The First European Description of Japan, 1585|
2 Women, their persons and customs
1. In Europe a young woman’s supreme honor and treasure is her chastity and the inviolate cloister of her purity; women in Japan pay no mind to virginal purity nor does a loss of virginity deprive them of honor or matrimony.
During the sixteenth century European women continued to struggle as they had for centuries with societal norms that cast them in a subordinate role relative to men. Although women did “men’s work” (e.g. butcher, fisher, merchant, renter, moneylender, sovereign), and did it well this reality was systematically obscured and women by and large were denied access to education, opportunity, and power. The situation might have been better for Japanese women; it is hard to say, given that literature and the historical record are ambiguous. While Shinto’s most beloved kami was a woman–(the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu–) and the Pure Land schools of Buddhism proclaimed women capable of salvation, Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism more frequently spoke of women as “imperfect” (respectively: sources of pollution; spiritually “obstructed;” a potential threat to familial harmony) and best suited to supporting roles.
As this first distich and the twenty-seven that follow suggest, Europeans treated women’s bodies as a fetish. This fetishization is often reflected in Frois’ surprise that Japanese women’s clothing revealed as much as it did. Beginning with distich twenty-nine, Frois’ focus is more on behavior and rights and responsibilities. Again, the tone of the distichs is one of surprise that Japanese women enjoyed inheritance of property, relative freedom of movement, etc.
While Frois’ distichs in this chapter necessarily provide a partial picture of the lives of women in Japan as well as Europe, they tend to support recent scholarship that has emphasized the significant changes in gender roles in Japan, particularly since the Meiji Period (1868–1912). The Japan that Frois experienced was a nation of mostly farm households and small businesses (i.e., artisans and merchants) where men and women worked together at home, sharing many rights and responsibilities, including nurturing and child-rearing. Complicating matters, however, was the rise to power of the samurai during the late medieval and warring states period (1467–1568), which created a privileged male culture centered on warfare. The empowerment of the samurai class and the subsequent emulation of their norms by lesser classes undermined the relative gender equality that Frois mentions or alludes to. Gender inequality was further exacerbated during the second half of the nineteenth century when the Japanese state whole-heartedly pursued industrialization, relegating women to a cult of domesticity while promoting male education and employment away from home.
As regards this first distich, the Christian church has a long history going back to late antiquity and the “Church fathers” of glorifying female chastity. In Portugal and the rest of Mediterranean Europe, the post-Tridentine Church was obsessed with female chastity. In Japan, by contrast, premarital sex was an accepted part of courting; “night-crawling” (yobai) was an ancient practice that continued well into the twentieth century in rural parts of Japan. Some young women also prostituted themselves to support their poor families and gain dowries for their subsequent marriages. They were not criticized for doing so because: 1) coitus had no stigma in a Shinto culture, where, for instance, people sang explicitly bawdy songs while planting rice; 2) the women acted to help others and did not act from selfish desire, something that would be considered bad from a Buddhist point of view; and 3) they were behaving in an exemplary manner from the point of view of Confucian ethics, where assisting one’s parents and superiors was the cardinal virtue. Among the upper class, marriages generally were arranged and women were discouraged from intercourse with other men lest their affection be alienated, but virginity per se was not at issue.
During the post-World War II occupation of Japan by the United States, many Japanese took on more conservative American values, including a virgin-until-marriage mindset. Indeed, during the 1960s the Japanese press criticized the West for being “sexually promiscuous.” However, by the end of the twentieth century Japanese attitudes were similar to Europeans’, both of whom, for instance, thought Americans made too big a deal of President Clinton’s sexual promiscuity.
Europeans as far back as the Romans apparently believed that “blondes have more fun,” presumably because the hair color is reminiscent of men’s other preoccupation: gold. Women in sixteenth-century Iberia were chastised by moralists such as Fray Luis de Leon for dying their hair blond (“God save us from such ruination”). In Japan, on the other hand, raven black (nubatama) hair was the classic mark of a beauty.
European women not only parted their hair, but some noblewomen also shaved their scalps or used a caustic paste (ceruse) to accentuate their foreheads and lighten their eyebrows. This attention to the forehead was an aesthetic complement to the tall hats with veils (crespina) that were fashionable in Portugal and other parts of Europe (e.g., hennin).
Japanese women shaved their hairline to create what Westerners might call a widow’s peak and what the Japanese call fujibitai (literally Mount Fuji-brow). Okada wonders, however, if Frois is referring in this distich to a naka-zori, a spot in the scalp shaved for the purpose of inserting a small pillow to construct a hairdo. It is unclear whether this Tokugawa era-style yet existed in 1585.
Japanese women in ancient times placed cloves in their hair oil (mizu-abura, literally water-oil), which was made from sesame and camellia oil. Okada cites a work of literature where a woman is advised to trade in her sesame oil for less smelly but more expensive walnut oil. How ironic that European women, who bathed infrequently, apparently smelled good thanks to perfume, while Japanese women, who bathed every day, apparently reeked.
It might be more accurate to say that wealthy European women infrequently used wigs or hairpieces; some did so for a fuller effect or because their own hair was too thin.
Some Japanese noblewomen did wear several lengths of hair in serial. Okada notes that the Japanese had professionals whose job was to purchase hair lost through brushing, which was recycled as wigs. It is likely that the Chinese “wigs” spoken of by Frois were, properly speaking, kamoji, which were large hair buns stuffed with yak hair. Europeans were behind in the wig game, but even as Frois wrote the male wig had begun to take root among English professional men and would soon spread throughout much of Europe.
As the sixteenth century unfolded European women exposed more and more of their hair; large hats and headdresses gave way to smaller hats, veiled headdresses, and hooded garments that revealed more of the forehead and temples.
