The Feminist Movement in Japan: WWII to the 1970s

The Feminist Movement in Japan: WWII to the 1970s

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Women in the Diet in WWII
Picture: Wikipedia
How the feminist movement in Japan worked after World War II to free women from the traditionally assigned role of the "good wife and wise mother."

Japan’s imperialistic overtures in China during the 1930s led to a flurry of opinions and debates between nationalistic and antiwar women. The Proletarian Women’s League vehemently opposed Japanese involvement in China, viewing militarism as a facet of capitalism. On the other hand, the Social Democratic Women’s League demanded the Japanese government take control and impose taxes to aid the proletariat class.

The government desperately needed support for the war, so they turned to the nation’s women for moral support. Motherhood and the family became a nationalistic tool, employed with deep and effective precision. To some extent, it worked. A slew of written material waxing poetic on motherhood and the nation flooded the market. The National Women’s Defense Association coined the slogan 国防は台所から (Kokubou ha daidokoro kara; “National defense comes from the kitchen”) and mobilized thousands of women to support the war effort. Many donned aprons, the quintessential symbol of home life, acting as a bridge between private and public circles.

Working contrary to the government’s pro-war agenda was dangerous, and achieving suffrage was moved to the back burner. Transnational relations also grew strained. Japan’s increasing militaristic actions reflected poorly on Japan’s feminists, whether they supported the war effort or not, and Japanese branches severed ties with the main organizations.

During the war years, the government kept a careful watch on leading feminists like Hiratsuka Raichou and Ichikawa Fusae. The government arrested birth control activist Kato Shidzue (加藤シヅエ) for her promotion of “disturbing thoughts.” Dismayed, but not cowed, women turned to institute change at a grassroots level, such as organizing garbage collection.

Picking Up the Pieces: Occupation Era

After the war, it soon became clear to many feminists that the government only appealed to their cause to gain their participation in the war effort. As word of the coming Allied forces reached Japan, brothels were quickly established to service the men. Numerous women and war widows hoping to find work as clerks or teachers instead found themselves working at these brothels. This made dismantling prostitution even more difficult to accomplish. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many sex workers themselves were at odds with these anti-prostitution feminists.

Women also engaged in serious retrospection of the war. With the Tokyo trial, atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers quickly came to light, and feminists were quick to offer their opinions. Reformer and journalist Hani Setsuko (羽仁説子), writing for the Asahi Shimbun, said that the treatment and suffering of women and civilians at the hands of Japanese soldiers reflected the inferior position women had on the totem pole of male consideration. Considering the eagerness with which the government set up brothels for the Occupation forces, it wasn’t hard to see her point.


Finally Earning the Right to Vote

On August 25, 1945, just 10 days after Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, leaders of various women’s movements convened to form the Women’s Committee on Postwar Policy. Ichikawa Fusae and others drafted a petition for suffrage and equal rights, receiving verbal confirmation from the Prime Minister that yes, women would be granted those rights. Before the Japanese government could issue a formal announcement, however, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) submitted his drafted outline of basic civil liberties and reforms, including women’s suffrage.

Just like that, after a long and bitter fight, women could vote. Some women were miffed at how easily suffrage was granted. Most of the credit went to the Americans, completely erasing all the hard work of past and current suffragists.

In April 1946, Kato became one of 39 women elected to the Diet and championed for economic support for women and family planning. Ichikawa Fusae also joined the Diet in 1953, after being cleared for political participation by the government. Six of these women later reviewed the draft of the new constitution.

Japan’s first postwar election was held in April 1946; it was also the first election where women could vote. Of seventy-nine women, thirty-nine women gained seats in the Diet in a huge win for women’s advancement in the political world. (Source: Wikipedia)

Addressing Women’s Bodily Needs

Population growth quickly became a concern in Japan. In a country destitute of an agricultural framework, having more hungry mouths to feed would strain already scarce resources. Birth control once again became a topic of debate. Kato had run a women’s clinic and counseled women in birth control before being shut down by the government. After gaining her seat in the Diet, she submitted a bill for birth control in 1947. Her bill was rejected, and instead the government took a backward approach, focusing on abortion rather than contraception.

