imomus (imomus) wrote,

Was Japan once a matriarchy?

Matriarchy, says Wikipedia, is "a gynocentric form of society, in which the leading role is with the female and especially with the mothers of a community". However, "many modern anthropologists and sociologists assert that there are no known examples of human matriarchies from any point in history". Failing to find matriarchal societies, some have switched their search to "matrifocal" societies; those which focus on women, but in which women don't dominate. Examples of this are said to be the Nairs of Kerala, the matrilineal Minangkabau of West Sumatra, the Mosuo people of Lake Lugu in China, and a few others. They're all rather minor and marginal cultures. The only major culture the article suggests might, once, have been matriarchal is... Japan.

That's right, Japan. A society often stereotyped by Westerners as having a "submissive" female population may well have been, once, closer to matriarchy than any of our Western societies ever have been. Citing his book "Gender in World History" (Routledge, 2000), the article says: "Peter N. Stearns and other historians have speculated as to whether or not agricultural Japan was a matriarchy prior to contact with patriarchal China". So let's turn to what Stearns says on the subject in The Spread of Chinese Civilization to Japan.

"Early visitors from the mainland noted the rigid social distinctions, including different sorts of tattoos and other body markings, that separated the warrior elite from the mass of the people. They also remarked on the strong position women enjoyed in early Japanese culture, in marked contrast to their clear subordination in China. Early Japanese households appear to have been matriarchal, that is, dominated by childbearing women. Women also played key roles as shamans - who were central to Japanese religious ceremonies and worship - as leaders of some of the clans, and later as empresses. The importance of women in early Japanese culture is also indicated by their legends regarding the creation of the world. In these tales the sun goddess, Amaterasu, played a central role, and her worship became the central element in the Shinto religion developed by the island peoples."

It was Chinese influence, says Stearns, which began to erode the power of women in Japan:

"The introduction into Japan of the ideal of the patriarchal and patrilineal family, which had long been dominant in China, presented a major challenge to traditional Japanese approaches to gender roles and relationships. For some centuries, the position of women within the family remained strong, and the ideal of wives and lovers who were accomplished in literature and the arts was preserved by the courtly elites at the imperial capitals of Nara and Heian. But the adoption of Chinese law codes eroded first the control that Japanese women were able to exercise with regard to their own children, and eventually their overall status relative to males."

What interests me is whether the dominance of women isn't still encoded, in perhaps oblique and unexpected ways, in Japanese society today. Something that important would surely endure, at least symbolically, right? Let's look at how Stearns establishes female status in early Japan. Women control households, act as shamen, become empresses, and a female deity is venerated in Shinto as the creator of the world. Fast forward: women still control the household finances in Japan; the typical salaryman hands his earnings over to his wife, who decides how the money will be spent. There are still traces of the Japanese woman-shaman; check the OOIOO video above for one example. There was recently a debate -- admittedly because of a fertility crisis -- on whether the tradition of Japanese empresses should be restored; public opinion was largely in favour. As for Amaterasu, she isn't invoked much in Japan these days, but Shinto continues to be a strong presence in festivals and customs across the land.

Anecdotal evidence for the importance of women in Japan abounds. We looked last year at the Mazakon mother complex cult, the tendency of Japanese men to seek powerful and reassuring mother figures. Big breasts and older women are very popular. So, of course, are tiny-breasted Lolitas, but the two complexes interlock; Japanese men notoriously slow down sex with their wives when their children are born. At that point their wives become "Mother" (that's literally what they call them) and sexual action is often taken to masturbation, the world of commercial sex, and schoolgirl fantasies. But even -- especially -- Lolita can be a powerful figure. If Takashi Murakami is right to see post-war Japan as an infantilized culture, who better than an infant to represent power? Especially a spoiled infant who's able to control others with her pre-sexual charisma? It would, after all, be a misunderstanding of matriarchy to think that women could only be powerful by acting as men act. Domination by cuteness, or by maternal solicitude, are unapologetically female ways to dominate.

Stearns presents sobering evidence that successful civilizations actually increase patriarchy, and increase the inequality between men and women over time. This has been the effect, for instance, of Islam and Arabic gender practices on India and sub-Saharan Africa, the effect of foot-binding China on neighbours like Japan and Mongolia, and the effect of European colonial influence on the Americas, India, Africa and Pacific Oceania. Only very recently has the West come to pride itself, rather hypocritically, on being a civilization "good for women". Women's rights have been used as a stick to beat the West's enemies (the Taliban) with; when rich allies like Saudi Arabia oppress women, though, the West passes in silence. What we have to admit, though, is that we're currently a very militarized civilization, very masculine, and more so this decade than last. If the 90s were about the globalization of consumer culture, the 00s have seen a re-militarization of the West.

Something I've often asked myself is: "Does consumer society make us all more feminine? Does it tilt power in the direction of women?" The immediate answer is that it tilts power in the direction of those who have money, and women are still earning less than men. But I believe certain forms of consumer culture do "feminize" the societies they dominate. Japan's constitution has prevented it from militarizing, and its consumer culture has a markedly feminine feel to me; female consumers are more likely to determine the shapes of cars and phones in Japan than male consumers these days. Certainly the right wing government wants to revive militarism, but the actual society continues to be considerably more female-friendly (its safety, its consumer character) than any other I know.

Other anecdotal evidence that occurs to me, somewhat scattershot:

* Japanese porn dedicates more screentime to clitoral stimulation than any other nation's.

* Japanese women, to those of us who've been in relationships with both, are absolutely not more "submissive" than Western women. Compare a figure like Yoko Ono to, say, Linda Eastman. Is there any doubt which of them was more powerful and more dominant over their famous partners?

* When a Japanese woman and a Western man argue, different cultural values come into play. Hisae often tells me: "You're too macho, you act like a prince, you ought to learn to cook." My Western girlfriends would never tell me "You're too macho." They'd say "You're too wimpy." Hisae's idea of a boyfriend -- mediated by the Japanese culture she grew up in -- is someone less masculine, more humble, and more inclined to help around the house than I've been brought up to be. When I see Japanese couples together, I'm always amazed at how meek and submissive the men are. And now, when I see Western couples, I often find the men amazingly patronizing to their partners. They seem not to notice, either.

I'm not saying Japanese culture today is matriarchal. It clearly isn't, and there are a thousand ways we could demonstrate male dominance. But I do think there are still clear traces in Japanese culture of a time when it might have got a lot closer to that kind of social organisation than our Western cultures ever have. And I think it's worrying that it appears to be insularity which preserves matriarchy, and globalization which destroys it. Because what China was to fifth century Japan, we in the West are to isolated cultures today. We're the "successful" ones with the "right" -- and more male -- way of doing things. The silver lining in the cloud, though, is that if we can check our militarism and let consumerism (as equitable and ethical a version as possible) have the upper hand, we might still see major matriarchal societies in the future.
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