When Frois wrote, most women in Japan wore their hair down. Within one hundred years of Frois’ observation, Japanese women wore their hair up with enough hairpins to frighten a porcupine, and the hairpin man, with his straw-wrapped pole stuck full of his wares, was an accepted part of Edo culture.
7. Women in Europe tie their hair by braiding ribbons into it all the way to the ends; Japanese women tie their hair using either a small paper ribbon at a single place in the back or they roll it on top of the head using a paper string.
This contrast would seem to contradict Frois’ previous observation that Japanese women of nobility wore their hair loose. However, there is no contradiction when it is understood that the tie (something like a half bow-tie, with the loop on the left) was either worn so far down the back that, for all practical purposes, the hair above was loose, or tied at the base so the remainder was a loose ponytail. Frois’ contrast is between hair kept tightly tied-up (Europe), and hair which, bound at the end or at the top, was free for the rest of its considerable length (Japan). Presumably, Europeans found the latter “loose” in both senses of the word.
Iberian women of means often wore fine beatilha s and volantes (a large scarf of fine, black lace). Japanese wataboshi were made from cloth beaten from substandard silkworm cocoons, and while perhaps not much to look at, they nevertheless were very soft and warm. Similarly, the plain white cloth sometimes worn by Japanese women was absorbent and cool.
Frois’ reference to both hair and head may strike us as strange; today in English we simply say “wash our hair.” Yet lice were a common problem in early modern Europe and thus one washed one’s head (scalp) as well as hair. With respect to Japan, Frois, for a change, is not referring here to Japanese noblewomen, who would not be caught dead in a public bath, not because of a different attitude toward nudity than that of the lower classes, but because high status in Japan implied maintaining distance from ordinary folk.
10. Noblewomen in Europe wear their skirts with long trains; Japanese women in the house of the shogun wear four or five wigs attached one to another that drag about six feet behind them when they walk.
The clergy denounced dresses with long trains as bestial: “let them go about with breasts covered, and let them not wear tails like cows …” Still, the dresses worn by European noblewomen not only had trains but often a hoopskirt, which entailed a cloth bolster or one or more hoops of willow or some other lightweight material that lifted and extended the skirt outward, essentially exaggerating a woman’s hips.
The wigs here mentioned by Frois were not actually wigs (katsura), serially linked, but instead a single long tress (kamoji) that was attached with a decorative cord to a woman’s real hair a bit below the shoulders. The tress featured decorative paper, half-bows at intervals. Such long tresses presupposed extremely clean surroundings. They generally rested on the long train of the kimono, which in turn, glided on spotlessly clean tatami or floorboards.
11. Women in Europe value eyebrows that are well-formed and shapely; Japanese women pluck theirs out with a tweezers, leaving not a single hair.
Frois is essentially correct in highlighting what was an age-old custom in Japan. Japanese feminists point out that a lack of eyebrows, combined with make-up that minimized the size of the mouth, left women bereft of the signs of an outgoing personality.
12. Women in Europe use makeup to whiten their brows; noble women in Japan paint their foreheads with black paint as decoration.
The same caustic cosmetic (ceruse) that was used to whiten a woman’s face also was used by European women to lighten their eyebrows. Japanese women of the nobility painted the edges of their hairline and also painted stubby false eyebrows on the upper part of the forehead, which, significantly, does not move as much as the lower brow. Children of both sexes sometimes also had what we might call displaced eyebrows. As late as 1868 the youthful Emperor Meiji had high artificial eyebrows painted on his forehead when he received European diplomats.
The Japanese, unlike the Chinese, did not pierce their ears. Perhaps because large ear lobes are synonymous with good fortune the Japanese were hesitant about puncturing what might be a source of luck. Today, most Japanese women wear earrings, although many still consider ear piercing unnatural and wear only clip earrings.
Cosmetics as well as jewelry were popular in Europe, although the Church frowned on make up, “Because, to give oneself over to the arts of the toilet pertains to a harlot, and not to a woman who is truly good.” Certainly Japanese women, on formal occasions, out-did their European counterparts in the foundation department, as the prolific playwright Saikaku has a female character apply two hundred layers of powder. As noted in Chapter 1 (#8), the Japanese from time immemorial have valued white skin, especially for women. Still, it would be wrong to identify Japanese women in masse with heavy make-up. The Spanish merchant Avila Giron, writing a couple decades after Frois, noted that it was primarily married women, “as a mark of honour,” who were accustomed to putting on a little powder and a touch of color on their lips, to hide the dye that came off on their lips when they stained their teeth black.
Black as “pitch” is how fellow Jesuit Rodrigues described the teeth of some Japanese women, particularly nobles. Rodrigues noted that some boys also blackened their teeth, but “the practice has now been given up completely by men and largely by women, who now leave their teeth in their natural condition.” As it turned out, the custom of ohaguro, which apparently prevented tooth decay, was later revived and continued to the end of the Tokugawa period, with black teeth being the mark of a married woman.
The Japanese lack of interest in gold, silver, and precious stones is unusual, even in Southeast and Far East Asia. Okada speculates that the thin threads described by Frois refer to a charm worn when the arm or fingers were sore. He does not suggest why they might be sore, but young noblewomen wove clothing for their would-be lovers and often played the koto, a zither-like instrument that is one of the most muscularly taxing instruments in the world. There is also the possibility that the strings were charms to help attract or retain a lover.
As suggested above, the Japanese have never been particularly interested in precious stones and minerals (there is a correspondingly small vocabulary to discuss gems in Japanese). In ancient Heian times (800–1200 C.E.) Japanese women wore necklaces that were allegorized in Japanese poetry as their lover and their lover’s soul. These necklaces, called tama-no-o or “tama-string,” are based on a homophonic pun: tama means soul as well as any round, shiny, or bead-like object.
