Feminism in Japan
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Feminism in Japan began in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Many observers believe the movement was due to the flood of western thinking that reached Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Others argue that the women's rights movement in Japan drew from imported and native thought. Japanese feminism differs from Western feminism in that it is less focused on individual autonomy.
Before the 19th century, Japanese women were traditionally taught to obey a male: a father, husband, brother, or son. However, after the Meiji Restoration abolished the feudal system, changes were made in the status of women Trafficking in women was restricted, women were allowed to request divorces, and both boys and girls were required to receive elementary education.
Further changes to the status of women came about in the aftermath of World War II. Women received the vote, and the new constitution of 1946 stipulated equality between the sexes.
In 1970, in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War, New Left and student movement radicalism of the late 1960s, a new women's liberation movement emerged in Japan called ūman ribu (woman lib). This movement was in sync with radical feminist movements in the U.S. and elsewhere, catalyzing a resurgence of feminist activism through the 1970s and beyond. The activists forwarded a comprehensive critique of the male-dominated nature of modern Japan, arguing for a fundamental change of the political-economic system and culture of the society. What distinguished them from previous feminist movements was their emphasis on the liberation of sex (sei no kaihō). They did not aim for equality with men, but rather focused on the fact that men should also be liberated from the oppressive aspects of a patriarchal and capitalist system.
In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The convention was ratified by the government of Japan in 1985.
Formation of the New Woman Association
In 1919, with the help of Ichikawa Fusae and Oku Mumeo, Raicho Hiratsuka created the New Woman Association: Shin Fujin Kyokai. Their goal was to achieve rights of protection and inclusion through identifying a female class. In November 1919, Hiratsuka delivered a speech at the All-Kansai Federation of Women's Organizations: “Toward the Unification of Women” stated that if women had rights, they would be able to be part of the state and help determine the future.
- First, they wanted to amend the Public Peace Police Law, a revised version of the 1890 Law on Political Association and Assembly, which banned women from joining any political party or attending or participating in political events.
- Second, they wanted protection from husbands and fiancés with venereal diseases. The Revised Civil Code of 1898 stated that a woman who commits adultery is subject to divorce and up to two years in prison. However, a woman was unable to divorce her husband if he committed adultery. Challenging patriarchal society, the New Woman Association wanted reforms so that women could reject infected husbands or fiancés.
Two petitions were prepared. The first addressed the need to give women rights and to include women in the state by revising the Public Peace Police Law. The second addressed the need to protect women by testing future husbands for sexually transmitted diseases and would allow women to divorce husbands and collect compensation for medical expenses. Unfortunately, the Diet was adjourned before the petitions could make it to the floor. On February 26, 1921, the House of Representatives passed a bill to allow women to attend political meetings. However, the bill was defeated in the House of Peers. Finally in 1922, the Diet amended Article 5 in the 1900 Police Law allowing women to attend political meetings, but not allowing them to join political parties or vote. Women still celebrated the partial victory.
The Red Wave Society
The Red Wave Society, Sekirankai, was the first socialist women's association. Yamakawa Kikue and others organized the association in April 1921. The Red Wave’s manifesto condemned capitalism, arguing that it turned women into slaves and prostitutes. Rural families were forced to contract their daughters to factories due to financial difficulties. These girls were required to live in dormitories, unable to leave except to go to work. They worked 12-hour shifts in poor conditions. Many caught brown lung, a disease caused by exposure to cotton dust in poorly ventilated working environments, and other illnesses related to working in textile factories (Ravina). The state refused to enact legislation needed to protect women in the factories. There were no on-call doctors in the dorms and no medical compensation for contracting brown lung or any other illnesses. After the contract ended, they returned to the countryside to be married. The Red Wave Society mainly focused on suffrage and women’s rights.
Other groups were formed concentrating on their own demands. Some women pushed for political rights while others looked to end prostitution. Housewives campaigned to rationalize their roles at home. On September 1, 1923 around lunchtime the largest recorded earthquake hit Tokyo. Seventy-three percent of the city was destroyed and over 100,000 people were killed or reported missing. Kubushiro Ochimi, a member of the Women’s Reform Society, and many other women, turned to the relief effort. Socialists like Yamakawa, middle-class Christians and housewives worked together to supply earthquake victims with food, clothing, and shelter.
