The Feminist Movement in Japan: 1980s to Present

The Feminist Movement in Japan: 1980s to Present

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Women crossing street in Tokyo
Michael Gordon / Shutterstock
As Japanese feminism entered the modern era, it debated hot button issues such as sex work and domestic violence - and also endured a furious backlash.

As Japan reached the height of postwar economic prosperity, the demand for labor increased. Women, especially former full-time housewives hoping to return to work, faced an uphill battle. Additionally, the prewar feminists’ legislation for fewer night shifts made companies hesitant to hire women since they couldn’t subject them to the same grueling hours that men were expected to work. Securing economic freedom had long been a goal for feminists, but how could they overcome such deeply entrenched gender expectations?

After Japan ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, discussions flourished about employing further legislation addressing gender inequality in the workplace. Some feminists believed established motherhood protection laws were actually limiting work opportunities for women, while others wanted to keep those laws in place, such as menstruation leave.

Did the Law Work?

Eventually, a proposal for gender equality in the workplace was brought to the Diet in 1984, despite the opposition of 48 women’s groups. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) went into effect a year later. But how truly effective was this law? In a retrospective essay ten years after the law’s ratification, lawyer Nakano Mami (中野麻美) pointed out the law’s many loopholes, mainly a lack of enforcement and penalties for companies failing to comply.

“In practice, this use of women’s labor has turned out to be nothing but a rationalization for and stabilizing mechanism for wage gaps between men and women. Companies operate under the pretext that women, who bear the brunt of family responsibilities, cannot sacrifice their family life as men do. By so doing they confine women primarily to part-time employment where unstable positions and bad working conditions are a given.”

Nakano Mami, Voices from the Japanese Women’s Movement

While still a major milestone for the feminist movement, the EEOL’s shortcomings are still felt to this day, as will be discussed later. Shortly after the law’s implementation in 1986, the economy tanked, and the number of women in the workforce plummetted. Additional legislation has made entering the workforce somewhat more palatable for women, but it’s still a far cry from the hoped-for gender equality.

The Ecofeminism Debate and Academic Feminism

In 1985, two prominent feminists — renowned sociologist Ueno Chizuko (上野千鶴子) and freelance writer Aoki Yayoi (青木やよひ) — clashed in a widely publicized debate on feminist thought. Ecological feminism or ecofeminism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, “examines the connections between women and nature” with the belief that both are dominated and damaged by a patriarchal system. Aoki used ecofeminism to call for a resurgence of the feminine principle (女性原理; josei genri) to restore the balance of modern civilization. Aoki believed the current social and cultural structures relied overwhelmingly on the male principle as a foundation.

青木やよひの部屋 | 一般財団法人 知と文明のフォーラム

青木やよひとは? 歴史の星座というものがある。 時代を彩った天空の無数の星々や銀河のなかで、 ひときわその輝きや他の星々とのつらなりを 深く印象づけたひとである。 北沢方邦 エコロジカル・フェミニスト青木やよひ ●近代文明の根底を問う視点 青木やよひはまず、日本の女性史に残るいくつかの星座の一角を占め、天空にその輝きを残しているひとといえる。生前よりむしろ、これからその光芒は輝きを増すにちがいない。なぜならそ

(JP) Link: Who is Aoki Yayoi?

This didn’t sit well with Ueno. Ueno argued that promoting a feminine principle would only reinforce the idea that “the maternal function is the only acceptable or worthwhile function for all women.” Motherhood had long been a topic of feminist debate, and this clash between two prominent thinkers only highlighted how far women were from reaching a resolution.

This debate ran parallel to a rising trend of disciplines focusing on women’s studies. Scholars and activists alike combed through the wealth of prewar feminists’ writings to build a larger, more accessible framework for women’s movements. They also become more prominent in public spheres, serving on government councils and appearing as guests on talk shows. As much as they admired prewar feminists, they were also quick to criticize them. Scholars looked back on the work of prewar feminists and severely critiqued their involvement with the pro-war government. In the eyes of some, colluding with a prowar government meant supporting every wartime policy said government carried out, including its military sexual slavery.


