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					JAPANESE FEMINISM: Transforming Japanese Womanhood
The first part of today's lecture is concerned with three questions: WHY was first wave
feminism born in Japan in the late 19th century? Why did it grow in the late 19th and
early 20th century, and why did it become dormant in the 1930s? In doing so, I hope to
illuminate the historical factors that contributed to the rise of the first wave women‟s
movement in Japan, the main issues which the first wave women‟s movement addressed
and the social and political circumstances which facilitated and inhibited women‟s
struggle for social change. The second part will look at women's place in Japan and the
global political economy.

I'm going to begin this lecture with reference to a point made by Andrea Germer who
argues in one of your key readings for this week, that little has been known about
Japanese feminism until the last decade - she attributes this to a number of factors.
These include:
          Japanese inability to transfer local knowledge and discourse to the global level.
          the international field being preoccupied with Euro-American issues and
          and a dependence on English as the hegemonic language.

This, Germer suggests is the factor that has prevented historians and feminist scholars
from fully understanding the specific contributions Japanese history can make to global
feminist scholarship. So this to some extent puts into perspective, why we are looking at
Japan in this course. However, Germer is referring to what might be regarded as the
period during which feminism emerged in Japan and I would first like us to cast our
minds back further to 1882 (and even before). We will examine, as recommended by
Joanna Liddle, the specific social and historical context of the time and place of the
birth of Japanese feminism. Over the next couple of weeks I will be sketching out some
of the influences on Japanese feminism. Today, I suggest that women‟s organised
struggles to change gender relations must be understood in the context of the state‟s

attempts to construct new gender identities based on new ideas about what constitutes a
man, and what constitutes a woman; a process which we have noted in Australian
feminism too. Moreover, these redefined gender identities were the result of the state‟s
attempt to produce human resources which would engage with and compete in the
global struggle for power.

New Gender Identities
Jason Karlin discussing this era and the new gender identities emerging in Japan
suggests that globalisation, and the influence of the West on Japan had brought with it a
perceived 'feminization of culture' signalled by the 'intensification of consumption,
fashion, and artifice' (Karlin, 2002: 41). In response to this threat to masculinity posed
by of the feminization of culture in Karlin's words, 'a vigorous masculinity asserted itself
that rejected Western materialism' (2002: 41). This form of masculinity was based on
ideas of 'primitivism, national spirit, and imperialism' and sought to challenge feminized
notions of masculinity. Underpinning this was the social construction of 'femininity with
the pejorative, regressive qualities of fashion, consumption, and materialism resulted in
femininity being constrained and condemned' and regarded as harmful to Japanese
nationalism. (Karlin, 2002: 42). Japanese nationalism was then tied inexplicably to
specific forms of masculinity and this allowed little place for femininity. As Joanna
Liddle has argued, we cannot understand the rise of the women‟s movement in Japan
without appreciating the role of class and nation as well as gender, and the broad
historical changes that took place globally and in Japan itself in the second half of the
19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

Why was feminism born in Japan in late 19th century?
Some explanations for the birth of feminism in Japan in the late C19th focus on
women's subordinate status, yet this subordination had characterised women's lives for
some time. The important change that happened in the second half of the 19th century
was that Japan was forcibly opened to „free trade imperialism‟ by the USA in 1853. This
intervention resulted in internal upheaval, as the ruling group disagreed on whether or
not to comply or resist. The internal conflict was resolved in favour of those who
wanted change, and brought about what is known as the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when
the Emperor Meiji ascended the throne, as well as the gradual erosion of feudalism and
the development of free market capitalism.

