Women in Modern Japanese History

Women in Modern Japanese History

“Among the signs which indicate the good results to come from the extension of women's privileges, we must refer to the experience of all countries. It is known that the best nations have always been those which concede the greatest amount of liberty to women.  This is true of the Barbarians and the Savages as well as the Civilized. The Japanese, who are the most industrious, the bravest and the most honorable of the Barbarians, are also the least jealous and the most indulgent towards women.”
--Charles Fourier, The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, ed., Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu (Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1983), pp. 194-195. 

 "The Japanese maiden, as pure as the purest Christian virgin, will at the command of her father enter the brothel to-morrow, and prostitute herself for life."
-- William Elliot Griffis, The Mikado's Empire (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876), p. 555.

 “[Japanese women] are eager to overcome their social inexperience of past years and to organize for democratic purposes. And not unnaturally they look to the women of the United States for inspiration and assistance.” –General Douglas MacArthur to Alben Barkley, 18 Feburary 1948, quoted in Mire Koikari, Pedagogy of Democracy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), p. 85.

“On women in the workplace, Japan is the Saudi Arabia of the developed world.”
--Ian Bremmer on Twitter, 21 February 2012.


That the status of women in Japan is low has long been an article of faith in the west. The four provocative quotations above from the early nineteenth century, the late nineteenth century, the mid-twentieth century, and 2012 provide a sampling of western views on this topic. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report reinforces this perception.  In 2014, it rated Japan as number 104 out of 142 countries. The Report measures the “relative gap between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy, and politics.”[1] Given that Japanese women are highly educated and enjoy an excellent quality of health care, the Report attributes the low overall score to low levels of economic participation and “political empowerment.” It is in some respects understandable then why some commentators, when writing about Japanese women, fall prey to referencing this perception that Japanese women have a low status. But the hazards of judging a country’s standing with regard to the status of its women based on a single report without nuanced analysis of context are legion. At the same time, commentators tend to overlook that the United States ranks only Number 20 on the Global Gender Gap Report, hardly stellar in this area. The widespread assumption of many in the United States is that even if things are far from ideal here, they are worse elsewhere. This assumption stands in the way of appreciating current statistics. In fact, a recent New York Times article pointed out that as of 2015, the percentage of women working in Japan actually “exceeds” the level in the US.[2]

It turns out that the way the issue is framed—as about the “status of women” where the west is ahead of other countries has deep historical roots. The concept of measuring the “status of women” in a particular country was formulated in the nineteenth century when intellectuals took it for granted that the status of women was an index of a country’s civilization. The concept is so widespread today that people across the political spectrum continue to assume that this is simply true (yet we never ask about the status of men). Historians of women and gender have challenged these assumptions about the status of women, but their critiques have generally not made their way to a wider audience beyond academia.

This paper addresses these assumptions about Japanese women as “behind” and suggests that their lives have been far more varied throughout history and in the present than the stereotypes suggest.  I briefly examine the roots of the concept of a singular “status of women.” I then sketch three moments depicting women in modern Japanese history beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. My goal throughout is to unsettle our preconceptions and urge us to think about what nineteenth-century commentators called “the woman question” in complex ways. Rather than assuming that the west is somehow ahead of the rest of the world, I use what historians call the concept of “coevalness” throughout. By “coeval,” I mean that the situation of women around the world unfolded in relatively similar ways at roughly the same time.

The first moment is the mid-late nineteenth century, after the Americans --followed by other western powers--successfully demanded that Japan “open up” to trade with the west in the 1850s. This moment was followed by a series of unequal treaties that forced Japan to open several ports to trade and limited Japan’s ability to set tariffs. The treaties included extraterritoriality, a practice that meant in effect that Japanese law did not apply to westerners residing in Japan. The second moment centers on the aftermath of World War II, when the Allied powers occupied Japan and Japanese women gained the vote in 1945 and equal rights in the 1947. Initial excitement aside, a period of settlement followed that gave rise to a conservative gender order in the Cold War years, a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. The third and final moment is what I will call the “long present,” a time of anxiety after prosperity piqued in the 1980s (this third period receives more attention here than the previous two moments). Japan has faced several decades of economic stagnation and a falling birth rate. This moment begins in the mid-1980s with the Equal Employment Opportunity Law of 1985 and continues to the present with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s 2014 call at the United Nations General Assembly for Japanese women to join the work force in higher numbers—part of his goal to “create a society where women shine”-- a move that has led some media outlets to label him a “feminist.”

