Gender and Power in Classical Japan (part 2 of 3)

11 May

Both a tradition of matriarchy and the principle of divine reign, then, are indigenous institutions native to Japan prior to any considerable Chinese contact—both conventions, therefore, were challenged by the extension of Confucian ideals and values throughout Japan during the Nara period.  This collision of native and foreign traditions reached a climax during the two reigns of Koken Tenno, “the last classical female sovereign” (Pigott 47) of Japan.

Throughout her time in power, Koken, previously Princess Abe, used the native Japanese notion of descent from the Sun Line to assert her right to rule when faced with opposition from members of the Japanese elite.

At the ceremony marking Koken’s ascension and her father Shomu’s retirement, both used language intended to emphasize this principle of divine kingship: “such is my will as a numinous being,” Koken declares, “let all attend to my command” (Pigott 55).

In addition to recalling the Sun Line myth, Koken also employed Buddhist religious values to justify her reign and counter the secular influence of Confucian ideals and standards—styling herself a “bodhisattva ruler,” Koken proceeded to, for the first time in Japanese history, integrate Buddhist clerical leaders into the official royal administration, “establishing parallel hierarchies of Buddhist prelates and secular ministers to advise her” (Pigott 62).  These Buddhist elite in the imperial bureaucracy provided a counterbalance to the secular ministerial elite, who formed the core of Confucian devotees in Japan.

Koken Tenno’s self-conscious establishment of herself as a religious ruler—during her second reign, after all, she had already shaved her head and taken vows as a Buddhist nun—echoes the model of China’s Empress Wu of the mid-7th century.

“While she patronized Confucian scholarship”—as did Koken, who in 757 CE ordered that provincial leaders be supplied with copies of the Classic on Filial Piety—Wu Zhao was also “all too aware that the Confucian establishment was antifeminist” (Murphey 83).

Though she was overthrown by a coup in the early 8th century, her attempt to use Buddhism to legitimize the unprecedented royal authority of the first and only female Chinese emperor provided an example for Koken Tenno on the use of religious imagery to combat the secular Confucian values of patriarchy.  Wu Zhao, like Koken would do later, framed herself as a “living bodhisattva,” avidly playing the part by “conducting vegetarian feasts, sponsoring Buddhist translation projects, constructing Buddhist temples, and inviting famous Buddhist monks to lecture” (Murphey 83).

Confucian gender roles proved no less patriarchal in Japan than in Empress Wu’s China—while the reign of Koken Tenno falls into what is called the Nara period due to the Japanese capital being located at the city of Nara, this time during the 7th and 8th centuries is also called, in reference to the strict new Confucian legal code adopted at the time, the “ritsuryo period” (Rozman 117).

The Ritsuryo Codes, a legal system directly established on the Chinese model, emphasized the importance of patterning both public and family life after Confucian ideals of hierarchy, particularly the five cardinal relationships: “ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder and younger brother, and friends” (Rozman 123).

This rigid hierarchical system undermined the gender complementarity of traditional Sun Line mythology.  In contrast to Koken’s father Shomu’s belief in a “gender-paired rulership”—Shomu saying “Should daughters go unrewarded?  It is fitting that both serve together” (Pigott 54)—the ascending Confucian idea of filial duty saw men and women as opposites, not complements.

This is an except from a paper written for a University of Alabama Asian Civ course.  My sources will be included at the end of part 3.  This is a subtle reminder to please cite your own sources if using any of the info here– “subtle” being defined as obnoxiously obvious.


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