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Women and Modern Japan: The Tumultuous History of Change

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The process of contemporization in Japan spearheaded the inception of the metamorphosis of women’s roles within Japanese society. Throughout history, the country of Japan underscored strict gender roles. In fact, the social position and status of women in Japanese society can indeed be ascribed to the philosophy of Confucianism: a system of social and ethical philosophy. Such an idea and emphasis on following this way of life promoted a disregard towards women’s participation in Japanese society and public affairs, as well as their overall societal status. There are undoubtedly remnants of these Confucian influences within Japanese society today. However, in spite of the long-lasting residue of such a philosophy, the public role of women has changed markedly since their subservient responsibilities in the prominent feudal Tokugawa Period. Throughout Japanese history began the start of non-compliance towards gender roles and expectations—especially with regard to women and the subsequent emergence of the “moga” (modern woman). This illustration of the “moga” served as a close-ups lens into the complex kaleidoscope-like maze of the metamorphosis of women’s roles within Japanese society and history.

The Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) not only served as a driving force in establishing Japan as a force to be reckoned with in the East, but this significant era of tranquility also shaped Japanese gender expectations…and continues to impact them even today. Confucian ideas—once analyzed more closely and carefully—appeared to, at its core, abraded and eroded the ability of women to hold significant power in Japanese society. Hence, such a philosophy stressed hierarchy and patriarchy. Hence, Japanese women settled for subservient citizenship under the influence of such a widespread belief within Japan. This philosophical thought is especially seen in Musubi’s Story, an account of a Tokugawa Samurai written by Katsu Kokichi that provides an invigorating close-up lens on Japanese society, customs, and life. In this riveting story, Kokichi provides a compelling detail to support the significance that Confucian ideas play within Japanese society. Kokichi illustrates that even Japanese schools must convey Confucian values, such as loyalty and the virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors Confucian values were emphasized in the minds of young children; ideas that they will consequently bring with them into adulthood and will eventually affect Japanese society as a whole.

Thus, such notions and philosophies formulated the values of the county of Japan and its inhabitants during the Tokugawa Period. Moreover, the philosophy of Confucianism, a system of social and ethical philosophy, is reflected in Japan’s division amongst a marked four-tier class system: samurai, artisans, farmers, and merchants. Each class expressed its own ranks and echelons of hierarchy; heavily evident amongst the ruling Samurai: a member of a powerful military caste in feudal Japan which thus validates the magnitude of the significance that Confucian philosophies serve within Japanese society. And even further, certainly, each class had its own gender roles and expectations to uphold. A close inspection of women’s roles in Tokugawa Japan reveals both the intricacy and complexity of the relationship between the country’s restrictive rules and its women. As modernization eventually took form through Japanese society, women’s roles eventually evolved and took a different shape as well. The image or illustration of the moga, or “modern girl” illustrated the Japanese woman’s place within the modern world. However, the moga was, without a doubt, often met with great distress, given the threat that liberated, freedom-seeking women posed to the morally driven Confucian values of Japanese society.

The feudal system of Tokugawa Japan was well preserved by the policy of seclusion or “closed country” (sakoku). Such a system certainly served well in keeping Japan in a state of nearly complete isolation. Certainly, Japan’s seclusion and lack of contact with other nations and different cultures and people greatly preserved the country’s feudal ruling. It is in fact within this system that the Confucian lifestyle, of which is especially unique to the Tokugawa Period, emerged into all aspects of Japanese life: economically, politically, and socially. Hence, in this isolated feudal era of the history of Japan, a rigid and inflexible class system emerged. This extends to the idea that the Tokugawa Period proved to be a time in which women in Japan experienced limited women’s rights. The beliefs and values of this era pressured, in a sense, Japanese women to fulfill domestic and familial caretaking responsibilities through a spousal role. As it was deemed by Japanese society that the most important role for a woman was to be a loyal and obedient spouse, they were thus silenced to make contributions towards their own lives, of which included domestic, educational, and political affairs.

The restrictive values Japanese women were expected to follow unfortunately resulted in a lack of mobility in pursuing opportunities outside of domestic responsibilities. On the other hand, Japanese men were given a thorough education, as society deemed was their right, and were able to partake in leadership roles. Meanwhile, the average woman in Tokugawa Japan fulfilled her household duty and nurtured her children until they are old enough to leave on their own. Thus, childbearing, in a sense, appeared to be deemed a Japanese woman’s patriotic duty. In a sense, the Japanese woman appeared to be the face for the moral foundation of Japan. If the image of the traditional Confucian family shattered, not only would the home cleave, but society as well. Its moral foundation would hence become unstable…fissured. Ergo, was domestication as honorable of duty for the woman as Japanese society made it out to be?