If the Japanese sleeve was long in the sense that it was wide enough to hang almost to the ground (see Chapter 1, #5a), it was short in length as measured from the shoulder to the hand. Thus, if a woman were to extend her arm or arms, one might glimpse the woman’s breast through the arm-hole. Note, however, that this was probably more titillating to European men than it was to Japanese men; the latter were more likely to be aroused by the sight of a woman’s nape than her breasts.
Europeans turned a woman’s feet as well breasts into a fetish, thus explaining Frois’ preoccupation here with exposed feet. Note that Frois’ Portuguese usage is misleading, as the term descalças (“barefoot”) implies that Japanese women wore nothing on their feet. What Frois meant to say was that they rarely wore “socks” or tabi. They did, however, wear sandals or clogs, which, from a European perspective, exposed too much of the foot. As a literal antipode to Japan, China would seem better than Europe. In China, feet were a woman’s surrogate private part! If Japanese women could be considered loose with their feet, Chinese women were tight, and Europeans somewhere in between. This is not only true for the degree of exposure, but for the degree to which the feet were tortured. The Japanese were kind to them, the Europeans, with their pointed and symmetrical toes, hard on them, and the Chinese, with their foot-binding, downright sadistic.
The belts and girdles worn by elegantly-dressed European women were not only tight, but during some periods the style was to wear them so high that they cinched the bust.
Okada has pointed out that the reason the obi (bands of cloth as stiff and “wide as a horse’s girth strap,” according to de Avila Giron) was tied loosely, was because of its greater width and the fact that it was wrapped around the body several times. (In television “Easterns,” the bad guys strip women by spinning them like tops.) Judging from artwork, the obi was usually worn lower in Frois’ time than in the twentieth century, when it was so high and so tight that it could literally squash the breasts (an interesting change in fashion that paralleled the loss of freedoms once enjoyed by Japanese women).
Marques notes that those Portuguese who could afford it spent enormous sums on jewelry, including rings that decorated all the joints of the fingers. Finger rings seem so natural to Europeans and Americans that it is hard to imagine a people who would have nothing to do with them. The Japanese called rings “finger-metal” (yubigane) and acquired them from the Dutch in the seventeenth century to fasten the strings of a pouch (one area where a certain amount of ornamentation was traditional). How times have changed; today most Japanese wear “finger-rings” (yubiwa) as in the West.
23. European women wear purses or keys on their chords or belts; the Japanese tie some strips of thin silk painted with golden leaves [around their obi bands], but they do not attach anything to them.
The image of a housewife or maid with keys dangling from her waist is very European. Japanese houses could only be locked from the inside, and there were no locked rooms or cabinets. Thus, Japanese women had no use for keys. This is not to suggest, however, that theft was not of some concern in Japan. Rather than lock one’s home, the Japanese employed a rusu-ban or “remain-guard duty” in the house (again locking the doors from the inside) to guard against theft. Purses were not needed, for the partially sewn sleeve ends served in that capacity.
During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) prostitutes on parade walked on high-teethed geta, wearing a half dozen or more layers of clothing, all of which were open in the front. However, this was not ordinary women’s wear, which usually had inner layers that wrapped around to the side, keeping the legs well covered. In this case “open” does not mean cut away or slit, thus revealing the legs, but that the overlapping panels of the dress separate as a Japanese woman walks, revealing a woman’s foot and ankle. Japanese women also walked in short, mincing steps, with their toes inward as if consciously hiding their insteps, which, together with the nape of the neck, were the focus of men’s ogling.
Tight-fitting gloves, particularly of kidskin, were popular with European men as well as women (presumably only the women perfumed theirs). Japanese gloves cover the back rather than the front of the hands; protecting the hands from the sun or cold while not adversely affecting dexterity. (One could eat and write with these gloves on.) In any case, the main intent was to keep the inside of the sleeve clean (see #56a below).
Long and black vs. short and white seem as different as can be, but both European and Japanese cloaks fulfilled much the same function of covering and protecting a woman’s hair from the elements. Okada notes that the Japanese scarves or cloaks usually were made of satin or silk crepe.
The image of a light robe serving as a head scarf or cloak might seem strange, but imagine getting caught during the summer in a rain shower without a hat or umbrella and removing your arms from your coat and drawing it up over your head. This is what Frois seems to be commenting on. As noted in the previous chapter (#1a), the katabira is summer wear, and most katabira were white, “pale-scallion” (light green) “water-pale-scallion” (light blue-green), and other light shades. The Japanese still feel that such colors are cooling and utilize them even today, particularly for window and door screens.
It is unclear whether the “four-color design” (quarteados) mentioned by Frois refers to the colors of a single item, or four different colored robes that were worn one over another. If it is the latter, a clan crest on the garment may have made it seem even more military. Charles Thunberg visited Japan at the end of the eighteenth century and was struck by how at public baths the Japanese would fold their cloaks and put them in little boxes. Thunberg noted that every cloak had a “coat of arms,” perhaps to distinguish one from another.
As noted at the outset of this chapter, this is the first of numerous distichs that focus more on behavior than appearance. Japanese editions of the Tratado by Okada and Matsuda and Jorißsen interpret the “men and women” as “husband and wife (otto, tsuma).” This contrast would appear to make more sense, however, if it is understood that Frois is referring to the male and female servants who ordinarily accompanied nobles in Japan and Europe. Frois’ superior, Valignano, observed that Japanese noblewomen were preceded by their maids (senoras moças) and followed by their male servants (criados); this is indeed the opposite of European practice.
European commonality belied the fact that, practically speaking, the property (i.e., land, house, furniture) was controlled by the husband rather than the wife, excepting perhaps clothing or furniture (e.g., chests, tapestries) that a wife may have brought to the marriage as a dowry. At the time Frois wrote, a Japanese woman’s trousseau remained hers to dispose of as she wished. If and when she divorced (see #32 below), she got her things and money back. “Her” children, unless they were from a previous marriage, remained with her husband’s family. However, if a Japanese man married into a woman’s family, which was not uncommon, the situation reversed and her family kept the children.
