The Roles and Statuses of Women In Premodern Japanese Society During The Period 0-800CE

It would be all too easy in this circumstance to exaggerate the position of women in premodern Japan, either to victimise or eulogise their role in society. This article will instead attempt to draw as true an image of their existence as is possible with our limited source materials. If we were instead investigating “the role and status of men” it would be immediately apparent that the people we were studying would hold a multitude of roles and statuses, the same is true for women. Thus, the answer to this question cannot be phrased succinctly; however, that does not mean it cannot be phrased distinctly. Ultimately, I conclude that women during this period did have a more equal role and status in society than they experienced in later periods. I highlight their essential roles within religion as the key contributor towards this, however, I observe that by the same token it was this very same religious role which limited their equality extending any further. I also recognise the multitude of contradictions and enigmas that arise when studying the source material surrounding this topic, and how this very factor highlights the great variation in the experiences Japanese women, which we must never homogenise.  

The Kojiki (711CE) and the Nihon Shoki (720CE) are two essential texts to look at when investigating premodern Japan, these being the two oldest surviving native chronicles of Japanese history and those that include the Japanese creation myth. Although the validity of their accounts is understandably disputed their value lies in that they portray the world-view of their creators. Thus, how the female figures in these stories are depicted will give us some insight into how contemporaneous women were regarded. With this in mind it should be noted that these texts come towards the end of our period of study and are affected by the politics of their day; as William Wayne Farris notes, the 8th century was a period in which the cultures of the continent were strongly influencing Japanese elites, many of whom were attempting to emulate continental norms, and the patriarchal systems they contained. In regards to gender, Confucian ideology was particularly influential due to its restrictive regulations surrounding family structure involving the “three obediences”, in which a woman is beholden to farther, husband, and son. Barbara Rossetti Ambros explains that as both of the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki were commissioned by the imperial court, how they discuss gender will invariably be affected by an elitist and partially continental ideological agenda. Indeed the introduction of Taihō Ritsuryō and Yōrō Ritsuryō in 702 and 718 respectively shows these influences as these codes began to introduce Confucian familial structures which included greater gender inequality. Adultery, for example, was a punishable offence for women, but not for men.

Accepting these caveats however, many of the women in these texts still possess roles and statuses of import, such as the sun goddess Amaterasu who is credited with establishing the imperial lineage and is a source of purity in contrast to her male counterpart Susano’o. Amaterasu is also described in multiple texts as assuming the traditional male role of the warrior when she fears that Susano’o will steal her lands. Helen Hardacre notes the strong parallels between this story and that of Empress Jingū (ruled 201–269CE) who assumed the role of the warrior to conquer Korea; Hardacre particularly notes how in both cases for this to happen the women have to physically assume ‘masculine attributes of hairstyle, battle dress, and weapons’. This is tied to the “yin-yang” notion of the two sexes needing one another to function. These women could not go into battle and remain fully female, without a man to act in that role for them they must become partially male themselves in order to fight. The Nihon Shoki describes the creator goddess Izanami as existing in a yin-yang state with her partner Izanagi, each needed for the other. The Kojiki, however, describes Izanami as being ‘formed insufficiently’ and marks her as a source of “pollution”, a trope often associated with the female at this time. This dichotomy between the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki denotes how the yin-yang relationship was not seen as one of balance at this time, like it is perceived today. Coming from the original Chinese definition, Yin was seen as female, and yang as male, and they were both needed for one another. However, yang was always considered to be more powerful and important than yin; yang being active and yin passive. Jingū and Amaterasu are also seen as inherently religious figures, their power and authority coming from their shamanistic connection to the divine which is ‘implicit in Amaterasu’s case and explicit in Jingū’s’. The theme of women wielding power via religion runs through this period.

This confusion over the status of female figures in Japanese society suggests there was no one consistent narrative over a “woman’s place”. Were they warriors or bystanders? Polluters or pure? This conforms well to the idea that Japan was beginning to undergo a period of flux in gender roles towards the end of this period as a result of continental influence. It is important to point out however that this was only the beginning of such changes in Japan and that the regulations prescribed by the Chinese-style codes were neither particularly obeyed or enforced up until the late medieval period (c.1300CE). There is good contemporary evidence that suggests women were practicing many things they were lawfully not supposed to be during this time such as holding property, not being subject to the “three obediences”, and rejecting partners if they wished. Indeed, with the influence of Marxism and then second wave feminism in Japan in the 1970s many Japanese gender historians have noted the relative freedom of premodern women.