The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), taking place immediately after the feudal Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), represented Japan as a country that embraced nascent modernity. The fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate preceded the onset of a restructuring of Japan’s economy, politics, and society. The Meiji Restoration was a time for industrial development and social change. The Meiji Restoration represented a shattering of conventional Japanese thinking and instead of an emergence of modern Western-European thoughts. The emergence of modern Western European perspectives caught the attention of thinkers like Fukuzawa Yukichi who insisted on the equality of sexes and the monogamy system. Fukuzawa Yukichi is often given the credit for being one of the first prominent figures to speak out on women and their position in society. Fukuzawa had very early advocated the importance of education for women and also the improvement of their position in society. Fukuzawa founded scholarly journals such as Meiroku Zashi. In the journal, Fukuzawa criticized Japan’s stance toward a heavily patriarchal society and insisted on women’s independence and liberation. Though short-lived, Meiroku Zashi undoubtedly became a significant forum for discussion of matters pertaining to civilization and enlightenment. Such a tremendous stance on Fukuzawa’s part soon marked the beginning of women’s school education and the chance for women to explore opportunities beyond the domestic.

The Taisho Era, following the early modern time of the Meiji Era, which took place between 1912 and 1926, is an intriguing period within Japan’s illustrious history. The Taisho Era continued the process of Japan’s modernization. This period not only encouraged an evolution of Japan’s once isolationist ideals to an embracement of an expansionist personality but also pushed for economic and political developments. With Japan’s increased international appearance and domestic liberalism, modernization flourished within the country. The Taisho Era was undoubtedly an electrifying age for Japan’s people and even more for its women. And even further, it was a time driven by industrial innovation and excitement. Japan saw an acceleration of social expression, and with the changing era, the Japanese woman unquestionably evolved as well. This was the time of the moga, the quintessential modern woman; a liberated individual who represented a nouveau sense of freedom.

It soon became apparent that modernism and imperialism could not go hand in hand, especially through literary scholars such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki through his novel, Naomi. Tanizaki writes well-renowned literature that presents a scandalous world, emerging of sexuality, and degradative desires. Through this text, Tanizaki is inspired to illustrate the changing Japanese woman. Naomi reflects the complex and differentiated transformation of women in Japan. Tanizaki opens this literary text with an image of the Taisho woman through Naomi, a character of which the text shares the same name. The changing Japanese woman, like Naomi, has been viewed as a sort of nuisance during Japan’s passage into a modern era. Naomi, the main character, showcases her opposition—and undeniably the Japanese woman’s resistance—towards the “outdated” traditions of Japan. In the text, Naomi delves into a world of the emancipated woman, a woman that Japan had hardly known.

Just like the new roles women discovered in Taisho Japan, as many rejected the traditional “good wife, wise mother” lifestyle that was heavily emphasized in Japanese society. Instead, they began to welcome the idea of the moga. Just like the character Naomi, who sported short hairstyles and hemlines, so did the Japanese moga, along with an unbound outlook on life. Naomi is a female with few hesitations. She enjoyed “Western activities” such as going to the movies and reading “Western magazines.” She is the perfect example of the moga with. Throughout the novel, she manages to take control of her relationship with Jōji, beginning as a once subordinate young female to becoming a dominating woman. Thus Tanizaki, through Naomi, establishes the notion that women in Japan began to partake in a social and cultural revolution that was established to break traditional norms.

Both the Japanese “moga” and the titular character Naomi detested the restrictions of traditional expectations for women to settle down and fulfill the roles of being a good wife and wise mother. Tanizaki uses Naomi as a metaphor for the evolution of gender roles in Japan: Naomi refused to be subjected to a “traditional” marriage with her husband Jōji. The character Naomi serves as a literary manifestation of Japanese women’s gender role transformation and revolution during the Taisho Era. In the novel, Naomi is transformed into a modern woman, when, for example, she returns to her husband after some time apart, she appears before him as a: “black shape like a bear” that: “burst into the room from the darkness outside. An unfamiliar young Western woman stood there in a pale blue French crepe dress”. Naomi is no longer recognizable to Jōji—like the unrecognizable transformation of the Japanese moga. Henceforth, Naomi’s change into a “Western” woman is symbolic of the Japanese woman’s desire, perhaps even since the Tokugawa Period, to manifest a life in a less rigid society. Thus, through the text Naomi, Tanizaki illustrates the Japanese woman’s modern transformation and encourages one to ponder on the Japanese woman’s search for her identity in a changing world.

