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. footnote 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.

The years from 1868 to 1898, following the Meiji Restoration, were a period of intense economic and political modernization, in which female factory labour played a significant role. The first industrialization was carried out in the textile industry, and the capital gained was then reinvested in heavier and heavier industry. Revenue for the modernization programme was raised by the imposition of a land tax that placed major stress on rural areas, and it was above all the daughters of poor farmers who staffed the new factories—they accounted for more than sixty per cent of the industrial labour force until the 1920s. Others were sold to brothels or even sent to South-East Asia as karayuki san (prostitutes), their repatriated earnings forming an important source of foreign currency.

In these years the political and legal system of the new state was also established: Japan was to be a constitutional monarchy, with the democratic rights of the people—particularly women—severely limited. However, the importation of liberal ideas through the writings of Rousseau, Mill and Spencer gave justification to demands for ‘Freedom and Popular Rights’ and made possible the first theorization of feminism in Japan. footnote1 Kishida Toshiko toured the country giving speeches on behalf of the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement, and Kusunose Kita became the first woman to demand voting rights on the grounds that she was the head of the family after her husband’s death. footnote2

For its part, the Japanese state failed to embrace liberal ideas in any real sense, preferring to base itself on the alternative model provided by Prussia. In the Constitution of 1890, individual rights and duties were defined as subject to the power of the Emperor, footnote3 and there was little scope for women to demand ‘natural rights’ in a state which did not even recognize the concept. The Civil Code of 1898 introduced a number of laws which relegated women ideologically—if not in fact—to the domestic sphere in a patriarchal family based on the principle of primogeniture. Married women had no political rights and no claims over property brought into a marriage. footnote4 Although they were now able to petition for divorce, the grounds were different for husbands and wives. Patriarchal power in the home was explicitly linked with Imperial power and played a crucial role in mobilizing loyalty to the Emperor as the figurehead of the new state. footnote5 This family structure was presented as ‘traditional’ and ‘uniquely Japanese’, but in reality it was an imposition of the samurai form on a population which had shown a great diversity of marriage and inheritance practices from region to region.

Ideologies concerning women’s role in the family—particularly the socalled ryosai kenbo (‘good wives and wise mothers’) ideology—an amalgam of Confucian and Western ideas footnote6 —were developed to underline the importance of mothers as educators of children. A new emphasis on monogamy buttressed by ideas of romantic love compensated women for their lack of rights in the political sphere. Education was made compulsory for boys and girls in 1872, but much of women’s schooling—even in the new women’s colleges—was designed to fit individuals to the roles of wife and mother. Initially women’s education was often carried on in mission schools, which promoted ideas of ‘separate spheres’ and romantic love in marriage. Although private women’s colleges and medical schools were established, it was some years before women could attend national universities.