Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 13, August 2006

Vera Mackie

Feminism in Modern Japan:
Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 300 pp.
ISBN 0 521 82108 9 hardback
ISBN 0 521 52719 8 paperback

reviewed by Teresa Goudie

  1. At the time of the production of this extensively researched volume, Vera Mackie was Foundation Professor of Japanese Studies at Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia. Years of research and scholarship is clearly documented in this valuable addition to the field of women's studies, which includes a prolific bibliography which will prove a very useful resource for scholars and historians. General readers without background knowledge of Japanese history may find the assumed knowledge marginally frustrating but it remains a highly informative, clearly written and very readable text.
  2. While 'feminism' and 'Japan' may initially appear to have tenuous connections, Mackie traces the various strands of feminist thought back to its tentative beginnings in Japan in the 1870s and follows their various guises and incarnations through to present day. Mackie identifies the threads that emerged in the late nineteenth century and enlightens the reader to their limitations, their strengths and their validity. While the numbers of feminists in Japan may deem the movement fairly unimpressive when compared with British and American counterparts, the strength of the Japanese feminist movement lay in its tenacity, perseverance and dogged reluctance to merely subsist within the constricting framework of the prevalent ryōsai kenbo ideology—that of the 'good wife and wise mother' propounded by the educators, media and politicians.
  3. The book is divided into ten chronologically-ordered chapters that follow the transformation of feminism and its relationship with other elements of modernity in Japan such as socialism, communism, Christianity and capitalism. Mackie also positions the Japanese feminist movement in its Asian and international context and illuminates its potential future. The first three chapters after the introduction investigate prewar feminism when women gradually emerged from their positions in Imperial Japan where, Mackie states, women were relegated to gendered positions denied the right to engage in public and political activities due to prevailing legal, institutional and ideological structures. Reforms in Japanese social policy impacted differently upon embodied women (and men) and, as Mackie writes the history of the feminist movement in Japan as a social movement, she recognises the necessity for analysing the 'relationships between men and women in a given society, the ideologies of sexuality and gender which shape that society, the embodied practices of men and women, the ways in which feminist activists have theorised these ideologies, practices and institutions, and the ways in which they have attempted to transform them' (p. 12).
  4. Indeed, as the book moves into its description of wartime and postwar feminism, the effects of various modernist ideologies on the development of feminism in Japan are made abundantly clear. Mackie's strength lies in her ability to elucidate the various tenets of feminism and the way they were linked to all other aspects of life in Japan as the country was rapidly modernised. Not only does she clarify the somewhat ambiguous beginnings of the feminist movement in Japan but she does so in a style that is highly readable, recounting what is in fact a fascinating movement peppered with compelling stories and one emerges feeling a real sense of solidarity with the sisterhood in Japan.
  5. The Meiji Constitution codified people as subject of the Emperor rather than as citizens of a nation and the gendered Civil Code which governed all aspects of society remained in effect until after the Second World War. The regime emphasised a 'wealthy country and a strong army' supported by 'good wives and wise mothers'(p. 32) and, as such, women were defined by their relations to men and were restricted from opportunities to be intellectual participants in any public political domains. Their maternalised bodies were restricted to the domestic domain and their role was strictly reinforced by the ideology of ryōsai kenbo. However, it was during this stage that they gained widespread access to education which led to the development of the suffrage movement and burgeoning notions of individualism which did not necessarily correspond with the ryōsai kenbo ideology.
  6. The early twentieth century saw the emergence of the 'New Women' or Atarashii Onna (Chapter 3) who were interested in 'individual self-expression' (p. 48) and the establishment of journals such as Seito [Bluestocking] in 1911 and Fujin Kōron [Women's Review] in 1916. A poem published in the first edition of Seito by Hiratsuka Raichō began, 'In the beginning woman was the Sun' (p. 46). This metaphor was continually repeated throughout the following decades of the feminist movement and is reflected in its repetition in Mackie's book. Although Mackie discusses the early feminists in great detail, especially women like Ichikawa Fusae, a pacifist suffragist and later parliamentarian, socialist Yamakawa Kikue and writers Yosano Akiko and Hiratsuka Raichō, and the suffrage and socialist movements especially in the 1920s, she also recognises their limited achievements. Mackie examines the subsequent reinforcement of old ideologies dominated by the emphasis on reproduction during the war and then focuses on the political rights that were finally established for women after the war under the Allied Occupation and the new Constitution.
  7. The advances made by women in the immediate postwar period were made possible by the foundations laid by the prewar feminists, an achievement that Mackie does not discount at all. In fact, an appreciation of the feminist movement in modern Japan makes the fact of the unequalled number of women in the Diet since the immediate postwar period very disappointing. Indeed, Mackie conducts a very interesting analyses of the one-yen stamp issued in May 1947 to commemorate the promulgation of the new Constitution in terms of the women's claims to legitimacy in the Diet in Chapter 6. Thus it is refreshing to see the resurgence of the feminist movement in the 1970s with groups such as the Tatakau Onna [Fighting Women] and the uniquely Japanese housewife-feminists, or shufu-gata feminizuma. The housewife-feminists were identified with groups like Agora which was established as a resource for women and feminist issues. The rapid growth of Agora was bolstered by the explosion of feminist publications and Japanese feminists began to expand their connections with Asian and international groups through the International Women's Decade, 1975-1985.
  8. Up to the mid 90s, feminist groups worked on reforming some of the basic institutions such as the legal system, employment practises, the welfare system and the media. There was also a new focus on consumerism and the division of domestic labour. This is one area that I would have liked to have seen more from Mackie—the effect of feminism on domestic labour trends and relationships, especially given the traditionally multi-generational Japanese household. The final two chapters of the book bring the story into the present day and introduce the reader to new feminists such as artist Tomiyama Taeko who represents the struggles of Asian women through her art. However, the book ends with a feeling of uncertainty of the future of Japanese feminism. Can the women of Japan continue to make the required changes in their society to ensure their bodily autonomy without denying their embodied experiences? As was pointed out at the 1994 East Asian Women's Forum, 'deeply rooted gender-role divisions limit women's participation in policy decision-making in every sphere We maintain that gender equality is far from being realised' (p. 222). Will housewife-feminism be strong enough to force gender equality?
  9. Mackie's book is an invaluable addition to women's studies and is an exemplary text in exploring the history of feminism in modern Japan as a social movement and will hopefully prove to be an important tool for feminist groups in Japan who are still aiming to gain bodily autonomy.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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