The Tokyo Federation of Women's Organizations
On September 28, 1923, 100 leaders from many organizations came together to form the Tokyo Federation of Women’s Organizations: Tokyo Rengo Funjinkai. They divided into five sections: society, employment, labour, education, and government. The government section focused on women’s rights and discussed ways to gain membership in the state. The leader of the government section, Kubushiro Ochimi, called a meeting in November 1924 for women interested in working for women’s rights. The meeting created the principal women’s suffrage organization called the League for the Realization of Women’s Suffrage [Fujin Sanseiken Kakutoku Kisei Domei]. The organization’s goal was to improve the status of Japanese women. In their manifesto they declared that it was female responsibility to destroy the past 2,600 years of customs and to promote natural rights of men and women. It was unjust to exclude women from voting having already proved their subjectivity. Political rights were necessary to protect working women. According to some, women must recognize their own potential before the law. Women need rights for the government to recognize them as human. And it is possible, some say, for women, no matter their religious background or occupation, to come together on these issues.
To achieve their goals, the league petitioned for civil rights. In February 1925, the Diet passed the universal manhood suffrage bill, allowing men to vote free from any economic qualifications, excluding women. They continued to lobby representatives to discuss their issues. In March 1925, four items were to be discussed in the Diet. Many women came to watch as the House of Representatives discussed amending the Public Peace Police Law of 1900, a petition for higher education for women, a petition for women’s suffrage in national elections, and a petition to make changes to the City Code of 1888 and the Town and Village Code of 1888, which would allow women to vote and run for local offices. The House of Peers defeated the bill to amend the Police Law. Through the 1930s feminists believed the best ways to achieve their goals were through protection of laborers, welfare for single mothers, and other activities producing social welfare reforms.
When women in Japan got to vote for the first time on April 10, 1946, it showed that they were truly citizens and full members of the state. Women like Hiratsuka Raicho, Yosano Akiko and Kubushiro Ochimi worked extremely hard to achieve self-transcendence and self-actualization.
Although women’s advocacy has been present in Japan since the nineteenth century, aggressive women's suffrage in Japan was born during the turbulent interwar period of the 1920s. Enduring a societal, political, and cultural metamorphosis, Japanese citizens lived in confusion and frustration as their nation transitioned from a tiny isolated body to a viable world power. Perhaps one of the most profound examples of this frustration is the fight for women’s rights and recognition in Japan.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the concept of rights began to take hold in Japan. During the latter portion of the nineteenth century, the first proponents for women’s rights advocated for reforms in the patriarchal society that had oppressed women (not for political inclusion or voting rights). Of prime importance to the early feminist movement was the call for women’s education. Policymakers believed that women’s education was imperative to the preservation of the state because it would prepare girls to be knowledgeable wives and mothers capable of producing diligent, nationally loyal sons. Although policymakers did not necessarily have the same motives as women’s rights advocates in their call for women’s education, the development of such education opened the door for further advancements for women in Japanese society. Also occurring at the end of the nineteenth century was the fight for women’s protection from some of the cultural practices that had long subordinated women.
As the topic of women’s rights began to gain a larger following, women’s advocacy groups slowly developed and tuned their interests to other issues impacting women in Japan. The interwar period, which followed the conclusion of World War I, brought about what has become known as the women’s suffrage movement of Japan. Feminists opposed the nation’s provision of civil rights to men exclusively and the government’s exclusion of women from all political participation. Women in Japan were prohibited by law from joining political parties, expressing political views, and attending political meetings. By 1920, the fight for women’s political inclusion was at the forefront of the suffrage movement; in 1921 women were granted the right to attend political meetings by the Japanese Diet (parliament), which overruled Article 5 of the Police Security Act. The ban on women’s involvement in political parties, however, was not eradicated. Many members of the Diet felt that it was unnecessary and selfish for women to participate in the government. While they faced immense opposition, feminists were determined to fight for political equality.
