The Roles of Women in Japanese Society

Since the 1800’s, Japan shows an enriching history that displays its growth in government and gender ideologies. In 1868, the Meiji era shifted Japan from feudalism in the Tokugawa era to a more modern state. Also, the Taisho era in 1912 continued Japan’s journey to modernity by adopting more Western cultures. The gender construction of women in Japanese society also changed from the Tokugawa era to World War I.

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In the Tokugawa and Meiji era, women were assigned household roles and duties and had limited rights. However, during the Taisho period and after World War I, women began to ague for equality and reject the traditional gender principles. Also, many women never associated themselves to the traditional gender roles, which they became geishas or prostitutes. This caused many debates by both female and male activists on the issues of women’s roles, which many of them argued on the elimination of prostitution.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the growth of gender construction of the roles of women from the Tokugawa era to the 1930’s, and to look at the different roles women participated in, such as being wives, mothers, prostitutes, and geishas. Women’s Roles in the Tokugawa Era In the Tokugawa era the roles of women, particularly wives, were established to those who were in higher social classes in that period. The Tokugawa period was an era from 1600 to 1868, which the Japanese society was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate and the daimyos, who were territorial lords.

In Kathleen S. Uno’s “The Household Division of Labor, discusses how roles were established for wives based on their social status. In her article she writes, “There was, of course, little need for women in wealthy households to [do productive work], but without women’s agricultural work, majority of rural households could not survive” (25). Uno is discussing how women of different social status had different productive and reproductive roles. In farm households, the wives had to work in the fields and harvest vegetables and paddies, and spent little time in taking care of their children.

Childbearing was not the primary obligation for Tokugawa women, since they had grandmothers, fathers, and servants who took care of the children. However, wives who were married to peasants had both productive and reproductive chores, such as “[childbearing], scrubbing pots, sewing garments, and preparing meals” (27). The wives of high ranked samurais or feudal lords had no reproductive chores, due to the fact they had servants and maids that took care of their children and cleaning. They did have a few roles such as “[preparing] special foods, [decorating] the home, and [managing] servants” (28).

The household duties that were within the wives of all social classes, shows that productive and reproductive duties were the traditional female roles in the Tokugawa period. This shows that the higher a wife was ranked in the social class, resulted in having fewer amounts of duties she had in the household. However, some Japanese women in the Tokugawa period did not have those traditional duties, because they were not wives. Many Japanese women broke traditional gender roles and became Buddhist nuns or Kabuki actresses.

In Jennifer Robertson article, she writes about the discourses of female likeness and how the Tokugawa society is misogynist. This article differs from Uno, because Uno portrays the Tokugawa period as a pleasant society for women, however Robertson gives examples of how women were inferior. Robertson writes on how in the Tokugawa society, “sex was perceived as subordinate to gender” (Robertson 90). The term sex refers to biological differences between males and females, while gender describes characteristics that a culture describes as masculine or feminine.

In the Tokugawa period, masculine and feminine qualities were not noticed by society. This was shown in the Kabuki theater, which was a form of Japanese drama and dance. Male Kabuki actors, who were called “onnagata”, played female roles in the plays and dramas. This shows that instead of women, males represented the model of feminine likeness and qualities. However, there were some Japanese women who were employed in kabuki theaters as “song [instructors], [hairdressers], and ‘joruri’ [performers]” (91).

Also, Japanese women were geisha performers, who did erotic dances and plays. However, the bakufu forbid females to participate in theater activities, because it went against the traditional female productive and reproductive duties. This shows how females went against traditional gender duties in the Tokugawa period, by becoming geishas instead of wives. These women also portrayed their feminine-likeness qualities, by having themselves portray their sex and gender roles, instead of the males.

Robertson also writes, how the “Tokugawa period saw an increase in the number [of women becoming] nuns” 100). Some Tokugawa women saw marriage as unattractive since they had limited rights. Due to the limited amount of rights that were given to women, especially those who were married, becoming a Buddhist nun provided an alternative from marriage. This is another example of how some women broke gender roles in the Tokugawa period, by staying unmarried and becoming geishas or nuns. Not only were geishas Kabuki actors in the Tokugawa period, but they were also mistresses.

Mistress keeping was very common among daimyos and upper class samurais, which these mistresses were geishas and provided company and entertainment for high-ranking men. During this era, the Japanese household was “more than a biological unit…[and] defined as a corporate entity” (Bernstein 3). In Boye Lafayette De Mente’s Mistress Keeping in Japan, he writes, “Marriages were arranged without reference to love…husband and wife relations were conducted like business affairs” (24). This meant that marriage was simply a contract for Japanese families to continue their family name and heritage.

