The Dawn of Japan: Women in the Asuka Period

About 1,400 years ago in the 7th century, the nation of Japan was born amid a drastically changing world. These are the women, with their unwavering passion and commitment, who made significant contributions to the formation of the nation.

Reaching out to East Asia / International relations

A regal woman with strong powers of communicationEmpress Suiko

The launch of political innovations / The Taika Reforms

A fearless woman with progressive ideasEmpress Saimei

Japan’s first urban planning project / Fujiwara-kyo

A politically savvy woman who was ahead of her timesEmpress Jito

Japan’s first Buddhist priest is born / Arrival of Buddhism

A pure-hearted woman with a charitable spiritNun Zenshin-ni

Celebrated in the Man'yoshu / Beautiful nature

An ambitious woman who balanced career and loveLady Nukata

The Cast of “Heroines of Asuka”
Chart of the people involved (from the mid-6th century to the end of the 7th century)

The Empresses behind the Building of a Nation

Empress Suiko, Japan’s first female emperor, achieved the miraculous feat of restoring order after years of turmoil connected with the introduction of Buddhism from China. The key to her success lay in a two-pronged approach. At the same time as she promoted Buddhism—a religion synonymous with Chinese culture—Suiko also played the role of a miko (shaman) who actively fostered respect for the traditional Shinto deities. This was in effect the birth of Japan’s unique, harmonious fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism. Exchanges with countries in East Asia brought new culture to Japan, and Suiko’s efforts helped to establish Japan as a nation while raising awareness of its growing status both at home and abroad.

The unique theme of women wielding power in the young nation of Japan was continued by Suiko’s successor as supreme leader, Empress Kogyoku (later Empress Saimei). Legend has it that Kogyoku performed rain-making rituals in an upstream section of the Asuka River. The Nihon Shoki chronicles state that when she knelt down by the river and prayed, the skies unleashed a heavy downpour. At that time in history, Japan was undergoing the Taika Reforms, which involved a transition from a government ruled by powerful clans to one with an emperor at its center. During this tumultuous period, Kogyoku ascended the imperial throne twice: first as Kogyoku and later as Saimei. Using her powers of leadership, the empress embarked on large-scale civil engineering projects, including the building of imperial palaces. Such was Saimei’s influence that the unique architectural look of ancient Asuka has been largely attributed to her.

The next woman to be crowned empress was Empress Jito. She fulfilled the dying wish of her husband, Emperor Tenmu, by stepping up the pace of Japan’s nation-building. As well as overseeing the completion of the new capital of Fujiwara-kyo—which encompassed the three mountains of Yamato—she ensured the establishment of the Taiho Code. This marked the founding of Japan as a nation with a full-fledged central government. The empresses of Asuka, with their shamanistic powers and inner strength, stand tall in history as the driving force behind the creation of Japan.

Women’s Sensibilities Color the Rise of Buddhism and the Poetry of the Man’yoshu

While the women of the Asuka Period were active on the political stage, they also made vital contributions in the areas of religion and culture. Believe it or not, Japan’s very first Buddhist priest was an 11-year-old girl. Going by the name of Zenshin-ni, this young girl entered the priesthood at a time when Buddhism was still being suppressed in Japan. Persecution and other hardships were never far away. After traveling to Baekje (in Korea) to study Buddhist precepts, Zenshin-ni returned to Japan and dedicated her life to propagating Buddhism and guiding followers into the priesthood. Like Japan’s early empresses, Zenshin-ni was thought to be blessed with shamanistic powers.

In ancient Chinese society, women were not expected to pursue creative activities. Poems and songs taking a woman’s perspective were typically written only by men. In Japan, things were quite different. Poetry by women such as Empress Jito and Lady Nukata appears prominently in the Man’yoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology of poetry. Lady Nukata, for example, achieved much renown for poetry she wrote on behalf of monarchs. The Man’yoshu helps us understand the vital role that so many women played in creating the culture of the Asuka Period.

Shaping the New Nation

Looking back on the women of the Asuka Period, we see that they provided the impetus behind the historical changes that were molding Japan as the nation took its first steps. In politics, religion, and culture, women were a major reason Japan was able to emerge and blossom as a new nation. In no other time or place in Japan have women been so instrumental in shaping history as they were in Asuka. To this day, the impact of these heroines reverberates throughout the Asuka area.