Review of Asian Studies



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A COMPARISON OF ROLES OF WOMEN IN BOTH JAPANESE AND AMERICAN SOCIETY
CHEYENNE BOYCE
SPELMAN COLLEGE

The contemporary world is changing very rapidly in various spheres of life. World economies are changing dramatically and globalization is quickly becoming an unavoidable phenomenon that everyone is becoming more and more aware of. Consequently, it is getting more and more important to think about what the future holds. As a student attending a woman’s college, I am aware of the roles that women have held in this country, and it is very important, especially as I begin to think about my career paths and future, to figure out where my place in the world will be in just a few years. As markets change and political and economic power shifts, the roles that women play in these various arenas may not be as easily determined as most may think. Further, aside from the threat of the unknown for women in American society, since globalization is becoming more and more important, it is imperative that I not only understand my role as a woman here in America, but also the roles of women in countries around the world. Aside from my deep interest in Japan, after researching the roles of women in Japanese society, I have found that the roles of women, although they seem to be very different, do have some similarities.


This paper will present a comparative study of the roles of women in Japanese society and American society. In order to offer a comprehensive look at the situation, a history of the roles of Women in both societies will be provided and an observation of current societal roles of women in each country will be described. Since Japan and the United States interact on each other in various ways, it will be interesting to explore what major roles of women in their respective society play and how such roles are changing. In order to offer some reasonable predictions of what societal roles of women will be like in the future, this paper will also explore the causes of the changes in women’s societal roles in these countries.
Before analyzing the role of women in Japanese society, it is important to think about where the societal norms that people are subjected to come from. Proverbs play a significant role in many cultures throughout the world including the Japanese culture and they also contribute significantly to the Japanese way of life. In her book Asian Folklore Studies, author Hiroko Storm explores how women in Japanese society are perceived through traditional Japanese proverbs. Storm studied 817 proverbs and discussed what they reveal regarding traditional Japanese attitudes toward women. Of these proverbs only 29 of these spoke positively of women and the other negative ones dealt with the undesirable characteristics of women or their oppressed situation. According to Storm, traditional proverbs about women can be classified into two categories: women in general which includes inferiority, stupidity, changeability, ill-nature, talkativeness, weakness and miscellaneous and women in specific roles or situations which includes wives, mother and daughter in law, widows, prostitutes, intelligent women and beautiful women. (Storm 168)
These categories were created prior to World War II and it is important to note that the status of wives was significantly lower among the upper class. In lower class families where the family earned money as farmers or merchants, husbands and wives worked together to earn a living so the wife’s position in the family was important. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Meiji government changed the political and social structure of Japan in an attempt to catch up with the more advanced nations of the West (Storm 170) However, during this time period they were not concerned with the position of women.
The first movements toward human rights for women in Japan began after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Unlike in America, during the late 19th century supporters of woman’s rights did not advocate for political inclusion or voting rights. They were fighting for reforms in the patriarchal society that allowed for the oppression of women. Woman’s education was one of the first things that supporters worked toward and it was somewhat easily achieved because policy makers believed that education was important for the preservation of the state because it would prepare girls to become effective wives and mothers capable of producing diligent, patriotic sons. Although these were not the same ideas that supporters had the availability of education allowed for more advancements for women in Japanese society. Prior to the late 19th century, patriarchal cultural practices such as prostitution and polygamy subjected women to abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. During this time major advancements were made in this area as well.
As a woman who is a part of American culture but who is very interested in Japanese culture, I thought that it would be beneficial to explore a comparison between women in both societies. Western countries have a certain image of what women in Japan are like and although this image may be true to a certain extent, after reading an article written by Seth Friedman,” Women in Japanese Society: Their Changing Roles,” I learned that there are two distinct Japanese societies, public and private, and women play different roles in both of these societies. In the private family role women are often quite dominate and more dominate than the male members of the household. The women in Japan are very dedicated to their families and it is very important that they raise children who function is society well. Because of the Confucian influences on the Japanese culture that emphasizes the supreme position of the male, and a hierarchical power structure the role of women in public Japanese society is different.
Throughout much of my research I found that the information was somewhat dated. For example, the information on how women are perceived through Japanese proverbs was based on research that was done in 1989. In an effort to find more updated information, I decided to focus on a topic that is very current and is impacting societies across the world every day. Globalization is the theory related to the growing interconnectedness of the world.
When most people think of globalization, they think about the expansion and interconnectedness of the world’s economies, however, globalization also affects societies socially, culturally, and politically. As the world becomes more closely linked together, it is important to analyze how various societies are changing and realize what the causes of those changes are. One group that is often over looked when analyzing the effects of globalization is the civil working force among Japanese women. As a result of social and political globalization, there has been a development of feminism which included the increased salience of non-state identities, the opening up of opportunities for effective political activity at a local level, a raised international profile of women’s rights, and the potential for activists to use international law to organizer transnationally. (Bishop 2002) Although, women in Japan do have potential to reach empowerment through globalization, it is important to note that the Japanese government includes a political party and trade union system that effectively excludes women. In order to reach their feminist goals Japanese women have had to adapt and adjust their strategies to the existing national and international institutions as well as notice how globalization is in fact changing these institutions as well. In this section I would first like to look at the role female labor workers have traditionally played in party and trade union politics in Japan.