Within these larger temporal frames, I address three topics: 1. education; 2. labor and women’s roles, with special attention to motherhood; and 3. political and social rights. Each snapshot includes mention of a key legal document to illustrate some of the major points about the period under discussion. A caveat—these are only sketches of complex topics—one need only imagine a similar sketch of women in US history over the past 165 years in order to appreciate how this is the case. For that reason, the bibliography contains suggestions for further reading. My overall goal is to urge us to think comparatively about the situation of women in Japan and to be wary of the large stereotypes that have defined the topic. In particular, I submit that it would be a mistake to blame Japanese women’s supposedly low status on “tradition” or “culture.” This assertion prevents us from seeing the diversity in the historical record and the ways patriarchy—that is, male dominance—was remade and even strengthened in the modern period. It ignores class and other variables. To give but one example—some wealthy women in Japan and the west enjoyed various privileges throughout history, particularly when they represented households. Only after the age of democratic revolutions in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did elite women in parts of Japan, the United States (notably New Jersey), France, and Habsburg Austro-Hungary (to name a few locations) actually lose these limited rights, as sociologist John Markoff has demonstrated (though Markoff does not address Japan).

Prime Minister Abe’s recent attempts to mobilize Japanese women have had the unfortunate effect of calling some of the stereotypes about Japanese women as passive and “behind” to the surface in the western media. Rather than perpetuating them, I would like to propose shifting the conversation by bearing in mind three points. First, the present day situation of women in Japan has less to do with tradition than the particular alignment of social forces.  Second, in any discussion, we must constantly use a comparative framework rather than assuming that Japan is “behind” the west. Third, it would be a mistake not to question the idea of a unified status of women that can be measured in forms such as the Global Gender Gap Report even as we work for gender equality throughout the world. 

Background to a nineteenth-century concept

During a trip to the United States in 1867 on the eve of Japan’s modern revolution (the Meiji Restoration of 1868), the Japanese translator and later reformer and educator Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) purchased a geography textbook that clarified Western views on the relationship between civilization and the status of women: “Half-civilized nations . . . treat their women as slaves. China, Japan, Turkey, and Persia are the principal countries of this class.”[3] As a result of the intrusion of the western imperial powers into East Asia (Japan, China, Korea) in the mid-nineteenth century, this message was spread, and men and women across East Asia grappled with the notion that a country’s level of civilization was reflected in the status of its women. As the quotation suggests, in the eyes of westerners, the status of East Asian women was quite low. This western-derived notion constituted part of the global circulation of ideas that accompanied modern imperialism and the rise of modern nation-states. Western visitors drew on the writings of Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and others and used the “low” status of women among other “barbaric” Japanese practices to justify the previously-mentioned series of unequal treaties.

The overturning of these treaties was one of the main goals of the Japanese state after 1868, a goal achieved by the mid-1890s. This focus led to considerable discussion and reform across several decades. Government officials, intellectuals, reformers in the Japan and across East Asia focused on the “woman question” as a critical part of modernization, necessary to build a strong state and attain equal status with the western powers. Strikingly, they tended to accept the idea that the status of women in East Asia was low. In the process, commentators of all stripes painted a picture of women’s status in the premodern East Asian past that was static and uniform, a view not at all in line with the richness and diversity of the past, a past where some women were highly educated and produced masterful works of art and literature and others had political power and influence.[4] Yet these ideas about women’s low status have had enormous staying power into the present day, both in Japan and elsewhere. The concept of the “status of women” frames everything from popular conceptions of “Asian” women as submissive, to US foreign policy as focused on liberating women, to the policies of the International Monetary Fund that promote Japanese and Korean women in the workplace.[5] Its imperial roots have been largely forgotten.

