Women in Japanese Religions

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Barbara Ambros
Women in Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , May
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There is no doubt that Women in Japanese Religions by Barbara R. Ambros is a welcome resource for students at the introductory level who want to understand Japanese religion and women. Questions for discussion are included at the end of the book, which will be of use to instructors as well.

This is a text that, according to Ambros, presents the long-term historical structures of the "longue durée" to redress the shortcomings of conventional "microhistories" that lack a comprehensive perspective. Thus it presents a span from prehistoric shaman queens to medieval Buddhist nuns, as well as women followers and founders of modern new religions, and present-day women who are networking feminist Buddhism (here Ambros very kindly cites work by this reviewer).

The idea that a single Japanese scholar would write a book like this one covering the history of women and religion from prehistory to contemporary Japan is nearly unthinkable. This reviewer, at least, would not likely attempt such a daunting endeavor. Simply put, Ambros's contention is that, "rather than serving as marginal actors, Japanese women have taken leading roles” and that those women are "radiant suns rather than moons reflecting the brilliance of others” (172). This point is emphasized both at the outset and the book’s conclusion, but the theoretical framework that is supposed to substantiate the point gives rise to a number of doubts.

An introduction just four pages long grafts together the theories of the anthropologist and Islamicist Saba Mahmood, the expert on Chinese foot-binding Dorothy Ko, and the preeminent Japanese feminist sociologist Ueno Chizuko. The rationale for transplanting these theories beyond their various historical and cultural contexts is the turn to women's agency (an “agentive” turn).

In the process, the position of the renowned Buddhist scholar and theorist of East Asian religion and gender, Bernard Faure, is criticized as a male-centered view influenced by "marxist scholarship," and his research is characterized as viewing religion, for women, as a "mere means of oppression." However, Faure's research, as I understand it, cannot fairly be reduced to such a simplification (see, for example, The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity and Gender, Princeton University Press, 2003).

Ambros also quotes Ueno Chizuko to the effect that "reproduction of the patriarchal system is not possible without the cooperation of women" (3), but my reading of Ueno's numerous uncompromising and challenging feminist works does not find any positive representation of women who collaborate with patriarchal systems. For Ambros to adduce Ueno's work in this way, therefore, is exceedingly arbitrary.

The point is that although Ambros puts her own book forward as a counter-discourse to the narrative of oppressed, passive, weak Japanese women, claiming that it "pays attention to the agency of Japanese women who have resisted, subverted, or actively employed patriarchal ideologies to promote their own interests" (4), the author's well-meaning antidote to male-centered, as well as Orientalist, representations of Japanese women risks entering upon a slippery slope. That is because, without acting to question or alter Japan's patriarchal religious system, it brings fodder to fuel that system. Any religious tradition will have women who participate in religious observance while having their human rights as women respected all the while. In other words, what women want is not to renounce religion itself. What they want is to do away with oppression by patriarchal systems. Understanding must maintain the distinction between the two.

Orientalist portrayals of Japanese women as pitiful victims of patriarchy clinging to religion have to be eliminated, but without romanticizing the accomplishments of these women. The point instead is critical analysis of the hierarchies of discrimination that oppress women in religion: not the minutiae of ideologies and theoretical polemics, but the detailed account of those women's acts of resistance and initiatives for reform. How do self-perception and recognition of self-realization by women influence men? What consciousness of reformation will they instill? In a discussion of the history of women in Japanese religion, and the agency of women in general, these questions call for examination.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Noriko Kawahashi is Professor of Religion at Nagoya Institute of Technology.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Barbara R. Ambros is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Bones of Contention: Animals and Religion in Contemporary Japan and Emplacing a Pilgrimage: The Oyama Cult and Regional Religion in Early Modern Japan.



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