Historical and Cultural Background of Okinawan Women

Chanel Bradley, usmvaw.com team member

In a patriarchal society like the United States, the presence of a female leader is a rare. Women are commonly socialized to serve in private domesticated spheres, in contrast to their male counterparts that dominate the public spaces. In Okinawa, women have held leadership roles since the 17th century in both domestic and religious realms. However, since the emergence of patriarchy in Okinawa, matriarchy has dissipated and female headship holds less importance. Fortunately, the effects of the Women’s Movement on Okinawan culture have allowed women access to leadership positions in public spaces. For the case of Okinawan women, leadership roles were of spiritual importance and they utilized their matriarchal roots in Peace Movement. Because of their matrilineal history, Okinawan women are able to better uphold their headships in all areas of social life and formulate strongholds in the Peace Movement.

Okinawan Women as Religious Leaders

Since the 17th Century during the Ryukyun Kingdom, women held powerful roles in a spiritual hierarchy called, onarigami. Monika Wacker, author of “Onarigami: Holy Women in the Twentieth Century,” describes onarigami as the spiritual power of women, a female deity or divine women. This hierarchy consisted of a head priestess, ufu anshirare, who possessed lineage from the king and was commonly his mother. The local priestesses, known as nuru, served under the ufu anshirare and were responsible for reporting the taxes in their district to the head priestess. They were also responsible for the number of village priestesses, or nigan, who lead groups of villagers in religious rites and had the authority to invite new members. According to Wacker, traditional Okinawan society consisted of ambilineal clans called weka, which was comprised of all offspring of united couples and cousins of first and second degree (Wacker, 2003).

Susan Sered, PhD, professor at Suffolk University and author of “Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa,” states in her description of the gender equalities in leadership positions as, “a power diffused by male, female, genderless and bigendered deities. Women-led religions do not substitute male dominance with female dominance but rather with models of nondominance” (Sered, 1999). Unfortunately, during the 18th century onarigami practices waned as power shifted from the Ryukyun Kingdom to Satsuma rule, bringing with it an influence of Confusion practices. According to Wacker, historical records show a gradual reduction of female political power during this time. However, Wacker argues that nuru inherit their positions matrilineally, which means villagers recognize the matrilineal descent principle. Thus, their deeply rooted matrilineal practices enabled female leadership to continue amongst the Okinawan people (Wacker, 2003).

Okinawan and Japanese Women at the Home Front

Influenced by socially constructed gender norms, leadership roles in the household are currently held by women. Further, the patriarchal manifestation of male dominance is revealed as men are expected to provide for their families, leaving women’s duties for the homestead. However, according to scholar, Mikiko Eto, “in popular opinion, the Japanese woman manages and controls the home as her own space, enjoys unlimited autonomy there, and frequently prevails over her husband in decision making about the home and family life in general. According the Eto, he predicts a change in birth preferences, “Recently, there has been a reversal in the preferred sex of a newborn in Japan: more mothers nowadays want girls instead of boys. Observing the mother-daughter bond, some scholars predict that Japan will become a matrilineal society in the future” (Eto, 2005). Despite an unequal power dynamic, the religious power present in the 17th century plays out into the domestic lives of women today. Women are still an considered an honored authority in the family and household. Eto’s prediction of a matrilineal shift stands as testimony to Okinawan culture’s incomplete assimilation of patriarchal norms.

The Okinawan Peace Movement

In a place where women’s private voices can be made public, the Peace Movement serves as an outlet to promote social change. However, much like the Women’s Movement in the U.S., the Okinawan peace movement is divided by critical points of the struggle. According to Genevieve Souillac’s article, “Peace on the Margins of Democracy: The Impact of Civic Activism, Identity and Memory on Japan’s Security Policy in Okinawa,” the Okinawan peace movement has evolved in a series of “waves.” The first wave emerged from the presence of political parties, labor union movements, and movements of landowners and farmers advocating for protection against US land acquisition. The second wave manifested during the Battle of Okinawa, a battle waged between the US and Imperial Japan over control of Okinawan territory (Huber, 1990). In 1995, the third wave was sparked by the rape of a 12 year old girl by a US military personnel, and it was later aggravated by the 2004 helicopter crash at an Okinawan university (Souillac, 2009).

