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Uncertain Powers

Uncertain Powers

Sen’yōmon-in and Landownership by Royal Women in Early Medieval Japan

Sachiko Kawai

ISBN 9780674260160

Publication date: 11/30/2021

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.


  • Uncertain Powers is a valuable corrective to prevailing narratives that equate landholdings with actual power and demonstrates with clarity and persuasion that authority and power were not passively inherited and possessed but had to be continuously exercised and strengthened through social interactions, distribution of resources, adoption and inheritance strategies, as well as the personal involvement and character of political actors…A critical contribution to our understanding of premodern Japanese institutional history.

    —Morten Oxenboell, Journal of Japanese Studies


  • Sachiko Kawai is Assistant Professor at the National Institutes for the Humanities/National Museum of Japanese History in Chiba, Japan.

Book Details

  • 382 pages
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Asia Center