Gender in Japanese History
Period Tuesday, October 6 –Sunday, December 6, 2020
Venue Special Exhibition Galleries A&B, National Museum of Japanese History

Adults: ¥1000
college students:¥500
* Admission to permanent exhibitions included.
* Free admission for High school age and below.

Hours 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:00 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)


Countless historical phenomena formed and disappeared over the course of time, but only some have been written down. We call the former “reki” and the latter “shi.” Despite women’s indisputable existence as “reki” in the long history of the Japanese archipelago, they rarely appear in “shi.” Nonetheless, researchers of women’s history raised the following fresh questions through their efforts to bring female figures to light. “Why did we come to differentiate male from female?” “How did people in the past navigate through such gender divisions?” With the use of more than 280 sources including important cultural properties and UNESCO “memory of the world” items, this historical exhibition explores what gender meant and how it transformed within the long history of Japanese society.

By focusing on the space for state affairs and politics, this exhibition first examines the emergence of gender divisions. Classical Japanese society developed along with the formation of the ritsuryō state, by dividing its constituents into “male” and “female” and thereby assigning them to prescribed gender roles. In the medieval and early modern periods, individual households (ie) came to function as political space. Then, with the establishment of the modern nation state, women were completely excluded from government affairs. Now, we live in contemporary Japanese society that emerged after all those changes. Let’s explore what this process was like together.

Additionally, this exhibition sheds light on women and men in their work and lives. By investigating excavated items such as classical wooden tablets and clay figures from mounded tombs, we can reveal heretofore unknown information about women and men’s actual working conditions in classical Japan. Here, through investigating different aspects of labor—such as rice planting in medieval and early-modern Japan, hair dressing jobs, and artisan activities—we will come to see when and how we developed our images about male and female occupations.

Furthermore, by focusing on the sex trade from medieval to postwar times, we explore the history of sexuality, which has been significantly influenced by the gender and social characteristics of each period. Although people say that “prostitution is the oldest profession of women,” is this really true? While introducing diaries and letters of women who lived as prostitutes, this exhibition helps you visit the history of sexuality in Japan, which greatly reflected gender division and male-female positioning.

Gender—we are unconsciously shaped by it. History of gender, which has significant impact on us, is filled with surprise and discovery. This special exhibition, “Gender in Japanese History,” aims to present exciting elements of history while offering visitors an opportunity to search for a way to develop a society in which everyone can live freely without gender-based restrictions.

Important Cultural Property
Female Clay Figure Holding A Ladle
Excavated from Kabutozuka Tumulus in Tochigi Prefecture Latter

6th Century
Owned by the Shimotsuke City Educational Board

Highlights of the exhibition

* Why do we make male-female divisions?
This is the first exhibition that explains how “gender” emerged, developed, and changed in Japanese history.

* Kabutozuka Tumulus―Unparalleled rare clay figures!
We will exhibit the following!: one of the two weaving-style clay figures designated as important cultural properties, which are the only such items having been unearthed in Japan; and 3D images of the “Figure of a Seated Female Weaver.”

* Great items displayed for the first time! Along with Takahashi Yuichi’s painting 《Oiran》designated as an important cultural property, we will exhibit a prostitute’s diary and hand-written letters by by Koina and Matsugae, popular prostitutes of the Inamoto Brothel in the New Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. Wardrobes, tools, letters, and diaries—These items tell us about the livelihood of prostitutes and their male customers. This exhibition is groundbreaking in the way it reveals the suppression structure over the sex trade through an examination of social characteristics.

* We will present three items including Yamamoto Sakuhei’s video recording 《Entering a Mine (Mother and Child)》, which is the first Japanese item listed in the UNESCO “Memory of the World” Register!

* In classical times, female sovereigns and female officials were the norm, but under the Meiji Constitutional system, women came to be entirely excluded from such arenas. Now, what do we see in present-day Japan? In this exhibition we will unravel the history of politics and gender with a special attention to space.  

