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The Body as Place in Time(s): Concepts of the Female Body in Medieval Japan

In: KronoScope
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Daniela Tan Research Fellow, Department of Japanology Institute of Asian & Oriental Studies—Japanese Studies, University of Zurich Switzerland

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Abstract

The body reflects the various timescales of human existence, such as physical processes and cosmological patterns.

This paper seeks to demonstrate conceptualizations of the female body in medieval Japan, using source texts specifically concerned with menstruation. Its investigative use of medical, religious and literary sources serves to address a variety of the dimensions of human existence. Medical writings such as the 14th century Man‘anpō and the Toni‘shō, both compiled by the monk physician Kajiwara Shōzen, deal with the female cycle as a physical phenomenon in correlation with natural cyclical patterns. The female cycle is not only connected to questions of reproduction and sexuality, but also to larger scale cosmological time frames, such as the cycle of the moon or the tides. Instructions given for the treatment of irregularities, along with preventive measures, take into consideration the large-scale time frame in resonance with the micro-level of the body.

Medical knowledge is complemented by religious texts, such as the Blood Bowl Sutra (Ketsubonkyō), that contextualize the perception of the female body within a religious dimension. The Buddhist worldview that permeates medical and literary texts of this era is also reflected in ideas about the female body. The varying physical, cosmological and religious chronomorphologies of the body reflect a multiplicity of time frames in medieval Japan.

1 Introduction*

How is time told within the physical and ephemeral framework of the human body? And what conclusions can be drawn concerning the historical and social background when analyzing the various configurations of time (chronomorphologies) one encounters in the relevant sources? Body-time is both: the time within the body, such as its rhythms and processes, as well as the cosmological time and its patterns into which human existence is embedded. Taking medieval Japan as an example, this paper aims to investigate a plurality of attitudes and to disclose the varying shapes of time for each, in order to demonstrate that the observation of heterogenous chronomorphologies is necessary to grasp fully the time of the body. The human body is a topic wherein various fields overlap and tensions among temporal modalities can be discerned.

Medieval Japan is a period of change in politics, technology, knowledge and religion. The production of new medical writings allows insight into the state of the art of medical knowledge in this period, that is today considered as the basis of Traditional Japanese Medicine (kanpō 漢方). Amongst them are several volumes on gynecology, comprising menstruation, obstetrics and menopause.

The choice to focus on menstruation as a cyclically recurring physical phenomenon facilitates insight with regard to the social dimension and its patterns according to which women in medieval Japan were restricted. Menstruation was not only classified on an operative level, but also had—and still has—an influence on women’s time-regime, and reflects prevailing ideas and ideals of womanhood. Medieval Japan is a period when the status of women shifted rapidly due to a number of factors, such as religion, legal changes and warfare, just to name a few. Ideas about women were influenced by questions of reproduction, on the levels of sexuality and childbirth, and of power on the socio-political level. An investigation of the temporalities of the female body means to consider both reproduction and production, i.e., both the domains of biological reproduction and economic and political (re)production. In her article on women’s time, Julia Kristeva famously argued that women tend to be removed from linear historical time by being confined to cyclical rhythms with the “eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature and imposes a temporality whose stereotyping may shock, but whose regularity and unison with what is experienced as extrasubjective time, cosmic time” is also full with delight (Kristeva 1981: 16). The present paper aims to demonstrate that consideration of various morphologies of time is necessary to understand conceptualizations of the female body, in order to expand the history of differences (Pandey 2004b: 224)—and to acknowledge the feminine in any period in history.

The term body time includes both time(s) that occur in the human body and the cosmic time humans are within. The time of the body is the life cycle, the linear process of growth and ageing, and includes a cyclical idea of rebirth. It covers processes that occur within the human body, such as menstruation, pregnancy and climacteric.1 Then there are natural phenomena,2 such as the lunar cycle or the tides, representing cosmic time and patterns within which human beings find themselves. Menstruation refers to the cyclical aspect of body-time and is an iterative occurrence, because periodicity and rhythm are two main features of a regular female cycle. However, the fertile period in a woman’s life has a beginning and an end and can therefore be seen as a linear aspect of body-time. Both these aspects of time are decisive for a full understanding of the aforementioned areas of women’s lives.

This analysis is derived from a model based on Maki Yūsuke’s morphologies of time (2003). Maki presents four morphologies of time: linear (chokusenteki 直線的) and segmented linear time (senbunteki na jikan 線分的な時間), oscillating (hanpuku 反復 or shindō suru jikan 振動する時間) and circular (enkan 円環的) time (Maki 2003).

Body time on a material level is linear and irreversible, from the beginning of life until death, when physical existence ends. In reincarnation, this line is bent to a circle, though what takes place between biological death and rebirth is on a non-physical level. However, what happens in the afterlife is still related to one’s former physical existence, as are the karmic consequences of one’s actions—and of one’s physical functions and condition, as will be argued below. Body time also features a cyclical aspect of time, as the discussion of menstruation demonstrates clearly. Periodically recurring events are singular appearances in a human’s life and can be considered as repeating patterns, of which each is singular. When looking at body time, the modalities of time vary in each dimension.

