Women on top
The Encyclopaedia Brittanica refers to the third century Shamaness Queen Himiko as the first known ruler of Japan and founder of the Grand Shrine of Ise, the most important Shinto shrine. The existence of Himiko, who combined the roles of Queen and ultimate high priestess, seems to corroborate the rather shocking theory that early Japan could be successfully ruled only by women, and that those women had to possess religious or occult powers in addition to usual leadership abilities!
Interestingly, in this connection, Japan has a rather startling tradition of women performing as leaders in religious and occult activities. For example, the northeast of Japan has a rather mysterious history of female-administered religious activities, with the Itako psychics operating over wide areas into modern times.
At the other geographical extreme, there also seems to be significant evidence of female-led spiritual practices in the Ryuukyuu region of southern Japan, with a surprising tradition of powerful priestesses, supported by different classes of women, all in possession of psychic powers. The Yuta, for example, a group of female shamanic mediums, are reported to be still active and appear to perform useful social functions today.
Of course, in any part of Japan today, visitors to shrines will probably notice young women wearing distinctive white clothes. These are miko, and they are usually employed in fairly menial tasks or helping with ceremonial activities of one sort or another, notably ceremonial dances. The Chinese characters for miko (巫女) straightforwardly carries the meaning of female shaman or medium so we can be fairly certain that they were originally entrusted with important occult-related responsibilities. In the Sailor Moon manga series, the Sailor Mars character, Hino Rei, is a miko who possesses powerful psychic abilities.
Kasahara (2001) writes that, in the earliest description of Mount Fuji, the poet Miyako no Yoshika (834-879) claims to have observed two white-robed maidens dancing at the summit of the mountain. It may make some sense, then, to speculate that female shamans were gathering on mountain peaks with the aim of consorting with the mountain gods. This forces us to ask why, if they were the natural leaders in early Shinto practices, were women banned from climbing sacred mountains like Mount Fuji altogether by the Edo period? (We might also reasonably ask, in this regard, why women are banned from becoming Empresses in modern Japan and why women are banned from climbing into the sumo ring.)
Religion, war, and the decline of women’s status in Japan
As Buddhism gained a stronger hold in Japan, the status of women declined. Kasahara claims that the great Buddhist philosopher and founder of Sōtō Zen, Dōgen, was deeply critical of discrimination against women, particularly characteristic of Japanese Buddhism at the time. Around the middle of the thirteenth century, Dōgen was dismissing sexist attitudes among Buddhists as wildly hypocritical, old-fashioned, and foolish. In the fourteenth century, Nichiren, another great Buddhist philosopher, appealed to the primacy of the Lotus Sutra, which offers the example of the Dragon King’s daughter, to argue that women are undoubtedly capable of becoming enlightened. However, in spite of these objections, discrimination against women was to intensify. There was a growing conviction in mainstream Buddhism, and even among women themselves, that women were incapable of enlightenment and fundamentally impure.
An ethos of hard physical training was to take hold in Japanese Buddhism and this was to work powerfully against the status of women. Dōgen, sympathetic to women and astonished by the hypocrisy of established Buddhism, was asking this: why is harsh physical training and deprivation so important if human beings are born enlightened in any case? The Sōtō Zen school he founded was focused on sitting quietly and becoming aware of one’s train of thoughts, allowing one’s thoughts to come and go unencumbered. Nothing could be further removed from the ethos of the Buddhism-influenced Shugendō ascetics, who engaged in astonishingly brutal discipline — in addition to single-minded meditation, endurance of pain, starvation, cold, utter exhaustion, often death — in search of a higher, transformed state. Unsurprisingly, by the fourteenth century, Shugendō was linked (Kasahara, page 331) with ninja masters of the martial arts. Women came to be seen as a distraction from the focus required to gain spiritual and physical strength required for both enlightenment and success in battle. The influence of warrior Buddhist monks was to grow quickly from the tenth century onwards, with endless conflict and violence up to and through the warring period. Given these interconnected developments, it is hardly surprising to learn that the status of women declined during this period. Parts of an increasingly harsh, military ethos, established Buddhism and the mountain religions it influenced inevitably came to see women as inferior.
Women on Mount Fuji
Growing forces that favoured male-domination certainly had a detrimental effect on the place of women on Mount Fuji. It should be noted, however, that the ban on women climbing Mount Fuji was not particularly strict by the standards of the time. Fuji was not a particular focus of Buddhist-influenced Shugendō attention. Also, Fuji-centered religion (富士山信仰), basically Shinto in character, was not particularly concerned about claiming that women could not become enlightened or that they were impure. As we have seen, Fujiko believers helped at least one woman climb the mountain secretly before the ban was finally lifted in 1868. Even so, male domination in Japanese society took its toll on women’s place on Mount Fuji. Through the warring period, women were allowed up to the Fourth Station of Mount Fuji and, after the beginning of the Edo Period, with unchallenged Samurai rule in a military dictatorship, only as far as the Second Station. During the Edo Period, women were not allowed to climb any sacred mountains (Iwashina, 1983, page 164) at all. Women had been excluded from the mountain Ōmine-san (大峰山), home of the Shugendō monastery founded by the great wizard En no Gyōja himself, ever since the tenth century. Astonishingly, the ban on women climbing sacred mountains continued until the end of the twentieth century. The Mountains of Dewa, particularly important to Shugendō, were finally opened to women in 1997!
Secret sightseeing spot
Can you keep a secret? If you take the walking path up from the Yoshida Sengen shrine, and keep going after you pass the Second Station (about a two-hour walk?), you’ll soon come to a rough path crossing left and right. There’s no signpost to let you know but you are close to perhaps the most atmospheric and evocative spot on the mountain. Of course, almost every walker who comes this way (and there aren’t very many in any case!) will keep going up the mountain. For some reason, it’s a secret! Turn left, keep going for a few hundred meters, and you’ll eventually come to this sign.
Walk up the hill for a while and you’ll find the place where women could worship from afar during the Edo Period. Maybe it’s just me, but this strikes me as having an incredibly mysterious feel. There’s a little commemorative monument but, if you look up, you can just about see the summit of Mount Fuji. Even though it was foggy below, I could see the summit rather clearly.
Iwashina, Kouichiro. (1983). Fujikou no rekishi. Tokyo: Meichou. Kasahara, Kazuo (2001). A history of Japanese religion. Tokyo: Kousei Publishing Company.