A note on feudalism…
Under feudalism there was no question of democratic representation, popular rights or
women‟s equality, since the political order rested on feudal social relations, hierarchy,
and the right to power through the ownership of land, which had been established
militarily. In Japan the pre-capitalist social formation was probably closest to European
feudalism than that in any other part of the world. The ruling class consisted of feudal
lords and their military retainers (the samurai). Joyce Ackroyd, in what is recognised as a
classic study on women under feudalism, has argued that the
       Subjection of women was necessary to feudal society;
       That there were three major forms of control: submergence in the husband's
       family; economic dependence on the husband; and women's subordination in the
       feudal hierarchy.
         Women's subordination was an effect of the civil war and feudal social relations
         Women were constructed as 'victims' of feudal society

At the Meiji Restoration in 1868, those social classes oppressed under feudalism, who
were able to engage in trade could then accumulate wealth through free market
capitalism. These people then began to demand rights through the Popular Rights
Movement which I will go on to discuss later in the lecture. The demand for rights by
formerly oppressed groups marked the beginning of political campaigns based on liberal
egalitarian ideas that subsequently spread to other sections of the population, including

To provide you with some context, I will discuss the Meiji period and its impact on
women. This was a 45-year reign of the Meiji Emperor (from 23 October 1868 to 30
July 1912) in Japan, during which time Japan began to modernize and developed as a

world power. As Junko Kiguchi states, it was also a time of significant reform in Japan,
a time during which Japan sought to keep pace with the development of Western
Europe. Simultaneously, Japan was subject to other Western European influences such
as ideas about the 'equality of sexes' and the 'monogamy system' and these ideas were
introduced in the form of literature such as “The Subjection of Women” written by
John Stuart Mill which was translated into Japanese in 1877 (Junko Kiguchi). Other
significant ideas introduced to Japan included respect for human freedom which were
introduced from the United States and other European countries during this era - and
these were ideas developed during the enlightenment period

Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), was a prominent educator and social critic, and is often
referred to as being the first individual to speak out on behalf of women and their
position in society. Fukuzawa had very early advocated the importance of education for
women and also the improvement of their position in society. He advocated equality
between men and women and a system of monogamy in a book he wrote about these
issues. Fukuzawa also edited scholarly journals in which he criticized pre-modern
patriarchy. Fukuzawa actually met with John Stuart Mill and his commitment to
woman‟s independence and their liberation was heavily influenced by Mill‟s ideas
(Kiguchi: 134).

In the 1870‟s, books written by Mill and Herbert Spencer inspired Doi Kōka and Ueki
Emori (1847-1892) to start a campaign for equality between the sexes. Mori Arinori
(1847-1889) also insisted on equality between men and women in a report entitled (The
Mistress Theory). Other advocates of equality between the sexes included Iwamoto
Yoshiharu. She was a Christian, committed to monogamy, the abolition of prostitution,
education for women, and equality of men and women in the home. She wrote the
“Jogaku Zasshi”(Women Magazine), Japanese first women‟s magazine, in 1885
(Kiguchi: 134). The following year, the Tokyo Women‟s Temperance Society was
founded by Christian women. This society aimed to achieve monogamy based on the
equality between men and women, and abolish prostitution abroad.

One of the reasons for the growth of feminism was education:
On school education
School education was started by the Meiji government‟s order while the equality of
sexes and the monogamy system had been spread by the intellectuals gradually. Because
the Meiji leaders thought that they had to educate people actively in order to promote
the modernization in Japan. Therefore, the government enacted a Fundamental Code of
Education in 1872. More than 20,000 schools were established in the whole country
based on this code, although there were by far, more boys than girls attending with a
56% enrolment rate for boys 5 years later, with only 23% or less for girls. The
difference was great. The policy was based on the educational principle to make women
good wives and wise mothers supporting the Japanese family system (p.135 Kiguchi).
While the policy makers' motives were vastly different from those of women calling for
female education, changes in the education system served the interests of women and
underpinned further social and political progression for women in Japanese society.

According to Shibukawa Hisako‟s study, the Meiji government founded a national
women's school called Tokyo Jyogakkō “Tokyo Woman School” in 1872 just before
enacting the Fundamental Code of Education. The school took students from eight to
fifteen years old for a period of six years, and taught them Japanese, sewing, English,
and crafts. The Meiji government then declared “The Fundamental Code of Education”
in 1872 and this code was based on the principle that there would be no class inequality
in access to education. In fact, it ordered that women of all classes would be educated.
Women became the 'targets of school education' (Kiguchi: 136) and this led to the
establishment of many schools.

