Tag Archives: edo period

Musings VII: On Monkeys in Japanese Culture.

Story: Three in the Morning, Four in the Evening.

In the times of the Song Dynasty[i] in China lived a man they called Sokō, which means monkey trainer. He loved monkeys and reared a whole horde of them at his house. Sokō understood the monkey’s minds quite well, and likewise the monkeys understood their master. He even reduced the number of inhabitants in his household in order to fulfill the monkeys’ wishes. But nevertheless, soon the food was almost gone.

Sokō was about to ration the food, but he feared the monkeys would not obey him. Thus he deceived them. First he said: “I will feed you chestnuts; three now, in the morning, and four when night comes. That may be enough.” Now the horde rose outraged, so quickly he said: “I will feed you chestnuts, four now, in the morning, and three when night comes. That may be enough.” So all the monkeys threw themselves happily at his feet.[ii]

The baffling monkey

monkeys arashiyama park family

Japanese macaques in Arashiyama Monkey Park, Kyôto. Picture taken by me.

There is one thing which bugs me about monkeys in Japan: the paradoxical way they are portrayed. In some stories, like the Chinese one above, monkeys are stupid and easily led by those smarter than they are. In other contexts, such as the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is characterized as clever. There are tales of lustful ape deities who demand human sacrifice, and at the same time, monkeys are believed to exorcise evil influences. There are even gods whose avatar and messenger is a monkey.  And lastly, monkeys can be funny. So, what does the monkey signify?


Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney postulates: “the monkey has sensitively expressed the changing notion of the self and other in Japanese culture; thus, by tracing the meanings of the monkey, we are able to trace the transformations of the Japanese structure of thought.”[iii] That may seem farfetched, but let’s run with it for the moment, and consider the aspects.

Monkey context: Hanuman and Sun Wukong


Hanuman India ape god

Hanuman. Source

The Japanese word saru (猿), usually translated as ‘monkey’, may be as specific an animal as the Japanese macaque,[iv] or be used as a vague catch-it-all term for monkeys. Being the only monkey indigenous to Japan, Japanese macaques inhabit forested mountains everywhere on the Archipelago except Hokkaido.[v] Half-domesticated monkeys close to human dwellings and wild ones in deeper recesses of the mountains may have behaved quite differently and contributed to the ambiguous image. In addition, tales and images of other monkey and ape species came to Japan via India and China.


In media, “the monkey is portrayed initially as foolish, vain, and mischievous [but he] learns valuable lessons along the way, makes changes, and eventually gains redemption”.[vi]

An early example of this is the Hindu deity Hanuman, who initially was stupid enough to interpret the sun as a fruit he could eat, and vain enough to attempt to grab it. In addition, he liked playing tricks on people. Thus he was punished, made to forget his powers until reminded of them. Only when he redeemed himself through good deeds he was forgiven and his powers restored.[vii]


Likewise, the ancient Chinese epic Journey to the West tells of Sun Wukong (Son Gokū), “a mischievous demigod obsessed with desires”[viii] who even aspires to the throne of heaven. Like Hanuman, he is punished and does good deeds until he reaches redemption. An interesting detail: “Sun Wukong is always clothed and depicted in clearly anthropomorphic poses.”[ix] Why might that be?

The monkey as metaphor

Sun Wukong Son Goku monkey deity rabbit

Sun Wukong as depicted by woodblock artist Yoshitoshi, 1889. Source

Let’s return Japanese macaques for a moment. They live in hordes and thus are social creatures, which makes them “an apt metaphor for humans”[x], especially in the rather group-based society of Japan. If one reads the tale of Sun Wukong in a similar fashion, “each stage of [the m]onkey‘s mythological journey may serve as an elaborate allegory for the evolution of the human mind.”[xi] In this vein, the monkey as a symbol was taken up by Buddhism.

To reach enlightenment, one has to overcome earthly desires. The state of confusion and greed associated with the unenlightened mind is called shin’en 心猿, “monkey mind”.[xii] Thus the stupid, greedy, vain monkey represents a stage humans need to leave behind in their journey to enlightenment. In the stories of ancient China, one encounters “the legendary ape figure characterized by animal instincts and portrayed as an abductor of women and a lustful creature”[xiii] – a sort of ancient Chinese King Kong, perhaps? Sun Wukong also had his lustful moments early in his career, for example allowing a female demon to charm him just out of sexual curiosity.[xiv]

However, the monkey cannot be simply read as a metaphor for human weakness and earthly desires. Remember the ending of the stories about divine monkeys, Hanuman and Sun Wukong? They did not stop being monkeys as their character changed. So, there must be more to this image.

Japan: monkeys as gods and divine messengers

As a result of the various influences on Japanese culture, the image of the monkey in Japan is multi-faceted. Although there are some tales of evil monkey deities who demand virgin girls as human sacrifice, mostly the image is a positive one. Monkeys serve as messengers and intermediaries between Shintō gods and humanity.[xv] The Shintō god of Mt. Hiei, Sanō, for example, has a monkey as both messenger and avatar.

