The question of divorce highlights further differences between samurai morals and customs on the one hand and diverse peasant practices on the other. According to samurai teachings, widows and divorcees were not expected to remarry… Only a man, furthermore, could initiate divorce, either by copying a prescribed three and one-half lines telling his wife to leave, or simply by sending her baggage back to her natal home. A woman could do nothing to prevent the divorce or to protect her access to her children.
Peasant practices, in contrast, often ignored the norms of the military aristocracy. For one thing, the divorce rate, according to one study of village ledgers near Osaka, was at least 15 percent (possibly even higher, since these documents include only cases where the marriages had lasted over a year). In addition, peasant women as well as men initiated divorce… In 1857, a woman named Nobu, claiming ‘disharmony in the household,’ appealed to the local government office for a seperation from her husband. He was a heavy drinker, and her father paid [her husband] one ryo to agree to a divorce.
One way for a woman to get a divorce was to go to an ‘enkiridera,’ a temple for severing marital connections. In the last half of the Tokugawa period, some two thousand women apparently sought the services of such a temple, Tokeiji, in Kamakura. According to custom, if a married woman entered this temple and performed its rites for three years, the bond between her and her husband was broken. For women in a hurry, Buddhist temple officials served as divorce brokers. They summoned the husband and forced him to agree to an amicable divorce. In most cases, just the news that the temple officials were coming was enough to produce a letter of seperation…
For poor women, divorce was simply a matter of leaving the husband’s home. Where children were concerned, however, it was more complicated. Wealthy [male] peasants usually kept all the children… While it was relatively easy for a poor woman to leave her husband, opportunities for a good remarriage, not to mention financial security for her children, were considerably more limited than those for a wealthier woman.