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date: 31 March 2023

Feminism in Japanfree

Feminism in Japanfree

  • Barbara MolonyBarbara MolonyDepartment of History, Santa Clara University


Japan’s first movement for civil rights emerged in the 1870s, and a small number of women were part of it. Women’s legal status was significantly inferior to men’s in the pre–World War II era, and feminists struggled for decades to improve it. Their activism in transnational organizations often gave them a voice they did not have at home. For example, the Japanese branch of the International Woman’s Christian Temperance Union worked to end international sex trafficking, licensed prostitution, and marital inequality. The Japanese cultural world took a feminist turn in the second decade of the 20th century. Increasing numbers of women entered the classroom as teachers, nurses served on the battlefield and in hospitals, and actresses performed in plays like A Doll’s House. Many of these women were called “New Women,” and an explicitly women’s rights organization, founded in 1919, called itself the New Woman’s Association.

When the Tokyo earthquake killed 100,000 people and destroyed millions of homes in 1923, women’s organizations of all types—Christian, Buddhist, alumnae, housewives, and socialists—coalesced to carry out earthquake relief. The following year, several of those groups decided to address women’s political rights. The Women’s Suffrage League grew from this collaboration in 1924. Annual Women’s Suffrage Conferences brought together women of diverse organizations from 1930 to 1937. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Japanese feminists also made their voices heard through transnational organizations, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association. When Japanese militarism at home and abroad repressed freedom of expression in the 1930s, feminist groups continued to meet, turning to community activism (like improving municipal utilities) and nonthreatening feminist legislation (the Mother-Child Protection Law of 1937). During World War II, many feminists accepted government advisory positions to improve the lives of women and families, viewing this as a step toward greater political integration. By the 1980s, however, feminists strongly critiqued prewar feminists for collaboration with the wartime government.

Women voted for the first time in 1946. In 1947, the new Constitution granted equal rights, the new Civil Code eradicated most of the patriarchal provisions of the 1898 Civil Code, and the Labor Standards Law called for equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, women continued to face discrimination in the workplace, at home, and even in the law. Feminists supported the United Nations International Women’s Year (1975) with vigor. Since then, they have successfully advocated for strengthened employment and child-care leave laws as well as anti–domestic violence laws. But gender-neutral legislation has been hotly contested and has led to a backlash against feminism in general.


  • Gender
  • Japan

Gender and Rights: Creating a New Society

After Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868), government and private-sector leaders as well as average people throughout the country developed new discourses of citizenship, created new economic systems, redefined relations with the outside world, and studied and selectively borrowed ideas from abroad. The government was also interested in the construction of new types of citizen/subjects to serve the new nation. For the first time, some Japanese in the 1870s and 1880s felt liberated to voice their opinions in public discussions, and some of those were women who articulated their views using the discourses of rights developed in the West during the previous century.

The earliest advocates for women’s rights were part of the larger People’s Rights Movement, most of whose participants were men. One of the first women to demand “rights” was Kusunose Kita (1833–1892), a 45-year-old widowed household head who, in 1878, petitioned for the right to vote in local elections, a right enjoyed by male property owners. Women’s rights advocates, who called her the “People’s Rights Grandma,” contended that she should not be taxed without representation. She protested the use of gender in establishing an individual’s relationship to the state. Kusunose failed to gain the vote in 1878, but women began to advocate for danjo dōken (male–female equal rights) and joken (women’s rights).

Fearful of the People’s Rights Movement, the government imposed press censorship laws in 1875. Verbal expression was also restricted in the early decades of the Meiji period. In 1883 Kishida Toshiko (1861?–1901), a feminist orator and People’s Rights member, was arrested for publicly calling for women’s rights. Kishida inspired women all over Japan. Thousands heard her proclaim that women’s equality in society and the family was an indicator of civilization and that equality would elevate Japan in international eyes. After her arrest, Kishida soon abandoned public speaking for essay writing—mainly in the feminist journal Jogaku zasshi (Women’s Education Magazine)—and teaching. One of those inspired by Kishida was Fukuda Hideko (1865–1927). Fukuda created a women’s organization to showcase women’s rights speakers, for which the authorities punished her by shutting down the school she and her mother had established. This did not stop her. In the first decade of the 20th century (which encompassed the Russo-Japanese War [1904–1905] and the early years of Japanese imperialism), she worked with antiwar and socialist men and women and was the founding editor (in 1907) of the feminist newspaper Sekai fujin (Women of the World).

Japan’s new constitution of 1889, the first such document outside of Europe and the Americas, stipulated that civil rights could be limited by law. The government began creating those limits immediately. In 1890, women were prohibited from joining political parties or attending political rallies, thereby denying them the rights of speech and assembly. This prohibition was reinforced in 1900 under the Public Peace Police Law. Repealing that law’s infamous Article 5, which restricted women’s rights, was a major focus of women’s activism for the next two decades. By the end of the 1890s, women’s rights were further limited by the Civil Code, which subordinated all members of a household (ie) to the (male) head of household.

Supporters of women’s rights expressed profound disappointment with the gendered legal restrictions on rights. Novelist Shimizu Toyoko (1868–1933) articulated these sentiments in her article, “To My Beloved Sisters in Tears,” published in Jogaku zasshi in 1890. Members of the Japan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (JWCTU), founded in 1886 as a branch of the transnational WCTU, were also distressed by the codification of inequality but recognized that women’s activist options were limited by Article 5. The JWCTU’s focus on social and moral reforms, including movements against licensed prostitution and concubinage, appeared less overtly political to the authorities. (Japanese men were legally allowed just one wife, but many also had concubines, who had legal status within the family for several decades before the adoption of the Civil Code in 1898.) These movements were therefore within the bounds of the law. Moreover, the Christian organizations that supported these reforms framed them in the patriotic terms of elevating the status of the nation by improving the status of women.

Other advocates for women’s rights joined antiwar and socialist movements. One group of women within a larger socialist and Christian organization that had opposed the Russo-Japanese War petitioned the Diet in 1907 to take up the question of amending Article 5 to allow women to speak and assemble publicly. Though they failed to change the law, their activities were chronicled in Fukuda Hideko’s Sekai fujin. Another important feminist who expressed antiwar sentiments during the Russo-Japanese War was the poet Yosano Akiko (1878–1942), one of Japan’s leading literary figures. Her famous poem begged her brother not to fight. “Brother, do not give your life,” she wrote. “His Majesty the Emperor goes not himself into the battle.” Yosano changed her views in the years leading up to World War II, when she supported Japan’s military enthusiastically.

New Women, Modern Girls, and the Motherhood Protection Debate

From the 1910s through the 1930s, many Japanese women were experimenting with new ways of self-representation. In the 1910s, they were called—and called themselves—New Women. In the mid-1920s, a new type of modern woman emerged—the Modern Girl (modan gāru, also abbreviated as moga). Japan’s New Woman and Modern Girl were both part of global phenomena.

New Women entered the scene in 1911 in the form of Nora, the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. As in the West, the play led to an outpouring of media commentary about Nora as an archetypal New Woman. The same month, Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1972) launched her new organization, the Bluestockings, and its magazine of the same name, Seitō (Bluestocking). Hiratsuka’s famous “Feminist Manifesto” appeared in the first issue of Seitō in 1911: “In the beginning, woman was the sun” evoked the powerful image of the Sun Goddess, the mythical founder of Japan’s imperial family, in its call for women to retrieve their lost genius. Critics of the Bluestockings called Hiratsuka and her colleagues “Japanese Noras”—New Women who were frivolous and self-absorbed in their quest for self-awareness.

From 1911 to 1916, Seitō published articles on chastity, abortion, and prostitution in which the writers debated one another in strongly worded essays that used strikingly contemporary-sounding language. Should women remain chaste, even if doing so might lead to one’s family’s destitution? Was a fetus a separate human or was it part of a woman’s body over which she should have control? Was prostitution slavery or a social necessity to serve “men’s inherent needs”?

Mass circulation periodicals aimed at a general audience also ran articles about New Women. While some asserted that New Women denied their true womanly nature, many others discussed, in positive terms, women in modern occupations like teaching, office work, and medicine and the importance of women’s education. Another progressive women’s organization, which some in the media depicted as a rival to the Bluestockings, was the True New Women’s Association (Shinshinfujinkai). Both the Bluestockings and the True New Women claimed the title of New Women, and members of these and other groups went on to build the interwar domestic and transnational women’s movements. Most immediately, the term “New Woman” was embedded in a political organization, the New Woman’s Association, described below. Many New Women were professional writers whose novels and short stories depicted women taking control of their own lives and sexuality. Many wrote for Seitō, mass-circulation media, or the left-leaning feminist literary journal Nyonin geijutsu (Women’s Arts), published from 1928 to 1932.

