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New Left Review I/167, January-February 1988

Vera Mackie

Feminist Politics in Japan

The situation of women in Japan, perhaps the most advanced capitalist nation today, raises a number of issues that will seem at once familiar and highly distinctive to an international readership. [*] I would like to express my thanks to Saito Chiyo, Aoki Yayoi and the women of the Asian Women’s Association who generously made time to be interviewed in January 1987. Aoki, Saito and several other friends also provided books and other resources. What is the role of women’s labour, and how have capital and the state attempted to regulate it? How have women themselves theorized this relationship? What is the ideological importance of motherhood? How has the state attempted to use or regulate women’s reproductive capacity? The answers to these and other questions will express the fact that the problems facing contemporary Japanese women are essentially the problems of advanced capitalism, though inserted within a cultural framework that is considerably different from those of Europe or America. The present article will take a broad view of feminist politics in Japan, and not seek to push everything into a falsely unified ‘women’s movement’. Women have also been active in, for example, consumer, peace and anti-pollution groups, often contributing in these ways to a feminist critique of Japanese society. We must begin our analysis, however, with a brief account of the historical background of modern Japan. For while discussion of women no longer focuses on issues of economic development—as it often does in other Asian countries—it is necessary to consider certain decisions made in the early days of Japan’s modernization that have had a powerful influence on the position of women today.

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