WOMEN IN MEDIEVAL JAPANESE SOCIETY
Japanese civilization was one of the last of the great civilizations of Asia to develop. Written records for Japan go back only until the sixth century in the Common Era, and those are Chinese not Japanese accounts of the culture. The islands - four major ones - that form the archipelago of Japan stand in roughly the same relationship to Asia as the British Isles do to Europe. Just as Roman civilization slowly extended itself to Britain, so Chinese civilization slowly moved outward to Japan.
Japan actually has about three thousand islands in a two thousand mile long chain with a land mass slightly less than California. The bulk of the population, though, is concentrated on the four principal islands of Hokkaido (the farthest north), Honshu (the largest), Shikoku (the smallest), and Kyoshu (the farthest south); and more on the eastern shores as the temperature is warmer there. In the south the climate is sub-tropical, but Hokkaido receives quite a lot of snow in winter. Japan has the same latitudes as the Eastern Seaboard in America from Maine to Northern Florida. Rainfall is moderate, though Japan is subject to violent typhoons, and is very active tectonically, with both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to contend with. The islands are relatively poor in natural resources, and there is a definite scarcity of good agricultural land - only 16% of the land can be farmed, even though throughout its history the bulk of Japan's people have been farmers, and then fishermen. Much of the country is rocky and mountainous- and very beautiful.
Legends say that the Japanese islands were formed as a result of the marriage of the God Izanagi and the Goddess Izanami. After giving birth to Japan, Izanami gave birth to the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The descendant of Amaterasu later descended to earth and became the founder of the Japanese. The Japanese emperor today is believed to be the direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. At Ise, is the sacred temple built for Amaterasu in wood, which is reconstructed every twenty years. Nearby in the sea are the large and smaller rocks coming out of the water that represent Izanagi and Izanami with a golden chain between them symbolizing their union.
Japan's early religion was basically animistic or universal nature worship. Later the Japanese gave their polytheistic religion the name of Shinto or "Way of the Gods" to distinguish it from Buddhism when that religion started entering Japan and competing with the native religious practices.
The first historical Japanese period was the Yamato, 660 b.c.e. to 710 c.e., about 1400 years. It was a decentralized government with rule by emperors or empresses. There was an early emphasis on the warrior class of nobles. From prehistoric times Japan was greatly influenced by Chinese culture. Almost every aspect of Japan's higher culture in the earliest centuries was borrowed from the Chinese: government, legal code, writing system, literature, religion, and art. The Chinese writing system was officially adopted by the Japanese in the fifth century c.e. Scholars lament that the Japanese used Chinese symbols to write spoken Japanese. As the Japanese language is phonetically quite different from the Chinese, learning to write Japanese was and is a laborious undertaking. To overcome some of this difficulty, many Chinese words were adopted by the Japanese, and scholars in Japan learned to read Chinese, not speak it. Later, it will be the women of the court that will develop the written Japanese.
By the mid sixth century, Buddhism gained a foothold in Japan via Korea. By the late sixth century Buddhism was the religion of the Japanese court and by the mid eighth century it was the state religion. Little antagonism occurred between Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan, however. Frequently the same shrine was sacred to both faiths. Japanese priests whether Buddhists or Shinto did not constitute a hierarchy with coercive powers over people like in the West.
During the Tang Dynasty in China (seventh through the tenth centuries), Japanese borrowings from China reached new heights: medical practices, military tactics, road building techniques, household furniture, dress, Confucian writings, and family sacrificing to their ancestral spirits. The Japanese Imperial system was almost an exact replica of the Chinese Imperial one.
In Japan, however, the imperial family was never dethroned as in China, but the imperial government was never all pervasive, and the aristocracy had more power in Japanese society.
In very early Japanese society, women held a position of prominence. Some clans were headed by women, and family structure was originally both matriarchal and matrilineal. This is remarkable only because of the extreme subordination of Japanese women in later eras. However, the transition to a patriarchal system was complete by the third century c.e., and polygamy was a common practice by that time, especially in the upper classes. Society was pyramidal in structure, with the highest rank aristocratic and hereditary. Slavery existed, but not in large numbers. Most slaves were simply personal servants.