From Edo/Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868) to Meiji Japan (1868-1912)

Let us turn briefly to the period before Japan’s transition to modernity. Until quite recently, scholars have tended to see the preceding Edo/Tokugawa (hereafter Edo) period (1600-1868) as representing the nadir of women’s status. Scholars assumed that warrior rule and Neo-Confucian discourses led to an unparalleled subordination of women. Recent studies have challenged this view and revealed a more complicated and nuanced picture, one where women’s lives varied widely by status, age, locale, and time period. In short, scholars have demonstrated that gender ideals promoted by male scholars that stress women’s inferiority tell us little about the lives of the vast majority of women. Moreover, research shows that merchant women enjoyed more property rights than women of samurai (warrior) and peasant backgrounds.

One example that demonstrates the variety of women’s experiences lies in the area of education. Access to education grew dramatically during the Edo period. Particularly notable are the growth of what are sometimes called temple schools, where girls and boys learned basic reading and arithmetic. As a result of this development, Japan had one of the highest literacy rates in the early modern world. Moreover, some women of means had access to quite elite forms of education equivalent to those available to elite men. This situation would change dramatically in the modern period, for the advent of the nation-state after 1868 and the establishment of universal education in 1872 would eliminate the variety of potential experiences women had, and replace them with a uniform education deemed appropriate to women. In short, after 1872, a greater number of women had access to education than ever before, but the content of this education was more circumscribed than it had been in the past. The situation abounds with complexities and contradictions. In fact, Atsuko Kawata has shown that women in one area of Japan (modern-day Yamanashi prefecture) had a higher rate of school attendance for girls in the late Edo period than in the early Meiji period! In short, in the transition to modernity, women “gained and lost.”[6] We tend to think of progress in such realms as education and women’s rights as moving forward in a one direction, yet the above example challenges our assumptions and suggests complexity rather than straightforward advancement.

By 1889, Japan was the first nonwestern country to enact a western-style constitution. The Meiji Constitution defined the Japanese people as subjects. Suffrage was limited to some 1.1 percent of the population, all elite men. Given that women lacked the vote around the world at this time (women in New Zealand would acquire the vote a few years later in 1893), the Japanese case is not surprising. Still, one could argue that the modern period strengthened male dominance in some areas. For the first time in Japanese history, the 1889 Imperial Household Law defined the emperor role as male—a law still on the books in spite of a move to change it around 2006. Women could no longer serve as emperors. (After an initial period in Japanese history where women served as emperors at roughly the same rate as men, this trend had declined). Rather than describing modernity as directly giving rise to women’s liberation, modernity brought a shift in the way patriarchy operated.

Modern times saw concrete changes in gender roles within households especially in urban settings. In the Edo period, households in villages were productive units where husbands and wives shared labor. But as some people moved to the cities—a trend that accelerated in the modern period—husbands went out to work leaving middle class wives at home. Urban families increasingly lived in nuclear units, rather than in extended family groups. In the process, middle class women’s lives increasingly became defined in terms of motherhood, something that had not been highly valued in the Edo period. From the turn of the twentieth century on, middle class women in particular were called upon to be “good wives and wise mothers” (ryōsai kenbo) —a phrase that still has resonance today though it is no longer an official state policy. Indeed, in the twentieth century, Kathleen Uno has shown that motherhood would become more important than wifehood in defining middle class women’s roles.

For poor women, work in the textile mills and sex work continued to be the main occupations as they had in the preceding period. Some scholars have pointed out that Japan’s successful industrial transformation in the nineteenth century was accomplished on the backs of poor women, especially those who toiled in the textile mills. Meanwhile, some women from the middle class were able to pursue a limited number of professions including work as physicians, nurses, and teachers. As Sally Hastings has demonstrated, state policy actually supported these limited opportunities for women because the work was deemed appropriate to their gender. We should not imagine that all Japanese women before 1945 were wives and mothers; professional women existed in the prewar era. In fact, this group of professional women in the 1920s and 1930s played a role in the prewar suffrage movement. They also helped authorize a public role for women and laid the groundwork for women’s enthusiastic participation in political life in the immediate post World War II years.

