Women of Ancient Japan

Women of Ancient Japan




Download the .pdf here!


Women of Ancient Japan


Common women who resided in urban areas were called chonin. They generally worked side by side with their husbands. This especially applied to the cottage industries that included embroidery, textile weaving, silk production, sewing, ceramics, and umbrella making. If their husbands worked in the public or in physical labor, a woman would not be allowed to do the job. All jobs that required heavy lifting were strictly for men only. This applied to all levels of social class. For example, if a samurai's wife believed that she could do his job, it would not have been allowed. At this time, many urban women worked as maids, waitresses in a restaurant, or tea, theater, and sake shop hostesses. There were also lots of hairstylist jobs because fashion was very important in ancient Japan. One of the best jobs that a chonin girl could get was working for a samurai family. Working for a samurai family was considered to be a finishing school. Girls who were trained by the samurai family were considered to be very desirable as well as refined. The job was so in demand that many chonin girls were willing to work for room and board only.

During ancient times, peasant women made up about 90% of the women in Japan. The life of all peasants, male and female, was extremely difficult and most of their lives were spent in poverty. Almost all of peasant women worked in agriculture. Customarily, they did the jobs that required stooping. Peasant women did all of the harvesting, planting, and transplanting of rice seedlings. When an economic disaster like famine struck, many peasant girls were sold into prostitution. Opportunists invaded the rural countryside whenever times got really difficult, looking for girls. These opportunists brought with them lots of cash to encourage the sale. They were known to give the starving families advances on their daughters earnings. Under normal circumstances the girls would never return to the family. Instead they were forced to live out a miserable life without any chance of escaping.

All Japanese women wore a kimono or kosode robe. Standard sizes were available because most of the people were about the same size and stature. In the 1500's, the wealthy wore silk and the poor wore mulberry, wisteria vine, ramie, and hemp. This all changed with the introduction of cotton. Cotton was dyed in hundreds of colors by almost as many methods. Before long everyone was dressing in cotton, and silk was only used for formal occasions. Samurai women were known for their brightly colored kimonos. They were also known to wear silk underwear, jewelry, and lacquered or tortoiseshell combs in their hair. According to custom, at the age of 13, samurai girls had their eyebrows shaven and false ones drawn across their forehead with lamp soot. Both wealthy and samurai women wore multiple layers of silk kimonos so they could emulate the heroines in “The Tale of the Genji.” Wealthy women were known to wear flowers in their hair and carry parasols. They also carried with them a wide assortment of things such as combs, tweezers, makeup(lamp soot), handkerchiefs, and mirrors.

Poor peasant women usually had just two sets of clothes. Servants were given one new set of clothes on New Years. Peasant women wore their hair in a bun at the nape of the neck. Whenever they could chonin (city dweller) women emulated the samurai styles. If the samurai women were wearing their hair a certain way then the chonin women would want to wear the same hairstyle.