Gender and Power in Classical Japan (part 1 of 3)

11 May

Though the Nara period of the 8th century saw the adoption of Confucian values and ideals into Japanese society, and in particular their application to gender roles and the status of women, the cultural link between China and the “land of Wa” (Murphey 208) had already been forged a century before.

While trade has, in most parts of the world and periods of history, been an effective, if mainly passive and gradual, means of cross-cultural contact, Prince Shotoku of the Yamato court set the precedent for active seeking after cultural exchange; in the early 7th century, Shotoku sent the first large-scale, official embassies to China from Japan, “determined to tap the riches of Chinese civilization at their source and to bring back to Japan everything they could learn or transplant” (Murphey 213).

In these centrally-planned delegations, traders were generally replaced by emissaries who could best bring back cultural, rather than material, commodities: students, scholars, artists, and monks, among others.  But while these delegations early on established a pattern for vibrant cultural exchange, the Sinification of Japanese institutions, seen most clearly during the Nara period, resulted in an abandonment of indigenous matriarchal traditions for new legal codes and societal values which eroded female authority.

One of the earliest accounts of Japanese culture and governance comes from the Chinese—this Account of the Three Kingdoms, believed to have been written about 290 CE, describes Japanese society as a collection of “clans… some ruled by kings and some by queens” (Murphey 208).

At this early period of decentralized clans, therefore, a patriarchal system had yet to achieve cultural hegemony.

Women, the Chinese record indicates, also played a significant role in important divinatory and ritualistic matters.  According to the Account of the Three Kingdoms, one prominent local leader was “an unmarried queen who as a kind of high priestess ruled over several ‘kingdoms,’ or clans, and was considered important enough to have one of the largest tombs and mounds erected for her on her death” (Murphey 208).

These tombs, along with the relatively crude clay haniwa figurines found in and around them, are believed to date to as far back as the 3rd century CE—the presence of haniwa pottery depicting female shamans indicates that the Chinese account of a priestess-queen was not an anomaly, but instead reveals matriarchy as a relatively common pattern in early Japanese society.

Early legends and mythology, too, highlight the significance of women in Japanese religious tradition, at least before the introduction of Buddhism and the later Confucianism.

Though rulers used the Chinese honorific of “emperor” even at the first formation of a Japanese state from the previously independent clans, these leaders nonetheless rejected the predominantly secular basis of Chinese government and established instead a principle of divine kingship.  While Chinese emperors legitimized their reigns by claiming to rule by the “Mandate of Heaven,” tianming, this was an essentially political, not religious, term—in Confucius and the Analects, tianming is also translated as “what is ordained by Heaven” (Analects 2:4).

Contrarily, Japanese emperors claimed direct descent from heaven, not simply the wisdom to act in accordance with its wishes.  Legitimacy for Japanese rulers was based on descent from the Sun Line, those who “allegedly descended directly from the sun goddess Amaterasu… the titular deity of Japan” (Murphey 206).  Significantly, this mythical founder of the Japanese royal line is a woman.

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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