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In this semester, we have read several articles, including the Kojiki (古事記) – the sacred text of the Shinto religion. While reading the Kojiki, I found it interesting how in Japan it is believed that the offspring which were produced by the characters in the Kojiki made up the nation Japan, each offspring refers to one specific island in Japan. However, the female characters that appear in the book often have a somehow weak personality and they usually hold a really low rank. What’s more, it never really described the process of having sex or giving birth. The female image with different characters in Japanese mythology are believed to be the epitome of the female image in the real world. In mythology, the status of women is constantly changing. In certain periods and stages, changes in the status of women in mythology reflect or project changes in the status of women in real society. Therefore, in this essay, based on the Kojiki, by studying the female images in Japanese creation myth, and along with the history background, hopefully we can figure out how the female characters reflect the society and see more directly the changing trajectory of Japanese women’s status.
Kojiki was written in 720 AD, chronicles the birth of the Japanese gods, the birth of Japan, and the formation and development of the nation. In the book, there are many vivid images of the Japanese goddess. Among them, the Izanami God (伊邪那美) and the Amaterasu (天照大神) are the typical representatives of the goddess in the era of creation and culture. An analysis of the images of these two women features may lead us to see the process of how women’s status has gradually changed in Japan during that period of time, and may also lead us to see the development of it later on in the society.
I would like to talk about Amaterasu first. Amaterasu is known as the beginning of the Japanese culture. As stated in Kojiki, Amaterasu was born because Izanagi bathed his left eye. Therefore, Amaterasu was not given birth from her mother, but instead her father Izanagi gave birth to her. In this case, rather than Amaterasu representing the equation of “women=nature” as it usually is, she is actually representing the equation of “men=culture”. Some people may claim that Amaterasu is the representation of a “masculine” goddess, but stories that were written in Kojiki showed another aspect of the status of women. Amaterasu obeyed her father’s orders to govern Takaamahara (高天原), but she was harassed by the goddess who was not obedient to her father, and even her own kanda (神田) was vandalized and disrupted. Her brother made a serious promise that he did not mean to do anything bad at the first place. Therefore, they decided to make a bet and see if the baby is going to be a boy a girl to prove the innocence of both sides. If a boy was born then that will mean her brother was innocent, but if it’s a girl, then it will mean her brother’s motivation wasn’t pure. It is not hard to see the concept that women are born with sinful and they are not “clean”., while boys represent innocence and pureness. Although she was bullied and insulted by her brother that much, she just silently hid away without even punishing or actually revenged on her brother. In other words, the feminist power was completely surrendered to the male power without even trying to resist.
On the other hand, let us take a look at the Izanami. There were several ideas of women at that period of time being shown in the story of Izanami and Izanagi. As one of the creation gods, Izanami played an irreplaceable role in the birth of Japan and the creation of the gods. However, when the creation activity was about to be completed, she died she because she suffered form burns while giving birth to the kami of fire, Kagutsuchi (軻遇突智). Her husband, Izanagi（伊邪那岐), killed Kagutsuchi and decided to go find Izanami. Further, when her husband Izanagi arrived in Yomi (黄泉国) to take her back, she was humiliated because he witnessed her giving birth at her natural state – a sea beast, she had to chase him away and terminating her marriage relationship with him, then vowing to extract vengeance by depriving the world of life. This reflects men’s understanding of the need for women in producing descendants What’s more, women should never speak first, since no good will come of the woman speaking first. In the story, just because Izanami said “What a fine boy!” first, they were punished and their fertility behavior ended in failure. We can see that women do not have the dominant power in their marriage and must abide by their duty, or else they will bring bad luck and will be punished. This shows that Japan has produced a sense of male superiority. Secondly, it is clearly shown that at that time, men were the masters of the world. Women can only obey men. The gods and the goddesses have the same power to give birth, however, the descendants of the male gods seen to have more advantages and they eventually become the royal gods, the ancestor of Japan who ruled the nation Japan. Izanami produced numerous offspring kamis, which means she could not escape from the pollution of birth. Overall, it is apparent that the status of ancient Japanese women was humble and they did not really hold much power. The goddess was also once degraded as a devil that destroys human reproduction, and it can be seen as a negation of its own reproductive function. The contrast between women and men has undergone tremendous changes, and women have completely lost in the battle for their status.
