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History Of Change Of Women Roles From The Tokugawa Shogunate To Modern Japan

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In the decades since women’s history became an acknowledged field on a global scale, scholars and authors have produced essays, biographies, and translations that consider the subject of women in early modern Japan. Japanese culture has historically emphasized gender roles, and the position of women in Japanese society can be attributed to the vestiges of ancient philosophies like Confucianism and Samurai based feudalism. These influences are still strong, however in spite of these influences, the public role of women has changed markedly since the beginning of World War Two. Turning points within Japan’s history allowed for the the start of defiance towards gender expectations in Japan, and the emergence of the “moga” or modern woman. This moga became a visual vessel within the prism of Japanese women’s changing role throughout history. The Edo Period, otherwise known as the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), served as a catalyst for Japan’s position as a great power in the East. This long era of peace shaped Japanese gender expectations and continues to influence them even today. Japan was once a largely matriarchal society, as the influx of Confucian ideas from China eroded the ability of women to hold power. Confucian ideas stressed hierarchy, male dominance, integrity, and righteousness. Hence, women became subservient under the influence of such philosophies. This is especially seen in Katsu Kokichi’s Musui’s Story: There is a compelling indication within the text that details Japanese schools must convey Confucian values, such as loyalty and virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. Such ideals formulated the values of Japan during the Tokugawa Era. Soon, Japan become divided among a distinct four tier class system: samurai, artisans, farmers and merchants. Each class had its own tiers and levels of hierarchy, which is heavily evident amongst the Samurai and ruling Shogunate. And consequently, each class had its own gender expectations. A close look at women’s roles in Japan during the Tokugawa Period reveals the complexity of the relationship between the imperial state and its people. As reform and modernization evolved through society, women’s roles eventually evolved as well. The image of the moga, or “modern girl,” was ultimately popularized to show Japan’s entry into the modern world. However, the moga was often met with a pronounced concern, or even anxiety, given the threat that emancipated, pleasure seeking women were considered to pose to the moral, gender-based underpinnings of Japanese society. As such, the moga was defined, discussed, and criticized by society and intellectuals during its entire transitory, yet magnitudinous, existence in interwar Japanese society. The Tokugawa Period proved to be an era in which women in Japan experienced limited women’s rights.

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The beliefs and values of the period encouraged women to be obedient wives and fulfill their domestic and familial caretaking responsibilities. As a woman’s role in Japanese society was to be a loyal spouse and an obedient mother, they were thus silenced to make any contribution towards their own lives including marriage, children, education and political or government issues. Such a value that Japanese women were expected to uphold was the driving reason for their restricted opportunities, as opposed to the men, who received a thorough and rightful education. During this period, however, the wife or children of a samurai were the only females within this class to be granted an education, but even then it was very restricted; their teachings were not to be used in politics or government. If women were to be taught it was only to learn elemental literacy. Nevertheless, the majority of women within Tokugawa society fulfilled their household duty and nurtured their children until they were grown. During the time of social upheaval, women were encouraged to be the moral foundation of the country of Japan. The traditional notion of the Confucian Family: father to son, senior to junior, husband to wife, was pushed by the government as it attempted to increase the birth rate so that Japan could compete on a more equal level with the countries of the West. This system gave women a responsibility in producing more children with their men to enable the birth of more boys to fight and protect their country. To the Japanese men this was an honorable task, but for some women it was a harsh sacrifice of the body and freedom as individuals. The Meiji Restoration (1867-1912) proved to be a time for increased developments, and consequently the life of the Japanese woman begin to drastically change. During early industrialization, women worked in factories under poor conditions, but by the end of the Meiji Era, these situations became less common. The late Meiji period proved to the first era in time that began to break the “good wife, wise mother,” mantra advocated by the government to strengthen the social fabric of the state along traditional lines. Although during the Meiji Restoration Japanese women continued to exhibit a lack of power within society or their families, they were now encouraged to be educated. Regardless, women were still under the influence of the man of the house and legally had no power. This is further emphasized under the Meiji Civil Code of 1888, a state document that formalized the roles and responsibilities of men, women, and families in the new nation under construction during the Meiji Period. This document gave the male head of the family absolute authority over family members. Men had the sole right to control family property, determine where each family member could live, approve or disapprove of marriages and divorce, and control inheritance. Such restrictions proved to be 3 sore obstacles standing in the Japanese woman’s way to social and domestic liberation. Barriers such as documents like the Meiji Civil Code slowed the feminist movement. This document is further expanded in the Meiji Constitution of 1889 and the Law of Election, which indicated that female citizens were denied the right to vote. It took a new generation of young intellectuals within the feminist movement to 4 fight for women’s right to vote in Japan, albeit this desire was not achieved until after World War Two when the election law was revised under the U. S. occupation of Japan. Given the rapid industrialization 5 and new social structures implemented under the Meiji Restoration, Japan experienced a great diversification of not only social and cultural identities, but of gender roles as well.

