Japan is still a male-dominant society – on the surface. Throughout its history, Japan has seen women pulling strings behind the scene and HINO Tomiko is an extreme but great example representing how women often outsmart men in Japan.

Show host Kyota Ko narrates the incredible and incredulous life of HINO Tomiko, the woman who practically ruled Japan in the 15th century.


Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast today to talk about how male-dominated Japan seems to be, while in fact men quite often find themselves under women’s control. I’d like to tell you a story later about a particular woman who virtually ruled the country during the 15th century. 

Modern gender circumstances in Japan

But let’s first look at how life is for Japanese men and women nowadays. In Japan traditionally, men worked outside while women looked after the home, just like many other cultures. In the 1980’s, 65% of Japanese households operated like this. The father was the only source of income. And still now, around 30% are one-income families in which the wife is a housewife. As a comparison, in the US, one-income families account for only 7% and this includes households with househusbands.

So you may think “Oh women are not recognized fully in Japan yet. Where’s gender equality?” But the harsh truth for Japanese men on this matter, is that since forever, Japanese men were often the breadwinner but not the bread keeper. Their wives often took the helm in looking after the family wallet, as the Japanese say. 財布の紐を握る。Men were often not entrusted with money and didn’t get the final call in making financial family decisions. Because we’re so bad at it.

And traditionally in many Japanese households, the husband is given a monthly allowance, just like his kids. The wife decides how much his allowances should be. And this is still very much the case for many families in Japan. 

In a study of 1100 married Japanese men this year in 2020, these men were asked the question “Who looks after the household finances, you or your wife?” 43% answered that they themselves, the husband, had control over household finances, and 40% answered their wives were in control. Only 17% answered that each spouse looked after his or her own finances. 

So I can safely say that almost half the time, Japanese husbands are not trusted with money by their wives. The wife makes many of the financial decisions. I have a female Japanese friend who has signed her husband up for several life insurances that are designed to make her financially better off every time her husband gets injured or sick or dies. Sounds like a suspense drama but on her defense, she is an amazing cook and she makes the healthiest and tastiest meal every meal for her family. 

But then she uses her husband’s credit card at will to buy bottles of wine and nice silverware. Her husband doesn’t complain… that often because he too enjoys wine and of course uses the silverware to dine. Every once in a while when he does complain about his credit card being used too often, his wife would be ready to shut down his arguments completely. Women in Japan are generally much more experienced in conversation than men are so the husband’s chances of winning arguments are skim. 

Japanese men are ATMs

So on the dark side of Japanese humor, boyfriends, husbands and dads are sometimes called ATMs because they make money and then give up their earnings to their partners or daughters. 

There used to be a profession called Ukai in China and Japan, by the way. It’s a type of fisherman who bred dozens of aquatic birds called cormorants. So these Ukai fishermen would tie a rope around each cormorant’s neck, just loose enough that small fish would pass through and reach its stomach, but tight enough that big fish wouldn’t get swallowed. 

The fisherman would put these cormorants on his boat at night and take them to where the fish are sleeping, and he would set a torch on fire and set the birds off into the water. The fish wake up in a panic and their scales would reflect to the light from the torch, and therefore the cormorants could see where they are. The cormorants would eat small fish themselves, and when they catch big ones they can’t swallow, they come back to the boat. The fisherman would make them spit out the fish. And that’s how Ukai fishermen got fish.

So only men became Ukai fishermen. It was a man’s profession. They brought home the bacon by operating birds. But then when they came home they realize their wives had been operating them to put food on the table. They’re given small allowances like the cormorants are so that they wouldn’t go on a strike or anything. I cannot help but remind myself of this analogy whenever I think about how Japanese men are typically treated in their families. 

You can see an Ukai fishing show now in Gifu Prefecture near JR Gifu station, so if you’re interested, please check it out. I’ll put a link on this podcast entry in my blog. 

Gifu Cormorant Fishing on Nagara River

Men took the stage, Women had control behind the scene

So traditionally in Japan, it’s actually often been the case where women let men take the stage and all the credit for being the breadwinner but in fact it’s women who were the mastermind behind the scene. 

