Schrimpf on Niwa, '〈僧侶らしさ〉と〈女性らしさ〉の宗教社会学_日蓮宗女性僧侶の事例から'

Nobuko Niwa
Monika Schrimpf

Nobuko Niwa. 〈僧侶らしさ〉と〈女性らしさ〉の宗教社会学_日蓮宗女性僧侶の事例から. Kyoto: Koyoshobo, 2019. x + 205 + 5 pp. JPY 4,620 (cloth), ISBN 978-4-7710-3114-2

Reviewed by Monika Schrimpf (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen) Published on H-Japan (June, 2020) Commissioned by Jessica Starling (Lewis & Clark College)

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Niwa Nobuko’s study of contemporary ordained Nichiren Buddhist women starts with the observation that although the image of the Buddhist nun (nisō) as being tonsured and living a world-renouncing life is still prevalent, many ordained women (josei sōryo) are married, have families, and are not tonsured, especially in Nichiren Buddhism. It is to these women that Niwa directs her attention in this book based on her doctoral thesis. In contrast to Buddhist nuns living in a convent, and in contrast to married male head priests, married ordained women have to manage not only the ritual, consultative, and parish-related tasks of a temple priest (especially if they are head priest), but also the tasks of a wife and mother. Niwa’s study shows that in addition to having to master these diverse tasks, many women feel a dilemma between the clerical ideal of world renunciation (as expressed in the precepts conferred at ordination) and the expectation of being a good wife and mother. 

This dilemma is reinforced by the often condescending attitude of tonsured and celibate nuns—and of some academics—who do not consider them “real nuns” because of their secular living conditions and appearance. Niwa picks up on this context and reconstructs how individual ordained women attempt to reconcile the contradictory images of “clericalness” (sōryorashisa) and “femaleness” (onnarashisa) (p. 7) in their everyday actions and in their self-understanding as ordained women. With her focus on individuals and their respective perceptions, Niwa’s study represents a refreshing and highly necessary research approach that analyzes the role of gender in Japanese Buddhism as it is perceived by the ordained women themselves.

Niwa's research draws on qualitative and quantitative research methods, and her data includes an internal survey conducted by and among ordained Nichiren Buddhist women in 2004, extensive narrative interviews with eleven ordained women, ethnographic notes, and publications by the Nichiren Buddhist Research Institute for Contemporary Religion (Nichirenshū Gendai Shūkyō Kenkyūsho) as well as by the Nichiren Buddhist association of ordained women, the Zenkoku Nichirenshū Josei Kyōshi no Kai.

The book is divided into seven main chapters. In the first two, Niwa clarifies her research question (chapter 1) and her methodical approach (chapter 2). The following three chapters present autobiographical narratives by three ordained women in which they discuss issues that they perceive as problematic in their religious activities and their everyday lives. Niwa interprets these data with regard to the question of how conceptualizations of femaleness and clericalness shape these women’s identity formation in interaction with parishioners or other clerics as well as with friends and other people in non-Buddhist social contexts. Based on these narratives and the other interview data, Niwa extracts five conditions that define how her interviewees experience their position in the “man’s world” (otoko shakai) (p. 141) of contemporary Buddhism (chapter 6). In chapter 7 she summarizes her findings by identifying and illustrating two strategies that manifest in how ordained women enact their clerical role: either they adapt to the “traditional” image of a cleric, or they reinterpret this image in ways coherent with their respective situation. 

Niwa utilizes the “life story approach” (p. 58) as a methodological tool: she analyzes autobiographical narratives based on how they are shaped by social and cultural conditions such as work environment, family, local community, et cetera. She devotes particular attention to the impact of outer appearances, that is, clothing and a shaved or unshaved head, on her interviewees’ perception of their role performance.  In her eyes, the life story approach is of particular relevance in the fields of gender and feminist studies because it allows researchers to derive a gendered master narrative (with its model story and gender categories) from the women’s stories. In her study, Niwa analyzes how her interviewees construct their individual subjectivity as women and as clerics, whether by rejecting the master narrative or by adapting to it. 

The focus on biographical narratives in a communicative face-to-face setting, she argues, reveals the “weak discourse” (yowai gensetsu, p. 66) of what ordained women experience as problematic issues while denying the legitimacy of these feelings—for example, the dilemma of whether to wear a tonsure or not, the awkwardness that results from being the only woman in clerical meetings, the perceived unnaturalness of wearing a wig, the alleged inappropriateness of women’s high voices in sutra chanting, the issue of wearing makeup, et cetera. She juxtaposes this rather invisible discourse with the “strong discourse” (tsuyoi gensetsu, p. 66) of gender discrimination (for example with regard to career options or ritual participation) within contemporary Buddhism. Niwa points out that although most women agree upon the strong discourse, the weak discourse is accompanied by feelings of guilt or tendencies to downplay one’s feelings; it is also more individualized, depending on each ordained woman’s life situation and experience.