Such access to schooling was of course determined by social class. A large proportion of
young girls and women needed to work, many in the cotton factories, and were unable
to attend school. The role of women in the cotton industry will be discussed in greater
detail next week.

As I noted, the principle of Ryōsai Kenbo “Good wife and wise mother” underpinned
the expansion of education to girls and remained central principle of female education
until the end of the second World War in 1945. A focus on making women good wives
and wise mothers encouraged women to regard the nation state as their family and to
consider the nation in their endeavours. Of course, this was premised on women's
inequality, with women as subordinate to their husbands.

Alongside state education emerged private schooling for young women. Shimoda Utako
founded the “Practice Women's College” in 1899. Furthermore Nihon Joshi Daigakkō
founded “The Japan Women‟s College school” opened in 1901. Hiratsuka Raichō, who
is one of the woman liberation thinkers, studied at this particular school. Perhaps this
makes the point that as in other countries, the education of young women armed
women with a tool for calling for liberation and women's rights.

Late C19th and Early C20th rise in feminism
The first wave women‟s movement may be traced back to 1882 when Kishida Toshiko
first spoke in a public meeting in favour of women‟s rights, at a meeting of the Popular
Rights Movement. The issue of women‟s rights to vote had actually been raised 4 years
earlier by Kusonose Kita who became responsible for her family‟s tax liabilities after her
husband died. She pointed out that when a woman took over as head of the household,
she became responsible for the financial obligations to be paid to the state, but she was
not at the same time awarded the political rights of the citizen to elect representatives,
nor was she granted legal rights to act as guarantor for property. So although Kusonose
first raised the issue of taxation without representation, as a manifestation of gendered
power relations, this cannot be regarded as „the birth‟ or „the start‟ of feminism in Japan
because at this stage it remained an isolated issue raised as a grievance by a single
individual. It was not until the issue of women‟s rights was taken up, on the platform of
the Movement for Popular Rights (PRM) in 1882 that the women‟s movement can be
said to have originated in an organised form.

However, Kusonose Kita‟s complaints influenced Ueki Emori, a male member of the
People‟s Rights Movement, who recognised the legitimacy of women‟s rights within a
movement for people‟s rights, and who began to support and campaign for equal rights
for men and women from 1879.

The PRM was at first a right-wing people‟s movement demanding voting rights for a
group of powerful men who had been defeated over their proposal to invade Korea; but
by 1878 the PRM was expanding its social base and being taken over by the powerful
farmers and merchants, and it began to develop into a real movement for popular
democracy. At this point some of the more progressive men recognised both the
importance of including women in the movement, and the justification of women‟s
demands. So the PRM and the more liberal of the male social reformers were important
in having the „woman question‟ raised as an issue of democratic rights, and in
encouraging women to organising around the issue.

Kishida Toshiko was from a wealthy merchant background, was well-educated and had
acted as tutor to the empress. She went on to speak about women‟s rights on liberal
Party platforms, when the PRM eventually became a political party, until it was
dissolved through government repression in 1884. In 1883, she gave a famous speech
called „Daughters confined in boxes‟ which criticised the family system and the
seclusion of middle and upper class women within the home, and this speech led to her
arrest and a one-week jail sentence. She also inspired other feminists, including Fukuda
Hideko, who was arrested in 1885 and jailed for subversion against the state for 10
months (this was to become known as the Osaka Incident).

The feminism of factory workers developed later, beginning with the strike of women
textile workers in 1885 against deteriorating conditions of employment, wage cuts and
abuse by male employers and supervisors. Women workers started to be organised into
the male labour unions movement and feminist like Fukuda Hideko and Kanno Suga
joined the Commoner‟s Society, which campaigned on women‟s issues from 1905. In
1907 Fukuda started the political journal for women called „Women of the World‟,
although it was closed down by the government in 1909. Kanno Suga was an anarchist
socialist who wrote about prostitution, female chastity, male hypocrisy and the class
system. In 1911 she was arrested in the „Great Treason Trial‟ over the plot to assassinate
the emperor, and executed along with 11 others. Socialist women‟s organisations such as
the Red Wave Society initiated by Yamakawa Kikue continued to struggle for better
conditions for women in the family, in education, and in employment, and for the
aboliton of licensed prostitution.

