Was Divorce in Japan’s Edo Era Easy?


Common perception of the Edo period of Japanese history focuses on the era’s strict feudal structure, portraying women as powerless and completely subservient to their husbands and fathers. However, this commonly accepted view may not be as true as initially thought, especially regarding the subject of divorce.

While only men could legally initiate divorces, women dissatisfied with their husbands were able to pursue divorce with the aid of the “divorce temples,” or enkiridera. The existence of the enkiridera did not fully address the imbalance of power between husbands and wives. However, it did grant women the ability to take the first step in divorce proceedings rather than being forced to wait on their husbands.

Divorce in Edo-Era Japan

Among the elite classes, marriage was a political tool. Due to this, higher authority figures had to approve divorces. In the case of marriages among the samurai class, this was the daimyo, or local lord. The shogun himself had to approve divorces among the daimyo.

For the lower classes, divorce was a much simpler task. A husband simply had to present his wife with a mikudarihan, a brief statement indicating his intent to divorce her. The name mikudarihan means “three and a half lines,” referring to the typical brevity of these statements. Often, a mikudarihan did not even state the husband’s reason for seeking a divorce. If it did, the reason given was often vague, such as “my wife displeases me.” [1]

Returning the Dowry

A wife who was presented with a mikudarihan was expected to immediately return to her family’s house. Children generally stayed with the father, and joint custody was rare. She had no legal means of protesting or arguing the divorce, as the husband’s will was absolute. However, some records indicate that the husband was required to return the wife’s dowry to her.

Dowries during the Edo period consisted of a combination of money and goods, including furniture, clothing, decorations such as mirrors and hanging scrolls, and leisure items such as game sets and hanafuda cards. Some dowries, especially for women who married farmers, would include livestock or property.[2]

A man who wished to divorce his wife was required to either return the actual items or pay their equivalent monetary value. An inability to do this could prevent the husband from seeking a divorce. There are several surviving senryu – a type of three-line poem like a haiku – from the Edo period written by men lamenting this type of situation, indicating that this was not an uncommon occurrence.

The Enkiridera

If a woman sought divorce but her husband refused to give her a mikudarihan, her best option was then to seek refuge at the enkiridera. Enkiridera, a term which literally translates to “relationship severing temple,” is a collective term referring to two temples: Tokeiji in Kamakura and Mantokuji in what is now Gunma Prefecture.[3]

Prior to the Edo period, all temples had the right to provide refuge to anyone seeking asylum. However, the bafuku government of the Edo period passed laws to strip away these rights, as they feared dissenters and criminals hiding away in temples to escape punishment. Tokeiji and Mantokuji were able to retain the right to shelter women due to their historical connection to the ruling Tokugawa clan. Senhime, the granddaughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu, reportedly went to Mantokuji when she wished to divorce Toyotomi Hideyori and marry Honda Tadatoki. Senhime’s favor is a major reason why Tokeiji and Mantokuji remained operational. [4]

Two Types of Divorce

The enkiridera offered two options for women, known as “negotiation divorce” and “temple law divorce.” For a negotiation divorce, temple authorities reached out to the woman’s husband and attempted to procure a mikudarihan. In some cases, the temple called in the woman’s father or the leader of the village or town where the man lived to help with the negotiation.

Mikudarihan written during these negotiation divorces typically claimed that the “weakening of karmic bonds” was the reason for ending the marriage. A woman who obtained a negotiation divorce could leave the temple immediately and return to her family.

If the man refused to allow his wife a divorce, she could instead pursue a “temple law divorce.” In this case, the woman remained at the temple and serve as a nun for three years. After this, she would be considered legally divorced.

Later records indicate that Tokeiji maintained the three-year period, while Mantokuji shortened it to twenty-five months. [5] Some women were able to shorten their period of service or decrease their required duties as a nun by paying money to the temple. Women who were concubines, rather than full wives, were only required to stay at the temple for one year.

The enkiridera remained a valuable resource for women throughout the Edo period. In the Meiji era, reforms granted women more rights. This resulted in the closing of the enkiridera. Today, the former enkiridera remain open for tourism. Mantokuji has been converted into a history museum.

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[1] 離婚は今より気軽だった! 江戸時代の意外すぎる離婚事情をまとめてみた【離婚率は?】. Edo Guide

[2] Bincsik, Monika. “Japanese Weddings in the Edo Period.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. March 2009. Link.

[3] 縁切寺. Wikipedia JP

[4] Wright, Diana E. “Severing the Karmic Ties that Bind: The “Divorce Temple” Mantokuji.” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 52. No. 3. Autumn 1997. Link.

[5] Weixing, Wang. “Research on Temple Role in the Divorce of Edo Japan Basing on Analysis of Enkiridera.” Asian Social Science Vol. 12. No. 8. 7 July 2016. Link.


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