Gender in Classical Japanese Society

In past Japanese society when male and female gender divisions were ambiguous, people worked in groups, offered goods as tribute, and took part in community rituals. Men and women took leadership roles at various levels of society, from a central chieftain to local powerholders. Then, we must wonder how and when male and female roles came to be articulated. By analyzing political spaces and local communities. let's explore the way in which men and women cooperated and see the process through which gender divisions were increasingly institutionalized.

Important Cultural Property
Clay Figure of a Seated Female Weaver
Excavated from Kabutozuka Tumulus in Tochigi Prefecture 
Latter 6th Century
Owned by the Shimotsuke City Educational Board

Important Cultural Property
Cinerary Urn of Ihokibe no Tokotarihime
710 (Wadō 3)
Owned by the Tokyo National Museum
Image:TNM Image Archives

Shōsōin Archives           
Taihō 2 Mino Province Kamo District Hafuri Residence Unit Register (Reproduction)
710 (Taihō 2) 
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History


Politics and Gender in Medieval Japan

Female attendants (nyobo) were aristocratic women who closely served a sovereign, his immediate family members, and high-ranking aristocratic families. In Heian Japan, there was a tendency to have a negative view towards serving as nyobo. Such a trend, however, changed in the late Heian period and beyond when governing authority and power came to be shared among various institutions and individual groups including a sovereign and his immediate family members. Along with this change, nyobo service came to be considered similar to that of male courtiers, as one of the ways to promote the political status and economic base of their families. Specifically from the Kamakura period, the mechanism of "transmitting royal messages and orders" by female attendants was structurally incorporated into the mandate system of the time, such as the one controlled by the senior retired sovereign or the one overseen by the sovereign. In the Muromachi and Sengoku periods, nyobo hosho, letters written by female attendants conveying the sovereign's wishes , came to be used frequently as official documents.

Important Cultural Property Kōzan Monastery Archive
Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s Letter
The twenty-eighth day of the sixth month in 1185 (Genryaku 2)
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History

Medieval Household and Religion

In medieval Japan, patrilineal "households" (ie) were formed regardless of social status or class. Meanwhile, the relationship of a married couple and the roles of the wife became quite important widows came to be recognized by society as the family representatives, who mourned their husbands and retained authority over the children. While they gradually faced restrictions, medieval Japanese women were nonetheless allowed to own and manage property. Through close analyses of written and visual primary sources, this exhibition reveals how women with economic authority in an unstable medieval society with strong religious influences took responsibilities in conducting their families' Buddhist rituals, deepening their devotion, and independently pursuing religious activities .

Shizuoka City Designated Cultural Property       
Red Seal Letter of Nun Jukei
1528 (Kyōroku 1)/10/18
Owned by Shizuoka City

Important Cultural Property
Jizō Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) Standing Statue
1334 (Kenmu 1)
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History

Important Cultural Property
Objects Placed in Jizō Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) Standing Statue (Prayer of Dedication, Nails, and Hairs)
1334 (Kenmu 1)
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History

Important Cultural Property
Objects Placed in Jizō Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) Standing Statue (Printed Buddha Image)
1334 (Kenmu 1)
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History

Gender in Work and Life --From Medieval to Early Modern Times--

Our understanding about the division of labor between men and women varies considerably according to time period and society. In medieval Japan, for example, many women worked and advanced their careers as business owners in commercial and industrial fields. As such, they attained a certain level of social recognition. In early modern times, however, women ceased to be viewed as full-fledged professionals, as society was restructured to incorporate more male-centered rules and ideas. Through comparisons with other East Asian situations, such as areas on the Chinese Continent and in the northern regions of the Japanese archipelago, we show that considerable gender diversity existed in the division of labor. By focusing on this historical and regional diversity, we aim to consider our "common knowledge" from a relativistic standpoint.

