The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

by Marcia Yonemoto

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Early modern Japan was a military-bureaucratic state governed by patriarchal and patrilineal principles and laws. During this time, however, women had considerable power to directly affect social structure, political practice, and economic production. This apparent contradiction between official norms and experienced realities lies at the heart of The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan. Examining prescriptive literature and instructional manuals for women—as well as diaries, memoirs, and letters written by and about individual women from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century—Marcia Yonemoto explores the dynamic nature of Japanese women’s lives during the early modern era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292000
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes , #31
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,042,991
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Marcia Yonemoto is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Mapping Early Modern Japan: Space, Place, and Culture in the Tokugawa Period (1603–1868).

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The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

By Marcia Yonemoto


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96558-4


Filial Piety

Among human practices, none is greater than xiao [filial piety].

— Confucius, from the Shuo Yuan, Lau and Chen, eds., A Concordance to the Shuo Yuan

Father and mother are like heaven and earth, father-in-law and mother-in-law are like moon and sun.

— Isome Tsuna, Onna jitsugokyo (1695)

In the early Tokugawa period, the ideals for women's filial behavior articulated in published texts centered on the image of the devoted wife, often an empress or woman of high rank from the distant past, who served her husband and her lord through her wise counsel and compassionate acts. But by the latter part of the early modern era, popular exemplars of filial piety included two young sisters, daughters of a peasant, who swore vengeance on the murderer of their father and ultimately cut down the perpetrator in public with their swords. What happens when devotion to parents compels a daughter to act in ways that defy convention or violate the laws of the state? Why did the nature of exemplary filial piety — and the status of the "exemplars" themselves — change so dramatically over time? Was filial piety for women a principle or a problem?

This chapter addresses the questions posed by filial piety as they are revealed in two sets of sources: a corpus of biographies of "exemplary women" published between the mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth century, which were meant to serve as models for contemporary women's behavior; and diaries and memoirs written by literate women of varying statuses and places of origin dating from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. With regard to the first set of sources, I trace the changes in ideals of filial piety through three collections of biographies of exemplary women, Asai Ryoi's Honcho jokan sho (Mirror of Women of Our Realm, 1661), the anonymously authored Honcho onna nijushi ko (Twenty-Four Tales of Women's Filial Piety in Our Realm, 1713), and Matsudaira Yorinori's Daito fujo teiretsu ki (Record of Exemplary Women in the Great East, 1801). These biographies were intended to function primarily as didactic literature for women. Like most instructional manuals, they most likely were not read by women themselves in the early Tokugawa period, but by the latter part of the era they formed part of a broad range of literature aimed at and read by women. Equally important, the biographies were also meant to be entertaining and therefore were heavily embellished.

The second set of sources serve as a touchstone throughout the book. In this chapter I focus on the writings of Inoue Tsujo (1660–1738), the literary prodigy who left home in her early twenties to serve as tutor to the mother of the lord of her domain; the diaries of Nakayama Suzuko (b. 1675), wife of a daimyo and daughter of a vassal killed in his prime by his own lord; and the many letters that Ito Maki (1797–1862), a commoner woman who assiduously climbed the social ladder to become the wife of a shogunal retainer, or hatamoto, wrote to her parents. These narratives, and others introduced in subsequent chapters, give us insight into women's lives and thoughts in ways instructional texts do not. Here they show how women and their families acted in accordance with filial principle but also, in doing so, reinvented the concept. As both the discursive and narrative sources in this chapter show, contrary to the common equation of filial piety with passivity and obedience to authority, filial behavior for women was defined by action — namely, action undertaken by women in the service of their families and themselves.


At first glance, filial piety (Ch: xiao; J: ko), defined as loyalty and obedience to one's elders and superiors, seems an unambiguous concept. But when we examine filial piety more closely, we see that complications and contradictions abound, especially regarding the evolution of norms for filial behavior by women. In early modern Japan and throughout East Asia, filial piety stood at the very core of the Confucian values that fundamentally shaped politics, society, and culture. However, like any concept evolving over two millennia, filial piety was not and is not one easily definable thing. Even in early Chinese thought, views on the subject diverged, with Confucian thinkers articulating a view of xiao as honoring and obeying one's ancestors, one's parents, and one's lord, while Daoist thinkers emphasized a free-spirited and less ritualistic sense of reverence for elders. Liu Xiang's Lienü zhuan (Biographies of Exemplary Women, ca. 77–76 B.C.E.) has long been acknowledged as the locus classicus of the Confucian view on women's filiality, elevating the highly idealized "exemplary woman" (lienü) as a model for behavior and comportment. At the same time, the Lienü zhuan and many of the texts that followed in its tradition went beyond concerns with gender roles and proper behavior for women and touched on broader issues relating social order to individual morality. Equally important was the Daoist-influenced concept of xianyuan (virtuous and talented ladies), learned and free-spirited women who acted on their beliefs and in doing so "transcended the virtues of obedience and submission that the male world had imposed on them."

