“The Cultivation of Polychrome Prints, a Famous Edo Period Product” (1803 by Kitagawa Utamaro)

Many textbooks will tell you that girls in Tokugawa Japan might as well have been slaves. This is simply not true.

Up until the 1980s, scholars knew very little about girls during the Tokugawa period in Japan, from 1602 to 1868. For most of this period, Japan was under an exclusionary edict that prevented anyone from seeking contact with the outside world and prevented foreigners from visiting. Yet in the past three decades, scholars have discovered a treasure trove of diaries, artworks, and other documents that tell us that girls in Tokugawa Japan were far from slaves.

That isn’t to say that girls were equal. Girls were considered a kind of third place in society – at the top rung were the samurai, below them were common men, and below them were common women. (Note that we’ve excluded the upper rungs of society – the nobility.) Yet girls weren’t just regulated to running households – though that was their primary job.

Tokugawa girls were educated at home from a young age. They learned to write hiragana (but not the writing for business transactions, called kanji). They were also taught ethics, literary skills, and the daily requirements of running a household.

Some girls were sent for further education to the households of samurai or nobles, private schools, or private tutors. Girls also worked for a few years between when their schooling ended and the time they married, often outside their homes and with employers who would continue their education. Some even worked in textile factories.

Girls in Tokugawa Japan were expected to marry after a few years of work. Yet divorce records show that many women were able to divorce their husbands (though divorce records did not require listing a cause). Divorces were often completed on equal footing, too, and allowed females to remarry.

Tokugawa girls also traveled extensively and had a variety of hobbies. Over 160 travel diaries written by women have also been found, usually written by common women, which reveal that travel was part of life and that girls from private schools would travel in groups to places discussed in class. Girls also painted, wrote waka poetry, played musical instruments, and were calligraphers! Professor Patricia Fister collected numerous artworks of these girls in Japanese Women Artists 1600-1900 (1988).

So, girls in Tokugawa Japan actually had very rich lives. They were educated, creative, and well traveled women who – despite being isolated in Japan – brought about much of Japan’s culture as we know it today.

-Tiffany Rhoades
Junior Girl
Girl Museum, Inc.

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