Changing views through history: Japan's only female <em>shogun</em> and her significance to historical research

Written by Maia Anderson, CAS communications intern

On March 5, Ethan Segal, associate professor of history at Michigan State University, gave a lecture entitled "Rethinking Women's Roles in Early Medieval Japan: Was Hojo Masako Japan's Only Female Shogun?"

His talk focused on two related topics: the life of Hojo Masako, a historical figure from 12th century Japan, and a critical examination of the sources researchers have used to compile information on her life.

Ethan Segal makes a point during his talk while the audience looks on.

Hojo Masako, a Buddhist nun and wife of the first shogun, lived in a male-dominated era where women were not typically allowed to hold positions of power. Despite this, Masako became a largely influential political figure by becoming shogun, the supreme military leader in Japan's first samurai government, after her husband's death in 1199.

"Masako's life is hard to piece together definitively because many sources have contrasting information on her," Segal told the audience. "No documents exist that were conclusively written by her, and the way scholars wrote about her changed throughout history."

Segal illustrated this by explaining that during the early modern period in Japanese history, beginning roughly 400 years after her death, Masako's reputation was diminished. Various writings at the time suggested that she was jealous, betrayed her family, and orchestrated the murder of her son. In contrast, earlier writings were far less hostile, and some even praised her.

"The differences in the writings on Masako can be attributed to many factors," Segal said. "Most notably, these include changing worldviews affecting the way people thought about a strong female leader, and the association of her living in a 'male' era with no room for a powerful female role model."

Segal focused a substantial portion of his lecture discussing the discrepancies in the sources and how researchers must analyze the historical and social contexts of sources as well as the information they contain. He discussed the influence of Masako’s gender on the evolution of scholarly writings on her life and legacy.

Following his lecture, Segal took questions from the audience, which was comprised of roughly 90 students and faculty. They asked Segal relevant questions such as the relationship between governmental power and religious power during Masako's lifetime and about social influences which would have contributed to the controversy of a female shogun.

Segal, who holds a doctorate in Japanese history from Stanford, has researched Japanese language and culture since his undergraduate years. A history enthusiast since childhood, he travelled to Japan in his second year in college and began studying Japanese language and culture. His love of Japan and history combined to form his career path focusing on Japanese culture, language, and history.

After finding Masako's name on a source from the 13th century which listed her as shogun, he became intrigued in her life.

"I had known of Masako being a prominent Japanese historical figure, but I'd never seen her listed as shogun, as most sources only listed her as the wife of a shogun," he said. "I was intrigued by the thought of Masako as a shogun herself, so I decided to pursue further research into her life."

Through his research, Segal discovered the contrasting views historians have compiled on Masako's life. He realized that these depictions are a shining example of how our views of history change over time as well as the importance of critical examination of sources in research.

"Modern Japan is still struggling with the place of women in business and politics, ranking 111st out of 145 countries according to the World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap Index," said Noriko Reider, professor of Japanese. "For example, a daughter and the only child of the Crown Prince and Princess has recently been denied Japan's emperorship. Professor Segal's talk gave us an insight into this gender issue from an historical perspective."

Segal hopes his lecture inspires listeners to be critical when looking at historical sources and to think about factors that alter the ways history is recounted.

"I want people to start questioning the way history is remembered, and what sources can or cannot tell us," said Segal. "I also want to examine the ways that gender and power are conflated."

The lecture was sponsored by Miami's:

  • Humanities Center
  • Department of German, Russian, Asian, and Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures (GRAMELAC)
  • Department of History
  • Department of Political Science
  • Department of Global & Intercultural Studies' program in Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies
  • Grayson Kirk Distinguished Lecture Fund
  • Higgin Kim Asia Business Program

For more information, visit Segal's website or email him at