Japanese Women in Meiji Era

Since 1600s Japan’s international policy was that of isolation from the rest of the world. Foreigners and anything alien to Japanese culture was not welcomed and expelled, as well Christianity with its values. In the middle of 19th century upon the arrival of American ships and pressure from the USA, Japan had to sign a number of unfavorable treaties because its rulers understood its technological inferiority to Western world. The Meiji era that started in 1868 with the reign of Emperor Meiji became known for modernization, industrialization and urbanization of the country that was necessary to establish Japan as a potent country on international arena. In order to do that, Japan had to open its borders to foreign innovations and domesticate them.

Together with industrialization, the country became open to western societal and cultural values. Many male nationalists pointed out that modernization of many fields would not be complete unless women would be given more rights and freedoms, enjoyed by western (American and European) women. This absorption of American ideals allowed Japanese women to embrace gender equality principles. As a result the first feminists appeared in Japan forming first-wave feminist movement which fought for political (right to vote) and economic (right to have property) rights of women as well as their western counterparts (Mackie 32). However, this process is characterized by greater difficulties and its specifics in Japan. Japanese government reacted to feminist movement by adopting Meiji Civil Code in 1898 which restricted women’s position within the family and society at large. Japanese officials considered that suffragists’ fight for freedom originated from alien and devious Western culture. Hence, the thesis of this paper is that Japanese feminist movement is a result of western thinking after Japan opened its borders in 1868.

“Good Wife, Wise Mother” Ideology

With the beginning of Meiji era in 1868, Japanese leaders understood the necessity of modernization. Social and economic changes were the only way for Japan not to be overwhelmed with technologically advanced western world. Thus, Popular Rights Movement began which called for equal rights and social freedoms. For the first time in history of Japan, women joined the movement and became first-wave feminists. They fought for political rights and challenged the structure of traditional Japanese family ruled by “Ryōsai Kenbo" or “good wife and wise mother” concept .

In the previous Edo Period (1603-1868), the position of upper class women was much better than that of peasants. Court women could own the property, although it had to be managed by a man. Their education also included studying poetry, calligraphy, music, painting, sewing etc. These skills were an essential attribute for both aristocratic women and courtesans, so called geisha. On the other hand, even upper class women did not have a right to choose a husband and had to tolerate polygamy. They also could not sell or buy property and had to leave their children in husbands’ family in case that sued for divorce.

During Meiji Restoration the focal concept which described women’s ideal in Japanese society was “Ryōsai Kenbo" or “good wife, wise mother”. The ideology of “good wife, wise mother” was presented in Japan in 1875 by Nakamura Masanao. It was the basis for women’s position in antebellum period and still existed in postwar Japan as well. Shizuko Koyama calls the principle of “the paragon of an education”, which means that becoming “good wife” and “good mother” was the focal point and the purpose of women’s education in Japan during Meiji era. Young girls were taught to sew and cook, knit and take care of children. While men were expected to work and exercise authority over their families, women were obliged to do house chores and raise children. Thus, the principle of “home education” for women was established.

In order to imitate western ideas “Ryōsai Kenbo" was created, however it did not provide women with any political or legal rights. For example, it emphasized the importance of women’s education and that they should be useful to their country and society. Women also obtained a right to divorce their husbands, but only in case of his violence towards her. Infidelity was not considered as an offense to women and did not give a woman the right to divorce. Women were still inferior to men and were obliged to follow Japanese old traditions. They could possess property but needed their husbands’ approval to buy or sell any possessions. This principle was central in women’s education until the end of the World War II in 1945.

First Wave of Japanese Feminist Movement

When technological reforms started to take place in Meiji era, some nationalists (including males) emphasized that the reforms should be strengthened by giving legal rights to women. This allowed for the appearance of the first feminist wave in Japan. These women questioned “good wife, wise mother” concept. However, the debate was different from that of Western society which examined two different points: whether women should fight for equality with men or stress their differences from them. Both Japanese men and women understood that they were inherently different, thus, the rights should also be somehow different, for example, concentrating on political and economic rights rather than societal. Although women were excluded from political life of Japan by Japanese government that wished to restrict western thinking, many feminist publications appeared, such as the “Torch of Freedom”, Fogaku Zasshi, Bungei Kurabu etc.