Kyoto imperial palace kimon northeast corner

The non-corner of Kyôto Imperial Palace, sarugatsuji. Source

Moreover, since saru 猿is also a homonym for 去る, which means ‘to expell‘, it came to be believed that monkeys could drive out evil influences. This can be seen in conjunction with Chinese geomancy (Feng Shui) in the layout of the old imperial palace in Kyōto. Like the city itself, the palace is built according to the cardinal directions, which means one of ist corners faces Northeast. Northeast, however, was believed to be kimon 鬼門, the ‚demon gate‘, the direction from where evil influences could enter.[xvi] Thus, the circumference wall of the palace grounds was indented at the northeast corner. (SO there is no actual kimon. In addition, under its eaves was placed a statue of a monkey holding a Shintō staff used for purification rituals, to ward off evil influences. Hence it is called sarugatsuji 猿が辻 (the monkey’s crossing).

The same idea of purification and healing, in addition to their reputation as lustful, probably caused the association of monkeys with fertility, defense against smallpox, and safe childbirth. Also, monkeys are considered protectors of horses, and carved images of monkeys are sometimes found around old stables, the most prominent example being the Three Monkeys (Don’t See, Don’t Hear, Don’t Speak) at Toshōgu Shrine[xvii] in Nikko.[xviii] Later these Three Monkeys came to be associated with the Kōshin belief.

Monkeys as scapegoats: The migawari-zaru of Nara

Scape-apes ;). https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/21/33097347_25b511f84d_b.jpg

Scape-apes ;). Source

According to the Chinese calendar, the 57th day in a 60-day cycle and the same year in a 60-year calendar, Kōshin 庚申, was particularly ominous. In Kōshin nights, three worms living in a person’s body would ascend to heaven while the person slept, and report on their sins. One possible countermeasure was to simply stay awake that night, also known as kōshin machi: the Kōshin wake. Alternatively, the people of Nara identified the god being reported to as Kōshin-san, whose messenger was a monkey. Therefore, if they tied little monkey-shaped charms to the eaves of their houses before Kōshin nights, they were safe: “the monkey (Koushin’s messenger) is punished instead.”[xix] Again the monkey represents humans as fallible, sinful beings, while at the same time playing an angelic role as divine messenger. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

Comic monkeys

Last semester in my early modern Japanese class, we translated a couple of stories from the Seisuishō 醒睡笑, a collection of humourous tales compiled by monk Anrakuan Sakuden in the early 17th century. It was the way the monkey appeared as a symbol in these funny stories which finally gave me the clue to a possible common denominator of the monkey images in Japanese culture. So, I will give you my translation of the two stories I worked on and my idea what may be the baseline of monkey symbolism in Japan.

Story: If monkey faces resemble the lord

Once lived a lord with an unusually emaciated body and dark skin. He called his most trusted retainer to him, told him to sit opposite his lord, and asked: “I have heard that everyone says my face looks like that of a monkey. Say, is this true or a lie?”

The retainer listened attentively and said: “I am honoured by your trust, my lord, to be asked this question. But who would dare say such a thing? No, people only say that the faces of monkeys resemble your own.“

When the lord heard this, he said “Well spoken. Then it must be as you say“, without the slightest indignation. In such cases, when a lord completely misunderstands their brazen words, the common people tend to say “The Lord has big ears [like a monkey]!”: He hears everything, but does nothing.

Interpretation: The monkey as Self and Other

baby monkey glasses face funny

Yes, my lord? Source

As a reason for the negative aspects of the monkey’s image, Ohnuki-Tierney suggests a form of Othering. “[S]eeing a disconcerting likeness between themselves and the monkey, the Japanese also attempt to create distance by projecting their negative side onto the monkey and turning it into a scapegoat, a laughable animal who in vain imitates humans.”[xx] In other words, it is once again human weakness, hubris, and stupidity which the monkey represents. This becomes clear in the story above, where the lord is only ‘aping’ (sarumane 猿真似 in Japanese) a ruler’s style, without understanding the situation. He does not just resemble a monkey outwardly; his stupidity and self-deluding vanity recall the characters of Hanuman and Sun Wukong before their transformation.

Already in the Man’yōshū, an ancient collection of Japanese poetry, monkeys represent ugliness.[xxi] But more than ugly, a stupid leader is dangerous for his subjects as well, as another Chinese fable featuring monkeys, 井中撈月, details. In this story, the chief monkey decides to try and grab the moon reflected in a still pool. Following his orders, the monkeys grab each others tails and form a chain from the tree branch toward the water surface, until the bough breaks under their weight and they all drown.

The stupid, ugly lord failing in his job is a comical character because he is such an average human being. The general populace can recognize such a character as one of themselves, and laugh about the familiarity – despite the hint of danger an incapable lord brings. In contrast, the next story is set in a Buddhist temple, quite removed from the life of common people.

