Women Hold up Half the Sky



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Reflections on the Lives and Roles of Women in Pre-Modern Japanese Societies.

The Chinese proverb “Women Hold up Half the Sky”, attributed to Confucius and Mao Zedong amongst others, wanes between being both a fact and an aspiration during various periods in pre-modern times in Japan. Early Chinese historical accounts of ‘Wa’, as Japan was referred to, depict a country with few distinctions between the sexes. There had been women rulers and women religious leaders. Robins-Mowry (1983, as cited in The Clio Project, 2005) writes of the period in Japanese history between 592 and 770 as the ‘Epoch of Queens,’ as one half of the rulers during that time were women. Whyte (1998) comments that, “During the Heian Period in Japan (794-1185) women enjoyed a period of intellectual freedom and produced some of the great works of Japanese literature.” (p.70, para.1) Aristocratic women living in the imperial court produced a lasting legacy through their literature. These accounts of daily events in and around the imperial court paint a picture of the life and thoughts of these upper class women, with loneliness, gossip and unfaithful men dominating the imagery. Trsek (1985) explores the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) when women were allowed rights to inheritance and to bequeath property but also had the responsibilities of managing staff and defending their homes in times of war. These periods contrast markedly with the gender gaps that were obvious and wide in the day to day life of women living under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868) when women were subordinate to men and did not exist legally.



Underlying these social mores across particular periods there were also the religious or spiritual teachings which proclaimed edicts that influenced the attitudes shown towards women and the controlled aspects of their lives in pre modern Japan. Both Confucianism and Buddhism, introduced from China and Korea, did not see women and men as equals. The many and often complex regulations that made up a society and all that it encompassed, changed and evolved through time, as did the constraints of gender differences and the roles assigned to each sex.

The Heian Period lasted for almost four hundred years and through the writings of women of this time it is possible to develop an understanding of some of the features of the society and its attitude towards women who lived out their lives amongst the upper class. Royal society was very formal and ordered and people were judged by their appearance and their creative talents. The art of calligraphy was very highly regarded as was poetry. Friedman (1992) writes about Japan having two distinct societies –the public and the private. Images of the latter abound in the prose of a lady-in-waiting called Murasaki Shikibu, not her real name but in those days women’s names were often not recorded. Her vast fictional work “The Tale of Gengi” depicts the political and sexual intrigue of court life in the imperial city of Heian-Kyo (Kyoto) through various characters, settings and details of daily life, as stories are unravelled and often then intertwined with each other. The emotions, experiences and fate of imperial women are captured through a scrutiny of the relationships they had with the Emperor or the Heir apparent. Daughters of high ranking gentlemen were presented at court but only those who were of a high enough status and were able to win political support could ever hope of becoming an empress. Life for these women was not without its competition though, for in addition to his commitment to a single Empress, an Emperor would have several Consorts and a certain number of Intimates and his Mistress of Staff could also become a junior wife. Throughout its fifty-four chapters this epic tale gives witness to a trail of lovers, failed relationships, heartache and the power wielded through passion. A translation of this text into English by Tyler (2001) gives an insight into these depicted pre-modern times when women rarely had the opportunity to be alone. A lady of the court would have an entourage around her and even when sleeping, on the other side of the curtains around her bed, would be her attendants. Messages would never be delivered first hand; such was the accepted sense of social order. When courting a woman a man would talk to her through one of her ‘gentlewomen’ and she may in fact be in another room or behind a blind or curtain. The alternative to being dependent on a man was for a woman to become a nun. Tyler (2001) explains ‘ she took a certain level of religious vows, had her hair cut short, wore plain, discreet colours and stayed at home’ (p. 20, para.2). According to York (2005) noble women led quite sheltered lives, mostly confining themselves to indoors and only occasionally going out to visit a temple or garden. At this time Chinese was the official language of the court but women were not allowed to use or study it as it was considered unladylike. During the period a literate community of upper class women in the Emperor’s court and in the courts of the regional governors invented a style of writing known as zuihitsu or random writings, the most famous of which is “The Pillow Book” by Sei Shonagon, who whilst serving the empress wrote about the things she found interesting. This court lady’s observations, poetry, details of gossip and complaints are her personal recordings of the life of which she was part and to which she was privy because of her position. These popular works, written in Japanese, were in the form of a diary providing an insight into the lives of the women with their female voices echoing through the thoughts and interactions mirroring life at the time. Whilst their days may have afforded them time to write, their nights made other demands of them, things not easily discussed aloud but could be expressed in the written form. Through the literature by aristocratic women several forms of marriage appear to have existed at the time. Haruko’s (1984) reflections on Heian marriage practices “though permitting women some independence, also resulted in great personal anxiety and loneliness for them. Men were free to take several wives but women were permitted only one spouse and as a result spent much of their time waiting and wondering” (p.73, para.2). There were times of living apart, living separately and of living together with a partner, a situation which would have added to the emotional and complex situation faced by women residing in the court. History tells us that the Fujiwara family, who controlled the court, regularly married their young women to imperial princes and emperors to ensure continued loyalty through the heirs thus maintaining the power and dominance that the family had secured prior to the Heian Period. Noble women had clearly defined roles, a life that afforded them some sense of social influence and opportunities to be educated. Rivalries and jealousy between wives and their attendants may have detracted from the glamour of court life and afforded little opportunity to be opinionated, but for those women who were content to live the life expected of them the status that came with the demands may have been sufficient.

