Japan elected a new prime minister, Koizumi Junichiro, in 2001, and one oft-noted characteristic of his administration is that it involves women more than ever before. Five of Koizumi’s cabinet positions, including Foreign Minister and Justice Minister, are occupied by women. However, it was not until 1960 that a woman became a cabinet member in Japan, and women have continued to appear in the cabinet on only a very hodge-podge basis well into the 1990’s. Although this historic situation tells much of the rising status of women in Japan, it tells little of the roots of Japan’s gender gap, and where the ceiling lies in the rise of women to power in one of the world’s most populous, and economically powerful, nation states.

The Classical Period

In ancient times, Japan’s society was actually matriarchal: it was not until the importation of Chinese Confucianism to Japan with the passing of the Taiho Code in 702 AD that women officially had a subservient role in Japanese life. Japan’s religious complex since that time has incorporated Confucian social doctrine, Shinto spirit worship (the native religion), and Buddhist precepts of the afterlife. The Confucian elements have had the greatest direct effect on Japan’s society, especially as far as women are concerned.

The Heian era, between the late 700’s and 1100’s AD, saw Japan’s female nobility officially placed under males, but they still proved to be key political players in the strength of families. Women at this time could be financially independent of men in theory, but in practice were forced to live in isolation from society, which often made them powerless to act of their own accord. Nonetheless, women of this time were empowered through literature and art. Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari, written around 1008, is widely regarded to be the first novel in the world, and other women writers composed waka poetry that has remained a staple of Japanese literature for centuries. In fact, it was these women poets and writers that brought native Japanese writing into the mainstream: until then, male writers had been writing in Chinese.

However, the Heian era was a time of relative stability in Japanese society, and it eventually broke down into a war between two rival clans, and then into a war between fiefdoms lasting, in various forms, well into the nineteenth century. During this time, a warrior class of noble and bitterly competitive samurai families formed the apex of Japan’s feudal system, and each had virtually unlimited power within their own households. Interestingly enough, women often played a role as samurai themselves during this turbulent period, studying martial arts and training themselves in weapon handling. However, this fell out of practice around the seventeenth century.

The Medieval Period

The samurai system was consolidated under a line of shogun rulers known as the Tokugawa. The period of their rule, between 1600 and 1868, is known as the Edo or Tokugawa period. One of the more notable features of Japanese political structure at this time was that it did not base itself on subjects or citizens, as in other countries, but on households, known as ie in Japanese. Sons inherited control of the household from their fathers, and thus the system could be called almost entirely patrilineal. In some cases, women were married to industrious men outside of their household so that its control would slip to the son-in-law instead of a less capable biological son: this was especially common among merchant families that were not as concerned with blood lineage as with profit. Because all samurai were ultimately living off of a fixed stipend from the shogun, the household became more of an enterprise than a conjugal unit.

In general, women in the household system held no power. Girls were educated until the age of 12, enough to make them capable of running a household, and were subliminally taught from birth to leave the best food and living conditions to male members of the household: indeed, they would end up almost completely subservient to their husbands. They were considered ready to marry as soon as they could groom themselves and sew their own clothes, often around the age of 14 or 15. When they did marry, their bloodline was scrutinized for any signs of mental or physical disabilities, to ensure the livelihood of children—curiously enough, the male bloodline was not scrutinized in the same way. It was the norm among samurai to remarry almost immediately after their wife died. Some high-ranking samurai, such as Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, died having many, many wives.

Another important facet of the Edo period, when discussing the status of women, is the famous “pleasure quarters,” or brothel districts, in major cities such as Edo (now known as Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka. These were established in the late 1500s in an attempt to centralize Japan’s sex industry, which was huge in a nation of warring samurai that were often away from home for months at a time. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the de facto ruler of Japan at the time, believed that prostitution was a strategic asset and needed to be monitored by the government. In the seventeenth century, Japan’s pleasure quarters were a center of high society. Top courtesans in Edo could charge the modern equivalent of a thousand dollars a day for their services, and their exploits were glorified in literature of the time—in fact, some wealthy customers ended up sponsoring shrines in the names of their favorite geisha. These courtesans were expected to be intelligent, artistic, and talented, and their role at the time was more of an entertainment role than a prostitution role, although it still often involved sex. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, growing pressures on the Japanese economy ended the glory days of the pleasure quarters, and their women were lowered back down to simple prostitution. The fact that prostitution was treated in such a light is yet another reflection on Japan’s Confucian ideals, which suggested that impropriety among women was to be shunned, but that impropriety among men was not.

