Gw Temp


Article - 'Culture of Japan – Women of Feudal Japan' by KaosTenshi

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Aug 8, 2003


The third in a series of articles about Japan’s most bloody time, delving into the roles of women in the Sengoku Period, as wives, mothers, geishas, and even warriors.


Welcome to the third in a series of articles about Japan’s most bloody time, the Sengoku Period... the age of the country at war. This article delves into the roles of women in the Sengoku Period, as wives, mothers, geishas, and yes, even as warriors.

Duty of the Samurai Women

Early in Japan’s history, women held quite a bit of power; the first recorded leader of Japan was the Empress Himiko, who bravely led her own troops into battles. It was also a woman’s role as a spiritual leader, being the ‘mikos’, or shrine maidens. Over time however, women slowly lost power. Men once fought for women, but they soon came to feel as if they were defending something they owned. This belief was brought about in part by Confucianism and Buddhism from China. During the Sengoku Period, a woman was brought up to believe that she was inferior to men, and the teachings of the ‘three obediences’ reigned, saying that “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.”

High-ranking women had very little freedom. Her family chose her husband and she was often used to create ‘marriage alliances’ between clans, and insuring the wealth and safety of her own clan through these alliances. Staying single was simply not an option for her if she did not become a Buddhist nun. Alliances between families were too important to leave to chancy things like falling in love.

After marriage, a wife’s second duty was to bear her husband a son who would inherit their family’s land and power when he died. If a woman had daughters, then it was her duty to be their teacher, and to teach them how to read and write, how to wear the elaborate clothes of the court, and proper manners such as how to act, and how to address those around her.

Women of samurai lineage owed their rank and their lives to the fighting skills of samurai, but very few samurai women learned much about the fighting arts in the beginning. A woman’s traditional weapon, which she carried with her at all times, was a dagger called a kaiken. She had no sophisticated fighting techniques; if in danger, she was taught to grab the hilt with both hands and place the butt of it firmly against her stomach. She would then charge the enemy, stabbing them with all of her weight behind it. This strategy required that a woman had the element of surprise, but more often than not, a woman was expected to kill herself with the weapon. Suicide for a woman was not the same as the way a man would kill himself. While a man was expected to remain stoic even when going through unimaginable pain, a woman’s death would occur much more quickly, and even more than that, it would leave most of a woman’s beauty intact and wouldn’t leave her with a disarrangement of limbs, thus offending her dignity after her death. Rather than cutting stomach open, she was instead expected to use the kaiken to cut her jugular vein.

As artists, some samurai women became poets and novelists; what is even believe to be the first novel in existence was a book called the Tale of Genji by the samurai Lady Murasaki. Unlike women of lower rank, samurai women were not allowed to leave home, so visits to shrines and temples were welcomed breaks from this stale routine, as well as festivals.

Women did find one escape in Buddhism as nuns. This was seen as an alternative to marriage, and offered them roles of leadership. However, Buddhism also lowered a woman’s status by portraying women as dirty, sinful, and deceitful. One form of Buddhism, Amidism, taught that belief in the Amida name of Buddha would lead to an afterlife where there was no distinction between men and women, rich and poor, or the powerful and the weak. However, the Lotus Sect instead said that no women would be found in paradise, and that for a woman to reach paradise she must first be reincarnated as a man. These beliefs only further lowered the status of women.

Lives of the Peasant Women

Women of low rank had much more freedom than Samurai women, though only because it was necessary. Women worked alongside men in fields, and while men may have earned the money, the woman had at least some of the control over where the money went, making sure that taxes were paid, clothes were bought, and food was placed on the table. Women were allowed to own some property, were allowed to divorce a man if they wished, and were also allowed to inherit land and money if there were no other heirs. However, unlike men, women were not allowed to re-marry after divorce or being widowed. Unlike samurai women, most peasants wore their hair shorter to keep it out of their faces while they worked.

Marriage was not a necessity, and when women did marry it was often later in their lives, since their families needed them as field hands while they were still young enough to work hard. However, later in the feudal times, men began to believe that their women should be submissive to them the same way Samurai women were submissive to Samurai men. This caused peasant women to lose much of their freedom.

Women as Warriors

Both Samurai women and peasant women did have their roles as warriors at one point or another. While men were slaughtered, left to join ikki, or were drafted into armies, peasant women became the last defense for their homes and villages. Once used as a farming tool, the naginata fell into the peasant woman’s hands as a valuable weapon capable of cutting a man in half.

Later in the Sengoku Period, samurai women began to take their safeties into their own hands as well. Some women sought training in the unarmed art of jujitsu, while others learned the art of the naginata or even the katana. Others simply ordered their husband’s troops while he was away. There are stories of women taking part in battles, and some even believe that Lord Hojo had a cavalry group consisting of only women, lead by his favorite mistress.

One such tale speaks of a woman named Hosokawa Jako climbing up onto the roof of her castle to spy on enemy troops surrounding it. Using her lip rouge, she sketched a careful plan of their camp, which she passed on to her husband, allowing them to successfully defeat their enemy. Another story tells of Lady Gozen Tomoe, the wife of the samurai Minamoto Yoshinaka. In the battle of Uji, she fought alongside her husband, and while he fled to commit seppuku, she continued to fight. She did not die in this battle, and instead escaped, joining a monastery to become a nun after the death of her husband.