If men tended to control the purse strings in Europe, it was indeed the opposite in Japan, where women saved, kept the books, and made the budget. Men in Japan, unless they were merchants, were supposed to be above pecuniary matters. A housewife in all her glory is often called the daikoku-bashira, literally the “big-black-post,” which is to say the central pillar of the house.
Generations of Japanese men have joked about being cormorants, made to regurgitate their pay for their wives. In modern times, the complaint has gained a new twist. The wedding ring (a Western import) is sometimes jokingly referred to as the neck-choke, worn by the bird to make certain it cannot swallow any fish. In the 1970s and 1980s some Japanese companies reputedly cooperated with their cormorant “salary men” by giving them two paychecks, one of which was kept secret from the wife.
31. In Europe, repudiating a woman is not only a sin but a great dishonor; in Japan, one can repudiate as many women as one pleases without them consequently losing their honor or prospects for marriage.
Today, as in the past, the Catholic Church does not allow divorce. In Frois’ day, husbands and wives who did not get along remained together yet essentially lived separate lives. Among the nobility or wealthy business class, this often meant, in the case of the husband, keeping a mistress. A woman in Europe who was disowned by her husband was “damaged goods” and certainly could not remarry “in the eyes of the Church,” which was no small matter in communities where the Church wielded enormous power.
The situation for married women in Japan was somewhat “better,” seemingly, in that divorce or repudiation did not have a crippling stigma, except perhaps among the samurai class. A Japanese husband, unless he was a noble and feared scandal and damage to a family alliance, could easily divorce a woman and remarry, while a woman could not remarry without official papers of separation and divorce, which the husband was free to grant or withhold. Presumably, the threat of divorce was used to control women. The seventeenth-century moralist, Kaibara Eiken, in his classic Onna Daigaku (“Woman-Great-Study”), gave a handful of reasons for divorce: disobedience to the father or mother-in-law, barrenness (an otherwise good wife might be kept and children adopted), lewdness, jealousy, leprosy or any foul disease, disturbing the household harmony by talking too much and too disrespectfully, or being a kleptomaniac. To promote frugality, the authorities further decreed that “too much sightseeing” or “too much tea-drinking” were just cause for divorce.
After World War II, divorce was strongly discouraged in Japan, both for the sake of the children (the nuclear family now being the norm), and purportedly out of concern that men would use and then throw away their wives for someone younger.
The Judeo-Christian origin myth, Genesis, says Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit, which got both of them thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Genesis also says that, as a consequence, “Your [Eve’s] yearning will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” Domination and repudiation go hand-in-hand.
While only men in Japan had a general right to divorce, the wife’s family could sue when the husband sold off or pawned her possessions without her permission; she could flee to her family and gain a divorce if the husband did not sue for her to return to his family (in this case, the influence of the wife’s family was important), or she could become a nun for life. Still, it was not until 1873 that women obtained a formal right to sue their husbands for divorce.
Jesuit and other early visitors to Japan did not note any class difference here, but late nineteenth-century writers made it clear that peasant women often repudiated their husbands, mostly for being hopelessly dissolute drinkers or gamblers, but sometimes for lesser reasons. Writing in the early twentieth century, Douglas Sladen lauded the high divorce rate in Japan, noting that it was far more reasonable to allow a working woman to divorce her no-good husband than to chain her to an utterly irresponsible and violent man, as English Law did at the time.
Today, Europeans and Americans have a higher divorce rate than the Japanese. Considering the historically recent reversal, it is ironic that this difference is usually attributed to some inherently Western individualism versus Japanese collectivism. It may well be that both sexes in Japan had more control of their lives in Frois’ time, considering that today they face an uphill battle securing a divorce, even in clear-cut cases of abuse or where a married couple has lived separately for a long time.
Okada believes Frois was referring to yukai, meaning “abduction” or “enticement.” Japan was not a place where women worried about being overpowered and carried off, either physically or symbolically, but lovers could and did elope, something that was usually hushed up for a while and later forgiven.
Both abduction (lovers running off together) and rape, meaning the physical violation of a woman, was much more common in Europe as compared with Japan. We in the West forget that the family was very much a “private enterprise” during the sixteenth-century; it wasn’t necessarily or solely a loving support group. Women were of great value to fathers, uncles, brothers, and other male relatives; the latter understood that their female kin were valuable assets that could realize great economic and social gains if properly “invested,” that is, married into the right family. So, forced or not, a woman’s rapture was serious business. A rape in the modern sense of the word would have undermined a woman’s chances for marriage in the West, but not in Japan, where virginity per se was not an issue. While women of the warrior class were expected to defend their own honor to the death (see #35 below), not all commoners would have been so proud.
34. In Europe, the confinement of daughters and maidens is very intense and rigorous; in Japan, daughters go unaccompanied wherever they please for an entire day, and many do so without informing their parents.
Women in Japan were not in fact as secluded as in most Asiatic countries or in sixteenth century Spain or Portugal, where a quarter or more of the female population lived in convents. Walthall recounts how in eighteenth century Japan it was not uncommon for the daughters of wealthy peasants to make lengthy pilgrimages to Shinto shrines for religious purposes as well as for sightseeing and simply experiencing the world beyond one’s home town or village.