Modern Times

In 1868, the Japanese state fully re-opened itself to the West and restored the centuries-lost sovereignty of the emperor. Over the next few decades, having received extensive economic and intellectual investment from Europe and the United States, Japan began to sculpt its prewar government, officially scripting the household system back into law. The idea was to convey the concept that Japanese were all ultimately a large family with the emperor at the top. Women continued to enjoy virtually no rights under this system, as all inheritance was patrilineal and a woman’s expected role was to maintain the household for the pleasure of the men. It was not until 1899 that secondary education for girls was instituted, but by 1907 96 percent of girls were entering school.

Men’s suffrage became universal in 1925, but women were not to see the right to vote for some time: in the early 1930’s, just as it seemed that the time for women’s suffrage may have come, Japan’s war with China began—the conflict that would eventually lead into World War II. The growing war in Asia meant that more of Japan’s young men were fighting overseas, and this led to an increasing rate of passing on the ie through daughters and sons-in-law instead of sons.

After Pearl Harbor, the household system practically collapsed, although it was still “official.” Women were working in factories, digging trenches, serving as air raid wardens, and, toward the end of the war, trained to fight with bamboo spears as a safeguard against potential Allied invasion. Following the surrender, the new government was commanded by General Douglas MacArthur to institute specific reforms, including the enfranchisement of women. In 1946, the new constitution proclaimed the equality of the sexes, and following its ratification, the Japanese Civil Code was revised to abolish the household system, thus, at least in theory, liberating Japanese women as a whole.

In respect to the injustices of the ie system, Nakane Chie makes the interesting assertion that, because women were able to take control of the household upon their husbands’ death, the system was not really a form of discrimination, even though it hindered the power of wives. This seemingly self-contradictory statement reinforces an important notion among women’s rights activists in Japan: women have always held some form of power in society, even when law has dictated otherwise, stemming back from the beginnings of Japanese history in the Yamato plain and extending to the elite ranks of the three thousand geisha in Edo’s pleasure quarters that were responsible for the pleasure of a million men. Women have been a major source of labor in Japan for centuries: even in the restrictive samurai families, they often wove fabric to help pay for their servants and retainers. Japan’s attempts to downplay the position of women did not hinder the slow empowerment of women, as the postwar period would show.


The end of World War II gave women a new societal challenge to overcome. In the postwar economy, Japan’s lifetime employment system became the norm for male college graduates. Large corporations gave their employees virtually infinite salaried contracts at high pay levels and with massive corporate perks, in return for obedience and subservience to the company. The resulting work force, known as “salarymen” in Japan, is expected to work from morning to night, six days a week, all year, with few vacations and no paid overtime. Most Japanese homes are thus the complete responsibility of their wives, who are expected to do virtually all work at home—including repairs, yard work, and other jobs considered by Americans to be “male” jobs—while the salaryman husband works at his company. Women are expected to become wives: 95% of Japanese women marry by the age of 35. In essence, the ie system was resurrected in an unofficial form.

This can be seen in the nature of Japan’s education system. The vast majority of Japan’s elite private high schools are single-sex, with boys’ high schools preparing their students for professional study, and girls’ high schools preparing their students for studies in the humanities. Indeed, in the 1970’s, women were going to college almost as frequently as men, but nearly 90% of junior college attendees were female, compared to 20% of four-year college attendees. Most female college students in Japan study English, music, literature, or art, rather than a specific professional concentration: the humanities have often been called the study of housewives. Women’s universities generally lack graduate schools, and many highly-educated women from co-educational universities in Japan find it difficult to marry equally educated men. The clear implication is that women are not going to school to become professionals, but rather to educate themselves well enough to marry a wealthy husband.

