Gender and Religion: Gender and Japanese Religions

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The history of the study of gender in Japanese religion could be characterized by the observation made by Ursula King, concerning religious studies in general, that the field has remained resistant to important disciplinary changes brought about by gender studies and feminist thought (King, 2002, p. 372). This tendency seems stronger in the Japanese academic field, where introducing concepts of gender and feminism is often seen as insinuating a particular political agenda or a lack of scholarly neutrality. From an academic gender and feminist perspective, in turn, religion is seen as a tool of patriarchy that is still used to oppress and alienate women (see, e.g., Ōgoshi, 1997). In this sense, gender and feminist studies maintain an awkward relationship with religious studies in Japan.

One is, however, beginning to see the impact of gender and feminist studies on Japanese religions. Japanese religious circles have been informed by gender studies and feminism since the mid-twentieth century, and movements to reform religious organizations are taking root as a result. These movements have commonalities with feminist theology movements in Europe and the United States that use feminism for critical leverage to reform male-dominated Judeo-Christian religions (Kawahashi and Kuroki, 2003).

Space constraints prevent this entry from tracing women's roles and how they were perceived in Shintō, Buddhism, Confucianism, or other religious traditions. Rather, this overview of gender in Japanese religions will identify important debates and isolate points that deserve greater attention in terms of both methodology and empirical research.

Impact of Gender Studies

Barbara Ruch (2002) and Bernard Faure (2003) have written essential studies for considering the impact of gender studies on Japanese Buddhism. Studies of women and Buddhist history have shifted significantly away from a focus on institutions and activities of male priests. Questions are posed in ways that reveal this reversal. Instead of asking how the "Buddhism" of patriarchs, Buddhist orders, and doctrines viewed women, the approach informed by gender studies asks, from a woman's viewpoint, how women perceived Buddhism, how they were marginalized, and what roles women fulfilled and aspired to within their various social constraints and limitations. This signifies, above all, a project to consider how women's religious activities influenced the history of Japanese Buddhism (Katsuura, 2003, p. 2). Ruch presents the collaboration of Japanese and American scholars who examined women in premodern Japanese Buddhist history from that perspective.

Such research examines how gender has informed the world and history of Buddhism. Thus Faure aims to explicate Buddhist conceptions of women and gender in order "to see how the history and doctrine of Buddhism were changed because of its relationship with women" (Faure, 2003, p. 14). Such an approach, he finds, also reveals how "ascetic religion" and male-dominated Buddhist communities were feminized and domesticated.

As Faure attempts to demonstrate, Buddhist women's history does not progress teleologically from oppression to emancipation. Japanese Buddhist historians' rereadings of historical sources substantiate his point. The linear notion that elitist ancient Buddhism denied women salvation, which was later extended to them for the first time by more democratic Kamakura Buddhism, is mistaken (Yoshida, Katsuura, and Nishiguchi, 1999). The Nihon ryōiki, a ninth-century collection of didactic tales, already depicted a Buddhism that did not reject women and vividly described women living within that faith (Nakamura, 1973). The henjō nanshi doctrine that women experience five obstructions and cannot achieve salvation in a female body became widespread by the medieval period. However, women were not strictly constrained by the Buddhist view that women had to be taught by men (Katsuura, 2003, p. 61). Not just passive recipients of patriarchal Buddhist teachings, women also resisted and appropriated those teachings. There is a need to examine relationships between Buddhism and various types of women, including nuns, lay followers, the mothers and wives of priests, and folk shamanic practitioners, from this perspective.

Similarly, Confucian tradition was often generalized as an ideological and cultural force that made the women of Asia victims of patriarchy, but modern studies show that women resisted patriarchal norms. Dorothy Ko, Jahyun Kim Haboush, and Joan Piggott (2003) affirm that women in Confucian cultures should not be portrayed merely as suffering victims or heroic rebels but also as "agents of negotiations who embraced certain aspects of official norms while resisting others" (Ko, Haboush, and Piggott, 2003, p. 1).

This perspective also applies to the experiences of women in Japan's new religions. The new religions are sustained by their women memberships. These women are commonly represented as a troubled category, and new religions generally teach them to step back and humble themselves in order to achieve this-worldly benefits. Such strategies religiously sanction traditional, existing gender roles and therefore do not lead to an amendment of gender role assignments.