Donja (Sleeping Robe of Old Layered Patchwork Cloth)
19th-20th Centuries
Amuse Museum, Tanaka Chūzaburō Collection

Famous scenes of Higashiyama (2nd panel of the folding screen) (Partial)
Latter 16th Century      
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History

Hair Dressing    
Photographed by F. Beato
1863 (Bunkyū 3)           
Owned by Nagasaki University Library

Women’s Hair Dressing 
Photographed by F. Beato
1863 (Bunkyū 3)
Owned by Nagasaki University Library

From Separation to Exclusion --Political Spaces and the Transformation of Gender in Early Modern and Modern Times--

In the political space of the Eda Castle and the residences of domain lo 「 ds (daimyo), women were thought to have been kept in the background based on the early modern distinctions between "ornate and oku" (the front and the back) or "public and private." However, recent scholarship has revealed that the structure of the castle consisted not only of a public area toward the front that served as a ceremonial space, but also of a private area toward the back that was both the place where the daily administrative affairs of the shogun or a domain lord was carried out and where the wives and palace women lived and male officials worked. Such new studies shed light on the political functions of wives of the shogun or domain lord, as well as their palace women. In the modern era, the system of the Meiji Constitution repudiated this political function performed by women as part of the structure of this kind of household, resulting in the expulsion of women from the political space.

Short-sleeved Kimonowith a Pattern of Pines, Vines, Lions, and Water Streams
Later Edo Period
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History

Illustrated Map of the Western Castle Compound
(Archive of the Suzuki Family Overseeing the Construction and Repair Group)
1852 (Kaei 5)
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History

Minutes of the Third Deliberative Body of the Privy Council
1889 (Meiji 22)
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History

Sex Trade and Society

The sex trade is fundamentally shaped by the gender and social characteristics of each era. While prostitution never developed as a professional occupation in ancient Japan, it became a household profession during the medieval period, as prostitutes formed matrilineal families and professional troupes, providing entertainment and sexual services. In early modern times, the shogunate officially approved a system under which brothel owners, who were recognized as a status group, forced women whom they obtained through trafficking into prostitution. In modern Japan, an economically oppressive prostitution system permeated society. Under the pretext of "selling oneself," this system coerced women into prostitution under government control. Through analyzing both the voices of prostitutes and the situations of the men who bought their services, this section explores the relationship between the sex trade and society.

Picture Scrolls of Early Modern Artisans and Craftsmen c
Lower Volume (Partial)
Paintings: Kuwagata Keisai        
Texts: Santō Kyōden
During the Bunka Era   
Owned by the Tokyo National Museum

Letter of the Inamoto Brothel Prostitute, Koina the Third
1863 (Bunkyū) 3           
Owned by Suzaka City Archives

Oboechō, Prostitute Sakuragi’s Diary (Umemotoki vol. 3, the Kanō Collection)
1846 (Kōka 3)
Owned by Tohoku University Library

Daily Supplies (Washing Tools) of Prostitutes at the Brothel Kiyosadarō (in today’s Yōkaichi City in Shiga Prefecture)
Taishō-Shōwa periods   
Owned by the Osaka Human Rights Museum

Gender in Daily Life and Work --From Modern to Contemporary Japan--

What kind of personal images do we associate with words such as "worker," "politician," "bureaucrat," or "expert"? In pre-war Japanese society, these roles were limited to men, and a gender barrier was set up even in qualifying examinations. From a gender perspective, the modern period is an age when women have been excluded from various places and made invisible despite abundant opportunities. In this sect ion, we reconsider from within the modern system the relationship between profession and labor while examining how women have been required to display "femininity" even in specialized professions.

Entering a Mine (Mother and Child)—UNESCO “Memory of the World” (Yamamoto Sakuhei’s Video Recording)
Around 1899 (Meiji 32)
Owned by the Tagawa City Coal and History Museum ©Yamamoto Family

Poster “If Men and Women Receive Equal Pay for Equal Labor…” The Women's Labor Division within the Women and Juvenile Bureau of the Ministry of Labor             
1948 (Shōwa 23)
Owned by the Gordon W. Prange Collection, University of Maryland

“New Board Game:Two Life Paths for Contemporary Men and Women” by Kiyotaka Kataburi (A Supplement of Literary Club [Bungei Kurabu] 13, no. 1, 1907 [Meiji 40] Hakubunkan )
Owned by the National Museum of Japanese History`