The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) marked the beginning of a new era. Warriors with their own customs and attitudes came to power. With warring clans and military efficiency shaping the political and social life of the court and government the emperor became little more than a figurehead. It was a male-dominated society according to Pilbeam (1999) but in pre-modern Japan there were contrasts between the roles women played according to the class into which they were born. During the Kamakura Period women in military families had considerable freedom and shared the responsibilities of managing a family. With the men away in battle it was the women who were left to guard the property and family interests. Trsek (1985) writes that “women had a respected and socially recognised position” and he also proposes that “the poorer the family, the greater the equality between husband and wife” (p.75, para.3). Circumstances in this particular period of Japan’s pre modern history provided women with an improved status and afforded them roles that may have previously been considered beyond them. Women were allowed rights to an inheritance, bequeath property, controlled household finances and were expected to defend their homes in times of war. Tomoe Gozen, (1157-1247) a fierce warrior skilled in the use of a sword and bow, together with Hojo Masako, (1157-1225) a formidable political figure of the period, are two of the most famous women of the times, proof of the influence that women wielded in their own right. The popular Buddhist movements of the Kamakura Period taught that all people regardless of their status or sex could achieve a rebirth which led to many women of the lower class becoming firm believers whilst the upper class women continued to support the teachings by promoting the founding of additional temples and some left court life behind to become Buddhist nuns.

The period that followed, the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), was defined by wars which resulted in the country being divided into separate military units each being directed by a feudal lord known as a daimyo. Their controls extended to the marriage choices of their followers and rules by which the people were to live. Trsek (1985) writes about women being relegated to a secondary position within a society that was focused so much on war. Male children, with their physical strength and courage needed for battle were more important than the females and allegiance to a lord more highly regarded than family roles or responsibilities. Such was the importance of the males military efficiency that warriors were warned not to allow the attachment they had to their wives to interfere with their duties. The daimyo’s castle became the centre of the state with his warriors also living within the castle town. This enabled the peasant communities in the rural areas to have more independence. In rural areas the lives of low class women, although hard, may have afforded them more freedom in their choice of husbands and the opportunity to work alongside the men in planting and tending crops.

Whyte (1998) proposes that “the history of Japanese women reached a low point in the Tokugawa Period of 1602-1868” (p.70, para.1). It was during this time that strict rules governing a woman’s behaviour were recorded in a book titled ‘The Great Learning for Women’. Based on Confucianism the moralistic work stressed that at various times in her life a woman should obey her father, her husband and then her sons. This work also guided a woman’s attitude to life expecting her to be frugal, humble and hard working whilst remembering she could be divorced for disobedience, jealousy, not producing children, poor health or even for talking too much. Women could be sentenced to death for committing adultery but men were able to maintain concubines within or outside of the family home. A woman could only be granted a legal divorce if her husband left her or he committed a serious crime. Gordon (2003) comments “In this social and economic world, one also found important tensions between prescribed roles and evolving practice for men and women” (p.31, para.2). Just as they had done in previous pre- modern periods, women continued to play crucial roles within their households but also took on extra responsibilities outside the domestic domain if necessary. Spinning or weaving piecework was common amongst rural women and women in the city also took in extra work. Girls from wealthy farm families were favoured for work in noble households and those from poorer homes worked as prostitutes enabling their families to receive monetary advances for the expected income earned by their daughters. In the higher levels of society the strategic marriages of the past continued with females still expected to promote the careers of their male relatives through their relationships as consorts vying for a place within the emperor’s favourites.

Friedman (1992) deals with another constraint placed on women under the Tokugawa Shogunate which restricted them to learning to write in a style known as hiragana. This prevented them from reading anything in the more formal kanji thus great literary works, political, business or financial edicts were beyond them.