Story: A monkey-like acolyte climbs a tree

One day, the poet Sōchō visited Kasadera temple. As he was strolling on the temple grounds, he saw a chigo, a boy acolyte, dexterously climb into a treetop. He composed the opening verse of a poem:

             The acolyte climbs

            up the tree as skillfully

            as a monkey’s child

The acolyte answered with a closing verse:

            Since a useless monk draws near

            to bark at him in fury.

Interpretation: The boy’s ambiguous monkey mind

As I mentioned above, in order to reach Buddhist enlightenment, it is necessary to overcome the restless, greedy thoughts which characterize the ‘monkey mind‘. It is fitting, then, to compare a young acolyte to a monkey, even more so if he climbs a tree to escape his studies. However, the acolyte’s answer displays the cleverness characteristic of the Taoist zodiac sign of the monkey.[xxii]

dog monkey idiom japanese

“Like Dogs and Monkeys”. Source

In his verse, the acolyte takes up the comparison of himself to a monkey, but turns it around. By casting the pursuing priest as a dog, he alludes to the saying “a relationship like dogs and monkeys” (ken’en no naka, 犬猿の仲), thus portraying himself as the clever monkey who solves a problem with intellect (hiding), whereas the wild dog (the priest) can only resort to violence (shouting at him).

The monkey as trickster

Such a twist in the meaning of an image between the first and the second verse was a typical feature of linked-verse poetry. Therefore, the acolyte shows off not only his wit but his learning. However, here he falls back into the trap of monkey vanity, the flaw of young Hanuman and Sun Wukong. Arrogantly he dares to pitch a verse to an actual poet while he is a mere novice, and looks down on the very monks he learned his skill from, by comparing them to dogs. So, is he clever or is he stupid and vain? Well, both, of course.

The acolyte is overestimating his own ability; he tries to act and appear very clever but fails, as the lord in the previous story did. Firstly, hiding in a tree is not of much use if you engage in clearly audible poetry contests. Secondly, by making up his clever verse, the acolyte accidentally admits to running away from his studies and/or evading punishment. In this way, he fits Ohnuki-Tierneys definition of the monkey “as a trickster, […] who uses his wits in an attempt to outsmart others”, in order “to achieve beyond [his] capacity [or] ascribed status”.[xxiii] But ultimately, as the lord above, this ‘aping’ of his betters has to fail.

Conclusion: the monkey as human

So, back to the categorization of the story as comedy. The acolyte’s reply is funny, but why? It is because the punchline is based on the ambiguity of the monkey image, which the acolyte uses to turn its meaning around. Humor is usually based on either an unexpected, surprising turn, or the recognition of ourselves. The acolyte’s answer is such a surprising turn, and in his attempt to evade an unpleasant situation, as well as in his desire to show off his skill, we can recognize ourselves.

monkey mobile phone bath hot spring

No whatsapping in the bath, please. Source

Thus, the monkey as a symbol is ambiguous because it represents humans. The Indian and Chinese monkey deities first display human weakness, then repent and redeem themselves to a level of greatness or sainthood which is the other end of the spectrum of human ability. The Japanese monkey symbolism has absorbed these stories as well as indigenous myths of monkey gods and divine messengers and created a deeply ambiguous image. This image, in turn, is very appropriate for comic use because of its ambiguity. Be it an ugly, stupid lord unfit for rule, or a self-important acolyte skilled in poetry, what we laugh about in these stories is the humanity of its protagonists. And the monkey is the symbol for this multi-faceted humanity.

Notes and References

[i] http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song  

[ii] The Chinese story朝三暮四, read in premodern Japanese and translated by me. A different version, with historical commentary, can be found here http://chinese-story-collection.blogspot.de/2010/09/three-in-morning-and-four-in-evening.html

[iii]Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Monkey as Mirror. Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual. Princeton UP, 1987, p.74.

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_macaque

[v] „Saru“ in Nihon Hyakka Daijiten日本百科大辞典, Tōkyō, 1919. Vol.3, p.945-6.

[vi] Schumacher, Mark. „Monkey in Japan“, in A to Z Photo Dictionary: Japanese Buddhist Statuary. Gods, Goddesses, Shinto Kami, Creatures and Demons. Available online via  http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/monkey-saru-koushin.html, last access 22.08.2016, 13:22; p.2.

[vii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.2.

[viii] Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone. Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and Journey to the West. Durham & London: Duke UP, 1992, p.224.

[ix] Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art. A Guide to Motifs and Imagery. Tōkyō, Rutland, Singapore: Tuttle, 2008, p.137.

[x] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.24.

[xi] Wang 1992, p.241.

[xii] “Monkey in Japan”, p.2.

[xiii] Wang 1992, p.222.

[xiv] Wang 1992, p.225-7.

[xv] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6

[xvi] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xvii] For tourist info, see http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3801.html

[xviii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xix] Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xx] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6.

[xxi] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.53.

[xxii] Welch 2008, p.137; „The Monkey“. http://www.chinese-astrology.co.uk/monkey.html, last access 24.08.2016, 11:36.

[xxiii] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.54, 58

Ukiyo-e and the Importance of Eyebrows

Ukiyo-e, manga’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother, gives us a window on the Edo Period of Japan. Four-hundred years in the future, our descendants may look upon today’s manga as we do ukiyo-e. That’s something to think about!