Clearly, Japanese society has advanced not so far beyond the ie concept that was so key in Japan’s Confucian culture a millennium ago. Today, though, in an age of continuing internationalization in Japan (and, indeed, globalization worldwide), many parties in Japan want to see change. More Japanese women are working than ever before—over half of them—and many women are returning to work after their children enter school. Women’s organizations have become a major consumer lobbying force in Japanese politics.

One recent change rising in Japan—largely due to the growing influence of female lawyers, politicians, accountants, and tax specialists—is “selective naming” for housewives, a direct assault on what vestiges remain of the old ie system. On March 16, 2001, Justice Minister Takamura proposed a public opinion poll to determine whether married couples should be able to take the family name of the wife or the husband, or be able to keep their own individually. The Komeito subsequently proposed legislation to that effect in the Diet on June 15, but the ruling LDP has, at this writing, not yet passed the legislation. Polling showed that 40% of the Japanese public was for the legislation and only 22% was against, with 38% registering no opinion. While the speed at which the movement has reached the Diet may be reassuring to some, the apathy of the Japanese public toward the issue confirms that many do not want to see the societal restructuring that a group of empowered Japanese women could force.

It is both an overstatement and an understatement to say that women still have far to go in Japan. In a sense, Japanese women have been among the most idolized figures in world history. In another sense, Japanese women have lived for centuries as the slaves of a male-dominated political and social structure that has only recently began to open up. The worlds of the geisha and of the housewife are far apart, but the suffering of both is still clearly visible to the outside observer. Women are no longer satisfied by the touch of silk and the sight of flowers: what they desire now is power, and their desires will continue unabatedly until they are met.

Originally titled "Evolution of the Woman in Japanese Society." A Node Your Homework production.
That said, I cannot help but address what kaytay has written below. If nothing else, it needs to be noted that her observations describe tendencies that are much more prevalent in the greater Tokyo area than in the rest of Japan (where 75% of the population lives). Here's my take on her talking points:

  • "Japanese women are pigeon toed": Women were, indeed, encouraged to mince around in olden days, although this had more to do with the suffocating nature of their kimono than anything else. It is also true that some torendii girls in Japan love to put on ridiculously high-heeled boots and prance around Shinjuku or Namba, hineys bobbing every which way as they struggle to stay upright. Office ladies also wear high heels and slim skirts often as part of their uniform. This is not, however, a trend that extends to all Japanese women, and in fact, I would say that the high heel-wearing ass-jiggling population is in the minority, especially outside Tokyo, where silly fashion fads are not taken as seriously. Most Japanese women walk just like women in other countries do.
  • "Japanese women are incredibly indulgent mothers": This is utter crap. Having lived in various Japanese families, I can assure any E2 reader that indulgent mothers are the exception, rather than the norm, in Japan. Mothers in the United States are generally much, much more indulgent than mothers in Japan, who spend all their time at home and know every last thing going on in their kids' lives. Japanese fathers, on the other hand, tend to be pushovers, since their responsibilities are generally limited to bringing home the bread.
  • "Japanese women are bow-legged": No, but they do tend to be cross-eyed.
  • "Japanese women do everything in their power to appear childlike": The statement that "it's not uncommon to see a woman in her mid twenties on the train clutching a stuffed animal and wearing a frilly pink dress covered in lace and bows complete with pink Mary Janes" shocks me, since I never saw anything remotely like this in all my time in Japan. This generalization might be better supported by the tendencies of Japanese women to speak in high voices and use juvenile-sounding language, but it's hard to say that this is being done intentionally.
  • "Japanese women try to look 'western'": Yes, but no more so than women in China or Korea. Eyelid folding is not a common practice, and I highly doubt that anyone would do it out of a desire to look more Western. For that matter, I never met a schoolgirl who wore loose socks because she wanted to make her legs look more American. The reason I've always heard for wearing loose socks, without exception, is "because everyone else does it and it's kawaii." If girls wanted to make their legs look more American, they would be better off gaining 50 pounds. (rim shot!)
Yes, that last sentence is a generalization, too. Now you know how it feels. And knowing is half the battle.