The Rising Sun: Power Play of the Sexes

In the last 150 years, Japan has evolved from its semi-feudal roots to become a world power. Along the way Japan struggled with the West, admiring, imitating, fighting, and ultimately, equaling its power. Japanese society has been formed from many influences, among the most important are Confucianism, Buddhism, and Samurai based feudalism. The Japanese, as in all societies derived from the Chinese Confucian heritage, value the group over the individual. The group, be it a family, or society at large, is greater than the individual. In addition to this, Confucianism emphasised the supreme position of the male, and a hierarchical power structure for society, stating: “A woman is to obey her father as daughter, her husband as wife, and her son as aged mother.” A basic tenant of Buddhism is that salvation is not possible for women, and the Samurai believed that “…A woman should look upon her husband as if he were heaven itself.”(1)

In the 15th century A.D., Japanese society had been ordered largely on matrilineal lines. The combined influences of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Samurai culture forever changed the place of the woman in Japanese society. Women living under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868), as the government of Japan was known, did not exist legally. Women could not own property, and according to a Portuguese trader, a woman’s “…husband may kill his wife for being lazy or bad.” Women could learn to write only hiragana, and thus were prevented from reading political and business transactions or great literary works, which were written in the more formal kanji. The ruler of Japan issued an exclusionary edict in 1637 that cut the country off from all contact with non-Japanese. No foreigners were allowed in and no one was allowed to travel out. Japan became a time capsule which was not opened until 1853 with the arrival at Tokyo Bay of United States Army. Thus Japan was thrust into the modern world with a societal structure that was barely discernible from that which had existed for the previous four hundred years.(1)

As the MeijiTaisho era (1868-1926) began, Japanese leaders were open to new ideas. Responding to this more liberal environment, male and female reformers created the “Popular Rights Movement” which called for new rights and freedoms. Although the reformers saw that it was important to improve the status of women, they often did so motivated mainly by feeling that this was essential if other technologically advanced nations were to accept Japan. At the same time, they were reluctant to alter the traditional role of women which had prevailed in the past. Although, this opened the door for a small group of women who called for new rights and freedoms. The phrase “good wife, wise mother” was coined, meaning that in order to be good citizens, women had to become educated and take part in public affairs.(2)

One of the Japan’s ‘first wave’ feminists to speak out was Kishida Toshiko (1864 – 1901). When she was a teenager she served the Empress13454570675_bc82ac1614_b at court, but left after two years describing the court as “far from the real world” and a symbol of the concubine system which was an outrage to women. She also wanted parents to stop ruining their daughters by turning them into “maidens in boxes.” In her speech “Daughters in Boxes” Toshiko highlights how girls are locked into three boxes – The first box is one in which parents hid their daughters, who are not allowed to leave their room and any elements belonging to the outside world were blocked out. The second box demanded the obedience of the Japanese daughters. In this box, “parents refuse to recognize their responsibility to their daughters and teach her naught”. These daughters receive no love or affection and are expected to “obey their [parent’s] every word without complaint”. The final box presented by Kishida was one in which daughters were taught ancient knowledge. In this box, parents passed down an appreciation for knowledge to their daughters.(3) She claimed that with the present family system there was no way for a young woman to develop her potential. The only appropriate” box” for daughters, said Toshiko, should be one “as large and free as the world itself.”(2)

Kishida set off on a speaking tour addressing huge crowds all over Japan. She was a powerful, dynamic speaker. She often was harassed by the police, and once was jailed. Her words, nonetheless, were heard by thousands of women who found in them encouragement to become politically involved.(2)

The position of women changed little during the fifty year period leading to World War II. However, during the war, role of women changed in society. This is mostly because around 7,190,000 men were then serving in the armed forces. With millions of men removed from industry, women found themselves working in coal mines, steel mills, and arms factories. With their husbands gone, wives were now in complete control of the home. Japanese wives found themselves doing double and sometimes triple duty.(1)

1945; by the close of WWII, Japanese society had been completely transformed. Most Japanese cities had been literally levelled, uncounted millions were homeless. The Japanese people were disillusioned with the traditional bearer of power – their military. It was the collapse of a faith, it was the disintegration of everything they believed in and lived by and fought for. It left a complete vacuum, morally, mentally, and physically.(1)