Also, Tokugawa men, especially daimyos, did not go to their wives for company or pleasure, but instead they had mistresses or geishas. Daimyos had to follow the alternative attendance system, which required them to leave their han (territory) and had to live in the state capital, Edo, every other year. The daimyos’ wives and children lived in Edo, while they had a mistress at their han. De Mente also talks about how upper-class samurais “brought [mistresses or geishas] into [their] household as servants under a special contact…[and] they were indentured playthings for [the samurais]” (17).

Most of the daimyos and high-ranking samurais did have sexual relationships with mistresses, which was forbidden for samurais, however many of the mistresses or geishas were just entertainers. In the Tokugawa era, many geishas only provided entertainment for high-ranking men, such as singing and dancing. Not only were geishas Kabuki actresses, but they also sung, danced, and played instruments for a crowd or an individual. It was common for Tokugawa men to acquire geishas as entertainment for parties and social gatherings.

This was obviously done by men who had wealth and were in the higher ranks of the social class. This is shown in Fukuzawa Yukichi’s autobiography, which in one part he is talking about his experience at the Ogata school. Fukuzawa writes how he and his friends leave school grounds late at night and encounter “a pleasure-boat moored underneath the piers. In it [were] men having [a] jolly time with their attendant geisha playing [a shamisen] and singing” (74). These geishas or mistresses were hired by men to play instruments and sing for them, which shows that the geishas only provided musical entertainment.

Also, since geishas were not married they did not have the traditional household duties, but instead their duties were to provide entertainment and company for men. While some of these unmarried women were geishas and mistresses, many of them were also prostitutes. Prostitution occurred regularly in the Tokugawa period, which differed from the geisha profession. Due to the widespread of prostitutes in the seventeenth century, the shogun established an order that blocked prostitution in certain areas. One of the areas that allowed prostitution was in the Yoshiwara district, which was in Edo.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle published a book about the Yoshiwara district and how it was a “walled-in quarter in Edo where government license prostitution thrived for two hundred and fifty years between 1618 to 1868” (4). The Yoshiwara district was one of three districts in Japan that had legal prostitution, while the profession was illegal anywhere outside those specific areas. Prostitutes and geishas were not the same in the Tokugawa era, because geishas only provided entertainment not sexual acts. Prostitutes in the Tokugawa era were called oirans”, which means “women of pleasure”.

These prostitutes were licensed to show their legality, and they also provided services to high-ranking men. Because of the alternate attendance system, daimyos had to use prostitutes or mistresses when they were away from their wives. However, many of the daimyos only had sex with their wives simply for reproduction and not for pleasure. The reason why most of the men, who went to prostitutes or had mistresses, were from the higher class is because they were the ones who could afford them.

De Mente also writes about how it was against “the law for a member of a [high ranked] samurai class to visit a red light district” (25). However, many of those upper class samurais broke those laws and went inside brothels by disguising themselves. What this shows is that prostitution was somewhat necessary for the privilege elite, since they did not go to their wives for sexual pleasure. De Mente also mentions how poor families had many daughters, and as a result they were sold into prostitution. This shows that females were an economic liability for a poor family and were seen as unimportant.

Also, it shows that many female prostitutes went into the profession against their will, which they can be viewed as slaves. Towards the end of the Tokugawa era, imperial rule was restored in Japan and a strict ideology for women emerged in the Meiji era. Also, the geishas in the Meiji era expanded their entertainment duties by becoming prostitutes. There were also a number of female and male activists that discussed gender issues, such as women’s education and prostitution. While the Meiji era provided some advocates for women suffrage, the Japanese women were still inferior in the society.

Prostitution & The Meiji Era’s Slogan for Women “Good Wife, Wise Mother”, was the official slogan and ideology that defined the role for Japanese women in the Meiji society. The Meiji era was a period from 1868 to 1912, which ended the isolated feudal society of Japan to a new modern state. During this era, women were granted a few more rights, which were established under the Meiji Civil Code of 1989. Women were allowed to divorce their husbands if they had “been cruelly treated or grossly insulated by the other” (Handout 6).

Also, Japanese women were allowed to receive an education due to the passing of the Fundamental Code of Education in 1873, which “[mandated] both male and female children to attend [school]” (Nolte and Hastings 153). However, women were still viewed as inferior towards men, and they were not allowed to participate in politics. The reason why women were not allowed in politics was because they were more valuable at home. This caused the Ministry of Education to assign certain roles for women, which they popularized “Good Wife, Wise Mother”.

According to Nolte and Hastings’ “The Meiji State’s Policy Towards Women”, they write that the slogan was for “women to contribute to the nation through their hard work, frugality, efficient management…and their responsible upbringings of children” (152). This idea was influenced by the West, which Japan was becoming less isolated and the Meiji government felt that assigning certain roles to women would help the country become more modern. This ideology was advocated by many Japanese educators and philosophers, which one of them was Nakamura Masanao.