Of Maki’s four morphologies of time, I will argue that time of the body is on the quantitative side mainly, as time is not reversible when it comes to physical matters; the rhythms of the human body set the pace for actions such as sleeping and being awake, eating, digestion and excretion, as well as for hormonal timing. Although such interchanging conditions could also be considered as what Maki designates as segmented linear time and are experienced in a qualitative way, they are subject to rhythm and therefore show a quantitative, yet not homogeneous, modality of time. Social interactions tend to adapt to physical processes and rhythms, and sometimes include strict regulations according to the period in which one lives, as exemplified in regulations about participation in or refraining from such actions in relation to religious contexts (as shown below).

Figure 1
Figure 1

The four morphologies of time according to Maki Yusake

Citation: KronoScope 20, 1 (2020) ; 10.1163/15685241-12341452

The cyclical aspect is related to physical phenomena that recur on a regular basis. It can be measured in numbers by counting days, but it can also be understood in correspondence to natural phenomena such as the lunar cycle. Interestingly, the medical sources tend to render quantitative information numerically, alongside qualitative descriptions of phenomena. Diaries provide the dates of the entries using the lunar calendar. The beginning of the period in the first days of the month clearly indicates a synchronicity between the female cycle and the lunar cycle, as shown below.

The linear aspect reveals the fertile period within a woman’s life as a limited and irreversible phase of physical reproduction. Whereas medical texts provide numerological patterns designating life phases of 7 years for women and 8 years for men, the physical processes of ageing and changing physical functions are described in the form of symptoms. But reproduction also comprises caretaking, as well as securing the thriving of the offspring on a material level. What possibilities did women have to reproduce their wealth once the biological reproduction period had ended? By applying Maki’s temporal model to polychronic source texts from medieval Japan concerning menstruation, this paper looks at the ways time was measured, recorded and scheduled, in order to understand the impact female body time had on the conceptualization of womanhood and its consequences for the socio-political power of women during this epoch.

The reader will find in the following pages, first, an outline of the research about the legal, social and political situation of women in medieval Japan. I shall then attempt to chart the particularities of certain temporal morphologies and their implications within the three domains of medicine, religion, and literature.

2 Women in Medieval Japan

The Kamakura period (1185-1333) has often been pointed out by scholars of women’s history as an era marked by the shift toward patriarchal models. The rise of Confucian ideas of womanhood, along with new marital and inheritance practices favoring a singular male heir, brought a loss of economic independence for women (cf. Laffin 2013: 7, Satō 2005: 77, Wakita 1992). The new marital and inheritance practices that placed authority in the hands of the husband resulted in married women’s losing much of their financial autonomy (Tonomura 1990). Women had to reposition themselves in order to survive professionally, politically and financially. This can be seen in women’s diaries, such as the Towazugatari (ca. 1306), evoking the “grim reality of Kamakura court politics and the financial and social restraints that were influencing the lives of noblewomen” (Laffin 2013: 7). Nunhood was a way to maintain personal freedom as a woman. The decision to become a nun “might be motivated by religious fervour, but it also enabled greater physical, social, and financial autonomy. Theoretically at least, the act of taking the tonsure placed a woman outside the sexual economy and thus enabled her to travel with greater ease. […] Land rights could be ascribed to nuns and their convents, and medieval inheritance documents record the important role played by nuns in receiving land and allotting it to other women” (Laffin 2013: 8). Becoming a nun after the death of a spouse was not only a moral statement of loyalty. It also meant that the widow, by obtaining the status of a ‘widow nun’ (goke ama), achieved legal and economic access to equality and to more personal freedom. Quite a few female names appeared in medieval lists of donors to religious institutions (Kurushima 2004: 204)—proof that at least some women had the right to own their own property. It must be noted, however, that such a status or official household headship was in many cases only temporary and limited to an interim solution. Buddhism had also brought new ideas about female embodiment’s being a “karmic disadvantage” (Langenberg 2017: 153) and therefore about women and their status in both the spiritual and worldly spheres. The influences of Chinese Buddhism, Daoism and folk belief get reflected in medicine. The human body mirrors the cosmic order; health can be maintained by leading one’s life according to that mirroring. Theories of systematic correspondence and ideas of resonance3 known as Yin-Yang (onmyō 陰陽),4 and Five phases (gogyō 五行) doctrines extended to an understanding of the human organism (cf. Unschuld and Tessenow 2011: 10f). Knowledge of physical functions and of the interrelation of bodily organs was as important as the consideration of the seasons, the five elements and time.

I shall now give an example of the medical view and understanding of menstruation and therefore of the female body in correlation to the cosmic order, without any mention of impurity. I shall then introduce the Ketsubonkyō 血盆経 (“Blood Bowl Sutra”)5 faith-order, so as to demonstrate the influence of Buddhism on the perception of women and their bodies. Finally, a short overview of female diaries will introduce the precarious position of medieval women situated in the conflicted area of reproduction—on a physical level as mothers and on a level of power politics as civilians concerned for their personal rights and existence (cf. Laffin 2013: 34).

