Women in ancient Japan is, like so much else in early Japanese history, filled with missing parts. We know very little about Japan before the advent of writing, so piecing together women’s lives and contributions to early Japanese history is as difficult as piecing together the lives and histories of the early Japanese. In the Nara and Heian periods, we are fortunate to have a well-developed, thriving, literate community of women both surrounding the court of the emperor as well as in the lesser courts of regional governors. This picture, however, is as distorted as our picture of Japanese society during the Heian period: we are limited entirely to the upper classes, their lives, and their values. The experience and values of women and women’s communities for the vast majority of ancient Japanese is simply unavailable to us; just as we can barely figure out the culture and world views of the everyday ancient Japanese, so we cannot even guess the nature of women’s communities and the roles that women played in rural and village communities and economies.
In the first mention of Japan in Chinese history—the Chinese called Japan, “Wa”—there is a fairly brief discussion of Japanese women. The Chinese writers claim that there is no social distinction between men and women and remarks that there have even been women rulers in Japan. The history also claims that women served as religious shamans and regularly participated in ceremonials. Its difficult, however, to extrapolate from this Chinese history to the reality that the Chinese encountered. First, the Chinese are attempting in their description of “Wa” to define the Japanese as backward; in this same history, they talk about Japanese lack of decorum. Is their discussion of women an accurate representation or is it simply a fiction designed to show that the Japanese are less socially stratified—and hence less civilized—than the Chinese? For instance, in the same history, the writers claim that the Japanese also practice polygyny, or the marriage of more than one wife. Nobility, they claim, marry upwards of five women while commoners typically have two or three wives. Is polygyny compatible with female equality? Does a culture that allows men to marry more than one woman, but not vice versa, a culture which does not stratify people based on gender? Does a woman who is a second, third, or fourth wife feel that she is equal to her husband? Besides this, all evidence we have indicates that the individual clans, or uji , were ruled by men.
The Shinto religion provides some clues to early Japanese society, but they are fleeting and somewhat hallucinatory. Because so much foreign material, particularly South Asian and Chinese religious practices, have accumulated on top of Shinto, its difficult to sort out original Shinto from its hybrid descendants. The cult of Amaterasu, the creator goddess, suggests that Shinto before Buddhism was a strongly matriarchal relgion in a strongly patriarchal culture. While most religions, including Hebraism and Chinese religions, have their origins in goddess religions, Shinto is one of the few religions in a patriarchal culture that did not abandon the overall form of a matriarchal religion. This suggests that female shamanism was highly likely in Japan before the advent of Buddhism, although there is no physical evidence for it (nor is there evidence for male shamanism, either—there is only evidence for Shinto shamanism).
One can conclude little or nothing about the status of women in early Japan from the haniwa figurines from the tumuli period. The only distinguishing feature between most figurines labelled as male and those labelled as female are that the male figurines represent some economic function while the “female” figurines are more abstract. These are more likely modern impositions; figurines representing hunters or othe economic functions could very well be female figurines, though we naturally assume, from our own modern perspective, that they’re male.
In the early centuries AD, the Japanese ruling classes became powerful enough to build large tomb-mounds, called tumuli (this is Latin, in Japanese, they’re calledkofun ). The best picture we have of early Japanese life is afforded by the small clay figurines, called haniwa that were deposited in these tumuli. Their nature or purpose is unknown. Are they magic? Departing gifts? Needless to say, they provide a valuable picture of early Japanese life, particularly the haniwa of houses. The figurines also represent men and women, and the earliest haniwa do not make a clear distinction between men and women. However, as haniwa artists developed their art, the human figurines became more differentiated and far more male figurines are produced than female figurines. The male figurines are highly differentiated—many of them represent clear occupations, such as farmer, hunters, or farmers. The female haniwa , however, tend to remain undifferentiated, which implies that in the early Japanese imagination, women do not occupy a range of economic activities. This was probably not the reality. In all cultures, women occupy a huge variety of economic functions but are often culturally imagined as occupying a small range of occupations or existing outside the economic sphere. The development of haniwa suggest that the early Japanese did not strongly differentiate men from women in the earliest AD centuries, but slowly developed a cultural imagination that configured men in a variety of concrete social functions while limiting women to abstract or socially non-representational roles.
Court life, however, seemed a different matter. While the Chinese histories talk about an Empress Himiko in the second century A.D., the only comparable figure in the Nara period or slightly before was Empress Suiko (reigned 592-628 A.D.) a few decades before the Nara period. Even so, she handed the business of running the government over to her son, Prince Mumayado, who took the title Shotoku. Still, she made important decisions, such as declaring war against Silla, a kingdom in Korea.
While we know little of early Shinto and women’s roles in the religion, the introduction of Buddhism certainly introduced a pervasive and dramatic gender inequality in religious life. In the Buddhism imported from China, women were deeply mistrusted; many Buddhists believed that salvation was out of the question for women. The Buddhist monastic communities were entirely male and Buddhist monks only accepted males as their students. The only Buddhist life available to women was that of seclusion as a nun; such a life, however, deprived the female aspirant of the human community that is the cornerstone of Buddhist life and philosophy. We don’t know how women specifically responded to Buddhism and its pronounced gender inequality; the women of the Heian period, however, would forge a distinctly separate Buddhist community and understanding.
Despite this, we know little of women’s lives outside the upper classes. At most, only a couple thousand individuals belonged to the upper classes in some respect. Outside the imperial court, the upper classes moved in very small numbers in relative isolation. Even though we have access to the subjective experience of women in a way unprecedented for early cultures, we are still only accessing the barest of minorities.