In the aftermath of the rape, Okinawans took great offense to the malicious act produced by US patriarchy. In response, the Rape Emergency Intervention Counseling Center in Okinawa (REICO) was established by volunteers. Then, on November 8, 1995, the “Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence” was organized. With 71 women participating in the Beijing Women’s Conference in September 1996, Okinawan women resolved that no longer will they tolerate violence against women and the violation of human rights. These women petitioned against the Japanese government with a Platform of Action to consolidate the US bases and withdraw military personnel, review falsified treaties and agreements made between US and Japan, and reward full compensation to all victims. The movement paved the way for communal solidarity, and for women like Suzuyo Takazato and Ginoza Eiko, who participated in the Okinawa Women’s American Peace Caravan, to voice their opinions and experiences. Even though conflicts arose during the movement, scholar Miyumi Tanji states, “the Okinawan resistance maintained continuity and cohesiveness through the collective memory of Okinawa’s victimization” (Obermiller, 2006). These women advocated for the human rights of their people, and especially their women.

In the post-war era, Okinawan women are reconnecting with their onarigami divinity to take back their positions in power that was systemically stripped away. Public spheres, such as politics and the workplace, are still heavily dominated by men. But these women have reclaimed their positions through raising active voices in the peace movement, participating in the workforce despite oppositions, and maintaining leadership roles in the home. Through these women’s efforts the prediction of a matrilineal society is certainly plausible. However, a return of the ambilineal balance that once defined their history is necessary for the creation of more social equality. Until then, the matrilineal roots have spiritually strengthened Okinawan women to fight for their human rights and for equal opportunity.


Eto, Mikiko. “Women’s movements in Japan: the intersection between everyday life and politics.” Japan Forum 17.3 (2005): 311-333. Web. Academic Search Premier. 22 Feb 2010. <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=2&hid=3&sid=8b2200fc-6779-4990- b435-e013bf78195c%40sessionmgr4>.

Hsiung, Ping-Chun and Yuko Ogasawara. “Office ladies and salaried men: power, gender, and work in Japanese companies.” Contemporary Sociology 28.6 (1999): 685-687. Print.

Huber, Thomas M. “Japan’s Battle of Okinawa, April-June 1945”. Army Command and General Staff Coll Fort Leavenworth KS Combat Studies Inst. (1999). Web. Google Scholar. 28 Feb. 2010. < http://www.stormingmedia.us/84/8472/A847223.html&gt;.

Itokazu, Keiko and Takazato Suzuyo. Okinawa Women’s America Peace Caravan. American Peace Caravan Conf., 3 Feb. – 17 Feb. 1996. Barnard College. Broadway, 1996. Print

Noriko, Kawahashi. “Seven Hindrance of Women? Popular Discourse on Okinawa Women and Religion.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 27.2 (2000): 1-19. Web. JSTOR. 13 Feb. 2010. <http://www.ic.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications/jjrs/pdf/560.pdf&gt;.

Obermiller, David Tobaru and Miyumi Tanji. “Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa.” The Journal of Asian Studies. (2007): 852-854. Web.

Sered, Susan. of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Souillac, Genevieve. “Peace on the Margins of Democracy: The Impact of Civic Activism, Identity and Memory on Japan’s Security Policy in Okinawa.” 1 (2009): 1-19. Web. Google Scholar. 13 Feb. 2010. <http://r-cube.ritsumei.ac.jp/bitstream/10367/730/1/01-RJAPS24_Peace%20on%20the%20Margins%20of%20Democracy,.pdf>

Wacker, Monika. “Onarigami: Holy Women in the Twentieth Century.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30.3 (2003): 339-59. Web. Google Scholar. 13 Feb. 2010. <http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele =affiche N&cpsidt=15413393>.