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  • Gender in Early Classical JapanMarriage, Leadership, and Political Status in Village and Palace
  • Yoshie Akiko (bio)
    Translated by Janet R. Goodwin

In Japan's early classical age-the eighth and ninth centuries-women known as toji played a major role in rural society in the management of agricultural enterprises and the supervision of labor. On a higher social level, consorts of the sovereign known as ōtoji (also written ), or "grand toji," managed productive enterprises within their own independent residences. Building upon a synthesis of previous research on the history of women in the classical age, in this article I will examine the social, political, and economic activities of toji on both levels. The article will focus primarily on the eighth and ninth centuries but will trace specific phenomena back in time to the fourth and fifth. In addition, I will follow some developments into subsequent periods, using a later vantage point to illuminate earlier conditions.

The discovery that women played a surprisingly powerful role in early classical times has not yet been incorporated into our general understanding of the history of the age. Let us take, for example, Ishimoda Shō's argument that between the sixth and ninth centuries members of the local chieftain (zaichi shuchō) class were the key figures in communally organized productive activities-in other words, that such local chieftains constituted the base of [End Page 437] the administrative structure of the realm.1 Much of the debate concerning ancient and classical history has revolved around Ishimoda's thesis since he proposed it in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, this debate has largely ignored the existence of female chieftains, and female village leaders rarely appear in analyses of the breakdown of the ancient communal framework after the ninth century and its replacement by a new local order.2

Official sources compiled by order of the court, such as chronicles and compendia of ritual, contain very little direct evidence about women. When women do appear in such works, moreover, they are often depicted from the perspective of those who sought to promote Chinese concepts of patrilineality and male dominance. For instance, maxims found in official works that purport to record conventional images of the roles and productive activities of men and women often convey biased or anachronistic concepts of gender relations. To uncover the figures of women "hidden" in such sources, we need to turn to other types of material. Central among these are setsuwa tales relating the lives of the common people and archaeological findings such as mokkan, wooden tablets used for keeping routine records of various sorts because paper was such a precious commodity. Unlike the situation with chronicles and such, toji appear with some frequency in this sort of material.

A close examination of these different sources reveals the central role played by toji in the early classical age. It also makes clear that toji should not be regarded as "wives" who exercised leadership in local society simply as proxies for their husbands. To understand women's economic and administrative roles we need to situate their activities within the context of the patterns of family and marriage and legal and governmental structures current at the time. Archaeological evidence likewise points to the independent status of the sovereign's consorts in this period and to the earlier widespread presence of female chieftains throughout the Japanese archipelago. Exploration of the commonalities between village and palace centered on women's roles should yield more than an enhanced appreciation of the position of women; it promises to shed light on various central features of early classical society and government.

Legal Codes and Actual Conditions

From the second half of the seventh century, the Yamato court, drawing from Chinese models, began a full-fledged overhaul of the country's political structure. A legal system patterned on that of China provided the skeletal framework for government control of the populace. Administrative regulations (ryō) issued at the end of the seventh century were combined in the eighth with penal codes (ritsu), forming a governmental system generally known as the ritsuryō [End Page 438] polity. There were many gaps between the idealized ritsuryō political structure and actual social conditions within Japanese society. The...


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pp. 437-479
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