A Look at Japanese Feminism and Japanese Misogyny

 Women are the emissaries of hell; they cut off forever the seed of buddhahood. On the outside they have the faces of bodhisattvas, but on the inside they have the hearts of demons.

–Buddhist Sutra

A woman’s talk does not go beyond one village.

A smart woman ruins the castle.

–Japanese Proverbs

Japanese medieval literature teemed with deceptive and dangerous women–devils in disguise with insatiable passions. Among these fantasies and frustrations caused by celibate life among literate monks were the Rasetsu. The Rasetsu were a race of shape-shifting cannibal women who seduced men and ate them alive. The women lived on Rasetsukoku. The island’s location changed throughout different periods, first appearing in Konjaku monogatari shu, a collection of stories about India in the 12th century (Moerman, 2009). “How Sokara and the Five Hundred Merchants Went to the Land of the Rasetsu” explains one of the first encounters with these women. It begins with a group of merchants setting sail in search of treasure.

They are shipwrecked on an island of beautiful women where each man takes a wife and enjoys a life of bliss. But Sokara, the sailor’s leader senses something is off and investigates. He finds a prison of men and signs of cannibalism. One of the prisoners tells him how he had enjoyed the same pleasures until a new ship washed ashore. Then, he and his mates were set aside for food. Sokara manages to get all but one of his crew to safety. However, 2 years later one of the women visits him at home, but Sokara wasn’t tricked. The King, however, falls for the beautiful she-demon and after spending three days with her in his bedchamber, she breaks out with a blood-stained mouth. All that was left of the king was “a pool of blood and hair.” In response, Sokara gathers an army and attacks the island. After destroying all of the demon-women he is made king of the island.

This land of demon women appears in a Ming Chinese encyclopedia of 1610:

The Land of Women is in the southeastern seas. The Water flows to the east. Lotus flowers one foot across bloom once a year and the peaches have stones two feet long. Long ago a ship drifted there and the women gathered together and carried the ship off. The sailors were all close to death. But a clever man among them stole the boat back at night and they were able to escape. The women conceive children by exposing their genitals to the sound wind. According to others, the women become pregnant by looking at their reflection in a well.

The Land of Women shifted from a fantasy sexual amusement park to a land of she-demons throughout different time periods, but it provides an early example of a cultural view of women that challenged feminist movements in the modern period. Women were relegated to a child rearing role and as household managers.

Women’s Rights and Legal Status

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868), women did not legally exist. They could not own property and were subordinate to men. However, women in different classes had more rights than others.For example, samurai class women had fewer rights than the farming class, which needed women to help run the family far. The urban class allowed women to manage businesses. In fact, wives of merchants were expected to be literate.  However, by today’s standards women lacked equality. A woman was still under the authority of men who decided the course of her life–who she married and more. Birth control didn’t exist as we know it. Midwives had their means, but women were expected to have children to continue the house.

Equality became more of a concern during the Meiji Restoration, when Japan pushed to catch up with the Western nations in terms of military and technology and law. Japan looked toward Enlightenment ideals, exemplified by John Locke, when it examined its laws (Okin, 1998). These ideals later shaped the Universal Declaration of Human rights (1948), the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights declaration, among others by the United Nations that proclaim equal rights of human beings regardless of sex. However, women remain discriminated against in differing ways.  As Okin (1998) writes: “Indeed, discrimination on the grounds of sex is frequently justified as being in accordance with many of the cultures—including religions aspects of these cultures—practiced in the world today.”

However, both the 1948 declarations and Meiji Japan pulled from a 17th century system that was designed for male heads of households. Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers didn’t have women’s private rights in mind when they wrote their ideas of law and equality. For example, Locke states no one should interfere with a father’s decision to whom his daughter should marry:

In private domestic affairs, in the management of estates, in the conservation of bodily health, every man may consider what suits his own convenience and follow what course he likes best. No man complains of the ill-management of his neighbour’s affairs. No man is angry with another for an error committed in sowing his land or in marrying his daughter. Nobody corrects a spendthrift for consuming his substance in taverns.