Overall modernity resulted in the homogenization of women’s experiences in education and ideals for women. Class differences mattered to be sure, but women became a category in the eyes of the state and an object of state policy as never before whereas in the previous Edo period, status differences had often mattered more than gender differences. 

Although the modern period brought new opportunities for women and new kinds of domination, western visitors to Japan did not necessarily focus on these shifts. Rather, they tended to seize on the sexualized figures of the geisha and prostitute as representative of all Japanese women. The gap between the actual situation of Japanese women (which varies widely) and western orientalist fantasies persists to this day, as evidenced by the popularity of books like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. In her article “Memoirs of the Orient,” anthropologist Anne Allison noted that western readers of this book tended to take Golden’s description of a minor practice in Japan and see it as representing the “truth” of Japanese women.

II. From Interwar to Postwar

The 1920s saw the rise of a vibrant women’s rights movement in Japan, one related to the movement for women’s suffrage in the west after World War I when American and British women finally gained the vote. The Japanese government reacted to women’s demands with a gradualist approach. In 1925, it granted universal manhood suffrage and by 1930 and 1931, the lower house of the Diet (legislature) passed bills granting women’s suffrage at the local level. However, as the political situation abroad changed dramatically in the 1930s and the Japanese military began a war in China, the movement to grant women’s political rights went by the wayside. Women’s rights advocates mostly supported the state during the period, hoping that their loyalty would enable them to influence policy on mothers and children.

Women’s political rights were granted after the war in 1945. But the story of how they came to be deserves some attention. The main issue here is what Mire Koikari has called the “myth of American emancipation of Japanese women,” for this period has often been misunderstood. In the fall of 1945, the head of the Occupation (SCAP) General Douglas MacArthur presented a list of demands to the Japanese government, including the demand that women get the vote. However, feminist leader Ichikawa Fusae and her fellow activists had already been lobbying the Japanese cabinet to grant women’s suffrage even before the Occupation arrived. Ichikawa did not want a foreign power to be responsible for granting women the right to vote. The Japanese cabinet was supportive of her initiative. Nevertheless, the subsequent course of events—a revised electoral law granting women the right to vote and stand for office was passed in December 1945—meant that the Occupation could take credit for enfranchising women. This view overlooks the efforts of Japanese women as early as the 1920s as well as their activities in the immediate aftermath of war, as well as the Japanese government’s support of their demands.

The question of gender equality also came up in conversations around the postwar constitution. Most familiar to western audiences is the story of Beate Sirota Gordon’s role in proposing the gender equality clauses in the postwar Japanese constitution (Articles 14 and 24). At the time, Gordon, who was born in Vienna to Russian-Jewish parents but grew up in Japan, had returned to work for the Occupation as a naturalized American citizen. She was part of a group of Americans charged with the task of rewriting the constitution. Gordon later published her memoir The Only Woman in the Room (1997) relating her critical role in writing this legislation. She has been celebrated in some western and Japanese circles ever since. Yet Gordon’s story has also been subject to critique from several angles. For example, Mire Koikari sheds lights on Gordon’s participation in “imperial feminism,” since Gordon portrayed herself and was portrayed by others as liberating Japanese women. As Koikari adds, “In drafting women’s rights articles, Gordon tapped into her childhood memory where the Orientalist imagery of oppressed and helpless Japanese women predominated.”[7] The point here is not to ignore Gordon’s contribution to the constitution for she did indeed draft the gender equality legislation, but rather to place her work in a larger context. In fact, as we saw, Japanese women had been working for political rights for decades. The granting of women’s political rights and guarantees of gender equality cannot be seen as a case where a progressive west granted passive Japanese women political rights.  (On a different but related note, acknowledging the agency of Japanese women also means recognizing their complicity in wartime militarism and nationalism, as Koikari emphasizes.)

