Women in Heian Japan

Ancient History 2014, by Kathy Nguyen

Historical Context - The Noblewomen of Heian Japan

The era lasted between 794 and 1185 and was named for the location of the imperial capital, which was moved from Nara to Heian-kyō ( modern-day Kyōto) in 794, led by Emperor Kanmu. It was a time when Japan moved away from China, which had been its guide in politics and culture.

Noblewomen of Heian Japan were prized as they could advance their family to a better position. These women had more freedom than many other women throughout history; they were the masters of art and literature.

The Fujiwara family, the most powerful family at the time, used their made their daughters to marry royalty, with many of them becoming empresses. This ensured that the next emperor was a descendant of the Fujiwara family.

Literature in Heian Japan

Chinese was still the language used at court between men for official matters and forbidden to be used by women, instead, women used Japanese kana to write stories. Much of these stories were written by educated Japanese noblewomen such as The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) by Murasaki Shikibu and the Pillow Book (Makura no Sōshi) by Sei Shōnagon and provides valuable descriptions of life in the era and the thought of those who created such works.

Beauty and Fashion

Beauty in Heian Japan is different from how we perceive beauty today. Women grew long hair that fell down their backs. They also used heavy rice powder to paint their faces and necks white. Women shaved off their eyebrows, then painted new ones. In addition, they blackened their teeth, which contrasted with their white faces and complimented their black hair.

Wearing layers upon layers of silk was the fashion of women of the era. With wearing up to 40 layers, it must have taken these noblewomen and their servants hours every morning to get ready.

Status and Life in Heian Japan

Noblewomen of Heian Japan had relatively relaxed lives. Many lived away from their husbands at their own households and raised their own children. There were a number of servants, so women often spent many idle hours without anything to do but look out at nature.

Although women were not allowed to be involved in state affairs, they were nonetheless well educated. They were literate, could play instruments and dance. They could own property in their own rights, and many were given estates by their parents.

Historians take on Heian Japan

Historians have different views on Heian Japan. This is because of the lack of information about the era, most come from the stories and poetry of Heian writers.

Names of certain individuals are hard to find, especially for women. Many are just given nicknames based on the positions of their close male relatives as it was rude to say their real names.

Historians differ in their ideas of how important women were to the Heian Era. Some say they are very important, as without the women of the Fujiwara family, the family would not have as much political control as it did. Other say that because women lead idle lives, they did not participate in the major events that changed the nation, and therefore were of little importance to the Heian era.