Beyond the different gender constructions already noted, the differential freedom of women may also reflect different levels of public safety. While war made Japan unsafe for male combatants, the greater emotional self-control of the Japanese meant that there was less random violence as compared with Europe (see Chapter 14). Japanese women (at least in the warrior classes and among the towns-folk, who strove to emulate the samurai) were not only more likely to read and write than their European counterparts (see #45 below), but also were more likely to have studied martial arts. Japanese literature or drama do not feature Japanese women who “faint away” like their European counterparts. Perhaps more importantly, if overpowered, Japanese women of the samurai class were prepared to kill themselves. On television “Easterns” at least, the instant the “bad guy” touches a woman she stabs herself, or if the dagger is taken away from her, she bites off her tongue and bleeds to death. (This inevitably brings on the avenging hero or her vengeful ghost.) Television exaggerates, but the threat of suicide may have been a significant deterrent of violence against women. Japanese women were, then, “free” to move about as they pleased.
Still, lest these women appear braver than they probably were, it should be noted that if a woman was anything more than a servant, she probably did not go out alone. A letter of Gaspar Vilela from 1565 put it this way: “They [noble-women] are not used to being accompanied by men when they go out, but with many other women with whom they have been raised.”
Frois seems to imply that marriage in sixteenth-century Europe was a lot like marriage today, where couples ideally are best friends as well as lovers. It is not clear that this was indeed the case in 1585, as many Europeans seemed to view marriage as a practical necessity. Men, in particular, often had another man as their “best friend.”
Today, as in the past, the Japanese, particularly of the upper classes, do not center their lives around the biological family and blood relatives (as compared with Europeans and Americans). The Japanese have traditionally favored those nearby over blood kin. “Out of sight, out of mind” makes more sense to the Japanese than “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Thus, Japanese families were more liable to adopt children (or husbands) to carry on the family line, despite their pride in lineage. In Japan, the idea of lineage or heredity had less to do with blood and more to do with actual relationships, including those where a craftsmen would pass on his skills to a loyal apprentice or adopted son-in-law. Some have argued that this Japanese attitude was conducive to modernization in general and the building of effective corporations in particular.
Frois lived for years in India and Malacca before he was assigned to Japan. This is one of a few instances in which he refers to India instead of Europe, presumably because Europeans did not yet make use of umbrellas. Nowadays in Japan, everyone holds up their own “bat-umbrellas,” as Western-style umbrellas are called.
Frois seems to understate the frequency of abortions in Europe, particularly as most abortions presumably went unreported. Somewhat surprisingly, Church law was rather lenient, allowing abortions for unwed women as late as the fifth month of pregnancy or before “quickening” and “ensoulment.”
With respect to Japan, risqué poems (senryu) written two centuries after Frois actually joked about abortion. Even today, the abortion rate in Japan is relatively high, owing to a belief that the child of an unwed mother will be stigmatized and have a difficult life. Still, abortion was no laughing matter for the Japanese woman who drank poisonous drugs, put pressure on their stomachs, and so forth. Moreover, the complex emotions felt by Japanese women, today as in the past, is evident from the fact that some Buddhist temples secure high fees praying for a “water-baby’s” soul. At these temples, one can see thousands of small stone statues, many with bibs and candy or toys placed before them.
Europeans considered infanticide an offense to God, an unspeakable crime in the same general category as witchcraft, incest, and sodomy. Although the Counter-Reformation is sometimes cast as a defensive reaction to criticism of the Church, it was itself reform-minded and encouraged confraternities and new religious orders dedicated to the poor, orphans, and foundlings. That said, Frois understates the extent of infanticide in Europe, where innumerable infants died in foundling homes or at the hands of wet nurses or helpless mothers.
Okada cites a late Ming (1368–1644) Chinese source to the effect that there were more women than men in Japan because the fief administrators cruelly encouraged the strangulation of boys born to poor women at birth because they only desired a supply of women to serve as common-law wives and mistresses. Frois, however, writes in a letter of April 4, 1565, that it was girls who were liable to be killed. Perhaps both are correct and different practices of infanticide obtained in Japan at different times and places.
The Japanese were mostly a farming people and correspondingly referred to infanticide as “thinning” (mabiki). You do not thin for reasons of cruelty. When crops failed or did not keep up with taxes, parents had to make hard choices on how to maximize the chances of survival for their offspring. Because bad years could not be predicted, abortion was not always an option. In 1557, Frois’ fellow Jesuit, Vilela, wrote with obvious sympathy, “We fear the lean cows of Pharaoh and pray the Lord will not let them come, because it is a heart-breaking thing to see children killed in similar times, ….” Although scholars who have studied infanticide in early modern Japan have concluded that peasants lost far more children to natural causes than to induced death, the Jesuits as early as 1557 opened a foundling home in Funai, their base of operations in Japan and one of the two largest cities in the province of Bungo.
40. Pregnant women in Europe loosen and relax their belts so as not to hurt their unborn babies; the Japanese wear a belt up until the time of birth that is kept so tight that it is impossible to slip a hand between the belt and the skin.
Frois’ Jesuit superior noted that the Japanese, “from experience” rather than, say, ignorance, had come to believe that the tight belt brought good luck in birthing. The tight obi was put on ceremoniously in the fifth month of conception and was thought to prevent miscarriage and premature birth.
Child-birthing in both Europe and Japan often was done sitting, as it is in most cultures. European women made use of horseshoe-shaped or elongated chairs or stools. In Japan, the wealthy sat on special legless chairs covered with cushions. (If we can call something legless a sofa, then they invented the sofa or soft armchair.) Poor farmers improvised with straw.
In Europe, immediately following a birth, both mother and child were quickly washed and dressed to protect them from chills as well as outside air. The Japanese opened doors and windows to “vent the pollution of birth.” For most of Japanese history, delivery took place in a separate birth hut so the main house would not be “polluted.” However, the Japanese also were wary of the wind, for the very word for the common cold in Japanese is “wind.” Rodrigues’ Japanese-Portuguese Dictionary includes ubukaze, or “birth-wind,” meaning a cold caught by a newborn. The bath after birth is almost always called ubuyu, “birth-warm water.” Only rarely was it called ubumizu, “birth-coldwater,” and that was in Shikajima prefecture, which happens to be where the Jesuits began their missionary work. But even then, it was only a little cold water and it was used after a bath in warm water.