Political Life and Education

A record number of women legislators were elected during the early postwar euphoria in 1945 and 1946—a record that was not surpassed until 1989. But by the mid-1950s, with the onset of the cold war, a conservative political order had emerged, one that went hand-in-hand with a conservative gender order where middle class women were again enjoined to serve the state through domestic work. Stunning economic growth in the 1960s only reinforced the emphasis on middle class women’s role as mothers. (Of course, there were always women who had professions). After years of wartime struggle and deprivation, some women aspired to be housewives. They wished to avoid difficult and dangerous work. It is also important to bear in mind the power and authority associated with the Japanese term  “housewife” (shufu), implications largely absent in the United States. Women run households and husbands turn over their paychecks to their wives. The role carries a status and authority that the English term “housewife” lacks, as scholar and feminist Ueno Chizuko has noted.

Meanwhile the number of institutions of higher education open to women grew, as did the number of women attending them. Many of these institutions tended to be junior colleges that prepared women for domestic work rather than a career. Still, some women who took advantage of the “new access to higher education have achieved prominence as politicians, bureaucrats, and scholars.”[8]

Change does not move in straightforward ways. In spite of new opportunities in education and politics in the postwar period, Barbara Molony writes that by 1975, “the repeated message that women should return to the home had finally taken root.”[9] Still the feminist movement in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s would challenge male dominance in the public realm. As elsewhere, some feminists focused on women’s equality with men whereas others focused on their difference, a maternalist strand of feminist thought. The majority of women did not identify themselves as feminist, but many of them still advocated for women’s issues.

III. The Long Present, the 1980s-2015


The last few decades since the 1980s have seen halting steps toward a more equal society. By the mid-1980s, a time of spectacular economic growth in Japan, the Equal Opportunity Employment Law (EEOL) attempted to increase opportunities for women in the workplace, though it relied on company compliance and impacted a small number of educated women. Most notably, the law did not change social expectations of women as caregivers of children and the elderly. As Ayako Kano and Vera Mackie have pointed out, “In contemporary Japanese society women are expected to manage the double burden of work and family, often by eschewing full-time work and a career.[10] Part-time work allows families to claim a tax break, but also leads to a situation where women are not earning a living wage. A childcare leave act was passed in 1991, but as in other countries where compliance is not mandatory, the rates of fathers who take advantage of it are extremely low. The late 1990s brought a Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society (1999) that led to the creation of a Gender Equality Bureau and cabinet-level position.

The combination of high literacy and low workforce participation in full time jobs has led Margarita Estevez-Abe to point out that Japanese women are “under-utilized.”[11] Estevez-Abe rejects arguments that blame Japanese culture for this situation and instead points out that women who wish to work face concrete problems, specifically, a lack of childcare options and labor market flexibility. Part-time work is quite different from full time work in Japan, she explains: “full-time and part-time differences are not matters of working hours; they are altogether different jobs. Only full-time workers are legally considered regular workers and thus enjoy benefits and protections. . . The only way to work part-time is to leave a good full-time job to take up a second-tier job elsewhere.”[12] Given these constraints, there are relatively few female managers. Women end up torn between a career and motherhood, a situation that is also the case in the United States where recent studies show the number of college-educated women who leave the workforce upon giving birth has actually increased in recent decades.

Abe Shinzo’s Womenomics

People in the west today are quite familiar with Prime Minister Abe’s statements on “womenomics,” a concept originally formulated by a Goldman Sachs strategist Kathy Matsui. In very prominent forums including the United Nations and the Wall Street Journal, Abe has called for increasing the number of women in the workforce and building more daycare facilities to accommodate their children. He has advocated for enhanced parental leave. Given his background as well as that of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), his moves were greeted with cynicism in some circles. Why was this?  To begin with, his statements took some by surprise as they mark a striking departure from his first term in office in 2006-2007 when he evinced little interest in women’s issues. Furthermore, the LDP has generally opposed moves that would make Japan a more gender equal country, positioning itself as a defender of Japanese “tradition.” Mackie and Kano point out that Abe convened a task force that wanted to circulate “women’s notebooks” that worked to “instill[] the idea of a ‘proper childbearing age.’”[13] Abe himself is a proponent of a style of childrearing philosophy that strictly adheres to gender roles, a point often overlooked by the media.[14]

