Uneme was a maid-in-waiting who attended to the emperor or empress in the Imperial Court to exclusively take care of the emperor or empress including meals. From the Heian period, Uneme became obsolete so as to be the post only required in special events.
Although the origin of Uneme is unknown, "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan) describes that it was a custom of powerful regional clans to present their daughters to the Imperial family as early as the Asuka period. While the most likely opinion has it that powerful regional clans offered their daughters as a kind of hostage to show their subjugation to the emperor, there is another opinion based on the official document from Daijokan in 917, which forbade Izumo no Kuninomiyatsuko to have a mistress under the pretext of 'Jingu Uneme' except for one Uneme for shinto religious services as required, that Uneme was supposedly a system established in the process of integration of regional religious services by the Imperial family, and that Uneme was identified with the mistress in the religious service, implying the conduct of making Uneme pregnant as mentioned later. Some Uneme gained emperor's favor and gave birth to the emperor's baby. As the status of mother was also considered important in those days, the children born from Uneme were mostly placed lower than the children of the powerful clans in the capital or the Imperial family.
Uneme became a system by Kokyu Shokuin Rei in Taiho ritsuryo legal code. It was written as below.
Although Uneme were recruited from each province by a prescribed number indicated in the official document issued by Nakatsukasasho, Uneme were 'offered' formally.
Requirement information for Uneme was:
at the age of 13 to 30;
should be a sister or daughter of those at the status of Gunji or above; and
should be selected carefully by their figures.
Uneme belonged to 'Uneme no Tsukasa' under Kunaisho and 6 Uneme were allocated to 'Suishi', which was another branch of Kunaisho, and 60 Uneme were allocated to 'Kashiwade no Tsukasa', which was also another branch of Kunaisho. The prescribed number was 66, but it is considered that the number included Nyoju (prescribed number was 152), which was similar to Uneme, and Uneme to the princess. According to Gunborei of Taiho ritsuryo legal code, Uneme was to be raised from one third of counties across the country.
According to the reform by Emperor Heizei, the system of offering Uneme was abolished and accordingly 'Uneme no Tsukasa' was abolished, and the remaining Uneme became to belong to 'Nuidonoryo.'
Emperor Saga restored 'Uneme no Tsukasa', but thereafter, Uneme were selected from the daughters of the nobles in the capital and became a mere formality. From the Edo period, Uneme were selected from court ladies only on the occasion of an emperor's enthronement ceremony. On this occasion, Uneme were dressed not in full uniform of court lady, Junihitoe, but in a special costume for Uneme which was shorter than Junihitoe.
Historically well-known Uneme
IGA no Yakakonoiratsume
She was from the Iga clan, which was the powerful clan in Iga Province, and gave birth to Emperor Kobun, the first son of Emperor Tenji.
INABANOYAKAMI no Uneme
She was from the Inabano kuninomiyatsuko clan, the powerful clan in Yakami no Kori, Inaba Province, and known for her tragic love with Aki no Okimi, which was contained in "Manyoshu." It is a likely opinion that she was identical with 稲葉国造気豆女 (Inabano Kuninomiyatsuko kimame no musume), who gave birth to FUJIWARA no Hamanari, the first son of FUJIWARA no Maro. It is considered that she was from the same clan as Inabano Kuninomiyatsuko Kiyonari no musume, who was loved by Emperor Kanmu.
IITAKA no Morotaka
She was from Iitaka gun, Ise province. She lived so long that she served for six tenures of five emperors, Emperor Gensho, Emperor Shomu, Emperor Koken, Emperor Junnin, and Emperor Konin. She was given the title Sukune, in recognition of her services.
An annual festival observed on November 18 at Unemejinja shrine by Sarusawa no ike pond in Nara prefecture. It is believed that Uneme who had lost emperor's favor committed suicide by jumping into the pond in the Nara period; Unemematsuri has been held to let the soul of the Uneme rest in peace.
This episode was the motif of the Noh song 'Uneme.'