The Socialist Party-endorsed Eugenic Protection Law (優生保護法; Yūsei Hogo Hō) went into effect in 1948. Much to the chagrin of many, the new law came down hard on women’s autonomy. It further limited access to birth control and continued enforcement of compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and those with serious hereditary diseases. Doctors did not need consent from the woman or spouse in order to operate; approval came from a council. A 1949 amendment gave doctors the discretion to perform abortions due to “economic reasons.” Later, women’s liberation activists in the 70s would campaign against revisions to the law.

Revising Family Law

One of the biggest upheavals to Japanese society came in the form of revisions to the family law. The previous family system was the multigenerational ie system, which placed family authority on the head of the household, usually a male. Occupation authorities wrote this law away, replacing it with the modern nuclear family model. Article 24 granted women equal rights in both marriage and divorce.

Writer and activist Miyamoto Yuriko (宮本百合子), herself a divorcee, championed a cautious outlook in her piece “On Divorce”:


The freedom to divorce is granted to women, and the civil law simultaneously includes financial assistance for divorced women. Does this mean, however, that there really is a social and economic basis for women to protect their “personal dignity”?

Miyamoto Yuriko

She had a point. Faced with a crippled economy and a government seemingly determined to maintain the status quo, women didn’t immediately benefit from these constitutional changes for some time. Even with the passage of reforms allowing women equal access to education and work opportunities, schools and employers alike continued to treat women as second-class citizens. As the coming decades would reveal, ruling political parties still sought to keep women trapped in a traditional framework.

Housewives Unite: Post-Occupation and the 60s

Slowly, some of the barriers preventing women from participating in other spheres of life were eroding. At the same time, however, the Japanese government sought to codify even stricter gender norms once again placing women in the home.

The “good wives, wise mothers” rhetoric inspired some women to deeply root their activism in those roles. These women founded organizations like the National Housewife Association and the Mother’s Congress. One organization, the Seikatsu Kurabu (生活クラブ), began a coop movement with an emphasis on sustainability and high-quality goods. This type of activism didn’t force women to give up their roles as housewife and caregiver. Arimura Junko, vice-president of the Seikatsu Kurabu, later wrote that she “had never known any movement in which I could get involved without giving up my private life.” Thousands of housewives flocked to these organizations, sharing environmental concerns over industrialization and food regulations.

In the 60s, economic prosperity and rapid modernization allowed more women to join the workforce. However, working women now faced a new hurdle with simultaneously juggling work and child-rearing duties. A new expectation arose for women to quit their jobs once pregnant and become full-time housewives, or sengyou shufu (専業主婦). This revealed the stark gender divisions in labor, as well as how women were still perceived as mere reproductive vessels for the nation.

In 1969 the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) issued their own Women’s Charter (自由民主党婦人憲章; Jiyuminshuto Fujin Kenshou), positioning women as the “centers of families.” This “government-sponsored feminism” pushed many women away and into different forms of thought and action.

The New Left and Student Movements

Not everyone was a fan of the new postwar democracy. Socialists, communists, and other “New Left” activists began movements that grabbed media attention. Women were no exception.

The ideas of graduate student Tokoro Mitsuko formed the basis of the Zenkyoto movement, only for male participants to shove her contributions into relative obscurity. Unfortunately, even in New Left movements, men expected their women colleagues to follow in line under a patriarchal organizational structure. They had grown up in a postwar world structured on democratic ideals, yet felt distant from those ideals.

Disenchanted and frustrated, these women sought to form their own group unhindered by men and hierarchical structures. With the rise of the women’s liberation movement (ウーマンリブ運動), a new element of activism previously unseen in Japanese feminist movements flourished.

The Second Wave of Feminism: Ūman ribu in the 70s

In October 1970, hundreds of women’s groups gathered in Tokyo under the umbrella of women’s liberation, or Ūman ribu (ウーマンリブ). Over two hundred women marched in ribu‘s first public protest on Antiwar Day. Newspaper photographs captured the hesitance of the male police officers deployed to curb this women’s-only demonstration.

