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Samurai Sisters: Early Feudal Japan

SAMPLE from the four-page background essay:
Women in Heian and Feudal Japan


... Early Feudal Japan: In the early feudal period, samurai women were expected to exhibit loyalty, bravery, and take on the duty of revenge. As her warrior husband was often absent, the samurai wife also had important duties at home. Her responsibility was the food and all the household supplies. She oversaw the harvesting of crops, managed all the servants, and took over all financial business in terms of disorder. In matters which concerned the well-being of the family, her advice was sought and her opinions respected. On her, too, fell the burden of providing the proper education of her children. She was to instill in them a strong sense of loyalty to the samurai ideals of courage and physical strength.

In wartime women sometimes had to defend their homes. Trained in weaponry, women carried a dagger in their sleeves or sashes and could throw with deadly aim. The naginata, a long, curved sword, was considered the weapon most suitable for women. Japanese girls today continue the ancient art of naginatajutsu as they learn how to wield the naginata.

Sometimes women joined men in battle, actually fighting along side them or encouraging the troops. And, like their husbands, women were expected to commit suicide if the family was dishonored in any way. Some women used suicide as a form of protest against injustice, as in the case of one woman who killed herself when her husband mistreated her.

An example of the continuing power of women in the early feudal period is Hojo Masa-ko. This strong-willed woman seized the reins of the shogunate after her husband, the first shogun Yoritomo Minamoto, died in 1199. She quickly maneuvered her own family, the Hojo clan, into a regency over her son Yoriie. In her old age it was she who galvanized the shogunate army which crushed the forces of the Emperor Go-Toba in 1221. The Hojos remained as regents over all the successive Minamoto shoguns for the next century and a half. For this reason Hojo Masa-ko, known as "Mother Shogun," has been referred to as the founder of the shogunate.

Over time the independent samurai woman was replaced by an image which depicted the ideal samurai women as humble, obedience, self-controlled and above all subservient to men. Respecting one's husband and family and bearing a male child became this ideal woman's most important tasks. By the later feudal ages, the law of primogeniture prevailed as increasing disputes over property resulted in girls being debarred from rights to inherited property. Supporting the deterioration in women's position were both Confucian doctrine and Buddhism which denigrated women's intellectual and moral capacities. After the 15th century, the teachings of the "Three Obediences" reigned. "A woman has no way of independence through life. When she is young, she obeys her father; when she is married, she obeys her husband; when she is widowed, she obeys her son."

Women and Religion: Women took an active part in the religions of early Japan. From ancient times women were Shinto shamans. Often a miko or a Shinto princess was called upon in difficult cases to try to establish the truth. After going into a trace and being possessed by the god, the kami would then speak though the miko's voice. Also, women participated equally in Japan's festivals and celebrations. Some, such as the festival of the Maid Star (the Tanabata festival), were directed principally toward women.

When Buddhism first appeared it appealed particularly to upper-class women. The convents offered them an alternative to marriage and provided leadership roles through the office of abbess. Visits to temples offered others an escape from the confines of their houses. At the same time, Buddhism lessened women's status by portraying them as dishonest, deceitful, and neglectful of religious duties.

By the 12th century many Japanese were adherents of Amidism. It was felt that only Amida's grace could help in this age of degenerating social and political structures. Amida's appeal was the idea that belief alone, and not intense self-discipline and self-power, could assure one's escape from the painful cycles of birth and rebirth. The Monk Honen claimed that by repeating the Amida name of Buddha, there would be no distinction between men and women nor between the mighty and the weak. Later, the more violent Lotus sect repudiated this; "No women are to be found in paradise. Women will have to first be reborn as men." Beliefs of women's inherent sinfulness increased as time went on.

Peasant Women: The lives of peasant women contrasted greatly with the lives of women in the upper classes. Since most accounts from the period deal with the concerns of the aristocrats, who were only about one-tenth of one percent of Japan's population, we know very little of the lives of the vast majority who were commoners. We do know that women worked alongside men in a kind of rough equality and had some control over household decisions. They held some property rights, including rights of inheritance and divorce, although they could not remarry. In contrast to aristocrats, peasant women often wore their hair short and, since families needed their hands for labor, married late, usually to someone in their own village or group of villages. Farmers only took one wife. As time went on, however, the later feudal age samurai ideal of the obedient, submissive woman was accepted by the common people and peasant women lost much of their earlier independence.


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