43. In Europe, the cloister and confinement of nuns is strict and rigorous; in Japan the monasteries of the bikuni [Buddhist nuns] function almost like a red-light district.
Again, Frois overstates the case for Europe, for not all nuns were bound to convents, nor did they all lead lives of strict religious observance. Recently we have learned that many women who entered convents had male guests and servants and some wrote love stories and poetry. Indeed, the fact that many convents lacked “rigor” explains the reform movements led by Frois’ contemporaries, such as Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582).
Some of the most charming female letters in Japan are the work of devout nuns, who, like poet bonzes, tended to be very witty (again, not unlike nuns in Spain and the New World who penned fabulous poetry, plays, commentaries, and autobiographical pieces). But nun-prostitutes were also a very visible part of Japan for hundreds of years. There were even “boating nuns” (funa-bikuni) who plied the canals. It is clear that some religious authorities actually sponsored these “roadside angels” who were sometimes identified with Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Frois is only wrong for what he seemingly chose not to mention: the vast majority of bikuni were chaste and devoted to Buddha.
Frois again focuses on bikuni prostitution, which Okada suggests flourished at this time of frequent wars between Japanese nobles (the logic presumably is that during times of war men require or benefit from gratuitous sex).
At the time Frois wrote, high schools and universities were springing up throughout much of Europe and more and more people were learning to read; rag paper, the printing press, and vernacular bibles all inspired and made possible greater consumption of ideas. As Frois suggests, European women rarely were afforded an opportunity to participate in this revolution. Girls might be taught to read, but less frequently learned to write, as learning to write required costly supplies and girls/women were deemed an unlikely source of “great” ideas. If a girl did manage to make it into a lower school, she often was not permitted to study more than the basics or beyond the age of nine. Although women of the lower and middle classes often desired or were required by circumstance to do “men’s work” this reality was conveniently ignored in favor of a cult of domesticity, which, while no less demanding, required little education.
In a letter from 1565, Frois noted that “in the more cultured parts” of Japan or wherever there were nobility, both men and women knew how to read and write. We would add that not only would both be able to read and write, but they were also expected to write beautifully, in terms of both content and calligraphy. In Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, generally acknowledged as the world’s first full-length novel, writing was the key to a lover’s heart. In Japan, poetic letters were passed back and forth in the night, and love and literacy went hand and hand.
Women did not use as many Chinese characters as men and mostly wrote with the visually lighter and more flowing phonetic syllabary. Women also developed argot of their own different enough from that of men that some European visitors in Frois’ time mistakenly thought they spoke a different language than men. Even today, there are far greater gender differences in the use of the Japanese language than can be found in English.
46. Among us, letters addressed to a woman are signed by the man who writes the letter; letters to women in Japan do not need to have a signature, nor do women sign their letters, nor do they indicate the month and year.
Letters between Japanese friends, regardless of the sex of the writer or the recipient, need not be signed. The beauty and diversity of Japanese handwriting, which enables instant recognition of the author, may have something to do with this. Note that Frois’ knowledgeable contemporary, Rodrigues, wrote in his “Treatise on Epistolary Style” that Japanese men did, in fact, conclude their letters with their name and cipher. Perhaps both Frois and Rodrigues are correct: Japanese men sometimes “signed” their correspondence with women.
As Michael Cooper has pointed out, Frois seems to have gone out of his way to mention the least flattering Japanese names; he could just as easily have cited names that remain popular to this day, such as Spring (Yuki), Snow (Hana), Blossom (Kiku), or Chrysanthemum (Gin), to name but a few. The Japanese have a far greater variety of personal names (over a million) than Europeans and Americans, whose first names until recently were derived largely from a select group of biblical figures and saints. On the other hand, the ethno-diversity of America, in particular, is reflected in the fact that it has far more family names than in Japan.
The chapim or slippers mentioned by Frois presumably were of goatskin or “Cordovan leather,” which could be dyed and decorated with gold and silver. The beautifully lacquered (shiny black) female footwear in Japan usually had a triangular front stilt tapering out to the tip and is called bokuri (rather than geta). All varieties of Japanese footwear came to have the toe separation mentioned by Frois. The thong, which is not mentioned by Frois, generally is the most decorated part of the geta or bokuri, as that is what is seen above the tabi-encased foot.
In Japan, where horses were relatively few in number, it was primarily the nobility who rode them (see Chapter 8). As Frois notes, noblewomen or the female kin of high-ranking samurai rode in the same manner as their male relatives. The Japanese did not consider the separation of a woman’s legs to be obscene. Note that it was illegal for “lesser” Japanese (i.e., middle-class townsmen, wealthy farmers, brides, and so forth) to ride in the manner of the nobility. Common women did not really ride at all.
A 1560 Japanese text cited by Okada refers to the sheet as an “oil-cloth” and “dust-remover” (aka-tori) and cites another source to the effect that these hung way down like skirts. Frois’ contrast would seem to refer to something soft and practical pampering European behinds versus a show of purity and cleanliness on the part of the Japanese.
Although European nobility made a great deal of feasting and appreciated a good chef, cooking was not perceived as a “liberal art.” European elites may have learned to paint, recite poetry, or play the viola, but cooking remained for the most part “beneath them.”
Fellow Jesuit Rodrigues provided a detailed description of the “public kitchens” in the palaces of Japanese lords and nobility. The kitchen was one of the best parts of the house, and the preparation area was beautiful and clean. That cooking was deemed dignified and honorable is consistent with the fact that carving was a major activity in the kitchens of nobility, owing to plentiful game and fish. In Japan, where nearly everything is carried to the table bite-sized (see Chapter 6), carving was one of the ten principal “liberal arts.” In fact, there were even competing schools of professional carvers, with the prestigious “shi” suffix for their title. These finely attired pros could even be found putting on a practical show in the dining room.
