In the Ritsuryo Codes, “admonitions to filial and wifely subordination remained the officially sanctioned family and social virtues” (Rozman 121), ideals which were spread throughout the upper echelons of society in state-sponsored schools intended to mirror similar Chinese educational structures.
While Chinese bureaucracy and administration had been based on a merit system since the Qin dynasty—a system of state-wide examinations on the Chinese classics providing entrance into ministerial positions for promising students of all social ranks—the new Japanese schools continued to be dominated by the aristocracy. In Japan, “the hereditary principle proved stronger than claims of merit” (Rozman 118).
For this reason, strict adherence to Confucian social and domestic patterns did not extend very far below the ranks of the Nara nobility. Though the Ritsuryo Codes legally subordinated wives to husbands, in practice, marriage among commoners in this period still preserved the matriarchal shape of early Japanese society.
In non-aristocratic families, marriage was often “uxorilocal,” or “based on the wife’s residence and on visits to the woman” (Rozman 121), as opposed to the Chinese patriarchal model where even the wives and children of commoners would traditionally live in the home of the husband or husband’s father.
The loss of female authority after Koken Tenno’s reign, then, is less a referendum on the widespread diffusion of Confucian ideas of gender distinction throughout Japanese society in its entirety than it is a catalyst for the resurgence of the already established hierarchical mindset among the Japanese aristocracy.
The 3rd century Account of the Three Kingdoms reflects this by describing, along with the relative common occurrence of female rulers, the “class distinctions among the people, and some men are vassals of others… when lowly men meet men of importance on the road, they stop and withdraw to the roadside… in conveying messages to them they either squat or kneel” (Murphey 208).
Early social stratification is also reflected in the archeological record: the same mound tombs which held haniwa figures of female shamans also serve as an index of wealth and prestige—ornate mounds with greater quantities of offerings indicate that the entombed was one of the “men of importance,” signs of an elite nobility which predates the original clans’ unification into a state.
This first state of the Yamato, after all, is believed to have begun as a “consolidation of various uji groups… clans ruled by hereditary chiefs and worshipping the clan’s ancestor” (Murphey 210). The much later failure of the national education system to include lower classes, and the consequent inability of Confucian gender roles to percolate through the general populace, can be seen as a consequence of the dominance of this historical, even pre-historical, hereditary elite.
By justifying the marginalization of female rulers in terms of filial piety and domestic harmony, Confucianism allowed the aristocracy to reassert itself.
As an example, the traditional Japanese “affinal strategy” barred princesses or other female members of the royal family from marrying a man outside of the royal kin (Piggot 65).
Powerful aristocratic families would be more inclined to back princes as heirs to the throne, as they, unlike royal women, were permitted to marry daughters of influential officials—by championing a philosophy which limited the pool of contenders for the throne, elite families increased their chances of making a beneficial alliance with the royal family by means of their own daughters.
Finally, the instability of Koken Tenno’s two reigns “led court leaders to the conclusion that female succession resulted in problems for court” (Piggot 65)—and a volatile court meant insecurity among the Japanese elite in regard to their own positions and influence.
Ultimately, the decline of female authority hinged not on mass popular acceptance of Confucianism, but on the strength of a deeply rooted hierarchical system which, unlike the equally long-standing traditions of matriarchy and gender complementarity, could coexist with the compelling Chinese model.
Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007. Print.
Piggot, Joan R. The Last Classical Female Sovereign: Koken Shotoku Tenno. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, Print.
Rozman, Gilbert. The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and its Modern Adaptation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. Print.
“Selections from the Analects.” Confucius and the Analects. Print.