Japanese Women’s Fight for Equal Rights:
Feminism and the US Occupation of Japan, 1945 – 1952
By Jessica Pena
On October 28, 1945, the New York Times ran an article titled “Out of Feudalism: Japan’s Women”, written by Lindesay Parrott. “The dawn has slowly begun to break in the Land of the Rising Sun for Japan’s most depressed class” he wrote “the patient, plodding, Japanese women.” Just fifteen days earlier, the Japanese cabinet had decided to amend the election law granting suffrage to women and lowering the voting age from 25 to 20 years. As the Times lead correspondent in the Far East, Parrot was one of the first to report on the decision. Nevertheless, despite having lived much of his life in Japan, his writing illustrated an image of Japanese women that echoes racial and gendered stereotypes contemporary to the period.
“For centuries there has been dinned into her little ears ‘obedience and modesty are essential virtues of the Japanese woman,’” he wrote. “She has had her marriage arranged for her. She has stood in train or streetcar so her husband could sit. She knows it is wrong to take a seat at the dinner table until the men have finished, and she drops back to let the males precede her through doors… Now all of a sudden, and mostly through the insistence of the allied occupation authorities, she has become a citizen of Japan, vested with the power to vote, choose her government, organize meetings… and express her thoughts without fear of the secret police, even, possibly, by an extreme stretch of the imagination, talk back to her husband.”3 In just a couple of sentences, Parrott paints a picture that would have been easily recognizable to American readers in 1945: Japanese women, docile and subservient, oppressed for centuries by Japanese feudalism, now liberated by Americans during the occupation.
The narrative of the submissive Japanese woman dominates the historiography of not just the occupation, but of Japanese feminism as a whole. However, the history of Japanese feminism has never been the story of passive victims of oppression and to characterize them asmerely secondary players is misleading. The true story of Japanese feminism is the story of the women who fought, protested, and debated, sometimes for and sometimes against the nation. It is the stories of mothers, housewives, professionals, and intellectuals who wanted to better their position within society, maintain the status quo or just have their voices heard. Still, accounts like Parrott’s that dominated the media in 1945 and 1946 raise many questions. Why did the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), led by General Douglas MacArthur, choose to grant universal suffrage and extend the rights of Japanese women? Did Japanese women have a role in the changes that occurred during the Occupation? How did Japanese women respond to these changes and most importantly how did their voices get lost within the greater discourse?