3171 Meiji Women

Within the historiography of the Meiji period, a commonly occurring theme is the aporia between the ideology of ryōsai kenbo and women’s experienced reality. Despite the idea of “good wife, wise mother” being an ideal in circulation, many women during the Meiji period were unable to fulfill this role due to economic limitations. In other cases there were women who became outliers to the system entirely by either being rejected externally from the possibility of acquiring the status of a “good wife, wise mother,” as in the case of the geisha, or rejecting the model themselves, as in the case of certain extraordinary women who pursued higher education for better opportunities. Nevertheless, the state was concerned with maintaining conditions that fostered this theory to produce future subjects that would further develop the nation. This was done in part by the state’s omission of women in the discussion of public rights, but also its reluctance to acknowledge women as proper citizens, whereas some men acquired this status without conflict. Yet there were theorists, such as Fukuzawa Yukichi, who critiqued this treatment of women on the basis that women’s segregation was unbeneficial to the development of society. Ultimately the scholarship on women during the time reveals that the role of women both influenced and was influenced by the conceptions of the nation/state.

To begin with how economics contributed to the role of women during the Meiji period, E. Patricia Tsurumi maintains that lower class women were viewed by the wealthy elite as well as the state as disposable laborers meant to maintain high levels of production in factories, create profits, and facilitate Japan’s competitiveness in the global market. Throughout her book Factory Girls, Tsurumi characterizes the economic relationship between the male management and mostly female workforce as exploitative. The horrific work conditions of the factories, the one-sided contracts and debt traps created by the factory companies, and the practice among factory recruiters of abducting female factory workers and selling them to other factories or brothels are cited by Tsurumi to demonstrate the objectification and dehumanization of women during Japan’s industrialization. Tsurumi further argues that the efforts of factory workers to bargain for improved wages and work conditions through strikes and walk outs conflicted with the Meiji state’s economic policies and encouragement of capitalism. The state’s support of capitalism (and the continued exploitation of workers) appears through the police interventions to suppress strikes which ceased production and threatened the interests of the upper class management. Most noticeably, factory workers became disillusioned with the company’s appeals to filial piety and nationalism due to how the managers were more concerned with making profits than being regarded as “second parents” or sharing a national identity with their workers.

As debased as the view of the group of women working in factories was, there was yet another group of women that held an even more devalued status at the time. To this point, Amy Stanley, in Enlightenment Geisha: The Sex Trade, Education, and Feminine Ideals in Early Meiji Japan, describes the situation of a specific category of women outside the ryōsai kenbo model altogether: the geisha. She points to a moment in the early 1870’s where it appeared that geisha were going to be able to become a respectable part of society and, through education, participate in fulfilling the ryōsai kenbo ideal. She calls the geisha who began to participate in the process the ‘enlightenment geisha.’ Unfortunately this moment of educating geisha (and prostitutes) passed and it soon became clear that the “good wife, wise mother” mantra was for ‘respectable’ women only, women with whom it would not be shameful or taboo to associate. This piece gives us a glimpse into how the geisha related to the nation/state form. For them, the official stance of the state, and the one that was constantly being projected as the ideal, was something unattainable. The way they related to the nation was as a category of other. They did not fit well into the new model of how the nation would be built, so they found themselves in an awkward category of ‘semi-respectable,’ or ‘almost.’ They were not quite as unspeakable as prostitutes, and the line was blurry. Soon, though, the line crystallized and it was evident that the geisha as they had been would not make the cut in working towards the success of the nation.

Another site at which the aporia between the ryōsai kenbo ideology and the actual lives of women became manifest was education. In “Women getting a ‘university’ education in Meiji Japan,” Mara Patessio argues that although during the early and mid Meiji period the model for female education had mostly been based on cultivating a population of “good wives and wise mothers,” by the 1900s there was an increase in arguments for women’s higher education for reasons besides “giving birth to strong soldiers and supporters of the Meiji government” (Patessio, 558). Acknowledging that few women themselves were actually participating in the discourses forwarding these arguments, Patessio mainly focuses on the ideas of male educators and theorists such as Nihon joshi daigakkō founder, Naruse Jinzō, whose ideology was “to teach females from three standpoints, as humans [ningen], as women and as kokumin” (Patessio, 564). In doing this she demonstrates that growing in the male-elite consciousness was the idea that women’s becoming educated and “independent-minded” was ultimately for the benefit of the nation since “by becoming proficient in an art or skill, women would be prepared and be able to use that ability in exceptional circumstances in order to fulfill their duty as kokumin” (Patessio, 565).