3 Medical Texts: How Medical Knowledge Inscribed the Female Body into Time Regimes of Cyclicality and (Some) Linearity

In the early 14th century, a period full of civil wars, the physician Kajiwara Shōzen 梶原性全 (1266-1337) compiled two medical texts that represent the state of the art in Song China and can be considered the beginning of Traditional Japanese Medicine (kanpō 漢方) as it is still applied today. Not much is known about him apart from his compilations; according to historical sources, he was a monk doctor (sōi 僧医) descending from the Wake family—one of the families that held the office of medicine as far back as the imperial household at court in the old capital Kyoto (Ishihara 1968: 1732). The ancient medical repertoire in Japan had been a combination of rituals, prayers and phytotherapy, enhanced by healing techniques “involving complex etiological theories and sophisticated pharmacopoeia originating in continental Asia” (Drott 2010: 251) and brought to Japan by the transmission of Buddhism. Different from the preceding era, when medical supply and knowledge were reserved for imperial court nobles, political disruption and power struggles brought a rise of military clans in the provinces and a decline of the imperial household in Kyoto. The 10th century Ishinpō 医心方 (“Central methods of medicine”), compiled by Tanba Yasuyori 丹波康頼 (912-995) is the first general survey on medicine in Japan. The cultivation of health (yōjō 養生), phytotherapy, acupuncture, moxibustion and protective measures against evil spirits reflect the prevailing worldview of Heian Japan, where the body appeared rather as a social embodiment than as a natural body (Pandey 2016: 33). In contrast to the exclusive access to medical treatment, the subsequent Kamakura period features a spread of medical knowledge. Although “Buddhist medical works thus provide an example of how the culture of esotericism in medieval Japan functioned as an economy of knowledge that required strategic withholding of information, but also strategic disclosure” (Drott 2020: 267), access to medical sources became possible through wandering monk doctors. Internecine wars produced a need for medical supply on the battlefields; remote Zen monasteries developed specific interests in therapy; assistance during childbirth and puerperium was gradually provided as well by the wandering doctors. The new medical writings of this period responded to the new demands of their time; chapters about treatment of cuts and stab wounds, monastic diseases, and women’s medical conditions are far more elaborate than in the 10th century Ishinpō.

Kajiwara had clearly captured the latest medical knowledge of his time; he simultaneously recorded the practices of traditional Japanese folk medicine. He compiled the fifty-volume Ton’ishō (“Selected Medical Cures”) in 1304; in 1315, he produced the Man’anpō (“Myriad of Relief Prescriptions”), comprising sixty-two volumes in total. While the Man’anpō is written entirely in kanbun 漢文, the sinicized script of scholars, the less extensive Ton’ishō is written in a style of mixed writing with Chinese characters and phonetic Japanese syllabary (kana-majiri-bun 仮名交じり文). In doing so, Kajiwara made medical knowledge more broadly accessible. Copies of the Ton’ishō were carried by wandering monks of lower status and spread through the country, into the hands of those taking care of the sick and the wounded on battlefields and also of those concerned with gynecology and obstetrics. Both of Kajiwara’s works contain a separate volume on the menstrual period, as well as separate volumes on obstetrics, childbirth and the general treatment of women.

What did people in medieval Japan know about the female cycle, and how did this affect women’s lives? And what does all this have to do with time? The following quotation from the Ton’ishō is representative of the knowledge concerning female physical functions and menstruation in medieval Japan. Volume twenty-seven of the Ton’ishō, “About women,” starts with a brief introduction, followed by the first chapter titled “About the period.” ( It is easy to detect that in this passage, Kajiwara Shōzen quotes from the Huángdì Nèijīng 黄帝内経, the “Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor” (200 BCE).

Qí Bó says: When a girl becomes 7 years old, the ki of the kidneys abounds. The [first] teeth are substituted and the hair grows long. With two times 7, 14, the heavenly Yin water (tenki 天癸) comes for the first time. Tenki means the period. […] When there is enough menstrual blood, the blood descends once in 30 days. This is why it is called monthly affair (tsukigoto 月事), or monthly period (gekkei 月経), or monthly/moon water (gessui 月水). […] Because it is like the moon filling up and hiding, it rises and fills up, namely it overflows and descends.

How is time written when Kajiwara speaks about the body? At first glance, chronography is done explicitly with numbers, rendered numerically in the translation. But time is also written implicitly or materially, by mention of phenomena such as the growing of teeth and hair and the abounding of the renal function. The time of the body is referred to as processes happening in or over a certain length of time.