Urbanisation under Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rule in the Edo Period led to a new kind of life for people living in the cities and with these changes came employment, money to spend and demands for goods and services. Many men came to the cities without their families prompting the licensing and supervision of brothel districts in addition to the unlicensed ones on the outskirts of cities. There was a continuing demand for the services of the thousands of female prostitutes working in these ‘pleasure quarters’. Prostitution was legal but there also existed underground and ‘amateur’ ladies who from time to time were rounded up and moved to an official licensed quarter of a city which was fenced in by government regulations and actual walls. Dalby (1983) writes about a different group of professional women, geishas, meaning ‘artists’ who also worked in these designated entertainment areas. From 1779 their profession was formalized through the establishment of a kenban or registry office with official rules of conduct. There were different terms given to these professionals dependent on their roles. Shiro or white geisha were purely entertainers, korobi geisha who ‘tumbled’ for their guests, kido geisha played a shamisen, a three stringed musical instrument, to attract business and a joro (whore) geisha provided the sex. Women’s role in this form of entertainment during the era is not dissimilar to that of other pre-modern periods except that they earned a fee for their favours. Amongst the other changes open to women for a time were new avenues of entertainment. Pilbeam (1999) tells us that in the entertainment sphere kabuki theatre was founded by Okuni a well known female entertainer. She was originally sent to Kyoto to perform sacred dances and songs but around 1603 she began teaching acting, dancing and singing to a group of female outcasts, including those involved in prostitution. Folk dances were transformed onto another level by the sultriness, sexual innuendo and humour as Okuni performed with her female troupe in the open air. The women played both the male and female roles and continued their performances until 1629 when kabuki became a male dominated form of theatre and women were forbidden to perform.

Various redefinements of a society with its acceptance or tolerance of behaviours and adherence to particular values or codes are not restricted to one place or time in history but they can help identify the major influences shaping a group or individual. It is through political decisions, royal edicts, spiritual ideals and social practices that the changes to the lives of women in pre –modern Japan can be traced. Women of different backgrounds and classes understood their place in their world. Some were apparently content to accept their roles, or had little opportunity to change the path their lives took them, whilst others were in a position to use their situations to their advantage. They were able to negotiate relationships, pursue their ambitions in the world of politics, art or literature and change their destinies. Personal identity is often linked to gender as are social practices and experiences. From the female emperors, to the ladies of the Heian court, to the women in medieval Japan living as nuns, ladies-in-waiting, courtesans, wives or mothers, to those who were upper class samurai women and then to the geisha there were rules governing their behaviour, rights, privileges and duties. Some had roles that afforded them overt opportunities to influence a dynasty others a less obtrusive and more subtle means of bringing about changes to their own lives and that of those close to them.

Rice (2004) writes about the heroes of medieval Japan, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotami Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu as they were contemplating a bird sitting silently in a tree. Nobunaga, renowned for his cruelty, threatened to kill the bird if it didn’t sing. Hideyoshi, a man with a reputation as a charmer, said he would persuade the bird to sing and Ieyasu, the man who waited patiently until power was transferred to him, stated that he would wait until the bird sang. It may be this latter response which epitomises the attitudes of women in pre-modern Japan as they faced their responsibilities within the constraints of social and cultural structures.

A person’s place and status in society is dependent upon a number of factors. Political policies, access to education and employment and indeed one’s own attitude and aspirations can influence the opportunities and paths taken in life regardless of gender but if there are barriers because of gender the options may be less favourable and more challenging.

The selflessness and courage of Japanese women living in the pre-modern world may be epitomised in these words “From this very day, spring shoots from the mountain meadows that lie deep in snow are for you, that you yourself may yet enjoy long, long years” (Shikibu, c1000) Taken from the English translation by Tyler (2001) ‘Writing Practice’ in “The Tale of Gengi”, they were attributed to a young girl intent on withdrawing from the world and directed to a nun who was trying to cajole her back to the community. Women made major contributions to the civilizations that existed in Japan prior to 1850. They often spent the majority of their lives in the service of others and usually needed to abandon their own needs whist maintaining this sense of duty. The conditions of womanhood they experienced are somewhat universal, spanning the boundaries of time and place, selfless and inspirational.


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Haruko, W., & Gay, S. (1984) Marriage and Property in Pre-Modern Japan from the Perspective of Women’s History. Journal of Japanese Studies, 10(1),

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Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

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Port Melbourne, Australia: Pearson Education.



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