Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lady Eboshi: Last of the female gokenin?

Wow, it's been a long time since I've posted...  I am shamed...  >_<

I read and interesting thing on Friday in Louis G. Perez's, The History of Japan, that immediately made me think of Lady Eboshi from Mononoke Hime.  Up until the beginning of the Muromachi period (1333-1467 C.E.) it was common for women to inherit political positions, land holdings, and to command a militia.

This is something that's always confused me.  All the time in historic anime and manga you see strong female characters like Lady Eboshi obviously in positions of familial or military power.  But in more contemporary anime and manga you see women portrayed in very different social standings. 

How is it possible to reconcile the misogyny  present in Japanese society both past and present?

Quick, Batman!  To a history book!


Often referred to as the classical period of Japanese culture, The Heian period (794-1185C.E.) came to a messy end thanks to famine and political intrigues.  Constitantly the Imperial Court failed to reward allies and installed relatives into important positions instead.  Bad call.  Shortly after the Minamoto and the Taira families went to war with each other over succession to the throne.  The massive blood bath that followed wiped out the entire Minamoto family as the Taira consolidated under their control independent land states called shoen responsible for tithing taxes and swearing fealty to the emperor.  This cost the emperor his place of power in actual politics.  Apparently to show his complete power, the head of the Taira family spared the lives of three Minamoto sons, one of whom was named Minamoto Yoritomo.  This fellow was sent off to a backwater finishing village named Kamakura to waste away in shame.

Bad move. 

When the emperor got uppity and tried to wrest power back from the Taira young Yoritomo wasted no time getting into the fight.  Bad feelings still existed between the warrior class and the emperor for the lack of compensation for their efforts.  Yoritomo raised his own army; slaughtered every last Taira; killed his own brothers and unborn nephew to remove rivals; and wrested political power away from the emperor by declaring himself the head of the military government of Japan known as the Sei-itai Shogun.  He placed the capital of his military government in Kamakura far from the intrigues of the Imperial Court thus marking the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192 - 1333 C.E.).

So where does Lady Eboshi fit into all of this?  And what's a gokenin?

When the shoen went to war at the end of the Heian era lots of people died; mostly young males and heads of families.  These were often the stewards of the shoen states and their subsequent heirs.  With no appropriate male left  female heirs could and frequently did inherit familial positions and even lead troops into battle.  When Yoritomo founded his military government he absconded with the right to appoint stewards to the land states, a power previously held by the Emperor.  These positions became known as gokenin, literarly meaning house men.  Gokenin swore fealty not to the Emperor but instead to the Shogun.  The shogun could care less what the stewards did as long as they kept the peace and paid their taxes to him and not the emperor.  This was especially true of the far away regions on the edge of civilized society, which is exactly where Iron Town is located.  Perhaps this explains the status of Lady Eboshi and the women under her care.  Apparently, however, this was a rare exception.

Why?  When and how did this shift in the status of Japanese women take place? 


Several key elements in the film support that Mononoke Hime takes place during the Muromachi Period (1333-1467 C.E.).  The changing societal view of women is shown throughout the movie.  This era is known for the region in Kyoto where the Ashikaga Shogun ruled.  It rose as the Kamakura Bakufu folded under the pressures of more famine, disease, foreign invaders, political turmoil in the Imperial Court, and religious and social change. We have to reach back even further into history to get a foothold in understanding.

During the Nara (710-794 C.E.) and Heian Periods (794-1185 C.E.) a huge influx of Chinese ideas rushed into Japan, including Buddhism and Confucianism.  Confucianism and the Chinese style of government was installed (more or less) permanently in 710 C.E..  Under Confucianism women are completely subordinate to their father/husband/brothers/sons.  In the eyes of Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism women were said to be incapable of education and physically/spiritually inferior to men.  In direct opposition is the fact that in ancient times Japanese women held extremely important positions in both religion and politics.  Two shaman empresses are known by name during the ancient period: Himiko and her heir Iyo.  The most important deity in Shinto and the founder of the Imperial family is a goddess: Amaterasu O-kami-sama.  The fact that women could hold title and even fight in war up until the end of the Kamakura period speaks to this ancient respect for the power of women.

What then was so different between the Kamakura and Muromachi period?

In the end it comes down to political power.  Perez points out that at the root of the turmoil in all the periods we've discussed until now is the trouble of succession.  During the Muromachi period primogeniture became established as the only means of succession and inheritance.  Eventually these rigid rules of succession produce one of the longest periods of peace in Japanese history: the Tokugawa Period.  It is at this point that women became completely disinherited and henceforth forced to rely on their male relatives.  However, exceptions do exist.  As history shows again and again, women often used their male relatives to their advantage. As the adage goes, where there is a will there is a way.

Paradoxes are common in Japanese culture.  The social standing of women is a perfect example of such a paradox.  Women are both revered and reviled, much like Lady Eboshi herself.  Regardless of where these paradoxes occur, it is fascinating to reach back in search of their roots.  The tensions at play in their creation can help us discover the why and how in hopes of achieving understanding.

Ah, Miyazaki; how I adore your dedication to research.  How I love that at the heart of all your work is a connection in some way to history, culture, and literature.  You make me hungry to read more.

1 comment:


  1. Really good site, where did you come up with the knowledge in this piece? I'm glad I found it though, ill be checking back soon to see what other articles you have
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