How a Little Bit of Nunhood Paved the Way for Japanese Divorce

How a Little Bit of Nunhood Paved the Way for Japanese Divorce

Why you should care

Because divorce should never be impossible.

Hori Mondo, adviser to violent feudal lord Akinari in mid-17th-century Japan, knew his life was in danger after he complained about his boss to the shogunate. Fearing for his family’s safety, Hori sent his wife and children to the Tokeiji Buddhist temple for sanctuary, while he took shelter in a monastery. When Akinari’s assassins showed up at the temple to retrieve Hori’s family, the abbess turned them away, putting herself between the killers and the people she’d been entrusted to protect. The monks, however, weren’t quite as vehement, and Hori Mondo didn’t survive his boss’ rage.

That’s the most legendary of many stories about the badass women of Tokeiji. The temple, a prosperous convent founded in 1285 in southern Japan, was famous for 600 years as a place of sanctuary for women fleeing abusive relationships or otherwise seeking asylum — until it was taken over by an abbot in 1902 and converted into a monastery. But what sets Tokeiji apart is that it was one of only two temples that allowed women to legally obtain divorces without the consent of their husbands.

The development of Tokeiji’s role as a divorce temple stemmed from a social need for such places of refuge.

Kristina Buhrman, Florida State University

While some women, even those who brought their husbands money and power, were able to negotiate divorces, those fleeing unwanted relationships had just one option: Temples like Tokeiji, which let women get divorced legally after staying only a few years at the convent — and didn’t require them to take vows or formally become nuns. Getting a divorce, in other words, didn’t resign them to lives of celibacy.

For men, legally splitting has always been an easier affair. “A man could write three and a half lines of official pronouncement: ‘I divorce you, goodbye,’ ” says Gina Cogan, an academic and author of The Princess Nun. “A lot of the time, men didn’t do this, but it was on the books.” The laws on the three-line letter didn’t really shift until 1946 — modern custody laws in Japan favor women, compared with earlier ones that automatically awarded children to the husband.

According to the temple’s code, a woman hoping to get out of an abusive relationship had to explain her situation to the nuns, who were supposed to encourage her to return to her husband. If that didn’t work, they were to help her get a divorce and require the three-year stay — a slow-moving, religious version of modern-day Reno. Of course the woman could join the temple permanently if she wanted — Buddhist temples were notoriously good places for women to educate themselves and live free of the domestic strictures of life on the outside — but Tokeiji made most of its money from fees offered by the families of women who weren’t planning on lifetime commitments. Women who chose not to stay could simply re-enter society — newly single and ready to mingle.

In practice, sometimes just having the option of the temple was enough of a bargaining chip to force recalcitrant husbands to negotiate. Women would lodge at nearby inns, which did a tidy business on the divorce-seeking trade; sometimes they’d stay for months, threatening their husbands with forced divorces if they weren’t willing to come to an amicable separation agreement.

Tokeiji’s existence heralded a shift in the role of marriage in Japanese culture. A divorce temple was necessary, according to Kristina Buhrman, assistant professor of Japanese religions at Florida State University, because women in Japan were losing rights over their own bodies and property. “The development of Tokeiji’s role as a divorce temple,” she says, stemmed from a “social need for such places of refuge.” Some estimates put the number of divorces there between 1700 and 1868 at about 2,000, though records are patchy.

Some Japanese authorities have reportedly been working on preserving Tokeiji’s archive for the ages by registering it as a UNESCO Memory of the World site, a project that focuses on protecting heritage documents. (The temple isn’t on a short list of Japanese sites whose archives UNESCO agreed to preserve this fall, and UNESCO’s Japanese delegation didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Tokeiji’s archive, says Cogan, could ostensibly serve as an invaluable record — not only of life in a Buddhist convent but also of historical economic and legal practices in Japan, as well as the daily lives of women, so often overlooked by tales of kings and conquerors.

It would also serve as a testament to early protests against domestic violence, an issue that is still very relevant in Japan today. One-third of married Japanese women report having experienced such abuse — but, luckily, they no longer need flee to a temple to kick their husbands to the curb.

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