The term tenki 天癸, here translated as heavenly Yin water, refers to the complex cosmology based on the idea of systematic correspondence between the five agents, their modifications in Yin and Yang, and the functions of the human body. The term mizunoto 癸 therefore designates the Yin aspect of the element water, which is related to the kidneys. The kidneys regulate the production of blood in the female body, and also of essence (semen) in the male body. Tenki therefore means the point in time when the kidneys begin to work fully and, as a consequence, the menarche occurs.

The passage quoted above is not only an explanation of how the menstrual period works and why it occurs; it also gives us insight into the normative concept of these physical functions. The healthy body is a body where things occur in accordance with cosmic patterns and rhythms. This ideal of the human body was passed on since the first continental (Chinese) medical text, the Huangdi neijing.

I have heard:
heaven is yang, the earth is yin;
the sun is yang, the moon is yin.
Longer months and shorter months, 360 days
constitute one year, and
man corresponds to this too.
Unschuld and Tessenow 2011: 127

According to this worldview, a regular menstrual flow is considered an indicator of health. ‘Regular’ includes the approximative numeric recurrence of days that can be counted from the beginning of the period until the start of the next one. Within this pattern, the sequence of thirty days is repeated—the iteration of the same pattern continues from the menarche at age 14 until the menopause at age 49, when the biologically reproductive period in a woman’s life ends. Physical processes in accordance with natural cycles bear the aspect of the measured, normative and regulating workings within Daoist thought (Schipper and Wang 1986: 188). Irregularities not only give insight into reproductive functions; they serve as a window on the entire female body (Wilms 2005), especially at a time when male doctors had to rely on the quality of blood samples and discharges along with the patient’s oral self-description. The next quotation reflects an integral approach, where blood as a physical fluid and ki as an energetic flow are considered as interrelated within the human body.

The irregularities of the period are caused by emaciation of Blood and ki. Because of vacuity and weakness of the body, cold winds affect it. The thoroughfare vessel (shōmyaku 衝脉) and the controlling vessel (ninmyaku 任脉) are like two sides of the same. When one conceives, they stop the bleeding and become blood and flesh of the child. After the child is born, they become milk. […] If Yin and Yang are not balanced, this affects the two vessels and the period is not regulated. If there is too much Yang, the period comes in the beginning of the month. If there is not enough Yang, the period comes in the end of the month.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The female cycle—lunar phases, five elements and physical functions

Citation: KronoScope 20, 1 (2020) ; 10.1163/15685241-12341452

A regular cycle of approximately 30 days is evidence of a healthy body. It must be maintained with care, and both the Ton’ishō and the Man’anpō give prescriptions and treatment methods to maintain and restore it. But this passage also gives an account of the ideal timing of menstruation: the period should start at the new moon, in congruence with the lunar cycle. There is not enough evidence to prove that this ideal was in any sense normative; but there are passages in women’s diaries that mention the beginning of the period around the time of the new moon. In the constellation of ideas discernible in the first quotation (above), the element water in its Yin aspect correlates with the moment of maximum Yin and is therefore related to the phase of the new moon within the lunar calendar.

The menstrual period as a rhythmical and recurring phenomenon can be considered as a cyclical aspect of body time, according to the medical sources. As previously mentioned, the same sources characterize the duration of the fertile period in a woman’s life, starting from age 14 and ending at age 49, as aspects of linearity and irreversible duration in body time. Thus, the medical writings indicate both cyclical and linear temporalities when explaining menstruation, its duration and rhythmical recurrence. Kajiwara draws no conclusions about the social value of the female body in his extraordinary text. Phenomena are described, diagnosis and prescriptions are given, along with recipes to restore the state of health. The following section, on religious contexts, will give insight into yet another temporality with which the female body is associated and into its impact on ideas about women in medieval Japan.

4 Religious (Con)text: Temporalities Framing Women’s Bodies in This World and Beyond

How did religious chronomorphologies frame ideas about the feminine? In contrast to the thought of classical (pre-Tantric) Indian Buddhism, where “purity is a feature of the mind (not the body)” (Langenberg 2017: 156), in Japan, from the 9th century onwards, the female body came to be considered impure because of childbirth and menstruation (Namihira 1987: 68). Before the arrival of Buddhism from the 6th century, this concept of impurity (kegare) had not greatly effected the social position of women. In Imperial Shinto, the court’s cult of indigenous deities, fertility was a central issue (Inoue and Ueno 2002: 197) and powerful goddesses were worshipped alongside gods (cf. Katō 2012: 122-125). Kegare through menstruation is, however, first mentioned in one of the volumes on Imperial Shinto regulations (jingi) of the Engishiki 延喜式 (“Regulations and Laws of the Engi Era”, 927).6 In a collection of 57 regulations, avoidance after death, birth, miscarriage and abortion is advised:

At all times, when ladies of the Palace become with child they must withdraw before the days of partial abstinence; if they have their menses they must withdraw before the day of a festival to their homes and hearths and may not go up to the Palace.

