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Role and Social Status of Women in Early Japan by Faraz Abdullah


Archeologists have substantiated the existence of an ancient peoples who lived in Japan from 10,000 b.c. to 300 b.c.  These people, known as the Jomon, created towards the middle period of Jomon culture, a large quantity of clay figurines.  These figurines appear to be of religious significance and many of them happen to be female.  This large number of female religious symbols seems to indicate a possible early form of Goddess Worship among the Jomon, though their culture was lost forever with the settlement of Yayoi immigrants from the northlands of China. 



The earliest mention of Japan in historical texts is an account from the ancient Chinese in the year 57 a.d.  This first account referred to Japan as "Wa", and provided an interesting view of early Japanese life.  The Chinese wrote that the Japanese were a splintered group of tribal peoples, scattered about the land.  They described an uncouth society with little sophistication, and this superior attitude seems to color much of the initial account.  With this in mind, the Chinese did leave us with a small glimpse into the social stratification of early Japan. 

It seems that the Japanese of 57 a.d. made very little distinction between the sexes.  Women were depicted as being equal to men, it is claimed that there had already been women rulers.  By these early Chinese accounts, women also served as religious leaders and conductors of various ceremonies.  Bear in mind however that the Chinese may simply have been embellishing the truth in order to make the Japanese appear as culturally and socially underdeveloped.  After all, these self same reports claim that the Japanese were practitioners of Polygamy, or the marriage of one man to multiple wives simultaneously.  This does not seem congruent with a society depicted as being equalitarian in its view of women.

Another questionable source of information regarding the societal roles of women in ancient Japan is the historical accounts of the Shinto religion.  It is very likely, however, that these reports have been distorted by the South Asian and Chinese origins of the religion.  Reference is made in the early Shinto texts to a tribal or cult worship of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.  This illustrates the possibility that Shintoism was initially a Matriarchal system of worship which valued women and which stayed true to form in a Patriarchal society.  As pointed out by Richard Hooker [see bibliography], this indicates possible female shamanism in early Japanese culture, even though there is no direct evidence to support this. 

Some of the first intrinsically Japanese accounts of their own social structure come from the early centuries A.D.  During this time, the procedure of creating large key-shaped burial mounds (known to the Japanese as Kofun) became popular as a means of displaying the social status of the deceased.  (It is interesting to note that the Kofun of the Yamato King Nintoku was longer than 5 football fields and had twice the volume of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt!).  Within these burial mounds were placed mysterious figures known as haniwa.  Though the exact purposes of these small clay figurines is unknown, the later haniwa began to make social distinctions between males and females.  The male figures were depicted in all manner of economic occupations, such as farming or hunting, whereas the female figures were much less defined in terms of occupation.  This would indicate the beginnings of an intellectually derived class distinction between the men and women of ancient Japan.  In the minds of the ancient Japanese, men were given the roles of economic provider while the women were relegated to non-action and an almost docile way of life. 



By the Nara, or Tenpyo, period in Japanese history (710-794) women had played an equal role in modern Japanese life.  There had even been a few Japanese Empresses, like Empress Himiko in the 2nd century A.D. and Empress Suiko (mother of Prince Shotoku) who reigned from 592 to 628 a.d., and women had held an equal role in household duties, even though these were distributed according to gender.  All this was seriously inhibited by the arrival and spreading of the Buddhist religion. 



Buddhism is decidedly male-centered in that it all but prohibits women from gaining salvation, one of its main principles.  Buddhist monasteries were entirely populated by men and the monks accepted only men as apprentices.  Furthermore, the single recourse offered to women of the time by the Buddhism imported from China, was the secluded life of a nun.  But this seclusion was in itself a violation of the Buddhist belief in the importance of human community. 

In the following Heian period (794-1192), the court women of ancient Japan left us with a startling account of their lives.  The Heian period is known for its abundant quantity of female written literature, which in fact dominated the period.  It is during this time that we see the popularization of a literature form known as Nikki.  These self-styled accounts of the lives of women, written by those women, provides us with a good understanding of what it was like to live at an ancient Japanese court.  Apparently the men of the time were notoriously unfaithful, and gossip was the main topic of conversation.  Some of these diaries are heralded as the finest works of Japanese literature in all of antiquity! 

Also during this period, the Heian court women adopted a form of Buddhism based on the worship of the Lotus Sutra and bodhisattva Fugen.  The Lotus Sutra is the principle Buddhist text concerned with the salvation of women, and Fugen is the protector bodhisattva of the disciples of the Lotus Sutra.  Thus did the women of the time adopt Fugen as their protector spirit. 


This was soon replaced by the worship of Amida, or Pure Land, Buddhism.  Amidism became very popular with the upper class of Japanese, especially the women, because it offered something that the esoteric Buddhism imported from China years earlier could not:  Salvation.  Unlike esoteric Buddhism, Amidism made salvation something equally accessible to men and women, without the blind sexist slant of the previous forms of Buddhism that had taken root in Japan.  Finally, women were once again on equal footing with the men of ancient Japan. 



  • HOOKER, Richard, "Ancient Japan", The World Cultures Homepage, http://www.wsu.edu:8000/~dee/
  • Various, Microsoft Encarta 98 Electronic Encyclopedia, The Microsoft Corporation, 1997.
  • SALIBA, John A., "Japanese Ancestral Worship", Microsoft Encarta 98 Electronic Encyclopedia, The Microsoft Corporation, 1997.