This male bias sits deep in human rights thinking. Women have different life experiences than men that these old systems fail to take into account: rape—marital and war, domestic violence, reproductive freedom, valuation of childcare and domestic labor, unequal opportunity in education, unequal housing opportunities, unequal credit opportunities, and unequal healthcare. Okin (1998) points out how inequality can be obscured by cultural norms and what people consider natural, such as motherhood. Cultural norms against certain things, such as single motherhood, also obscure inequality.

This male-centric view of rights appeared in various Meiji Reformation laws. For example, in the Criminal Code of 1880, adultery applied to women only. Men couldn’t commit adultery on his wife, only with another man’s wife (Sasamoto-Collins, 2017):

Article 353: A wife guilty of adultery shall be punished by imprisonment of no less than six months and no more than two years. Her lover shall receive the same punishment.

The punishment shall be imposed only if the family formally lodges complaint. If he has tolerated adultery, his complaint has no effect.

 

Article 311: If a husband has discovered his wife’s adultery and killed or injured her or her lover immediately at the actual place where they were discovered, the crime is excusable.

However, this provision does not apply if the husband has tolerated the adultery.

In other words, women were punished for adultery solely based on her status as a wife. For the lawmakers at the time, this was a natural part of womanhood and Japanese culture, as Okin discussed. Men had to be certain their wives’ children truly carried their genes. Of course, prostitutes and other women didn’t fall under the law as their children didn’t factor into the family system.

One Woman’s Observations of the Meiji Period

Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, born in 1878, wrote an autobiography that examined the differences between this type of environment and that of the United States. She married an American man and moved there to live with their daughters until he died. Afterward, she returned to Japan. The cross-cultural experience allowed her to write about both Japanese and American feminism at the time. She thought American women immodestly exposed their bodies “just for the purpose of having it seen” while Japanese women covered theirs from neck to ankle. When she returned to Japan with her two daughters she accounts (Kuo, 2015):

As I sat and thought, I wondered if Hanano was ever really happy anymore. She never seemed sorrowful, but she had changed. Her eyes were soft, not bright; her mouth drooped slightly and her bright, cheery way of speaking had slowed and softened. Gentle and graceful? Yes. But where was her quick readiness to spring up to my frst word? Where her joyous eagerness to see, to learn, to do? My little American girl, so full of vivid interest in life, was gone.

During Sugimoto’s life, the concept of ryosai kenbo, good wife and wise mother, was the focus of post Meiji Restoration (1868) education of girls. Before compulsory education passed in 1872, Confucian ideals prohibited women from getting an education. Girl’s education was seen as helping the nation as a whole, but it did little to break women from their traditional roles. In fact, education was seen as enhancing mothers’ abilities to produce patriotic, able citizens and supporting husbands. (Kuo, 2015). This education system, although a small step toward equality despite its failure to allow for different roles, contributed to the West’s misconceptions of women.

Sugimoto tried to correct this misconceptions–that Japanese women were less able to protect themselves and were less independent than American women. Japanese women were thought to be gentle and meek and needing American feminism to come in and liberate them. However, Sugimoto writes: “Although our women are pictured as gentle and meek, and although Japanese men will not contradict it, nevertheless it is true that, beneath all the gentle meekness, Japanese women are like—volcanoes.”

Sugimoto also illustrates how Japanese women had more rights than American women. Japanese women were the bankers of the family—responsible for both the family and for the family’s wealth. The husband must ask the wife for money, not the other way around like in the US at the time. She writes: “It was one of many exaggerated ideas that we had of the dominant spirit of American women and the submissive attitude of American men.”

