Women in Heian Period Japan

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The women of Heian Period Japan had more freedom than other women around the world during the same years. To take a look at just how free Heian Period women were, give this lesson a read.

The Heian Period of Japan

Between the years of 794 CE and 1185 CE, Japan came into its own. In the prior eras, Japan used aspects of Chinese culture and government as a model, seeing Chinese influences as superior to their own. However, by the late 700s, Japan had finally found its own way of doing things and took steps to implant within its people a society, language, and culture that was distinctly Japanese. During the Heian Period, Japan entered its 'Golden Age' where Japanese art, poetry, and culture were at its height.

Beauty was not only cultivated during the Heian Period, it was nurtured and also celebrated. Poetry was a way of life and also a pastime among the Japanese during these years, and those who could recite or even compose poetry upon request were revered. Japan had also developed its own system of writing, having used Chinese calligraphy for centuries before.

Japanese men of high rank were still required to use Chinese calligraphy, especially for the purposes of keeping government records. Women, however, were typically not taught Chinese calligraphy and thus used Japanese calligraphy instead, which was seen as the everyday language of the people. The beauty of the calligraphy itself was also important: women who could write Japanese characters with skill were praised, but a poorly drawn character could lead to ridicule.

Because they wrote in everyday language, the female writers of the Heian Period are more famous than their male counterparts. One particularly important writer during this time was Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman who served as lady in waiting to the Empress Akiko. Her work The Tale of Genji, which is considered to be Japan's first novel, gives to the modern world much of what we know about life in the imperial court of the Heian Period.

Writing was not the only marked difference between men and women in Japan during the Heian Period. Life for each sex differed greatly, and although men had more privileges than women, life for women had several liberating aspects.

Women in the Heian Period

Japanese women did live a restricted life during the Heian Period; however, they enjoyed certain aspects of freedom. For example, women were able to petition for a divorce from their husbands and were not restricted from remarrying.

Women could also own property independent from their husbands and fathers if they were born to families of high rank. Women were expected to be well-educated and cultured, especially if their families were of the nobility or government officials. Music, poetry, art, fashion, and calligraphy were all part of a Heian Period woman's education.

Depiction of a Heian Woman
woman

Women in Marriage

Marriage was an arrangement made between a woman's father and her betrothed, and marriage vows were also determined in the same manner. Men could marry multiple women and engage in polygamy. Women lived with their children in separate quarters from their husbands, which meant that they had a much more significant role in the rearing and raising of their children. Fathers who were government officials or who were from the noble class were expected to leave the running of their households to their wives. Due to their absence, married women even in polygamous relationships could exercise their will freely.

A son was not solely the property of his father, and mothers played a key role in their upbringing. Since women were responsible for the education of their children, sons were frequently more acquainted with their matrilineal families than those of their fathers. Women often remained in their father's homes even after marriage, so children would have been raised and educated in the ways of their mother's families, giving women the upper hand with their offspring.

Unmarried Women

Women who were from nobility or from families of government officials usually married well into other families of similar status. Women of lower rank whose fathers couldn't arrange a suitable marriage still had viable options that could result in a life of comfort and access to power. Becoming a concubine, which is a mistress of a married man, came with its own level of status.

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