Nakamura Masanao was a Japanese educator and philosopher, who supported the idea of developing Japanese women to become good mothers. In his 1875 speech “Creating Good Mothers”, Masanao is talking about the importance of “[having] fine mothers [in order] to advance the [children] to the area of enlightenment and to alter their customs and conditions for the good” (Handout 4). In this speech, Masanao is advocating the “Wise Mothers” part of the ideology, which he feels that having good mothers will create a brighter future for Japan.

He feels that in order to create good mothers, daughters have to be educated. This way those daughters will become “wiser” and will be able to give moral and religious teachings to their children. Masanao also speaks about marriage and how “love is the most important of the many human virtues” (Handout 4). Masanao is saying that marriages should be based on love, and by this it will create a better relationship between the husband and wife. This shows a change from the Tokugawa society, which at that time marriages were done as a business contract.

However, even though Masanao advocated equality in marriages and education, he never really talked about political rights for women. This is because he felt that the women’s role was at home and that politics would interfere with that role. Also, while Masanao was an advocate in creating good mothers, the Meiji government really focused on the “good wife” role. According to Bernstein’s introduction in Recreating Japanese Women, she wrote that the “[Meiji] state policy placed much more importance on a women’s responsibilities as a wife than on her function as mother” (Bernstein 8).

This shows that women were still inferior to men in the Meiji era, because the government put more focus on women becoming good wives for their husbands. There was not a “good husband” ideology for men in the Meiji era, but instead their duties were to “seek fortunes in the outside world of politics and commerce” (Roden 41). The ideology of “Good Wife, Wise Mother” shows how all women were assigned the same role in the Meiji society, which was to stay at home.

This differed from the Tokugawa era since the roles for women were based on their social class. One can see how men had the upper hand during the Meiji and Tokugawa eras, since they benefited from society. While the Meiji government focused women on the “Good Wife, Wise Mother” slogan, Fukuda Hideko was one women that rejected the ideology and went into politics. Fukuda Hideko went against the Meiji slogan for women, and instead focused on the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement.

Hideko was a Japanese educator and feminist who advocated for universal suffrage and criticized the Meiji government. Hideko went into politics, because she was a “strong advocate of freedom and justice throughout her life…[and] was inspired by Joan of Arc” (Hane 29-30). Hideko went against the Meiji slogan for women, and became politically active in order to fight for equal rights. In her autobiography Half of My Lifetime, she writes about how she excelled in education and was an assistant teacher at the age of fifteen.

Since she was an educated woman, Hideko was able to see the flaws of the Meiji society and unequal treatment of women. Also, Hideko followed Masanao’s views on marriage in which she would only marry for love. In her autobiography, Hideko’s parents arranged a marriage for her at sixteen, however she declined since she did not love him and “he lacked the qualities that [she wants] in a husband” (Hane 45). Hideko based her marriage on love, while her parents arranged the marriage since they had financial troubles and could not support her.

She did however get married a couple of times, in which she was first engaged to a liberal activist named Oi Kentaro. She had a child with Kentaro, but he refused to marry her since he was having multiple affairs. Hideko found this hypocritical of him since Kentaro was advocating for equal rights, however he was being unfaithful and was seeing other women. This also shows how women were still degraded in the Meiji society, because they were expected to be good wives, while the men went unpunished in being unfaithful.

Hideko also criticized men for visiting brothels and she was one of many who wanted to eliminate prostitution. During the Meiji era, there were many campaigns done by Japanese activists, who wanted to eliminate prostitution in Japan. Brothels, such as in Yoshiwara, contained “[prostitutes that] were hapless daughters of improvised peasants, who were forced to sell them to brothels” (Hane 10). Many of the prostitutes were sold into the profession, which caused many activists to fight against prostitution and try to free the ones who were sold.

Hideko was highly against prostitution and was especially critical of men spending most of their time in brothels. In her autobiography, she writes on how she “found her comrades in a drinking party with beautiful geishas” (37). Hideko feels that the problem with prostitution is that men constantly go to brothels, and because of this they are wasting their time and are degrading women. Hideko wants those men to focus on making the Meiji society better, and she also wants them to be committed in faithful relationships.

As a human rights activist, Hideko wanted to eliminate prostitution in order to help the sold prostitutes gain freedom. There were other activists that tried to eliminate prostitution in the Meiji society, such as Yajima Kajiko. Kajiko was a “Christian educatior [and] in 1886, [she carried] out her campaign against public brothels and male promiscuity” (10). Another activist was Yamamuro Gumpei, who was the leader of the Salvation Army and “played a role in the movement to eliminate brothels and free the [prostitutes] who had been sold to these houses” (10).

The Meiji government also took action on the imprisoned prostitutes, which due “to the influence of progressive notions of human rights…the government [issued] order no. 295 in 1872…[which helped the prostitutes] to be set free” (Rohl 143). However, the Meiji government did not eliminate the brothels or banned prostitution, all they did was help eliminate the practice of selling women into prostitution. Fukuzawa Yukichi was also against prostitution, however he felt that it could not be eliminated.

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