Japanese women have been able to hold political power in the past. In Japan’s first post-war election in 1946, 39 female deputies were elected. However, when the Japanese political system was reformed and the Liberal Democratic Party had control, their priority was Japan’s economic growth, and because election tactics consisted mostly of establishing strong links with the corporate elite women were mostly excluded. (Bishop 2002) As time progressed, women faced challenges in elections also because women were often only elected if they had the support of a trade union and women only make up 28 percent of trade unionists in Japan. (Miura 2001) Further, when the number of Diet seats decreased in the 1970s and with voters reluctant to vote for women it became more difficult for women to gain positions.

One of the differences between the American feminist movement and the Japanese feminist movement, when it comes to political representation, is that while Japanese women were campaigning for equal labor rights from the 1950s-1970s, they received little attention because the topic was simply not a high priority topic in Japanese society. This was partly because Japanese women’s labor market participation at this time was less than in Europe and the US and as a result, Japanese women were less conscious of the gender-based division of paid labor than their western counterparts. (Bishop 2002) Along with lack of action from the government, gender roles in Japanese society have also played a role in the unfair labor conditions for Japanese women. In the mid-1980s the Nakasone government cut education, welfare, and environmental spending for day care centers and school lunches. These were jobs that were often held by women and these cuts were detrimental to the way of life for these women. Many of them were forced to leave their jobs or give up social activities. Electoral and parliamentary institutions in Japan are male-dominated and the policies that are often pursued are not beneficial to female workers.

Despite the difficulties women have to face as time has progressed women have been able to gain some benefits. There are many women’s groups that lobby the government and through United Nations intervention there was an increase in feminist activities and an increased awareness of gender equality issues throughout the general population. Between 1988 and 2001 there has been increased representation of women in the Diet and local assemblies which is a sign that Japanese voters are more willing to accept female politicians. (Bishop 2002) As women become more active in Japanese politics, they are becoming more boisterous in assembly and although they are often criticized for their un-lady like ways these women are opening doors for women everywhere throughout Japanese society.

According to the theory of institutional dynamism, one of the catalysts for institutions to become dynamic is that changes in the socioeconomic context or political balance of power produce a new situation where old institutions begin to serve different ends as new actors gain a foothold within them. (Bishop 2002) In Japan local governments have come to be champions of initiatives towards gender equality as supported by women’s networks, feminist deputies gain representation. There have been several policies to help improve the position of women in society. One of the most important policies was the Basic Law for Gender-Equal Society which was passed in June, 1999. The basic goal of this law was to clarify basic concepts related to formation of a gender-equal society. Under this law, the central government, local governments and Japanese citizens are required to make efforts to move toward achieving gender-equality in all areas of society. This law has been enacted in many ways. For example, in Tokyo the local government can request private companies to report on the status of their implementation of gender equality. (Hashimato 2001) In the Gifu prefecture research was conducted on the sexual division of labor in the workplace and at home and in Fukui City officials concentrated on improving women’s political participation. (Bishop 2002)

Feminist groups along with the United Nations have also worked to pass many other laws that have been influential. Japan has also acquired a large sector of organizations with the goals of preparing women for politics. Moriya Yuko believed that women would be empowered if they entered the decision making-fields they were often excluded from and in 1996 she set up the World Women’s Conference Network which aimed to promote international exchange among women and she also founded a school for aspiring female politicians. The school’s goal is to have 50 percent of the representatives be women and the school is successfully beginning to reach that goal. Although Japan is making major moves toward female equality in politics, in 2000 the United Nations Gender Empowerment measure, which records women’s participation in political and economic decision-making, ranked Japan and 41 out of 70 countries judged to have high human development (Bishop 2002) and as a result women in Japan still have many challenges to overcome.