It is intriguing to observe the changing post-war gender roles in Japan, especially Japanese women’s changing role in contemporary Japanese society. The emergence of Postwar Japan brought the opportunity for Japanese women to take on more “scandalous” occupations such as being comfort women. After Imperial Japan’s defeat in World War 2, there followed an aura of denial from their surrender. State authorities encouraged the construction of “comfort” facilities—of which included brothers, bars, cabarets, and restaurants—to, in a sense, “comfort” the military occupants because they were “haunted by defeat.” In the postwar era, women were mobilized as sex slaves and prostitutes by police and labor brokers, right-wing politicians, and fascist organizations. The initiative was aimed at protecting the Japanese “national body” a concept of identity and unity. With the country’s loss, this initiative helped Japan’s authorities establish a nouveau sense of community.

In a way, gender and sexuality were mediated by Japanese women’s bodies, serving as important constituents in the clash between the fall of the Japanese empire and the rise of the American empire, and thus eventually paving the way for the emergence of nationalism in a postwar Japan. The cultivation of leisure served directly affected the social status of the women who worked in the pleasure quarter. It is interesting to note the magnitude at which female sexuality was condemned in the pre-war era through the image of the “moga,” but now their sexuality seems to be used openly—and in high demand. Such is undoubtedly a leap from the traditional “good wife, wise mother” role that once penetrated the greater norm in Japanese society.

It is inevitable to take into account women and Japan’s history of change. Author Sayaka Murata meditates on a more contemporary Japanese society through her literary work: Convenience Store Woman. In this novel, Murata illustrates how the role of women continues to change even in the twenty-first century. Although there remains in Japanese society the unspoken rules on the occupations a woman should take, Murata, challenges these expectations. Throughout a brief history in time, the Japanese woman has had the opportunity to be a mother, wife, and comfort woman. Murata conveys the notion of newfound female freedom in her novel through the main character Keiko Furukura, who puzzles those around her by working at a convenience store. Murata, through Convenience Store Woman, questions what Japanese society considers to be an acceptable career for a woman. In the novel, Keiko loves working in a convenience store. However, those around her cannot seem to understand her enjoyment in this occupation, much to her frustration. To them, she should have obtained a “better” job, or have gotten married and had borne children by now, as she is in her mid-thirties. Murata provides a close lens on the pressuring nature of social norms, especially in Japan.

Murata constantly questions the idea of normality and Murata wants us to consider why it is so important to be normal. Keiko is happy with her occupation. However, the continual social pressure Keiko receives is evident: “Deep down I wanted some kind of change….whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now”. The impasse that Keiko finds herself in is her difficulty to choose between becoming the person she is expected to be, or if she should diverge from this expected path and follow through with finding her own happiness. Through Keiko, an unmistakably modern woman, Sayaka Murata connects to the impasse that women throughout Japanese history faced as they combatted restrictions placed on them throughout history.

Women have, without a doubt, experienced a whirlwind history of change in Japan. Through time, the Japanese woman has been molded by the country’s once rigid gender roles, to eventually being her own sculptor and in turn, experiencing mobility and liberation within society. The Japanese woman has pursued opportunities that extended beyond mothers and wives, but workers and true citizens. Although there remain the grips of societal expectations even in present times, the Japanese woman continues to push forward in the fight to express her true nature and desires.

The woman’s role in change certainly is not limited to that of the Japanese women. This can even extend beyond Japan, to Korea, more specifically North Korea where today it is dangerous for women to wear makeup. A short documentary video titled: The Terrifying Danger Of Wearing Makeup In North Korea from Refinery29 depicts this struggle. However, like the rebellious Japanese women who persevered to make their mark in society, so are the women of North Korea. In North Korea, an underground network of women who are smuggling beauty products like makeup. Their act of rebellion displays their refusal to be kept down and trapped by their government, and are unwilling to be policed and controlled. Thus, women in general, not just Japanese and Korean women will undoubtedly continue to play an active role in social movements. Japanese women have opened the door to the outside world and pursued opportunities to express themselves, and no doubt the women of North Korea will continue to revolt to take back their individuality. History has proven that women have, and will continue to serve as wonderful attributes to society.

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Women and Modern Japan: The Tumultuous History of Change. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from
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