The term “Modern Girl” seems to have first appeared in 1923. By then, New Women were part of Japan’s cosmopolitan, literary, and activist scene. The Modern Girl was a new phenomenon, who first appeared as a media sensation. And yet, the Modern Girl was a real person. She was one of the thousands of female factory workers, employees in newly emerging professions, retail workers in both modern department stores and tiny retail shops, bus conductors and telephone operators, café waitresses, highly trained employees in teaching, medicine, and other sectors, and privileged young women who could easily afford international products and fashions. As a media sensation, the Modern Girl was transgressive. Common criticisms focused on her supposed foreignness, frivolousness, and promiscuity. Both Marxist and conservative critics called Modern Girls “hedonistic” and “decadent.” Most, however, were hardworking employees with working-class or middle-class jobs.

Toward the end of World War I, the Bluestockings’ Hiratsuka was one of several leading feminists engaged in the “Motherhood Protection Debate.” She was joined by poet Yosano Akiko, socialist feminist Yamakawa Kikue (1890–1980), and rescued Seattle sex-worker-turned-feminist-translator Yamada Waka (1879–1957). The debate was conducted through approximately 115 articles in a variety of women’s and general audience journals. Yosano, who gave birth to thirteen children and raised eleven to adulthood, fired the opening charge, claiming that women should not marry and have children until they could support them independently. Women’s liberation, she asserted, was based on their ability to support themselves without depending on their husbands or the state, which she called “slave morality.” Hiratsuka replied that Yosano, a very successful poet, could not speak for poor women, who, she said, were not paid well enough to support themselves independently. Instead, Hiratsuka asserted, the state should support mothers—that is, “protect them”—because they performed an essential service to the nation-state by producing children. Yamakawa wrote that socialist revolution was the only way to produce the changes in social conditions necessary to protect mothers. Yamada’s view was consistent with the state-supported “good wife, wise mother” philosophy; she claimed that it was the “sacred mission of women” to educate their children for the sake of the state and to be supported by their husbands or the state. In the end, the four women acknowledged that they all cared about improving the status of women and mothers.

Domestic and Transnational Roots of Interwar Japanese Feminism

Working with transnational women’s organizations gave Japanese women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries a space for influencing state policy in the absence of civil rights at home. Transnationalism took many forms, embracing feminisms of various sorts beginning in the Meiji period. By the interwar years (1910s–1930s), Japanese women in global Christian organizations like the YWCA and the WCTU played important roles in articulating feminist theories of citizenship as well as the foundation of movements for labor and social justice, consumer rights, and reproductive rights. At the same time that women in transnational Christian organizations were working to improve the lives of women at home and abroad, secular feminists were intensifying their efforts for greater rights in these areas as well.

The most notable 20th-century secular suffragist was Ichikawa Fusae (1893–1981). Born in a farming village to a family where her father encouraged his sons’ and daughters’ education but violently abused her mother, Ichikawa started her life of activism by leading her college classmates’ protest against the gender-defined curriculum for female students. Following jobs as a schoolteacher and as a journalist, Ichikawa settled in Tokyo in 1918, where she signed up for English lessons with Yamada Kakichi, Yamada Waka’s husband. She met not only Waka, but also Hiratsuka Raichō, who was also Kakichi’s student. This meeting led Hiratsuka, already a famous feminist, to ask Ichikawa, the general secretary of the women’s division of the labor organization Yūaikai (Friendly Society), to introduce her to women textile workers so she could learn about their labor conditions. Shortly thereafter, in November 1919, they founded the Shin fujin Kyōkai (New Woman’s Association, hereafter NWA). Ichikawa and Hiratsuka recruited Oku Mumeo (1895–1997) as the third leader of the NWA.

In January 1920, the NWA leaders met with activist women journalists and labor organizers and decided to petition the Diet for two changes to Japanese law. The NWA knew their first task had to be amending Article 5. The second petition concerned Japanese family law, which turned out to be much harder to change than the law concerning political inclusion. Hiratsuka was most interested in petitioning for a law requiring that men be tested for syphilis before marrying. Had this law passed—it failed—it would have given women the right that they did not have in the patriarchal family system at that time to terminate a marriage or engagement.

In 1921, the NWA expanded its demands, calling for women’s suffrage. That same year, however, tensions were developing within the NWA over Hiratsuka’s and Ichikawa’s different ideological approaches to women’s rights. While Hiratsuka advocated the principle of mothers’ rights (bokenshugi), Ichikawa stressed the principle of women’s rights (jokenshugi) as the foundation for women’s citizenship. Hiratsuka and Ichikawa left the NWA in 1921, but Oku stayed on until Article 5 was finally amended, due to her efforts, in 1922.

After achieving a partial victory for women’s rights, Oku Mumeo turned her attention to helping working women and women as consumers. She worked with suffragists on motherhood issues and with socialists on labor issues. In 1921, socialist women, including Yamakawa Kikue, established the Sekirankai (Red Wave Society). Around the same time, Japanese women peace activists, many of them involved in transnational Christian movements—like their sisters in North America, Australia, Europe, and China—linked peace advocacy and women’s rights. In 1921, Christian women founded the Fujin Heiwa Kyōkai (Women’s Peace Association), which later became the Japanese affiliate of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Members included both secular activists and members of the JWCTU and the YWCA. Also in 1921, the 89-year-old founder of the JWCTU, Yajima Kajiko, hand-delivered a petition for peace signed by 10,224 Japanese women to American President Warren Harding at the Washington Naval Conference. JWCTU members took additional steps to claim a space in governance through transnational ties in 1924; when the United States outlawed Japanese immigration that year, JWCTU members contacted American WCTU members to lobby on behalf of their humiliated nation. They also went straight to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes.

Women in transnational feminist organizations were also turning to more explicitly suffragist platforms. Gauntlett Tsune (1873–1953), one of the JWCTU delegates to the World WCTU meeting in 1920, attended the meeting of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Geneva at the invitation of IWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947). Gauntlett’s primary interest at that time was the international peace movement, and Catt persuaded her that women’s suffrage was the way to advance peace. Gauntlett returned to Japan, where her new advocacy for suffrage was eagerly supported by Kubushiro Ochimi (1882–1972), secretary of the JWCTU. In July 1921, Kubushiro argued for votes for women in an article in the JWCTU’s journal and, together with Gauntlett, founded the Nihon fujin Sanseiken Kyōkai (Japan Women’s Suffrage Association).

Ichikawa had left the NWA in 1921, traveling to the United States, where she deepened her knowledge of the diversity of Western feminisms through meetings with numerous leading feminists, including Jane Addams (1860–1935) and, especially, Alice Paul (1885–1977), proponent of the complete political equality position in American feminism. Paul exerted the strongest influence on Ichikawa. Ichikawa enjoyed her time in the United States, but following the devastating earthquake that killed over 150,000 people in the Tokyo area on September 1, 1923, she returned home. She arrived in early 1924, having been hired to work on women’s issues by the International Labour Organization. She also joined women from across the political spectrum who had created the Tokyo Rengō Fujinkai (Tokyo Federation of Women’s Organizations) at the end of September 1923 to carry out earthquake relief. One of the divisions of this federation was its “government section,” which began to work on women’s rights while carrying out earthquake relief. In December 1924, government-section head Kubushiro Ochimi invited Ichikawa to join her in launching what became Japan’s leading suffrage group, the Fusen Kakutoku Dōmei (Women’s Suffrage League; hereafter WSL). Members of the WSL included teachers, journalists, writers, housewives, and workers.

From Earthquake Reconstruction to the Manchurian Incident

During the first national election (in 1928) after the passage of universal male suffrage in 1925, the WSL campaigned for fourteen House of Representatives candidates who supported women’s rights. Seven of them were successful. Until 1931, the number of parliamentary supporters of women’s rights continued to grow rapidly. Feminists called these years “a period of hope.” From March 1928 to December 1929, the WSL joined with five other women’s groups, four of them affiliated with proletarian movements such as labor unions, to create the Fusen Kakutoku Kyōdō Iinkai (Women’s Suffrage Coordinating Committee).

In August 1928, an eighteen-member delegation of Japanese women, including secular and Christian feminists, attended the first Pan Pacific Women’s Conference. Some members of the delegation continued to collaborate, creating the Japan Women’s Committee for International Relations as an affiliate of the Geneva-based Joint Standing Committee of Women’s International Organizations. In 1930, when the heads of the major world powers met in London for a disarmament conference, Japanese women, inspired by Gauntlett Tsune, presented to the male delegates petitions for world peace signed by many thousands of Japanese women. As they had almost a decade earlier, women disenfranchised in national politics used the international stage to find their voice.

