The Feminist Movement in Japan: Meiji to World War II

The Feminist Movement in Japan: Meiji to World War II

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Yosano Akiko
Picture: neftali / Shutterstock
Learn about the early history of the feminist movement in Japan, and how women went from being "daughters in boxes" to earning suffrage and liberty.

We’ve covered many notable Japanese feminists on our site, but we haven’t done an in-depth dive into the Japanese feminist movement as a whole. Sure, we’ve touched upon it, but focusing on key figures is one thing. Parsing through the various, often clashing, narratives of a movement spanning decades presents a different challenge.

There’s no one mold of feminist thought that encompasses the movement in Japan. It isn’t based wholly on socialist feminism, liberal feminism, or radical feminism. (Curiously enough, eco-feminism hasn’t hit it off in Japan, something I’ll address in part three). Rather, it is a mixture of all those schools of thought and is constantly evolving to address modern issues.

I know what some of you are thinking. “Japan only has feminism because of the West.” “Feminism is a Western import.” “Feminism doesn’t exist in Japan.”

I invite you to keep reading.

For starters, the battle for women’s rights has been ongoing since the 1870s when shifting political and social spheres enabled women to tread in spaces previously barred from them. Yes, it’s true that some feminists were inspired by Western writings. However, feminists took those ideas to create their own ideologies based on Japanese social and cultural factors. To place the credit on the West erases and does a disservice to past and present Japanese feminists.

As Property and Servants: Edo Era

To understand how women began to fight for their rights, we need to take a look at the status of women in the Edo era (1603-1868).


Confucian values imported from China dictated society and conduct. Under Tokugawa militaristic rule, women were shoehorned into largely domestic spaces, taking on roles as dutiful daughters, mothers, wives, and servants. Higher-class families married their daughters off to secure political or financial alliances. Women from the lower classes spent their lives in the service of others. The geisha who provided entertainment and companionship were often compared to cattle and treated as such. No matter the class, women were considered property and inferior to men.

Notable exceptions do exist of women breaking the mold during this time — the onna-bugeisha (女武芸者), for instance, fought alongside their male samurai counterparts during times of civil upheaval. Overall, however, women lived without any say in legal or personal matters.

This isn’t to say women weren’t without some freedom. Travel diaries written by women from all walks of life offer tantalizing windows into their thoughts and impressions while traveling Japan. Women were hungrily thinking of a different future for themselves. They just needed the freedom to work towards this future together without fear of punishment. Their chance would come in 1868 in the form of the Meiji Restoration.

Exploring Voices: Post-Meiji Restoration

Women found allies and like-minded individuals in the liberal movements that sprung up after the Restoration. The Jiyu minken undo (自由民権運動; “Freedom and People’s Rights Movement”) in particular attracted many women hungry for change.

One woman was Kusunose Kita (楠瀬喜多). At 45 years of age, Kusunose was fed up with the government. Hailing from the rural town of Hirooka (present-day Kochi City), Kusunose oversaw all assets and properties following her samurai husband’s death. It rankled her that she had to pay taxes yet couldn’t vote. She believed she deserved the voting rights owed her position as a landowner. To drive her point across, she refused to pay taxes.

When her local government rejected her petition, she took her grievances to the national government in 1878. Newspapers caught wind and made her case go national. The government gave in and passed the Town and Village Assembly Law in 1880 allowing local governments to determine who could vote in elections. Kusunose’s local authority immediately allowed women to vote. Unfortunately, Kusunose’s victory was short-lived; the government repealed the law in 1884, and women were once again barred from voting. Nevertheless, Kusunose made her mark in history, and to this day she’s known as the “Civil Rights Grandma” (民権ばあさん; minken baasan).
(JP) Link: Kusunose Kita – Addressing Inequality to the Very End

Just a year after Kusunose’s petition, the government rolled out new education guidelines that presented more obstacles for women. Girls were separated from boys near the end of their primary school education to learn home economics and child-rearing tasks. This was all in an effort to produce “good wives and wise mothers” (良妻賢母; ryōsai kenbo). This ideology quickly found both critics and supporters. Educator Hatoyama Haruko (鳩山春子) was one of its chief supporters. However, others saw this as the government once again imposing gender restrictions, keeping women firmly in the home.

“Daughters in Boxes” – Critiquing the Family System

For many, writing became the perfect outlet for expressing their concerns and hopes for improving the livelihood of women. Kishida Toshiko (岸田俊子) quickly set herself apart as a skilled writer. As one of Japan’s “first-wave” feminists, she was the first and only woman to contribute an essay to the inaugural issue of the liberal journal Jiyuu no Tomoshibi (自由の灯委; “The Torch of Freedom”). In this essay, she employed an extended metaphor of the torch to explore the fears and dangers for women navigating public spaces at night. She expressed her hopes that the torch will light the way for bettering the lives of women.

