Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Women in Japanese Religions

Women in Japanese Religions

Barbara R. Ambros
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 240
  • Book Info
    Women in Japanese Religions
    Book Description:

    Scholars have widely acknowledged the persistent ambivalence with which the Japanese religious traditions treat women. Much existing scholarship depicts Japan's religious traditions as mere means of oppression. But this view raises a question: How have ambivalent and even misogynistic religious discourses on gender still come to inspire devotion and emulation among women?

    InWomen in Japanese Religions, Barbara R. Ambros examines the roles that women have played in the religions of Japan. An important corrective to more common male-centered narratives of Japanese religious history, this text presents a synthetic long view of Japanese religions from a distinct angle that has typically been discounted in standard survey accounts of Japanese religions.

    Drawing on a diverse collection of writings by and about women, Ambros argues that ambivalent religious discourses in Japan have not simply subordinated women but also given them religious resources to pursue their own interests and agendas. Comprising nine chapters organized chronologically, the book begins with the archeological evidence of fertility cults and the early shamanic ruler Himiko in prehistoric Japan and ends with an examination of the influence of feminism and demographic changes on religious practices during the "lost decades" of the post-1990 era. By viewing Japanese religious history through the eyes of women,Women in Japanese Religionspresents a new narrative that offers strikingly different vistas of Japan's pluralistic traditions than the received accounts that foreground male religious figures and male-dominated institutions.

    Additional Resources

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-9869-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Why Study Women in Japanese Religions?
    (pp. 1-4)

    In 1911, Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1971), one of Japan’s early feminists, wrote in the opening issue of the women’s journalBluestocking, “In the beginning, woman was the sun. An authentic person. Today she is the moon. Living through others. Reflecting the brilliance of others.”¹ Hiratsuka seemed to be alluding to the female gender of the Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu, who, according to Japanese mythology, ruled over the heavenly plain and established the imperial lineage. Hiratsuka was suggesting that during a primordial age women were once powerful and self-reliant but somehow lost their independence over the course of history. Years later...

  5. 1 The Prehistorical Japanese Archipelago: Fertility Cults and Shaman Queens
    (pp. 5-21)

    We may ask ourselves when we should begin our narrative of women in the religious history of Japan. One recent survey of premodern Japanese religions begins in 500 CE, around the time when Buddhism was first introduced to the Japanese islands. The author argues that our knowledge of Japanese history prior to that date relies almost exclusively on elusive archeological material rather than textual sources; therefore, our knowledge of the concrete details of prehistorical people’s lives is sharply limited.¹ To this we may add that we cannot really speak of Japan as a nation prior to 500 CE because such...

  6. 2 Ancient Japanese Mythology: Female Divinities and Immortals
    (pp. 22-39)

    We have already encountered the first extant national chronicles of Japan, theKojikiand theNihon shoki. Both texts are important sources for our knowledge about ancient Japan, not only as historical chronicles but also as the earliest extant sources for Japanese mythology. Therefore, the myths, especially those in theKojiki, have often been constructed as reflections of native beliefs and the deepest and most immutable values of Japanese culture. For this reason, they are regarded by some as the core sources of the Shinto tradition, the supposed “indigenous tradition of Japan.” However, as a concept Shinto was first used...

  7. 3 The Introduction of Buddhism: Nuns, Lay Patrons, and Popular Devotion
    (pp. 40-55)

    Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the mid-sixth century CE, radically altering the religious landscape of Japan. As we shall see, women played significant roles in the introduction and spread of Buddhism from the sixth through the eighth centuries as Buddhism evolved into a state religion. At the same time, however, we are also faced with important questions concerning this period of Japanese religious history: How did the introduction of Buddhism affect women’s lives? Did it influence the lives of women beyond the upper elites in any significant way? How did Buddhism, a highly patriarchal tradition, incorporate Japanese women who...