American and Japanese Feminism Movements

Kato Shidzue and Margaret Sanger

In fact, during the early 1900s, American and Japanese feminism inspired each other. An early birth control advocate in Japan, Kato Shidzue, worked closely with American birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Shidzue brought Sanger to Japan in 1922 to speak on the topic (Kuo, 2015). The New Woman Association (NWA) in the early 1900s pushed for more rights, including a revision to the adultery law we examined which would allow women to file for a divorce if she discovered her husband or fiance had a venereal disease. The association framed their arguments in terms of protecting women’s family role–allow women to become better wives and wiser mothers through increased political awareness. They didn’t seek to completely break from ryosai kenbo.  Most advocates focused on the improvement of women’s lives through better health, elimination of poverty, better work conditions, protection of motherhood, and similar goals instead of political ends. Political liberation was seen as a path to these ends (Molony, 2000).

In a 1920 article, Ichikawa Fusae, a leader of the NWA, wrote:

Aren’t we treated completely as feeble-minded children? Why is it all right to know about science and literature and not all right to be familiar with politics and current events? Why is it acceptable to read and write but not speak and listen? A man, not matter what his occupation or educational background, has political rights, but a woman, no matter how qualilified, does not have the same rights…If we do not understand the politics of the country we live in, we will not be able to understand conditions in our present society.

She pushed for absolute rights instead of women’s rights based on education or maternal roles–which laid the groundwork for later feminist activism after World War II.

Speaking of World War II, the good wife and wise mother role carried forward throughout and into today. Motherhood and housewife roles remain highly valued, but they leave little room for self-development and work-family balance. A survey of female seniors in 561 Japanese universities in 1992 found women expected and didn’t mind sexism at work. 91% said they don’t mind being treated as “office flowers” and 25% considered that to be a woman’s role (Thornton, 1992). This shows how strong the male-dominated view remained.

Modern Japanese Feminism

Today, young Japanese women postpone marriage. Intimate relationships with other women also increase in appeal—free from the motherhood association  (Enns, 2011). The idea that a man should be dedicated to work and the good wife supporting him at home affects men in addition to women. Three-fifths of men between the ages of 25-35 remain unmarried. 53% of men in their 20s have never gone out with a woman. In contrast, 64% of American men claim to have had sex by the age of 20 (Homegrown, 2017). Women’s withdrawal from relationships to focus on career shows how they have moved beyond being “office flowers” in the 1990s. However, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), World Economic Forum, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Japanese women lag behind other developed countries in terms of labor participation and political representation. They have higher than average education rates, but many women don’t return to work after having children (Japan, 2016). Children remains an all-in affair for many Japanese women, which explains why so many are postponing or foregoing marriage and expectations of motherhood marriage brings.

When asked why young men aren’t looking for a girlfriend, they answer that it’s too much trouble. Japan’s social segregation by gender doesn’t help matters. The combination of low self-esteem in men and fear of rejection by women opens the doors for teen idols, anime, sex dolls and sex pillow. Misogyny is a strange loop of love and hating because you love what you can’t have. And that idea of possession remains a problem too. The tension between feminism, traditional ideas of good wife and wise mother, and men’s views–which is a topic to itself–all add up to this trend.

Throughout all of this, the Japanese feminism movement worked. However, many of its leaders today are discouraged by how slow the progress over the past century has been despite the shift in marriage and the focus on career. Maternity harassment, sexual harassment, and employment discrimination remain real problems. Some progress is being made: there is greater acceptance of mothers returning to work and fathers taking on more child care responsibilities (Japan, 2016).

But the progress Japanese women have made toward equality remains tenuous. Misogyny and objectification of women remains rampant. Part of this is a result of culture. Japanese culture idealizes quiet, stoic endurance, which extends to sexual violence against women. They are expected to be Japanese and endure without complaint. Sexual harassment on commuter trains is an example. In the early 2000s, two-thirds of women surveyed reported being groped while riding crowded trains. In response, train companies introduced women only cars, but no other action was taken (Hayes, 2016).