The women’s civil rights movement was advancing in the winter of 1928–1929, when the WSL organized thirteen Tokyo-based women’s groups to gather petitions for women’s suffrage. In 1929, Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi asked women’s groups to assist in carrying out the government’s economic policies during the recession of the late 1920s. In December 1929, Hamaguchi commended their actions, and pledged to support expansion of women’s political rights.

In April 1930, the WSL convened a National Women’s Suffrage Convention, bringing together 400 members of religious feminist groups like the YWCA and Young Women’s Buddhist Association, secular feminist organizations, the Proletarian Women’s League, and teachers’ organizations. A number of elected officials spoke out in support of women’s rights at this convention. But the bills they proposed in May 1930 and February 1931 fell short of equal citizenship rights for women. These bills would have granted women the right to vote on the municipal level but not on the prefectural or national level and would have required married women to obtain their husbands’ approval to run for office. Although denounced as inadequate by almost all feminists, these bills were rejected as too radical by the conservative House of Peers. Women failed to obtain even limited civil rights before everything changed in 1931.

In September 1931, right-wing officers of Japan’s Kwantung Army stationed in Manchuria along the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway bombed a section of track, instigating hostilities with Chinese soldiers in the region. This event, known as the Manchurian Incident, set in motion Japan’s fifteen years of war on the continent. Right-wing extremism produced a wave of domestic terror as well, some of it fueled by hatred of modern society characterized by New Women and Modern Girls. Japan was closely tied to Western countries through multilateral treaties and trade. The global Great Depression triggered by the crash of Wall Street in 1929 spread to Japan, and anything transnational was viewed as a national threat. In that context, feminism became suspect. Suffrage legislation was not proposed again until 1945. But the suffragists were pragmatic; they adjusted their tactics while retaining, at least until the late 1930s, their strategy of civic engagement as the basis for improving the status of women and children.

Feminist Activism to Protect Women’s Bodies

One of the feminists who had been involved in the Motherhood Protection Debate in the 1910s was socialist feminist Yamakawa Kikue. In 1925, she struggled unsuccessfully to persuade the leftist union Hyōgikai to accept the formation of a women’s division to support measures to help working mothers retain their jobs. The measures she called for included paid maternity leave, an eight-hour workday, and equal pay for equal work. Unfortunately, the union’s male leadership neither made efforts to promote these reforms nor created a women’s division, although they did support women workers’ strike demands for improved maternity leave during the late 1920s.

Women workers made other body-centered demands in the interwar period. The one most curious to Western observers was menstruation leave. Decades later, in the 1980s, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was debated in Japan, this policy was framed as necessary to preserve working women’s future maternal health. No one recalled that the original demand for this provision, which became part of the post–World War II Labor Standards Law of 1947, had nothing to do with maternal health. Rather, it was based on working women’s need to find a way to continue to work under difficult conditions related to their bodies.

The issue of menstruation leave was first raised in 1928, when 500 women bus conductors struck for better working conditions against the Tokyo Municipal Bus Company. One of their key demands was menstruation leave. Bus conductors had to spend long hours on their feet in crowded, moving buses that had no toilet facilities. Metropolitan buses could not stop to find a toilet when a conductor might need one. Quitting their jobs because they could not take care of their monthly period was not possible for many women who needed work. So Tokyo’s female bus conductors demanded several days off to accommodate this bodily function.

Feminists joined the call for menstruation leave in the late 1930s. The April and May 1937 issues of the women’s magazine Fujin kōron contained articles entitled “Let’s Have Menstruation Leave!” Feminists from across the political spectrum voiced their support for menstruation leave. A decade later, after Japan’s nearly complete destruction in World War II, the demand for menstruation leave was reintroduced by women factory workers. Cotton or rags that could be used for sanitary purposes were nonexistent or in short supply. Most factories had no heat or clean toilets. Again, women who needed to keep their jobs (many were war widows and orphans) required provisions that addressed their gendered needs.

In the early 20th century, Japanese intellectuals had begun to discuss birth control as a means of controlling overpopulation and the resulting strain on national resources. In 1922, with the visit of American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), reproductive control was taken up by feminists as a way of helping all women, but especially poor and working-class women. Sanger’s conviction that poor women’s ability to control their fertility would improve the lives of their families and affect society for the better was shared by Katō Ishimoto Shidzue (1897–2001), who met Sanger while living in New York in 1921. Shortly after Sanger’s visit, Ishimoto was joined by medical doctors, university professors, the founder of the Yūaikai labor union, and socialist–feminist Yamakawa Kikue in a combined effort to study birth control and establish a small clinic. In 1932, just as Japan was entering the militarist period, Ishimoto formed the Birth Control League of Japan. In December 1937, she was arrested and jailed briefly. Her clinic was closed down in January 1938, and the birth control movement was put on hold until after World War II.

Feminism and Politics in the War Years

Following the Manchurian Incident in 1931, Japanese feminists struggled with the question of supporting their nation—a key element in the quest for women’s rights—or opposing the increasing repression at home and the expanding warfare on the Asian continent. At first, most of them opposed Japan’s foreign policy and continued to work for women’s rights at home while recognizing that the struggle for voting rights was increasingly hopeless. By the end of the 1930s, feminists abandoned even these efforts. During the period from 1931 to 1945, almost all progressives went to jail, abandoned their activism and lived quietly under the radar, or tried to find a way to survive by cooperating with the government.

Immediately after the Manchurian Incident, many feminists, speaking as “mothers of humanity,” outspokenly condemned the war. Feminists’ opposition was to military expansionism in China, though not to Japanese colonialism in Korea, which few opposed. By the late 1930s, feminists and others appeared to shift their views on a variety of topics in addition to the war. For example, Ichikawa framed the quest for civil rights as a way for women to “assist the Emperor.” Because prewar feminists tried to work with a government that is today discredited—particularly following the expanded discussion in the 1980s about the “comfort women,” Japan’s military sexual slaves—later feminist historians have critiqued them.

Japanese feminists who had been involved in transnational movements felt torn between nationalism and transnationalism. In 1934, Japan’s WCTU and YWCA leaders lamented this in Japanese Women Speak: A Message from the Christian Women of Japan to the Christian Women of America, an English-language book published in Boston and targeted to an American audience to maintain international ties. In 1938, the WCTU began publishing an English-language journal, Japan Through Women, to highlight the positive deeds of Japan’s women. But this effort failed, and the Japanese WCTU cut its ties to the World WCTU at the beginning of the Pacific War in December 1941. The Japanese WCTU and other Christian groups refocused their transnational efforts toward Asia. To reach out to China, the Japanese WCTU built schools and a medical settlement house in Beijing and undertook social reform projects, believing these acts of sisterhood would improve Japan’s image in China. But these projects were possible only because they were under the protection of the Japanese military, and rather than improving Japan’s image, they tied the knot of imperialism more tightly.

Like their Christian counterparts, secular feminists had long-existing links with feminists across the Pacific that were strained by Japan’s militarist actions. The WSL tried to maintain ties to Western friends by publishing Japanese Women, an English-language newsletter whose goal was similar to that of the WCTU’s Japan Through Women. The journal, edited by Ichikawa Fusae, printed sixteen issues from 1938 to 1940, and ended publication in July 1940.

By the middle of the 1930s, advocating women’s suffrage was strongly challenged, as Japan’s militarist government kept suffragists under close surveillance. The WSL turned to less overtly political activities—such as reforming garbage collection, municipal utilities, elections, and the Tokyo fish market—as a way of involving disenfranchised women in governance. In several elections in the early 1930s, the WSL campaigned for candidates they believed to be incorruptible, calling this action an “election purification” movement. Another of the feminists’ activities in the 1930s focused on getting the government to pass welfare legislation for poor mothers and children. In 1934, twenty women’s organizations lobbied together for the Mother–Child Protection Law. This passed in 1937, giving financial assistance to single and widowed mothers.

The ideological trends in feminism can be viewed in the changing resolutions passed by the annual National Women’s Suffrage Conventions held throughout the 1930s. The first convention, in 1930, optimistically focused on the vote. The third convention, in 1932, condemned the Manchurian Incident and the rise of “fascism” in Japan. The fifth convention, in 1934, supported resolutions for peace, for welfare benefits to families of soldiers killed in the war, for cooperation with women around the world, for birth control, and for mother–child protection legislation. By the sixth convention, held in 1935, the suffragists’ views had shifted to calling on the government to give women the vote so they might help the government in this time of “emergency” (a term used by the government as a euphemism for war). The conventions were supplanted in 1938 by a Women’s National Emergency Congress when the rise of militarism at home made suffrage conferences suspect. That was the end of conventions focused on women’s civil rights until after World War II.