What might lie behind recent Abe’s moves on the international stage? Several possibilities command attention. Some scholars interpret his statements as a response to international criticism for Japan’s failure to measure up to international norms given the country’s abysmal ranking in the Global Gender Gap Report. Others have analyzed Abe’s moves as part of a strategy to deflect the conversation away from contentious historical issues with other East Asian countries around the so-called “comfort women” (and other WWII-related issues). We must also bear in the mind the very practical point that given the declining population and the low birth rate, the Japanese economy needs more workers. Women are being called to the workplace because there is no one else to ask, for the government has been reluctant to permit large-scale immigration, although some recent developments suggest this policy may change in the near future.

A number of commentators have found flaws with Abe’s plans and question his commitment to women’s equality. As Barbara Molony has pointed out, Abe’s proposals for promoting women and increasing women’s childcare leave to three years are incompatible.[15] Women cannot stay out of the work force for three years and then “shine” in the workplace. Nor has there been any serious discussion of revising the tax code, which currently encourages women to work part-time. In short, while some media outlets may call Abe a “feminist,” feminists inside and outside of Japan are dubious. They tend to view his policies as heavy on rhetoric and short on follow-through. It is perhaps most compelling to interpret Abe’s moves as part of a larger pattern where the state has used women’s bodies as workers and mothers to serve a larger national interest, a pattern the Japanese state has followed consistently since the late nineteenth century.


Women’s place in the political world as elsewhere the world is complicated. A few notable exceptions aside, high politics continues to be a gendered domain with female legislators comprising 9% at the national level (by comparison, the rate in the United States is 19%). And yet we have seen significant shifts in the postwar period. Sally Hastings has summarized the place of political women in postwar political life: “The history of Japanese women in politics has not been one of simple linear progression, and analogies to land travel—milestones or obstacles in the pathway—cannot represent its vicissitudes. It is more accurate to think of it instead as a tributary to the stream of Japanese political life.”[16] In recent years, a number of women have held cabinet positions, though these women have tended to be quite conservative.

Some female politicians highlight their gender and attempt to use it to their advantage. Ayala Klemperer-Markman notes how some female politicians “campaign on the perceived strength of their womanhood.”[17] Some female politicians wear pastel or bright colors to show off how they are different from men (who wear dark suits) and suggest that they will not engage in politics as usual. Of course, these strategies can have mixed effects and may ultimately reinforce gender stereotypes. But they are important examples of women’s agency.

Beyond women who hold political office, we should also consider ordinary women and their relationship to politics. Until recently, scholars overlooked this group because women activists generally do not portray themselves as “political.” Robin LeBlanc has drawn attention to this group of women she calls “bicycle citizens.” These women effectively use their roles as wives and mothers to demand change in the political realm.

Concluding Thoughts

I have tried to suggest the variety in modern Japanese women’s experiences, a variety that defies stereotypes of women as passive. I have also emphasized that there are more similarities than differences in events like the timing of women’s suffrage in Japan and the west (Japanese women got the vote in 1945 whereas American women did in 1920). In closing this brief and modest survey of women in modern Japan, I want to raise a few final points. One phrase scholars tend to associate with the low status of women in Japan is danson johi (honoring men, despising women). Given that the phrase calls to mind Japan’s “feudal” past, it is a surprising to learn that the educator Miwada Masako (1843-1927) insisted that the practice of “honoring men, despising women” was in fact a western product, the result of “western education and customs” that had entered Japan in the late nineteenth century.[18] Historian Anne Walthall explains Miwada’s thinking: “In terms of practical education for women, the West was more advanced but Japan was better in terms of teaching ethics and moral values.”[19] Miwada’s words constitute a challenge to modern western perceptions of Japanese women as behind or inferior. Her argument may be less important for its content (the idea of danson johi had circulated in Japan before the modern period) than as a reminder for those living in the modern west to examine our assumptions and turn the gaze around to inequalities in our own societies.  

