For nearly 600 years, Tokeiji Temple served as a refuge for women sheltering from violence, whether from domestic abuse or the ravages of war. Men were strictly prohibited from entering its sacred grounds, and over the centuries Tokeiji became known across the land not only as a place of sanctuary for women, but as the powerful and revered “Divorce Temple” of Kamakura.
For a long stretch of Japan’s premodern, feudal era, only men were permitted the right to divorce, while women trapped in bad marriages typically had no legal recourse or means of escape. True, a desperate woman might try running away, but she risked the death penalty for adultery if she ever married again without obtaining a divorce notice from her former husband, leaving her at his mercy.
Tokeiji Temple offered hope for women in such grim circumstances. Established in 1285 by the powerful noblewoman Kakuzan Shidori (wife to the head of Japan’s samurai government at the time), Tokeiji took thousands of women into its protection over the centuries and held the unique, legal right to grant them official divorces once they had lived with the temple community for three years (this requirement was eventually lowered to two years). After attaining a divorce, a woman could either remain in Tokeiji as a nun or leave to pursue a new life.
Tokeiji enjoyed the backing of many powerful allies and government patrons throughout its time as a convent, with many of its Abbesses hailing from some of Japan’s most influential noble families. The inviolability of its “no men” rule was strictly enforced, and the convent could be iron-handed in the defense of the women in its care. One particular dispute during the early Edo Period—in which the convent became embroiled in a confrontation between a ruthless feudal lord and a vassal family—perfectly encapsulates the sort of influence, courage, and sheer determination that Tokeiji could wield on behalf of its charges.
-- THE HORI INCIDENT --
Lord Kato Akinari, ruler of the Aizu Domain (modern-day Fukushima Prefecture), was a scoundrel, a villain, and a dangerous, intemperate fool. That, at least, was the opinion of his second-in-command, a samurai named Hori Mondo, who found himself increasingly unable to abide his lord’s outrageous behavior. No matter how Mondo tried to advise his master, Lord Akinari would never heed him, and so a fed-up Mondo finally gathered several hundred like-minded supporters with guns, withdrew to a hilltop outside of town, and fired a non-lethal volley in the direction of the lord’s castle in protest. He then fled south with his brothers, wife, and daughter, heading for the capital city of Edo to report his master’s poor governance to Japan's highest authority, the Shogun.
Livid at the mutiny, Lord Akinari vowed to destroy Mondo and his entire family. Anticipating this, Mondo sent his wife and daughter into the care of the nuns of Tokeiji to shield them from Akinari’s wrath. Then, after presenting his complaints to the Shogun in the capital, Mondo and his brother fled west to take refuge at the holy mountain of Koyasan.
Lord Akinari sent a complaint of his own to the Shogun, demanding that Hori Mondo be seized and turned back over to him. Though the Shogun sympathized with Mondo’s plight, as ruler of the entire nation he had a system to uphold, and however righteous Mondo’s intentions had been, he had nonetheless fired upon his lord’s castle—and a lord had every right to punish a rebellious vassal. At the Shogun’s command, Hori Mondo and his brother were both apprehended and sent back to Akinari, who had them executed.
That should have settled matters, but Lord Akinari’s bloodlust was not yet satiated, and he could not help himself: Determined to exterminate the rest of the Hori family, he dispatched an assassin to Tokeiji Temple to kill Mondo’s wife and daughter. But the Abbess herself confronted the assassin in the temple, outraged that any man should violate the convent’s sanctity, much less try to kill women under her protection. She invoked the aid of her powerful stepmother, Princess Sen—none other than the Shogun’s own sister—to rebuke the assassin and drive him off, and then demanded that the Shogun punish Lord Akinari for violating the convent. At Princess Sen’s intercession and the Abbess’s urging, the Shogun deemed Akinari unfit to rule his domain, stripping him of his territory and ending his sordid reign. The fate of the assassin is unknown, but it’s quite possible he was executed, as a similar fate had previously befallen another pair of men who’d tried pursuing women into Tokeiji and who dared to test the resolve of its nuns.
Tokeiji today is no longer a convent, and vast gains in women’s legal rights have eliminated any need for a divorce temple. It now stands open as a Zen temple that anyone can visit, and is a recommended stop for anyone sightseeing in Kamakura. The grounds are secluded, serene, and picturesque, lined with plum trees, lush with moss, and replete with flowers for all seasons. Yet knowing a bit of its history makes Tokeiji truly stand out as one of Kamakura’s most unique and interesting temples.