This does not directly depart from the ryōsai kenbo model, since in arguing in this way, theorists were not so much attempting to discourage marriage, as they were encouraging women as wives and mothers to be effective for the good of the nation in their own right. Yet, it does represent the beginnings of the transition from women being viewed as provisionally useful to an independently productive force of society. Besides this and at the same time, these theories, unlike previous models, allowed that there were circumstances in which some women had “special talents,” and therefore ought to be allowed to cultivate these talents in lieu of acting the traditional part of wife and mother at all. Patessio uses Haraguchi Tsuruko, the first Japanese woman to acquire a PhD, as her exemplar of this claim and argues that Haraguchi’s success, among select others, was a point of convergence in the thought of both critics and supporters of women’s education in that it demonstrated the capacity for women to be successful at higher levels of study and ultimately as participants of society outside of ryōsai kenbo altogether. The implications of this, Patessio points out, were that the Meiji ideology and moreover its sense of control over its people, was threatened by these sorts of women in that they were publicly viewed as what a Meiji woman could strive for.

This ambiguity between what a Meiji woman’s educational aspirations could have been and should have been, as opposed to a man’s, in part plays into what Marnie S. Anderson argues in “From Status to Gender: Systems of Classification in Transition.,” which is that because of the lack of progression in terms of social movements prior to the Meiji era there was no foundation set for the issue of inequality between the sexes to be built on. Disputes concerning rights in the public sector of society pre-1890s Meiji were almost always dealing with differences in status amongst the population. The state continued to use this criteria as the basis for refusing women any sort of freedoms outside the household thereby restraining them to the private sector. Anderson speculates that this propensity of the state was at first due to its ignorance and then later a blatant attempt to keep Meiji women separate from the political world. The policies for granting voting rights were contingent on the capacity to fulfill one’s public duties; ability to pay the state its taxes. However, women who owned land through the household were obligated to pay their taxes, but the state recognized such actions as being private matters and not those of the public. Such interpretations of law barred women from being included in the discussion of voting rights and allowed the state to continue exploiting the women through both social and economic means. Advocates of women’s rights did exist during the early Meiji period, but the men who spoke in place of the women consistently changed their opinions on which women should be recognized as citizens [kokumin]. Supporters like Maruyama Namasa would remark how it was necessary to exploit women’s talents for the nation and how women would not feel obligated to fulfill their duties for a nation that does not grant them rights. Although Maruyama begins his argument for giving all women rights, it inevitably whittles down to being a debate for only female household heads [koshu]. During the struggle for public rights, mention of women was either disregarded completely or transformed into an issue of status all in attempt to sustain the current agenda of women having public duties and not their ensuing rights.

Adding to this discourse was social thinker, Fukuzawa Yukichi, who was displeased with Meiji society’s treatment of women. In response, he wrote “On the Association of Men and Women” [Danjo Kōsai Ron] as a critique of the failings of the civilization and enlightenment [bunmei kaika] movement’s failure to integrate the sexes. His arguments revolve around the state of men and women’s social freedom to intermingle and communicate, and upon further explication of Meiji Japan’s social rigidity it can be discerned that the negative implications toward women outweighed that of men; men reserved most of the social mobility while women were restricted to the home. Fukuzawa placed the blame on “Confucian scholars” who continued the notion that sexual immorality was largely the fault of women in the form of “danson johi”, the theory that one should “honor men, despise women.” These scholars as well as society as a whole were active in the present day according to Fukuzawa, refusing to phase out what he saw as antiquated ideas that worsened the social convention of gendered segregation. Fukuzawa insisted that this negative attitude towards women was not only driving a stifling wedge between both sexes in the name of sexual purity, but also backfiring and steering more men toward the red light districts to find the emotional connection they were discouraged from establishing in their public or even married lives. While Fukuzawa argued that both women and men were hurt as a result of danson johi, it is apparent from his arguments that the bulk of infidelity and the misogyny of society in the Meiji era were committed against women. His dream was for both sexes to intermingle freely and equally, which he believed would contribute to greater happiness in the lives of individuals, spouses, and families. Finally, in case altruism was not enough motivation, Fukuzawa argued that freedom of association between men and women was necessary to bring Japan up to par with Western nations. He claimed that isolating men and women into groups of their own sex would lead to crude and agitated behavior, while intermingling would extinguish their restless discontent and influence them to exchange more civilized ideas, thus contributing to the overall civilization of the nation.