In 1911 a new feminist group appeared on the scene, called Seito, which means Blue
Stockings, named after the literary group of British educated women in the 18 th century.
Famous members of the group included editor Hiratsuka Riacho and Yosanao Akiko,
and these women published their thoughts and ideas in a literary journal called Seito.
Seito concerned itself with social issues. The women of Seito used literary expression to
challenge confucian-based principles around women's oppression and to improve
women's opportunities.

Seito began as a literary, not a political group, and aimed at personal liberation through
literary activity. But repression by the state, which found the ideas and lifestyles of
group members deeply threatening to the established order, forced them to become
political and to place personal liberation within a political analysis of women‟s position
in society. The Seito group nevertheless practised their critique of marriage, sexuality
and the family by having children and sexual relationships outside of marriage, even
though this meant they would have no recognised place in Japanese society.

In 1915 Ito Noe took over as editor, but Seito was forced to stop publication in 1916,
partly as a result of government censorship and harassment, and the banning of these
issues on the grounds that the articles were corrupting the traditional values of Japanese
women. Itoe Noe, the last editor, and her male partner Osugi Saka were persistently
harassed by the police until 1923, when they were arrested and murdered in police cells
as enemies of the state during the turmoil of the great earthquake of that year.

The rise of free market capitalism was also notable in the feminist movement's
development. Free market capitalism developed rapidly in Japan as the state attempted
to compete with the Western powers and to resist being drawn into a subordinate
position as an undeveloped country within the global economy (more on this in the
second part of the lecture).

And so, the rapid development of capitalism produced the rise of a new middle class
and the expansion of education for the women of this new middle class. These factors
operated together to produce an educated class of literate, intellectual women with no
legitimate outlet for their analyses or their abilities, but who came from well-off middle
class families where they had to think, read and debate the issues of the day.

State repression helped to produce both the initially apolitical Seito group, and the
political radicals such as the socialist and anarchist feminist. On the one hand, there
were no legitimate means for women to express political opposition to their conditions,
and therefore some of them turned to radical activities, including violence. On the other
hand, state repression was sufficiently intimidating to silence many women‟s voices of
political expression such as poetry and fiction. The Seito group are the prime example
of this, a middle class group exploring ideas of personal rather than overtly political
transformation, formed in the same year that Kanno Suga was executed, but
nevertheless subject to much repression themselves by the government that they were
forced to become overtly political at the level of the individual members, and finally
forced to disband as an organisation.

The other important influence was the period known as the „Taisho Democracy‟, a
period that coincided with the Taisho Emperor (1912-1926) between the two world
wars (1918-1928) when it became increasingly difficult to hold down social change
among sections of the population who were excluded from the benefits of Japan‟s
economic improvement. This period of democracy or class struggle encouraged women
to struggle for political and social rights such as the vote and gave legitimacy to their
It was in the inter-war years that women campaigned vociferously for the vote. The
interwar period witnessed the beginning of the Women‟s Suffrage Movement of Japan.
Feminists opposed the nation‟s provision of civil rights for men only and the
government‟s exclusion of women from all political participation. This was also a period
of enormous economic change in Japan with it gaining its status as a world power. In
1919 Hiratsuka Raicho and ICHIKAWA Fusae formed the New Women‟s Society and
began the struggle for female suffrage in earnest. The 1899 state Constitution excluded
women from the vote, and in 1890 the last unelected cabinet extended this to exclude all
women from all forms of political activity. This meant that women were banned form
political parties, but also from even sponsoring or attending political meetings. So it was
illegal for women to campaign against their political exclusion. The organisers of the
first elected assembly then attempted to exclude women even from observing and
listening to assembly debates, but this was successfully challenged by a protest campaign
run by Yajima Kajiko. The campaign for female suffrage finally achieved the right of
women to attend political meetings in 1922, but the right to join political parties and to
vote was blocked by the „feudal‟ landowners in the Upper House (Lords). After women
were granted the right to participate in and attend political assemblies, there was a surge
in the development of women‟s interest groups. Alumni groups, Christian missionary
groups, and other women‟s auxiliary groups began to sprout during the interwar period.

