Famous Women of Japan

YOSHITOSHI TSUKIOKA: A Mirror of Famous Women of Japan, 1883

One of the innovations Yoshitoshi is creditted with is depicting women as individuals in their own right. This is only partly true: his bijin (prints of beautiful women) are just as stereotyped as any others. However, when women figured in the stories he illustrated, he did break new ground in individual portrayal and emotional depth. As with the men, Yoshitoshi created consistent and recognisable portraits the recurred in every print in which the subject appeared.

The triptych above portrays twelve notable women in Japanese history. They are:

Famous Women of Japan

1. Akazome-emon (976-1041): A poet of the mid-Heian. She and her contemporary, Izumi Shikibu, are considered the two greatest female poets of the time. Akazome Emon was a lady-in-waiting in the same court as Izumi Shikibu, Murasaki Shikibu (see number 12), and Sei Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book, and served Fujiwara no Michinaga and his daughter, Empress Shoshi. Akazome-emon's poems are in many anthologies, and her contemporaries believed her talent equal to that of Izumi Shikibu. Modern scholars believe she wrote the first thirty chapters of Eiga monogatari (Tales of Flowering Fortune), a history of life at the Heian court from 889 to 1028, focussed on the Fujiwara. Akazome-emon took holy orders in 1012, but remained active at court to the end of her life.

A court in which all four of these women worked must have been a very interesting -- and difficult -- place. Aside from writing, all seem to have been deeply immersed in the very competitive sports of court gossip and politics.

2. Iga-no-tsubone: the wife of Kusunoki Masanari, third son of Kusunoki Masashige(1294 - 1336). She was famous for her physical, and mental, strength. Yoshitoshi has depicted her most famous achievement, banishing a recalcitrant ghost, in his series One Hundred Views of the Moon. Although her father-in-law remained true to the Emperor, and died in his cause, her husband supported Ashikaga Takauji, helping to establish the Ashikaga shogunate.

3. Princess Chujo-hime (753-781): said to have been a daughter of General Fujiwara Toyoshige, who had prayed to Hase-Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, for her birth. Persecuted by her step mother, she became a nun at 17 years old. Many people apparently heard Buddha's voice telling them that she was a living incarnation of Hase-Kwannon, and encouraged them to worship her by weaving the now famous Lotus Thread Mandala. Yoshitoshi included a variant of her story in the series Twenty-Four Accomplishments of Imperial Japan.

4. Kasugano-tsubone (1579~1643): daughter of Saito Toshimitsu, a warlord who chose the wrong side in the fight between Hideyoshi and Akechi Mitsuhide, she was raised by her mother's relatives. In 1604, she was given the postion as nurse of Tokugawa Iemitsu. When Iemitsu became the third Tokugawa shogun in 1623, she became the power behind the shogunate, particularly in his isolationist and anti-Christian policies.

5. Makiko, wife (sic) of Akechi Mitsuhide (1528-1582): Although the label calls Makiko wife, she was in fact the mother of Akechi. In 1579, Akechi captured Yakami Castle from Hatano Hideharu by taking Hideharu's mother hostage. Oda Nobunaga had her executed, and the Hatano clan murdered Makiko as revenge. Akechi blamed Oda for his mother's death and the attack at Honnoji, which lead to Oda's death, was his revenge.

6. Izumi-shikibu (@974~after 1033): Another woman poet and writer of mid-Heian Court, part of Empress Shoh-shi's literary circle and a contemporary of Akazome-emon, Murasaki Shikibu (number 12), and Sei Shonagon. She apparently had several affairs among the men of the court, one of which she described in Izumi Shikibu nikki. She was also famous for her poems, of which two hundred and forty were later included in Imperial anthologies. In 1010, she remarried and moved to the provinces, where she remained for the rest of her life.