Helen Hardacre (1984) terms these "strategies of weakness" by women who are economically dependent upon male householders. Hardacre further asserts that features of gender ideology found in fundamentalist religion also exist in such Japanese new religions as Reiyūkai and Seichō-no-Ie. These religions take a "characteristically conservative stance in regard to family, gender, and interpersonal relations" that she finds analogous, in its sexual discrimination, to fundamentalist religion, which places women in positions subservient to men and forces them to be self-sacrificing (Hardacre, 1994, pp. 113, 119). However, this generalization is countered by newer studies. Women in the new religions have adopted a strategy of working from traditional domestic roles sanctioned by their religions and may also appear to lack critical attitudes toward the oppressed positions assigned them. Further studies, however, expose the error of concluding that these women simply accede to submissive positions in male-controlled institutions without taking any interest in criticizing or reforming their religious communities (Usui, 2000, 2003).

Usui Atsuko argues against a conventional view that sees women in new religions as a special category in modern society dealing with some kind of problem caused by their disadvantageous and relatively deprived social standing. To depict women in new religions as supporting male-dominance ideology in order to compensate for their feelings of deprivation, Usui says, leads to the experiences of these women being erased (Usui, 2003, pp. 221222). She describes religious groups that emphasize the development of psychic or spiritual powers without essentializing gender categories, presenting these as instances of how, even in new religions, traditional gender ideology does not lead to the exclusion of women's religious experience.

As this implies, the experiences of women in the new religions are characterized by diversity. It may be difficult to claim agency by self-assertion in a context like religion, where self-transcendence is valued and emphasis is placed on new communal groups based on self-transcendent relationships. Nevertheless, future researchers would do well to conduct detailed fieldwork while attending to the agency of female believers. Theories relating to women's agency will no doubt require refinement. It is necessary to consider, for example, how women are able to enact values traditionally associated with femaleness without succumbing to their own subordination. This is not to counter the conventional model of victimized women by reifying exceptional, heroic figures in history, needless to say.

Throughout Japanese religious history, women's religious roles have been inextricable from belief in the "spiritual power of women." This was brought to light with the publication of Imo no chikara (Women's power) in 1940 by Yanagita Kunio, the founder of Japanese folklore studies. Yanagita viewed women as innately possessing a mystical spiritual power that originated in their reproductive capability. He believed that, by virtue of "female-specific physiology and emotional nature," women possessed various religious abilities. Carmen Blacker (1975) describes female shamanic practitioners who fit this view.

Critics point out, however, that Yanagita's view of women's spiritual endowment actually obscured discriminatory practices against them. They criticize Yanagita for imposing the view, based on biological essentialism, that women's spiritual power is inherent, natural, and universal in all women. In other words, Yanagita, who identified that mystical power with women's unique reproductive function, is indicted for essentialist views of female gender (Kawahashi, forthcoming [a]). Tanaka Takako shows how Yanagita excessively emphasizes women's reproductive power, which is linked with worship of female deities. Used uncritically, she states, this approach risks generating the facile fantasy that all women are worshipped as goddesses (Tanaka, 1996, p. 182).

Kuraishi Atsuko (1995) also criticizes Yanagita and other male folklorists for overemphasizing women's spiritual power. Although Yanagita writes that "in the past, the women in each household invariably served the deities, and it appears that the wisest among the women was the most superior priestess [miko ]," he does not discuss specifically how ordinary housewives functioned as priestesses in their households (Yanagita, 1990, p. 25). According to Kuraishi, Yanagita's notion conveys his image of the ideal housewife. Citing Yanagita's statement that "women must make it their first precept to do everything possible to take care of the home, bear and rear good children, and never fail in performance of the memorial rituals for the ancestors," Kuraishi suggests that Yanagita's actual motive here was to turn women into the reservoir of Japanese traditions (Kuraishi, 1995, pp. 9497).