The largest women’s organizations during the long prewar and war period were those run by the Ministry of Education, the Army, and the Home Ministry. The membership of these organizations, taken together, reached 19 million by the end of the 1930s. The independent women’s organizations, both Christian and secular, resented these government-affiliated organizations at first: they were run by men, they took potential members away from groups dedicated to women’s rights, and they dealt with women from the perspective of mobilizing them to serve the state through stereotyped women’s roles. Groups like the WSL, YWCA, and WCTU came together in a Federation of Japanese Women’s Organizations in 1937, and were forced to disband three years later. Many of their members came to accept the government organizations as venues for women’s agency outside the home. In February 1942, the government brought all Japanese women’s organizations together into one large group, the Dai Nippon Fujinkai (Greater Japan Women’s Association), including the government-directed groups as well as feminist, Christian, and social reform groups. (Many of these independent groups had already been disbanded.)

Ichikawa Fusae was the secular feminist most often criticized after the war for having replaced her earlier opposition to the state with the kind of wartime collaboration in government-sponsored activities on the home front also undertaken by most other secular and Christian feminists. Ichikawa, who later became one of the most highly respected members of the Diet, was purged by the postwar US military occupation (one of only eight women, later two, out of a total of over 200,000 Japanese who were purged).

Poverty, Gender, and Sexuality after the War

Millions of Japanese heard the voice of the emperor for the first time on August 15, 1945. He called on the Japanese people to “endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable.” At the end of the war, 9 million Japanese were homeless. An additional 7 million were scattered throughout the empire and needed to find a home in Japan when they did return.

Both men and women suffered, but in many cases it was women, many of them widows, who struggled to find new ways for their families to survive in the chaotic times right after defeat. Agricultural production was a fraction of its prewar level, and families who lived on the meager rations allotted by the government could not survive. Most depended on food they bought on the black market. Most businesses had been destroyed, so there were few jobs for urban people. The firebombing of cities led to the destruction of housing and a resulting mass migration to the countryside before the war ended, but almost half the population still lived in the cities, often in huts made of scavenged wood from destroyed houses.

Compounding Japanese concerns was the Allied military occupation, which lasted from 1945 to 1952. Anticipating the arrival of foreign forces, the Japanese government spent the last two weeks of August destroying government records and setting up sex stations for the army of occupation. On August 18, the government secretly began planning for “comfort stations.” In little more than a week, 1,300 young women, mostly destitute widows and orphans, had signed up to work in the newly created Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA). Many were depressed because they had thought they would find jobs as clerks and typists, but others accepted jobs as sex workers, believing that would be the only way to keep their families and themselves from starvation.

The RAA was short lived but historically important. US officials severed their ties with the RAA after a few months because of a very high rate of sexually transmitted disease and because the Americans had come to view the official brothels as a violation of women’s human rights. The sex trades did not end with the closing of the RAA brothels, however. Thousands of women worked in licensed brothels or became pan-pan (the occupation-era term for sex workers not affiliated with brothels). Japanese Christian feminist organizations, such as the YWCA and WCTU, reestablished themselves after the war and worked to end all licensed and nonlicensed prostitution and to oppose the US occupation’s treatment of all Japanese women as prostitutes. Feminists were rightly appalled that average women were routinely pulled from the street or public transportation by American military police and publicly humiliated by being forced to undergo gynecological exams in front of military examiners. Some were jailed, and others were sprayed with toxic disinfectants. Christian and secular women’s organizations vigorously protested this treatment.

Politics and Gender During the Occupation

Ichikawa Fusae and the WSL searched throughout war-torn Tokyo for survivors of the prewar group. On August 25, several members met to establish the Women’s Committee on Postwar Policy. On September 11, they held a large meeting—70 participants—at which they resolved to promote women’s actions to survive the difficult times. At a meeting on September 24, they resolved to demand full civil rights, especially the vote. The Japanese cabinet, at its first meeting on October 9, decided that women should be granted rights; the following day, Ichikawa visited Prime Minister Shidehara Kijurō and other cabinet ministers, who verbally confirmed that the government would amend the election law to grant women political rights.

Before the government could make that announcement, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, met with the Prime Minister the next day (October 11) and presented him a list of reforms the United States demanded. Women’s full civil rights were at the top of the list. Ichikawa and other feminists, as well as male supporters in government who wished to credit the suffragists for their hard work over several decades, were deeply disappointed that the Americans would be credited with granting women rights. Women went to the polls in the first postwar election on April 10, 1946. Two-thirds of eligible women voters cast their ballots, an extraordinary percentage when compared to other countries right after women were enfranchised. (It is estimated that 35–45 percent of eligible women voted in the United States in the decade after gaining the vote in 1920.)

Thirty-nine women were elected members of the Diet in 1946. The first women representatives were highly educated, and many were professionals. Feminists of varying political persuasions formed organizations to educate new voters about their rights and to formulate demands for social and political reform. They transcended party lines as the Fujin Giin Kurabu (Women Diet Representatives Club) to work on issues related to women’s roles as mothers, including policies for food distribution, stabilizing milk prices and securing adequate milk supplies, and repatriation of soldiers.

In November 1946, Ichikawa Fusae and other prewar feminists created the New Japan Women’s League (renamed the League of Women Voters in 1950) as a successor to the WSL. Women on the left, including novelist Miyamoto Yuriko, birth control advocate Katō (Ishimoto) Shidzue, and notable educators and labor activists from the prewar period, formed the Women’s Democratic Club in March 1946. Joining the Japanese women in undertaking the political education of women was the occupation’s Lt. Ethel Weed, Women’s Affairs Information Officer of the Civil Information and Education Section, who lectured throughout the country and published articles in newspapers and magazines. The role of the American occupation in promoting women’s political education meant that the socialist–feminist movement in Japan was stifled in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Women’s Democratic Club and forty-one other women’s organizations had formed the Nihon Minshu Fujin Kyōgikai (Japan Democratic Women’s Council) in 1948. The council reached out to the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), a large global organization that was supported by communist countries and leftist movements in noncommunist countries during the Cold War. This alarmed Ethel Weed, and the occupation forbade the council from attending the WIDF meeting in Beijing in 1949. The purge of WDC leaders (and the death of Miyamoto) at the end of the occupation led to the WDC’s disbanding in 1953.

Although some of the first women Diet members remained in office for just one year, six of their number played a notable role in Japanese political history. These six were among the seventy-two Diet members who reviewed the draft of the new Constitution. The 1947 Constitution, which guarantees women’s political equality, was not actually written by the Japanese Diet, but rather by the American occupation. The clauses dealing with women’s rights were written by twenty-two-year-old Beate Sirota, who had grown up in Japan and was, therefore, one of the few members of the Constitution committee fluent in Japanese. The Constitution stipulates that women and men are equal under the law (Article 14) and that husbands and wives have equal rights in marriage (Article 24).

Two prewar feminist leaders, planning to stand for election in 1947, were purged by the occupation right before that election and were therefore forbidden from playing any public roles. One was Takeuchi Shigeyo (1881–1975), a pioneering medical doctor in the early 20th century and later a suffragist who served on a government commission during World War II. Takeuchi was one of the first thirty-nine women elected to the Diet in 1946, but was prohibited from running in 1947. The other was Ichikawa Fusae. Her numerous influential friends in the United States petitioned to have her released from the purge, and the depurging committee agreed. But for reasons that are not clear, Ichikawa was not depurged until the end of the occupation. (Some additional women had served the government during the war but escaped the purge.) Ichikawa did not enter electoral politics immediately upon the Americans’ departure. Rather, she resurrected a movement for anticorruption in politics that had been part of the WSL’s activities in the 1930s when the Japanese government made advocating women’s voting rights impossible. In 1953, Japan’s League of Women Voters urged her to run for the House of Councillors. She won and joined other prewar feminists such as Oku Mumeo, Katō Shidzue, and Kamichika Ichiko as a Diet member.

Gender and the Family in the First Postwar Years

The lives of men and women were radically changed in many ways in the postwar years. The new Constitution required major changes in the Civil Code and the Labor Standards Law. The 19th century Civil Code stipulated that the senior male was the head of the family and that other members of the family had fewer rights, especially in inheritance (which under most circumstances was to go to the eldest son), choice of domicile, and divorce (wives had fewer grounds for divorce). The new Civil Code of 1947 equalized the grounds for divorce, but in other ways, the Civil Code continued to carry the baggage of the past. It has been a continuing struggle for postwar feminists to amend the code.

Another gendered change was the creation of the Women’s and Minors’ Bureau (Fujin Shōnen Kyoku) in the Ministry of Labor to oversee the protection of women and children in the workplace, enforce laws against child labor, and conduct surveys of working conditions. Prewar socialist feminist Yamakawa Kikue was appointed the first director of this bureau.