Many Japanese women are victims of unwanted photographs, typically up-skirt photos on trains and other public places. Japanese cell phone manufacturers are even required to make cameras with audible shutter sounds meant to deter men from taking these photos of women in public places. All of this points to how a dominating, objectifying attitude toward women remains strong in Japanese culture. Despite efforts since the 1920s, oral birth control is still hard to get–doctors often prescribe low doses for one month at a time (Hayes, 2016). All of this extends from the traditional, deep-rooted view of women.

Manga and anime carry on this view in many stories. Many sexually explicit, male-focused manga are violent toward women. They show women as sex toys and many of the stories of these comedies focus on the loss of male virginity while reinforcing men’s superior social status and women’s traditional status. This was a problem when Ito studied images of women back in 1994. From my own observations, this still remains an issue within anime and manga.

In fact, feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno looks at the pay gap between men and women (men are paid 26.6% more in a 2013 OECD study), media, and these attitudes and writes:

We struggled, fought, but unfortunately were incapable of making real change.

Gendertrolling

Japan isn’t alone in this problem, and the problem even extends onto the Internet in the form of gendertrolling. You are likely familiar with the word trolling, but I’ll go ahead and define it– “disrupting a conversation or entire community by posting incendiary statements or stupid questions for the person’s own amusement or because they have a quarrelsome personality.” The word first appeared in the 1990s, and most trolls on the English-speaking web are white, male, and somewhat privileged (Mantilla, 2013). Now, gendertrolling is a little different. . It involves numerous people who are often coordinated and the attacks persist online and offline—sometimes for years. Usually happens in response to women speaking out about some form of sexism. I’ll give you a few Western examples from Mantilla’s (2013) paper.

Melissa McEwan in 2007, who runs a feminist blog Shakesville, had her address and other information published online and received rape and death threats.

Anita Sarkeesian saw this when she started a Kickstarter to fund a project to point out sexist representation of women in the video game community. She received rape and death threats. The  gendertrolls made pornographic images of her being raped, tried to have her social media accounts suspended, and tried to disable her website. They also released her personal information, including home address.

In 2012, Zerlina Maxwell, on the FOX News show Hannity, spoke about how the focus on ending rape should start with men instead of women carrying guns to defend themselves. The rape and death threats rolled in. Maxwell said, “Do not feed the trolls’ is really easy for people to say when you’re not getting 100 rape threats, when you’re not getting 100 death threats.”

Sexual harassment, including gendertrolling, tries to keep gender boundaries in place–preventing women from competing with men at work and preventing women from feeling safe in public places without a male companion. Japan’s problems with groping on subways and with inappropriate photos are good examples of this. Gendertrolling tries to keep these gender-boundaries in place online by attacking women who speak out online in male-dominated spaces, such as online video games. Not even Japanese women who serve in the Japanese government are safe from this problem. 52% report being targets of sexual harassment at least once (Osumi, 2015). The survey reports:

“Some respondents said they had been neglected or forced to buy cigarettes for their male coworkers, while others had endured taunts such as: “Why don’t you strip?” or “You must get excited by being groped.”

Some of these women work in Japanese legislators.

Feminism and misogyny are bound together. Misogyny results from women gaining some measure of equality and the perceived threat this can bring. Japanese women have come a long way from the Tokugawa Era and the Meiji Restoration, but many of the same problems back then continue today. Women in the United States still struggle with similar issues. Even when they are online, women have to face people who threaten them just for voicing an opinion or their experience.

Media adds to the pile. Manga and anime sometimes caters to sexist ideas, which only reinforces those ideas. Objectifying otherwise strong female characters through upskirt camera angles and other techniques that reduces them to sex objects encourages the thinking behind the problems women face. Yellow fever and orientalism, waifuism, and moe can all add to the headwinds.

Of course, feminism also has its own problem. Some activists look down upon women who want to be traditional wives and mothers. Women should have the freedom to choose this route if they want. In any case, with the issues of gendertrolling and continued pay inequality and continued objectification, Japanese women and women in general are still do not have equal rights.