The research done by Yoshie Akiko (1996) is important for understanding the ritual roles of women in Japanese religious history and their relationships to male ritual specialists. Contrary to Yanagita, who claimed that ritual observances were intrinsically the unique province of women, Yoshie points out that this cannot be verified throughout history and stresses that ancient rituals were performed by women and men acting together. Yoshie explains that the sexual union of women and men was considered an important aspect of ritual, and rituals for fertility were sustained by faith in the primal power of such sexual union (Yoshie, 1996, p. 20). Moreover, as she points out, women's ritual participation in this kind of sexual practice raises the possibility of a connection with the crucial role women played in agricultural labor. Consequently, as Yoshie suggests, the dramatic advances in farming technology and the structural changes in agriculture that took place toward the end of Japan's medieval period conclusively depreciated the significance of women's specific functions in the labor of farming and other such endeavors. At the same time, the practice of invoking fertility by means of sexual ritual also lost its importance (Yoshie, 1996, pp. 250251).

It would, of course, be a mistake to think that Japan's folk religious tradition uniformly oppressed women, denying them opportunities to participate in religious activities or activate their spiritual nature. It would also be a mistake, however, to interpret the interaction between women and religion entirely within the framework of "women's power" or the "supernatural endowment of women," ignoring the locality and the particularized contexts of individual experience.

Okinawa, as one such context, has received increasing attention. Situated midway between Kyushu and Taiwan, Okinawa is Japan's southernmost prefecture, and Okinawan religion has been largely treated as a subset of Japanese religion. Yanagita, for example, derived his thesis of "women's power" from Okinawa. He actually borrowed this key term, which he used to describe indigenous Japanese beliefs, from the Okinawan context, thus fostering an illusory notion of Okinawa as representative of Japan's ancient past. Subsequent studies, however, have highlighted the distinctive gendered nature of Okinawan religious culture and its allocation of authority to females. These studies have also recognized Okinawa's value in world religious history. The fact is that in Okinawa, unlike the Japanese mainland, it is an everyday occurrence for housewives to act as priestesses, praying to the hinukan hearth deity enshrined in the kitchen to appeal for the family's well-being and happiness. Women nearly monopolized priest-like roles in village communities and kin groups and even at the state level during the time of the Ryukyu kingdom, which lasted until 1879. The Okinawan belief in onarigami, where sisters become the spiritual guardians of their brothers, is another characteristic distinguishing Okinawan from Japanese culture (Kawahashi, 2000; Wacker, 2003). Also unlike the Japanese mainland, Okinawa has almost no pollution beliefs associated with women, who are thus not excluded as unclean from ritual sites.

Female Gender and Ritual Uncleanness in Japanese Religious Culture

While women were seen in Japanese religious history as possessors of spiritual power, there was also a view that women are polluted and must be kept apart from sacred things. Shintō notions of women's pollution, for example, are discussed in Yusa Michiko (1994). These are implicated in nyonin kinsei and nyonin kekkai. Nyonin kinsei is the practice of forbidding women to enter, reside, or perform religious practice in temples, shrines, sacred mountains, and ritual sites. Nyonin kekkai demarcates the boundary of a ritual space that women cannot enter. Some sacred mountains that traditionally upheld nyonin kekkai have been opened to women, while others, such as Mount Ōmine in Nara, maintain the exclusion. This is the subject of ongoing dispute, as demonstrated, for example, by a signature drive in 2004 demanding the lifting of nyonin kinsei at Mount Ōmine. Suzuki Masataka (2002) acknowledges criticism of nyonin kinsei as discriminatory, maintaining that his stance is not to condemn the practice but to clarify the processes whereby it came into being and to delineate its changes, if any (Suzuki, 2002, p. 4). Suzuki seems to be distancing himself from the polarization in accounts of nyonin kinsei as either discriminatory or religiously meaningful. Indeed, some suggest nyonin kinsei is an important ritual mechanism for male religious practitioners to acquire spiritual power. Yet the argument that sacred mountains had to be sealed off from women for the sake of male acquisition of spiritual power naturally raises the question of why men took priority over women. Ushiyama Yoshiyuki (1996), examining this problem as a Buddhist historian, identifies three basic reasons for the origination of nyonin kinsei : (1) the notion of women's blood pollution; (2) adherence to Buddhist precepts; and (3) the disdain shown to women in Buddhist scriptures. Ushiyama holds that while conventional accounts overemphasize pollution, the focus should instead be on the Buddhist precept against sexual indulgence, which is applicable to both genders, and suggests that the notion of blood pollution was a later development (Ushiyama, 1996, pp. 7578).

