4.476 out of 5 from 42 votes
In the Tokugawa era, the dreaded redface pox is devastating the country's population of young men, and after a few generations, the gender ratio has fallen to roughly one male for every four females. Since sons rarely survive to adulthood, family trades are now passed from mother to daughter, and women hold even important governmental positions. In order to prevent the rest of the world from discovering this state of affairs, Japan institutes a strict isolationist policy, and female officials adopt masculine names so that even the official records don't reveal what's happening. Though the outside word is suffering from a shortage of marriageable men, the inner chambers of Edo castle are a lavish place, filled with hundreds of men who serve both as an emergency standing army, and also as the personal harem for the new shogun - a woman named Yoshimune who is determined to fix the rampant inequality and wastefulness of her country.
Akitsu Masanosuke is a shy, self-conscious and slightly cowardly man with a goal of becoming a great samurai. However, when he is dismissed from his job after two days he must live the life of a ronin until he can return to service. So when a man named Yaichi approaches him offering food and a job as his bodyguard, it all seems too good to be true - that is, until Akitsu learns that this confident stranger is in fact a gangster of the Five Leaves who specializes in kidnapping and lives in the city’s red-light district. While the ronin’s sense of justice makes him think twice about accepting the offer, Akitsu’s grumbling stomach, his growing familiarity with the rest of the Five Leaves, and Yarai’s determination to recruit the budding samurai, may well have other plans...
There are a lot of stories about samurai. Most of these involve copious amounts of action scenes, but every once in a while, you'll stumble across something like Ooku and Sarai-ya Goyou- mature, intelligent, though rather slow-paced, period dramas. And, unlike most period dramas, their historical inaccuracies make them all the more interesting (since they're intentional, Ooku is an alternate history, after all).
Another excellent political shoujo manga about societies with extremely uneven gender ratios. Ooku's society is largely female (except for the predominantly male inner chambers), while Marginal's has one Mother and everyone else is male (like a modified ant/bee structure).
Ooku is historical, and Marginal is a sort of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but if you liked the political drama, gendered themes, and extremely fleshed out setting/culture of one, check out the other.
Young Tomeki is a poor orphan girl that is sold to a brothel in the Red Light District. In a world of courtesans and nameless men, she grows from an awkward, petulant child into Kyoha, one of the most prized Oiran in the entire district. But trouble arises when Kyoha falls in love with a handsome young man. Forbidden to love, will Kyoha find a way to be with the man who is constantly lingering within her thoughts?
Another historical josei (er, technically neither of these are josei, but both will appeal more to that demographic than their actual ones) manga about kickass, strong minded women. If you liked one and are looking for something else with beautiful costumes, well-realized characters, emotional maturity, and a similar setting, definitely check out the other.