Bock 1970 117

The idea of pollution because of menstruation (getsue 月穢) became more rigorous during the 12th century, when women had to refrain from bathing from the day the menses started until the seventh day, even if the bleeding had already stopped earlier. Later, the Kinpishō 禁秘抄 (“Annotations of Palace Secrets”, 1221), a work on imperial court ceremonies and etiquette, states that women are impure seven days from the beginning of the period—but allows one to clean oneself when the bleeding has ended earlier, under the condition that the rites be completed (Katō 2012: 194-198).

Pollution practice, seen also as the “desire to keep straight the internal lines of the social system” (Douglas 1966: 132), came into existence in Japan through the influence of Chinese Buddhism, which maintained that women could not attain buddhahood after death because they were impure. According to teachings in the Buddhist scriptures, it was impossible for women to attain spiritual enlightment and buddhahood, because of the obstacle of the Five Hindrances (goshō 五章) and of the further restrictions of the Three Obediences (sanjū 三従) towards their fathers, husbands and sons. Whereas the Three Obediences bear obvious traces of the Confucian thought that entered Buddhism on its way through China, the idea of the Five Hindrances (sensory desire (ton’yoku 貪欲, kāmacchanda), anger (shin’ni 瞋恚 vyāpāda), idleness (konshin 昏沈 thīna-middha), restlessness of the mind (jōko 掉挙, uddhacca-kukkucca), doubt (utagai 疑い, vicikicchā)) can be traced further back to the Pali Canon. In medieval Japan, the widespread Pure Land Buddhism created the theory that a woman could attain buddhahood by transforming into a man (henjo nanshi 変成男子), based on a famous chapter in the Lotus Sutra.7 According to this line of thinking,8 there was no way for women to enter enlightenment or the Pure Land in a female form. They would instead go after death into the pond of blood (ketsubonchi 血盆池 or chi no ike 血の池), one of the over 100 hells in the Buddhist afterworld.

All women fall into this hell because of their karma. This is because women have an eight-petaled lotus flower hanging upside down between their breasts that releases blood of five colors. The red-colored blood flows out for seven days every month or eighty-four days out of the twelve months. This blood is called menstrual blood that is terribly evil and impure.

Williams 2005: 125ff9

The Ketsubonkyō10 is a sutra for the salvation of women from this specific hell (cf. Kōdate 2004). It is a Chinese text with no Sanskrit original that reached Japan during the 13th century (Soymié 1965: 137-138). There is no exact knowledge about the composition of the sutra, but it is thought to have been incorporated into Buddhism as an apocryphal sutra (gikyō 偽経) in the Daoist canonical work Dōzō 道藏 (chin. Daozang) (cf. Nakano 1998: 73f). Its length is only about 420 characters, depending on the version, and it explains the tortures in hell that await women, as can be seen in the beginning of the sutra:

The Venerable Moggattana once saw on a vast plain in Tsuiyo prefecture of U state, a Hell of Blood. Its width was 84,000 yujun [588,000 km], and in the centre were 130 kinds of iron chain instruments of torture. Countless numbers of women from the human world, with dishevelled hair and shackles on their wrists, were suffering greatly in that hell. Three times a day the Lord of Hell forces the sinners to drink the unclean blood. If they do not drink he wields an iron bar. Cries of the sinners resound far.

Nakano 1998: 71

Even in the realm beyond physical existence, pain and diurnal measurement of the passing of time prevail. The reason why women have to endure such torments is given in the sutra explicitly: “This is something which has no relevance for men. Only women defile the head of the earth gods with blood from giving birth, because they wear blood-soiled clothes in the rivers and pollute the flow.” Later, menstruation was added to the catalogue of sins (Takemi 1976: 236). A gradual expansion from childbirth and mothers to childless women and, in a final stage, to women in general has been pointed out as occurring in parallel to popular beliefs (Nakayama 1928: 74). The Ketsubonkyō serves as a means for women to escape this hell by the performance of ritual actions such as recitation, copying and participation in special prayers designed for their salvation.11 This is why it can be regarded as an element of “salvation policy devised to save women who are prevented from attaining buddhahood because of defilement” (Nakano 1998: 70). Unlike the Five Hindrances or the possibility of transformation into a male, this sutra is permeated by folk religious beliefs and was not part of Buddhist doctrine. One must have recited and copied this sutra a thousand times each day for seven continuous days. During her life, a woman should carry the sutra on her body as a protective amulet; when she dies it should be buried in the grave with her. By transforming the Ketsubonkyō into a talisman for redemption from this specific hell and an amulet for safe childbirth, it can be said that “Japanese women in the late medieval period took their salvation into their own hands” (Glassman 2008: 195).

The Shōsenji 正泉寺-temple in Abiko, Chiba prefecture, was built in the 13th century and is said to be the place where the Ketsubon-Sutra appeared for the first time. The Ketsubonkyō engi 血盆経縁起 (“Story of the Blood Bowl Sutra”) states that the ghost of the temple’s founder, the nun Hōshōni, brought a divine dream to a monk at lake Teganuma; a fountain of water and the sutra appeared.12 Women from all social strata, such as court nobles (kuge 公家), warriors (buke 武家) and also common people (ippan no shomin 一般の庶民) assembled in this belief. Since the 1970’s, the original sutra texts stored here are no longer exhibited (Takemi 1983: 432). Today’s Buddhism does not want to be related to such discriminating practices against women.

