An Intimate Glimpse: Lives of Court Women in Japan

Time Estimate
Two to three 90-minute class periods and DBQ as an independent assignment.

After completing this lesson students will be able to:

  1. compare how ancient women from China and Japan functioned in a patriarchal society.
  2. discuss the insights to court life that Heian woman writers described in their writings.
  3. identify some reasons that women of the Heian era used writing to express themselves within a patriarchal framework.
  4. read and analyze primary-source documents and pictures.
  5. work in small groups to discuss different perspectives and points of view.



    DAY 1:

  1. Hook (15 minutes): Students generate a list of characteristics that they think were expected of ancient Asian women (both Chinese and Japanese). Students share responses and generated list on the board.

    • How does this compare with the expectations of women in society today?
    • What were some of the institutional structures that may have been placed on women that limited their roles in society?

  2. In-Class Reading (45 minutes): Pass out copies of Ban Zhao’s “Lesson for a Woman.” Compare the characteristics expected of women with those that students generated on the board. Ask students:

    • Are there characteristics that should be added/taken away?
    • Were there any characteristics you were surprised about after reading Ban Zhao?
    • What do you know about Ban Zhao that may influence what she is writing?
      • Emphasize that the issue of authorship (especially the fact that Zhao was a woman) is important when examining this document, and also that texts of this era were largely proscriptive and not necessarily descriptive of people's actual behaviors at the time.
    • Use questions five, six, and eight on the bottom of the primary source document website for other discussion points for the handout.
  3. Lecture (20-30 minutes): On Confucian system and patriarchy in China: This is to provide a solid basis of understanding for students, especially if they have not yet studied the Confucian system. If students have already studied Confucianism, the lecture may serve to provide an application of Confucianism as a system of patriarchy in China and later in Japan. The introduction of Confucianism and Chinese government bureaucracy to Japan by the 8th century put into place a new patriarchal structure that kept women from active political involvement. Even so, Japanese women still had access to education and maintained some of their rights from the pre-Heian period. Some of this information may be taken from the sources listed in the Additional Resources below.1
  4. Homework: Assign background reading from the Writers of the Heian Era Introduction and have students research additional details about the pre-Heian era to bring to class in order for them to understand the change of women’s roles and power.
  5. DAY 2:

  6. Share (5 minutes): Have students share their findings about pre-Heian era women. What have they uncovered about how women held power prior to the Heian period? Raise the question and have students brainstorm: What caused Japanese women to lose their power?
  7. Discussion (10 minutes):
    Questions to generate discussion:

    • Why was there such a major shift in women’s role in Japanese society from pre-Heian to Heian Era?
    • What is the role Confucianism played?
    • Is the writing by Heian court women a vestige of the pre-Heian power or can it be viewed as an outlet for the new limitations placed upon women?

    This could be set up in a Socratic seminar format to allow students to delve more deeply into the shift of power for Japanese women. Bring in the issues surrounding the integration of Confucianism into Japanese society, and make direct references to Ban Zhao’s excerpt discussed in the previous day’s class.

  8. Small Group Work (40 - 45 minutes): Break up the class into small groups of three to four students. Each group can be assigned to take a closer look at a set of documents, such as Source 2: Diary, Sei Shônagon 2 and Source 3: Diary, Sei Shônagon 3, and Source 4: Diary, Sei Shônagon 4 and Source 7: Diary, Lady Sarashina, and Source 5: Fiction, The Tale of Genji 1 and Source 6: Fiction, The Tale of Genji 2. Each group should fill out the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts for each source. Then, jigsaw the student groups for them to share their findings with each other. After the jigsaw, what conclusions can they draw about Heian court life? What is the role of women and what limitations were placed on them?

    Alternative: Hand out Source 2 through Source 7. Have students read individually through all the documents and fill out only one Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts for each source in small groups of two to three students.

  9. Optional: Visual Supplement (10 minutes): Use the paintings from Source 8: Painting, Tale of Genji Scroll 1and Source 9: Painting, Tale of Genji Scroll 2 on an overhead or projector that depicts scenes from The Tale of Genji for students to get a sense of the gender segregation and strictures of court life. Use prompts from Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images verbally to help students break down the different parts of the visual and to discuss the overall meaning of the paintings. Highlight the specific unique aspects of these Japanese scroll paintings, such as the multicolored silk robes, what activities the women are engaged in, and the separation of gender through the use of screens and what that may reveal about court life.

    Other questions could include:

    • What other aspects of court life (in reference to the primary sources they have just read) do you see reflected in these paintings?
    • Do the paintings show a Japanese concept of patriarchy, or do they show something different?

  10. Debriefing (20 - 25 minutes): Go over the responses that students came up with on the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Text as a class. Have students from different jigsaw groups respond to the various questions. What was their response to the earlier discussion question and has it changed now that they have read and processed the primary sources? (Is women’s writing a vestige of the pre-Heian power of women or can it be viewed as an outlet for their new oppression?)

    Compare these sources with Ban Zhao’s source. What differences do they see in how Japanese women are portrayed? What were the different audiences of Ban Zhao and the Heian novelists, and how does that change what is being portrayed?

    Through debriefing, have students break down the differences between the use of diaries and the use of fiction to depict the lives of court women, and why either form of writing was acceptable in this new system of patriarchy. How would the Heian women react to Ban Zhao’s “Lessons for Women”?

  11. Homework: DBQ essay assignment. If there is time left over allow students to work on an outline/tentative thesis.


Advanced Students: Have student research Nu Shu, the women’s writing of China, and make comparisons with the Heian woman writers (use of hiragana vs. kanji, etc.). Using the Heian women writers as the comparative anchor, have students research other societies to see if there are instances of special women’s literature or literary styles throughout history and do comparison charts and presentations in class of their findings.

Less Advanced Students: Help students understand what they are reading by creating a vocabulary list, and/or using even shorter excerpts of the primary source articles rather than entire excerpts. Preparation for the DBQ should be done in class—both tentative thesis and outline, done in small groups with direction from the teacher. These alternatives would require an additional day of instruction.

1Additional Resources:

Bingham, Marjorie Wall and Susan Hill Gross. Women in Japan. St. Louis Park, MN: Glenhurst Publications, 1987.

The relevant chapters used were “Women ad Confucian Principles – Triple Obedience and Filial Piety” and “Women Writers of the Heian Age – A ‘Blazing Fire.’” Bingham and Gross give a historical background on Confucian principles and the Heian era through their use of excerpts of primary sources related to those topics.

Hooker, Richard. “Ancient Japan.” 1996. Washington State University.

This website provides a solid background on imperial Japan, both in the pre-Heian era and during the Heian period. Hooker also gives summaries about Japanese female communities and about Japanese literature, which include the Heian women writers.

Hughes, Sarah S. and Brady Hughes, eds. “China and Japan: The Patriarchal Ideal” in Women in World History: Readings in Prehistory to 1500 ( Vol. 1). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

The two volumes of this series are a great primary-source resource for teachers who want to focus more on women’s roles in different time periods of world history. This chapter provide a little background about how Confucian concept of patriarchy was applied in the China and Japan and gives several primary sources about women from both societies.

CNN’s Millennium, Episode 1,Segment 2: “The Century of the Sword.” Website overview of the video series:

There is approximately 10 minutes from Sei Shônagon’s Pillowbook that dramatically shows a Japanese court woman putting on her layers of silk garments and highlights some of the restrictions of court life.