” Kazunomiya knows Yoshi didn’t allow the ship to enter Japan. It is the work of Ii Naosuke, his adopted father, and it disgusts her. She states, “Yoshi is but a puppet and if we do marry he shall be a puppet husband and I shall be his puppet wife in a puppet marriage where Ii Naosuke will pull the strings. That is no life.”
As the family is traveling to their summer villa, Auntie Umi falls ill. The doctor is summoned along with a genza to exorcise what evil spirit might be causing her illness. With the genza is an eta, a spirit-catcher girl of the lowest rank of society. Neither the physician nor the genza is successful, and Auntie dies. Kazunomiya writes, “I shall miss Auntie, but I am not exactly sad. She led a long life with a deep sense of harmony and beauty and she was no one's puppet — no, never — for she was a true spirit.” Later, Kazunomiya sees Yoshi in disguise with the very eta who had been at Auntie's sickroom. Kazunomiya is outraged that Yoshi's true love is a girl of such low social status.
Plans escalate toward the marriage of Kazunomiya to the new shogun. Decisions are being made without her consent: her birthday must again be changed to match that of Yoshi, her teeth blackening, coming-of-age ceremony, is scheduled without allowing her mother to choose the date, and her engagement to Arisugawa seems forgotten. Kazunomiya angrily writes, “They can try and make me their puppet…(but) no matter how they cut me to serve their purposes, within me there shall always remain a little spirit…. Perhaps it is the spark of the Fire Horse.”
With the help of the women of the court, Kazunomiya has a secret teeth blackening ceremony on a day chosen by her mother. It is a memorable time with special gifts, and it is done according to tradition and not in compliance with the power hungry Empress Mother's agenda. Kazunomiya ends her diary temporarily as she waits for new part of her life to begin. Three years later, she is looking forward to her future as she writes, “My birthday is still my birthday. I keep in my heart my secret love for Arisugawa. But now on the eve of my wedding I prepare to go…to the capital city of Edo, where my friend, Yoshi, waits for me."
Thinking About the Book
- On the book cover, Princess Kazunomiya is called "Prisoner of Heaven." What does that mean? Do you think that is a good name for her? Why or why not?
- Kazunomiya was born in the year of Fire Horse. Why does she write that this is bad? Does she have Fire Horse in her?
- Describe the tradition of the “Princess Tree.”
- What is the teeth blackening ceremony and why is it so important to Kazunomiya and her mother?
- Why was the person chosen for Kazunomiya to marry changed to another groom?
- Identify the following:
Admiral Matthew Perry
- At the wrestling matches Kazunomiya’s beloved Auntie tells her that sumo wrestling is a mental game more than a physical one. “Much of life is that way my children.” What does Auntie mean?
- What is Japan ’s “Chained-in Country” policy?
- Tell the story of the mirror and the rose. What is its connection to Kazunomiya and her life? Kazunomiya's opinion of people changes from her first impression of them. For example, she first thinks Yoshi is dull. What makes her change her mind? Also, she has a low opinion of the eta, Yukiko, whom Yoshi loves. Why does she change her opinion of Yukiko? Recall an instance when your first impression of someone or something changed. Tell about it.
- One of Princess Kazunomiya's tasks is to learn to play the koto, a stringed musical instrument. Find out what this ancient Japanese instrument looks and sounds like.
- The Japanese celebrate many festivals. Two very popular ones are Girl's Day (March 3) and Boy's Day (May 5). Learn about these celebrations.
- How did Kazunomiya and her family celebrate these holidays? How are they celebrated today?
- Kazunomiya writes waka poetry — a short form which as she says, “must have: something about the seasons, a sense of quiet and an underlying feeling of mystery.” Waka can run longer than three lines and is made up of alternating lines of five to seven syllables. Look at some of the poems Kazunomiya wrote. Try writing your own waka poetry. Share your poems with members of your Discussion Group.
- Find out about the following:
- Kazunomiya refers to various days by events that happen in nature. For example, March 15 is “The Time That the Frog Eggs Begin to Float,” and July 6 is “The Time of the Hot Winds.” Suppose you could name a month of the year with a new name describing what happens during that time. What would you call it and why?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.