Posted: March 29th, 2022

The modernization of the Japanese society

At the end of World War II, Japan was a nation devastated by defeat, psychologically traumatized by the impact of two atomic bombs and bereft of resources. It would thus be a nation ripe for dramatic reinvention, which would occur in the image of its western occupiers. Steeped in the implications, tastes and peculiarities of Eastern life, Japan is also an example of Western integration at its most thorough, with U.S. led modernization battling Japanese tradition throughout the postwar era.


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The first major blow to Japanese tradition would be the surrender of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, whose name itself translates to the claim that he was bestowed upon the people by heaven. Indeed, the Japanese royal legacy was directly correlated to the popular understanding of the Shinto faith which delivered the ruling family. As such, the emperor was generally believed by his subjects to be more than a man. He was a symbol of Japan. So his radio address to the people on August 14th, 1945, admitting defeat and asking all Japanese citizens to follow suit, was inescapably devastating to the psyche of an entire nation. Thousands of years of imperial rule effectively came to an end when Emperor Hirohito advised those loyal to him to accept the terms of the conquerors. Those terms were nothing short of complete submission to the United States. When the Japanese were forced to accept the radical circumstances of military occupation and realignment in a Western image, the emperor’s authority was subverted to little more than the jurisdiction over an honorary title. And in a famous photograph that depicts Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur towering over his recently deposed opponent, Hirohito, the Japanese were presented an image that shattered all illusions.


These illusions would continue to be subjected to dismantling as the forces of capitalism prompted the modernization of Japanese society. With this would come a transition in the role that women had long played as subordinate to male desires and ambitions. Accordingly, a woman born during this time would find the first glimpses at feminism in modern Japan.


It was at this juncture that “a group of women called themselves ‘Tatakau Onnatachi’ — ‘Women Who Fight’, or ‘Fighting Women’. They were part of a movement of women’s liberationists, disillusioned with the sexism of their male comrades in the ‘New Left’ and vigilant about threats to their bodily autonomy through proposals to tighten Japan’s relatively liberal postwar abortion laws.” (Mackie, 1) In Mackie’s views, these women had much in common with feminists in other nations coming to embrace the implications of democracy and capitalist modernization. Particularly, Mackie emphasizes the connection between the forces of modernization and the inherent departure from tradition. In this case, this meant departure from long-standing traditions of patriarchy. These, Mackie indicates, extended from the hierarchical prerogatives of the Shoguns who led Japan into war. Accordingly, Mackie defines the transition from feudalism into capitalism as modernization, and therefore connects it with a thrust toward more progressive gender orientation.


And yet, the experience for a young women born into postwar Japan would be one of mixed signals. Mackie reports that this was a period in which the patriarchal implications of Japanese society were essentially transformed into many of the same imbalances as these were formulated in an industrialized society. The projection of the female as wife, mother and home-maker would become a particular feature of the newly stabilizing but occupied nation. Accordingly, Japanese women would struggle to obtain the independence and personal advancement which were key features of the feminist movement throughout the world without sacrificing their roles within the context of family and community. In many ways, this dilemma strikes at the heart of the dilemma for the Japanese nation as a whole following the war. It would be forced to reexamine itself in search of a balance between the modernity demanded by its headlong vault into a capitalist rebuilding process and its desire to retain its identity by preserving core Japanese traditions.


And there was natural frustration for the Japanese people, who initially viewed MacArthur and the U.S. As a threat to the Japanese way of life. And it cannot be denied that there is evidence to support that concern in many respects. But for women, it would help to open certain pathways to personal advancement. According to Mackie, “the women’s liberation movement developed out of a critique of modern Japanese capitalism, a dissatisfaction with the sexism of the New Left, and the need of women in Japan to theorise their place in East Asia.” (p. 4)


Among the forces that would significantly aid in their ability to establish any such identity would be the new set of doors opened by the shift in Japan’s educational principles. The goals of modernization and capitalist advancement — which would ultimately call for more opportunities for women to make contributions — would demand an emphasis on education in the evolving state of Japan. So would this be demonstrated by the policies on this front which passed into law concurrent with the 1947 ratification of the Japan’s Constitution. Particularly, the Fundamental Law of Education would make education compulsory at all levels leading up to university schooling. It would be here that two important aspects of modern Japan would emerge.


Namely, this would create a new level of access to education and opportunity which were previously inaccessible to women. As Mackie reports, “the early liberals challenged Confucian prescriptions which prevented women from receiving an education in anything other than needle-work and household tasks. They argued for new forms of education which would train women to be mothers of the nation, capable of training their sons to be loyal subjects and disciplined soldiers.” (p. 25) The implication here is that while family roles were largely prescribed in ways that suggest the gendered nature of global politics, modernization would also gradually improve the opportunities available to women and would help to facilitate the feminist movement to emerge thereafter.


A second defining feature of Japan’s education following the renewal of its compulsory attendance policies would be the elevation of the Junior college as part of its academic strategy. Again though, here we can see the mixed prospects for women in the system which was to evolve. Through its Junior Colleges, Japanese women would be offered opportunity with one hand and further cast into gendered roles defined by a patriarchal order. Mackie reports that in the ensuring years since Japanese education had become accessible to women, the Junior Colleges had evolved into something of a gender-segregated educational system. Mackie indicates that “although the numbers of males and females going on to higher education are roughly equal, women are disproportionately represented in two-year colleges. In 1980, women made up 91 per cent of the student population in junior colleges, but only 31 per cent of students at four-year universities.” (p. 171)


Mackie further reports that the subject matter of study at Junior Colleges is largely gendered to reflect certain expectations relating to gender and social orientation, including home-economics, education and the humanities. This differs from the dominance of technical, industrial and social science disciplines in male education. (Mackie, p. 171) Here, we can see that the opportunities available to women are in many ways defined and channeled through the Junior College system.


As this fits into the broader context of our discussion, it is apparent that Japan’s modernization has been a mixed experience both for women and for the nation at large. In one respect, Japan continues to stand as the greatest triumph for American ideological expansion. By the late 1980s, Japan’s cache as an economic force made it a legitimate competitor to the world’s greatest powers. Championing everything from baseball, Disney and punk rock to the corporate structure, the raging stock market and the sixty-hour work week, Japan developed into a paragon of capitalism. What may be most important to acknowledge, though, when attempting to decipher the somewhat hazy picture of the Japanese identity, is that the fifty years that have passed since World War II have not been that long. Essentially, Japan still lives in the shadow of its relatively recent history, all of its evolution, alteration and internal examination are a product thereof.


Works Cited:


Mackie, V. (2003). Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality.


Wikipedia. (2010). Fundamental Law of Education. Wikimedia, Ltd. Inc.

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