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Expectations of Women in the Samurai Class: Analytical Essay

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The Edo period was crucial in the shaping of Japanese gender roles and expectations, creating norms that continue to influence modern-day views of femininity and masculinity. Japan was once a matriarchal society where women were head of social organizations, families, and clans, however, the influx of Chinese philosophy and Confucian ideas in the modern period led to a decrease in female power (xx). The Confucian ideology emphasized hierarchy and male dominance, and as a result, women became subservient (xx).

In historical sources, there seems to be a clear emphasis on male actors, often eliminating female actors altogether. This essay hopes to discuss the female position in Edo society, asking the question: xxx. Japan had a distinct class division during this period, each class having their own gender expectations, however, this essay will focus mainly on women in the higher social circles of Edo Japan, mainly the Samurai class. It will start with an overview of how the introduction of Confucianism affected the lives of Japanese women, continuing with an outline of how women’s education was shaped during the era, before diving into the expectations of women in the Samurai class. The final paragraph will explore the life of Shinanomiya Tsuneko, representing Court Women before the essay concludes.

Edo, Religion and Women’s Rights

The Edo period, often described as “the Great Peace,” was a period in Japanese history between 1603 and 1868 (xx). This period, under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, desired order above all, creating a system where status was hereditary, and few could change residence or work (xx). The divisions along class lines became a distinct feature of the Edo period, separating the population into distinctive groups, which in turn were divided into several tiers (xx).

Under the Bakufu, the Confucian scholar Hayashi Razan introduced the Shushi philosophy, or Neo-Confucianism, which was made an official ideology, becoming an important instrument of population control (xx). Confucianism is a philosophical system that established social values and institutions in traditional Chinese society. It says little about women beyond the fact that they are considered “inferior men,” who are unable to understand or communicate (Walthall, 1984). Confucius’ followers developed the “feminine ethics,” the most famous of which are the Three Obediences, which require women to obey their father before marriage, their husband after marriage, and the first son after her husband’s death, and the Four Virtues, which are sexual morality, modest manner, diligent work, and proper speech (xx). Edo Japan was, socially, founded on male supremacy, and gynophobia was a part of the period’s social mores. Women were socially subordinate, described as property to men, and through arranged marriage women moved from being subordinate to their fathers to subordinate to their husbands (xx). Confucianism also brought with it “ie” or “house,” a system where men headed the house, making women dependent on their husbands. Under ie could only men inherit property and keep the family name, women were also not allowed to participate in matters outside of the home (Sugihara, 2000). Marriage and divorce were two aspects that truly illustrate women’s low status in Edo society, especially then the ease with which a woman could be divorced. For a husband to end his marriage, all that was necessary was for him to send a letter stating a wish for divorce. These letters were so brief they earned the name mikudarihan, meaning ‘three-and-a-half lines’. However, if a woman wished to leave her husband, she had no legal resources, not even in case of mis- or maltreatment (xx).

Misogyny in Tokugawa Japan can be exemplified by the publication of the Greater Learning for Women (Onna Daigaku), which identified and detailed women’s “five defects” namely anger, jealousy, disobedience, ignorance, and slander, defects which “infected seven to eight women of every ten,” and in turn accounted for their inferiority to men (xx).

Female Responsibilities and Education

Anne Walthall in ‘Women and Literacy from Edo to Meiji’ shows to board games produced in the Edo period to dramatize women’s lives, experiences, and, especially, expectations. Walthall shows to the example of a game designed in the 1840s, which depicts a pupil learning various performing arts such as stringed musical instruments, literary arts, etiquette, and tea ceremony. The goal itself was to attain a high-ranking position alongside the shogun. Embedded in this game is the notion that education and literacy is fundamental for women to secure a good life. (xx).

Across all social classes, children were expected to be educated enough to well in their station. However, studies of education in this period have shown that women had fewer opportunities to gain a formal education than men. Domain schools and private academies were often boys-only schools, which limited the places where young girls could get schooling. The content of women’s education consisted mainly of subjects that would emphasize the “ideal female comportment,” such as the Onna Daigaku, whereas subjects, such as Chinese and Confucian classics, were considered more masculine spheres of knowledge (xx). However, Walthall emphasizes that what kind of education one received, and whether or not one acquired any education at all, was largely a matter of chance (xx). Some women were able to gain a more rigorous education than their peers. Christina Ghanbarpour and Martha Tocco has highlighted that factors such as religion, affluence, and class all played a crucial part in the education a woman could achieve, however, there was a close to universal literacy rate among samurai women in urban areas (xx). Nevertheless, while Japanese scholar Hirata Atsutane was exiled, his wife Orise wrote her son-in-law asking for him to send books for her husband’s niece, saying; ‘She likes to learn and writes well, but here there are no instruction books for girls, only boys,’ showing how even the family of a samurai could not always find appropriate literature or teaching for their kin (xx).

Many chose to pay for the education of their daughters, especially for them to learn how to play the string-instrument shamisen, which was popular amongst the samurai class. If a girl had a talent in the arts, they could be put into service with high-ranking families such as domain lords or samurai. Becoming a samurai mistress brought both wealth and social status, and jobs as ladies-in-waiting or maids allowed them to learn the customs, styles, and tastes of samurai women – knowledge that helped them transcend class boundaries, allowing them to make a better their social status and businesses (xx). However, there were differences in the processes of the cultivation of arts among men and women. Kutsukake Nakako was a woman born into a mercantile family, who later married a merchant (xx). Already as a child, she knew she wanted to devote herself to literature and poetry, however, she was first expected to marry and raise her six children. When her husband died, she was expected to restore the family fortunes. She was first allowed to write freely at the end of her life (xx). Additionally, there was a difference in access to public spaces between men and women. Female writers of the Edo period had no access to commercial publishing, as publishers did not think their writing would sell. They were also unable to participate in new genres of writing and prose. Most importantly, there was a fear among women that female published writers would be branded as “unfeminine” (xx). Similarly, the Tokugawa period saw few female professional painters, as they were excluded from the guilds of professional painters. A noteworthy exception being Kiyohara Yukinobu, who, in the 17th century, worked as a professional painter. It is, however, important to note her relations to Kano Tanyu, the founder of the official painting school of the Tokugawa shogunate, which might have aided her in earning her position (xx).