The family was also changed by the legalization of birth control and abortion. Concerned about the country’s inability to feed the growing numbers of children born during the postwar baby boom, medical doctors and bureaucrats joined with prewar feminist advocates of birth control, such as Katō Shidzue, to propose ways to limit Japan’s population growth. Katō unsuccessfully submitted a bill to the Diet to legalize birth control in 1947. A later bill became the Eugenic Protection Law (Yūsei Hogo Hō), implemented in 1948. Rather than focusing on contraception, which Katō advocated and which remained illegal until 1949, the Eugenic Protection Law focused on abortion, making abortion legal if the mother’s medical or economic condition would be imperiled by carrying a pregnancy to term.

When the “Second Wave” of the feminist movement took off in the 1970s, many observers at that time incorrectly believed it was a new challenge to a “traditional” family made up of a stay-at-home housewife, a white-collar husband more dedicated to his company than to his family, and one or two children driven to academic success by an “education mama.” But this “tradition” only dated from the 1950s. Japanese women, men, and children had always worked—in shops, in factories, and on farms. When 1970s feminists attacked a society divided into a female-dominated home and a male-dominated workplace, they were challenging institutions of relatively recent history.

The vocal feminist movement of the 1970s did not emerge from thin air after a period of complete quiescence. One of the key feminist efforts in the 1950s was the movement to eliminate licensed prostitution. Women legislators, many of them members of prewar feminist organizations, pushed the Prostitution Prevention Law (a law not supported by many sex workers themselves) through the Diet in 1956. Other organizations that emerged after the war adopted a variety of approaches to improve women’s status. Some of these reinforced old gender norms. For example, Oku Mumeo, who had worked with Ichikawa Fusae and Hiratsuka Raichō in the NWA from 1919 to 1922, founded the Shufuren (Housewives Association) in 1948. This association was fairly militant in its assertion of women’s power as consumers within the household. Marching for better products and economic justice, its members carried giant mock-ups of a rice-serving scoop that symbolized women’s role as housewives. The Housewives Association continues to play a large role in movements against pollution and global climate change.

Another women’s organization, the Mothers’ Convention (Hahaoya Taikai), which mobilized women politically as mothers, was founded in 1955. A nonpartisan peace organization focused on the prevention of nuclear war, the Mothers’ Convention had transnational links, similar to the prewar women’s peace movements. The group grew rapidly: 13,000 women delegates attended the 1960 annual meeting. Members used what was defined at the time as the traditional family to advance their causes.

This traditional family was seen by many as a means of empowerment for women, but attacked by others in the “Housewife Debate” of the mid-1950s for holding women back. This debate, like the “Motherhood Protection Debate” of the late 1910s, was waged in the pages of women’s and other mass-circulation journals. At least one debater of the 1910s, Hiratsuka Raichō, contributed to the 1950s debate. The opening salvo of the debate was launched by Ishigaki Ayako (1903–1996) in February 1955 with an article in a special issue on working women of the women’s journal Fujin kōron. Ishigaki was a feminist journalist who had migrated to America in the 1920s, where she married noted Japanese American artist Ishigaki Eitarō. Her 1955 article unleashed a torrent of reactions that reflected the diversity of 1950s attitudes toward housewives.

Feminism in the 1970s

As Japan became one of the world’s most prosperous countries in the late 1960s, many women grew tired of their second-class social status and added their voices to the global feminist movements that are often called “second wave feminism.” Large numbers of middle-class married women joined movements to make a better, cleaner, and safer Japan, stating they were doing so as mothers protecting their children. Housewives’ groups sprang up in every neighborhood. During the same years, the Anpō o Tatakau Fujin Renrakukai (Women’s Conference Fighting the US–Japan Security Treaty) assembled women, some of them from the grassroots housewives’ movements, who opposed Japan’s role in the United States-led Vietnam War. These 1960s and 1970s movements reenergized the antipollution, antiwar, and women’s movements, and by the end of the 1970s, some of their members contemplated running for office as housewife-citizens.

Additional women’s movements with more expressly feminist ideologies sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These movements, called “women’s liberation” groups by the press and by their members, differed from the organizations that stressed women’s political strengths as housewives and mothers. The new feminist organizations’ members were often younger. Many had participated in New Left movements of the 1960s that had focused on opposition to global capitalism and America’s war in Vietnam. The leadership of many of the New Left groups was male and often sexist. “Consciousness-raising” activities led thousands of formerly New Left women to redefine feminism in new terms. These included a questioning of sexuality, motherhood, and women’s oppression as women. Motherhood, which earlier housewife feminists had viewed as a source of strength, came to be seen as leading to inequality.

These kinds of revolutionary approaches paralleled those in feminist movements in other countries, and transnational linkages among radical feminist organizations were reestablished. Japanese feminists in the early 1970s viewed their position in more complex ways than many feminists in the West, however. For example, the Ajia Fujin Kaigi (Asian Women’s Conference), founded in the summer of 1970, articulated the view that while Japanese women were oppressed by sexism in Japanese society and by Western imperialism toward people of color, Japanese women were also complicit (even if unconsciously) in the First World’s economic oppression of other Asian women. Thus, they were simultaneously oppressed and oppressors. Another group founded in 1970, Tatakau Onna (Fighting Women), got its start fighting against proposed limitations of women’s reproductive rights, but soon turned its attention to broader questions of the sexual liberation of women. The Shinjuku Women’s Liberation Center was established in 1972 as an organizing hub and as a women’s shelter. Another group, Chūpiren, used sensationalist tactics—like wearing pink helmets—to promote the goals of legalizing oral contraceptives and eliminating the sexual double standard.

Hundreds of small mimeographed magazines and newsletters spread the ideas and public actions of the women’s liberation movement. Other, more substantial publications, such as the magazines Onna: Erosu (Woman: Eros) and Feminisuto (Feminist), founded by scholars and artists, were also widely read. Feminisuto consciously referenced the past by adding a subtitle: “The New Bluestocking.” Mainstream newspapers publicized feminists’ actions, but their coverage was often negative. One sympathetic mainstream journalist was the feminist Matsui Yayori (1934–2002), who wrote for the Asahi, one of the most respected newspapers in Japan. In addition to her excellent reporting about women, especially women in Asia, she was also the founder of the Ajia no Onnatachi no Kai (Asian Women’s Association).

Negative press coverage changed in 1975, with the United Nations (UN) International Women’s Year. In late 1974, veteran feminists Ichikawa Fusae and Tanaka Sumiko (1909–1995) coordinated a large number of women’s groups, ranging from old-line women’s organizations to radical feminists, writers, intellectuals, members of the bureaucracy, and academics, to plan for Japan’s participation in the 1975 UN meeting in Mexico City. In January 1975, they founded the International Women’s Year Action Group and created a progressive agenda for change. The Action Group continued long after the Mexico City conference, coordinating the activities of several dozen organizations. They addressed a wide range of issues, from organizing for the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law and other laws to improve the status of women, to protesting sexist television commercials. The Action Group joined with other Japanese women’s groups, including the Asian Women’s Conference, the Asian Women’s Association (whose initial goal was to combat sex tourism), and venerable Christian organizations such as the Japanese WCTU—as well as feminist groups in South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines—to attack sex tourism by Japanese men in those countries.

Feminism and the Workplace

Persistent economic inequality, particularly in the workplace, was a leading feminist issue in the 1970s and 1980s. Discussion about an Equal Employment Opportunity Law began after Japan’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). These discussions highlighted significant ideological differences among employers, workers, the government, and feminist groups. The only legislation until that time that addressed workplace gender inequality had been Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution of 1947, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex; the Labor Standards Law of 1947, which mandated equal pay for equal work and maternity leave for women workers; and the Working Women’s Welfare Law of 1972, which called for counseling and training of women workers. Although some women had attempted to improve workplace conditions through litigation, there were no penalties for employers who failed to hire, pay, or treat women and men equally.

During the prosperous decades of the 1970s and 1980s, many women in their late 20s whose husbands made good salaries left full-time jobs to become full-time mothers and housewives. Returning to the workforce, as many did in their late 30s, they were unable to get good full-time jobs because companies did not hire older workers into promotion-track positions. In addition, the Labor Standards Law had codified the pre–World War II feminist demand to protect women from having to work on midnight shifts. Employers were reluctant to hire women, whom they could not force to work the long hours they pressured men to work. In 1978, the Labor Standards Law Research Association reported that some of the “motherhood protection” provisions under the law such as limited work hours did, in fact, harm women’s chances for employment and promotion. Employers’ associations opposed any movement toward equality of opportunity for women, claiming that women had no work consciousness. Women’s work opportunities and pay lagged far behind men’s.