One of the first feminists of Japan was Kishida Toshiko. She served at the court and witnessed how concubine system worked. She was appalled and felt the need to fight it as well as Japanese family structure which put women in “boxes”. These “maidens in boxes” had no opportunities to develop their potential. Kishida went on a tour around Japan to give public speeches about difficult position of women. In her speeches she underlined that, “Equality, independence, respect, and a monogamous relationship are the hall marks of relationships between men and women in a civilized society”. Many witnesses noted that she had superb oratorical skills. However, she had many conflicts with police and was even jailed for her freewheeling ideas. As a result of her tour many women became politically active and joined feminist movement in Japan. She also cooperated with men who thought that modernization of Japan was not possible without emancipation of women. They focused on issues of family structure, women’s education, and prostitution.

Later these debates shifted to acquiring political rights by women. By 1880s there were many women who gave public speeches on women’s rights. By 1898, there were 34 high schools for girls; however, the principle of “good wife, wise mother” was still the main one in education. In 1890s, Christian organizations gained strong positions in society. They greatly contributed to Feminists Movement in Japan, as they provided education for women and petitioned against licensed prostitution and violence towards women. Later industrialization of Japan also created a demand for women’s labor which undermined patriarchal system.

Meiji Civil Code of 1898

In 1890, Japan adopted new Constitution that was inspired by German Constitution. As its aim was to correspond to modern constitutions of the West, many important provisions were addresses. However, the constitution was gender-neutral, implying that women were inferior to men and no changes in family structure should be made. This Constitution created a concept of “family equals state”, where Japan was a big female and political relations in it were similar to relationships between a husband and wife in a family. Patriarchal authority in over family members was similar to emperor’s power over the state.

When in 1989 the Civil Code was adopted it was taken from western samples in order to recover for humiliation of legging behind. However, it was adjusted to Japanese idea of family-state. It imposed an ideal of patriarchal authoritative family on all classes of society in different regions. It had exceptionally patriarchic nature. A man was a head of a family and had all authority. Women were still considered inferior and were denied legal rights. Only head of the family could approve or disapprove marriages, possess property and divide inheritance. It was also explicitly stated in Civil Code that wife become a husband’s household. For the first time women could divorce their husbands but only if he exercised violence towards them. Women could not be heirs. If there was no heir, a family was to adopt a son or give everything to son-in-law. One of provisions of the Code stated: “Cripples and disabled persons and wives cannot undertake any legal action”. Thus, family system as well as inheritance system was largely preserved in its feudal form.

In general, Civil Code of 1989 was opposed to what Kishida propagated in her public speeches. Kishida Toshiko anticipated that Japanese government would be reluctant to abandon outdates and limiting traditions. In her “Meiji Reforms” she wrote that, “Yet in this country, as in the past, men continue to be respected as masters and husbands while women are held in contempt as maids or serving women. There can be no equality in such an environment...”.

Recent studies suggest that there is a link between international suffrage movement and individual women’s movement in different states. Some writers use the term of “collective identity of women’s organizations”. The other reason is that Western women who were actively fighting for their own rights considered it their duty to start propaganda of the same values for other countries. One of such countries became Japan which opened itself to western influence. For example, there appeared Japanese Christian Women Temperance Union (JCWTU) which was a philia of CWTU of America. It promoted American values such as temperance and sanctity of home, abolishment of legal prostitution, establishment of monogamy. During Meiji period many American feminist books and journals were translated and publicized in Japan.


The Meiji era is a period of 1868-1912 which refers to the reign of Emperor Meiji. The Emperor understood that Japan legged behind western civilization and could no longer stay isolated from it. He directed the country toward modernization and introduced western innovations to Japan. Along with modernization and urbanization of the country, the West brought its societal and cultural values. One of the Western ideas became improvement of female position in the society. Before modernization of Japan women’s only roles were that of a wife and a mother. Women were inferior to men of all ages, as Japanese society was extremely patriarchic.

Legislators considered women’s rights to be an essential component to technological changes, if the country wanted to be taken seriously on international arena. For that reason some of feminists’ demands were met. However, this was only an official position. In reality, Japanese elite did not want to transform the traditional women’s role in Japanese society and felt reluctant to make any changes. In order to restrict women’s freedoms Meiji Civil Code was adopted in 1898. It gave a man of a family an absolute control above other family members. Men had a right to control family property, to approve marriages and divide heritage among heirs. Naturally, women could not take any legal actions against their husbands.

The basis for appearance of feminist movement in Japan became the influx of western ideology after Japan took a course for modernization of the country. Moreover, Western women considered it their duty to promote western values and ideas outside America and Europe. They sponsored translation of English feminist books into Japanese and their publication. Hence, flood of “Americanized” thinking did not only bring economic changes and technological innovations to Japan but also resulted in appearance of feminists movement that during the first-wave was greatly opposed by Japanese authorities.

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