It must be near Beltane – this month’s reviews include not one but two books about the Green Man! There’s also a look at the widely-anticipated Godless Paganism and my own thoughts on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians…
Barbara R. Ambros, Women in Japanese Religions
(NYU Press; 2015)
I often get asked about Shinto attitudes towards women, which isn’t easy to answer as the story of women in Shinto is a complex one. It is an important issue though, so I thought I’d read up on it.
Although it is true that women in Japan did (and in some ways still do) experience inequality and discrimination at the hands of religion, to leave it there would not be telling the full story. It is in this book that this story is revealed.
Women in Japanese Religions chronicles the roles of women in Shinto, Buddhism and other religions in Japan, from ancient fertility cults right up to present day attitudes to spirituality. Ambros demonstrates that women held leadership positions in Japanese religion at various points in history: From female shamans and oracles, to founders of new religions, right up to ruling the entire nation as Himiko, the shamaness queen, did in ancient times.
Ambros covers the flip-side of women in religion as well, explaining how women became increasingly marginalised and oppressed in medieval Japan, largely due to the adoption of the patriarchal ideology of Confucianism. Thus women became subject religious taboos and were barred from holding particular ranks in Shinto and Buddhist institutions. Only following the postwar occupation did rights for women, including their rights in religion, begin to improve.
Fascinating and accessible even for those relatively unfamiliar with Japanese society and history, Women in Japanese Religions is a highly informative and revealing book that does an important job of presenting the varied and ambiguous attitudes to gender in Japanese spirituality. Simply and concisely written, it’s recommended both for newcomers to the field as well as experienced Japanologists.