When It Comes to Gender Equality, Religion in Japan Lags Behind

Noriko Kawahashi

January 7, 2016

Religion in Japan still lags far behind Japanese politics when it comes to gender equality.

The World Assembly for Women (WAW!) convened in Tokyo last August, and, although it focused on the protection of women against violence and discrimination, Prime Minister Abe, infamous for past episodes of gender bashing, addressed the symposium.

It had been 30 years since 1985, the landmark year for Japanese feminism when the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women was ratified and the Equal Employment Opportunities Law was passed. The next year, 1986, the Society of Women Considering the Discrimination against Women in the Otani sect of Shin Buddhism was formed.

At that time, the Otani sect did not allow a woman to be a jûshoku (the head priest of a temple). These women created their own voluntary movement partly to counter rigid opposition to granting women religious qualifications on a par with men's.

This was also a time of growing controversy over ordaining women in the Episcopal Church of Japan, which had not previously recognized women as priests.

Recently, members of the Buddhist clergy have increasingly projected a flashy, casual image of themselves in the Japanese media. They rarely if ever mention gender discrimination in religious circles, and instead speak about Buddhism in general cultural terms that will be pleasing to the popular audience.

Their casual, cultural approach obscures an important issue—that of the spouses of male priests. Buddhist practice required celibacy of most priests in Japan, but a government edict in 1872 recognized the marriage of Buddhist clergymen under secular law, and an 1873 edict extended this to women clerics.

This is an anomaly in world Buddhist history. Priesthood means renouncing secular life, and Buddhist precepts forbid marriage.

Most Buddhist orders in Japan continue to emphasize priestly renunciation of secular life as a matter of doctrine even though, today, many of their male clergy are married. Although these couples are legally wed, many traditional Buddhist orders have not come around to recognizing the doctrinal legitimacy of such marriages. I have termed this phenomenon fictitious celibacy (See Kawahashi 2003 in "Resources" below).

A woman who marries the head priest of a temple is treated as his assistant and assigned everyday temple tasks together with caring for the couple’s children. If they have a son, she also has duties related to preparing him to succeed her husband and become head priest himself.

This division of labor by gender closely resembles the division of roles between clergymen and their wives in Christianity. The clergyman's wife and the temple wife are both faced with gender and other disparities that, in principal, are nullified by their respective religious traditions.

The situation in the Buddhist community is even more complicated because the status of temple wives is both doctrinally and institutionally insecure. In extreme cases, when the head priest of a temple dies, for example, or when he wishes to divorce, the wife may be forced out of the temple with hardly any resources of her own.

Some Buddhist orders, including the Pure Land School, are beginning to treat the presence of priests' wives as a problem for the order. The argument is that the wives undermine the public good. Since a temple is a public place, opponents say, providing care to wives and other members of a priest's family constitutes treating the temple as if it were priest’s private property.

With this argument, those Buddhist orders seem to be seeking to conceal, even from themselves, that their primary concern is their own public image. The public good they invoke, however, should not be used to disregard these women's human rights.

Women who live in temples as wives of priests make a definite contribution to temple operation, and yet, institutionally, they are treated as if they do not exist. The point I wish to emphasize here is that self-examination or soul searching should be required from those who have behaved this way.

A proper value should be placed on the sincere efforts of those who actually practice the way of priestly renunciation of the world, including renunciation of marriage.

As things stand, most male Buddhist clerics who appear in the Japanese media behave as though they are spiritual guides bestowing their wise teachings onto the masses, but for them to act as if they have moral authority while they remain blind to the gender problems in their own households is disturbing.

Discussions of the public good and of the public character of religion should explicitly acknowledge the exclusion and oppression that have, thus far, characterized the religious community's treatment of its vulnerable members.


Mawby, Briana. “World Assembly for Women Conference 2015: An Overview.” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security blog, August 31, 2015.

Kawahashi, Noriko. "Feminist Buddhism as Praxis: Women in Traditional Buddhism." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30:3-4 (Fall 2003): 291-313.

Kawahashi, Noriko, Kayoko Komatsu, and Masako Kuroki. "Gendering Religious Studies: Reconstructing Religion and Gender Studies in Japan." Edited by Zehavit Gross, Lynn Davies, and Al-Khansaa Diab. Gender, Religion and Education in a Chaotic Postmodern World. Dordrecht: Springer, 2013.

Kawahashi, Noriko. "A Voice from Troubled Japan." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 30:2 (Fall 2014): 153-154.
Kawahashi, Noriko. "Re-Imagining Buddhist Women in Contemporary Japan." Edited by Inken Prohl and John Nelson. Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Photo Credit: Richard Tudor Hibbert.

Author, Noriko Kawahashi, Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Princeton University, is Professor of Religion at Nagoya Institute of Technology. She has published extensively on the subject of gender and religion in Japan and Okinawa.

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Todd Lewis:

I enjoyed reading and learned from the article by Prof. Kawahashi on women in Japanese Buddhism. My comment has to do with the statement that a sangha of "married priests/monks" is uniquely present in Japan. This historical assertion is actually not true. For at least the past 500 years, the monks constituting the  sangha of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism across the Himalayan region and the Newar Buddhist sangha in the Kathmandu Valley have been married with wives, children, and lineage property. In addition, through the recent work of Shayne Clarke (Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms [Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014] ), there are many reasons to surmise that married monks, nuns, and sanghas were part of Indian Buddhist history. In this and many other matter, it is time for scholars of Buddhism to move beyond the first draft of its history.

See all articles by Noriko Kawahashi