Ukiyo-e, Merchants, and the Red Light District

Early woodblock by Hishikawa Moronobu,

Early woodblock by Hishikawa Moronobu,

Ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, used carved wooden blocks to print images on paper. Their inexpensive price and mass production made them the fashion magazines, pin-ups, sex guides, flyers, advertising, and manga of Japan between 1615 and 1868. Ukiyo-e translates to “images of the floating world.” Ukiyo in Japanese Buddhism meant either “sad world” or “floating world” and referred to the troubling, suffering state of humanity. The pleasure districts of the Edo Period represented a slice of suffering and a reprieve from it at the same time (Fleming, 1985). These districts offered everything from gambling and prostitution to teahouses with their cultured geisha. Theaters hosted kabuki and popular puppet shows. These districts were walled off from the rest of the city and lit with red lanterns, literal red light districts. They became centers for dance, fashion, and music. Prostitution and gambling were regulated by the Shogunate, the central government. The regulation allowed families mired in debt to legally sell their female members to the districts so they could work off family debt. Women could also be sentenced to work in the districts. Few courtesans could pay off her debt and become independently wealthy. Geisha–who shouldn’t be confused with prostitutes– provided a better chance. However, both geisha and high-end courtesans were expected to be educated. For many women, this was the only way to access education.

Ukiyo-e also became the primary way for the merchant class to be heard. During this period, merchants threatened the samurai class. Merchants controlled more wealth than the samurai class. This threatened the Shogunate. In response, the Shogunate shuffled Japan’s social hierarchy and placed merchants near the bottom, stripping the class of political power and safeguarding the samurai from their influence. Without official political channels to put wealth into, merchants began to channel their wealth into theater, music, and art–places where they could still be equal to the upper classes. Ukiyo-e became their “in” with the samurai and other classes. The inexpensive production method and affordability allowed merchants to direct taste in fashion, culture, entertainment, and more (Library of Congress, n.d.).


Katsushika Hokusai. c. 1834. Poenies and Canary

Ukiyo-e artists embraced the pop culture of the time. Geisha, courtesans, and kabuki actors were common subjects.  These were the Edo Period version of headshot photography. Called bijin-ga, or beauty portraits, these prints appeared in guidebooks, books on etiquette, and as advertisements (Munro, 2008). Many prints acted as advertising or pin-ups. Later ukiyo-e took to portraying tourist locations around Edo and other landscapes. Ukiyo-e were printed in single sheets and compiled into books call ehon  (Library of Congress, n.d.).

Censoring Ukiyo-e

ukiyo-3-suzuki_harunobu-geese_descending_on_the_koto_bridges__kotoji_rakugan-1769-1600x686The Shogunate wasn’t ignorant of the power ukiyo-e had for conveying ideas. They imposed strict regulations as to what could be printed. The court forbade publishing anything of “political subversion, sexual and social [im]propriety and excessive luxuriance contrary to the frugal spirit of Neo-Confucian morality” (Thompson, 1991). In 1804, the Shogunate tried several artists, writers, and publishers for their representation of the 16th century general Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi was the guy who decided to regulate and separate prostitution and gambling from the rest of Edo. He wanted these districts to be a place for merchants to blow their money and reduce their hold on the samurai class. Many samurai were in debt to merchants. The Shogun liked the premise, but not the application, so he had the districts walled off. This increased their allure. After all, what we don’t see attracts us. Among the artists arrested was Kitagawa Utamaro, one of the most popular ukiyo-e artists of the time. The team had published a book called Ehon Taikoki, a biography of Hideyoshi 7 years before their arrest.

keiseki-kyotoOdd the Shogunate waited 7 years before bringing the artists to court, isn’t it? The government forbade the publishing of anything involving Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, and his family. Hideyoshi was fair game, and other biographies were published before 1804. So why were Utamaro and his colleagues singled out? The problem was how the values Hideyoshi symbolized mixed with the floating world. While he came up with the idea that allowed the floating world to flourish, he was better known as a great general. The shogunate didn’t want one of their historical heroes to become a mere popular figure like just another kabuki actor.  The ehon threatened the shogunate’s control over its official history. So Utamaro and his colleagues were tried to curb the trend of portraying warrior families as part of the floating world. The court found them guilty and sentenced them to 50 days house arrest in manacles. The publisher was required to pay heavy fines. The book they published, Ehon Taikoki, was banned and confiscated (Davis, 2007).

Erotic Ukiyo-e

Hiroshige-shunga1I mentioned how the Tokugawa issued an edict about the limit of ukiyo-e. Well, despite the edict about sexual impropriety, shunga flourished. Shunga is a subgenre of woodblock prints that focused on what went on behind the closed doors of the floating world.  Think of shunga as the great-great-great-great-great grandmother of hentai. These explicit prints told stories and served as sex guides. They exaggerated genitals and often had contorted poses. Shunga were produced for both men and women. Many show scenes of lesbian encounters and female masturbation. At the time, the samurai class often segregated genders into quarters within castles. Men were encouraged to visit brothels, but women had fewer options. Male prostitutes were found in theater districts where few women could go (Munroe, 2008). But on the whole, women were housed with other women. In such situations, lesbian romances are sure to develop, and shunga provided guides and stories about such. While samurai men were encouraged to have relations with other samurai men, Japanese literature rarely mentions such relations between women.