Gender discrimination around the world is a continuing problem. It spans everything from gender violence to the challenges of balancing parenthood and work to the pay gap. I have tried to suggest why the metrics and assumptions we use to understand Japan and other places need more scrutiny, not only when analyzing present- day societies, but also the historical past. We must move beyond the concept of a transparent “status of women” even as we work to end gender discrimination. Such an approach requires a more complex metric for understanding inequality in any society (gender is a useful category of analysis but not the only one). Right now, measures like the Global Gender Gap Report are imperfect even for those who embrace women’s rights and equality. For instance, the number of women in management ranks or high political office is important, but how much do those numbers reveal about the situation of ordinary women?[20] Class matters, as do race, religion, and other variables, as feminist scholars have long pointed out.

At the same time, we need to set aside the west ahead of the rest assumption—which is not only problematic but can lead to complacency about inequalities in western societies. For instance, we can learn a lot from places like Japan about providing high quality health care for everyone. In addition to adopting a comparative perspective, we need to move beyond assuming a view of human development where all groups are always moving along the same path from darkness to civilization (what historians call the “doctrine of historical progress”). Many of the critiques leveled at Japanese society (“their norms need to change”) apply to the United States and other places as well.[21] We need another framework for thinking about women and gender and probably we need several. The beauty of history is that it can jolt us out of these present-day norms and perceptions and remind us that nothing is inevitable.

Note: I thank Maliha Rahim (Smith College class of 2017) for research assistance and Julie Anderson for editorial assistance.

Thumbnail Image: Mario Kaoru Mevy, CC 2.0, changes made

[1] The report is online: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2014.  Accessed 22 April 2015.

[2]  Jonathan Soble, “To Rescue Economy, Japan Turns to Supermom,” New York Times, 1 January 2015.

[3] Quoted in Albert Craig, Civilization and Enlightenment: The Early Thought of Fukuzawa Yukichi (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 48.

[4] For studies that challenge this view of a monolithic past, see Susan Mann, The Talented Women of the Zhang Family and Peter Kornicki et al eds., The Female as Subject. In late Qing-dynasty China, elites tended to focus on eliminating footbinding as a symbol of the low status of women. On women’s political power in early modern Japan, see Cecilia Seigle and Linda Chance, Ooku: The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2014), Chapters 7 and 8.

[5] See, for example, the speech by IMF head Christine Lagarde:  http://www.imf.org/external/np/speeches/2014/051914.htm. “For its part, the IMF has recommended policies to increase female labor participation in countries like Japan and Korea, where women could be more visible in the workplace.”

[6] Anne Walthall, “Women and Literacy from Edo to Meiji,” p. 226.

[7] Mire Koikari, Pedagogy of Democracy, p. 59.

[8]  Sally Hastings, “Gender and Sexuality in Modern Japan,” p. 381.

[9] Barbara Molony, “Why Should a Feminist Care about What Goes on Beyond Japan’s Chrysanthemum Curtain?” p. 50.

[10] Kano and Mackie, “The Gender Fault-Line in Japan,” East Asia Forum, 3 November 2012.

[11] Margarita Estevez Abe, “Feminism as Industrial Policy in Japan,”p. 73.

[12] Ibid., p. 76.

[13] Ayako Kano and Vera Mackie, “Is Shinzo Abe Really a Feminist?” East Asia Forum, 9 November 2013.

[14] Comments at the 2015 Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting panel on “What Has the Abe Government Achieved for Women? Womenomics and Women's Rights.” Participants: Liv Coleman, Linda Hasanuma, Jiyeoun Song, Leonard Schoppa and Barbara Molony. Chicago, IL, 28 March 2015.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Sally Hastings, “Women Legislators in the Postwar Diet,” p. 271.

[17] Ayala Klemperer-Markman, “Pink Democracy: Dynamic Gender in Japan’s Women’s Politics,” p. 204.

[18] Anne Walthall, “Women and Literacy,” p.  233.

[19] Ibid., p. 233.

[20] Some of Abe’s critics have made this point about his policies.