7. The Empress Jingu-Kougou (Okinagatarashi-hime-no-mikoto): (Regent: 201 - 269, according to the traditional lists) was the wife of the 14th Emperor, Chuuai, and the mother of the 15th, Oujinn. Depending on how much of the early Imperial genealogy one accepts, and what dating system one uses, she lived somewhere between 150 and 400 AD. Despite her delicate looks in the triptych, she was a strong and brave woman who, upon her husband's death, assumed government, and led an victorious army of conquest to Korea, and possibly parts of Kyushu. Her son, Oujinn, was canonised as the god of war, Hachiman, and she was worshipped before the second World War as a goddess of martial arts.

8. Tomoe Gozen: mistress and unofficial wife of Minamoto Yoshinaka(1154 to 1184), Tomoe is said to have been both beautiful and very strong. She is one of the few examples of a female samurai, an exceptional warrior who served as one of Yoshinaka's senior captains.

Yoshinaka fell afoul of Minamoto no Yoritomo (who didn't?), and was attacked at Awazu. Despite a tremendous fight, the defenders were overwhelmed. Yoshinaka ordered Gozen to escape rather than face capture and death. Some say she stayed and died with her husband, others that she obeyed him and fled. If she escaped, she may have jumped into the sea with her husband's head, although some believe she became a nun. If she was as described, that last seems highly unlikely.

9. Princess Saho-hime, wife of Emperor Suininn(29 BCE - 70 CE): Emperor Suininn is the 11th Emperor in the Japanese imperial lists. Shortly after Saho-hime gave birth to a son, her brother, Sahohiko, triedto persuade her to assasinate the Emperor on his behalf. She revealed the plot instead, then joined her brother in his palace, refusing to leave when it was put to the torch, preferring to die to expiate the guilt of rebellion.

Yoshitoshi did a print of the Saho-hime story in, of all places, his Mirror of Famous General series.

10. Shizuka-gozen: (1168? - 1189): a popular dancer in Kyoto, Shizuka-gozen and became Minamoto Yoshitune's lover. When Yoritomo turned against Yoshitsune, the preganant Shizuka was captured. She gave birth to a Yoshitune's son who was killed immediately at Yoritomo's orders. Shizuka was set free, however, by this time Yoshitsune was dead: interestingly, he had his official wife with him at the time. Shizuka-gozen became a nun and returned to Kyoto but died very shortly thereafter, calling for Yoshitsune.

11. Tokiwa-gozen: Winner of a beauty contest of 1,000 women, Tokiwa-gozen became lady-in-waiting to an aristocratic family, until she met and became concubine to Minamoto Yoshitomo (1123-1160). She had three sons, one of whom was Yoshitsune. In 1159, Yoshitomo was killed by his rival, the infamous Taira Kiyomori. Tokiwa-gozen became Kiyomori's lover in exchange of the safety of her children, and even gave him a daughter. Kiyomori was the man who thought he could order the sun to stand still, an incident of megalomania that Yoshitoshi depicted in both his Mirror of Famous Generals and Courageous Warriors series. Lady Tokiwa is usually portrayed sheltering her sons, and given Kiyomori, deserves the credit she is given for valour and devotion.

12. Murasaki-shikibu: (973-1025?) Probably the best known Japanese woman and author to Westerners, Lady Murasaki is famous for the world's first known novel, The Tale of Genji. She was, for a Japanese woman, fortunate indeed, in that her father, realising she was much more intelligent than his sons, allowed her to be educated far beyond what was considered proper for a girl in the Heian period. After the death of her husband, she was called to court likely by the Empress, who had heard of her talent and intelligence. Murasaki didn't like the frivolity at court: she described a painting competition "a moment in the our history when the whole energy of the nation seemed to be focussed on the search for the prettiest method of mounting paper scrolls!". Nonetheless, it was there she wrote all, or most, of her novel, based what she saw around her.

Eventually, Murasaki disappears from the record: she probably entered a convent. Her writing indicates that she sensed the violent changes impending. In the provinces, fingers twitched on swords, and, in 1192, provincial warlords overthrew the decadent court and created the military government headed by a shogun.

Yoshitoshi included a portrait print of Murasaki-shikibu in his series One Hundred Views of the Moon.

Very special thanks go to Fukushima Minoru, without whose research and e-mail this page could never have been created. If we weren't both already happily married people, Minoru-san....

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