Because of the explicit nature of shunga I created a page with some of these works rather than post them here. Again, the page beyond this link contains explicit depictions of sexuality.

The Making of a Woodblock Print

Sparrows - Hokusai

Just like mangaka need help creating their work, ukiyo-e artists needed a team. It took 4 people to make a print. The publisher coordinated everyone and handled marketing. The artist dreamed up the designs and drew them in ink on paper. A carver broke the design into patterns that were carved into wood blocks. The number of blocks used ranged from 10 to 16, depending on the number of colors and complexity of the drawing. And a printer managed the ink and handmade paper (Library of Congress, n.d.).  The artist receives most of the recognition, much like the front-man in a band. Each member of the team was highly skilled in their piece of production. The printer often made their inks and paper from raw materials, for example.

The carver cut the negative of the design: the lines and areas to be colored were raised. The rest was carved away. Each color required a different block that had to be perfectly aligned. Paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree would be laid on the blocks and rubbed to transfer the ink (Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d.). The blocks were used until they  wore out.

The mass production of these prints makes them hard to preserve. Paper and silk are vulnerable to Japan’s variable weather. The inks change color when exposed to light for long periods (Fleming, 1985).

How to Read Ukiyo-e

Utamaro woman ukiyo-eBeyond the obvious Japanese writing, ukiyo-e has to be read to be understood. The Edo Period had a host of pop culture symbols that allowed a print to tell a story. For example, eyebrows matter. Married women shaved their eyebrows. So this lady on the left is single! Notice how she shows off the nape of her neck? Well, that was…is… an erogenous zone for Japanese men. So this print has voyeuristic elements. We are looking in on a young woman as she applies her makeup, something few men would witness. Think of it as peaking in on a lady as she showers. Ukiyo-e often showed everyday actions like this with a twist.

Like eyebrows, the importance of ukiyo-e is in what is missing. The artists focused on the positive aspects of the floating world. You do not see the lowest levels of prostitutes. Women are all painted in idealized way with few individual characteristics or blemishes. Ukiyo-e, like the floating world the prints reflected, represented ideals of feminine beauty. They didn’t represent individual women. The omission of individual women attempts to capture the image of fleeting forever the floating world wrapped around itself. It weaves a fantasy.

The floating world influences much of Japanese sexuality today. Japanese sex culture focuses on fantasy more than experience (Bourdain, 2014). Maid Cafes descend from the red-lit fantasy world. Hentai and other erotica descends from this period.

Ukiyo-e and Manga

Ukiyo-e and manga share similar art styles. Flat coloration with prominent outlines. Ukiyo-e was the popular media of the time, entertaining people and telling stories. The cheap cost of ukiyo-e allowed it to spread throughout the Edo Period. Manga does the same today. It is relatively inexpensive and is a part of Japanese popular culture.  Ukiyo-e experimented with ways of representing motion and emotion with minimal lines. The prints laid the framework for all the genres and themes we see in manga: erotica, macabre, humor, historical stories, current events, and slice of life. Manga inherited the free thinking and experimentation of the floating world.

Ukiyo-e is a look at the lost floating world of dreams and suffering. The dreams of pleasure, conversation, and culture came at the price of the women and men sold into its work. Ukiyo-e  freezes moments, people, and concerns in ink.


Bourdain, A. (2014). Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown: Tokyo. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1401/25/abpu.01.html

Davis, J. (2007). The trouble with Hideyoshi: censoring ukiyo-e and the Ehon Taikoki incident of 1804. Japan Forum 19 (3) 281-315.

Fleming, S. (1985). Ukiyo-e Painting: An Art Tradition under Stress. Archaeology. 38 (6) 60-61, 75.

Library of Congress. The Floating World of Ukiyo-e. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/intro.html.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm.

Munro, M. (2008) MasterClass: Understanding Shunga, A Guide to Japanese Erotic Art. London: Turnaround.

Thompson, Sarah E. and Harootunian, H. D. (1991)Undercurrents in the Floating World: Censorship and Japanese Prints, New York: The Asia Society Galleries.

Gender Expectations of Edo Period Japan


The Edo period made Japan Japan. This long segment of peace shaped Japanese gender expectations and continues to influence them today. Japan was once a matriarchal society. The influx of Confucian ideas from China around the 15th century eroded the ability of women to hold power. Confucian ideas stressed hierarchy, male dominance, integrity, and righteousness. Women became subservient (Sugihara 2000). Japan divided along class lines that became distinct during the Edo period: the ruling class, townsman class, and the peasant class. Each class had tiers within it. Samurai increased in rank all the way up to the shogun. However, even the lowest samurai remained higher in social standing than the highest peasant. The walls between the classes could be shattered with work, but most of the time people moved downward through the classes. Samurai became farmers more often that farmers became samurai (Platt, 2000). Each class had its own gender expectations.