[21] On norms needing to change, see Helen Macnaughtan, “Abe’s Womenomics Needs to Include Men Too” East Asia Forum, 28 January 2015. In the case of the US, commentators tend to focus on families rather than women or men. Claire Cain Miller suggests that “The United States is arguably struggling to adjust to the realities of modern family life more than any other affluent country.” “Silicon Valley: Perks for Some Workers, Struggles for Parents,” New York Times, 7 April 2015.


Allison, Anne. “Memoirs of the Orient” in Journal of Japanese Studies Vol. 27, No. 2 (2001), pp. 381-398.

Estevez-Abe, Margarita. “Feminism as Industrial Policy in Japan,” in Amy McCreedy Thernstrom, ed., Japanese Women: Lineage and Legacies (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2005), pp. 69-79.

Hastings, Sally. “Gender and Sexuality in Modern Japan” in A Companion to Japanese History, ed. William M. Tsutsui (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 373-388.

Hastings, Sally. “Women Legislators in the Postwar Diet,” in Re-Imaging Japanese Women, ed. Anne Imamura (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 271-300.

Hastings, Sally. “Women’s Professional Expertise and Women’s Suffrage in Japan, 1868-1952,” in Gender State and Nation in Modern Japan, ed., Andrea Germer (Routledge, 2014), pp. 181-197.

Imai, Yasuko. “The Emergence of the Japanese Shufu: Why a Shufu is More than a Housewife,” U.S.- Japan Women’s Journal 6 (1994): pp. 44-65.

Kawata Atsuko and Tokio Katō. “Life History of Naitō Masu: A Female Pioneer of Women’s Education in Yamanashi Prefecture in the Early Meiji Period,” Proceedings 13 (March 2011): pp. 113-121.

Klemperer-Markman, Ayala.  “Pink Democracy: Dynamic Gender in Japan’s Women’s Politics” in Japan’s Multilayered Democracy, ed., Sigal Ben-Rafael Galanti  (Lexington Books, 2015), pp. 197-215.

Koikari, Mire. “Feminism and the Cold War in the U.S. Occupation of Japan, 1945 – 1952." The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol. 9, Issue 7, No. 1, 14 February 2011. http://japanfocus.org/-Mire-Koikari/3487/article.html accessed 22 April 2015.

Koikari, Mire. Pedagogy of Democracy: Feminism and the Cold War in the US Occupation of Japan (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008). LeBlanc, Robin. Bicycle Citizens: The Political World of the Japanese Housewife (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Markoff, John. “Margins, Centers and Democracy: The Paradigmatic History of Women’s Suffrage.” Signs 29, no.1 (2003): pp. 85-116.

Molony, Barbara. “Why Should a Feminist Care about What Goes on Beyond Japan’s Chrysanthemum Curtain? The Imperial Succession Issue as a Metaphor for Women’s Rights,” in Amy McCreedy Thernstrom, ed., Japanese Women: Lineage and Legacies (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2005),  pp. 44-54.

Nolte, Sharon H. and Sally Ann Hastings. “The Meiji’s State’s Policy Toward Women: 1890-1910.” In Recreating Japanese Women, ed. Gail Lee Bernstein. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 151-174.

Tonomura, Hitomi. “Women and Sexuality in Premodern Japan,” in A Companion to Japanese History, ed. William M. Tsutsui (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 351-371.

Ueno, Chizuko. “Interview,” in Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism, ed., Sandra Buckley (University of California, 1997), pp. 274-292.

Uno, Kathleen. “The Death of ‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’?” In Postwar Japan as History, ed. Andrew Gordon, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 293–324.

Walthall, Anne. “Women and Literacy from Edo to Meiji,” in P. F. Kornicki, Mara Patessio, and G. G. Rowley, eds., The Female as Subject (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 2010), pp. 215-235.

Recommended books:

Bernstein, Gail Lee. Haruko’s World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996). 

Bardsley, Jan. The Bluestockings of Japan: New Women Essays and Fiction from Seitō, 1911-1916 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 2007).

Masuda Sayo. Autobiography of a Geisha, translated by GG Rowley (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). 

Soh, C. Sarah. Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Walthall, Anne. The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).