We’ve talked before about a few of the discriminatory measures against women in Japan, but there are still a few more. Let’s take a peek!

Last time, in our Women in Japan Series, we looked at jobs, rituals and accommodation options that impose bans and semi-bans on females. Today, we turn our attention towards laws, religious practices and an island down south, where we begin our journey into four more things women are banned from doing in Japan.

1. Visiting Okinoshima Island

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-8-05-02-amScreenshot: YouTube/munakatakao

Okinoshima, off Kyushu, is a tiny 0.7 square kilometer (70-hectare) island, a mere dollop of primary forest sandwiched between Korea and Japan in a 200-kilometer (124-mile) stretch of the Genkai Sea. The island was traditionally visited by seafarers trading goods between China, Korea and Japan and provided a place to beseech the gods for safe passage. Over 80,000 relics, now designated national treasures, have been unearthed on the island, including 23 ruins and their associated rituals, some of which date as far back as the late fourth century. The mysterious island is one of Japan’s sacred places, and is inhabited by a goddess, yet women are banned from visiting. Women may worship, but only from neighboring Oshima Island, where they can look out at Okinoshima Alcatraz-style from a building several kilometers away. No news as to whether rental binoculars are available or not.

So it’s a wonder Japan would invite attention, and likely international criticism, by nominating Okinoshima and the related sites in the Munakata region for 2017 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status. I sense a storm brewing.

Interestingly, in a tourism video for Okinoshima, the authorities thought it would be best to use a female narrator to read verbatim, in monotone, from a carefully prepared script that describes the island she is prohibited from ever setting foot on.

▼The Munakata Grand Shrine includes Hetsu no Miya Shrine, Nakatsu no Miya Shrine (Oshima Island), and Okutsu no Miya Shrine (Okinoshima Island).

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-1-13-21-pmScreenshot: YouTube/munakatakao

▼This photo shows how the shrines line up in a fortuitous line connecting Kyushu with the rest of the Asian continent.


Screenshot: YouTube/munakatakao

The good news, if there is any, is that in the event that Okinoshima obtains UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status, all tourists, male and  female, will likely be barred from visiting the island in order to preserve its original sanctity as a remote place of worship, removed from most of the world.

2. Ascending the Imperial Throne

mon-imperialWikimedia Commons/Philip Nilsson

According to the Imperial House Act, females of the household cannot become emperors. For a while, since the current emperor had no grandsons, it seemed like Japan was destined to change and allow a woman to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne in order to keep the Imperial Family extant. With no male heir in line to the throne, surveys of the Japanese public repeatedly showed that the majority were in favor of allowing a female emperor. But the glass ceiling of the Imperial Household remained intact due to the 2006 birth of Prince Hisahito, the emperor’s grandson, effectively ending any discussion of adopting a more epicine throne. Although there have been female emperors in the past (as recently as 1770), such monarchs were unique in that they had no children, which is where the discrepancy lies. Females in the Imperial family lose their royal status if they don’t marry another member of the Imperial family. Right now, with just 23 members in the Royal family, it is so small that the only choice for an Imperial heiress is to marry outside the clan. Since the world’s oldest monarchy depends on blood lines of male progenitors’ lineage, the Imperial House Act is unlikely to ever change unless threatened with extinction.

3. Retaining a surname different from her spouse’s


Flickr/Big EUG

In Japan, the koseki 戸籍 family registry system records all legal family relationships (births, deaths, marriages, divorces, adoptions, etc). In the case of a marriage, one spouse must legally assume the other’s surname and be listed on that person’s registry. Thus, two married Japanese people cannot maintain separate surnames. When a woman marries, she must either take the name of her spouse, or her spouse must take hers. There are certainly cases when the man takes his wife’s name, but these instances are mostly limited to those women who have no male siblings in order to carry on the lineage of her own family’s name. As a result, in the majority of marriages, it is the woman who is expected to take the husband’s name. The koseki system is often cited as discriminatory towards women, who may want to retain their maiden names in the workplace for business or career reasons but are prevented from legally doing so.

When a woman took her case to the Supreme Court last year to protest this rule, the court upheld the provision, declaring the koseki law “constitutional.” In principle, however, many Japanese women continue to use their maiden names throughout their careers.

4. Participating in certain Shinto celebrations

640px-torii_gateWikimedia Commons/Owismcgee

Women have been banned from certain Shinto, Buddhist or Shugendo religious practices in Japan over the centuries, including, until recently, being banned from participating in the famous Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. While time and gender equality have helped change most of these denunciations, there are still some Shinto and Shugendo rituals where nyonin kinsei, the banning of women, is still enforced. In addition to nyonin kinsei on Mount Omine and Okinoshima Island, there are still Shinto ceremonies in which women aren’t allowed to participate. Even in the small community where I live, the annual Myoken Shrine ceremony is closed to women. However, due to the current depopulation trend and the fact that women tend to live longer than men, there just aren’t enough men around to pull off the ceremony by themselves. So they are going to let women attend, mainly out of necessity.

Interestingly, nyonin kinsei hasn’t always been a traditional part of Japanese society. Japan’s native Shinto faith where death and blood are dirty–called kegare–gave rise to a long tradition of purification rituals. Women began to be associated with kegare because of menstruation but this only crept into the religious ethos near the end of the Heian Period (794-1185). According to Naoko Takemaru in her book “Women in the Language and Society of Japan: The Linguistic Roots of Bias”, during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), the idea that women were kegare was extended further to mean men were superior to women (danson johi), a concept that took hold among the Edo samurai classes (1603-1867). But it wasn’t until the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that it was widespread, serving to complement the introduction of the new patriarchal family system that made the eldest son the head of the household. This family system was abandoned after WWII but danson johi still manifests itself in likely places such as religious dogma and places where people traditionally already struggle for power such as in business and politics.

One of the reasons, I feel, that nyonin kinsei still exists in Japan today is that modern Japanese women don’t really care if they can’t participate in certain religious rituals. Many tasks in Japan are antediluvian divisions of labor between males and females and women don’t necessarily feel these conflict with their desires. If anything, in smaller communities such as my own, which is so dependent upon everyone’s joint efforts, inclusion increases a woman’s responsibilities and obligations. As the country moves further away from religion as a part of every day life, it’s no wonder women are quite happy not having to participate in more religious activities. Ban women from entering cake shops, however, and you can expect a coup.

In these modern times, more than nyonin kinsei, danson johi is by far the greater evil.


Sources: The Japan Times, YouTube/munakatakao, Wikipedia, Christoph Brumann, “Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto: Claiming a Right to the Past.” Naoko Takemaru,”Women in the Language and Society of Japan: The Linguistic Roots of Bias.”
Top Image: Flickr/Big EUG