Women and Women's Communities in Ancient Japan

The history of . . .
women in ancient Japan is, like so much else in early Japanese history, filled with missing parts. We know very little about Japan before the advent of writing, so piecing together women's lives and contributions to early Japanese history is as difficult as piecing together the lives and histories of the early Japanese. In the Nara and Heian periods, we are fortunate to have a well-developed, thriving, literate community of women both surrounding the court of the emperor as well as in the lesser courts of regional governors. This picture, however, is as distorted as our picture of Japanese society during the Heian period: we are limited entirely to the upper classes, their lives, and their values. The experience and values of women and women's communities for the vast majority of ancient Japanese is simply unavailable to us; just as we can barely figure out the culture and world views of the everyday ancient Japanese, so we cannot even guess the nature of women's communities and the roles that women played in rural and village communities and economies.

Women Before the Nara Period    In the first mention of Japan in Chinese history—the Chinese called Japan, "Wa"—there is a fairly brief discussion of Japanese women. The Chinese writers claim that there is no social distinction between men and women and remarks that there have even been women rulers in Japan. The history also claims that women served as religious shamans and regularly participated in ceremonials. Its difficult, however, to extrapolate from this Chinese history to the reality that the Chinese encountered. First, the Chinese are attempting in their description of "Wa" to define the Japanese as backward; in this same history, they talk about Japanese lack of decorum. Is their discussion of women an accurate representation or is it simply a fiction designed to show that the Japanese are less socially stratified—and hence less civilized—than the Chinese? For instance, in the same history, the writers claim that the Japanese also practice polygyny, or the marriage of more than one wife. Nobility, they claim, marry upwards of five women while commoners typically have two or three wives. Is polygyny compatible with female equality? Does a culture that allows men to marry more than one woman, but not vice versa, a culture which does not stratify people based on gender? Does a woman who is a second, third, or fourth wife feel that she is equal to her husband? Besides this, all evidence we have indicates that the individual clans, or uji , were ruled by men.

   The Shinto religion provides some clues to early Japanese society, but they are fleeting and somewhat hallucinatory. Because so much foreign material, particularly South Asian and Chinese religious practices, have accumulated on top of Shinto, its difficult to sort out original Shinto from its hybrid descendants. The cult of Amaterasu, the creator goddess, suggests that Shinto before Buddhism was a strongly matriarchal relgion in a strongly patriarchal culture. While most religions, including Hebraism and Chinese religions, have their origins in goddess religions, Shinto is one of the few religions in a patriarchal culture that did not abandon the overall form of a matriarchal religion. This suggests that female shamanism was highly likely in Japan before the advent of Buddhism, although there is no physical evidence for it (nor is there evidence for male shamanism, either—there is only evidence for Shinto shamanism).

One can conclude little or nothing about the status of women in early Japan from the haniwa figurines from the tumuli period. The only distinguishing feature between most figurines labelled as male and those labelled as female are that the male figurines represent some economic function while the "female" figurines are more abstract. These are more likely modern impositions; figurines representing hunters or othe economic functions could very well be female figurines, though we naturally assume, from our own modern perspective, that they're male.

   In the early centuries AD, the Japanese ruling classes became powerful enough to build large tomb-mounds, called tumuli (this is Latin, in Japanese, they're called kofun ). The best picture we have of early Japanese life is afforded by the small clay figurines, called haniwa that were deposited in these tumuli. Their nature or purpose is unknown. Are they magic? Departing gifts? Needless to say, they provide a valuable picture of early Japanese life, particularly the haniwa of houses. The figurines also represent men and women, and the earliest haniwa do not make a clear distinction between men and women. However, as haniwa artists developed their art, the human figurines became more differentiated and far more male figurines are produced than female figurines. The male figurines are highly differentiated—many of them represent clear occupations, such as farmer, hunters, or farmers. The female haniwa , however, tend to remain undifferentiated, which implies that in the early Japanese imagination, women do not occupy a range of economic activities. This was probably not the reality. In all cultures, women occupy a huge variety of economic functions but are often culturally imagined as occupying a small range of occupations or existing outside the economic sphere. The development of haniwa suggest that the early Japanese did not strongly differentiate men from women in the earliest AD centuries, but slowly developed a cultural imagination that configured men in a variety of concrete social functions while limiting women to abstract or socially non-representational roles.