Nevertheless, Frois’ contrast is overdone, for women did much of the cooking in Japan as well as served and removed the food. Not much has changed in this regard, as suggested by a late twentieth-century Japanese commercial in which a woman says, “I’m the one who makes it” (literally “I’m a making-person”) and the man says “I’m the one who eats it” (literally “I’m an eating person”). The mass media generally slight feminist complaints in Japan, but complaints about this ad developed into a national controversy, or rather, reflection, because it called attention to a sad but true fact: few Japanese men do any cooking at home.
Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern period European women spun cotton and wool and sewed, first in their homes and then in workshops and factories, coincident with mercantilism and the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth century. Men did the weaving and dying and monopolized the higher-skilled profession of tailoring, meaning the actual design and assembly of clothing and fabric, which was big business in sixteenth-century Europe.
With respect to Japan, the production of clothing provides one example of how differing gender roles may have helped Japan preserve separately, rather than fuse and lose, items of Eastern and Western culture. For most of modern times, Japanese-style clothing (wafuku) was generally made by women, while many, if not most, tailors of Western-style clothing (yofuku) were men. Men adopted Western clothing in the nineteenth century and became tailors because a tailor might have to deal with foreigners. Japanese women retained their native garb much longer than men, so Western dress became essentially synonymous with menswear.
In one sense, however, Japanese men always had a hand in the sewing business, as the Japanese did not buy their kimonos; they bought rolls of cloth produced by manufacturer-dyers that were generally run by males. This cloth was very good and equally expensive. Labor, however, was cheap, so in-house “tailors” finished the product for free. In this sense, Japanese women were not really tailors (an independent calling) but seamstresses.
Among the upper class in both Europe and Japan, men and women of the same household often ate separately. Men in both societies not only ate more and better food, but in the case of Europeans, they often were afforded a privileged seat and place at the table (“the head”), if not a table of their own. European women often ate at a work table in the kitchen.
Okada’s edition includes a picture of a Japanese nobleman, legs folded, eating with his table (more like a portable writing desk) directly in front of him, while the woman diagonally across the small room has a table by her side that is about eight inches high. Because both sit on the floor (as per Chapter 6), no one is really looking down on anyone.
Not all European women were as proper as Frois suggests. One need only glance at one of Dürer’s paintings of European peasant life to know that clerical preferences and societal prescriptions were not empirical reality. In Frois’ Portugal, the Crown regularly tried to do away with taverns that were frequented by “women of low repute” as well as ladies and maidens who enjoyed gambling more than embroidering and sewing.
With respect to Japan, older women in particular were almost as free to imbibe as the men for whom they heated sake. Still, in Japan as in the West, a woman was supposed to “stand by her man,” not lie plastered next to him. The Spanish merchant Avila Giron summed it up quite well: “The women drink very little, although their men folk are like Frenchmen.”
This is an exceptionally nuanced contrast on the part of Frois, as it includes three qualifications (generally, usually, many). As Okada points out, noblewomen were more likely to refuse fish and meat because of their Buddhist upbringing. Japanese men conveniently construed four-legged animal meat as “medicine,” and thus put health above karma. (Interestingly, sixteenth-century Europeans often cast chocolate, which was otherwise “sinful,” as medicine). Japanese peasant women ate fish if they could, although they seemingly got little of anything tasty because they put others (i.e., their mother- and father-in-law, husband and children) first.
56. If women in Europe are wearing a head covering, they cover their faces even more when they are speaking with someone; Japanese women must remove their scarf, for it is discourteous to speak with it on.
As noted, European women were discouraged from revealing their bodies in public, including their faces. Ironically, the Council of Castile complained to Philip II that the veil had become something of a double-edged sword, inasmuch as men were “mistakenly” accosting innocent girls and other men’s wives, while prostitutes were passing for good women. Although Okada points out that Japanese dramas of the time show women carrying on a discussion with their mantle in place, these dramas were kyogen, meaning “crazy-talk.”
57. European noblewomen do not conceal themselves when speaking with someone who has come to pay them a call; in Japan, if the caller is unknown, the lady of the house speaks from behind a screen or a bamboo blind.
As readers of the Tale of Genji know, the custom of a Japanese noblewomen conversing from behind a screen went back at least five hundred years before Frois wrote. There also was a tendency for all Japanese women to hide their faces; one sees this still today, particularly when Japanese women laugh. Still, women (at least townswomen during the Tokugawa era) began showing their faces more and more (nobles held out until the late 19th century). While American and English feminist scholars often have equated attention to personal beauty with female oppression, some Japanese feminist writers see the cult of public beauties (represented by the bijin-e, which are prints of beautiful women, mostly, but not all, courtesans) as a mark of a new freedom for women to exist as individuals rather than as faceless belongings of men. When a courtesan or female street vendor caught Edo’s imagination and even initiated new styles, she had something modern: her own identity.
Although Japan on the whole offered more freedom of worship than Europe (see Chapter 4), for “reasons of purity” all women were taboo at shrines during periods when they were menstruating (officially this was seven days per month). Moreover, one can still find temples (usually on mountains) where women are taboo except for one day a year. In Japan, the mountains and the seashore have official “openings,” i.e., times of the year when certain activities such as visits by women are acceptable. The famous haiku poet Issa fondly observed that the first thing old women did when they visited Mitsui temple was look at the sea. If they were farm wives, chances are it was their only look at the sea for the entire year.
59. Among us it is very unusual for a woman to carry anything using poles ; in Japan it is normal for female servants to carry pails full of water.