The Taisho Era (1912-26), wedged between the nascent modernity of the Meiji Era (1867-1912) and the militarist movement of the early Showa (1926-1989), marked deep change and modernization in Japan. This era represented a continuation of Japan’s rise on the international scene and liberalism at home, as well as the country’s continued push for economic and political concessions. As with any rapid societal change, modernization of the Japanese nation and society was a complex process. Modernization included, but was not limited to, rapid industrial growth, new governmental and economic structures, transformation of economic roles and societal structures, and the forging of a national identity. It was an era influenced by and similar to the Roaring Age of innovation and excitement of the 1920s in the United States. The period saw a proliferation of social expression through magazines, movies, cafe and urban culture. With the evolving era, the Japanese woman unquestionably changed with the times as well. This was the period of the moga who was, in essence, the Japanese flapper: a sexually liberated, urban consumer who symbolized a new freedom of the individual and liberation of that individual from the past. While some in the state insisted that modern and imperial 6 could continue hand in hand, the apparent disagreement was evident in the varying role and portrayals of women. The changing role of women in Taisho Japan has influenced intellectuals such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki through the novel Naomi. He crafts this literary text to reflect the evolution of the Japanese woman during the mid-nineteenth century and considers the increasingly complex and differentiated women that emerged in a modernizing Japan. Naomi opens with discussion of women in the Taisho period. Tanizaki elucidates that the progressive depictions of women, such as the titular Naomi, have been viewed as a discordance over Japan’s transition into the modern period. Thus, Tanizaki highlights the opposition Naomi, and ultimately the Japanese woman has, towards traditional Japan: Naomi is content to release herself into a new world of the liberated female, a species Japan had scarcely known before. This alludes to the new roles women experienced in Taisho Japan. Many women rejected the “good wife, wise mother” ideal and the embrace of moga or “modern girl” role. These young women adopted short hairstyles, hemlines, and freer attitudes toward dating and sexuality, much like the character Naomi. Naomi embodied a social and cultural revolution and embraced the liberation from traditional norms and roles. Naomi too refused to be hampered by traditional expectations for a woman to settle down and be a “good wife, wise mother,” and demanded that her significant other Jōji never subject her to a traditional marriage. Naomi personified the process of modernization. Tanizaki thus produces a thoughtful reflection on the Japanese woman’s definite struggle for cultural identity in the modern world. Tanizaki effectively uses Naomi to illustrate the momentous gender role transformation of Japan during the Taisho Era. Such an image highlights the changing nature of the self, in particular to women’s identity during this era. Naomi symbolizes of the female cultural and social revolution in Japan. At various points throughout the novel, Naomi is “transformed,” or even rather, “transforms herself” into a modern woman, which is strikingly evident when she returns to her former significant other Jōji and appears before him as a “black shape like a bear” that “burst into the room from the darkness outside. Whipping off a black garment and tossing it aside, an unfamiliar young Western woman stood there in a pale blue French crepe dress”. Here, Naomi is no longer recognizable to Jōji, similarly to the nearly unrecognizable transformation of the Japanese moga. Thus, Naomi’s transformation into a contemporary woman is symbolic of the Japanese woman’s desire since the Tokugawa Period to imagine a less rigid society.

