I've read that The Tale of Genji, and similar Heian-era novels such as The Pillow Book, and The Gossamer Years were predominantly or exclusively hiragana, which is also called "women's writing" (女手).

Was this because women weren't given the same level of education as men (as claimed by the English Wikipedia's hiragana article), and that Chinese characters (and possibly Chinese words) were seen as a masculine pursuit (as claimed by its article on The Tale of Genji)?

2 Answers 2


Both those explanations seem slightly off to me. My own suspicion is that it was because Chinese characters were associated with the language of administration (the class of scholar-bureaucrats in China), and women were not expected to serve in government positions. Since the educational purpose of learning characters was to produce government officials, and women didn't normally become government officials, then they automatically weren't expected to learn characters.

So "not given the same level of education" seems to have been written from a modern 'universal education' viewpoint. 'Masculine pursuit' makes it sound as if characters were a pursuit in themselves, which probably wasn't the case for most. Men learnt the characters for a purpose, not as a 'masculine pursuit'. While the exclusion of women from administration was no doubt sexist, it has different implications from saying that women weren't given the same level of education as men. The problem is that people interpret the past in 21st century terms, which isn't always a very accurate way of seeing things. As someone said, "The past is a foreign country".

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    So you're saying that the mindset was more "women don't learn kanji because there is no reason to", as opposed to, "women can't learn kanji because it's beyond their ken". To be honest, I wouldn't want to spend all that time and energy to learn kanji if I though I was never going to use it either... Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 14:52
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    +1: To add a little further, men also used hiragana when writing poetry, novels, etc. As hiragana (literally "commonplace writing", 平 as in 平凡 or 平素) was used in Japan internally for material intended for a wider audience.
    – Jesse Good
    Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 21:55
  • Another thing that probably affected my viewpoint was the knowledge that in the United States, there were laws against the teaching of writing to blacks, in a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise them: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_during_the_Slave_Period
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 10, 2012 at 5:16
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    I would not underestimate the sexism of the attitude that women shouldn't learn kanji. Murasaki Shikibu (I think) apparently studied kanji, in spite of the fact that it wasn't considered appropriate for women to do so. Very unladylike and unfeminine. The fact that discrimination is expressed in such genteel terms doesn't mean that it isn't discrimination. It's just that I'm cautious about framing it in such modern terms as your Wikipedia quotations do.
    – Bathrobe
    Commented Mar 10, 2012 at 11:08
  • In Makura no Soshi, Sei Shonagon is on several occasions embarrassed by accidentally letting slip she knows (has read, and can allude to) works of Chinese literature when conventionally she is not supposed to. It seems clear from the stories that there was an assumption that women would not be familiar with the classics and those who were were unusual (she attracts at least one admirer who is surprised by it). So "not given the same level of education" may go further than just administrative. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 23:08

Form what I remember, Kanji where used in official (read: "court") documents. When you add this to the fact that the Japanese (and Chinese court, too) held the opinion that women had no place at court, it could be intuited that most women where not taught Kanji because they didn't need to know it.

  • The personal diary of Lady Murasaki, the author of Genji, is written in Kanji so here we have ample proof that (some) women as a matter of fact knew Kanji. Second, though Genji is written in japanese, the predecessor of hiragana used there (Man'yōgana (万葉がな) consisted of chinese characters, used of course as a syllabic. Third, the book is full of literary references to ancient and medieval chinese literature, so we know that a literate person, man or woman, was expected to have read those works. I dont see how someone in 11th c Japan could become a writer without it, to be honest.
    – user40231
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 11:01

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