There’s an excellent example of a single woman who pulled strings behind all of Japan and played men in power like a violin. I’d like to tell you about the story of HINO Tomiko – she’s basically a female ruler who thrived in 15th century Japan. I’m sure her life will inspire you in certain ways no matter what your gender is. For the longest time she had been seen as a terrible, terrible person from many historians’ eyes, but lately this idea has been revisited as it’s obvious that she must have been super smart because she made all her ambitious dreams come true. She was definitely an excellent, excellent businessperson and mother.

Japanese history leading up to HINO Tomiko

Just a little background information before we start discussing this amazing lady. So once upon a time, Japan had been ruled by the imperial family and royalty for a long time until their corruption led to the birth of samurais from peasants who armed themselves for the purpose of protecting themselves from corrupt government officers all over Japan. By the late 12th century, the samurai class had gained practical control over politics because they had much bigger military power than royalty did. So simply put, the royalty were bullying peasants so peasants buffed themselves up and came to be called samurais, and the tables were turned. Bullies always end up being inferior later in life it seems. Even at a national scale. 

So anyway in the late 12th century, one of the most influential families of the samurai class set up a governmental organization run by samurais, and to the public, they made it seem like the royalty were outsourcing political activities to this samurai government. Just to keep their face. The head of this samurai government was called the Shogun, who was basically the most powerful samurai lord who had the biggest say in Japanese politics. Japan had been ruled by the Shogun for several generations since then. And for your information, Kyoto was the capital city back then.

The incredible life of HINO Tomiko

So going back to HINO Tomiko. Tomiko married her cousin Yoshimasa was the Shogun of the time in the 15th century when she was 16. Please remember the Shogun’s name Yoshimasa because you will hear it many times in this podcast. So Tomiko married the 8th Shogun Yoshimasa. 

Got married to a sorry Shogun

Yoshimasa was a sorry Shogun in many ways. He is remembered by historians as an incompetent Shogun who didn’t have the brains or grit, or both to govern Japan. He had a big brother who was the heir to his father, so Yoshimasa was brought up to be a Buddhist monk, you know, so that he wouldn’t even think of fighting against his brother for the throne. That was how the Shogun family prevented internal conflict for generations. 

But when Yoshimasa was 8, his big brother died and all of a sudden, he was brought back to the family and was made Shogun at the age of 15. At first, he tried to do his best in politics, but his mother and other adults kept rejecting his decisions and even started making decisions without letting him know, so naturally, he eventually lost interest in politics entirely. 

He is known to be a corrupt Shogun because he kept himself busy partying and spending time and money on his hobbies, even while there was a huge famine that went on for 3 years and over 80,000 people died of hunger. If you go to Kyoto, you might have a chance to visit Ginkakuji Temple. It has a most beautiful garden that I’m sure you’ll enjoy, but an interesting fact is that this garden was made by Yoshimasa. He didn’t thrive as a Shogun at all, but he was very talented in gardening. 

Although we cannot praise his pretending nothing was happening while his people were hungry and dropping dead, I feel a bit sorry for him. He never wanted to be a Shogun.

Tomiko assumes political power because husband was gardening

Anyway, so Tomiko realizes she got married to like the worst Shogun ever. But Tomiko takes her circumstances to her advantage. Because her husband completely ignored his duties, Tomiko decides to exercise the power her husband wasn’t using. Tomiko was a fearless girl, to say the least.

Now just like Egyptian pharaohs, the Shogun was expected to have several mistresses to raise the chances of having an heir. The mortality rate for children was really high around this time – probably 1 in 2 children died before reaching the age of 5. So the Shogun had to make a big effort to produce as many offsprings in order to keep the bloodline going. So Yoshimasa, too, had many official mistresses. Tomiko was his official wife. 

But when Tomiko became practically king, the first thing she did was expel all her husband’s 4 mistresses. Not one was to be left. And Yoshimasa probably felt he had no right to complain. He wasn’t doing his job.

Yoshimasa and Tomiko had their first baby when Tomiko was 19, and it was a boy. So Tomiko thought she had completed her biggest job as the Shogun’s wife which was to produce a male offspring, but unfortunately the baby dies prematurely. I felt sorry for Tomiko reading about this because, as I will tell you later, not only was she an extremely talented businessperson, but she also was trying her best to meet expectations of her family and the government. I cannot imagine how devastated she must have felt both as a mother and the Shogun’s wife. 