The House System

At the center of Edo period gender roles stood the ie or house. This organization system originated in Confucian China. Men headed the house, and women changed their names to that of her husband. Her social status was dependent on her husband. Before the house system, women were able to keep their names and own property (Sugihara, 2000).  At first, the house system appears constraining for women, and for samurai women it was. However, the system gave women control of the business within the house. Men controlled the business outside the house. The Confucian ideal between the genders is best described by a book called the Onna Daigaku, or Greater Learning for Women: “men pursue their duties without, while women govern within.” Men were not to speak of what belongs in the house and women were not to speak of what belongs outside. The ideal of the Edo period was for men and women to form a harmonious union. Through this union, the house prospered. This idea replaced the Chinese Confucian idea that husbands and wives were to be distinct and separate (Sekiguchi, 2010). Confucianism stressed the preeminence of men over women, stating: “A woman is to obey her father as daughter, her husband as wife, and her son as aged mother.”(Walthall, 1984) This view reflected in the laws of the period. Women did not legally exist. In practice, these ideas were mostly limited to the samurai class.

Heads of households were expected to protect and nurture the family name and the business of the house. This extended to all three classes. The house was more important than any single member. The gender expectations of each class centers around this idea, but how they went about nurturing the house defined gender roles for each class.

Gender Expectations for the Samurai Class

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-c600-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wSamurai had a problem during the Edo period. War was abolished. The entire class centered around being warriors. Even samurai women were expected to fight and die. Both men and women shared the same ideals of loyal, courage, and honor. Samurai women were expected to govern the household, continue her husband’s line, and protect the family’s honor. If that required death, she would slit her own throat faster than a man could lay open his stomach. Only during the Edo period little of this was actually necessary. Samurai women were left to continuing her family’s line and governing the household. During the Edo period, it become rare for many samurai women to leave the home (Tanimura, 2011). Samurai girls learned what was needed to govern the household, including reading, writing, and how to play the koto, a 13 string zither. A lady playing the koto was considered the ideal of modesty and elegance.However, they were forbidden to learn the shamisen. The 1847 version of Onna Chohoki, another female instruction book, speaks negatively of the instrument (Tanimura, 2011):

Its tone sounds so lecherous that it is not regarded as a musical instrument. It is a tool for courtesans. You should definitely not learn to play the shamisen. However, you should learn the names of its parts.

Samurai women were expected to be strong and endure in addition to being educated and subservient. Despite these trends, when the Edo period ended samurai women remembered their history. They fought some of the final battles of the Edo period.

The Onna Daigaku summarized the role samurai women played in the house:

A woman must be intent on the duties of her household, and must not weary of weaving, sewing, and spinning…, nor must she feed her eyes and ears with kabuki, kouta, and joruri.

Samurai men, as heads of the household, had the obligation to continue their lineage and carry the business of their family. Most importantly, they carried the honor of their family. Men were expected to be well-trained in military arts and literature. In the old days, samurai would gain honor through bravery and decisive action on the battlefield. They would return with the heads of those they killed in battle, and through this they gained honor. Yes, samurai were head hunters. Without war, Edo period samurai culture shifted from bravery and decisive action  on the battlefield to finding ways to show their bravery and decisiveness in other ways. Shame —haji–played a key role in the identity of samurai men. The class defined itself as the class that would risk their lives to defend their good name. Shame differed from how we understand it. While it was a feeling, shame was also a combination of inner principles and societal views of a samurai. As heads of household, shame could spread from samurai men to the rest of the family. Samurai honor lacked a set guide for shame. Instead, samurai men decided when and if his honor needed defense. Autonomy was important for samurai men, even as it was denied samurai women. The practice of seppuku, or ritualized suicide, was the final act of autonomy a samurai could commit (Ikegami, 2003). The accusation of cowardice made the blackest stain on a samurai’s honor.

Confucian scholar Muro Kyuso (1658-1734) defined the samurai’s moral code as principled autonomy:

The disciplined and rightful attitude of the samurai should include the following: not to speak falsehood; not to work for selfish gain; to keep the mind straightforward and honest; simplicity in external appearance; to maintain a disciplined and courteous bearing, neither flattering one’s superiors nor being arrogant toward one’s juniors; to keep promises unfailingly; and not to ignore another in hardship. . .

Samurai not only had to worry about their reputation, but the lord they served as well. Their actions could disgrace their lord. Many samurai served their lords out in rural fortresses where they oversaw and protected the surrounded villages. Samurai were not allowed to own businesses. They had to work as administrators as befitting their social standing. Samurai were paper pushers in the Edo period. In return, samurai received stipends according to their rank.