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Through the board games introduced in ‘Women and Literacy from Edo to Meiji,” one can see that games aimed at women often incorporate men, whilst games aimed at men often ignore women completely. Comparably, the Edo period saw men are seen as individuals, while women are expected to represent something more than themselves (xx).

The Expectations of the Samurai Class

The samurai class saw big changes during the Tokugawa period. The samurai had previously been a warrior class, where even women were expected to fight. However, the Edo period abolished war (Tanimura, 2011). Men and women share the ideals of bravery and loyalty. Samurai women were in charge of the household and were expected to protect the family honor, even if that required death (Tanimura, 2011).

Japanese samurai warriors have some of the best-recorded achievements among fighting men across the globe. Their bravery and contributions to military development are described in great detail in chronicles and gunkimono, so-called epic war stories. However, these stories seem to exclusively involve men, forcing the women behind the scenes; into palaces and living chambers. Women earned the role as pawns in marriage and negotiations, indirectly or directly exerting influence over the political process (xx). The samurai woman as a warrior, however, seems to be non-existent. Due to the massive influence, Neo-Confucianism had in the Edo period, the status of Japanese female samurai diminished significantly. These warriors, also known as “onna-bugeisha,” literally meaning “female martial artist,” were wives of samurai who trained to protect their homes while the samurai were away (xx). During Edo, women warriors saw a loss in status. Many saw women simply as child bearers, and the idea of women fighting faded away quickly. Women were no longer allowed to travel alone and had to have written administrative permission and the company of a man (xx). All work was split into men’s work and women’s work, and fighting wars was a man’s job. The only acceptable opportunity samurai women had to fight was through the act of revenge. A study into this reveals that fourteen out of 100 recorded acts of revenge were carried out by women (xx). Some example, a Yamabushi wife waited 53 years for the chance to avenge her husband’s death, later being rewarded by the daimyo for her loyalty. In 1973 a lady-in-waiting in the mansion of the Matsudaira daimyo killed the woman responsible for the suicide of her mistress (xx).

The ie-system allowed most women to control the business within the house, however, this did not apply to the samurai class, leaving men in charge of both business inside and outside the home. Nevertheless, samurai girls were taught what was needed to govern a household, which included reading and writing, as well as how to play the string-instrument koto. Unlike girls in lower classes, they were forbidden from playing the shamisen (xx).

Shinanomiya Tsuneko and Court Women

Whenever there is a discussion about gender regulations, limitations, and expectations, it is important to note that these are generalizations. Not all samurai women were secluded, in lock-ins, and not all lower-class women were uneducated. Anne Walthall states in The Human Tradition in Modern Japan that; “although it is important to generalize about the historical processes of centralization, industrialization, urbanization, and modernization, a focus on large scale concepts can easily obscure the impact these had on the people who lived through them” (xx). It isn’t easy to look towards the individual woman in Edo Japan, as women writers are almost entirely missing, backed up by Aston’s 1899 claim that ‘[in the Edo period] women disappear completely from the world of literature (xx).

Shinanomiya Tsuneko, born in 1642, was an Imperial princess and the sixteenth daughter born to retired Emperor Gomizunoo. Four of her siblings became Emperors, whilst others became abbots and abbesses. Her only daughter married the sixth Shogun, and her son and grandson became regents, eventually achieving an honorary rank next to emperor and empress, Jugo, but turning it down (xx). When Shinanomiya was 22, she married court noble Konoe Motohiro, who was only 16 years old at this time. She married unusually late compared to her peers, which could be attributed to her being her father’s favorite, him wanting to find her the right husband. They did not move in together until two years into their marriage, however, Shinanomiya remained closely involved with the Imperial family, spending the majority of her time with her father and other prominent court ladies (xx). Among the members of the Court, she was known to be extremely experienced, intelligent, and knowledgeable, as well as skilled in matters of theatre, dance, music, calligraphy, incense and perfumes, and the appraisal of artifacts. Her father trusted her with managing her brothers’ estates, and her half-brother chose Shinanomiya as the successor to his personal and secret perfume recipes. She was also known for her excellent judge of character, being in charge of interviewing and selecting not only her own servants but also those of her daughter and her husband (xx).

Although she had many important relatives, she herself is known from her diary, which covers a lengthy period, her first entry being on January 1st, 1666, and her last entry being on March 24th, 1700, two years before her death. This diary was never published but has survived through manuscript copies (xx). Her diary details the life of a court woman of the Edo period, in terms of education, lifestyle, and social position.


During the Tokugawa period, women were classified under men, having less power, lower status, and fewer rights than their male counterparts. With arranged marriages, women had little say in who they would marry and had equally little say in how long these marriages were to last. Most girls were not educated, and those who were received a restricted version of the education available to boys. Women were mainly taught to be loyal and obedient mothers and wives, completing household chores and raising children. Women all had different positions in Edo society, but they were never ranked above men. However, it is important to note that gender expectations and limitations are the results out of the times they reigned. The division of gender roles can be argued to have been a practical solution of the time. Women were expected to be subservient, however, they were not considered weak – they were in charge of the home, often managing business affairs, becoming a pillar for their husbands and children, whereas the husband was in charge of the family’s reputation and social status.

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