Nara Women    By the Nara period, writing in Japan had become common in the upper classes, but writing and literature was largely in Chinese and dominated by men. In the early eighth century, the emperor's court ordered a series of fudoki , or geographical descriptions, to be drawn up describing each region. These fudoki give us a tremendous picture of the overall layout of early Japan, but contain little or nothing about everyday life or about women. The only pictures we have, however, of Japanese not in the upper classes are from these fudoki and the portrait they draw implies that economic functions were divided among everyday Japanese according to gender but that the family was more or less egalitarian.

   Court life, however, seemed a different matter. While the Chinese histories talk about an Empress Himiko in the second century A.D., the only comparable figure in the Nara period or slightly before was Empress Suiko (reigned 592-628 A.D.) a few decades before the Nara period. Even so, she handed the business of running the government over to her son, Prince Mumayado, who took the title Shotoku. Still, she made important decisions, such as declaring war against Silla, a kingdom in Korea.

   While we know little of early Shinto and women's roles in the religion, the introduction of Buddhism certainly introduced a pervasive and dramatic gender inequality in religious life. In the Buddhism imported from China, women were deeply mistrusted; many Buddhists believed that salvation was out of the question for women. The Buddhist monastic communities were entirely male and Buddhist monks only accepted males as their students. The only Buddhist life available to women was that of seclusion as a nun; such a life, however, deprived the female aspirant of the human community that is the cornerstone of Buddhist life and philosophy. We don't know how women specifically responded to Buddhism and its pronounced gender inequality; the women of the Heian period, however, would forge a distinctly separate Buddhist community and understanding.

Ancient Japan
The Flowering of Early Japanese Literature
Japan Glossary
   Literary activity in the late Yamato and Nara periods is overwhelmingly dominated by men. Even though the late Heian and medieval Japanese colllections of poetry would be significantly represented, if not dominated outright, by women, the Manyoshu is depressingly bare of female poets. This, for the kokugakushu (Japanese or Nativist scholars) of the Tokugawa period, would be the sterling highlight of the Manyoshu collection. For the Tokugawa kokugakushu , the poetry of the Manyoshu represented a poetic style they called "manly" (masuraoburi ) as opposed to the "femininity" (tawayameburi ) of the later collections, such as the Heian Kokinshu ). This opinion came to be adopted in Japanese literary history from the Tokugawa period onwards and was inherited by Western literary scholars as well. To this day, most Japanese and Western literary scholars consider the Manyoshu to be Japan's greatest collection of poetry. However, through most of Japanese literary history, the "feminine" collections of poetry were considered the great literature of Japan.

Heian Women    In magnificent opposition to the paucity of material on Nara women, the Heian period represents a virtual window into the lives, both material and interior, of the court women of ancient Japan. Not only are women discussed extensively in literature and history, but they overwhelmingly own the literary landscape of the Heian period. While there are significant and magnificent male writers, the great literature of the Heian period was written by women: poetry, tales, and literary diaries. More importantly than anything else, these literary works focus ruthlessly on the interior life of their characters, whether they're male of female. Because of the relentless interior focus, we have a better idea about the subjective life of women and the subjective experience of gender by both men and women in ancient Japan than we do any other culture before the modern period.

   Despite this, we know little of women's lives outside the upper classes. At most, only a couple thousand individuals belonged to the upper classes in some respect. Outside the imperial court, the upper classes moved in very small numbers in relative isolation. Even though we have access to the subjective experience of women in a way unprecedented for early cultures, we are still only accessing the barest of minorities.

   Of all the literary forms that were dominated by women in the Heian period, including poetry and the novel, the most important for understanding women's communities, experience, and place in society are the nikki, or literary diaries. These are not diaries in our sense of the word, that is, daily accounts of one's thoughts and life, but rather literary in nature and intended for distribution. They are, in fact, closer to our idea of an autobiography. They're composed after the events with a strong sense of how events contribute to a final outcome. Since they're intended for distribution, it's unclear how much of these diaries represent the literal truth and how much of these diaries are fictional. In literary studies, the process of presenting an artificial version of yourself is called self-fashioning, and these diaries are usually more works of self-fashioning then straight autobiography. Keep in mind that self-fashioning is not about lying about yourself: it's a combination of telling the truth, selectively telling the truth, adopting a pose, and lying outright.