In 1925 the Lower House (Commoners) passed a resolution in favour of female
suffrage and by 1928 support for the women‟s vote came from both leftist and centrist
political parties. In 1930 and 1931 women‟s suffrage bills were passed in the Lower
House, the latter being proposed by the Prime Minister himself, but both however were
defeated in the Upper House, showing the extent to which feudal interests blocked
women‟s political participation and representation. Women however continued to
campaign, until the war with China in 1931 closed down political debate and silenced
the issue of votes for women until after the second world war.

Why did feminist organisations in Japan become dormant in the 1930’s?
The major reason for this was Japan‟s war with China, which began in 1931 and
continued until it merged with the Pacific War or World War in 1941. As in other
countries, including Britain during WW1, women fighting for political rights while the
country was at war with another nation was seen as unpatriotic. Women‟s organisations
encouraged, and at times, coerced by the state, ceased their activism against the state,
and often transformed themselves into organisations working for the state in terms of
supporting the war effort. As an example, the Third National Woman‟s Suffrage
Conference in 1932 condemned the rise of fascism in Japan, but by 1937, it changed its
name to the Provisional Women‟s Conference and came out in support of the war.

Moving onto part two of the lecture - Japan's global political economy.
I have argued that gender relations in Japan, and women‟s struggles to change them,
could not be understood without looking at the state‟s attempts to construct new gender
face of changing identities in the social formations, and that the women‟s movement
must be placed in the context of questions and issues about not only gender, but also
class (which we further examine next week) and nation. Let's now look at how this
relates to „nation’.

What I want to do is examine our understandings of how „gender‟ must be linked not
only to class relations, and struggles for power within the nation, but also to the global
political economy and the struggle for political and economic power between countries.
To do this I need to introduce you to some concepts discussed and developed by Pierre
Bourdieu and Terry Lovell. In his work, „Distinction: a social critique of the
judgement of taste’ Bourdieu presents a gendered analysis, but he tends to position
women as victims. In other words, in Bourdieu‟s work, men are constructed as subjects
while women are constructed as objects.

Lovell on the other hand argues that yes, women are constructed as objects, but actually
also constitute themselves as subjects, that is, women don‟t simply see themselves as
passive victims or objects of male desire. They also have desires of their own and resist
controls, and efforts to regulate their behaviour. In other words women also have

States, like men also compete for respectability and distinction on the global stage
and draw upon particular constructions of gender and class as forms of symbolic
power to compete for global positioning. States seek to move up the hierarchy of global
respectability as measured on a scale of „civilisation‟, and states also seek to move other
states down the hierarchy of global respectability by representing them as „uncivilised‟.
(Think about how U.S. does this with Iraq at present). One of the main ways in which
they do this is by referring to particular sorts of connections between gender and class. I
want to look at the historical relationship between the position of women in Japan, and
the status of the country in the hierarchy of nations. I‟ll show the different ways in
which the links were constructed at various stages of Japan‟s relationships with the
world imperialist system.

In the first stage, during Japan‟s subordination under „free trade imperialism‟, the
position of women was seen by both the imperial powers and the Japanese reformers as
a crucial part of the explanation of Japan‟s economic and military weakness.

In the second stage, in the process of refusing a subordinate status in the global
hierarchy, Japan therefore constructed a „new womanhood‟, as a demonstration of its
equality with the west and as a means of proving its civilised status in the international

In the third stage, as Japan acquired an empire of its own, certain kinds of gendered
identity were implemented by the state in ways which created new class divisions among
the population, reproduced the power of the ruling elite, and drew sharp distinctions
between different categories of women.

