Feminism in Medieval Japan – A Short History of Women

Feminism and the history of Japanese women are crucial to chart. On the other hand, it is easy to guess that statements in the Edo period about women’s social status were common. This was throughout the classic and early contemporary era.

Yet in general, it is easy to see that women were submissive to males. They also had lesser privileges and access to powerful and authoritative positions. Yet even if this was the case, there were exceptions to the rule throughout times.

Women in Japan

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Studies about feminism in the ancient and modern times marks a few things. One was that social structure wasn’t only a class, it was also the gender roles.

The ideal social structure in the Edo period was different from a lot of class experiences. With that, the status of women didn’t completely convey how they actually lived. This only means that women’s social status was aggressive and it changed throughout time.

Throughout the centuries, rights and duties of women developed. This was due to the time wherein they lived, as well as the class they belonged to. For the wife of a Samurai, they usually had varying rights and duties than a peasant’s wife in a given period. Such rights included property inheritance, freedom of movement, and divorce.

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What was the Status of Women in Medieval Japan?

Throughout the course of the medieval era in Japan, the loss of feminism was even more rampant. In the earlier times, females served as rulers. Yet by the Heian era, they only had a few official and governmental roles.

For aristocratic women, they were lucky as they experienced education. They could also manage and own properties, as well as select their own heirs. It was common for married couples to live at the home of the wife’s family. Sometimes, they maintained two residences and the wife’s family would help raise children.

Female writers of the Heian period made some of the greatest prose and poetry of pre-modern Japan. However, conditions gradually started changing.

Were the Lives of Women in the Kamakura Period Better?

In the early Kamakura era, females from the Samurai families held Jito or private estates. Since violence became rampant, women were prohibited from holding and even managing these.

Also, land became more difficult to own and families started to pass on properties to one heir. Oftentimes, they chose the eldest son for this. For married women, they joined the family of their spouse.

Even in Buddhism, feminism did not have a lot of hope. Most Buddhist sects taught that women had more obstacles with wisdom compared to men. By the end of the medieval period, women were not able to keep most of the rights they had earlier.

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The Fujiwara and Feminism

Before the medieval era, the Fujiwara would marry daughters into the imperial family. This earned them more power and access in ruling authority. Aside from that, children formed ongoing connections for the clan.

If a daughter of an aristocratic family marries an emperor, their sons would be emperors as well. Thus, the children will have grandparents from the aristocratic family.

Aside from that, children formed ongoing connections of the clan. For instance, if a daughter of an aristocratic family marries an emperor, their sons would also be emperors. With that, the children will have grandparents from the aristocratic family.

The use of daughters to earn political power and economic advantage was constant. This continued in the medieval era and lasted until the early modern period.

During these times, the warrior class formed key alliances through marriage. This is was most common during the 16th century. It was the time when a lot of lords struggled with one another for military control of the nation.

Families married their daughters into other warrior families to confirm military arrangements. Warrior families also made agreements in these situations. Another strategy was to give a daughter or any other woman, from one family to another clan. It was to have them serve as some type of hostage for military or political end.  

This view of women in this period changed at some point since women Samurai existed. They were the Onna Bugeisha and they trained in martial arts. Warrior wives  used various types of weapons to defend their homes in the absence of their spouse.

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Marriage in Medieval Japan

From the late 12th century, marriage had great political value in the warrior class. In fact, this extended until the Sengoku era.

Forming familial ties and strategic political alliances were the purposes of marriage. Soon, Samurai warriors chose wives from a great distance. This was to strengthen and expand family connections.

Within the marriage, wives had to be capable of defending their home. They received the Kaiken or a dagger for those purposes.

Neo-Confucianism influenced marital practices of the Samurai class. This is something that is common in Yomeirikon or patrilocal traditions. Yomeirikon was a custom where a woman lived in her spouse’s home which is close to the man’s parents. This reflected the Confucian virtue of the duty of wives towards their groom.

How was Divorce in Ancient Japan?

During the Edo period, equality did not exist between married couples. Women did not have marital rights regarding divorce. Men, on the other hand, enjoyed a lot of freedom and privileges. They could immediately separate from their wives whereas wives could not.

When it comes to adultery, men were free to do commit this. They had rights to have an affair with concubines. But any woman who committed adultery would only face death.

Since wives had no legal ability to divorce their spouse, the only way out was to escape abuse. They would go to a Buddhist convent or refuge temples. These places were often called Kakekomidera and they provided safety for women. Under proper conditions, leaders of these places could issue women a legal divorce.

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Did Women of Medieval Japan Own Household Properties?

Properties were never divided among human constituents. Instead, these belonged to the household with a greater collective. This means that no one else could use the material goods for personal gain.

This condition preserved the continuity of the household for the next generations. Changes in inheritance law in the Edo period were dangerous to females. The head of the household, who was usually male, led and gave rules in the household. Inheritance through the male line of males in the family continued to grow.

With that, it only means that women from medieval Japan did not enjoy owning any properties. Feminism was not practiced on this part so women did not have any privileges when it came to properties.

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