Gender Expectations of the Townsman Class

12645216_1019550614772013_4424802824108759450_nWhile samurai couldn’t legally own businesses, Edo period towns teemed with commerce. The long peace allowed intricate trade networks to develop between villages and towns. Over time, the townsman class, which composed of merchants, artisans, and other people who served the needs of the urban samurai, gained power and wealth. The townsman class had their own gender expectations were differed from the samurai. The importance of the household remained the same, but the application of the principles differed, particularly for women. The townsman class made up around 6-7% of the total population of Japan during the Edo period (Tanimura, 2011). Townsman class women were industrious and worked to direct their own future. Many worked alongside their husbands and fathers to improve the family business. Most even went to school.

Private school systems thrived during the Edo period. Called terakoya, some scholars estimate as many as 86% of children who lived in the city of Edo went to these schools. The schools were ran by priests, Confucian scholars, doctors, merchants, and female teachers. They lacked tuition, and parents could pay teachers in goods, such as produce or rice cakes. Girls and boys started school around 6 years old and left after 3-4 years. Literacy was so widespread in the cities–and in the countryside as we will see–that European visitors to Japan at the end of the Edo period were shocked. The ability to read was more widespread than in England and Europe at the time (Tanimura, 2011).

The Onna Shikimoku, yet another girl’s teaching book, states:

The girls of the townsman class will become the wives of merchants, and so they are encouraged to be literate to help with their family business. . . People who cannot write are called illiterate. These people have eyes, but they are like the blind.

Women were expected to help men. Townsman class men, unlike their samurai brethren, relied on their women to help carry the burden of the house. Unlike samurai men, townsmen didn’t worry about honor as much as the reputation of their business. Men were expected to know how to read, write, do arithmetic, and understand ethics. Many men paid for extra education for their daughters. In addition to private schools, they sent their daughters to classes to learn how to play the shamisen.  Despite the public disdain samurai had for the instrument, it became popular behind closed doors. It also appeared in theatrical art forms like kabuki. Girls who mastered the instrument had a chance to move across the line between the samurai and townsmen classes. Poor townsmen girls dreamed about becoming concubines for high ranked samurai. It was a common fairy tale told in cities and rural villages (Tanimura, 2011). Becoming a mistress to a samurai brought a family wealth and social status. Talented townsman class girls became maids and ladies-in-waiting for samurai families. This let her learn the customs and tastes, and styles of samurai women. In turn, her family could use this knowledge to better the family business and their own social standing among other townsman families.

The Miyako Fuzoku Kagami,published in 1681 states (Tanimura, 2011):

In cities, if parents have daughters with good looks, they send those daughters out to the provinces, and put them in service with country lords. There are a good number of people who originally came from low class families, but became rich through their daughters’ service. If such parents have a girl with sophisticated beauty, they place great hopes in her. In order to have her support the family, they raise her carefully and have her become literate and learn calligraphy or take shamisen lessons. Or, if they think that it might be valuable for her future, they send her to street performers to learn dancing.

Townsman class men taught their sons the family trade and worked to provide for their families. Their relationships with their wives and daughters was more equitable than the samurai class. The peasant class shared this in common with their urban counterparts.

Gender Expectations of the Peasant Class

12931044_1055742431152831_6226667208404208230_nThe word “peasant” has the danger of creating misunderstandings. Peasants in Edo period Japan were not the serfs of the European feudal ages. The shogunate implemented many agriculture reforms that were designed to encourage peasant families to be independent. Improved irrigation and other agricultural practices gave peasants more resources to put toward recreation and the arts. Peasant farms ran similar to urban family businesses. Peasants could visit religious shrines and cities. They wrote poetry, acted in kabuki, and practiced sword fighting. Like the townsman class, women were expected to help on the family farm. Peasant women often dominated male members of the household (Walthall, 1984). The typical peasant family considered of 5-7 people: the married couple that made the core of the family, 2-3 children, and perhaps grandparents. The social ideal for peasant families was independence. Each household was expected to survive without outside help. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t cooperation between neighbors. Rather, families took pride in their ability to run a successful farming business. Men and women dreamed about earning wealth and honor. Unlike the townsman class, this dream didn’t involve breaking the class boundaries. The dream of wealth and honor remained on the farm, its continuation and the continuation of the family.  The fear of losing everything remained real (Katsumi, 1989).

Even among the samurai farming was considered honorable. Not as honorable as being a samurai but still honorable. The peasant class took pride in their role and referred to themselves as honorable peasants, onbyakusho. Samurai were seen as protectors, and the townsman class seen as serving the samurai.

Men and women had different labor roles. For example. weaving and papermaking–both lucrative trades–were done by women. Men gathered firewood and made charcoal–less lucrative trades than weaving and papermaking. Peasant women, like townsman class women worked in public (Katsumi. 1989).

The peasant class was also fairly educated and literate. Leading families in villages were expected to be literate. Head families had the responsibility to collect taxes and carry out the written orders of the samurai class. The shogunate encouraged the peasant class to learn practical writing, reading, and math skills. By the end of the Edo period, most heads of peasant households could read (Katsumi, 1980). Some of the leading families were once samurai. Some samurai families willingly bought farms and converted to the peasant class (Platt, 2000). This brought a taste for samurai style and arts to rural villages.

