Japanese Women

Gender Roles in the Japanese Religious and Social Traditions: Subjugation and Isolation as a Means of Domination

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For whatever reason, most cultures in recorded history seem to be largely patriarchal, favoring the masculine over the feminine and significantly reducing the roles that women are expected or even allowed to play in the public and political spheres. Buddhism and Shintoism, the two major religions in Japanese history especially prior to the modern era, are perhaps not as staunchly patriarchal in their mythology, their institutions, and their practices as are many more common and more , however these religions still helped to form a patriarchy out of the archipelago. As with so many areas of the world, Japan was essentially left with half a history in the story of its men while the story of its women was largely to be kept silent. The following paragraphs trace certain evidence of female subjugation and the limitation of gender roles in Japanese history.

Boundaries and Barriers

The division that existed between the two genders during Japanese history is made quite clear in much of the literature and many of the practices of the time. Buddhism was far from immune from this type of division and from the male domination that it led to; women in Buddhism were not thought to be capable of the same type or level of spiritual success but were explicitly considered to be inferior to and separate from men seeking enlightenment. This was illustrated both implicitly and explicitly in many ways in the religion and in the social practices it engendered, with perhaps the greatest clarity in this division demonstrated in the physical separation and isolation of women from sacred mountains and the Buddhist monasteries established there. The closest that women were allowed to come to these mountainous holy places were “specifically designated buildings, called women’s halls (nyonindo), which were placed outside the kekkai area” (“Arriva of Buddhism,” p. 44). That accommodations were made for women indicates that they were still considered to be worthy of some attention and were capable of some spiritual blossoming, which in truth is more credit than women were given in many contemporary cultures, yet at the same time it makes it clear that a woman’s place was not to be found in the ardent seeking of spiritual progress and enlightenment, but rather women are relegated to an outside realm of lesser spirituality. Their roles and tasks were considered more temporal, not entirely separate from spiritual pursuits but not of the same elevation as masculine efforts in both a figurative and, in the case of the mountain holy places, a literal sense. There is a sense that women could support and care for men and for masculine spiritual pursuits, and that this might in fact be the highest level at which a woman could serve society and even herself.

Buddhism was not the only major Japanese religion during the nation’s development, nor was it the only source (or effect) of a patriarchal system that designated lower and more subservient personal and social roles to women, but Shintoism also shows clear strains of masculine domination and a patriarchal schema It is impossible to say with any certainty whether a existed that helped to influence the development of religion and society or if the religions of the archipelago helped to instill this masculine-centric attitude into the populous, but regardless the separation of gender roles and the subjugation of women can be seen throughout both religious and social examples of Japanese life. Even a Shinto shrine that is especially revered as reflecting a compromise between the genders and that is sought after for help in marriage troubles does not provide a picture of true equality or even cooperation between the genders. Instead, it exists because Princess Yamato, married to a deity, became frightened when she saw her husband in the from of a snake. Her husband reprimands her harshly, saying, “Thou didst not contain thyself, but hast caused me shame: I will in my turn put thee to shame” (Tsunoda et al., p. 33). The husband-god leaves and treks up the mountain, abandoning his wife because she showed fear in his presence; she kills herself as a result of her own shame. This story is meant to illustrate the holiness of their union, but it also illustrates the degree to which women — even a princess and wife of a god — were expected to be subservient to the point of absolute emotional control. The princess’ sin is that she allowed her own natural reaction to come forth, and she pays for this “mistake” with her life.

Even outside religious spheres of influence, women in historical Japan were still largely objectified and subjugated by the patriarchal power systems, as many examples of Japanese literature can illustrate. A brief passage from the Tale of Genji demonstrates precisely how women were viewed in Japanese society, at least by some, and shows the degree of contempt or dismissiveness with which women even of the highest social ranks could be treated. Speaking with a friend about women and love, Genji is told to “divide women into three classes. Those of high rank and birth are made such a fuss of and their weak points are so completely concealed that we are certain to be told they are paragons. About those of the middle class everyone is allowed to express his own opinion, and we shall have much conflicting evidence to sift. As for the lower classes, they do not concern us” (Varley, p. 66). Simply put, women of all classes are objects to be scrutinied, classified, and categorized based on external judgments made by men (it is interesting to note that “everyone” is automatically excluded to “all males” in the above passage), and even after such scrutiny the idea of finding a woman who is truly worthy by some objective standard appears to be rather far-fetched. Lower class women are not even worthy of consideration, middle class women are too difficult to examine because everyone can say whatever they like about such women and thus the truth is hard to find (because it would be foolish, of course, to let each woman’s character and identity speak for itself), and finally upper class women are bound to be spoiled. Women have no real place or even identity except as it is defined by the men of society and of their lives, according to this passage.


Japanese culture was not as harsh towards women as certain other patriarchal societies of the time, but there is a clear division of gender roles and a clear subjugation of women in this system. Understanding and acknowledging this division and the role that Buddhism and Shintoism played in the development and/or reflection of this gender division and hierarchy is essential to properly understanding Japanese history and literature and the development of Japanese society. It also helps to understand the patriarchal biases that exist in Japanese society today.