In 1931, the women’s movement might have seemed ready for a great leap forward. Legislation providing restricted suffrage had passed a vote in the Lower House of the Diet. Soon enough, however, that victory proved hollow when the bill failed in the Upper House (Mackie 92). Worse was to come. Shortly thereafter the Japanese government had no time for anything but the pursuit of war on the Asian mainland. Japan’s 1933 withdrawal from the League of Nations confirmed the worsening scenario for civil rights generally. Expansionist and militarist Japan nevertheless produced new roles for women. With the majority of the male population at war, more women prolonged their educations, postponed marriage, and entered the work force (Liddle and Nakajima 127).
While the Japanese government remained committed to women’s subordiantion, war dramatically altered gender relations. Common hardship sometimes brought diverse groups of women into new communion.. Pervasive nationalism and xenophobia left, however, no room to reconsider the dominant political regime.
With the end of the war, women found themselves facing dramatically changed circumstances and ideologies. The United States occupation meant the dismantling of Japan’s ‘ie system’, enshrined in the Civil Code of 1898, which confined women to the home and placed the Emperor and the state before the individual.. American General Douglas MacArthur himself considered the authority of male heads of households as “’feudalistic’ (McClain 549). The entire Japanese community now had to make sense of democracy on the American model. .
Lieutenant Ethel Weed, an American Women’s Information Officer, brought civil code reform to the forefront in Japan through government-sponsored mass media, such as the weekly “Women’s Hour” radio program, which hosted round table discussions on political concerns (Tsuchiya 145). On December 17th, 1945 Japanese women were granted the right to vote (McClain 529). Prior to the 1946 election, the first in which women voted in Japanese history, Weed toured the nation, sponsoring talks on women’s issues and urging their exercise of voting rights (Tsuchiya 149).
67% of eligible women voted. Thirty-nine were elected to the House of Representatives where they represented 8.4 percent of members, a proportion that has not been equaled since (Mackie 124).
Liddle, Joanna and Sachiko Nakajima. Rising Suns, Rising Daughters: Gender, Class and Power in Japan. New York: Zed Books, 2000.
Mackie, Vera. Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2003.
McClain, James L. Japan: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Tsuchiya, Yuka. “Democratizing the Japanese Family: The Role of the Civil Information and Education Section in the Allied Occupation 1945-1952”. The Japanese Journal of American Studies. No. 5 (1993-1994): 137-162.