Distinguishing between these two types and focusing on the weak discourse strengthens Niwa’s individualized approach. This perspective also illustrates how diversity hinders solidarity among ordained women, since the issues mentioned above may be relevant for some women but not for others. In each individual case, however, this weak discourse strongly influences the ways in which each ordained woman perceives her religious role and how she embodies it. 

As mentioned before, her approach also highlights a gendered master narrative to which her interviewees relate differently in their narratives. Based on my own interview data with ordained women of diverse Buddhist sects, I would like to extend this point: ordained women’s narratives construct a variety of master narratives as opposite horizons depending on each woman’s situation. In the case of female Nichiren Buddhist temple priests, the master narratives from which they distinguish themselves refer to the image of the full-time (male) head priest on the one hand and that of the renunciate nun on the other. However, in the case of ordained women who do not live in a temple, the master narrative from which they distinguish themselves may also refer to female temple priests such as the Nichiren Buddhist ordained women themselves. In my eyes, these master narratives are individual constructions that serve to create a frame not only for explaining what are perceived as difficulties or deficiencies in the performance of clerical roles, but also for legitimating individual reinterpretations and enactments of those clerical roles. 

The three women Niwa introduces extensively in chapters 3 to 5 are in their twenties or thirties; they were raised in temples and are now the head priest or substitute head priest in these temples. One of them is married and has a child. The experiences they talk about often derive from the dominance of men in the Buddhist world, and from the difficulties of not looking in accordance with their clerical or their gender role (for example when they wear makeup in a temple). Niwa turns particular attention to her interviewees’ reflections on whether and when to take the tonsure. The shaved head is considered to be one of the main symbols of commitment to their clerical role, while at the same time contradicting their femaleness. Some of the women have changed their attitude and appearance over time, depending on whether they have employment in the “secular world,” whether they have children, or whether their clerical work prevails. The examples introduced here illustrate that the respective social context or setting of interaction plays a decisive role for how the women feel about their outer appearance. At the same time, each woman ascribes her own particular meaning to shaved head (including very short hair, the so-called barikan), grown hair, or wearing a wig. For example, A-san had her head shaved just after ordination to prove her religious dedication to the parishioners at her brother’s temple. Later, she changed to a very short haircut and sometimes wears a wig to avoid making other people feel awkward in her presence. B-san is married with one child and is head priest at her father’s temple. To her, the tonsure is a source of strength that once compensated for her inexperience when she took over priestly duties, and which now helps her to face the responsibilities of successfully operating a temple. For C-san, the tonsure serves to emphasize her suitability for a male-dominated clerical world. She feels that the pressure to look and act appropriately is higher for ordained women than for ordained men. In all these cases, the choice of appearance depends on the social context ordained women prioritize in their identity formation: this may be the setting of their temple and/or their Buddhist organizations, or that of their family, their secular working environment, or their nonclerical friends. 

Another recurring topic in Niwa’s interviews is the women’s perception that their own situation is defined by the fact that Japanese clerical Buddhism is a “man’s world.” This is made clear with five primary observations: (1) The majority of clerics are male, hence in clerical assemblies (or joint rituals) ordained women are always a minority and often feel like outsiders. (2) The idea still prevails that successors of head priests should be male. This opinion is most openly expressed in the case of temple daughter C-san, whose grandfather stated upon her birth that she would not take over her father’s temple. (3) It is difficult to combine temple duties and the work of a housewife. Whereas male priests are usually supported by their wives and can thus concentrate on their work as priests, female priests have to manage housekeeping and child rearing as well as their duties as temple priest. This situation puts them in an extremely disadvantageous position with regard to participation in clerical meetings and events beyond their temple. (4) Women are subsumed under one category. Many women expressed reservations against the general ascription of female qualities to ordained women, such as being empathetic, caring, et cetera, because they do not want to be reduced to the role of a woman and labeled as different from male clerics. Besides, they are already excluded from some of the clerical (particularly ritual) duties just because of their gender. In contrast, however, the results of the internal survey among Nichiren Buddhist ordained women strongly emphasized the unique contributions they make due to their experiences as daughters, wives, and mothers. (5) The traditional image of the world-renouncing, celibate Buddhist nun is still prevalent. This is why ordained women with grown hair, or who wear a wig, are often considered not to be real clerics.

Niwa concludes this chapter by pointing out that the dominant notion of the cleric (sōryo) represents a kind of professionalism based on the image of a male priest who can devote himself 100 percent to his religious tasks without being burdened by women’s work such as housekeeping and child rearing, or on the image of the world-renouncing, celibate cleric. This image entails expectations of elaborate doctrinal knowledge, ritualistic skills, activities such as instructing believers and spreading Buddhist teachings, and of embodying a kind of sacred habitus. Since most married ordained women do not match this image, Niwa argues, they have basically two choices: to adapt to it, or to establish an alternative interpretation of the clerical role, depending on each ordained woman’s individual situation and the immediate context of interaction.