Religious temporalities framed the conceptualization of the feminine in two ways. On the one hand, the dissemination of Buddhism increased negative gender beliefs related to the idea of blood pollution (ketsue 血穢). Women had to schedule daily actions and duties around their cycle in order to participate in social life. On the other hand, the approximation of this world and the afterlife in medieval Japan involved non-discriminatory practices in popular belief, allowing women to participate in religious actions in this life to secure a safe passing to the next life (ōjō 往生) without going through the painful blood pond hell with its well-timed tortures. The following section showcases how women reckoned with the negative temporality of their bodies in their writings.

5 Literature and Women’s Diaries: Representations and Utilization of Menstruation and Its Temporality Inscribed in the Female Body

The idea of impurity of women is also mirrored in works of literature in medieval Japan, such as diaries, poetry, Buddhist legends (setsuwa 説話) and fairy tales (otogizōshi 御伽草子).13 Whereas the setsuwa collections served to proliferate Buddhist thought (Mizue 2009), diaries were composed for different reasons; the medieval shift from court life to female reclusion added even more variety (Imazeki 1987: 4). What representation of temporal modalities in relation to menstruation can be found in literary texts of medieval Japan? And how, when women wrote about their period in their diaries, do the texts frame female negativity and its temporal consequences? What conclusions can be drawn on such representations and literary handling of menstruation—associated in most cases with negative implications about the social value of women and restriction of their participation in social life? As will be demonstrated, knowledge about one’s own cycle and its rhythmical recurrence often enabled women to schedule and anticipate their actions. Periodicity and iteration served as a base for planning (and avoiding) events and actions in advance and in linear time.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Notable examples of diary literature from the 13th and 14th centuries

Citation: KronoScope 20, 1 (2020) ; 10.1163/15685241-12341452

The genre of diary literature (nikki bungaku 日記文学)14 emerged among court ladies around the 10th century and is considered as central to the literature of its period. The list above presents only a few of the more well-known women’s diaries, often semi-fictional, of the Kamakura period.

Women’s diaries are written in phonetic script—also dubbed “female script” (onnade 女手) instead of kanbun. With respect to menstruation, there are statements on the inconvenience of meeting a lover, or that a woman had to interrupt a stay at a temple, such as in the melancholic voice of the narrator of the Kagerō nikki 蜻蛉日記 (The Mayfly Diary) who wrote an entry dated on the sixth month of the year 971:

After not so much time, my period (fujō 不浄のこと) did arrive.15 I had thought to leave the mountain when it started, but I felt everybody in the capital would start talking, and I did not go back home. […] Well, five days later my period was over, and I re-entered the temple.

NKBT 20: 224-226

And on the first day of the first month of the following year, she is worried about holding New Year services when she is expecting her period to start that day:

I think, Shall I hold a sutra reading service tonight? But then my period is likely to come. That is the sort of thing people usually consider inauspicious, and I wonder in my own heart once more how will things turn out for me.

Arntzen 1997: 277

The assumption that religious services should rather not be held while one had her period, reflects the kegare thought mentioned above.

Among the medieval diaries, the Towazugatari (“The Unrequested Tale”, ca. 1306), written by Lady Nijō in Kyoto, provides superb insight into the life of a court lady. The diary starts on New Year’s day 1271, when Nijō entered court at age 14 to become a concubine of former emperor Go-Fukakusa. Nijō would have other lovers, and was the mother of four children at age 25. In 1283, at age 26, she left the court and became a nun. The diary resumes in 1289 and depicts Nijō’s life as a Buddhist nun on pilgrimage for more than 20 years. She writes about the past, and notes her thoughts about things she experienced and her encounters with other people. The text ends in 1306, when she is 49 years old.

It is remarkable that the diary thus precisely covers the fertile time in a woman’s life as identified in contemporary medical sources—starting at 14 and ending at 7 times 7, when menstruation was supposed to come to an end. This hints at a sustained connection with reproduction. Nijō’s reason for taking the tonsure was not to start a new, religious life, but to avoid worldly troubles and to acquire a legal status as a woman. As a concubine, she could bear an emperor’s child; but her social status made it impossible that this child would be accepted as a legal offspring of the emperor. Though reproduction was biologically possible, a woman of lower social status had no means to secure reproduction of social status for her child. Nunhood, however, offered her a way to retain command over her economic resources and, consequently, to secure a worldly inheritance for her children.