References

(2016) Japan Tries to Promote Women’s Rights, but Cultural Norms Stand in the Way. World Politics Review. http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/20172/japan-tries-to-promote-women-s-rights-but-cultural-norms-stand-in-the-way

(2017). Homegrown misogyny divides sexes in Japan. The Australian (National, Australia).

Enns, Carolyn (2011) On the rich tapestry of Japanese feminisms. Feminism and Psychology. 21 (4) 542-546.

Hayes, T. (2016). The Cultural Limits of Japanese Feminism. International Policy Digest, 3(6), 132-133

Hidari, Sachiko, McCormick, Ruth & Thompson, Bill (1979) Feminism in Japanese Cinema: An Interview with Sachiko Hidari. Cineaste 9 (3). 26-29.

Ito, K. (1994). Images of Women in Weekly Male Comic Magazines in Japan. Journal Of Popular Culture, 27(4), 81-95.

Kuo, Karen (2015) Japanese Women Are Like Volcanoes. Frontiers 36 (1) 58-89.

Mantilla, K. (2013). Gendertrolling: Misogyny Adapts to New Media. Feminist Studies, 39(2), 563.

Moerman, Max (2009). Demonology and Eroticism: Islands of Women in the Japanese Buddhist Imagination. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 36 (2). 351-380

Molony, Barbara (2000) Women’s Rights, Feminism, and Suffragism in Japan 1870-1925. Pacific Historical Review. 69 (4). 639-661.

Okin, Susan (1998) Feminism,. Women’s Human Rights, and Cultural Differences.  Hypatia. 13 (2) 32-52.

Osumi, M. (2015, August 14). Over 50% of assemblywomen in Japan have been sexually harassed, survey suggests. Japan Times.

Sasamoto-Collins, H. (2017) The Emperor’s Sovereign Status and the Legal Construction of Gender in Early Meiji Japan. Journal of Japanese Studies 43 (2).

Sato, Kumiko (2004) How Information Technology Has (Not) Changed Feminism and Japanism: Cyberpunk in the Japanese Context. Comparative Literature Studies. 41 (3) 335-355.

Thornton, E. (1992). Japan: sexism OK with most coeds. Fortune, (4). 13.

Yamaguchi, T. (2014). “Gender Free” Feminism in Japan: A Story of Mainstreaming and Backlash. Feminist Studies, 40(3), 541-572.

Ama: Japan’s Sea Diving Women

Ama come from a tradition that dates back over 2,000 years, and the tradition is dying. Today, about 2,000 ama dive off the coast of Japan, and fewer dive each year. Most ama are well into their 60s and 70s (LeBlanc, 2015; McCurry, 2016). Before we continue, I have to leave you with a disclaimer. This article contains nudity. Before the 1900s, ama dived naked except for a traditional loincloth. The earliest images of ama, naked from the waist up, appear in 18th century ukiyo-e. Ama have worn wetsuits since the 1960s (LeBlanc, 2015).

The Ama Tradition

No one knows exactly how women became deep sea divers. Westerners assume ama dived for pearls, but most dived to collect seaweed, fish, and shellfish to supplement their meals and sell on the marketplace. Ama are almost exclusively women. They dive in the cold sea without the aid of scuba gear, using only rocks to help them sink as far as 30 feet below the sea. Most traditional ama were wives of fishermen. They would dive so they can earn extra money while their husbands were away on prolonged fishing trips (Martinez, 2004; LeBlanc, 2015; Tanaka, 2016).

On Shima peninsula, ama once dominated. After World War II, 6,000 of the 10,000 total divers lived in the area. Today only 750 live there (McCurry, 2016).  Ama break with Japanese culture norms, particularly the ama of Shima. Since feudal Japan, women were relegated to a limited role, based upon class. In samurai classes, women were shut off from society and were expected to manage the household and raise children. The lower classes granted women more freedom, but she was still subject to her husband. Merchant class women, for example, were expected to help manage the household and provide help with the family business. Farming class women helped plant the fields in addition to her household duties.