The remaining chapters (6 and 7) of the book are devoted to these alternative interpretations, in particular with regard to the question of how ordained women relate their clerical role or clericalness to their gender role or femaleness. Some attempt to combine their skills and interests as mothers with those of a cleric, or in the words of A-san: with something they “can do (only) because they are clerics” (sōryo da kara dekiru, p. 182). B-san, for example, offers baby massage and Yoga classes in the temple because she wants to turn the temple into a place where women and children like to come. A-san also hopes to turn her temple into a meaningful place for children. She encourages children to “dress” the bodhisattva Jizō, thus hoping to bring them in a closer relationship with Buddha, as taught in the Lotus Sutra. Others, like D-san, emphasize the context dependency of their role performance: whereas she acts and looks like a cleric in assemblies with male clerics, she makes use of her experiences as a woman and provides counseling to other women at her temple. 

Niwa's emphasis on her interviewees’ narratives effectively frames their decisions and activities with the meaning the women themselves ascribe to them. Niwa’s study thus illustrates how in Nichiren Buddhism, ordained women redefine the clerical role in a way that allows them to embody femaleness. Since most of the women she interviewed live in a temple (as priests and/or wives of head priests), they often make use of the temple as a space to put this new clerical image into practice. Thanks to her life story approach and long interview excerpts, Niwa gives these female temple priests a voice and draws attention to the main factors shaping their identities and ways of acting: (1) the problems and coping strategies arising from male dominance, discriminatory structures, and perceived role conflicts, (2) the various levels on which these issues are felt and dealt with (such as the levels of interaction, outer appearance, etc.), and (3) the creativity inherent to the ways in which female temple priests respond to these challenges. 

Niwa’s study thus contributes to widening research on Buddhist women in Japan in various ways. Like Masako Kuroki, Mark Rowe, and myself, she sheds light on strategies of identity formation and perceptions of clerical agency among female priests, yet adds a focus on how gender conceptions impact these processes.[1] She also draws attention to a group of women that has long been neglected in studies on contemporary Buddhist women, thus complementing ethnographic studies about Sōtō Zen Buddhist nuns and laywomen,[2] and temple wives in Jōdo Shinshū.[3]

At the same time, her study reveals the difficulties of categorizing contemporary Buddhist women in Japan. The established differentiation between lay women and nuns, for example, does not include the position of the temple wife who—irrespective of whether she is ordained or not—inhabits a religious role that distinguishes her from a laywoman. The category “ordained woman” (josei sōryo, literally: female cleric) itself includes women living as world renouncers (nisō, nuns), women living in a temple as head priest, substitute head priest, and/or temple wife, as well as women living outside of the temple in various professions. From the perspective of a researcher, it makes little sense to define analytical categories based on clear boundaries between this subtle array of lifestyles. Whereas the inadequacy of these categories and of dichotomies like lay/clerical, sacred/secular, and the like is acknowledged in research on contemporary Buddhist clerics, Niwa’s study adds to this discourse by showing the extent to which at the emic level boundaries are (re-)constructed, perceived, and ascribed with hierarchies and evaluations. This is reflected, for example, in assessments of what constitutes “real nuns,” or appropriate clerical appearances and actions. In a narrow sense, she shows how the inherent contradictions of Buddhist clerical roles are experienced by women and how they impact individual lives. In a wider sense, she provides empirical data that help to dissolve existing taxonomies of religious roles based on the binary of lay and clerical.  


[1]. Masako Kuroki, “A Hybrid Form of Spirituality and the Challenge of a Dualistic Gender Role: The Spiritual Quest of a Woman Priest in Tendai Buddhism, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 38, no. 2 (2011): 369-85; Mark Rowe, “Charting Known Territory: Female Buddhist Priests,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 44, no. 1 (2017): 75-101; Monika Schrimpf, “Nisō no me kara mita gendai nihon bukkyō 尼僧の目から見た現代日本仏教,” Rikkyō Daigaku Jendā Fōramu Nenpō 15 立教大学ジェンダーフォーラム年報第15号 (2014): 79-90, and “Children of Buddha or Caretakers of Women? Self-Understandings of Ordained Buddhist Women in Contemporary Japan,” Journal of Religion in Japan 4, nos. 2-3 (2015): 184-211.

[2]. Paula Arai, Women Living Zen: Japanese Sōtō Buddhist Nuns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), and Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women's Rituals (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011).

[3]. Simone Heidegger, Buddhismus, Geschlechterverhältnis und Diskrimnierung. Die gegenwärtige Diskussion im Shin-Buddhismus Japans (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2006); and Jessica Starling, Guardians of the Buddha’s Home: Domestic Religion in Contemporary Jōdo Shinshū (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2019).

Citation: Monika Schrimpf. Review of Niwa, Nobuko, 〈僧侶らしさ〉と〈女性らしさ〉の宗教社会学_日蓮宗女性僧侶の事例から. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020. URL:

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