The Ama - communities of women divers as their oral traditions suggest, were matrilineal, matrilocal, and perhaps even matriarchal. Today women are still diving beneath the sea for pearls, seaweed, and abalone. Some of them today make nearly $100,000. These modern-day ama live in matrilocal communities, as do the Korean women who dive on Cheju Island. Even though Confucian’s ethical code had men claiming exclusive control of ritual, they also had contempt for manual labor. Confucian ideas devalue working women, but the irony is that is the women who support their families and run the village economy.
Japan's history is divided into various historical periods with some overlapping. The Yamato period from 660 b.c.e. to 710 c.e. begins its history, but we think that some of the information for this period probably refers to the prehistoric Jomon Period.
Decentralized government was the structure with rule by both emperors and empresses. Before the eighth century, half of the main rulers were women. We do have records and burial locations for some of these incredible impressive imperial rulers. Jingu, in described in Japan's first mytho-history the Kojiki or Records of Ancient Matters. She was a great warrior empress said to have led Japanese warriors on the invasion of Korea. Empress Jito in the eighth century became a significant influence at court, and through her broad tradition of royal mika, she communicated directly with the gods of kami. She may even have had the rare experience for a shaman as conversing directly with the chief of all kami at Ise, the sun goddess Amaterasu. Jito's advice was essential for guiding affairs of the Japanese state. In the Nara period, Empress Koken ruled as the forty-sixth and forty-eighth imperial ruler, 749-58 and 764-770. After her first reign she abdicated in favor of her male second cousin, but after six years took the crown from him, and reacended the throne. Unfortunately, Empress Koken, ca. 749-58 was denigrated for her affair with a Buddhist monk. She thus became the stereotypical example of a dangerous woman as recorded in the Buddhists texts, even though the real struggle in her reign was between important aristocratic families at court including the Fujiwara family, and their powerful Buddhist competitors. After Empress Koken's reign, women never again ruled as empresses in their own right. The only exception was those women who ruled during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), when the imperial family was a virtual political prisoner of the shoguns.
During this time also folk traditions concerning women stigmatized them for their association with various polluting elements: menstrual blood, postpartum discharge, and sexual activity. All these female facets were seen as the power of women for doing good or evil, but as usual the negative powers were given more discussion in the sources. Over time, women's political and religious powers diminished due to these folk traditions.
Japanese women were active in the various religious practices and beliefs in Ancient and Medieval Japan. There is universal recognition of the connections in Japanese myths, the power of female shamans, and the sun goddess Amaterasu, the supreme deity in the Shinto Pantheon. Their role as shamans is a long tradition that probably included the Neolithic period. Women alone could predict, prophesy, and mediate between this world and the other ones. Another aspect of shamanism was the tradition of mica, where women were capable of hearing and transmitting instructions and advice of the gods. Sometimes these mika were called Shinto princesses. They would be called upon in difficult cases to try to establish the truth. The gods or kami spoke through the mika's voice after she went into a trance.
Himiko was an early eighth century shaman described in the Wei Chronicles. She was unmarried and lived in relative seclusion, attended by many women. One male was allowed in the palace, who transmitted her words to the Japanese. She was even known to bewitch people, and had a close connection with the sun goddess. At her death a mound was raised more than one hundred paces in diameter to commemorate her important place in the culture. A king was then placed on the throne, but people would not obey him, so they made a relative of Himiko, a thirteen-year old girl, Iyo, as the queen. Order was then restored.
Women participated equally in Japan's festivals and celebrations. One of the most important was the festival of the Maid Star or Tanabata Festival, which was directed principally toward women. It is still held today in Japan. Women especially in the countryside continued to play major roles in the celebration of community and family religious rituals, even after the Japanese encounter with the Chinese.
Japan did not follow Chinese agnatic patterns in family registers, where the males were listed. Instead the Japanese deified their local gods. The priority in Japan was to uphold the family and not the lineage, so adoption into the line was widely practiced. This allowed women to hold and transmit leadership of the family.
In the early centuries of Japanese history, Buddhism was a political as well as religious vehicle. Buddhism helped enhance the legitimacy of the imperial family, but over time diminished the power of women in the folk tradition. The Chinese always wanted to organize property holdings on male lineage, but not necessarily in Japan. Even though roughly half of the reigning sovereigns were women in Japan before the eighth century, many were devout Buddhists, while continuing to identify themselves with mantic traditions.
