Japanese culture has historically emphasized gender roles. Expectations for men and women have traditionally aligned with societal obligations in the private and public sector. Women dominated the household but outside of the home, their families dictated their behavior. Although ancient philosophies like Confucianism and feudalism laid the foundations for the status of women, turning points like WWII allowed them to break through the glass ceiling and defy gender expectations.
The evolution of Japanese society has caused women to acclimatize to new customs and responsibilities. Various waves of change introduced new philosophies that guided Japanese lifestyles. Women were instilled with values of restraint, respect, organization, decorum, chastity, and modesty. Samurai feudalism gave little independence to women, and many were forced into prostitution. Some women served as samurai, a role in which they were expected to be loyal and avenge the enemies of their owners. Others, such as aristocratic women, were used for political alliances and reserved as pawns for family investment.
Confucianism emphasized hierarchical society and male dominance. At every level women were forced to be dependent on men. Female subservience was considered natural, and a woman’s character was shaped through honoring her family and remaining loyal to her children. As philosophies transformed with time, women’s roles developed from the requirements of nurture and family care to gaining the power to make broader social contributions.
Japan’s involvement in World War II challenged the traditional expectations of women by increasing industrial jobs. The war revolutionized the lives of Japanese women by employing them in weaving, textile, and silk factories while men were deployed. Women experienced the joy of having part time jobs, although their culture disapproved of women working for wages. Women saw their potential while serving in spheres that men used to enjoy exclusively, and they refused to return to their former limits.
However, because of Japanese pride and nationalism, women were used as advertisements for Japanese and international audiences. Propaganda and magazines portrayed them as symbols of hope and pride to ease minds during the uncertainty of war. The government drafted poor Japanese women to be comfort women for military men and their job extended to merely sexual services. They were given more freedom to make lives outside of the home, but were still constricted by men’s expectations and perceptions. Geishas served as symbols of escape from Japan’s war and violence, and brought back traditional performances to entertain men. They retained more freedom than the average Japanese women of the time, but they were required to meet the sexist demands of Japan’s upper class and governmental regulations.
Women also broadened their impact during Japan’s toughest times through organizations like the Nurse Corps so that men could be sent into combat. Japan’s women redefined their social status due to the absence of men, and society realized how important they were to Japan’s identity. After the war, women continued to prove that they wouldn’t regress to old ways of gender discrimination and that they wanted to be trailblazers for future Japanese women. Women were empowered by their newly discovered potential for equality and continued to sustain their prominence.
Japan’s post WWII occupation changed gender roles through legal and social reforms. WWII expunged the feudal system and the new Japanese Constitution prohibited discrimination based on gender. In addition, American perceptions of public displays of affection, style, and morals changed how Japanese men and women interacted with each other. Gender roles blended with Japanese tradition and modern American attitudes. Modern Japan stresses harmony and devotion, themes that women historically exemplified more than men in Japanese society. Women still control the household, family decisions, and finances. However, this pattern is gradually shifting, as young women pursue careers and stray from a traditional focus on marriage and motherhood.
In the past, women were only allowed to work when they were married and were expected to be lifelong housewives, but the trends are breaking. Modern day women show the drive to continue working beyond the expected retirement age to make a difference in society. The most dramatic change in modern Japan is the role of women and how they are defining themselves both internationally and domestically. They have fought through many difficulties in order to construct their identity.
The current generation of Japanese women is wedged between old and new values. However, they have the ability to write a future where they can build on preceding accomplishments and celebrate their incontestable importance to Japanese—and global—culture.
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