The Americans, who stepped on Japanese soil, introduced many reforms to the society. They rewrote the Japanese Constitution, outlawing war, ensuring Parliamentary rule, encouraging union activity, and reducing the Emperor to the position of a normal human being. Women suffrage came in 1946, all inequalities in laws were ended, high schools became coed, 26 women’s universities were opened, and nationwide there were now 2,000 female police officers. A Labor Standards Law was passed in 1947, it had regulations which covered equal pay, working hours, maternity leave, menstruation leave (2 days a month), and holiday leave. Unfortunately, the provisions of this law are rarely, if ever, enforced.(1) There is no law that enforces mindset change!

Today, the place of women in Japanese society provides an interesting blend of illusion and myth. There are two distinct Japanese societies – public and private. The popular Western image of the subservient Japanese woman is real, it is however, only an image. In their private family role, women quite often dominate the male members of the household. Judged by Western standards, the women of Japan are unusually dedicated to their families. A Japanese woman has almost unquestioned authority within the family system of today’s Japan. Typically the wife will make all decisions regarding the raising of children, and will have absolute control of the family’s finances.(1) Outside the home, employment patterns have also changed in the last 74 years; more women work in traditionally ‘male-dominated’ jobs for longer hours however they face blatant discrimination – it is in all professions. Japanese men really believe that women are inferior.

At their end, women in Japan seem to have an almost contemptible attitude towards their husband’s abilities. The wife of former Prime Minister Miki publicly said that her husband “hardly knows how to wash his face properly.” Seventy years ago these statements would have gone unspoken. The fact that women speak about their husbands in this manner shows that they no longer consider themselves subservient. Women’s feelings of equality, if not superiority, are starting to come into public view.(1)

Japan, perhaps more so than any other country, has undergone numerous, radical transformations in a compressed period of time. The current generation of Japanese women are in many ways victims of the past, trapped by the conflicting poles of old and new. The male-female equation has drastically shifted and a country is transitioning from one end of the spectrum to the other. A society trying to understand and barely accept the required changes and individuals projecting pressures with power plays in their traditional comfort zones.

From Kishida Toshiko to the 21st century Japanese women, roles and power politics have dramatically shifted and they will continue to evolve. Having already achieved a dominant role in issues involving the household it will only be a matter of time till women start acquiring public power. This process is being accelerated by a declining birthrate, families now expect to have 1.7 children. Japan increasingly will be forced to turn to women to fill job vacancies.(1) Will it do so with ease or head to yet another imbalanced society; bowing to feminine power this time?

As a country tries to find balance, will the dwindling numbers of the Japanese Imperial Family members force them to change policies? While World War II and American influence was writing many new laws including gender equality into the Japanese constitution, the Imperial Household remained (in Kishida Toshiko’s words) ‘far from the real world‘. To date, it continues to have a male-only succession policy with the main role of females being to produce a male heir. The recent marriage of Princess Mako to a commoner amidst much public dissent and losing her royal status, has thrown new light on to the risks and repercussions of the Imperial household’s traditional policies. By marginalising the royal females, the Imperial family has now been reduced to just 17 members and this number will progressively shrink if the policies are not amended to be more inclusive. It is strange that a mere two years after defeat in World War II, Japan was undergoing sweeping democratic reforms under U.S occupation however, the occupiers did not insist on conforming Imperial Household law to the constitution they helped impose. This exception in favour of patriarchy may just doom the imperial institution.(6)  

Change needs a catalyst and WWII left Japan shaken. John Totland aptly captures the situation in his book, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, as, “saga of people caught up in the flood of the most overwhelming war of mankind – muddled, ennobling, disgraceful, frustrating, full of paradox.” He says, “that there are no simple lessons in history, that it is human nature that repeats itself, not history.”(4). While the country continues to define reform, will the Imperial family initiate change or perish under the past? 

Change before you have to – Jack Welch



5. In-post image –

7. Feature image courtesy –