In any event, researchers must attend not only to the logic and history underlying the practice but also to the perception of women themselves vis-à-vis the practice. It is necessary to examine how the perpetual or temporary exclusion of woman from a locus of cultural value is implicated in the situations of women in the early twenty-first century.

Another important issue in interactions between religion and gender in Japan is mizuko kuyō (memorial rituals for aborted fetuses and miscarried or stillborn babies), interpretation of which has occasioned various exchanges among researchers (Kawahashi, forthcoming [b]). The study of gender issues in Japanese religion, as in other traditions, must be positioned within a dialectic between research to refine existing theories of gender and feminism on the one hand and thoroughgoing fieldwork and rereading of historical texts on the other. It must also take into account contemporary maneuvers by Japanese women (and men) to reform religious communities as well as influences on Japanese society at large from religions that have been changed by feminist thought.

Reform Movements

One example is a women's movement that formed in Japanese Buddhist circles during the 1990s (Kawahashi, 2003). This is a diverse group that includes, among others, wives of male priests, female priests (nuns), women who are a combination of both, and women who do not belong to any particular Buddhist order. Their project is to amplify the voice of women in the Buddhist community by a variety of means, including workshops and the publication of workshop findings. They also aim to form networks across sectarian boundaries for information exchange. They seek, by means of women's participation, to transform present-day Buddhism to provide gender equality. The commitment of these women extends beyond the boundaries of any particular school. They envision a new Buddhism that empowers the women of the early twenty-first century, and their project necessitates reinterpretation of conventional, male-centered Buddhist history and doctrine in light of their own experiences.

These women, who find it natural to resist gender-discriminatory constructions, are building a fuller awareness of how patriarchal Buddhist orders have thwarted women's realization of their own religiosity. This is not to say that Buddhism is a primary cause of Japanese patriarchal structures, nor does their criticism make such a claim. This project seeks rather to find truths in Buddhism that point a way to freedom for women, and this is their rationale for redirecting Buddhism toward affirmation of women's experiences in their own life context.

The discipline of religious studies remains rather unaware of its habit of reducing other religious traditions to fit into Western categories. It is important to recognize, however, that the rise of non-Western feminism makes it necessary to consider feminisms in the plural. Researchers who categorize Japanese women as silenced victims of patriarchy and their religious experiences as strategies of the weak will be called on to be reflexively aware and critical of whether their own interpretations are imposing a Western (or some other) agenda on their subject. At the same time, the religious world in Japan must no longer dismiss the study of gender issues in Japanese religions as a problem for women, and therefore secondary, but instead improve the quality of researchers and raise the level of work in the field through institutional reform.


Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. London, 1975; 3d ed., Richmond, U.K., 1999. Classic wide-ranging description of shamanic practitioners in Japanese religious history.

Faure, Bernard. The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender. Princeton, N.J., 2003. Multifaceted examination of whether Buddhism represents liberation for women or limitation, stressing diverse Buddhist notions of women's gender and sexuality.

Hardacre, Helen. Lay Buddhism in Contemporary Japan: Reiyūkai Kyōdan. Princeton, N.J., 1984. A study of Buddhist-based new religions by prominent Western researcher on Japanese new religions and women, based on fieldwork in the operation and organization of those religions.

Hardacre, Helen. "Japanese New Religions: Profiles in Gender." In Fundamentalism and Gender, edited by John Stratton Hawley. Oxford, 1994. An examination of gender in relation to Japanese new religions, proposing similarity between them and fundamentalist religions.

Katsuura Noriko. Kodai-chūsei no josei to bukkyō. Kyoto, Japan, 2003. General account of the roles of priests and nuns and men's and women's beliefs from ancient to medieval periods; essential reading on problems of convents in particular.

Kawahashi Noriko. "Review Article: Religion, Gender, and Okinawan Studies." Asian Folklore Studies 59 (2000): 301311. This review of gender studies in Okinawan religious studies argues that Susan Sered's Women of the Sacred Groves (1999) has serious problems and so must be read critically.

