Written by Lay Sion Ng @ Issues Under Tissues


Feminism and Politics in Japan: From Prewar to Present


The 1980s (pp. 2-3):

In Japan, women voted for the first time in 1946. However, Japan’s first movement for civil rights began in the 1870s. One of the representatives is Kusunose Kita, a 45-year-old widowed household who petitioned for the right to vote in local elections (a privilege enjoyed by male property owners) in 1878. Kusunose failed to gain the right in 1878, but women began to advocate for male-female equal rights and women’s rights. To honor her contribution, she was called “People’s Rights Grandma.” Another memorable activist is Kishida Toshiko, who was arrested for publicly calling for women’s rights. After her arrest, Kishida switched from public speaking to essay writing—published in Jogaku Zasshi (Women’s Education Magazine)—and teaching. Alongside those feminists is Fukada Hideko, who created a women’s organization to showcase women’s rights speakers. The authorities punished her by shutting down the school she and her mother had established. Nevertheless, she served as a founding editor of the feminist newspaper Sekai Fujin (Women of the World) in 1970. She worked with antiwar and socialist men and women to oppose the Russo-Japanese War and Japanese Imperialism in the first decade of the 20th century.

One of the main obstacles faced by Japanese feminist activists is Japan’s 1889 constitution (Article 5) that restricted women’s rights. According to Article 5, women were prohibited from joining/attending political parties/rallies and giving public speeches. The Public Peace Police Law reinforced this prohibition in 1900. Women’s rights were further limited by the Civil Code, which subordinated all household members to their male heads. Article 5 distressed many feminist organizations, including Japan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (JWCTU), founded in 1886. The JWCTU focused on social and moral reforms, including movements against licensed prostitution and concubinage. For several decades, Japanese men were legally allowed to have one wife and concubines, who also had legal status within the family. It was only until the adoption of the Civil Code in 1989 that concubinage was banned. (Molony 2-3)

1910-the 30s (pp. 3-10):

From the 1910s to the 1930s, many Japanese women were experimenting with new ways of self-representation. Being called “New Women,” many of them were professional writers whose work depicted women taking control of their own lives and sexuality. Many wrote for Seito (Bluestocking), a magazine founded by Hiratsuka Raicho in 1911. Seito published articles on chastity, abortion, and prostitution, pondering questions like: Should women remain chaste, even if doing so might lead to one’s family destitution? Was a fetus a separate human, or was it part of a woman’s body over which she should have control? Was prostitution slavery or a necessity to serve “men’s inherent needs”? (Molony 3-4)

In 1923, another term similar to “New Women” appeared: Modern Girls. Common criticisms regarding the “Modern Girl” include “foreignness, frivolousness, and promiscuity” (Molony 4). Following this phenomenon, menstruation leave was raised in 1928, when 500 female bus drivers attempted to claim better working conditions against the Tokyo Municipal Bus Company. As many buses do not have toilet facilities, many female drivers suffered during their monthly periods. Furthermore, the issue of birth control was raised during this time. Ishimoto Shidzue, together with some other feminist activists, professors, and doctors, studied birth control and established a small clinic in the 1920s.

However, in 1931, right-wing extremism produced a wave of domestic terror, and some of them are driven by hatred of modern society portrayed by New Women and Modern Girls. The Great Depression, due to Wall Street’s crash in 1929, also affected Japan in the way that anything transnational, including feminism, was seen as a national threat. As a result, Ishimoto’s clinic was closed down in 1938, and the birth control movement and the menstruation leave were put hold until after the Second World War.

Despite the difficulties, twenty women’s organizations joined together in 1934 for the Mother-Child Protection Law, asking the government to offer single and widowed mothers financial assistance. The law passed in 1937. On the other hand, the call for giving women to vote was once again raised in the National Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1935, yet it was supplanted under the rise of militarism at home. It was not only after World War Two that conventions concerning women’s civil rights were re-established.