Expansionist and militarist Japan undoubtedly produced new roles for women. With the majority of the male population at war, more women prolonged their educations, postponed marriage, and entered the workforce. While the Japanese government remained committed to women’s subordination, war dramatically altered gender relations. Postwar, women found themselves facing dramatically changed circumstances and ideologies. The United States occupation meant the dismantling of Japan’s traditional system, manifested in the Civil Code of 1898, which previously confined women to the home. Thus, the entire Japanese society now had to make sense of democracy on the American model. Tension regarding the roles of women would continue to exemplify an aspect of 7 their ongoing complex experience in Japanese society. Henceforth, it is intriguing to observe the continued evolvement of post war gender roles in Japan, especially in Japanese women, in contemporary society. Iwao discusses that the evolution of the role of women in modern Japan and particularly in the post-war era. The differences between the American and Japanese movement, as well as the consequences in the outlook that equality does not have to mean equal roles. This notion is further expanded by Kramm: In the postwar era, women were mobilized as sex slaves and prostitutes by police and labor brokers, right-wing politicians, and fascist organizations. Organizations such as the Recreation and Amusement Association were incredibly conspicuous in the recruitment of women as sex workers, particularly for the occupiers. The cultivation of leisure served as a key point in the social status of women who worked in the pleasure quarter. Such was influential in setting standards in dress, hair style, and personal cultivation. What is interesting to note is how much female sexuality was condemned in the pre-war Taisho period through the image of the “moga,” but now their sexuality is treated so openly in Japanese society and is in high demand not just for the Japanese, but for the American occupied forces. This was by far a leap from the traditional maternal role that dictated the greater norm in Japanese society in this era. The continued evolvement of post war gender roles in contemporary Japanese society is further expressed with Iwao and Kramm. Both touch on how Japanese culture has historically emphasized gender roles.

However, Iwao expands on such ideas and touches upon the new realities of Japanese women, which essentially reveal a substantial cultural difference in the perceived appropriate role of women in Japanese society: World War Two led to comfort women, sex slaves, and women in supportive roles like the experience of colored women and white men in the United States. In a more modern perspective, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata illustrates how the role of women evolved even more than Iwao and Kramm’s image. Although Japan is still stringent on which roles a woman can take, in Convenience Store Woman we see how she now has an option to have a job, which is a large leap from what was previously emphasized and encouraged in women’s life as a mother, wife, and postwar comfort woman. Hence, Japanese culture appears to embrace the concept that men and women can be equal with different roles in society. The changing women of Japan has continued to influence even contemporary intellectuals such as Sayaka Murata. She conveys this notion of newfound female freedom through the written work Convenience Store Woman, which undoubtedly reflects the evolution of the Japanese woman even in modern times. Convenience Store Woman offers a contemporary illustration towards the continued evolving role of gender roles within Japan, and more so on the changing role of women. Convenience Store Woman questions what society considers to be social norms. For protagonist Keiko, she feels comfortable working in a convenience store. However those around her cannot seem to understand her enjoyment in this occupation. To them, she should have obtained a “better job,” gotten married and had kids. Murata provides a brutal perspective on the damaging nature of social norms that Keiko attempts to ignore as she deals with society’s continued pressures. The novel constantly questions the notion of “normal” and Murata wants us to consider why it is so important to be normal. Keiko is illustrated as content, even happy with her occupation, as she enjoyed the structure and the routine of being a convenience store worker.

However, the continual social pressure Keiko receives begin to trouble her. Keiko explains to the reader, “Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now”. The “impasse” Keiko faces has nothing to with wanting to advance in life; rather, the complications that arise as Keiko chooses between becoming the person she is expected to be, or her own unique sense of happiness. Undoubtedly, through the circumstance of Keiko — a modern woman — Sayaka Murata provides a visual vessel for the “impasse” women in Japanese history faced as they combatted social and legal restrictions placed on them over the eras. Through the prism of women, one certainly sees Japan as a place of rapid change through the dissolution of the country’s once rigidly emphasized gender roles. Such a characterization of change is especially reflected within the texts of Iwao, Kramm, Naomi, and Convenience Store Woman. Through the analysis of women’s roles throughout Japanese history, one cannot deny the rigid structures implemented throughout the eras, but also acknowledge Japanese women’s success in obtaining flexibility regarding their role in society. Thus, Japanese women will undoubtedly continue to play an active role in social movements. Japanese women have opened the door to the outside world and pursued opportunities to express themselves, not only as mothers or wives, but as workers and citizens. The revolt of individual women with pride in their cultural and social capacities provides a strong basis for mobilizing public opinion. On the other hand, particular struggles today regarding sexual rights and reproductive health have arisen. However, history has proven that movements supported by the majority of women can positively transcend social and political limitations.

01 February 2021

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