The Feminist Stance on Sex Work and Sexual Pleasure

At the same time as academic feminism gained traction, discord grew between academic women and everyday working women. How could educated women cloistered in academics possibly understand the trials of women who may or may not come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds? Nowhere was this disparity more evident than in the debate on sex work.

Sex work had been a thorny issue for Japanese feminists for decades. Scholar Kikuchi Natsuno (菊地 夏野) writes that most feminists believe prostitution (売春; baishun) and other sex work (セックスワーク) further oppresses and discriminates women. The passage of the Prostitution Prevention Law in 1956, as well as a failure to thoroughly listen to the opinions and perspectives of sex workers themselves, only further divided women.

In the 1995 annual report of the Women’s Studies Association, scholar Kuninobu Junko drew parallels between the institutions of marriage and prostitution and stated that “When you look at cases like Thailand, where parents turn a blind eye to their daughters selling their bodies, I’m very hesitant in being part of a movement that recognizes prostitution as a women’s right to work.”

With feminists so focused on sexual exploitation, little was spoken about women finding freedom in sex. Writer and feminist Kitahara Minori broke from this mold by becoming the first woman to open and operate a sex toy store, Love Piece Club. After trying and failing to become a “likable feminist”, Kitahara turned to create a space where women could talk about and explore sexual gratification. Her timing was in line with a shift away from the interlinking of sex and marriage; between 1974 and 1993, the number of female college students having sex jumped from 11% to 43.3%. Clearly, the rather outdated, perhaps prudish outlook on sex work only served to distance many feminists from sex workers.

Addressing Violence Against Women

Violence committed by women, like the kogoroshi no onna mentioned in part 2 of this series, was subject to heavy media coverage and scorn. Violence committed against women, however, remained a taboo topic. Domestic violence, or DV, had long been considered a “personal” issue, one that didn’t invite public intervention. Women’s shelters run by volunteers remained one of the few options for women and children seeking safety. The prevailing belief was simple but deadly: what happened in the home stayed in the home.

Many women, both researchers, women’s shelter volunteers, and DV victims alike wanted this to change. Kitahara herself became aware of domestic and sexual violence against women at a gathering of women discussing the horrific sexually-charged murder of high school student Furuta Junko. With a rising number of women occupying small government and Diet positions, chances were high of passing legislation specifically aiding battered women and children.

In 1996, women’s groups organized and held the first symposium on domestic violence in Sapporo. Their labors led to a national network enabling women to share resources in policy-making. They began assisting local governments in leading 意見交換会 (iken koukankai) where activists and victims alike could share their thoughts and experiences with leading politicians and representatives. With these testimonies and the efforts of women like Osawa Mari, in 2001 the government passed the Law for the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims. Finally, whatever violence that happened in the home was now considered not only public concern, but a crime as well.

For women’s groups to not only cooperate with the government but to have a hand in drafting legislation was a huge confidence boost. Their success derived from working within anti-hierarchical power structures established by ribu activists in the 70s, as well as the testimonies of the courageous domestic violence victims. Having achieved monumental policy change from the ground up, women next turned their attention to the contentions “comfort women” issue.

The “Comfort Women” Issue and the Tribunal

Another issue, one that still faces contention to this day, was the sexual exploitation of women by Japanese military forces during the war. Known as the “comfort women” issue (慰安婦; ianfu), feminists and scholars alike critiqued Japan’s unbalanced relations with other Asian countries. For years the Japanese government avoided issuing an official apology for their sexual slavery policies. In the countries affected by Japanese military abuse, victims and activists formed their own groups seeking justice and reparations.