  8. 4 The Heian Period: Women in Buddhism and Court Ritual
    (pp. 56-75)

    From the sixth through the eighth centuries, Buddhism was marked by a relative inclusiveness toward women. This was to change in the Heian period (794–1185). The imperial court moved the capital first in 784 to Nagaoka and then in 794 to Heiankyō, after which the new period has been named. Heiankyō, now known as Kyoto, remained the imperial capital until 1868. It is from the Heian period onward that we gradually have more information about individual women’s lives and religious practices, particularly among the aristocracy. Despite the inequities of polygyny, the prevailing marriage system allowed elite women to remain...

  9. 5 The Medieval Period: Buddhist Reform Movements and the Demonization of Femininity
    (pp. 76-96)

    Japan’s medieval period (1185–1600) was marked by political and military instability and multiple power centers, including warrior governments and an imperial court split into two competing lineages for nearly sixty years during the fourteenth century. A single imperial lineage was reestablished in 1392, but peace was short-lived. The Ōnin War (1467–1477) marked the beginning of a period of protracted warfare between rival regional warlords that lasted into the late sixteenth century. Among the most important legal developments for women were changes in marriage and inheritance patterns spurred on by political and military instability. While women retained a fair...

  10. 6 The Edo Period: Confucianism, Nativism, and Popular Religion
    (pp. 97-114)

    In contrast to the turbulent medieval period, the Edo period (1600–1868) was marked by relative political stability. Edo society was profoundly hierarchical and status-conscious. Officially, society comprised four main hereditary status groups: warriors, peasants, tradesmen, and merchants. Social groups outside the official status system included aristocrats, Buddhist clerics, other religious professionals, performers, and outcasts. The period has often been described as a low point in the status of Japanese women. As we shall see in this chapter, the solidification of the patrilineal household, the emergence of a hierarchical, stratified status system, and the spread of Confucian values during the...

  11. 7 Imperial Japan: Good Wives and Wise Mothers
    (pp. 115-133)

    In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan transformed into a modern nation-state. As Japan expanded its contact with the West and became a colonial power, religious traditions were redefined and demarcated not only against one another but also against so-called superstitions and suprareligious civic rites. Shortly after the imperial restoration, which marked the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912), the worship of Buddhas andkamiwas dissociated into two distinct major traditions, Buddhism and Shinto, which had previously been fused. Religious practices and institutions that did not easily fit these new molds were forced to either identify...

  12. 8 The Postwar Period: Nostalgia, Religion, and the Reinvention of Femininity
    (pp. 134-153)

    The end of World War II brought sweeping social changes to Japan. The Allied Occupation (1945–1952) abolished the restrictive laws of the prewar era, such as the Peace Preservation Law of 1925 and the Religious Organizations Law of 1940. The new constitution of 1947 and other civil and labor laws promised gender equality and gave religious organizations greater freedom from state control. However, despite legal reforms, during the postwar period the figure of the housewife became a hegemonic ideal of femininity that placed women in the domestic sphere. As Vera Mackie notes, “It is one of the paradoxes of...

  13. 9 The Lost Decades: Gender and Religion in Flux
    (pp. 154-171)

    The death of the Shōwa Emperor in 1989 signaled the end of the postwar era. In contrast to the confidence that filled the 1980s, the Heisei era (1989–present) has been marked by a sense of millennial crisis, social malaise, and economic stagnation, which together have earned the last twenty-some years the name “the Lost Decades.” The financial bubble burst in the early 1990s, leading to a prolonged recession and a sluggish labor market. Society’s rapid aging and low birthrate became the focus of intense public scrutiny. The year 1995 was particularly traumatic. On January 17, a large earthquake struck...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 172-176)

    By focusing on women, this book has provided an important corrective to androcentric narratives of Japanese religions. Rather than serving as marginal actors, Japanese women have taken leading roles. They are, to use the feminist Hiratsuka Raichō’s metaphor, radiant suns rather than moons reflecting the brilliance of others. Women’s roles in Japanese religious history—as shamans, nuns, patrons of religious institutions, lay devotees, and religious founders—were diverse and complex, and so were religious discourses about them: some idealized them as goddesses, Daoist immortals, Buddhist saints, or Confucian paragons of virtue, and others vilified them as demonic, polluted, and karmically...

    (pp. 177-180)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 181-204)
    (pp. 205-220)
    (pp. 221-226)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 227-236)
    (pp. 237-237)