No one messes with Tomiko

But Tomiko does not give up on her ambitions there. She stands back up and uses her son’s death as an excuse to oust a person she always wanted to get rid of. She accuses her husband’s childhood nanny to have cursed the baby to death and expels her.  Why the nanny? Well, Yoshimasa’s nanny had been making her way into politics as she was the only person Yoshimasa trusted. You know, Tomiko was really harsh on him, and therefore had quite a bit of say in the family. As a side note, it is said that she had a steady sexual relationship with Yoshimasa so that’s two reasons Tomiko wanted to get rid of her. 

It is said that Tomiko didn’t just expel the nanny. She made sure the nanny never came back. The nanny was assaulted by a couple of assassins on the way to her destination. At this point, everyone in the Shogun’s staff was like “No one messes with Tomiko.”

A diligent mother

So you might think Tomiko was a really intimidating woman, but she was also a very diligent mother. She gave birth to two daughters, one when she was 23 and the other when she was 24. You can see she was really trying. But when she was 25, it seems like she and her husband had given up and agreed that they were not going to have a boy ever and Yoshimasa wanted to retire early because he clearly didn’t have the motivation to be in power. 

So Yoshimasa asks his 25 year-old younger brother Yoshimi to take over. Yoshimi had become a Buddhist monk just like Yoshimasa had when he was young. Yoshimi was going to live a peaceful life without having anything to do with politics. He refuses at first because he thought his throne would be taken away if Yoshimasa and Tomiko eventually succeeds in having a boy and he would go back to being a monk again. 

The Yoshimasa and Tomiko couple swears to the gods that Yoshimi will keep the throne even if they give birth to a son, so Yoshimi takes the offer and the preparation for the handover starts. Tomiko arranges her younger sister to marry Yoshimi so it suggests that Tomiko was supportive of Yoshimi becoming the Shogun.

But in the following year, surprise surprise, Tomiko gives birth to a son. And Tomiko changes her mind 180 degrees and wishes for her son to become Shogun. She was not being a woman of her word of course, but I could kinda understand her feeling attached to her newborn son and trying to secure a career for him. She’s being a mother. 

Now again, child mortality was really high then, so it was sensible for Yoshimi to stay a candidate heir until Tomiko’s son grew old enough to assume the throne. But Tomiko wanted to be absolutely sure her son inherited everything. So she conspired a move with one of her samurai generals to oust Yoshimi. Like any other big organization, there were political factions and each faction would have enjoyed an advantage over the other depending on who became Shogun. 

Tomiko kinda initiates civil war and profits from it

And so an 11 year-long war starts between royalty plus samurais supporting Yoshimi, and royalty plus samurais supporting Tomiko’s son. Yoshimasa, Tomiko’s husband, again, he was pretty much useless as a politician so he moves out to live in Ginkakuji Temple to focus on gardening while the two sides fought and burnt down a good portion of Kyoto. So Tomiko virtually becomes a single mom and a ruler. 

Now Tomiko of course took sides with the supporters of her son, but what’s incredible about her is that she secretly lent money to both her faction and the opposing faction. The war kept going for over a decade partly because both sides were funded well, by Tomiko who was making tons of money from collecting interest from both sides. She also invested tons of money in rice. Whenever there’s war, rice consumption increases and therefore prices go up. Tomiko made what is now worth 6 billion yen, or in dollars, 56 million dollars single-handedly. 

All these men put on armors and helmets and went on horseback thinking they were fighting to gain power and fame for themselves, were in fact fighting just to grow Tomiko’s savings. 

Meanwhile ordinary people living in Kyoto lost their houses because the war went on for so long and almost all their houses got burnt down, and plus Tomiko set up gates at all the 7 entrances to the city of Kyoto where she charged everyone a toll and made even more money there, so I can’t fully defend Tomiko for being recognized nationwide as a total female douchebag. But what they failed to realize is that Tomiko was not a samurai so she didn’t have any soldiers she could command. The only resources she could use to make things happen was money. We could say she was just doing everything she could to financially prepare for the future, and she was obviously more money-smart than anyone else working for the government back then.

