Women’s Liberation in Japan by Kyler Hood

posted by khood4208
Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Japan in the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century was notable for women’s political, social, and economic inequality. The Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) led by General Macarthur, however, managed to implement civil reforms that led to the liberation of women in Japan.

The process towards reform was slow because the existing laws, particularly the Civil Code of 1890 decimated all aspects of individual freedom for women. The most important social unit was the family, the ie, which gave all power to the man of the household. Women had no say on anything. Women could not possess property, wield parental clout, or decide who they would marry. The head of the household had complete control over women and could make them be employed anywhere whether in a factory or house of prostitution. Control over women passed from the familial head of a household to a woman’s new husband when she became married. 

Slowly, Japanese society took small steps and provided women with some freedoms. In 1922, women were allowed be present at public meetings for the first time. In 1930, women could become members of parties, but still were not allowed to vote.

Faced with political obstacles to women’s freedoms, new feminist leaders emerged to rally women together in order to provoke the Japanese government to change. In 1927, Fusae Ichikawa and Shizue Kato led the New Woman Society to begin the fight for overall equality for women in society. Their campaigns were hindered by internal differences of opinion, and interference by the militarists from 1947-1950, but in 1938 the feminist movement managed to get a law passed that provided help to widows and abandoned mothers. One leader, Ichikawa, also managed to have a profound impact on the careers of reforming politicians, most importantly Naoto Kan.

SCAP, however, initiated a reform in Japan that continues to have an impact—the Constitution. The Constitution called for the ie to be abolished and women to be regarded equally. Marriage became a contract based upon reciprocal compliance by both individuals involved, and all contradictory sections of the Civil Code were made to agree with the respective parts of the Constitution. Both men and women were allowed to inherit property, a woman could control her own property, and a woman was allowed parental authority. Prostitution was prohibited and women gained equal pay for the same work a man was doing. In 1948, the Eugenics Law gave women the right to most forms of abortion. Women gained the right to vote in 1946, and some gained parliamentary positions.

The letter of the law may change, but old habits die slowly. In rural areas especially, sons were still rulers of the family. Even in modern day Japan, the individual is not emphasized. People do not have individual identification cards and in some places arranged marriages still happen.

 SCAP, however, did manage to make sweeping reforms that forever changed the civil freedoms of people throughout Japan, especially women. With time, Japan may continue its trend towards a more individualistic perspective.

Leave a Reply