In conclusion, while a prevailing point of convergence in the scholarship of Meiji women is ryōsai kenbo, often the trend is not so much to demonstrate the model’s efficacy, but rather its limitations and what implications this held with regards to the actual control of the Meiji state attempting to proliferate this idea. This is apparent in discussions of how many women were economically or socially precluded from aspiring to the ideal, but also in discussions of women who by their own extraordinary ability pointed towards the inability of the prevailing view to account for the greater plurality of standings held by Meiji woman. These aporias ultimately contributed to the discourses beginning to circulate regarding women’s rights, duties, and the differences between the sexes in general.


Yukichi, Fukuzawa. “On the Association of Men and Women.” (Danjo kôsai ron)「男女交際論.

Fukuzawa Yukichi Zenshu, vol. 5, (Iwanami Shoten, 1958-64). Partial translation by Michiko N. Wilson, provided in JPTR 3300 class, Fall 2015.

Fukuzawa’s essay “Danjo Kosai Ron” (translated as “On Association of Men and Women”) is an invaluable source for studying the Meiji period and its relation to women. It should be used as a direct source from the Meiji era, as Fukuzawa lived and theorized during that time. The essay is a critique on the failings of bunmei kaika to properly integrate women into male-dominated society. Fukuzawa argued that the “civilization and enlightenment” movement focused so much on incorporating Western government, militarization, and technology into the budding Japanese nation, yet lacked appropriate social reform. This was especially evident in the stifled social relations between men and women; Fukuzawa blamed the antiquated notions of Confucian scholars, labeling women as catalysts for lechery and tucking them away while barring men from easy interaction with even their own wives. Fukuzawa accepted the prevailing theories about stages of civilization development, and stressed that Japan would not be fully civilized until men and women were properly socialized. According to Fukuzawa, the voices of women as well as the flow and exchange of ideas between the sexes were integral to the development of the Japanese state. Ultimately, the goal of his essay was not only pragmatism but what he thought to be a simple yet important necessity of humanity – for women and men to socialize and be held as equals. “Danjo Kousai Ron” is primarily useful as a Meiji era source pertaining to the role of women in society, if not indirectly through the broader initiative to bring the sexes together in equal conversation and interaction. It is difficult to find as a source in English, however Michiko Wilson’s translation contributes greatly to its accessibility to English readers.

Anderson, Marnie S. “From Status to Gender: Systems of Classification in Transition.” In A Place in Public Women’s Rights in Meiji Japan, 8-56. Cambridge, Massachusetts:             Harvard University Asia Center, 2010.

“A Place in Public” by Marnie S. Anderson details, from multiple analytical perspectives, the development of women’s rights being recognized, categorized, and debated during the Meiji era of Japanese history. The key advantage to using this source is that the discussion between the book’s major themes involve works cited from both men and women of the Meiji period. This characteristic of the text bolsters Anderson’s argument that Meiji women did not have any public rights during this stage of Japanese development because society had not yet completely moved past its Confucian traditions of how women were to be perceived. For instance in her first chapter “A Place in Public”, Anderson details how the conversation on women’s voting rights shifted from being contingent on status to being on gender. During the early Meiji period any household head (koshu) capable of paying a set amount of taxes was eligible to vote in prefectural elections however, as the public became more concerned with the progression of its society and non-wealthy males desired the right to participate the gender of women became a more distinctive and limiting factor in policy-making. Anderson asserts that as Japan became more apparent of itself as a law-making nation so too did people begin to realize the inconsistencies in the government’s dispensation of public rights; particularly the lack of rights to women because of the belief that they were incapable of performing their public duties. The objective of this book is to explain how the conception of Japanese women being different from men was dependent on how men wanted to be perceived amongst themselves. The subject of rights became a major issue in societal life only when the course of the nation was valued above the individual by the public, and the individual, not the household, wanted to be a participant in political decisions.


Amy Stanley (2013). Enlightenment Geisha: The Sex Trade, Education, and Feminine Ideals in Early Meiji Japan. The Journal of Asian Studies, 72, pp 539-562 doi:10.1017/         S0021911813000570

Amy Stanley focuses on the specific category of ‘geisha’ in the early Meiji period. During the Tokugawa era, geisha were artists and entertainers, usually women, who entertained at houses called okiya. Coming into the Meiji era the line between geisha and prostitute was blurred, and the geisha began to be viewed unfavorably by “respectable” society. In the article, Stanley details how proprietors took steps to educate geishas and transform them into moral contributors to society. There was a brief period where the figure of the ‘enlightened geisha’ emerged, a woman who was trained in the art of geisha who was also educated and was a potential candidate for marriage. By 1875, however, associating publicly with geisha and other questionable characters (teahouse girls/masters, prostitutes) was a political liability and the Meiji-era ideal of ryōsai kenbo “good wife, wise mother” began to take prominence. This article is important in the historiography of women in Meiji because it helps to make sense of the rise of ryosai kenbo and what the role of women had been pre-Meiji. It also serves to provide depth and nuance to the category of “women,” recognizing that there was great diversity in experience and background among women of the era.