The Fūga waka-shū 風雅和歌集 (“Poetry Collection of Elegance”, ca. 1349) contains an episode expressing another religious worldview that did not exclude women from religious practices such as pilgrimage. It is a fictive exchange of poems between Izumi Shikibu (who lived in Kyoto around the 10th century)16 and the mountain goddess Kumano Gongen. The story goes that during a pilgrimage to the Kumano Hongū Taisha Shrine on the Kii peninsula, just upon reaching the station Fushiogami ōji 伏拝王子, from where pilgrims catch sight of the sacred site in the old grove for the first time, Izumi Shikibu’s menses started. She worried that she had to interrupt her practice and composed a poem dedicated to the local deity, who responded in a dream:

The answer poem is a clear statement of non-discriminatory practice within the grounds of Kumano. People from whatever sex, social status or state of health are equally accepted as pilgrims.

Access to the afterworld had become more direct during medieval Japan in the course of the spread of new beliefs. Commoners as well as aristocrats no longer had to rely on the religious mediation of official priests and now turned directly to deities and Bodhisattvas with their wishes (negai 願い) and worries (Satō 2005: 73, Akiyama and Yamanaka 1967: 233f). Ancient beliefs and ideas about gods (kami 神) continued to exist simultaneously or “were re-embedded in the spiritual world of a time defined by splits and tensions between multiple centers of power, imperial family branches and by changing economic conditions” (Andreeva 2017: 7). Combinatory obeisance to Shintō and Buddhist rites formed the chief paradigm of religion in medieval Japan. It was based on a theory of manifestation (honji suijaku 本地垂迹), wherein Shintō gods were considered as avatars of buddhas. As a consequence of this fusion, the gods’ range of powers was enhanced and former local deities transformed into salvation-gods, exemplified prominently by Hachiman and by the deity of Kumano. The mountain goddess Kumano Gongen17 thus “amalgamates the faiths of kami (divine spirits) and Buddhist deities” (Kaminishi 2006: 160), and also, as demonstrated above, unites antithetic views of the female body. In Buddhism, sexuality was impure and strong desires had to be abnegated; in the world of the Shintō gods and their associated mythologies—a pre-Buddhist, animist worldview—sexuality was mostly associated with fertility and prosperity.

Literary representations of menstruation in the above texts showcase social restrictions women experienced due to religious taboos as well as a local response to discriminatory practices. The first example demonstrates the anticipation of the period and its duration as a means to cope with constraints concerned with kegare. Such anticipation enables the protagonist to schedule her actions, comply with her social role, and continue to take part in the linear history of actions related to planning and contributing to her social station. The poem-exchange further confirms the view that women remained in full possession of their spiritual powers during the fertile period in life. The idea of a conversation with a goddess puts into poetic perspective the fact that one of the main threads of tradition included women, without downgrading their spiritual status because of physical features, and furthermore granted the power of spiritual reproduction to both men and women.

6 Conclusion: Body-Time / Time in Variance

In the medical writing of medieval Japan, knowledge concerning the female cycle is passed on in relation to cosmology. Health, understood as a physical condition as well as a state of mind and a style of life, maintains the rhythm of the body in order to keep physical ailments, as well as bad spirits, at bay and to lead a life untainted by such nuisances. Body time here is framed as a means of insight into the proper flow of physical processes; the regularity of a menstrual cycle testifies to a woman’s general health, far beyond issues of physical reproduction. The often negative consequences of menstruation for women’s scheduling and planning in everyday life point to another dimension of body-time. Despite the fact that Buddhism largely contributed to the idea of impurity due to menstruation, nunhood could provide a way for women to attain a legal status that ensured equal rights, such as land ownership and the ability to make bequests, and therefore enabled women to be reproductive on the level of power.

The comprehension of varying morphologies of time is essential to understanding the conceptualization of the female body in medieval Japan and its impacts on the individual, religious and legal status of women. Within the four morphologies of time presented by Maki, the quantitative aspect prevails in the medical writings, where body time is grasped by cyclical recurrence, counted by days and related to cosmic rhythms. The classification in 7- (women) or 8- (men) year phases indicates an abstract, numeric aspect of time. Literary texts show this tendency as well, as narrators experience their menses as a temporally limited constraint to their social interactions. However, the experience of the passing of time and its representations also refer to a different modality for and a qualitative morphology of time. Body time in the religious dimension featured quantitative aspects of time, as even hell-time is divided into diurnal units; participation in religious actions of court life was restricted, temporarily, for women who had their menses.

In analyzing the heterogenous chronomorphologies of overlapping fields, specific sociocultural traits of medieval Japan became visible. The temporal conceptualization of the female puts into relation reproduction and fertility on both biological and sociopolitical levels that “echo in a most specific way the […] traits of [women’s] structural place in reproduction and its representations” (Kristeva 1981: 15) and deepen the understanding that both linear and cyclical time are necessary for the examination of women in medieval Japan. The body as a place of time and as a place within time reflects the polymorphous nature of time (and in an era located in a distant time and region) and serves as a framework for grasping the complex connections between one’s existence and the background that shapes its variance.

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*

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 741166).

1

Originally the Greek term klimaktér designated a physiological phase of life of men and women; the present use of the term (mostly) for women is a modern phenomenon.

2

It must be clearly stated here, that the thought of “nature” in medieval Japan differs from the modern usage in the sciences, as will become obvious, particularly in the medical source texts.