Japanese Feminist Movements

In order for change to occur in a society there has to be an issue that people feel deeply enough to work toward solving .These was the situation for women in both American and Japanese societies. Because of its status as an Asian country, many Americans have a strong disassociation to the country. They think that the Japanese look differently, think differently, and have no relation to anything in American society. However, after researching both feminist movements in the countries it is clear that the countries are not so different after all. During the Japanese feminist movement, there was a major emphasis on women’s organizations because Japanese cultural practices often structure activism and political participation along gender lines which often prevents women from participating. According to Florence Passy, author of a paper on socialization, recruitment, and the structure/agency gap, she believes that the organizations or networks fill a vital gap between structure and agency in that they socialize and build individual identities; recruit individuals who are sensitive to a particular political issue, and allow them the chance to participate; and shape individuals’ preferences before they decide to join the movement. In short, these organizations are responsible for recruiting women with similar interests and preparing them to be active and informed participants in the political arena when it comes to overcoming the challenges women face. (Passy 2000)

Similarly to the feminist movement in the United States in the 1880s Japanese women participated in workplace strikes and then in the 1920s an active women’s suffrage movement emerged that successfully got a Bill passed in the House of Representatives that gave women the right to vote in 1930, however, it was not ratified due to the Manchurian Incident in 1931, and ratification was indefinitely postponed. Other groups were created but none of them were successful in passing major legislation.

There were two major groups during the Japanese post-war women’s movement. The Japanese Communist Party Central Conference on Working Women movement supported the Marxist idea that the oppression of women could be solved with the achievement of a socialist society and they concentrated on organizing women into trade unions, rather than protesting against the more complex conditions of women in post war Japan. This movement is still active today especially when it comes to campaigning for the rights of part-time workers. The other group was actually composed of multiple women’s groups called Fujin Kaikan which was more conservative and the women organized non-challenging cultural activities, such as taking language or cooking classes. (Bishop 2002) Again, although these groups were successful they did not create any major change and none of their activism became high profile.

October 21, 1970 is when activism around women’s labor rights really came into public consciousness. The women of the Women’s Liberation Movement held a march where they protested a range of issues and chanted slogans such as, “Mother, are you really happy with your married life?” and “A housewife and a prostitute are raccoons in the same den.” (Bishop 2002) The women who were apart of this movement were young female workers and students who had been active in the New Left, anti- Vietnam War movements who were upset with the fact that during this movement men seemed to be hypocritical in the fact that they rejected authority but only permitted women activists to do things such as typing during the movement. Although participants in this movement were often ridiculed and attracted little public sympathy when they did things such as marching in pink helmets demanding the legalization of the contraception pill, they did raise awareness about economic growth leading to women’s greater participation in the workforce and established academic women’s studies. In the second half of the 1970s, groups emerged that were more directly focused on working within the government system and influencing government policies and actions. These women were more likely to be lawyers, Diet members, labor movement activists and members of political parties and as a result these groups were considered more legitimate in the eyes of the general public and among elites when the United Nations International Women’s Year forced the Japanese government to act on the problem of gender discrimination.

Over the years many more women’s groups were created and multiple conferences were held with various governmental organizations to raise women’s rights awareness. Books have been written about the movements, women’s centers have been built and many women are still active participants in some of these groups today. Many use their meetings for self-enlightenment, teaching, collection and distribution of information, consultation, surveys and research and to exchange views about the goals of the various groups. In an interview with Komatsu Makiko, an activist for women’s labor issues and the author of the second ever women studies textbook in Japan, after attending the United Nations conference in Nairobi where the Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women was passed, she said that attending the conference introduced her to feminism in other countries, that she was deeply impressed and had come to deeply consider the relation between multi-culturalism and human rights. (Bishop 2002) During the time of the Japanese women’s movement’s there were many other women’s movements were going on around the world. In fact, the first UN conference on gender equality took place in Mexico City in 1975. Another country that had a very powerful women’s movement was the United States.