   No two nikki are alike; the situations described by each woman and their response to them all run a rich gamut of experience and understanding. For this reason, there's no other way to present them except one by one. Cumulatively they give a portrait of female life and women's communities across all ages and all roles, from youth to old age, from courtesan to grieving mother.

   The Gossamer Years (Kagero Nikki). No other Heian diary explores the subjective experience of a women's relationship with her husband than The Gossamer Years , which details the unhappy life of an upper class woman married to Fujiwara no Kaneie (929-990). The author, whose name we don't know since women were rarely if ever referred to by their names in Heian court culture, is simply known as the Mother of Michitsuna and lived from 936 to 995. The diary is less of an account of the marriage then an account of her own bitterness and unhappiness in what was probably a typical upper class Heian marriage.

   The Mother of Michitsuna considered herself in her diary to be unexceptional in intelligence and looks (though others contemporary with her claim the opposite). The diary begins with her love affair as a teenager with Kaneie and ends twenty years later. She not only suffered from his repeated absences, but bitterly resented his affairs with other women which he, as other Heian nobles, carried out openly and frequently. While male critics tend to emphasize that the Mother of Michitsuna is her own worst enemy, the diary chronicles the sheer loneliness of an upper class woman in a standard marriage. The Mother of Michitsuna is well aware of romances and love stories circulating in the court and chronicles how the fiction of the time does not correspond to the reality. For the reality of life for most married upper class women was loneliness; the cult of love in Heian Japan stressed extra-marital affairs and the sheer tedium of a cloistered life amplified the resentment towards one's spouse.

   The Sarashina Diary (Sarashina Nikki). In distinction to the lonely and bitter interior life chronicled by the Mother of Michitsuna, the writer of the Sarashina diary chronicles a young life consumed by romances and their fanciful plots. The author tells of a life from the age of twelve (1020 A.D.) to middle age that spans her home life to her service at court. This life, however, is spent reading monogatari , or tales, most of which are romances. Her whole life in the narrative goes by in a whirl of romance stories; she seems to have spent every hour of every day reading them. Of all the tales she reads, the one that most consumes her is The Tale of Genji ; she imagines herself to be the character Ukifune in that novel—this character suffers tragically from love. She doesn't seem to have been bothered by men at all; most court diaries tell of strings of males and their unwanted attentions.

   Aside from the whirl of romance stories, the diary faithfully accounts enormous numbers of dreams the author had. The world she lives in is, quite literally, a world of dreams and fictions. The author, however, is aware of this and the diary is meant to be a tale of religious conversion. She eventually learns the disparity between reality and dreams and, through this, learns the truths about Buddhism. The diary, then, is meant to be a warning about the perils and seductions of the world.

   Even though the diary has a specific argument, it gives us a valuable insight into the subjective experience of gender among upper class women. For the most part, diary writers see little contrast between the monogatari circulating at court and their own lives of adventure in the court. The Sarashina Diary , along with The Gossamer Years , however, draws a dramatically different picture. Both writers turn to the monogotari as refuges from the world: the Mother of Michitsuna turns to them to relieve her ponderous boredom and sadness and the author of the Sarashina Nikki turns to them as the sole basis of her identity. For both writers, these monogotari , which were at the heart of women's culture in the Heian period, are seen as precipitating disappointment and sadness.

   The Izumi Shikibu Diary (Izumi Shikibu Nikki). The tone and purpose of Izumi Shikibu's autobiography couldn't be farther from The Gossamer Years or the Sarashina Nikki . Izumi Shikibu was a famous author in her own time and notorious for her affairs. The diary is more similar to the monogotari : it chronicles a romance beween the author and Prince Atsumichi in the year 1003. Eventually, Atsumichi installed her in his own household, but the diary emphasizes the sadness of the affair. More than anything else, the Izumi Shikibu Nikki shows how powerfully fiction and fictional narrative could be translated into everyday life and understanding. For Izumi Shikibu, the romances provided a model for living and understanding gender relations; for the Mother of Michitsuna and the author of the Sarashina Nikki , these romances were a source of unreality and unahappiness.

   The Murasaki Shikibu Diaray (Murasaki Shikibu Nikki). The two best accounts that we have of women's communities in Heian Japan are Murasaki Shikibu's diary and Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book > The Murasaki Shikibu Nikki , written by the same author of The Tale of Genji , considered to be Japan's greatest work of literature, also is rich in the subjective experience of gender relations in the Heian court.