Asahi Shinbun journalist and activist Matsui Yayori (松井やより) was instrumental in helping bring about the 2000 Women’s International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (known in short as 女性国際戦犯法廷; Josei kokusai senpan houtei). She worked in tandem with Southeast Asian women’s groups, victims, and Japanese activists intent on getting apologies and reparations from the Japanese government. Even though the tribunal had no legal power to punish those found guilty, it gave victims a chance to lay bare their pain and achieve some sense of closure.

Matsui Yayori (松井やより) spent much of her career reporting on sexual oppression and sex tourism in Asia. (Source: Wikipedia)

Jenda Furi and the Backlash Against Feminists

Amid reforms in the workplace and home, feminists began throwing around the term jenda furi (ジェンダーフリー). They interpretated jenda furi as “free of gender bias and discrimination” and “not bound by one’s gender.” Perhaps inevitably, conservatives didn’t take too kindly to this idea, believing it to be too radical. They blew the definition out of proportion, complaining that jenda furi ideology would lead to unisex bathrooms and legal provisions for LGBTQ+ people. The 1999 Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society came under fierce attack, despite having a hand in its formation. It didn’t help that at this time women were scrutinizing Article 750 of the Civil Code, which stated married couples had to adopt the same surname, usually the husband’s name.

The conservative panic over genda furi carried well into the 2000s, fueled by continued misinterpretations of the term and its usage. As a result, feminists were caught in a furious backlash. Ueno stated in an interview that “[the backlash] turned out to be a lot fiercer than we expected and it actually did quite a lot of damage.” Lectures were canceled, funding for women’s centers was pulled, and feminists faced harassment and belittlement.

It didn’t help that labor continued to be strictly gendered. A 2002 survey revealed that Japanese women handled the majority of housework, more so than their South Korean and US counterparts. Japan’s declining birth rate only fanned the flames. The early 90s gave rise to pro-natalist policies meant to entice women to give birth or having more than one child. Certain members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) repeatedly asserted their stance on where women belonged. In 2003, former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro — the same Mori Yoshiro whose bungled response to the Ehime Maru tragedy cost him his PM seat — stated that women who didn’t have children didn’t deserve pensions. In 2005, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare, Yanagisawa Hakuo, referred to women as “birth-giving machines.”

Feminism and the #MeToo Movement

The #MeToo movement opened up a long-simmering can of resentment and pain in Japan. Despite legislation criminalizing violence against women, sexual violence remained taboo. The woman who tore apart the curtains shadowing Japan’s dismal perception on rape was journalist and filmmaker Ito Shiori (伊藤詩織). Her allegations that high-ranking TBS journalist Yamaguchi Noriyuki (山口敬之) raped her in 2015, and her refusal to back down, opened a conversation about how Japan handles rape and sexual violence against women.

Ito’s public accusations gave many women and men the courage to share their own stories of sexual assault under the anonymity of the Internet. A 2014 survey by the Cabinet revealed 1 in 15 women were victims of sexual violence, but an overwhelming 95% of rapes go unreported. Japan’s laws criminalizing rape hadn’t been changed since its ratification in 1907. It would take Ito’s courage and the growing number of victims sharing their stories for the government to take action. In 2017, the Diet approved revisions that lengthened sentences from three years to five and broadened the definition of rape to include male victims. However, loopholes prevailed, especially in regards to consent, and a series of high-profile rape acquittals show how the law still fails to accordingly punish rapists.

#MeToo 運動は、日本の明治時代にも起きていた!|性暴力とフェミニズムを考える|香山リカ/北原みのり

診療所に来るセックスに傷ついた女たち 香山 私が性の問題について考えてみたいなと思って、それで編集者の方に、是非北原さんと話してみたいとお願いして、今回 『フェミニストとオタクはなぜ相性が悪いのか』 …

(JP) Link: The #MeToo Movement in Meiji Japan: A Conversation With Aoyama Rika and Kitahara Minori

What is the Future of Feminism in Japan?