During ribu‘s first demonstration, women fought and shoved back when confronted by male police officers.

These women had a common purpose: to work towards the sexual and political liberation of women. Women shouldn’t be content to be housewives or mothers; women should be free to explore their sexuality unencumbered by patriarchal and capitalist norms/expectations. They were tired of being considered inferior. As leading ribu figure Tanaka Mitsu put it in an interview for The Japan Times, “We were living the lives of women who didn’t actually exist and that anger spread through the female community.”

Ribu participants often led protests in the streets, pushing baby strollers and holding placards.

“The Personal is Political” (個人的なことは政治的なこと)

The movement attracted office workers, college students, writers, housewives, and more. They formed communes, such as Tokyo Komu-unu (東京こむうぬ) with the intent of raising their children outside of the established norm of the self-sacrificing mother. Helping women realize sexual autonomy was imperative to achieving true liberation. Ribu women made information on birth control and women’s health readily available at ribu-led safe spaces and centers. In perhaps one of their more radical moves, ribu women declared solidarity themselves with kogoroshi no onna (子殺しの女; child-killing onna), further disassociating from the relatively tame “good wife, wise mother” rhetoric. From their perspective, these women who murdered their children were victims of oppression, forced to rely on violence to escape their motherhood.

女は母か便所?ウーマン・リブのカリスマに当時3歳の私が惹かれた理由(吉峯 美和)

田中美津という女性をご存知だろうか。1970年代のウーマン・リブを牽引した伝説の女性であり、上野千鶴子さんをして 「フェミニズムの原点、時代をあらわす固有名詞」と言わしめた人だ 。映像作家の吉峯美和さんは、その田中美津さんに4年間密着したドキュメンタリー映画 『この星は、私の星じゃない』 …

(JP) Link: Is a Woman a Mother or a Toilet? – The Charisma of Women’s Lib

Separating Ribu from Feminizumu

While women in the US tended to use “women’s lib” and “feminism” interchangeably, that wasn’t the case in Japan. Feminizumu (フェミニズム) didn’t become fully engrained in the Japanese feminist lexicon until the late 70s. Indeed, many ribu women, such as ribu activist and sociologist Inoue Teruko made it quite clear that demarcation between the terms was not only crucial but necessary:

“The way that feminism is used in Japan has a distinct nuance, a sense of it being academic or neutral…It sounds like an imported or borrowed word…feminism refers to something distant from oneself, referring to European or American thought or movements.

Inoue Terako in Scream from the Shadows: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan

Other Japanese words quickly faced scrutiny and redefinitions by women in the ribu movement. Onna (女) as its base definition is “woman” or “girl,” but often carried negative sexual and socioeconomic connotations. Ribu women reclaimed the word and gave it a political spin, separating themselves from common prewar forms for women, like josei and fujin. Politicizing language to refute the greater society’s perception of women and their bodies was par for the course for ribu women. They also created words unique to the movement, like hikon no haha (非婚の母; “antimarriage mothers”) in response to the widely circulated term mikon no haha (未婚の母; “unwed mothers”).

By the 80s, the ribu movement had lost most of its steam. Women’s liberation eventually morphed into women’s action groups. One of their greatest achievements would be the enactment of the Equal Opportunity Law in 1985. As Japan reached the postwar zenith of economic prosperity, the social and economic disparities between men and women grew. Feminists and scholars began looking back at the actions of women during the war, and seeking ways to remedy some of the worst crimes, mainly the “comfort women” issue. The dawn of the twenty-first century would force feminists to look deeper at both old and new challenges. The fight was far from over.

Next In This Series

The Feminist Movement in Japan: 1980s to Present

Previously In This Series

The Feminist Movement in Japan: Meiji to World War II


Dower, John. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II. Penguin Books, 1999. Print.

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.


Shigematsu, Setsu. Scream from the Shadows: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press. 2012.

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


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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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