Feminists supported different approaches to changes in labor law. Some wished to abolish the motherhood protection clauses that differentiated male and female employees, while others wanted to retain some of those provisions. Some feminists had to be persuaded that menstruation leave had no relationship to women’s health and was no longer necessary. In the end, the bill proposed by the Diet in 1984 was opposed by forty-eight women’s organizations of the Action Group because it presumed that all men and women must adopt the male employment model rather than one that balanced work and home for both men and women.

The law passed in 1985, but it was flawed. Women and men on a track toward a managerial position had to accept long hours of daily work as well as the possibility of being transferred to a branch office far from one’s spouse and children. The law also only called on employers to “endeavor” to hire without regard to gender. Despite its flaws, the law temporarily improved labor conditions for women, until a major recession hit Japan in the 1990s.

Fortunately, additional legislation marginally improved women’s work conditions. The Child-Care Leave Law of 1992 allowed either parent to take a partially paid leave of up to a year after the birth of a child. But few parents, especially fathers, initially took this leave. In 1997, the Long-Term Care Insurance Law shifted responsibility for caring for the elderly from the family to society, thereby lifting some—though not all—of the burden for that care from daughters and daughters-in-law, who had traditionally been responsible for it. Some of the weaknesses of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law’s protections for equality in the workplace were addressed in 1997. Sanctions against discrimination in hiring were included in a revision of the law in 1997. A more comprehensive Gender Equality Law of 2007 stipulated penalties for discrimination in both hiring and workplace conditions, but women’s pay equity and access to management positions continues to lag behind those in most industrialized countries.

Academic and Political Feminisms

The resurgence of the feminist movement in the early 1970s and the excitement of International Women’s Year in 1975 encouraged feminist scholarship and inspired women’s studies courses and programs at many universities. Two major scholarly groups, each with an important journal disseminating feminist research, were established: the Women’s Studies Society of Japan, founded in Kyoto in 1978, and the Women’s Studies Association of Japan, founded in Tokyo in 1979. Feminist scholars were featured on talk shows and were appointed to government councils, although most were still teaching at smaller colleges before they began to break into the top tier of elite universities in the 1990s. The appointment that made the biggest splash in the news was that of Japan’s most prominent feminist, sociologist Ueno Chizuko, in 1993 at the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious university. In addition to the still small but growing number of women in academia, feminists influenced government policy-making in the 1990s. Ōsawa Mari (b. 1953) played a particularly important role in the drafting of feminist legislation.

That legislation became the center of Japan’s “state feminism”—that is, feminism promoted by the state. Some of the laws drafted in the 1990s by the government, with the advice of feminist scholars and of women Diet representatives, addressed societal shortcomings that slowed women’s progress in the labor force, such as insufficient child-care and elder-care provisions, despite legal requirements for these. Other laws addressed problems of gendered bodily harm. These included the 1999 Law for Punishing Acts Related to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and for Protecting Children, the 2000 Anti-Stalking Law, and the 2001 Law for the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims, which criminalized behavior previously overlooked as personal.

These laws all helped women and children, and they did not produce the resistance encountered by the 1999 Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society. The Basic Law called for a Gender Equality Bureau in the Prime Minister’s cabinet and divisions responsible for carrying out gender initiatives in each ministry and agency. Prefectures, cities, and towns were also required to create plans to carry out the law. Around the same time, though coincidentally, feminists and others began discussing a concept called jendā furī (gender free). That term was used in several ways: to mean free of gender bias or free of gender itself. The first meaning called for the removal of inequality in society, economy, and government between two binary genders, male and female; the second suggested redefining gender as a constructed concept that could be changed or eliminated. Right-wing nationalists within Japan started to become concerned about the effects of what they saw as transnational feminism on Japan, and attacked the 1999 Basic Law as a manifestation of foreign-style “gender free” ideology—especially the second definition. When the backlash started, feminists in government and academia had already been working, under the Basic Law, to implement policies based on both meanings of “gender free.”

Exacerbating conservatives’ concerns about Japan’s adopting “foreign” values and their discomfort about the possibility of “gender free” leading to greater acceptance of lesbians, gay men, and transgender people was the government’s panic, expressed since the 1980s, about Japan’s declining fertility rate. That stood at about 1.3 children per woman in 2005, and Japan’s population was beginning to decline. At 1.4 children per woman in 2015, Japan had a lower fertility rate than all but thirteen countries in the world. At the same time, Japan ranked highest among large countries in longevity. The panic had two parts: concern about the insufficiency of working-age people to support the growing number of elderly retirees, and the decline of Japan’s global status as it fell from being one of the larger countries in the world to a middle-sized country in terms of population. Women should focus on making babies, conservatives opined in their attack on the Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society.

The concept of “gender free” was the first issue to be hit by the backlash, and familiar fears like unisex restrooms in schools were next to emerge. Some feminists retreated strategically from the more inclusive meanings of gender free to defend the policies that called for equal treatment of men and women. Even in that climate, some progress was made in redefining gender. Sexual reassignment surgery was legalized in 2003, and the Japan Association for Queer Studies was founded in 2007 (it has since disbanded). Feminist scholar and activist Ueno Chizuko retired from the University of Tokyo in 2011 to run an Internet site, the Women’s Action Network (WAN), which she built into a powerful feminist communications network that includes archival materials, global feminist news, and information about actions in Japan and elsewhere. Some of the socially transformative aspects of the Basic Law may have been postponed, but contemporary feminists continue to work toward building a more equal Japan.

Discussion of the Literature

Long before gender became a category of analysis, women’s rights activists in Japan recognized that publishing a history of feminist activities (both in Japan and elsewhere in the world) would reify their movement and establish a record that was less likely to be overlooked by posterity.1 Those feminists wrote for political reasons, not as professional historians, but the legacy of their works has been more far reaching than they may have intended. These works in Japanese, written in the 1920s, were followed by histories and ethnological and sociological studies of Japanese women written in both Japanese and English in the 1930s. Some of those in English were written by Christian feminists and other feminists for political reasons as well—that is, to maintain transnational ties as Japan’s wartime activities attenuated those ties. One such work was Japanese Women Speak: A Message from the Christian Women of Japan to the Christian Women of America, published in Boston in 1934.2 The first English-language work that was a self-conscious history of Japanese women qua history (that is, without a conscious advocacy motive) was The Force of Women in Japanese History, published in 1953, by Mary Beard, a leading American intellectual to whom the work’s Japanese author (Katō Ishimoto Shidzue) gave permission to publish under her name.3

In the historical field, a few books and articles about women took a similar approach to these early works—that is, they attempted to find notable women and add them, in a compensatory manner, to the male-centered dominant narrative of history. Sharon Sievers’s pathbreaking work Flowers in Salt changed this in 1983, modifying the dominant narrative by focusing on Meiji-era feminism.4

The history field began to be rapidly altered in the 1990s and early 2000s with works on gender and sexuality in English and other European languages by Vera Mackie, Janet Hunter, Greg Pflugfelder, Barbara Sato, Kathleen Uno, Sheldon Garon, Ron Loftus, Patricia Tsurumi, Don Roden, Ayako Kano, Regine Matthias, Sabine Frühstück, Sally Hastings (who was also the editor for about twenty years of the US-Japan Women’s Journal, which has introduced English readers to a plethora of translations of Japanese scholars’ works since 1988), and others.5 These scholars included gender issues in new histories of politics, labor, migration and diaspora, activism, culture and the literary and theatrical arts, economics, sexualities, masculinities (which trailed the study of femininities but is now booming), nationalism, and other subfields. Most of these scholars are trained historians or scholars in diverse fields whose work displays a keen historical sense. Most, though not all, address feminism and feminist movements.

Gail Lee Bernstein’s 1991 edited collection Recreating Japanese Women made the study of women accessible to larger audiences in the 1990s.6 The field of gender history took off in Japan as well, with leading historians publishing in both Japanese and English—one noteworthy English-language publication at the end of the 1990s was the monumental two-volume collection of essays by Japanese scholars, Gender and Japanese History, edited by Wakita Haruko, Ueno Chizuko, and Anne Bouchy.7 In the 1990s and 2000s, the prestigious historical journal Rekishi Hyōron ran special issues on women’s history, many of them articles on feminism, every year.

Women’s studies academic organizations that began to flourish in Japan in the late 1970s and 1980s produced works that radically expanded the field of women’s history. The International Group for the Study of Women hosted an international conference in 1978 and published a pioneering work in English and Japanese the following year.8 The Women’s Suffrage Center, founded in 1946 by suffragist Ichikawa Fusae and her colleagues as a gathering place to help newly enfranchised women, expanded radically through the following decades. In the mid-1970s, their collection of not-yet-catalogued materials from 20th-century women’s movements was one of the few places one could do primary research in feminist history. Over the years, they expanded their capacity and organized and digitized many of the materials. The archive is now part of the Fusae Ichikawa Center for Women and Governance.