The Roles of Children

Across each of the three social classes, children were expected to master the skills of their station. Samurai children mastered martial arts, literature, administration, and the warrior code. Townsman class children went to school for reading, writing, mathematics, and learned the family trade. Talented girls had the opportunity to enter the world of the samurai if they worked hard. Boys were mostly locked in their station. But they did have the option of becoming monks and religious leaders. Peasant children lived on the farm and learned the various side businesses like weaving and charcoal making that supplemented the household. Many also learned writing, reading, and mathematics.

The Division Among the Classes

We focused on the division between the classes but families also vied within classes for social status. Village heads were the top of the peasant class. The indentured laborer sat on the bottom. The concubine for a high ranked samurai sat at the top of the townsman class. Beggars sat at the bottom. The Shogun capped the samurai class, and the lowest ranked samurai were relegated to doing meaningless administrative busywork or becoming ronin, or samurai without masters.

Divorce in the Edo Period

At times, one person or the other couldn’t carry the burden of the family. Dowries dictated the rank of a samurai woman’s marriage in the middle of the Edo period. Divorces among the samurai could only happen with the permission of the domain’s lord. Townsman and peasant classes allowed men to write a short letter of divorce to his wife. If she accepted it, the divorce was complete. These letters were about three lines (Cornell, 1990):

 To my wife. It is my pleasure to divorce you.

There is no objection to your marrying anyone whomsoever.

Witness my hand, this day and month

Men who married without issuing this letter and having it accepted were banished. Women could issue letters of divorce as well (Tadashi, 2003).

What is Missing with Gender Expectation Discussions

10636845_1002800429780365_6951032470458221506_oWhenever we discuss gender expectations like this, we can only speak in generalities. Not all samurai women were shut ins. Likewise not all peasant families were egalitarian. There is a human element we lose when we discuss history. History often distills complex lives into lists and dates. Samurai men loved their children, including their daughters. Many samurai men loved their wives, and many wives loved their husbands. From our modern, Western perspective we find it deplorable how women were treated, but we also forget that such rigid structures hurt men too. Some samurai fathers certainly wanted to spend more time at home with their children but were unable to do so. Gender expectations came out of the reality of the times they developed.  Dividing roles based on gender was a practical matter–from the perspective of the time. Women could produce children and the strain was hard on their bodies. Medical care was limited to traditional techniques. The risk of dying in childbirth remained high. The role of raising children was more important than many of the roles men held. This is particularly true under the ie system and its focus on continuing the lineage.  In the Edo period, women were expected to be subservient but not weak. Weak women could not run a demanding household or manage business affairs. Women were expected to be strong pillars for the family. Men were expected to improve the family’s reputation out in society.  The family rested on the shoulders of husband and wife. Both had a share of the weight.

Some people lived outside the expected gender roles, such as geisha and actors. Geisha could be their own business, and the life offered women a level of independence unknown to the other classes. Actors shared the pleasure districts with geisha or traveled to villages in troupes. Some actors and geisha became celebrities. Their fame allowed them to cross the boundaries between all of the classes. Kabuki was one of the few areas where all three classes mingled, much to the distress of the shogunate. Each of the classes of the Edo period had their own view of how to continue and improve the household. Each class wanted the best life possible for their children and grandchildren.


Cornell, L. (1990). Peasant Women and Divorce in Preindustrial Japan. Signs. 15 (4). 710-732.

Friedman, S. (1992). Women in Japanese Society: Their Changing Roles. http://www2.gol.com/users/friedman/writings/p1.html

Ikegami, E. (2003). Shame and the Samurai: Institutions, Trustworthiness, and Autonomy in the Elite Honor Culture. Social Research. 70 (4).1351-1378.

Katsumi, Fukaya (1980) Tokugawa Peasants and the Three Rs. Japan Interpreter. 13 (1) 126-128.

Platt, B. (2000) Elegance, Prosperity, Crisis: Three Generations of Tokugawa Village Elites. Monumenta Nipponica. 55 (1) 45-81.

Sekiguchi, S. (2010) Confucian Morals and the Making of a ‘Good Wife and Wise Mother”: From ‘Between Husband and Wife there is Distinction’ to ‘As Husbands and Wives be Harmonious’ Social Science Japan Journal. 13 (1) 95-113.

Shin, M. (2010) Making a Samurai Western: Japan and the White Samurai Fantasy in The Last Samurai. The Journal of Popular Culture. 43 (5) 1065-1080.

Sugihara, Y. and Emiko Katsurada (2000) Gender-Role Personality Traits in Japanese Culture. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 24. 30-318.

Tanimura, R. (2011) The Study of Shamisen Among Girls of the Late Edo Townsman Class. International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, National Institute for the Humanities. 73-96.

Tadashi, T. (2003) Marriage and Divorce in the Edo Period. Japan Echo. 30 (5).

Walthall, A. (1984). Peripheries. Rural Culture in Tokugawa Japan. Monumenta Nipponica. 39 (4) 371-392.