Debates over the nature and practice of filial piety in China continued for generations. Its distinctively reciprocal yet hierarchical nature made filial piety the model for the subject-ruler relationship that undergirded the Chinese imperial system as well as the political systems throughout East Asia. In Korea, for example, the imperial court during the Choson dynasty (1392–1910) subscribed to a rigorously orthodox form of Neo-Confucianism that institutionalized filial piety by legislating ancestor worship and enforcing the principles of patrilineal descent and male primogeniture, but it did so in great part because such practices had not been widely enforced in preceding eras. In early modern Japan, although it did not exclusively dominate the ideological field, Neo-Confucian thought flourished under the patronage of the early Tokugawa shoguns; accordingly, scholarly as well as popular texts emphasized the value of filial piety and the importance of the patrilineal family as the embodiment of the social, political, and cosmic order. From the early seventeenth century on, both domainal governments and the shogunate began issuing commendations for filial piety and other "virtuous acts." On the domainal side, the best-documented case is Okayama, which began issuing commendations for "good deeds" by its people in 1601. It was not until 1801, however, in the aftermath of yet another attempt to shore up Confucian values, that the shogunate published the Kankoku kogiroku (Official Record of Filial Piety), a list of individuals throughout the country who had been commended for filial piety from the founding of the regime to the time of the record's compilation. The majority of the awards date from after 1680, with a peak between 1750 and 1797. The awardees were overwhelmingly male, but women were also commended, the vast majority under the category "filial piety," followed rather distantly by those commended for "chastity." In contrast to the situation in late imperial China, women in Tokugawa Japan were commended for filial acts toward both natal parents and in-laws. This may have encouraged not only the types of behavior seen in filial piety tales but also, as we shall see in subsequent chapters, the decisions made by women and their families as they considered the marriage, childbearing, and succession options available to them.


Norms and ideals of filial behavior for men and women became well established in early modern Japan not only through official policy but also through the dissemination of published texts in the Confucian tradition. Among the most popular texts on filial piety were the collections of biographies of exemplary women (restsujoden) modeled on Liu Xiang's Han dynasty text. The Japanese texts, like their predecessors, sought to inculcate filial behavior by describing the filial actions of exemplary women from the past and present, with the hope of inspiring women in the present to live and act like them. By examining the changes in the content and structure of the tales themselves over time, we can see how filial piety formed part of a broader public discourse on womanhood, one that evolved with the shifting social and political conditions of the times.

The primary way in which official ideals diverged from popular discourse on filial piety can be seen in the Kankoku kogiroku's position on violence in the service of filiality. Official policy stated specifically that vendettas were not to be considered filial acts, and individuals would not be commended for executing them. The text relegates vendettas to the Appendix, where they are listed as "extraordinary deeds." This attitude falls in line with the shogunate's preference for the rule of law over vertical ties of loyalty, as depicted, for example, in the punishment meted out to the loyal but lawbreaking retainers in Chushingura. By taming the violence of the vendetta while promoting acceptable expressions of filial piety for women, the shogunate tried to temper the emotional excess of otherwise commendable acts of loyalty. However, in spite of this prohibition, popular interest in vendettas remained high, revenge plots fueled by filial devotion continued to be represented in popular discourse, and the image of the filial child as crusading avenger gained considerable currency in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular culture. Many of the biographies of exemplary women discussed here were loosely based on actual lives, but some were largely invented, and several of these life stories were retold and reshaped in fiction and drama. The blend of the actual and the imaginary, rather than decreasing the authority of exemplary women tales, lent them narrative power and increased their appeal to a growing popular audience.

"Honcho jokan sho" (1661)

In 1661 Asai Ryoi (d. 1691), an up-and-coming writer of vernacular literature, published one of the first collections of tales of virtuous women, Honcho jokan sho (Mirror of Women of Our Realm). Following the Chinese model fairly closely, he grouped short biographical accounts of some twenty-one women into five categories of virtue: wisdom, compassion, righteous principle, chastity, and persuasive skill (bentsu). All of these exemplary figures were women of high status — noblewomen, wives of officials or high-ranking warriors, or, in the case of the last category, women writers of some repute — and all had lived (or in the case of legendary or mythological figures, were said to have lived) in Japan in the fairly distant past. As in classical Chinese exemplar literature, these individuals were not "real" people but composites of ideals, and they were meant to function as models for the behavior of contemporary women.