3

Natural philosophy had an enormous influence on Chinese scientific history, and also on medicine. Whereas correlative thinking, numerology and resonance ideas (Graham 1986) are characteristic concepts in the Huangdi neijing 黄帝内経 (Inner Canon of the Yellow Lord), there exists another branch of medical tradition focusing on sequential analysis of stages in the progress of medical disorders, which constitutes the background of the Shanghuan lun 傷寒論 (Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders) (cf. Ågren 1983). Both currents found their ways into Kajiwara Shōzen‘s writings.

4

The Heavenly Stems were used in combination with the Earthly Branches, a similar cycle of twelve days, to produce a compound cycle of sixty days. Subsequently, the original function was lost; today the Heavenly Stems and the Earthly Branches are used together as a 60-year calendrical cycle (Smith, Adam Daniel 2010).

5

Alternatively, the translation “Blood Pond Sutra” is used. In this article, I shall use the more neutral, direct translation “bowl” for bon 盆, because the origin of the sutra is not ultimately resolved and the translation with “Pond” is based on the assumption of one thesis and therefore already an interpretation (cf. discussion in Soymié 1965: 128).

6

There is a mention in the Kojiki 古事記 (“Records of ancient matters”, 712); but the Nihon shoki 日本書紀 (“Japanese chronicles”) only touches on the topic of kegare briefly in an annotation to one of the versions (Mitsuhashi 2005: 46).

7

There are many debates around the question of women having to be born in a man’s body in order to attain Buddhahood. For further references see Abe 2014: 40ff and Yoshida 2002: 302f. My appreciation and thanks for comments on this topic go to one of this paper’s anonymous reviewers.

8

It must be annotated, that different positions on this existed within medieval Japanese Buddhism. Dōgen contends that by leaving secular bonds and entering the monastic community, one would enter into a non-gendered state. (I thank Raji Steineck for this comment.)

9

For a description of the present location of this ‘hell,’ see also the travel blog by Ikucha 2018.

10

The full title of the sutra is Bussetsu daizō shōkyō ketsubon kyō 佛説大蔵正教血盆經 (“The Buddha’s correct sutra on the bowl of blood”). It is found on p. 2,999 of the fourth volume of the eighty-seventh section of the first part of Dai nihon zoku zōkyō 大日本續蔵經第一 (“Great storehouse of Japanese sutras, continued”) (Takemi 1983: 229).

11

Apparently the Ketsubonkyō was also used in the ritual context of Zen funerals (Bodiford 1993: 206f).

12

Legend says that the Ketsubonkyō was enshrined in the world of the heavenly dragons, when it was found by an aged nun at the side of Lake Teganuma in a blooming white lotus. The nun took it back to the temple and copied it a thousand times and recited it every day for seven days. After seven days, Hosho-ni appeared to her in a dream and let her know that, due to the accumulation of merit from the recitation and copying of the sutra, she had been released from Blood Pool Hell into nirvana. After this miracle, the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu gave the temple a framed tablet on which he had calligraphed Nyonin jōbutsu dōjō 女人成仏道場 (Hall for women to meditate and attain buddhahood) and renamed the temple 大龍山正泉寺 (Great Dragon Mountain Shōsenji).

13

The notoriously gory genre of war chronicles (gunki 軍記) has to be mentioned as well, although the blood here is shed mostly by men wounded on the battlefield. However, in a highly interesting article, Selinger points out that there are differences in the depiction and function of blood, for example its atypical recusative representation in the 14th century Heike monogatari 平家物語 (The Tale of the Heike) (Selinger 2019: 35).

14

Konishi points out that nikki literature differs strongly from what is considered a personal prose diary today, and defines a nikki as a “prose composition, written in the present tense, that is concerned with the life of a historical person” (Konishi 1986: 256).

15

The period lasted from the 6th to the 10th day of the 6th (lunar) month (comment in NKBT: 224).

16

Izumi Shikibu stories were widely in use in medieval Japan, mainly for religious purposes such as illustration of the Lotus Sutra, or for proselytization purposes, such as promoting new, Pure Land Buddhist practices like the nenbutsu recitation, or by wandering nuns in the Kumano region (Kumano bikuni 熊野比丘尼) performing etoki (Kimbrough 2008: 191-216).

17

The syncretistic thought is also revealed in the name Kumano Gongen 熊野権現. The sacred site of Kumano consists of the three shrines Hongū, Shingū and Nachi, which are addressed as the three appearances of Kumano (Kumano sansho gongen 熊野三所権現) of Amida, Yakushi nyorai, and Kannon. The term gongen 権現 can be translated as “temporarily appearance.” The appendix gongen in the name of the goddess therefore evidently points to the manifestation theory: Buddhas manifest in this world in the incarnation of local deities in order to effect salvation (cf. Takahashi 2005: 107). Kumano-piety also absorbed elements of the regional Shugendō religion. The Kumano religion later became unified with Pure Land Buddhism.

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