Kishida Toshiko (岸田俊子) was one of Japan’s “first-wave feminists.” Her fiery 1883 speech “Daughters in Boxes” criticizing the limitations placed on women in Japan’s family system led to her imprisonment. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Kishida also became a prominent public speaker for the Jiyu minken undo. On October 12, 1883, Kishida gave her famous “daughters in boxes” speech at an academic meeting at Otsu. Kishida likened the women of Japan as prisoners in socially constructed boxes, confined to one path, restricted from pursuing other avenues. In order to dismantle these boxes, women needed education. Not just an education centered on home economics and child-rearing, but an education including mathematics and business management. Her call for women’s rights led to her arrest and imprisonment by local authorities.

“…the expression “daughters in boxes” is a popular one, heard with frequency in the regions of Kyoto and Osaka. It is the daughters of middle-class families and above who are often referred to as such. Why such an expression? Because these girls are like creatures kept in a box. They may have hands and feet and a voice–but all to no avail, because their freedom is restricted. Unable to move, their hands and feet are useless. Unable to speak, their voice has no purpose.”

Kishida Toshiko

Finding Freedom in a Foreign Religion

Women also found opportunities to better themselves in the rhetoric of Western missionaries. After the Restoration, the government lifted restrictions on foreign missionary work. The majority of the missionaries flocking to Japan were women, intent on changing what they believed to be a barbaric landscape. Coming from a largely Buddhist and indigenous Shinto background of belief, many Japanese women were wary of this monotheistic religion. After all, associating with Christianity under the previous regime could get you jailed, fined, or killed. It would take some time for fear of persecution to fade.

Nevertheless, many embraced Christianity and flourished under it. Yamamoto Yae — the onna-bugeisha who bravely helped defend the Aizu castle from pro-imperial forces — converted to Christianity and co-established Doshisha University (同志社大学) with her husband. American missionary Mary Clement Leavitt’s lectures in summer 1886 inspired one woman, Yajima Kajiko (矢嶋楫子), to establish the Japanese branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

Unfortunately, deciding on a common goal to fight for was easier said than done. Yajima Kajiko, having been briefly married to an alcoholic, strove to promote abstinence from alcohol. Others, especially WCTU secretary Sasaki Toyoju, believed ending prostitution should be the Union’s main priority. The struggle to find a middle ground became a common refrain in later feminist groups.

Facing an Uphill Battle

When Japan promulgated the new Constitution in 1889, women’s rights leaders were dismayed at the severe gender divisions underlying certain articles. Women would not be eligible to vote, even if they were landholders and paid taxes, like Kusunose Kita. Abortion was still considered illegal, and adultery committed by women was a punishable crime. Article 5 — which forbade women from engaging in political activities — upset them in particular. This infringement upon their right of speech would become the movement’s main focus well into the new century.

New Women and New Movements: The 1900s-1930s

The 20th century began with the short but fierce Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Women were not idle during this time. The Patriotic Women’s Association welcomed an influx of members and sent care packages to overseas soldiers. Famed poetess and feminist Yosano Akiko (与謝野晶子) penned the famous antiwar poem about her brother, 君死にたもうことなかれ (You Shall Not Die). Both anti- and pro-war feminists would clash later in the 1930s.

Amid these turbulent times, a group of middle- and upper-class women began publication of literary journal Seito (青鞜; Bluestocking) in 1911. Many of those women — among them controversial figure Hiratsuka Raicho and headstrong Ichikawa Fusae — later formed the New Women’s Association (新婦人協会; Shin-fujin kyokai) in 1919. Seito suffered from the gleeful misinterpretation of male journalists hoping to cash in on sensationalizing women’s writing.

This didn’t deter the women from writing, however. No topic was taboo — abortion, sexual oppression, anarchy, prostitution, arranged marriages and calls to action were common themes of discussion. Poetry and short stories were also included. They faced censorship and threats from the government daily, but still managed to publish an astounding 52 issues during its five-year run. After Seito folded, Nyonin Geijutsu (女人芸術; “Women’s Arts”) quickly took over as the influential journal for women.

Seito‘s first issue in September 1911. Artist and fellow feminist Takamura Chieko ( 高村智恵子) designed the cover artwork. (Source: Wikipedia)

However, associating with these “new women” thinkers didn’t come without consequences. One student cut off all ties with the Seito women in order to maintain her place as a student at the Women’s English Academy. Teachers — one of the few professions available for women — suffered harassment for even subscribing to the journal. Not every woman was willing to risk her reputation and livelihood for the cause, so many ended up distancing themselves from the movement.