1945-the 1950s (pp. 10-14):

After Japan was defeated in World War Two, the Japanese nation was asked to “endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable” (qtd. in Molony 10). This included homelessness, physical and phycological trauma, unemployment, to name a few. Both men and women suffered, but in many cases, women struggled to take care of the families in a chaotic time. Meanwhile, the government was secretly planning to set up “comfort stations” or Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA) for the occupation army. In a week, 1300 young women—most were widows and orphans—had signed up to work there out of starvation and lack of choices. After a few months, US officials severed their ties with the RAA due to two reasons. First, a very high rate of sexually transmitted disease. Second, the Americans had come to see the official brothels as a violation of women’s human rights. During that time, Japanese Christian feminist organizations—YMCA and WCTU—put an effort to end (non)licensed prostitution and oppose the occupation’s treatment of all Japanese women as prostitutes.

In Japan, women voted for the first time on 10 April 1946. The 1947 Constitution, which guarantees women’s political equality, was not written by the Japanese Diet but by the American occupation. The Constitution demands that women and men are equal (Article 14) and that husbands and wives have equal marriage rights (Article 24). Despite this, the old Civil Code continued to overshadow the new law. The 19th century Civil Code instructed that the senior male was the head of the family and other members had fewer rights, especially in inheritance, choice of domicile, and divorce.

Considering the country’s inability to feed the growing numbers of children born during the postwar time, the government made birth control and abortion legal in 1948 (Eugenic Protection Law). In the 1950s, the elimination of licensed prostitution, the prevention of nuclear war, pollution, and global climate change became the main concerns of feminist organizations such as the Housewife Association and the Mothers’ Convention.

The 1970s to the present (pp. 14-21):

In the late 1960s, Japan became one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and many women added their voices to the global feminist movements, which are called “second-wave feminism” (Molony 14). Besides the opposition toward Japan’s role in the United States-led Vietnam War, feminists also worked against pollution, sexism, economic and sexual oppression of women, sex tourism by Japanese men, to name a few. It was through a long time of struggling and fighting that things have become better for women. The Child-Care Leave Law of 1992 allowed either parent to take leave up to a year after a child’s birth. Sanctions against discrimination in hiring were included in a revision of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1997. Gender Equality Law of 2007 demanded penalties for discrimination in both hiring and workplace conditions, even though women’s pay equity and access to management positions remain an unsolved problem. Laws that addressed issues of gendered bodily harm were added in the 1990s. For instance, the 1999 Law for Punishing Acts Related to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography for Protecting Children, the 2000 Anti-Stalking Law, the 2001 Law for the Prevention of Spousal Violence, and the Protection of Victims.

Nevertheless, the 1999 Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society faced resistance within the country. The Basic Law called for a “gender free” society, a term aimed to remove the inequality in society, economy, and government between men and women and reinforce the idea that gender is a constructed concept. However, right-wing nationalists perceived this gender-free suggestion as a foreign ideology. Furthermore, they feared the possibility of the increase of lesbians, gay men, and transgender people if the law was granted. Considering Japan’s declining population, women should be making babies, as those conservatives thought.

On a positive note, sexual reassignment surgery had become legal in 2003, and the Japan Association of Queer Studies was established in 2007. Feminist scholar Ueno Chizuko who retired from the University of Tokyo in 2011, created Women’s Action Network (WAN), an internet site that collects contemporary feminist movements and studies in Japan and worldwide. Following this, even though Japan still has a long path in constructing a gender-equal society, feminist scholars and activists are no longer hiding but gathering their voices through social media. The next step to boast feminism in Japan is to build a platform to support women in getting higher/managerial positions in all fields. Once this step is fulfilled, I believe that Japan can construct a better society for not only women but also men, children, disabled people, and nature.


Text © Lay Sion Ng



Molony, Barbara. “Feminism in Japan.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Asian History, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.013.194


Lay Sion Ng

Article written by Lay Sion Ng @ Issues Under Tissues

Chinese Malaysian, American Literature at Osaka University, Japan.

Lay is a feminist writer/researcher/artist, techno/psyborg, free-spirit traveler, food pornographer, ukulele singer, diversity promoter: we connect and therefore we exist.

Find more articles on  gender and sexuality written by Lay Sion Ng HERE.



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