Stage 1: involves Japan being subordinated by Western powers under ‘free trade
An analysis of the most liberal reformers in Japan show that they thought the position
of women was an explanation for Japan‟s weakness in the global political economy.
The problem of Japan‟s relationship with the West was one of the dominant themes
among male social reformers concerned with governance and education, after the
country had been forced to open its doors to trade; and the Woman Question was one
of the critical issues in the debate on how far Japan was a „civilised‟ country. These
debates were mainly focused on trying to explain the West‟s power and how Japan
could compete with it.

Japan‟s position as an economically and industrially undeveloped country, and it‟s
inability to defend itself against the encroachment of the Western powers in the East
Asian region, led to its construction by the West as a „backward and inferior culture‟.
One of the crucial elements in this construction as uncivilised was, as I have previously
pointed out, the nature of gender relations and how these differed from the West.
This happened in other countries also for e.g. under the power of western imperialists in

The association between Japanese forms of male power and the lowly position of the
country in the hierarchy of civilisation was both constructed by the West, and adopted
by the Japanese regimes. A book written in 1891, called „Japanese Girls and Women, by
Alice Bacon, an American woman who lived in Japan, was aimed at rectifying the fact
that ‘one half of the population has been ….altogether misunderstood’. In an
otherwise positive and sympathetic account, Bacon makes the same connection between
Japan‟s „backwardness‟ in comparison with the West, and the position of women. Bacon

               Until the position of the wife and mother in Japan is improved and made
         secure, little permanence can be expected in the progress of the nation toward
         what is best and highest in the western civilisation…that Japan is infinitely ahead
         of other Oriental countries…is greatly to her credit; but that she is far behind the
         civilised nations of Europe and America….[is] a fact, that, unless changed, must
      sooner or later be a stumbling-block in the path of her progress (Alice Bacon,
      1891, 115-116).

This perspective was adopted by many of the male reformers. The myth of female
equality in the West, and the assumption of Western cultural superiority
associated with it had a profound effect on these men. The inferiority of Japanese
culture, as manifested in Japanese gender relations, was accepted by many Japanese
reformers. For example Fukuzawa Yukichi was one of the most famous of the
intellectuals and reformers, yet he accepted the prevailing belief that the position of
women helped to explain Japan‟s backwardness on the world stage in both social and
cultural terms: Fukuzawa claimed, for instance, that:

      Women having grown weak both in mind and body, are then worthless in the
support of the family or the country. When they bring forth children, too few of the
infants grow up healthy, and the hereditary physique of the Japanese is becoming weak.
Soon it will be said that there is no race in the world with a worse physique than the
Japanese. We deserve this for the ill-treatment we have given women through past
history.(Kiyooka, 1988:54)

So we can see how the position of women was seen as part of the explanation for
Japan‟s backwardness.

Stage 2 : Japan’s Resistance to subordination

Japanese fought back against Western constructions of its nation as culturally inferior. It
constructed a new womanhood as a new way of refusing subordinate status,
demonstrating equality with the West, and „proving‟ its civilised status. The changes in
woman‟s position were designed to create a new Japanese womanhood that would gain
international respectability abroad, while retaining male control at home.

The construction by the state of the new Japanese woman was heavily influenced by
two important factors. The first was the Western critique of Japanese gender relations,
on the basis of which the discourse of Japan‟s inferiority as a nation was built. This
lured the state into seeking a form of womanhood that would gain the approval of the
West, by for example, introducing a modern education system. The second factor was
the breakdown of male control over women, resulting from the abolition of the feudal
system. This led the state to introduce a new form of control over women in the
family, by replacing the feudal system with the „family-state system‟. (male head of
household were given authority over women in the family; male head in turn
subordinated to the emperor as the head of the state). Men‟s control of women in the
family very much reflected male patriarchal control of women in the west.

We have already looked briefly at the changes to woman‟s position in education, the
family and politics. What we have not looked at is how these changes were influenced
by Western practices and what this influence meant.

The new family system as laid down by the Civil Code was based on an authoritarian
Samurai model designed to sustain traditional aspects of the family. An earlier draft of
the Code based on the French ‘natural human rights model’ was rejected as being
too liberal, as it allowed adultery as a cause of divorce for both women and men and
proposed a more liberal system of inheritance. What the Samurai model did was to
allow Japan to retain aspects of Japanese patriarchal traditions, within a new, updated set
of rules that would be acceptable to both Japanese ruling class men and the West.