The next historical period in Japan was the Heian (pronounced hey-on) 784-1183. This was the time when famous women writers wrote about life in the Japanese royal courts. At this time the capital was moved to Heian-kyo, now known as Kyoto. The high status of girls and women occurred during these centuries.
The female children were prized, and infanticide was not committed on girls. Only a female child could advance her family's position in society. A male was only as high-ranking as his father, but a woman could become a concubine of the emperor, thereby winning titles for her father, brothers, sisters, and other relatives. If she was skilled in the arts of koto, samisen, poetry and fashion, then she could be elevated to empress. If the woman bore a son, upon his elevation to Emperor, then she would take on the important role of Imperial Matriarch. The Matriarch ruled the roost, governing over all other women in the household. She had her son's exclusive confidence. As many children at this time were elevated to the role of Emperor, their mothers were often only twenty years old.
Other aspects definitely illustrated women's high status too. Women could own property. If discrete, they could take lovers. Women did not have to be empresses to have power and freedom in Heian Japan. Unlike most other periods of Japanese history, women were allowed to be as free-living as men. Marriage was not the only option. Many of the empresses' courtiers never married, but had numerous affairs. Children born from these affairs were accepted socially if they were recognized by their fathers. These liaisons were not discouraged, did not make women cheap or wanton, and in fact, worldly women were highly respected.
Uxorilocal or matrilocal marriages were common, though spouses regularly lived apart or with the wife's family. The communal system of possession and/or matrilineal descent patterns prevailed. Marriages were easily formed and broken, and polygamy was common. There is almost no evidence of wives leaving property to their husbands. No property would change hands at marriage. Heian Japanese adhered to the ideas that inheritance was to be given to close women relatives before distant males.
Education for the upper class women was a priority. Most women were versed in a musical instrument. Fashion and proper use of cosmetics were important too. Poetry recitation and improvisation were important too, with poetry the expected form of communication. Women were expected to know 1000 classic Japanese verses by heart. A woman's elegance was determined by her ability to quote the perfect verse for any occasion. Competitions were held between courtiers to see who could write the perfect verse about the weather, the most notable subject matter. A well-turned pun was the height of elegance.
We can thank the women writers of Heian Japan for how much we known about their daily lives. As women wrote in kana, the syllabaries used today, instead of Chinese, these writings are highly accessible today. Dairies were written in daily to illustrate intimate details of court life in the tenth century. One historian has remarked that Japan seems to have been relatively free of harem politics, so talented ladies of leisure found other outlets for their energies. The two most famous women writers were Lady Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon.
Murasaki Shikibu was the pen name of the woman who wrote the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji. Very little is known of Murasaki's life. She was born to a minor branch of the Fujiwara family sometime in the last quarter of the tenth century. Murasaki tells us that her father appreciated her talent that she demonstrated at a very early age, but expressed to that he wished she had been born a boy. Ironically, if a boy, it is unlikely she would have written the world's first novel. Historians of Japan are fond of pointing out the in the eleventh century many aristocratic Japanese men wrote bad Chinese poetry, while the women wrote wonderful Japanese works. Women did know Chinese, but they were not supposed to. Murasaki, undoubtedly knew Chinese. The idea kana was a women's script, and thus inferior, did not become widespread until well after the Heian period.
Sei Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book was a contemporary of Murasaki's. Sei was the daughter of an outstanding poet and provincial governor. She has the reputation of being the most natural wit in Japanese literature. Her book contains a number of facts including lists of things and candid comments on court, giving the reader a sense of knowing the intimate details of courtly life.
Religious changes occurred in the Heian period. By the twelfth century many Japanese were adherents of Amidism Buddhism. Amida was the idea that belief alone and not intense self-discipline could assure one's escape from the painful cycles of rebirth. One monk even stated that there was no distinction between men and women, but the later Lotus sect repudiated this: "no women are to be found in paradise. Women will have to first be reborn as men." Beliefs of women's inherent sinfulness increased as time passed.
The next period in Japan was the Medieval Shogunate Period, including the Kamakura and other families 1185-1600. The Shogunate is a time when warriors or samurai developed more power. Ultimately the office of shogun developed that rivaled the power of the emperor. The shogun began the de facto ruler of Japan, in what is called a shogunate, and the emperor became the de jure or legal ruler only. This lasted until 1871. Some women were prominent in the earliest shogunate periods, but when a strong warrior culture develops, women's status usually declines.