Family and gender relations among almost all classes saw the growing power of men and a consequent decline for women. Warriors of exalted status lived in households dominated by a male head. His wife (and concubines) came to live in his house. The wife frequently attained her status as a result of a political alliance with another samurai family. Prospective wives were expected to present their mates with a dowry. By 1450, most samurai practiced unigeniture. sometimes there was also a primary daughter who could inherit property in perpetuity. Eventually, however, all siblings except the male heir lost out. Daughters were married out to other families or took the tonsure. Secondary sons tried to build their own territorial bases and frequently quarreled with the heir over property. As was true earlier, most families included servants and vassals bound by fictive kinship ties. Each main family had cadet lines on which they counted for support but which were often sources of political and economic competition….
Before 1280, commoner kinship had been bilateral, the status of women had been high, families were unstable, and divorce and remarriage were usual. The decrease in the death rate and improvements in the economy during 1280–1450 encouraged the formation of more stable farming families settled in the same village for several generations. Instead of extended lineages based on ancient surnames, nuclear families took last names based on the place where they lived, such as Mizoguchi (“mouth of the ditch”) or Fujino (“wisteria moor”). The greater wealth of individual commoner families meant not only geographical stability, but also a patrimony to pass along to an heir.
These new units were called stem families, or ie, and were fairly common in central and western Japan by 1450. Stem families placed great value on the lineage and passed along property and the family’s occupation to a male heir. They also cared for their elders and kept ancestral tablets to commemorate the dead. The head of the ie was responsible for taxes and often served as a member of the village shrine association. In these stem families, there was a new emphasis on the conjugal pair, with the male now more dominant. He was almost always the head of the ie and named one of his sons as heir, ordinarily the eldest son. The adoption of a male from another family was also common. Depending on their wealth, these households might include unrelated people such as servants….
Literature and religious doctrine reveal the decline of women’s status during this epoch. For example, Tomoe, the heroic woman warrior of 1180, became a cross-dressing shaman in fourteenth-century theater. In Buddhism, women were more closely associated with death, decay, and pollution, and one picture scroll depicts women as “evil, lascivious, and furious when rejected.” Stories written in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries explained the proper behavior for women and made them obedient to their fathers and mates. One monk wrote A Mirror for Women in 1300, listing the seven serious faults of women and prescribing ways to overcome them. Even a separate spoken and written language evolved exclusively for females.
The slow decline in women’s status beginning in the late thirteenth century was too much for some. Sixty percent of all nunneries in Japan were established between 1270 and 1470. When women took the tonsure and resided exclusively with other women, many may have found that they could manage property, create a business, and run their own lives, options not available to a woman living in an ie. During this era, these women came to be known as “those who did not form a family.” Religion also provided other comforts to females. For instance, Murōji … became known as “the Mount Kōya for women.” Females went on pilgrimages there and placed votive offerings in the shape of breasts on the walls….
Some single women reacted by finding other outlets for their talents. Wandering performers, including the ones based at Kumano, journeyed from village to village providing entertainment by juggling, dancing, doing acrobatics, or acting out or vocalizing popular stories and Buddhist sermons. They told tales guiding their listeners past fierce animals, hungry ghosts, never-ending battles, and the other realms of hell on the way to Amida’s Paradise. They thrilled their audience with accounts of famous warriors such as Yoritomo and his brother Yoshitsune. Using various props such as flowers, picture scrolls, and musical instruments, they helped to link persons of diverse stations in a more unified culture of storytelling. They also raised donations for local Buddhist temples.