While much has been achieved over the decades, women still struggle to be treated fairly. Women continue to fight for the right to keep their own surnames after marriage. At a University of Tokyo matriculation ceremony, Ueno ruthlessly pointed out how gender discrimination still prevented women from achieving their true potential, referring to the 2018 scandal when Tokyo Medical University altered female applicants’ scores. Even to this day, the term feminism is still regarded with wariness. The 70s media bashing of uman ribu activists popularized the image of feminists as crazy, man-hating women. Some women in Japan discover feminism through Western role models. When asked about the negative perception of feminism in Japan, fashion blogger Akira quickly pointed out the confusion over the definition of feminism:


There are too many people in Japan who don’t know or misunderstand the words feminism and feminist! Last year I saw the “Gintama” movie, and one of the characters said, “I’m not a lolicon, I’m a feminist.” I don’t know if the writer understood the meaning of the word “feminist” and made it as a gag on purpose, but why shove “lolicon” and “feminist” together?

We first should change the perception of feminism in Japan. I want people to know what the word feminism actually means.


In Akira’s case, she had come across feminism through Western role models like Emma Watson. Huffington Post Japan student editor Asada Nao (浅田奈穂) penned her journey to becoming a feminist:



Looking back, I didn’t want to be seen as an onna. I wanted to be valued as an equal in a society where men are the majority, and I was distinguishing between myself and different types of women.
Now that I’m a feminist, I can say that “feminism isn’t monolithic, there are no factions, there are no fixed definitions, and it’s not just for women.”

Asada Nao

私がフェミニストになった理由 How I became a Feminist

日本で生まれ育った私は、中学を卒業後、15歳で単身カナダへ留学した。 一番感じたのは電車の中。とにかく情報が多くて、移動時間でぐったり疲れてしまう。ぽかんと口を開けて車内広告を眺めると、細くて若くて美しい、時には半裸の女性がたくさん並んでいる。「脱毛しなきゃ恥ずかしい!」そんなメッセージが込められたポスターを毎日目に焼き付けていると、自分の価値がわからなくなってくる。 …

(JP) Link: “How I Became a Feminist”

Yet progress for the betterment of women has been made, even if it’s not under the umbrella of feminism. Organizations like SWASH and Slut Walk provide resources for sex workers and battle against sexist policies and perspectives. Social art group Tomorrow Girls Troop addresses gender inequality issues in Korea and Japan. Gravure model and feminist Ishikawa Yumi (石川優実) stepped on many a toe by starting the #KuToo movement tackling gender discrimination in corporate shoewear. Women from all walks of life come together in Flower Demos to share their grievances and decry the failure of Japan’s systems. Continuing the tradition of anti-mass media mini komi (ミニコミ) are zines like BGU Zine and Femizine.

While Japan still lags behind in gender equality compared to other developed countries, it’s ignorant and harmful to say “feminism doesn’t exist in Japan.” It dismisses the work of hundreds and thousands of women in Japan striving for equal rights, better pay, childcare support, and the right to be heard. There’s no crystal ball showing us what feminism in Japan will look like in the future, but rest assured it’s not going away anytime soon.

Woman Was the Sun: The Life of Japanese Feminist Hiratsuka Raicho

Previously In This Series

The Feminist Movement in Japan: WWII to the 1970s


Ampo Japan Asia Quarterly Review. Voices from the Japanese Women’s Movement. Routledge, 2015.

Buckley, Sandra. Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism. University of California Press, 1997.

Molony, Barbara. “Feminism in Japan.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. January 24, 2018. Oxford University Press. Date of access 25 Mar. 2020.


Shin, Ki-young. “The Women’s Movements in Japan.” 2011.’s_Movements_in_Japan

Tokuhiro, Yoko. Marriage in Contemporary Japan. New York, Routledge, 2010.

菊地 夏野, 特集「セックスワークとフェミニズム」にあたって, 女性学年報, 2018, 39 巻, p. 3-7.

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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