After women were granted the right to participate in and attend political assemblies, there was a surge in the development of women’s interest groups. Alumni, Christian missionary, and other women’s auxiliary groups began to sprout in the interwar period. After a massive earthquake struck Tokyo in 1923, representatives from 43 of these organizations joined forces to become the Tokyo Federation of Women’s Organizations (Tokyo Rengo Fujinkai). The federation was designed to serve as a disaster relief organization that aided those impacted by the earthquake. As time progressed, it went on to become one of the largest women’s activist groups of the time. To efficiently address the specific issues impacting the women of Japan, the Tokyo Federation of Women’s Organizations divided into five satellite groups: society, government, education, labor, and employment. The government sector was perhaps the most significant of the federation’s satellite sectors because it spawned the League for the Realization of Women’s Suffrage (Fujin Sanseiken Kakutoku Kisei Domei) which was the most influential and outspoken women’s advocacy collective of the time. The government satellite organization issued a manifesto that outlined the abuses that Japanese women suffered and also how to correct these issues. The manifesto was as follows:
- It is our responsibility to destroy customs which have existed in this country for the past twenty six hundred years and to construct a new Japan that promotes the natural rights of men and women;
- As women have been attending public school with men for half a century since the beginning of the Meiji period and our opportunities in higher education have continued to expand, it is unjust to exclude women from international suffrage;
- Political rights are necessary for the protection of nearly four million working women in this country;
- Women who work in the household must be recognized before the law to realize their full human potential;
- Without political rights we cannot achieve public recognition at either the national or local level of government;
- It is both necessary and possible to bring together women of different religions and occupations in a movement for women’s suffrage.
The League for the Realization of Women’s Suffrage, as well as numerous other women’s advocacy groups, continued to fight for social and political inclusion, as well as protection under the law from the patriarchal traditions that continued to plague the country. Their fight continued to progress and make strides until women were finally granted the right to vote in 1946.
Second-wave feminism and birth control activism
Second-wave feminism in the United States had an impact in many other countries and inspired increased activism in Japan, too. Mitsu Tanaka was the most visible individual figure in Japan's radical feminist movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She wrote a number of pamphlets on feminist topics, the most well-known being Liberation from Toilets. She was a tireless organizer for the women's liberation movement, helping to lead protests, co-founding the Fighting Women's Group of activists, and establishing the first women's centre and women's shelter in Japan during the 1970s. She dropped out of the public feminist movement by the late 1970s.
Another activist to receive much media attention in Japan was Misako Enoki. Enoki was a pharmacist who organized activists to push for the legalization of the birth control pill. Her approach was to generate media attention by forming a protest group called Chupiren, who wore pink motorcycle helmets and took part in publicity stunts such as confronting unfaithful husbands in their offices. The male-dominated media gave coverage to radical feminists such as Tanaka and Enoki but did not take them seriously. Like Enoki, Tanaka was an activist for birth control, organizing protests to protect women's legal access to abortion procedures. The birth control pill was legalized in Japan in 1999. Abortion in Japan, which is less stigmatized, is frequently used as the alternative. The Japan Family Planning Association, an affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, was established in 1954.
The Women's Liberation Front (WOLF) was another radical activist group during the 1970s. One of its activists, Matsui Yayori, a journalist, was a well-known organizer with the "Women's International War Crime Tribunal," a panel that put the Japanese government "on trial" to hold it accountable for war crimes committed against the 'comfort women' exploited and sexually abused by the Japanese occupiers during World War II.
Women's speech in Japan is often expected to conform with traditional standards of onnarashii (女らしい), the code of proper behavior for a lady. In speech, onnarashii is exhibited by employing an artificially high tone of voice, using polite and deferential forms of speech more frequently than men, and using grammatical forms considered intrinsically feminine. Feminists differ in their responses to gender-based language differences; some find it "unacceptable," while others argue that the history of such gender-based differences is not tied to historical oppression as in the West.