Tsurumi, E. Patricia. Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Patricia Tsurumi analyzes the role female factory workers played in “the Meiji miracle” of Japan’s economic development and nation building at the turn of the century. Along with analyzing the role of these factory girls or kōjo in supporting and creating the profits of the silk and cotton textile industries, Tsurumi discusses their role in supporting their rural, impoverished families through paying off their debts. Much of the support provided by the kōjo came through remunerations of their wages and predatory loans provided by the factory company.

According to Tsurumi, much of the historiography of Japan’s economic development focused on the role of state sponsored industrialization instead of on the women (who made up the majority of Japan’s industrial work force) “that weaved for the nation”. However, Tsurumi contradicts the nationalistic narrative promoted by factory owners and state leaders through recounting the exploitative and inhumane conditions of the factories. She further cites the numerous strikes and confrontations between the factory workers and the upper class management and police to demonstrate how the state actively repressed class antagonisms which conflicted its goal of rapid economic development.

Along with describing the dehumanizing conditions of factories throughout Japan, Tsurumi further highlights the existence of discrimination and violence against women in the workforce. Along with analyzing how female workers received less pay than their male counterparts for equal work, Tsurumi describes how female workers suffered a greater risk of sexual harassment, assault, and rape by male coworkers and supervisors on the factory floor and factory dormitories.

Ultimately in the book, Tsurumi uses this research on the exploitation of factory girls during the Meiji period to draw a parallel to the exploitation of female migrant workers in Japan during the 1980s. Publishing her research in English serves to add to the meager English scholarship on Meiji women as well as draw greater international attention to the exploitation of women in Japan.

Tsurumi’s history of factory workers also relates to our class due to its description of how the Meiji state’s repression of labor strikes revealed the greater class-based antagonisms which appeals to nationalism or fictive ethnicity were unable to resolve.


Patessio, Mara. “Women getting a ‘university’ education in Meiji Japan: discourses,        realities, and individual lives.” Japan Forum 25, no. 4 (December 2013): 556-581.   Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 28, 2015).

This article calls for a reexamination of the discourses concerning female post-secondary and university education and its usages during the late Meiji period (1890-1912). The main contention is that the existence of young women requesting and pursuing educational opportunities outside of the institutions established strictly on the ideology of ryōsai kenbo (good wives and wise mothers) during this period should be understood as another way in which the Meiji state was unable to control its people. Moreover, Patessio claims that in addition to the conservative, scholarly discourse of the time, seeking to preclude women from higher educational opportunities out of fear of social and political disruption, the treatises of which still persist today as predominant sources of understanding for the historiography of Meiji women, there was also a concurrent discourse, in which there was the growing idea that in some cases women should be allowed to pursue either university education or more generally their ambitions outside of the roles expected of them. This source, then, is an important contribution to understanding the role of women in Japan both during and after the late Meiji period since, in highlighting the educational ambitions and successes of certain key women and the fact that education for some scholars’ became a site where the fear of women’s disruptive capabilities transformed into an interest in how “Japanese women could be ‘used’ more in order to develop a strong country,” Patessio demonstrates that despite a clear state conception of what women ought to do, increasingly women were fulfilling themselves in other ways (Patessio, 577).

Although this source is relevant to the in that it reveals the potential limitations of certain long-standing beliefs about the behaviors and expectations of Japanese women during the Meiji period, and in turn makes a claim about the overall efficacy of the Meiji state’s circulating ideologies, the claim is limited by the fact that the exemplary women and scholars in support of women in higher education that the article deals with are few in number. Patessio acknowledges, furthermore, that due to the wide variety of sentiments found in the testimonies of non-exemplary women, it is difficult to say how much education did or did not affect most women’s actual lives. Together these limitations serve to underscore, then, the need in the historiography of Meiji women to account for the gap between state ideology and the contradictory lives of exemplars, but also the gap between the lives of exemplars and the reality/realities of the masses.