Experts cast light on female empowerment in Edo Period

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

Many people might believe that Japanese women centuries ago had fewer rights than the women of today.

But scholars who have extensively studied “kakekomidera,” the so-called divorce temples of the Edo Period (1603-1868), argue that women in those days were actually better off.

“Many believe kakekomidera were where poor, distressed wives sought refuge until they were finally granted a divorce” said Tadashi Takagi, professor of law at Senshu University in Tokyo. “But there is evidence that shrewd women also used the system to their advantage.”

There were two temples that the Tokugawa shogunate officially recognized as kakekomidera — a term that literally means “temples to run into for refuge” — although other institutions that also had authority over husbands, such as samurai residences, could also fulfill this role in some parts of Japan.

One was Mantokuji Temple in the town of Ojima, Gunma Prefecture, while the other was Tokeiji Temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Takagi, who has studied the topic for more than 30 years, said that although the flight to freedom of many wives was prompted by cheating or abusive husbands, there were also women who sought divorce so they could then marry their lovers.

“There was also a case where a woman told a kakekomidera that her husband was trying to force her into prostitution, but records showed she had earlier run off with a lover, taking her husband’s money — evidence showing she was not simply a victim,” he said.

“In 1822, French novelist Stendhal dreamt about the existence of such an asylum for women in his work ‘De l’Amour.’ He would have been surprised if he knew it existed in such a remote Asian country at the time.”

Evidence of the strong position of women in the Edo Period can also be seen in “mikudarihan,” letters of 3 1/2 lines sent by men to their wives declaring that they would divorce them, he said.

“As only men wrote them, they were long viewed as a symbol of male tyranny,” Takagi said. “But it was in fact more an obligation than a right.”

Takagi said that there were cases in which men who did not want a separation were forced to pen the letters, such as when a wife’s wealthy parents wanted to get rid of a man who had married into the family.

And while women’s extramarital affairs were punishable by death, such executions hardly ever took place, apparently due to factors such as their economic power and the pragmatic view of divorce held by the people at the time.

“Because many women had considerable economic strength as weavers, spinners or papermakers, they had lots of marriage offers even after a divorce, marrying three, four or even five times,” according to Takagi. “There was no stigma like today, where divorced women are sometimes seen as damaged goods.”

The divorce rate in the early Meiji Period (1868-1912) stood at 3.39 per 1,000 people, according to Takagi. In 2003, the figure stood at 2.25, according to Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry statistics.

“Ever pragmatists, men in the Edo Period often pretended not to notice their wives’ affairs, or simply settled things with cash” from their lovers, according to Takagi.

Takagi observed that people today harbor the impression that Edo Period women were terribly oppressed because the Meiji Period that followed was ruled by a very chauvinistic regime.

“For the Meiji government, it was efficient to keep women at home while fully utilizing the men for their militarist and early capitalist policies. And because the Edo Period precedes that, people automatically assume it was even more” so, according to Takagi.

Takagi is currently the only kakekomidera researcher in Japan. But more scholars abroad study the issue, such as Diana E. Wright, associate professor of Japanese history at Western Washington University.

Recently in Tokyo to attend a meeting of the Japan Society for Comparative Family History, Wright said that while her students are fascinated by the topic, it is difficult to get them off the stereotype of the poor, subservient Japanese woman.

Wright said she believes Edo women were happier than their Western counterparts — and perhaps even happier than divorced women today.

“In the West at the time, Catholics could not divorce, and although Protestants could, divorced women had no social support,” she said.

“But in Edo, women who were active wage laborers had monetary worth to their families and had their support. Why would the family put up with the abuse of their daughters, who can come home and work with them?”

They may even have been in a better position than today’s divorced women in Japan and the United States, where welfare support is insufficient while the number of deadbeat husbands is very high, she claimed.