Uncertain powers : Sen'yōmon-in and landownership by royal women in early medieval Japan


    • Kawai, Sachiko


Uncertain powers : Sen'yōmon-in and landownership by royal women in early medieval Japan

Sachiko Kawai

(Harvard East Asian monographs, 445)

Harvard University Asia Center , Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2021

  • : hardcover

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Includes bibliographical references (p. [317]-347) and index


  • Part I. The Nyoin title and royal women's roles at court
  • The emergence and evolution of the Nyoin institution
  • The busy religious life of Nyoin: funding Buddhist rituals and coordinating pilgrimages
  • Part II. Power and struggle: Sen'yōmon-in as a royal heiress
  • Death and inheritance-the sudden rise of Sen'yōmon-in
  • Layers of information-the list of Rokujō palace estates
  • Protecting a Nyoin household
  • Material goods from the estates and Sen'yōmon-in's influence
  • Sen'yōmon-in's seasonal festivities and religious ceremonies
  • Sen'yōmon-in's final years and the transfer of her estates
  • Part III. Comparative perspectives: Sen'yōmon-in, other Nyoin, and their male counterparts
  • Nyoin power-wielding strategies
  • Estate characteristics: location, industry, and historical significance



Uncertain Powers is an original and much-needed analysis of female leadership in medieval Japan. In challenging current scholarship by exploring the important political and economic roles of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Japanese royal women, Sachiko Kawai questions the traditional view of the era as one dominated by male retired monarchs and a warrior government. Instead the author populates it with royal wives and daughters who held the title of premier royal lady (nyoin) and owned extensive estates across the Japanese archipelago. Nyoin, whose power varied according to marital status, networks, and age, used their wealth and human networks to build temples and organize their entourages as salons to assert religious, cultural, and political influence. Confronted with social factors and gender disparities, they were motivated to develop coping strategies, the workings of which Kawai masterfully teases out from the abundant primary sources. Uncertain Powers presents a nuanced and groundbreaking study of the relationship between a nyoin's authority (her acknowledged rights) and her actual power (the ability to enforce those rights), demonstrating how, as members of political factions, as landlords, and as religious and cultural patrons, nyoin struggled to transform authority into power by means of cooperation, persuasion, compromise, and coercion.

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