The status of Japanese women wasn’t always low. Among the unearthed characters of the Jomon period (縄文時代), the most striking ones were the female potteries. The characteristics of the plump breasts of women can make us imagine that women, as the symbol of the flourishing of the men, are worshiped by people. Thus it can be seen that during Yayoi period (弥生時代), the society was still centered on women, and that women are not only an idolatry of awe, but their mystical character has been used as a special force in social rule. Then, after entering the Asuka period (飛鳥時代) in the sixth century, the first female emperor of Japan — Empress Suiko (推古天皇), appeared in Japanese history. In the later Nara period, it was certainly the era of female emperors, and nonetheless, their policies and ways of thinking really contribute to the Japanese society at that time. Women in ancient Japanese society not only participated in political activities, but also have indelible achievements in the construction of ancient culture. During the Heian period (平安時代), the biggest feature of the national culture is the rise of aristocratic women’s literature. The author of the first novel – the tale of genji, was a female, as well as the author of “The Pillow Book of Seishonagon” (枕草子 – 清少納言). They were both known as the masterpiece of Japanese Sinology. To sum up, there was that certain period of time when women in Japan had a relatively high rank in the society.
The introduction of Buddhism from China took place in 552 A.D, and it was interfered with the Shinto dominated perception of women. Women were believed to be the evil of nature and they represented sin and misfortune. We can tell from the two goddesses in Kojiki that women really did not have that much power, in fact, they were more like some tools to give birth. The status of women in Japan has mainly changed from being respected to humble form the late Heian period to the modern era, where women were almost subordinate to men and became their vassals. We can see from the description in The Tale of Genji. With the establishment of the patriarchal social system, aristocratic women were asked to be enthralled, surrounded by nursing mothers and maids, and they were never allowed to meet strangers and even adult men in their homes, not to mention the political stage. Women were very passive even after marriage. They either stayed in her parents’ home passively waiting for the man to meet at night or the man’s family would come and pick her up, it all depended on the men’s ruling. However, what are the causes of the change? In order to find out, we should analyze both the internal and external causes. Talking about the internal cause, we will have to mention the samurai society (武士社会). In the later period of Heian period, the samurai began to ascend to the stage of history. Later on, men slowly occupied the leading position in politics and economy, that is, the creation and production of wealth. This thus makes women more and more inferior. What’s more, in the upper class, women were asked to be “careful” with their words and behaviors, and their talents can not be exposed, and their speech should be implicit, euphemistic and, and they should always be elegant. Under such social constraints, the development of women’s status has been greatly restricted. In other words, women’s incompetence was virtue (女子才無ければ便ち是れ徳). Therefore, the gradual retreat of women from the important labor force of agricultural production to just focusing on housework as a housewife has completely degraded the social status of Japanese women, and the glory of women’s past has disappeared without a trace. Also, if we take a good look at the history of Japanese literature, we can see clearly that, from the Kamakura period (鎌倉時代) to the modern times, except for several women’s diary literature in the middle ages, women almost had not been on the stage of literature for almost more than 200 years. They live in the Samurai society system, and the idea of male superiority and female inferiority. Women at that time were only asked to be a good wife and good mother from the husband, all they had to do was to take good care of the family and not being smarter than the men.
Moving on to the external causes, Japanese Confucianism was nourished by Chinese Confucianism and gradually developed by the development of Chinese Confucianism. In the early fifth century, the prosperity of Confucianism and the idea that women are inferior to men (男尊女卑) had a tremendous impact on the Japanese society at that time. The three obediences and four virtues (三従四徳) for a woman according to Confucian ethics made women become more like some tools to men rather than human beings. The Confucianism that came from China definitely had a huge impact on the way of how Japanese people think.
We can always see some sort of fundamental ideas of gender roles in mythology since it is based on the original religion of one country. Starting with the Japanese mythology, it reflects the ancient ancestors’ ideological concepts and their ways of thinking, not only on genders, but also on the function of the world and how things were done. The female image and status in the story of Kojiki actually reflect the status of women in the real society at a certain period of time to a certain extent, and it somehow foreshadowed the later on changes of women’s status. The depiction and portrayal of Izanami and Amaterasu in the Kojiki clearly depicts the trajectory of the changes in the social status of ancient Japanese women from high to low. By going from humble to being respected by the general public, and all the way round again, we could really see how the Japanese society was influenced in many ways, and how the form of the society has shaped the women. Nowadays, women’s social advancement is certainly becoming a mainstream, and they are better off today, but we should definitely not forget how we got here after all the historical changes.
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