As I hiked along the ancient roads of Kumano and walked the old paths that led into Kamakura I was struck by a desire to find out who, how, and why these roads were traveled centuries ago. This curiosity led to a decade-long research on itinerant women from medieval Japan. Historical records often neglect or omit the role of women in society beyond a superficial and often stereotypical description. Throughout history there remain few sources written by, or about women which present us with a woman’s perspective.
The paucity of resources makes it a difficult challenge to understand the lives and thoughts of women from the past. Yet enthusiastic research continues, and as a result more information on the history of women has become available.
Medieval Japan cannot be talked about without reference to Buddhism and especially the spread of Buddhism among the populace by holy-men, religious figures often referred to as hijiri.
Within medieval tales numerous holy-men appear, but it is rare to encounter holy-women. Research that focused on monastic Buddhism and on individual ascetics has had difficulty identifying the participation of women.
Women were considered a distraction for the monks in pursuit of enlightenment and were believed to be defiled beings that carried the five obstructions.
Many of these interesting women figures belonged to the religious group called jishū. These mixed-gendered jishū religious groups were not well documented.
The few surviving documents do however provide interesting views on medieval Japanese society as well as examples of female participation.
The jishū have a distinction of being both an itinerant, mendicant order while simultaneously being a settled, patronage-driven order. The tension between the practice of itinerancy and being stationary has distorted the historical image of the group and of the participation of women within it.
I hope in this series to clarify these issues and most of all to introduce the fascinating role that the jishū and the female jishū had in medieval Japan.
Almost 700 years later, the same roads these wandering monks and nuns traveled are still there, leaving a trace of their stories.