Can You See Yourself in History?

When we visit places, we always look to the past. Seek out the origins to better understand the culture and the town that sits there now. Certain places wear their history more openly than others. With the clustering of temples on every corner, the profusion of old-fashioned wooden buildings and streets thronged with people wearing kimonos, Kyoto certainly flaunts its antiquity.

The golden pavilion in Kyoto

While some people are a little disappointed with the parts that are built up and modern, I found them a beautiful contrast. Just across the street from a glimmering tower with floors of fashion and technology stands an ancient shrine, its grooves curved up at the edges like the flick of a calligraphy brush. Statues that have watched hundreds of years trudge past are visited by people in smart suits, still ringing bells and dropping offerings in the hope for luck or better fortune.

I visited Nijo-jo castle with my little daughter strapped to my chest. Part of the draw was the fact that it wasn’t another temple (there are something like 2000 in the Kyoto area), and it was a bit of time just the two of us. Of course, we weren’t completely alone. Everywhere we go there are cries of ‘kawai!’ (cute in Japanese), people reaching out, unable to resist the urge to poke her soft round cheeks. She is the ultimate expression of newness – skin so young it feels unreal to age-worn fingers.

Nijo-jo castle

The castle is beautiful. Everywhere there were plaques bearing information about when it was built, by who, the events that happened there, and I think her warm presence next to body led me to notice something. Or rather, the lack of it. History is made up of power struggles, of war, of wealth, of knowledge. But one thing will always dominate. Men.

We stood there, marvelling at the snarling tigers on the walls, the carvings, the gold framing the doorways (well, she was snoring and farting in her sleep). There were shoguns, artists, monks, emperors, poets, even the deities. A visiting alien would think that there were no women in existence in those times.

Where are all the women?

Of course, I’m used to this. My years in school taught me that women, if they were there at all, were wives and mothers, servants and secretaries. Queens, yes, but only by accidental birthright that meant that no suitable men were available. It’s no wonder girls grow up with a sense of inferiority (young girls were asked who were better – boys or girls. What do you think they said?)

Her presence intensified it. I don’t want her to grow up visiting places, unable to see herself reflected in the world that was built before her. Some might argue that it was a different time, that women held no influence. Even if that were true, erasing half the population because you thunk the achievements of their offspring, brothers or husbands is bad enough. That’s simply an indictment of what we consider to be ‘important.’ Even when there are women of influence, they are usually edited out of the history books.

Just in Kyoto, I found Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, considered to be one of the first ever novels. Then there’s Ono no Komachi, a renowned poet. There’s also NAME, a warrior who fought in the battle of Kyoto. And that’s just a few I could name. So why, in all the information boards around the city, in all the guide books, did I not encounter any of these names?

It’s not a case of history needing to be rewritten. Instead, it justness a bit of re-editing. I want my daughter, and all women, to travel the world and see versions of themselves echoed back, to equal those who’ve been given exclusive copyright to the history books so far.

Fuji has seen a lot in her time…

Until then, we’ll move on. We went to Nara, strolling among the pale brown deer, marvelling at the lines of stone lanterns and elegant wooden buildings. I’ll tell her about these women, until others decide they’re worthy of a mention.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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