Something similar happened with education. The new system of universal education
drew on the French model of centralised bureaucratic control, North American
models for primary and teacher training schools, and a German model for the

In both cases (family law and education system) the Japanese state chose models of
Western institutions, which did two things:

   1. Fitted well with Japanese middle and upper class ways of doing things while
       retaining male control over women

   2. Showed Japanese society to have advanced, become civilised, and now therefore
       culturally equal and acceptable to the Western powers: taking on Western ways
       represented their civilised status – now Japan could be seen to have „civilised‟
       ways of doing things, of controlling women (by confining them to the household)
       and also, new civilised ways of the upper middle class controlling the lower
       middle and working class.

BUT the fact that the Western powers found the new Japanese codes and institutions
culturally acceptable and the people „civilised‟ did not mean that these ways of life were
equal, just or non-patriarchal.

This can be seen from the debates around votes for women. Votes for women was an
issue, which remained, unresolved after the end of WW2, despite campaigns by
women‟s organisations, intense debate and changing views in the government.

The arguments for and against votes for women were many, but perhaps most
interesting was the way that ideas about what constituted civilised practice changed over
time, and the way references to the West were used on different sides of the debate. In
the early days one of the most powerful arguments for excluding women from political
activity was the fact that women in the West did not have the vote. In 1874, a male
reformer had argued in an article called “On Government” that in European and
American election laws,

       [T]he common practice is generally to deny this political right [to elect
representatives] to women, children and incompetents, as well as the ignorant,
the illiterate and others who are deficient in understanding….of course we shall
also exclude women, children and incompetents (Mamichi in Braistead 1976:158)

And Herbert Spencer, in a letter to Japanese government officials, had advised him to
‘make full use of the patriarchal family system, in the parliamentary organisation
of Japan.

But in 1925 supporters of women’s suffrage argued that votes for women were part
of the Enlightenment heritage and that Japan‟s denial of political enfranchisement of
women was backward in comparison to the West and the Soviet Union. Supporters
drew heavily on arguments used in the US suffrage campaigns which claimed that
women‟s domesticity would introduce integrity and morality into political life. On the
other hand opponents argued that women‟s political activities would lead to social
unrest, as in the Communist Revolution in Russia, while conservative supporters
suggested that women‟s suffrage would prevent radical social change. For example, in
1929 a supporter argued that giving women the vote would prevent the unseemly riots
that occurred in Britain at the hands of Pankhurst‟s suffragettes.

      The debates on woman suffrage shows how fickle the constitution of civilised
behaviour was in relation to the treatment of women, since the arguments both changed
over time, and were used in different ways on both sides to construct Japan‟s civilised
status. In any case, the refusal to grant political rights to women in the so-called
„civilised‟ west made it easy to deny Japanese women political rights and representation,
without facing western accusations of backwardness or uncivilised behaviour.

So the new womanhood in Japan constituted women as educationally literate for their
role in the family, but as politically incompetent in the arena of public life. This
construction enabled Japan to bring it‟s treatment of women into line with that of
Western powers at the same time as maintaining patriarchal control over women, by
adopting new forms of patriarchal regulation, that were acceptable to, and

recognised as legitimate by the West, based on the practices of the former ruling

STAGE 3: Equality with Western Powers and Gaining an Empire
The new Japanese womanhood was largely determined by the national policy of
achieving economic wealth and military power, in order to attain parity with the West.
Women‟s contributions to building the nation was consciously developed and
strategically implemented. But the particular ways in which women contributed were not
only different, but differently acknowledged and valued, depending on women‟s
class position. The reconstruction of Japanese womanhood enabled Japan to build the
state for the struggle against the Western powers, at the same time as preserving class
divisions and male power. Women were called upon by the state to fulfil the goal of
„national wealth and military strength‟ in different ways. They were encouraged to create
wealth for their country through their position as household managers and their duty of
saving for the national debt. Millions of women for instance were persuaded to buy war
bonds out of the savings from their housekeeping money, which the government then
used to develop heavy industry and the military at the turn of the century.