Kawahashi Noriko. "Feminist Buddhism as Praxis: Women in Traditional Buddhism." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30, nos. 34 (2003): 291313.

Kawahashi Noriko. "Japanese Folk Religion and Its Contemporary Issues." In Companion to the Anthropology of Japan, edited by Jennifer Robertson. Malden, Mass., forthcoming (a). An overview focusing on issues of folklore research and gender from postcolonialist perspectives.

Kawahashi Noriko. "Gender Issues in Japanese Religions." In Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions, edited by Clark Chilson, Robert Kisala, Okuyama Michiaki, and Paul L. Swanson. Forthcoming (b). Review article that thematically discusses various gender issues in Japanese religious studies.

Kawahashi Noriko, and Kuroki Masako, eds. Special issue on Feminism and Religion in Contemporary Japan. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30, nos. 34 (2003). This special issue examines effects of gender studies and feminism on Japanese Buddhism, Christianity, and new religions and introduces feminist research on religion in Japan. Combined and contrasted with another Japanese Journal of Religious Studies special issue (Nakamura Kyoko, ed., Women and Religion in Japan, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 10, nos. 23[1983]), it provides an overview of the two intervening decades of gender research in Japanese religion and represents a groundbreaking effort in this field.

King, Ursula. "Is There a Future for Religious Studies as We Know It? Some Postmodern, Feminist, and Spiritual Challenges." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70, no. 2 (2002): 365388. Argues for the importance of postmodernism and gender studies in the changing discipline of religious studies by a European pioneer of religion and gender studies.

Ko, Dorothy, Jahyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott, eds. Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. An anthology that reassesses the position and significance of women and Confucian traditions and modifies former stereotypes of women.

Kuraishi Atsuko. Yanagita Kunio to Joseikan. Tokyo, 1995. Yanagita's views of women, especially studies of housewives, are critically examined from the perspective of a woman folklorist.

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Ruch, Barbara. Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2002. Groundbreaking collaborative collection of twenty studies by Japanese and Western scholars in this neglected area of Japanese cultural history.

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Ushiyama Yoshiyuki. "Nyonin kinsei." In Nihon no Bukkyō 6, edited by Nihon Bukkyō Kenkyūkai. Tokyo, 1996. A study going beyond conventional views of nyonin kinsei by a scholar known for originality of research in Japanese Buddhism and women.

Usui Atsuko. "The Role of Women." In Global Citizens: The Soka Gakkai Buddhist Movement in the World, edited by David Machacek and Bryan Wilson. Oxford, 2000. A detailed discussion of religious experiences and activities in the women's organization of Sōka Gakkai.

Usui Atsuko. "Women's 'Experience' in New Religious Movements: The Case of Shinnyoen." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30, nos. 34 (2003): 217241. A critical study of former views on women's position and significance in Japanese new religions, with a positive account of women's spiritual experience in Shinnyoen.

Wacker, Monika. Onarigami: Die heilige Frau in Okinawa. Frankfurt, Germany, 2000.

Wacker, Monika. "OnarigamiHoly Women in the Twentieth Century." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30, nos. 34 (2003): 339359. A study tracing the history of the distinctive Okinawan belief in the spiritual superiority of women.

Yanagita Kunio. Yanagita Kunio zenshū, vols. 1011. Tokyo, 1990. Includes Imo no chikara, Fujo-kō, and other core works of Yanagita folklore studies that attribute special spiritual power to women.

Yoshida Kazuhiko, Katsuura Noriko, and Nishiguchi Junko. Nihonshi no naka no josei to bukkyō. Tokyo, 1999. Foremost Japanese scholars examine issues of women and Buddhism from its arrival in Japan through the medieval period.

Yoshie Akiko. Nihon kodai no saishi to josei. Tokyo, 1996. Reevaluates previous research on women and ritual from a historical perspective.

Yusa Michiko. "Women in Shinto: Images Remembered." In Religion and Women, edited by Arvind Sharma, pp. 93119. Albany, N.Y., 1994. A cogent, inclusive summary of women's position and significance in Shintō.

Kawahashi Noriko (2005)

Translated from Japanese by Richard Peterson

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Gender and Religion: Gender and Japanese Religions