Similarly to the women’s movement in Japan, the American feminist movement had a slow start and there were many attempts at reform before various groups were successful. After the American Revolution the principles or liberty and quality were not carried over to the rights of women. There were very few educational opportunities, women were not allowed to vote and women could not own property. Women began to actively vocalize their lack of equality in the 1830s. Many of them were a part of the antislavery movement and while they were fighting to end slavery they realized that they faced oppression themselves. Angelina and Sarah Grimke’ along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton are considered the founders of the women’s movement. Stanton is considered one of the most pivotal people of the movement because she helped plan the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 and she also drafted the Declaration of Sentiments which asserted the self-evident truth that all men and women are created equal.

Some of the goals of the convention included reforming marriage and divorce, expanding property rights for women, and most importantly securing the right to vote. Throughout the rest of the century, Stanton, along with Susan B Anthony, worked on emphasizing the right to vote and then they gave control to the National American Woman Suffrage Association run by Carrie Chapman Catt who believed that the right to vote could be won on a state by state basis. Over the years leadership in the movement was passed down to many different women and they all worked to achieve the various goals of the many organizations that were created with an emphasis on women’s rights. Under Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party women gained the right to vote through the 19th Amendment in 1920.

During World War II, many women were forced to go into the workforce and after the end of the war many of them had become too accustomed to working and did not want to lose the benefits of a paycheck and employment. This led to an increase emphasis on women’s labor rights, similar to what Japanese women were working toward. Second Wave Feminism began in the 1960s and continues to exist currently. In the 1960’s with the publishing of Betty Freidman’s The Feminine Mystique women who were discontent with their societal roles were given a voice and in the Third wave feminist movement is believed to have started in the 1990s.

The movement started as a response to what women thought were the failures of the second wave. The class distinction that exist in American society causes the gender identity marker of female to be broken and this creates separate groups of women who believe they are fighting and working toward different things. For example, the problems of white middle class women are not the same as the problems that an African-American lower-class women faces and these problems should not be attempted to be fixed with the same solutions. Currently in America there are still women’s liberation organizations that work toward equality for women in general. The main differences between the women’s liberation movement in Japan versus the movements in the United States is that the organizations had to work within different societal and cultural norms, however, their overall goals and ways of reaching these goals were very similar.

The concept of globalization has played a huge role in Japanese women’s movement. With the help of the United Nations, Japan was able to work with other countries and organizations around the world to improve women’s rights and make sure the rights they fought for in Japan are experienced by Japanese women throughout the world. For example, in 1995 the Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center was established in Tokyo to provide a basis for the activities of the Asian Women’s Association, an organization that communicates with groups elsewhere in Asia to engage in joint activities around the issues of migrant women, prostitution and trafficking of Asian women, Asian brides and international marriages, and women workers employed by Japanese multinational companies. (Bishop 2002)

The support of other countries has definitely helped keep momentum for women’s rights movements going. In fact, in 1996 Japanese women’s groups were able to work with the United States National Organization of Women in 1996 to help them combat sexual harassment in the Japanese Mitsubishi Motor Company. It has been said that the case could not have been won if the groups had not come together. Both of these examples show how the interconnectedness of the world has made it possible for Japanese and American groups, along with women’s rights groups throughout the rest of the world, to communicate and collaborate on solving the problems that many of them share.

Women’s rights movements have worked to successfully to gain women rights to do everything from being able to participate politically to owning land in both Japan and the United States and these movements are still actively working to gain women equal rights today. Because of the social norms that exist in both countries, but especially in Japan, women had to pursue methods that were sometimes unconventional to make their voices heard and they found that forming groups and organizations were the most successful. The effects of globalization have aided in making stricter policies and creating a better circuit of communication that women’s rights organizations across the world can use to improve their strategies and agendas. Equality for women has improved significantly over the centuries in both Japan and the United States and as a women interested I pursuing careers in both of these countries I look forward to the changes that will continue to be made and to seeing what role I will play in these changes.

Works Cited

Storm, Hiroko. “Women In Japanese Provebs.” Asian Folklore Studies 51.2 (1992): 167-182. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.

Bishop, Beverley. “Globalization and Women’s Labour Activism in Japan.” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. 2 (2002): n. pag. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.





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