Debating on Motherhood

Fierce debates raged on in these new publications catering to women. What was a woman’s place in the home? What was her standing in the political sphere? Should she prioritize her spouse’s life over that of her own? How should the government be involved in their lives? Should a woman center her identity in the womb and role of provider and mother?

The “Motherhood Protection Debate” (母性保護論争; Bosei hogo ronsou) became one of those arguments that caught national attention. It first began between feminists Hiratsuka Raichou and Yosano Akiko. Later, fellow feminists Yamakawa Kikue (山川菊栄) and Yamada Waka (山田わか) joined in.

Hiratsuka called on the government to provide direct financial assistance to working mothers. On the other hand, Yosano said women should not become wives or mothers until they had achieved financial independence. She opposed government intervention. Yamakawa promoted a socialist approach to addressing the problem, while Yamada stuck with the “good wives and wise mothers” ideology. The back-and-forth essays and responses brought to light a desperate need to support wives and mothers bound to the home.
(JP) Link: “My Response to Miss Hiratsuka” – An Essay by Yosano Akiko

Uprising in the Factories

Despite the debates raging on, there was a divide between these “new women” and everyday working women. These “factory girls” were mostly women from rural communities who had flocked to urban centers hoping to make a living. Some were recruited with promises of financial stability and independence. These women fell into the same traps women in the UK and the US faced: long grueling work hours, managerial abuse, poor diet, and dismal wages. Child labor was also common, with girls as young as twelve years of age working in the factories. As demand for labor increased, working conditions took a turn for the worst.

Utagawa Yoshitora’s 1872 ukiyo-e print ” Imported Silk Reeling Machine at Tsukiji in Tokyo” (東京築地舶来ぜんま い大仕かけきぬ糸をとる図). Silk production had long been classified as women’s work, and industrializing the silk-reeling process brought women from the home into the factories. (Source: Wikipedia)

Unable to connect with the new women harkening to Seito, working women turned to the journals and papers targeting textile workers, like Seigi no Hikari (The Light of Justice). Disgruntled women began attending labor activist meetings and demanding changes in working conditions. Worker Takai Toshio plunged headfirst into labor activism during the 1930 Toyo Muslin Strike in Tokyo. She fought for 8-hour days and the abolishment of late-night shifts. Like other women exploring their independence and championing change, Takai constantly faced scrutiny for her actions. She later penned an account of her life as an activist and factory worker titled Watashi no Jokou Aishi (My Pitiful History as a Factory Worker).

As long as I was a model worker…the company was delighted. But once I elected to speak up during the strike, had bought myself a gold watch, and was agitating among the otherwise docile female workers, I was apparently anathema to the company.

Takai Toshio

Working Towards Suffrage

After successfully changing Article 5 in 1922, thanks to NWA member Oku Mumeo (奥むめお), women could participate in political assemblies without fear of criminal punishment. They turned their attention to securing national suffrage for all women. Both liberal and social feminists attended committee meetings to discuss suffrage. For social feminists, they saw these meetings as a chance to shine a spotlight on the trials of working women. Several groups formed to tackle the task, including the Women’s Suffrage League (婦選獲得同盟; Fusen kakutoku domei), formed in 1925, the same year the Diet approved male suffrage. Their manifesto outlined the grievances and goals of the WSL:

1) 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;
2) 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;
3) Political rights are necessary for the protection of nearly four million working women in this country;
4) Women who work in the household must be recognized before the law to realize their full human potential;
5) Without political rights we cannot achieve public recognition at either the national or local level of government;
6) It is both necessary and possible to bring together women of different religions and occupations in a movement for women’s suffrage.

Their goal wasn’t just to achieve suffrage; they also wanted to revise the Lawyer Act (弁護士法; Bengoshi-hou ) to allow women to become lawyers. However, Japan’s early imperialistic overtures in Manchuria, as well as the spreading shadow of WWII, put a damper on suffrage activities. Once again, anti- and pro-war feminists argued over the role of women during wartime. How these prewar feminists responded to Japan’s military actions would influence the following generations of Japanese feminists, attracting both sympathy and antipathy.

Next: A History of Japanese Feminism, Part 2: WWII – The 1970s


Bernstein G.L. (1988) Women in the Silk-reeling Industry in Nineteenth-century Japan. In: Bernstein G.L., Fukui H. (eds) Japan and the World. St Antony’s Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Loftus, Ronald P. Telling Lives: Women’s Self-Writing in Modern Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2004.

Mackie, Vera. Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality. Cambridge University Press, 2003

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

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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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