Japanese women forever
Wives, widows, and prostitutes
By William Wetherall
A review of two booksEiichi Kiyooka (translator and editor)
Fukuzawa Yukichi on Japanese Women (Selected Works)
Introduction by Keiko Fujiwara
Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1988
xv, 254 pages, hardcover
Anne E. Imamura
Urban Japanese Housewives: At Home and in the Community
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987
193 pages, softcover
A version of this article appeared as
"Wives, widows and prostitutes" in
Asahi Evening News, 8 April 1988, page 9
The dozens of books on Japanese women that have been written in English, in the postwar decades alone, testify to the interest that Euro-American foreigners are thought to have in Japan's better half, who remain the more populous and longer-lived mix of the population, despite the recent increase in males who are saved by modern medicine from doom in the womb or from breast to tomb. The two latest tomes reflect observations made about one century apart, the earlier by a Japanese thinker and educator, the later by an American sociologist.
The name of Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) is almost synonymous with the opening and modernization of Japan in the 19th century. His liberal thinking and advocations of equality contributed to change on all social fronts, including the relation between the sexes. Eleven of Fukuzawa's major writings on women can now be read in tolerable English translations, introduced by an essay on his interest in the status and role of women in society, and concluded by a list of 38 other works by Fukuzawa which reflect his interest in the woman question.
Fukuzawa attacked the rules of conduct and etiquette transmitted to his generation by The Greater Learning for Women, (Onna Daigaku), an 18th century Confucian work extolling the three forms of submission and seven reasons for divorce. A woman was to obey her father when at home, her husband when she married, and her son when her husband died. A woman could be divorced if she disobeyed her in-laws, failed to bear children, talked too much, stole, was lewd, was jealous, or had a malignant disease like leprosy.
Fukuzawa believed that women are born equal to men. For other reasons, too, he would have liberated women from their feudal bonds. "As for education proper, no distinction should be made between girls and boys. . . . No subject is useless for women except military strategy." Yet Fukuzawa believed that the woman's essential place was in the home, and that only her economic situation might alter this. "If a woman has the means, she may hire someone to take care of the house to put herself exclusively to scholarship."
Fukuzawa saw prostitution as a necessary evil. "Prostitution is indeed lowly, ugly, and for the person who practices it, must be both physically and spiritually degrading. However, in our society today, it cannot be abolished. rather, society depends on it for the preservation of order. It is true that without the service of these people, order in society will quickly fall to pieces. We need to recognize these women as great benefactors who, at great pains to themselves, are serving the whole of society."
If prostitution were entirely abolished, "Within a few months, the accumulation of the animal urge will reach the breaking point and it will manifest itself with illicit activities among the children of good families, or violation of lonely widows, Besides secret affairs, there will be open assaults, kidnappings, elopements, fights, and a general loss of order in the whole of society."
Fukuzawa argued that prostitution should be preserved, but not in the conspicuous form favored by his compatriots. He recommended the "decorative techniques" used in Western countries to keep such things out of sight and mind. "Such is the beauty of the civilized society where prostitutes are numerous but they are as if nonexistent: the gay quarters prosper but they are invisible."
Anne Imamura approaches the woman question from a very different vantage point. She does not criticize the position of women in Japan as much as simply describe how married women live, and report what they themselves say about their lives. She became interested in the subject while visiting her Japanese in-laws as a family member.
Imamura's observations are also based on interviews of fifty women and seven community leaders, including one man. Her study is confined to a Tokyo suburb in 1977-1978. One of the interviewees had expected her to be a Japanese American, "and for the first thirty minutes was too stunned by my blue eyes to talk of anything else."
Imamura concludes that her observations "conform to the picture in the literature" which she extensively (but unobtrusively) cites. "The home is left in the care of the wife, and the husband is absent most of the week." But there are gaps in the conventional picture.
"If care of the family and home is primarily the responsibility of the housewife, and if questions are being raised about 'community' in urban Japan, why could I find no indication of the relation of the housewife to the community or even any desire for a community?"
Imamura finds that while the "role set" of the Japanese housewife has changed, the family is still felt to be important. So long as the wife carries out her domestic duties, she is free to pursue other activities. "Work and responsibility have traditionally been valued in Japan," and so "acceptance of the housewife's participation in leisure activities or study groups represents a major social change." Thus "Family itself is not enough" for the urban Japanese housewife.
Imamura's observations are also based on interviews of fifty women and seven community leaders, including one man. Her study is confined to a Tokyo suburb in 1977-1978, and she concludes that her observations "conform to the picture in the literature" which she extensively (but unobtrusively) cites: "The home is left in the care of the wife, and the husband is absent most of the week."
But there are gaps in the conventional picture. Imamura finds that the "role set" of the Japanese housewife has changed, though the family is still felt to be important. So long as the wife carries out her domestic duties, she is free to pursue other activities. "Work and responsibility have traditionally been valued in Japan," and so "acceptance of the housewife's participation in leisure activities or study groups represents a major social change."
While Imamura explores the "reference groups" and other "structural alternatives" available to housewives who need outside relief from their "role strain" at home, she finds considerable agreement with the idea that, strained or not, the woman's primary role is at home. "Every woman interviewed, no matter how busy, indicated that she always managed her home affairs first, so that dinner was always on the table and (especially) her husband was never put out by her activity. Whether this is true or not is less important than the definition of the sphere of housework as being woman's work."
Fukuzawa would have been pleased.