However, ama in the Shima area flipped these expectations. In some situations, the husband assisted her. He would wait topside for her to tug on her safety rope. Then, he would haul her up and help with her catch. During the Tokugawa period, these women were seen as strong and a match for their husbands. Many started their profession as children to continue to dive well into their 80s (LeBlanc, 2015).

When the husbands were away, ama dived in groups. Each woman would tie themselves to a wooden bucket that acted as a float. Diving in groups helped reduce danger, but whenever you dive up to 30 feet in cold water for up to 2 minutes, people can die. In a typical day, these women dive 100-150 times (Tanaka, 2016). Ama developed a culture of beliefs and practices to help reduce this danger.

Superstitions of the Ama

Ama fishing villages feature a special temple for the women to pray before heading off and their own communal warming huts for when they return from a cold day’s work. They developed their own protective symbols. The seiman, or 5-pointed star, adorn their head scarves and tools. Written in a single stroke, starting and ending at the same point, the star represents their safe return to the surface. Another design, the dohman,  a lattice design that keeps danger away and represents watchfulness. Before each dive, the women knock on the side of the boat with their chisel and recite a short mantra (LeBlanc, 2015).

Ama diving. Photo by Fosco Maraini 1954.

Men ama divers exist, but the profession is dominated by women. Diving is done relatively close to shore. While men took trips out into open waters, women could dive nearby to help the family’s income. Men would take the best boats, while women could make do with less seaworthy craft. Women were also thought to be better at diving than men. First, women have an extra layer of fat that helps them tolerate cold water better than men (LeBlanc, 2015). Women were also thought to be better able to hold their breath and for longer than men (Tanaka, 2016).

Today’s Ama

Ama is a dying profession. Several reasons go into this. First, young women don’t have any interest in learning the special breathing techniques ama have perfected. Second, the profession doesn’t pay. While their staple crop abalone can net $80.00 for 2lbs, abalone are getting harder to find due to overfishing and environmental changes (McCurry, 2016). Ama is a sustainable fishing system. It allows the diver to be selective. While the lack of nets and other gear protects the environment, oceans face pressures from industrial methods that impacts the ability of ama to find their catches. The profession may soon disappear because of these factors.

Topless Diving and the Mysterious, Exotic Orient

I have to comment on the images I chose to use. For a good portion of Japanese history, nudity among women carried little shame, particularly for the lower classes. Nudity is natural. I selected these images because they are a part of history. It was a part of who the ama were. That said, these photos were often intended for Western audiences. Soon after Japan opened, postcards of the exotic East began to be sent by visitors. Geisha, samurai, and ama numbered among the topics Westerners considered strange. Topless women who dived in cold waters. How strange! How erotic!

Never mind they dived nearly nude for safety. Clothing could snag on rocks. Although after the 1900s, many wore cotton gowns.

The exoticness of Japan was fetishized by the West since Japan modernized in the late 1800s. Today, Japanese women face continued fetishes by many Western men. These photos are not intended to cater to either fetish. Rather, I decided to use them to give a glimpsed of the women called ama while pointing out how these glimpses need to be understood. Today we sexualize far too much.  The women you saw in this article felt the cold salt water on their skin. They knew hunger and joy. They were mothers and grandmothers. These photographs provide a small window in their lives, a window distorted by Western exoticism and by modern sexuality.

References

LeBlanc, P. (2015). UT professor studies group of traditional Japanese pearl divers. Austin American-Statesman.

McCurry, J. (2016) “Japan’s women of the sea hope G7 will boost their dying way of life; The ama divers of the Shima peninsula, who harvest shellfish from the seabed, see the nearby gathering of world leaders as a chance to promote their culture”. The Guardian (London).

Martinez, D. (2004) Identity and Ritual in A Japanese Diving Village: The Making and Becoming of Person and Place. University of Hawaii Press.

Tanaka, H. and others (2016) “Arterial Stiffness of lifelong Japanese female pearl divers.” Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 310.

Photos are by Yoshiyuki Iwase unless otherwise noted.

Gender Expectations of Edo Period Japan

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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.

References

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