In the 1980s, Japanese feminist historians’ anger about women’s support for the wartime government—especially in light of the exposure of the gendered oppression of “comfort women”—fueled a historiographical debate about feminism during World War II. Historians like Suzuki Yūko and Kanō Mikiyo strongly criticized both leaders and average women—calling the latter the “home front”—for not being more actively opposed to the war.9 A leading feminist scholar, sociologist Ueno Chizuko, analyzed this historiographical turn in her critique of nationalism and feminism, originally published in Japanese and translated as Nationalism and Gender in 2004.10 The bitterness of this issue seems to have subsided in recent decades. That is not to say that the issue of war responsibility has disappeared; rather, the wartime Japanese feminists’ support of the war has become normalized in works by feminist historians.

After the turn of the century, scholarship on femininities, masculinities, gender, and sexualities continued to expand greatly, building on the foundation established in the 1990s. Nuanced works in English on gender, women, feminisms, and/or sexuality in the Meiji era (late 19th and early 20th centuries) have come out in the last two decades by Vera Mackie, Elizabeth Dorn Lublin, Marnie Anderson, Mara Patessio, Bill Mihalopulos, Harald Fuess, Sabine Frühstück, Barbara Brooks, Kathleen Uno, Hiroko Tomida, and numerous others.11 Historical scholarship on the interwar and wartime era is perhaps even more lively, with some of the scholars noted above joined by Dina Lowy, Miriam Silverberg, Michiko Suzuki, Haruko Cook, Sarah Frederick, Jan Bardsley, Teruko Craig, Shibahara Taeko, Noriyo Hayakawa, Helen Hopper, Manako Ogawa, Mariko Tamanoi, Rumi Yasutake, Sumiko Otsubo, Janet Hunter, Andrea Germer, Barbara Molony, and Elyssa Faison.12 Many of these scholars have employed transnational and intersectional approaches. Gendering the history of the postwar and contemporary eras, as in the work done by Cristopher Gerteis, Mire Koikari, Sarah Kovner, Sally Hastings, Naoko Shibusawa, John Dower, Andrew Gordon, Ayako Kano, Jan Bardsley, Setsu Shigematsu, Julia Bullock, Sandra Buckley, and others, has fundamentally rewritten those eras, too.13 Sabine Frühstück and Anne Walthall’s excellent edited collection Recreating Japanese Men has underscored that gender is not limited to women.14 Mark McLelland and Vera Mackie’s monumental Routledge Handbook of Sexuality Studies in East Asia allows readers to sample widely from that growing field as well.15

The foremothers and forefathers who continue to expand the field, bringing in more intersectional, interdisciplinary, and transnational approaches, have been joined, in Western languages, by scholars whose works have destabilized our views of the building of the modern state, the meaning of location (through gendered diaspora), the construction of the modern “citizen,” the building of the economy, intersectional meanings of race, ethnicity, and empire, and many other topics scholars used to think were stable.16 For example, studies that focus on Japan in the world have forced “the world” to see Japanese gender history as consequential and not peripheral to a Western-dominated master narrative. This has become particularly important in historical studies of countries where Japanese people migrated.17

Finally, the explosion of history and historiography about feminism in Japan has paralleled a more than century-long dialogue between feminists around the Pacific Rim. From the late 19th century until today, transnational feminist organizations globally linked secular women (International Woman Suffrage Alliance, WILPF, the ILO, and Pan Pacific Women’s Association) and Christian women (YWCA, WCTU, and others). The documents of these organizations are excellent primary sources on feminism.

Primary Sources

Primary sources on Japanese feminism are available mainly in Japanese. The best archive on the women’s movements of the 20th century is maintained by the Fusae Ichikawa Center for Women and Governance.18 In the 1970s, as a major wave of research on women’s history took off in Japan, numerous organizations, such as the Japan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and women’s colleges and universities, published their documents in major collections.19 Scholars also gathered complete sets of documents from particular movements, such as the Motherhood Protection Debate.20 Very extensive sets of documents on all aspects of women’s, gender, and feminist history include the twelve-volume set Nihon fujin mondai shiryō shūsei.21 Individual volumes cover different subjects, including human rights, women’s political movements, labor, education, the family system, and health and welfare. Women’s political rights documents are collected in volume 2. A collection of speeches and written documents of the women’s movement may be found in Kindai Nihon joseishi e no shōgen.22 Domesu published numerous collections of primary sources in the 1980s. In addition, an excellent collection of materials of the various women’s rights movements beginning in the 19th century, Nihon josei undō shiryō shūsei, has been assembled by Suzuki Yūko. For documents from the 1970s women’s liberation movement, see Shiryō Nihon ūman ribu-shi, edited by Mizoguchi Akiyo, Saeki Yōko, and Miki Sōko.23

Primary sources in English, especially for the period of the US occupation of Japan following World War II, may be found in the United States National Archives, Record Group 331. The American occupation required that all documents and publications be translated into English to be accessible to the American censors, and thus these archives are unrivaled for the years 1945 to 1952. They are both extensive and, fortunately for researchers without Japanese fluency, in English.

A variety of primary courses in English have been assembled by Barbara Molony, Elizabeth Dorn Lublin, and Taeko Shibahara and are available online in the Japan cluster of Women and Social Movements in Modern Empires Since 1820.24

Many interwar feminists wrote memoirs, but almost all are in Japanese. One that is readily available in the original English is (Katō) Ishimoto Shidzue’s Facing Two Ways. Another, which has been translated into English, is Hiratsuka Raichō’s In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun.25 Primary documents of the Bluestocking movement have been translated and annotated by Jan Bardsley.26

The best archive of primary sources for the contemporary feminist movement is the Women’s Action Network (WAN), founded by Ueno Chizuko.27

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Marnie S. A Place in Public: Women’s Rights in Meiji Japan. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010.
  • Bardsley, Jan. Women and Democracy in Cold War Japan. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
  • Bernstein, Gail Lee, ed. Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Bullock, Julia, Ayako Kano, and James Welker, eds. Rethinking Japanese Feminisms. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017.
  • Faison, Elyssa. Managing Women: Disciplining Labor in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
  • Frederick, Sarah. Turning Pages: Reading and Writing Women’s Magazines in Interwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006.
  • Germer, Andrea, Vera Mackie, and Ulrike Wöhr, eds. Gender, Nation and State in Modern Japan. London: Routledge, 2014.
  • Gerteis, Christopher. Gender Struggles: Wage-Earning Women and Male-Dominated Unions in Postwar Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Hastings, Sally A. “Women Legislators in the Postwar Diet.” In Re-imaging Japanese Women. Edited by Anne E. Imamura. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Hiratsuka Raichō. In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun: The Autobiography of a Japanese Feminist. Translated by Teruko Craig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Hunter, Janet, ed. Japanese Women Working. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Kano, Ayako. Japanese Feminist Debates: A Century of Contention on Sex, Love, and Labor. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016.
  • Kovner, Sarah. Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.
  • Lowy, Dina. The Japanese “New Woman”: Images of Gender and Modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
  • Lublin, Elizabeth Dorn. Reforming Japan: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the Meiji Period. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2010.
  • Mackie, Vera. Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Mihalopoulos, Bill. Sex in Japan’s Globalization, 1870–1930: Prostitutes, Emigration and Nation-Building. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011.
  • Molony, Barbara. “Crossing Boundaries: Transnational Feminisms in Twentieth-Century Japan.” In Women’s Movements in Asia: Feminisms and Transnational Activism. Edited by Mina Roces and Louise Edwards. London: Routledge, 2010.
  • Molony, Barbara, and Kathleen Uno, eds. Gendering Modern Japanese History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005.
  • Shibahara Taeko. Japanese Women and the Transnational Feminist Movement before World War II. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014.
  • Shigematsu, Setsu. Scream from the Shadows: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  • Sievers, Sharon L. Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.
  • Suzuki, Michiko. Becoming Modern Women: Love and Female Identity in Prewar Japanese Literature and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.
  • Tsurumi, E. Patricia. Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.


  • 1. Oku Mumeo, Fujin mondai jūrokkō (Shinchosha, 1925); reprinted with afterword by Nakamura Kii, in series Kindai fujin mondai meichō senshū, dai rokkan (Tokyo: Nihon Tosho Sentā, 1982); Oku Mumeo, “Meiji yori Taishō ni itaru fujin no seiji undōshi,” Josei dōmei 8 (May 1921): 22–25.

