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Women at the Forefront - Heian Japan

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Cultures +1 Age Levels Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old)

This module is designed to compliment a unit on Heian Japan or of feudalism in Japan in general. The goal of this collection is to purposely include the role of women within an evaluation of feudal Japanese society and history. The lesson plan highlights Japanese women in leading roles, with a focus on historical representations of women during Heian Japan; it also includes similar examples of female characters from the Kamakura and Edo period. The two main categories of the collection are warriors and noble women, with the inclusion of the writer Murasaki Shikibu and illustrations of The Tale of Genji. The idea is to study ‘women’ as its own historical component, and the group as actors exerting historical agency. 

Given that the purpose of this collection is to concentrate on the role of women, it includes artwork that was achieved after the Heian and Kamakura periods and that are representations of salient women from the feudal era. 

Lesson plan (3-4 hours) 

1. Teacher leads an introduction to the feudal system and its particularities in Japan. If the class is by topics, this discussion could easily stem from a general discussion of feudalism in Europe. In our particular case, we have already discussed feudalism in Europe earlier, and so the teachers highlight parallels between the two systems in order to activate the main keywords of the unit and review ideas of how the feudal economy worked. 

2. Students read a textbook chapter on feudal Japan and answer comprehension and analysis questions from the text. Key concepts are established following this reading such as: daimyo, samurai, land distribution, family clans, and feudal social pyramid, among others.  


Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History: Journey Across Time. New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

3. In small groups, students analyze original documents from the feudal period. Documents from the book cited below include: the Bushido code, family letters, and excerpts of laws, among other primary sources. Each group of students is in charge of one particular document. Students should identify: main idea, intended audience, who wrote it, and how does this particular document help understand Japanese feudalism. These documents should also help activate many of the key concepts studied earlier. Once all tables have their findings, the class comes together to present and discuss all documents. 


Stearns, Peter N. World History in Documents. New York, USA: NYU Press, 2008. Print.

4. Use this collection to shine the light on women during the feudal period. Lead a "Step Inside" routine with the resource "Ohatsu avenging her mistress Onoe." 

Students may well have noticed the silence regarding women's role at this point in the unit. In my classes, for instance, students automatically assume that there are working women alongside male merchants and farmers, but they have doubts as to women occupying higher roles in society. This routine can clarify some doubts as to their presence among higher social ranks. 

5. Allow students to browse the collection, play one of the videos on female samurais or lead other Project Zero routines with the other paintings of female warriors and writers. Once the class is familiar with the resources in the collection, lead the visible thinking routine "People/Parts/Interactions" to reevaluate society as a whole. 

Discuss how their reading of the texts in Step 2 and Step 3 has changed based on this new information. How do they now imagine women in feudal society?

6. Close the unit with the visible thinking routine "Circle of viewpoints." In our class, we use the routine's questions as a prompt for a one-page essay. Students answer the questions of the routine as if they were a person living in feudal Japan; they can choose to write a journal entry or an essay in the third person. Students should use the resources in this collection and in the texts provided to describe the life of their chosen character. This exercise allows students to explore context, society, thoughts, limitations and daily life from the point of view of a historical actor.

Extension activity (1 hour) 

Instead of leading a written routine of "Circle of viewpoints" students can create postcards written from the point of view of their historical characters. Students also design the flip side of their postcards and the artwork should illustrate the environment or experiences of their historical character. 

Women imitating Daimyo

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Murasaki Shikibu - Genji Series No. 12

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Figure of a girl from The Tale of Genji

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Murasaki Shikibu composing the Tale of Genji at Ishiyamadera

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Scene from The Tale of Genji (Surimono)

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Tale of Genji, Chapter 34; Kashiwagi catches sight of the Third Princess

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Early Ferns, Chapter 48 of The Tale of Genji

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery


Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Cleaning a book

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Thirty-Six Poets at Leisure

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Circle of viewpoints

Harvard Project Zero