While concerned with the didactic function of their writings, authors of popular fiction like Asai Ryoi also were keenly aware of the need to attract and maintain the reader's attention. As a result, the tales he recounted do not lack dramatic flair, a touch of the unbelievable, and a healthy dose of the supernatural. "Wise" women, for example, include such figures as Empress Jingu, wife of Emperor Chüai and a legendary sovereign in her own right, whose exploits in the third century C.E. are recorded in Japan's first written history, the Nihon shoki (Records of Japan, 720 C.E.). According to the Nihon shoki, Empress Jingu's sage leadership and understanding of the Heavenly Way allowed her to overcome her husband's poor judgment and guide Japanese military forces to conquer the kingdoms of the Korean peninsula — a victory that was no less satisfying for being entirely fictional. "Compassionate" women include admirable figures such as Empress Komyo (ca. 701–60), a devout Buddhist and savior of the impoverished and the sick, who is said to have established a public bathing house at which she herself scrubbed the bodies of a thousand poor people. In the ultimate act of compassion, when told by a wandering leper that he would be cured if she sucked the pus from his wounds, the empress willingly did so, whereupon the leper transformed into the bodhisattva of healing, Yakushi Nyorai, who was liberated by Empress Komyo's actions to care for all beings. Women with "persuasive skills" fill a category grounded in the Lienu zhuan's model of the value of the learned woman who can reason intelligently and write and speak persuasively. In the Honcho jokan, such women include the great women writers of the Heian period, Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 973–ca. 1025) and Izumi Shikibu (ca. 974–?) and the courtesan of Eguchi, whose exchange of verses with the great poet Saigyo (1118–90) caused her to repent, give up her practice of entertaining men, and embark on the path of Buddhist learning. In most of the tales, although women's wisdom and learning are shown to be of great value, it is women's devotion to their men — husbands, fathers, sons, teachers, mentors — and the sacrifices they make for their benefit that constitute the essence of their virtue.

In most of the stories in Honcho jokan, women stop short of suicide or death to demonstrate their filiality. The one exception is Kesa Gozen, a woman of "righteous principle" who gives her life to defend both chastity and loyalty to family. As she is presented in Honcho jokan, Kesa Gozen lived in the late Heian period (ca. twelfth century). She was the daughter of the noblewoman Komorogawa, and from girlhood she possessed such extraordinary beauty that she "led onlookers' hearts astray." At the age of fourteen she married the warrior Minamoto Wataru (dates unknown). One day Wataru's cousin, a warrior named Endo Morito, caught a glimpse of Kesa Gozen, and in that moment he became infatuated with her. Driven to extremes by his desire for Kesa Gozen, Endo hatches a plot to threaten the life of Komorogawa, vowing to kill her if Kesa Gozen does not leave Wataru for him. Upon learning of this plot, Kesa Gozen thinks to herself, "One is supposed to be filial to one's parents above all else. But it is the way of a wife to risk her life for her husband." Caught between the demands of filial duty to her mother and to her husband, Kesa Gozen puts into action a plan of her own: she approaches Endo and pretends to collude with him in the murder of her husband. She tells the smitten man that she will return home that very night, wash her husband's hair, get him drunk, and put him to bed: "He will be sleeping next to a window, with his pillow placed toward the east. Find his wet hair and cut off his head." However, upon returning home Kesa Gozen wets her own hair and lies down to feign sleep next to the window, on the pillow facing east. Endo arrives as planned and kills the sleeping person he believes to be Minamoto Wataru; only upon returning home does he realize he has killed the woman he loves. Overcome by remorse, he informs Wataru of his deed and begs Wataru to kill him as punishment. Wataru, for his part, interprets the occurrences as karmic retribution for his own bad deeds and proposes that he and Endo take Buddhist vows together and become monks. Readers were meant to see that, caught between the two righteous principles of filial piety and chastity or wifely duty, Kesa Gozen expressed the highest virtue in choosing to die in honor of both causes. Her sacrifice enabled the two men who loved her to understand that, as the author Asai Ryoi puts it in the tale's conclusion, "taking principle seriously and death lightly is the way of humanity." While Kesa Gozen's story stands out in the collection of biographies in Honcho jokan as the only one that celebrates female self-sacrifice, in contemporary Chinese texts in the lienu tradition female suicide had become the overwhelmingly dominant motif in biographies of exemplary women. However, it was not filial piety but chastity that motivated female self-sacrifice in Chinese tales; over 90 percent of the tales in Ming and Qing collections involved suicide in the name of preserving chastity and the sanctity of the conjugal relationship. These differing motives for women's self-sacrifice highlight the striking divergence in attitudes toward marital and family relations as represented in popular tale literature in early modern Japan and late imperial China. Whereas in the latter it was the conjugal bond that mattered most to women, in the former it was the filial bond that was elemental, and could be breached only by death.


Excerpted from The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan by Marcia Yonemoto. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Filial Piety
2. Self-Cultivation
3. Marriage
4. Motherhood
5. Succession
6. Retirement



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