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Samurai women

Japan under samurai rule was male-dominated. Before this, there were a small number of female rulers and some women were allowed to inherit property. From the time of the civil wars fought in the Heian Period (794-1185), it was thought that a man should be at the head of the family to protect the house and land. Women of the samurai class were brought up to believe they were inferior to men, and had little freedom. In 1716, strict rules governing a woman's behaviour had been written in a book called The Great Learning for Women. It was a woman's duty to serve three masters: her father, her husband and her son, and home life was the focus of her career. A man could divorce his wife and send her back to her parents simply by saying she was unhealthy or unable to have children. The only escape for a woman was to seek refuge in a temple and become a nun, where if she stayed for at least two years she could obtain a divorce. Refer Image 1

Alliances between samurai families depended on marriages arranged by the woman's parents. This also relied on the obligation of the wife to bear a son to inherit the husband's land, and on her instruction of her daughters in the manners suitable for polite society. The mother taught them to read and write and how to dress in ceremonial clothes. Samurai women often learnt martial arts and knew how to defend themselves. Samurai wives had the task of commanding soldiers while their husbands were away, and organising family finances. Women and children were not spared from the war and conflict of the times, and many wives committed suicide with their husbands.

Women in the ranks of the ninja were referred to as kunoichi. They were employed as spies and often posed as household servants. There are stories of less subtle ninja women using seduction as a tool, luring victims into dropping their guard before killing them.

Lower-class women

While life for lower-class women was hard, they were likely to have more freedom than noblewomen in their choice of husbands. Women servants worked as cleaners, cooks, or housemaids caring for young children. Other women worked as farm labourers, shopkeepers, or helped their husbands with their work. Farmers' wives planted rice and tended crops as well as spinning and weaving or caring for their children. The wives of poorer townsmen helped with family businesses and ran their homes. The wives of rich merchants were better off in spite of their low social status, and had money to lead a life of luxury. Some women worked as companions (geisha) for samurai men. Refer Image 2 & 3

Women in Japanese culture

Many poets and novelists were rich, well-educated women at the emperor's court in the Heian Period. Sei Shonagon was a courtier admired for her learning and her witty and outspoken comments on people, places and events. She wrote a famous pillow book (diary). The Tale of Genji, thought to be one of the world's first novels, was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a nobleman's daughter who began to write after the death of her husband. It was a story of love, politics and intrigue in the royal court. Other women became skilled musicians and entertainers. Very few of these women managed to become famous during their lifetimes, but some were well known such as the female entertainer Okuni, who founded kabuki theatre and performed with her female troupe in Kyoto. Their performances were banned in 1629 for being a bad influence on townspeople, and soon after men in theatres started to play both male and female roles. Refer Image 4

Religious roles

Little is known of women's roles in the early Shinto religion, but the introduction of Buddhism from China brought about a mistrust of women and a belief that salvation was out of question for them. Buddhist monastic communities were entirely male and Buddhist monks only accepted men as their students. The only religious life available to women was in seclusion as a Buddhist nun, and many women formed distinctly separate Buddhist communities. Refer Image 5


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1. Samurai women often learnt martial arts and knew how to defend themselves. Is this statement true or false?

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