This is one of Frois’ stranger contrasts, although it is perhaps less so when one recalls that Frois is mostly thinking about European women of nobility who had servants or slaves who fetched water and handled other domestic chores. Marques notes that Lisbon in circa 1550 had some 3,500 women who made a living washing clothes (not included in this figure are household slaves). European women of modest means who washed their own clothes presumably relied on children to fetch and carry water.
The editors of the French-language edition of the Tratado have suggested that pinga[h] is a Malay word used in Macao (a Portuguese colony in 1585) for poles of bamboo or wood that were shouldered to carry things suspended from the ends. The Japanese term for the same is tenbinbo (literally “scale-pole”). Japanese prints or illustrations feature few freshwater-carrying maids (as implied by Frois) and many more “brine maidens” (shikumi), who used poles to carry buckets of brine to the vats at salt works. It should be noted that Japanese men also used poles to shoulder heavy loads.
Europeans think of snapping to attention as the ultimate in formal posture, as opposed to actual gestures of greeting such as bowing, tipping one’s hat, or curtsying. The Japanese posture of proper seating puts the entire body into a tight rectangle and has a formal name, seiza (literally correct-sit), which is difficult to maintain because the weight of the body rests entirely on folded legs (see #63 below). Frois’ contrast is correct as it is written, but faulty in failing to note that both Europeans and the Japanese make an equally active effort at being polite. While the physical gestures are clearly opposite, both are stiff postures, showing attentiveness toward the guest.
61. In order to go out in public unrecognized, women in Europe wear a hooded cowl; in Japan when they go out in public, women tie a towel on their head so that the two corners hang down in front of their face.
In a society that enclosed and otherwise restricted women’s freedom, being able to lose oneself in a crowd provided a convenient way for European women to engage a world that was otherwise off-limits. Japanese women generally draped their light robes (katabira) over their heads, but some also wore zukin (literally head-clothes). Today, these light, usually colorful, two-foot long pieces of cloth are used for headbands at work or as neckerchiefs and for removing sweat at bon dances. Perhaps the “towels” spoken of by Frois had similar practical uses rather than functioning as concealment.
Frois’ use of “in place of” (em lugar de) in the second half of the distich wrongly implies that Japanese women cut their hair, rather than actually mourn the loss of a loved one. We are reminded of the nihonjinronka (modern writers who define Japanese identity and culture in terms of contrasts with the West) who wrote that by saying “thank you” a Western person had no lingering feelings, whereas the Japanese still feel much obliged. Perhaps what Frois meant to say was that Japanese women often in old age cut their hair and retired to a convent, there to pray for the souls of their family and to die gracefully (see Chapter 4). Similar practices were not uncommon in Europe and the New World, where widows often “withdrew from the world” and joined convents.
In a formal setting both Japanese men and women fold their legs straight back under them, with their shins resting on the tatami and with their hands resting symmetrically on their respective thighs (or in front if the person bows). What Frois describes here is actually an informal posture adopted by women (and which men never use as they sit informally with crossed legs). In this informal position, the arm is needed to support the body because the legs are allowed to stray to one side. Even more informally, some women let their legs, still bent back, slip out one to each side so that their seat comes in direct contact with the tatami. This form of sitting (used by Chinese Taoists while meditating) is even harder for most Westerners than sitting on their heels. How do they do it? Here is Alice Bacon, writing at the end of the nineteenth century:
The flexibility of the knees, which is required for comfort in the Japanese method of sitting, is gained in very early youth by the habit of setting a baby down with its knees bent under it, instead of with its legs out straight before it, as seems to us the natural way. To the Japanese, the normal way for a baby to sit is with its knees bent under it, and so, at a very early age, the muscles and tendons of the knees are accustomed to what seems to us a most unnatural and uncomfortable posture.
64. Among us, women pick up a cup of water with the right hand and drink with the same; Japanese women pick up the sake cup with their left hand and drink with the right hand.
Japanese men hold the small sake cup with both hands when someone is filling it for them and formally drink that way as well (see Chapter 6, #28). Japanese women use only one hand. Frois’ contrast is not between one hand or two hands but between drinking with the same hand the drink is received in and drinking with the opposite hand. It may well be due to the fact that women conventionally waited to the right of men and, facing the tables, received sake with the left hand and drank with the right.
This contrast is nearly identical to #7 above, but one wishes that Frois was more specific about the class of women he is contrasting. After all, in #28 we are told of Japanese women who appear like European soldiers in dress attire. Working women in Japan often tied their hair back with a tenugui, a simple piece of cloth that often boasted interesting designs. Frois may have considered favorite well-worn tenugui “very dirty” or he may have observed “lucky” hair-ties worn by samurai women whose husbands were off on campaigns. These ties were not washed until a loved one returned to untie it.
This is a more poetic restatement of the contrast offered in #15 above. Japan at this time (and later, when it began to industrialize) still had sufficient reserves of most minerals. The idea of Japan as a nation which is exceptionally poor in natural resources that “has to be diligent” is a modern invention and, in Japan today, a useful tool of government. Still, Japan did import mercury and lead from China. Okada notes that the two were ground and combined to make a popular powder that was called “Chinese dirt.”
67. European women do their sewing with copper thimbles on their fingertips; Japanese women do theirs with a strip of leather in the palm of their hand or with a little bit of paper wrapped around the middle of the finger.
Europeans and Americans sew by pushing the needle and thread through the fabric. In Japan, a long needle is held steady with its butt against a piece of leather or paper, and one uses one’s finger tips to push the cloth onto the needle. (This is called “grab-needling” or tsukami-bari). Today, like most everyone else, the Japanese rely on sewing machines. However, when replacing buttons or mending torn cloth, they still use broad-banded rings called yubi-nuki or “finger-pass [through]” rather than the closed, cap-like Western thimble.
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