Perhaps the most profound tale of a woman in battle however is the wife of Mimura Kotoku. When his castle was besieged, most of the women and children took part in a mass suicide, which they found more honorable than being captured, raped, and displayed as prisoners. Mimura’s wife was disgusted by this, and took a naginata into her hands as she lead eighty-three of her husband’s men out of the castle against the attacking forces. She personally challenged the enemy Taisho, Ura Hyobu, who was on horseback leading his troops. He was stunned by this woman who ‘spun her naginata like a waterwheel’, and backed away like a coward, yelling that she was a demon. Instead of attacking her himself, he ordered his men to attack her for him. Not only did she live through the battle, but also she managed to fight off the men and make her way back to the castle on her own.

Women as Geisha

Perhaps one of the worst misconceptions about Japanese history falls squarely on the geisha. If someone even knows what a ‘geisha girl’ is, or at least thinks they do, then they probably believe a geisha is a high-class whore characterized by white makeup on her face and red lipstick. However, this is far from the truth. Geisha are entertainers, and carry on traditions. They sing, dance, and are well trained in the many arts, including the art of conversation.

A geisha during the feudal era was first taken in by a geisha house, and trained as a ‘maiko’, or apprentice geisha. Every day, a geisha is trained in how to act properly, as well as the many skills of her job. She is taught classical dances that she must perform without flaw, where nothing is left to chance and even the slightest tilt of the head or flourish of the hand is carefully choreographed. She is taught to sing classic songs and play stringed instruments such as the koto or shamisen. A geisha is taught proper calligraphy, taught jokes, taught tea ceremonies, how to serve sake (Japanese alcohol), and most importantly is taught how to converse with men. A geisha is hired as a companion, to spend time with a gentleman or group of gentleman, and to treat them like kings for a few hours.

A maiko is characterized by wearing her hair up in a distinctive style called the ‘split peach’. She wears special decorative hairpins in her hair, and a brightly colored kimono. The colors of the kimono and its pattern vary depending on what season she is wearing it in, but the edges of the under-kimono seen around her neck are always a crimson red. She wears white makeup on her face and neck, but as a trade secret of the geisha, leaves a small amount of skin showing along her hairline and at the base of the neck… when a woman is so covered, a small amount of skin showing in just the right place has the same allure of a woman ‘showing a little leg’, without being considered dirty or vulgar. When a maiko becomes a full-fledged geisha, she no longer wears the makeup and hairpins, and instead of assisting a geisha in her work, she is now assisted by apprentice geishas.

The Sengoku Period saw a very dark time for all geisha. During the over-taxation, many families found themselves growing more and more poor by the day, and putting food on the table was nearly impossible. Sometimes, a geisha house would approach a family and offer to buy some of their daughters from them; this gave the family enough money to live on, as well as meaning fewer mouths to feed. Believing that their daughters would be taken good care of, the most desperate of families sold their daughters to these geisha houses.

The geisha house would pay for the girl’s room, food, classes, makeup, and her kimonos (she would need several very fancy kimonos, which by today’s standards would be costing thousands of dollars a piece). The girl was also allowed to select a name for herself, usually the name of a flower or other ‘feminine things and traits’. This meant that the geisha house was put in a substantial debt over just one girl after buying her from her family and then providing for her. The girl was forced to work for the geisha house as a geisha until she worked off her debt and became an independent geisha, or she was bought by a Daimyo or Taisho who would pay the debt for her. Bought girls would often be mistreated by their ‘geisha mothers’, the women who bought them, and if a geisha house were in need of money, the woman running it would not be above charging a samurai extra to sell a young maiko’s virginity to him.

While this was a difficult time for maiko and geisha like the rest of Japan’s people, the geisha were also tools used by the Daimyos. Geisha were the most respected women in Japan, and thus were fairly safe to travel from one province to another. Thus, they were sometimes used as spies and even assassins. A Daimyo could send a geisha under his command to another Daimyo or a Taisho, either as an act of good will, or anonymously, and while acting as a simple entertainer, the geisha would kill her target. The worst part about it was that a Daimyo or Taisho could know very well that a geisha has come to kill him, and yet he could do nothing about it because she was such a respectable woman! A Daimyo’s only defense against a geisha sometimes was to have her murdered before she could murder him!

One mixed blessing about a geisha is that she cannot marry. It’s not that she can’t be forced to marry, it’s that she can’t marry even if she wanted to. However, many independent geisha found a way around this; instead of marrying a samurai man, she would live with him, officially being his mistress but receiving a home and financial support from him the same way a wife would. Were she to bear him sons, then she would become a part of his clan as the mother of his heirs.

While a woman’s only ‘jobs’ may have been to marry, bear children, work in fields, an entertain men, it is clear that the women of the Sengoku Period, much like the men, rose to their call in these desperate times.

Next Article: Life of a Samurai; an article about growing up and the day-to-day life of samurai.