  • 2. Michi Kawai and Ochimi Kubushiro, Japanese Women Speak: A Message from the Christian Women of Japan to the Christian Women of America (Boston: Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, 1934).

  • 3. Mary R. Beard, The Force of Women in Japanese History (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1953).

  • 4. Sharon Sievers, Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983).

  • 5. Vera Mackie, Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment, and Sexuality (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Japanese Women Working, ed. Janet Hunter (London: Routledge, 1993); Gregory M. Pflugfelder, “‘S’ is for Sister: Schoolgirl Intimacy and ‘Same-Sex Love’ in Early Twentieth-Century Japan,” in Gendering Modern Japanese History, ed. Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005); Barbara Sato, The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Sally A. Hastings, “Women Legislators in the Postwar Diet,” in Re-imaging Japanese Women, ed. Anne E. Imamura (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Kathleen Uno, “One Day at a Time: Work and Domestic Activities of Urban Lower-Class Women in Early Twentieth-Century Japan,” in Japanese Women Working, ed. Janet Hunter (London: Routledge, 1993); Sheldon Garon, “Women’s Groups and the Japanese State,” Journal of Japanese Studies 9.1 (1993); Ronald P. Loftus, Telling Lives: Women’s Self-Writing in Modern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004); E. Patricia Tsurumi, Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Donald Roden, “Thoughts on the Early Meiji Gentleman,” in Gendering Modern Japanese History, ed. Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005); Ayako Kano, Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan: Theatre, Gender, and Nationalism (New York: Palgrave, 2001); Sabine Frühstück, Uneasy Warriors: Gender, Memory, and Popular Culture in the Japanese Army (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); and Regine Matthias, “Female Labour in the Japanese Coal-Mining Industry,” in Japanese Women Working, ed. Janet Hunter (London: Routledge, 1993).

  • 6. Gail Lee Bernstein, ed., Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

  • 7. Haruko Wakita, Anne Bouchy, and Chizuko Ueno, eds., Gender and Japanese History, vols. 1 and 2 (Osaka, Japan: Osaka University Press, 1999).

  • 8. Merry I. White and Barbara Molony, eds., Proceedings of the Tokyo Symposium on Women (International Group for the Study of Women, 1978).

  • 9. Among numerous works, see, e.g., Suzuki Yūko, Feminizumo to sensō (Feminism and War) (Tokyo: Marujusha, 1986); and Kanō Mikiyo, Onnatachi no jūgo (Women and the Home Front) (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1987).

  • 10. Chizuko Ueno, Nationalism and Gender, trans. Beverley Yamamoto (Melbourne, Australia: TransPacific Press, 2004).

  • 11. Elizabeth Dorn Lublin, Reforming Japan: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the Meiji Period (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010); Marnie S. Anderson, A Place in Public: Women’s Rights in Meiji Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010); Mara Patessio, Women and Public Life in Early Meiji Japan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011); Bill Mihalopoulos, Sex in Japan’s Globalization, 1870–1930 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011); Harald Fuess, Divorce in Japan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004); Sabine Frühstück, Colonizing Sex: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Barbara Brooks, “Reading the Japanese Colonial Archive: Gender and Bourgeois Civility in Korea and Manchuria before 1932,” in Gendering Modern Japanese History, ed. Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005); and Hiroko Tomida, Hiratsuka Raichō and Early Japanese Feminism (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2004).

  • 12. Dina Lowy, The Japanese “New Woman”: Images of Gender and Modernity (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007); Miriam Silverberg, “The Modern Girl as Militant,” in Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945, ed. Gail Lee Bernstein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Michiko Suzuki, Becoming Modern Women: Love and Female Identity in Prewar Japanese Literature and Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Haruko Taya Cook, “Women’s Deaths as Weapons of War in Japan’s ‘Final Battle,’” in Gendering Modern Japanese History, ed. Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005); Sarah Frederick, Turning Pages: Reading and Writing Women’s Magazines in Interwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006); Jan Bardsley, The Bluestockings of Japan: New Woman Essays and Fiction from Seitō, 1911–16 (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2007); Hiratsuka Raichō, In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun: The Autobiography of a Japanese Feminist, trans. Teruko Craig (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Taeko Shibahara, Japanese Women and the Transnational Feminist Movement before World War II (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014); Noriyo Hayakawa, “Feminism and Nationalism in Japan, 1868–1945,” Journal of Women’s History 7.4 (1995); Helen Hopper, A New Woman of Japan: A Political Biography of Katō Shidzue (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996); Manako Ogawa, “Estranged Sisterhood: The Wartime Trans-Pacific Dialogue of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1931–1945,” Japanese Journal of American Studies 18 (2007); Mariko Tamanoi, “Suffragist Women, Corrupt Officials, and Waste Control in Prewar Japan: Two Plays by Kaneko Shigeri.” Journal of Asian Studies 68.3 (2009); Rumi Yasutake, “The First Wave of International Women’s Movements from a Japanese Perspective: Western Outreach and Japanese Women Activists during the Interwar Years,” Women’s Studies International Forum 32 (2009); Sumiko Otsubo, “Engendering Eugenics: Feminists and Marriage Restriction Legislation in the 1920s,” in Gendering Modern Japanese History, ed, Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005); Janet Hunter, Women and the Labour Market in Japan’s Industrialising Economy (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003); Andrea Germer, “Feminist History in Japan: National and International Perspectives,” in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context 9 (2003); Barbara Molony, “Crossing Boundaries: Transnational Feminisms in Twentieth-Century Japan,” in Women’s Movements in Asia, ed. Mina Roces and Louise Edwards (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2010); and Elyssa Faison , Managing Women: Disciplining Labor in Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

  • 13. Christopher Gerteis, Gender Struggles: Wage-Earning Women and Male-Dominated Unions in Postwar Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Mire Koikari, Pedagogy of Democracy: Feminism and the Cold War in the United States Occupation of Japan, 1945–1952 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008); Sarah Kovner, Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Naoko Shibusawa, America’s Geisha Ally: Reimaging the Japanese Enemy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999); Ayako Kano, Japanese Feminist Debates: A Century of Contention on Sex, Love, and Labor (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016); Jan Bardsley, Women and Democracy in Cold War Japan (London: Bloomsbury, 2014); Setsu Shigematsu, Scream from the Shadows: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Julia Bullock, Ayako Kano, and James Welker, eds., Rethinking Japanese Feminisms (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017); and Sandra Buckley, Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

  • 14. Sabine Frühstück and Anne Walthall, eds., Recreating Japanese Men (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

  • 15. Mark McLelland and Vera Mackie, eds., Routledge Handbook of Sexuality Studies in East Asia (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2014).

  • 16. Andrea Germer, Vera Mackie, and Ulrike Wöhr, eds., Gender, Nation and State in Modern Japan (London: Routledge, 2014); and Susan L. Burns and Barbara J. Brooks, eds., Gender and Law in the Japanese Imperium (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014).

  • 17. Kazuhiro Oharazeki, Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887–1920 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).

  • 18. Fusae Ichikawa Center for Women and Governance.

  • 19. Nihon Kirisutokyō Fujin Kyōfūkai, ed., Nihon Kirisutukyō Fujin Kyōfūkai hyakunenshi (Centennial History of the Japanese WCTU) (Tokyo: Domesu Shuppan, 1986).

  • 20. Kouchi Nobuko, Shiryō: Bosei hogo ronsō (Documents: Motherhood Protection Debate) (Tokyo: Domesu Shuppan, 1984).

  • 21. Ichikawa Fusae, et al., eds., Nihon fujin mondai shiryō shūsei (Documents of Issues in Japanese Women’s History) (Tokyo: Domesu Shuppan, 1975–1980).

  • 22. Kindai Nihon joseishi e no shōgen (Evidence from the Modern Japanese Women’s History) (Tokyo: Domesu Shuppan, 1979).

  • 23. Suzuki Yūko, ed., Nihon josei undō shiryō shūsei (Collected Documents of the Japanese Women’s Movement) (Tokyo: Fuji Shuppan, 1993–1998); and Mizoguchi Akiyo, Saeki Yōko, and Miki Sōko, eds., Shiryō Nihon ūman ribu-shi (Documents of the History of the Japanese Women’s Liberation Movement) (Tokyo: Shokado, 1991).

  • 24. Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, Women and Social Movements in Modern Empires since 1820.

  • 25. Shidzue Ishimoto, Facing Two Ways: The Story of My Life (originally published by Farrar and Rinehart, 1935; widely available in a Stanford University Press edition, 1984, with an introduction and afterword by Barbara Molony); and Hiratsuka Raichō, In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun, trans. Teruko Craig (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

  • 26. Jan Bardsley, The Bluestockings of Japan: New Woman Essays and Fiction from Seitō, 1911–16 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2007).

  • 27. Women’s Action Network.