In Japan, marriage law requires that married couples share a surname because they must belong to the same koseki (household). Although it has been possible since 1976 for the husband to join the wife's family in certain circumstances, 90% to 98% of the time it is the woman who must join the man's family and therefore change her surname. Men may take the wife's surname "only when the bride has no brother and the bridegroom is adopted by the bride's parents as the successor of the family."
Feminist groups have introduced legislation that would allow married couples to maintain separate surnames, a practice which in Japanese is referred to as fūfu bessei (夫婦別姓 lit. "husband and wife, different-surname'), but such legislation has not yet been enacted.
A manual widely spread throughout Japan from the Edo era to Meiji period was Onna Daigaku, Great Learning for Women, which aimed to teach women to be good wives and wise mothers. Women were to maintain the strict family system as the basic unit of Japanese society by unconditionally obeying their husbands and their parents-in-law. Women were confined to their households and did not exist independently. They were subordinate to their father's or husband's family. A woman was divorced and sent back to her family not only for bad health or barrenness but disobedience, jealousy, and even talkativeness.
During the feudal era, women lucky enough to be educated were instructed by their fathers or brothers. Women of the higher class were discouraged from becoming educated more than women of the lower class. The men in the higher classes enforced social norms more strictly than men in lower classes. This made women of higher class more likely to be bound to the norms. Soon after the Meiji Revolution, in an effort to spread practical knowledge and practical arts needed to build society, children were required to attend school. In 1890, forty percent of eligible girls enrolled in school for the allotted four years. In 1910, over ninety-seven percent of eligible girls enrolled in school for the then-allotted six years. These schools were meant to teach feminine modesty.
One of the earliest modern female writers was Higuchi Ichiyō (1872–1896). After her father died, she lived in poverty, supporting her mother and sister. In 1893, she began to publish her writings in order to earn money. Her novels and stories were critically acclaimed by the literary elite, but they were never a financial success. The family opened a toy and candy shop near Yoshiwara, the geisha quarter of Tokyo. Working in such a district, Ichiyo became more aware of women’s conditions. One of her major works, Nigorie [Muddy Waters], portrays unfortunate women forced into becoming geisha due to economic circumstances. The women, no matter what role they took, were despised by society. Jusanya [Thirteenth Night] is about two families joined by marriage. The woman is of low class and the man, a high-ranking government official. Through marriage families can secure their well-being and it was the only way to move upward in society. The woman sacrifices herself for her family to endure cruel and humiliating taunts from her husband and is unable to protect herself due to social norms. Ichiyo’s stories offer no solutions beyond explicitly depicting the conditions of women. According to some, her four-and-a-half-year-long career marks the beginning of Japanese women’s self-awareness.
Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) is one of the most famous female poets in Meiji period Japan. As the daughter of a rich merchant, Yosano was able to attend school and learned to read and write. Later she became a sponsor of the magazine Seito Bluestocking and also a member of Myojo Bright Star, a poetry journal. In September 1911, Yosano Akiko’s poem, “Mountain Moving Day,” was published on the first page of the first edition of Seito, a magazine that marked the beginning of the Seitosha movement. Named for literary groups in England known as "bluestocking", its editor Hiratsuka Raicho (1886–1971) was the financial and philosophical might behind the initial spark of the movement (Lowy, 11). The women of Seito used literary expression to fight Confucian-based thought and improve opportunities for women (Reich & Fukuda, 281).
Other women brought other views to the magazine. Okamoto Kanoko (1899–1939) brought a Buddhist view. Her poetry was more concerned with spirituality. According to her, women could find success by not acknowledging the illusions of the world. Without attachment to the world, excluding the patriarchal society, women can find inner strength. Ito Noe (1887–1923) became editor of the magazine after Hiratsuka left due to pleading health issues in 1915. She explored women’s rights to abortion, which remained a hot topic until the magazine's end in 1916. Ito married an anarchist, Osugi Sakae. Both became political prisoners, then murdered by military police in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake of 1923. Hayashi Fumiko (1904–1951) was the antithesis of Okanmoto Kanto. Hayashi was naturalistic describing life as an experience (Reich, 286). Her stories are about economic survival of women without men. However, the endings return to male society with no solution. She is the next most popular writer after Higuchi Ichiyō.