Tomiko gets what she wants

What’s even more incredible is that after a decade, she negotiates with the opposing faction herself and makes them agree to retreat. So she kinda caused the war to start, but ended it herself via communication. In 1477 her son was eventually appointed to  the 9th Shogun and Yoshimi went in exile. Tomiko got her way again. She was like the protagonist of a blockbuster film. Everything revolved around her. 

But Tomiko was not the luckiest person. When her son was 25, he died suddenly from illness. You can imagine how sad Tomiko must have felt about losing her beloved son. He hadn’t had a male offspring so there was no heir. This happened in 1489. So Yoshimi who was in exile, kinda makes a come back. Yoshimi’s son was appointed Shogun next. How did this happen?

Yoshimi was married to Tomiko’s little sister, so that means Yoshimi’s son was Tomiko’s nephew. Perhaps having a nephew become the ruler was the next best thing to having her son be the ruler. In fact her husband Yoshimasa stood up upon his son’s death, put his gardening project at halt and showed will to try being Shogun once again, but Tomiko refused this. She either hated Yoshimasa to the core or had zero to minus expectations for him to do anything close to a good job. Probably both. 

So Tomiko worked hard to persuade the government officials and samurai generals to accept her nephew as Shogun. Her nephew was called Yoshiki. There are many Yoshis in the Shogun family. It’s quite common for a son to inherit a part of his father’s first name in Japan. 

Soon enough, Tomiko’s husband Yoshimasa dies, and so Tomiko’s nephew Yoshiki becomes the 10th Shogun. His dad Yoshimi became the official guardian, until Yoshiki was old enough to make decisions. It’s not a big surprise at this point, but Tomiko kept exercising power even after her son and husband had passed away. It seems like she really liked being on top of the world. She was in fact outsmarting everyone in Japan. But of course Yoshimi and Yoshiki didn’t like this at all. It was supposed to be their prime time, why’s Tomiko still telling them what to do?

Met resistance against her with a counterpunch

So one day Yoshimi lost it after a series of conflicts with Tomoko, so he had Tomiko’s house demolished into scraps to show who was in power. But right after his first ever victory over Tomiko, Yoshimi died perhaps from cancer. But his son Yoshiki kept political power away from Tomiko and for a change, he, the Shogun himself started taking leadership. He even led battles himself. He was very different from his immediate predecessor, the gardening Shogun. 

But Tomiko was suddenly robbed of her influence over the government, and of course, she didn’t like this at all. And we know Tomiko is an ambitious woman. So while Yoshiki was off and away from Kyoto for his second war campaign, she conspires a coup de tat with the government faction that was against Yoshiki, and succeeds to kill off everyone who was supportive of him and put an 11th Shogun to the throne. Yoshiki came back, he lost the battle against the resistance, and surrendered. He was confined at a temple called Ryoanji in Kyoto. Ryoanji is one of the must-sees in Kyoto. It’s the temple with the famous stone garden. And as a side note, Tomiko arranged Yoshiki to be poisoned, although Yoshiki fortunately doesn’t die from it. But we can see that Tomiko is a kind of person who wants to see things through. She had clear visions and did everything she could to follow through with her plan.

So Tomiko was back in power again with another puppet Shogun in 1493, and three years later, she died at age 57. She lived like a fireball all the way up to her death. I think you get the idea that she contributed significantly to creating a huge fuss in the central government. And because the central government was so busy trying to put out fire in its own house for decades, they couldn’t be bothered with governing anywhere outside Kyoto the capital.

What Tomiko set forth

So the local land lords of rural areas lost respect towards the government and started declaring themselves as the rulers of their own provinces. Each province started invading neighboring provinces to gain power, and Japan entered a period known as the Sengoku Period, which loosely translates to the War-infested Period. Every province was at war against another. 

This leads to one samurai family eventually conquering all of Japan over the course of a bloody century, ending all civil wars. And Japan entered a time of peace that lasted over 250 years. So for better or worse, Tomiko made immense impact on Japanese history. It will be difficult to take her up as a role model for women or men because she was partially responsible for so many deaths, but Tomiko is an extreme but great example of how women often have the upper hand over men, and how men are often outsmarted by women here in Japan. 

I don’t know what I could say to close this podcast. Um… but I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for listening to the story of the incredible Japanese lady, HINO Tomiko. それでは、また次回、お会いしましょう。