   As in the novel, the life in the Murasaki Shikibu Nikki centers around beauty and courtliness. However, unlike the characters in the Genji , the male courtiers she describes are drunken and gluttonous. While the Genji men are courtly, the men in the imperial court she moved in were clumsy and loutish. Rather than sending love poetry, they make lewd jokes; rather than gracefully seducing, they drunkenly mash women and pull up their skirts while singing dirty songs.

   Even though she was a famous figure in her time, the portrait she draws of women's communities shows she felt little support or love from the women surrounding her. The most frequent fear in court is gossip, by both men and women, and Murasaki Shikibu describes most of her relationships with women as rival relationships. She herself claims to be unbearably lonely simply because she can't find companionship at her level. While she is close to the empress Saisho, the women's community that she describes is standoffish and hostile. In part, this was due to her own standoffishness, for which she was famous, but it was also a part of the women's community at the Heian court since it was composed of a diversity of women from a diversity of ranks and backgrounds.

   The Poems of the Mother of the Ajari Jojin (Jojin Ajari Haha no Shu). We end this survey with a diary chronicling the last years of a woman's life, a collection (Japanese: shu ) of poems and narratives describing their composition by an eighty year old woman in 1071. The diary tells us of the great-granddaughter of the Emperor Daigo, which makes the author the highest ranking Heian woman writer that we know of.

   However, like the Mother of Michitsuna, the Mother of the Ajari Jojin chronicles what she feels is the most unhappy life ever lived. While the Mother of Michitsuna suffered over the loneliness of her unhappy marriage, the Mother of the Ajari Jojin tells of suffering wrought by an ungrateful son. She writes in her diary that her old age was made bearable after the death of her husband with a dream that her two sons would be at her death-bed reading holy sutras. When her son, Jojin, went to China to study Tendai Buddhism, she becomes consumed by her grief, hurt and disappointment.

   Like all the diaries that preceded it, the Jojin Ajari Haha no Shu , is the story of loneliness and disappointment. The loneliness, however, is that of age and abandonment. Throughout the narrative, the theme is the nature of the relationship between mother and son. The Mother of Ajari Jojin explores all the ramifications of that relationship from birth to death and the inevitable bitterness and disappointment that relationship entails. Like the Mother of Michitsuna, the Mother of Ajari Jojin has to come to terms with male abandonment and, like the Mother of Michitsuna, finds no answers in literature or religion.

Heian Women's Buddhism    While the introduction of Buddhism irrevocably altered the Japanese religious, literary, and visual imagination, it also irrevocably installed a pervasive gender inequality. For the Buddhism that the Japanese imported from China ruthlessly separated the sexes; it's not unfair to say that Buddhism in its earliest forms is overwhelmingly male-centered. As with the Chinese, Japanese Buddhists excluded women from most of Buddhist life, including the monasteries, the priesthood, and rituals. Heian court women, however, forged their own unique Buddhist practices within this atmosphere, including the worship of Fugen and the spread of Amidism.


   It's unquestionable that women's religious life centered on the bodhisattva, Fugen, and the Lotus Sutra. Of all the Buddhist sutras, the only one that specifically addresses the salvation of women is the Lotus Sutra, so Japanese court women centered their religious life around that sutra. Among the bodhisattvas, each of which can be adopted as a personal deity, Fugen held a special place for women because he was the protector of devotees of the Lotus Sutra. By extension, then, he was imagined to be the protector and personal deity of women. Among the most popular Buddhist art, then, were representations of Fugen; it's quite possible that no woman's chamber or woman's community in the Heian courts was devoid of such a representation.

   The introduction of Amidism did not immediately result in its furious spread, as it did in medieval Japan. The unique aspect of Amida or Pure Land Buddhism is that it is an explicitly salvation religion; by devoting oneself to the Amida Buddha, one gains entrance into the Land of Pure Bliss at one's death. Amidism became very popular in the upper classes and representations of the Amida coming for one's soul after death were a popular visual genre in Heian Japan. Women were integral in the spread of Amidism in the upper classes; because all other forms of Buddhism put up significant obstacles in a woman's religious life, the exoteric or democratic nature of Amidism offered access to religion and salvation—an access that esoteric Buddhism did not offer.

Richard Hooker

Ancient Japan

World Cultures

©1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999