Seito was controversial as it became more concerned with social problems. Seito introduced the translated version of Ibsen’s A Doll's House. The play is about a woman who forges her father’s signature to save her husband's life. Instead of being grateful, her husband reacts with anger and disgust. She then decides to leave him.
The government did not like the dissemination of these types of values. Government opposition increased, deeming the content “harmful to the time-honored virtues of Japanese women”, and banning five issues of Seito (Raicho, 218). The first issue to be suppressed was a story, "Ikichi" ["Life Blood"] by Tamura Toshiko, about the reminiscences of a woman and a man who spent the night at an inn. Hiratsuka Raicho’s issue was banned because it challenged the family system and marriage. Ito Noe’s "Shuppon" ["Flight"] is about a woman who left her husband and then her lover betrayed her, another issue that was banned.
Japanese women's groups began campaigning against institutionalized prostitution in the 1880s and banded together in 1935 to form the National Purification League (Kokumin Junketsu Dōmei). Early activists tended to express disapproval of the women who were prostitutes, rather than of the men who managed such services, particularly in the widespread military brothel system. Later Japanese feminists expressed concern about the management of sexuality and the reinforcement of racialized hierarchies in the military brothels.
Japanese feminists began to argue in favor of birth control in the 1930s; abortion was allowed by the government in 1941, but only for eugenic purposes. Women who gave birth to many children received awards from the government. The Family Planning Federation of Japan, an affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, is Japan's main reproductive rights organization, lobbying for the legalization of oral contraceptives and for the continued legality of abortion, and disseminating educational materials on family planning.
Traditionally, women in Japanese society have possessed most power as mothers. Some feminists argue this type of power only upholds a patriarchal system. At least one responds that to the Japanese, to make such a claim is to hold parenting and household duties in relatively low regard:
In any East Asian culture you will find that women have a very tangible power within the household. This is often rejected by non-Asian feminists who argue that it is not real power, but ... Japanese women look at the low status attributed to the domestic labor of housewives in North America and feel that this amounts to a denigration of a fundamental social role—whether it is performed by a man or a woman.
A growing number of young women are remaining unmarried in Japan today, a development often viewed as a rebellion against the traditional confines of women's restrictive roles as wives and mothers. In 2004, 54% of Japanese women in their 20s were still single, while only 30.6% were single in 1985. Young women are instead indulging in a lifestyle centred on friends, work, and spending disposable income; unmarried Japanese adults typically live with their parents, and thus save on household expenses, and increasing the amount of money available to spend on their own entertainment. Sociologist Masahiro Yamada gave these young adults the label "parasitic singles". Some young women reacted by creating business cards with their names and the title "Parasite Single" on them. Japanese media has given heavy coverage to the decline in Japan's birthrate, but the trend continues.
Unions were legalized in 1946, after MacArthur declared the new law for unions in December 1945. However, unions had little effect on the conditions of women. Unions stayed in the male domain. Throughout most of the century, few women were allowed to hold office, even in unions with primarily female membership, and until at least the 1980s unions often signed contracts that required women workers (but not men) to retire early.
Equal Employment Opportunity Law
As of 2013, The Equal Employment Opportunity Law in Japan does not prohibit sexual harassment at workplace.
There are no legal provisions prohibiting sexual harassment in Japan. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law merely creates a duty of employers to take measures to prevent sexual harassment. Recourse through the courts for the non-compliance of this duty would have to be done by invoking the clause for damages for tort under the Civil Code, just as it had been done before the adoption of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law.
On April 29, 2013 during the 50th session of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, NGOs briefed the Committee which victims of sexual harassment would lose their cases in court because there are no explicit legal provisions prohibiting sexual harassment. On May 17, the Committee published its Concluding Observations including the recommendation:
- "The Committee urges the State party to introduce in its legislation an offence of sexual harassment , in particular in the workplace, which carries sanctions proportionate to the severity of the offence. The Committee also recommends that the State party ensure that victims can lodge complaints without fear of retaliation. The Committee recommends that the State party continue to raise public awareness of sexual harassment ."
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