One influential figure that gender historians often focus on for this period is the queen Himiko (sometimes called Pimiko), a precursor to Jingū, who is the first figure of any gender to be named in Japanese history. Himiko first appears in the Chinese text, the Wei Zhi (c. 297CE), which describes her ascension as one chosen by the people who were tired of male rulers ‘making chaos as they fought each other’. Additionally, the Wei Zhi describes ‘ensuing protests’ occurring after a male ruler was installed after Himiko’s death which were only quelled after Iyo, a 13-year-old girl, was installed on the throne. On the other side of this however, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki give no mention of Himiko whatsoever. As William George Aston remarks, the writers of those Japanese texts must have concertedly avoided writing about Himiko as it is known that they explicitly reference the Wei Zhi at other points in their writings and as such were aware of her existence. This aptly demonstrates the progression of attitudes towards women across this period in that when the Wei Zhi was written at c.300CE the Japanese people would not accept anyone other than a woman as their country’s leader and yet by c.700CE, when the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki are written, she is explicitly omitted from history. It is also possible that the Wei Zhi was unusually favourable toward Himiko and inflated the extent to which she was supported by her people because she accepted “Japan” (the province of Yamatai) to be a tributary state of the Wei.

Certainly, Himiko has been a figure of great debate; Takamure Itsue (1894-1964) saw Himiko as a remnant of an older matriarchal system which dated back to before 0CE wherein females were in control of the internal and religious sphere and males the external and political sphere. Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962) even went as far as to describe women as having a ‘spiritual monopoly’ over Japan. However, historians such as Yoshie Akiko have criticised this view, arguing that it is only in modern times that we have anachronistically imposed the idea that women were excluded from the external political environment onto the past. Indeed, I agree that it can be all too easy to create a reflection of the present in the past to justify a progression from then until now. What all agree on, however, is Himiko’s religious significance. Just as with Jingū and Amaterasu, Himiko takes on a shamanistic role, which we know much about from studying “Haniwa” sculptures.  She is described in the Wei Zhi as ‘skilled in the way of demons, keeping all under her spell’, which is meant in a more positive sense than first appears. Also, similarly to Jingū and Amaterasu, Himiko co-ruled with a man, and this is what most women in power did at this time: entered into a religious co-leadership with a man who would be known as a “saniwa”. Kawamura Kunimitsu explains how the saniwa would act as an interpreter for the female shaman who would commune with the gods. This is again exemplary of a yin-yang relationship in which the two halves need each other but the male is more powerful than the female, as he is the one who actively interprets. So, although women were essential to religious-governance decisions, they were not equal partners in formulating them.

In terms of the roles and statuses of the common women of this era we have less information, as is to be expected. What is clear from the Wei Zhi accounts is that women and men were segregated in many instances. The genders were split into separate rooms in the house, only coming together at certain points. However, the Wei Zhi does note that when gathered the people showed ‘no distinction’ between men and women. In work women and men were also separated, the males being workers of agriculture and the females of sericulture. Although this meant the women’s work was certainly valuable, it was still a more passive role than the male one. Overall the Wei Zhi suggests the average woman led a relatively liberated life, however we must remember that this is all comparative to the especially restrictive Chinese state and as such may only appear positive by comparison. It was true, for example, that women could be enslaved as punishment for their husband’s deeds, which was not the case the other way around.

Ultimately it is evident that the women of this period did hold roles and statuses which exceeded those of their future sisters in the medieval period. This was due to their religious role which garnered them a certain level of respect, however, it was precisely due to this imbalanced yin-yang relationship that they never came to a greater level of equality during this period. Towards the end of our period the patriarchal influence of the continent becomes more pronounced and we can see the beginnings of how gender relations began to change. Nonetheless, we must never lose sight of the fact that each woman will have had her own unique experience of role and status and that we can never account for all the anomalies now lost to history.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 16th of April 2018

Last Modified: 16th of April 2018

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