         In the 1920s the government again ran campaigns to encourage saving aimed at
women, encouraging housewives to take financial decisions for the good of the country,
not just the family. In 1926 the Home Ministry recruited leaders of middle class
women’s organisations to a Women‟s Committee for Economic Thrift, aimed again at
the promotion of savings and the reduction of imports. The target was to repay the
national debt of 150 million yen in 6 years through women members agreeing to save 1
yen a day.

In terms of creating military strength, women were encouraged to produce more sons
for the army and to participate in patriotic activities for the military forces at the
frontline and for the population at home. Women‟s role as reproducers of the nation
became as important as men‟s roles as soldiers fighting for the defence of th4e state.

In the 1940s the government‟s population policy was aimed at increasing the population
for the sake of the imperial mission‟ to expand the empire in East Asia, using the slogan
„Reproduce and Multiply‟.

At the same time as the idea of women as mothers was promoted as the natural destiny
of Japanese women, in order to support and sustain the empire, a different group of
women were being recruited into the system of military prostitution, „comfort women‟.
The use of „comfort women‟ was viewed by the state as a means of controlling,
rewarding and maintaining the morale of its soldiers, for e.g. the Air Force believed that
sexual deprivation would make pilots accident prone. So while motherhood in the
interests of the empire was proclaimed as the destiny of respectable women, the
contributions made by other women in terms of sexual services to the military went

Women‟s patriotic organisations (not women's feminist) were deeply implicated in the
system of military prostitution. The WOMEN‟S voluntary Service Corp (WVSC)
directed women to labour in essential war industries, but some of these were „re-
directed‟ into prostitution; the WVSC eventually became so closely identified with
prostitution that women workers in the factory were reluctant to admit membership of
the WVSC.

So as Japan went to war and acquired an empire of its own, many feminists in Japan
chose to support the nation against the interests of women of other nations, just
as most British feminists did. Well-known feminists such as Ichikawa Fusae and
Takamure Itsue co-operated on the government‟s mobilisation of women for war,
though there were some exceptions such as Yosana Akiki (of Seito) who wrote anti-war
poetry, for which she was branded a traitor. And just like British feminists, Japanese
feminists had no systematic critique of imperialism, and used Japan‟s colonies to achieve
their own liberation. Here we can see that Japanese women were not only the objects
of imperialism, such as when they were being used by the state to heighten Japan‟s
global position, but they were also the subjects of imperialism, as when, for instance,
women, feminists also, chose to support the empire against the interests of women in
other countries.

But again, these models of Japanese womanhood were divided by class, and the
particular ways in which gender linked with class was crucial to the creation of national
respectability in the eyes of the world. The middle class ideal of the „good wife-wise
mother‟ contributed to Japan‟s growing wealth and strength of the nation through
motherhood and patriotic activities in the family and the community. This was the
visible, recognised and acknowledged model of womanhood promoted by the state. The
lower class model of the factory girl, or the munitions worker, or the military prostitute
also supported her family while helping to create the wealth that would transform Japan
into an economic and military power. But this model was invisible, hidden and
unacknowledged by the state.

Both models of womanhood played their part in building the Japanese nation and
empire. But it was the ideal of the middle class „good wife-wise mother‟ that was used to
position Japan as a „civilised‟ state, enabling her to receive recognition from Western
powers. The new middle class woman was made to stand for the nation, in other words,
she „represented‟ Japanese womanhood. The symbolic power of the Japanese state,
derived from the domestic model of the Japanese woman, enabled Japan to claim a
place alongside the „civilised‟ West, to demand acceptance as an equal with the west, and
to stake a claim to a place among the elite nations of the world. The reason that the
middle class woman constituted Japanese womanhood is that only this model could
bring recognition from the Western powers. In this way we can see that only particular
combinations of gender and class identities could give legitimacy to nation-states and
confer global respectability. Next week we will look in more depth at the intersection
of class and gender, with reference to working class women's positions in Japan.