The Transformation of Women in Views of Socialist Japan

The traditional dress of the women of Kyoto, Japan | Image: United States Army Pacific


The unity of the themes gender and class have always been a point of friction in Marxist thought but are nevertheless very important. This essay examines the social history of women who have been liberated from traditional responsibilities by socialist movements in Japan and discusses the seemingly contradictory point of the mass mobilization of women in the socialist movement with respect to primitive accumulation in capitalist system. In general, the fundamental difference lies in the way that each system defines the responsibility of women.


Japan, Marxism, Women, Social Movements, Liberation


The Marxist theory proposes that despite the overthrow of the feudal state by the rise of the bourgeoisie and a transition to capitalist era, in the end, there will be a communist epoch dominated by the proletariat. However, in between, a socialist state is the prerequisite for this ultimate blueprint envisioned by Karl Marx. Moreover, different crises fermented under the capitalist system in history seems to confirm the inevitable flaws in such a system, as Marxist theory suggests. For instance, the economic development brought by Meiji Restoration left vast space for debate on Japanese capitalism. Confronting the capitalism crisis, Marxist scholars embrace unique critique of class relations under the capitalist system. This essay focuses on analyzing the transformation of women’s role in Japanese society using a Marxist approach, as they were part of the auxiliary forces of socialist ideas which challenged traditional social relations in Japan. The socialist movement in Japan unfettered women from their traditional responsibilities in feudal or capitalist societies, resetting social and gender relations. In the socialist perspective, the transformation of women’s roles from mothers and wives to a separate structure in workforce denies their dependence on men.

Women in Socialist View

Women have been portrayed as an exploited group throughout history. The study of gender and class are not conspicuous in all aspects of Marxist thought, but nevertheless appears to be important to some Marxist scholars. For instance, in “Women: The Longest Revolution,” Juliet Mitchell discusses the function of women in capitalist society represented by the bourgeoisie family. According to the author, the situation of women is more complicated than any other social group, as they are marginalized in economic, social, and political aspects but at the same time they are also fundamental to human relations. (Mitchell, 1) Based on Marx’s preliminary framework, later scholars often centre on the issue of the oppression of women to conduct the analysis of the economy under capitalism. Mitchell uses Engels’ theory as an example, as he once declared that the inequality of sexes was parallel to the development of monogamous marriage (Mitchell, 4). The oppression lies in women’s physiological weakness and through the development in marriage system they become private property for men. Engels sees “the ability of work” as a key to bring about their liberation, since an equal relation cannot be built if women are limited to housework instead of socially productive work (Mitchell, 4). That means in  a traditional sense, women are bound by complicated economic relations and only in socialist theory can they be deemed physically and psychologically independent. In “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” Engels gives insight into the problem of women’s oppression, claiming that the “the first premise for emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry… [This] demands that the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished” (Engels, 225). It seems a socialist perspective automatically assumes women in capitalist societies are a type of private property, whereas socialism equalizes family responsibilities.

The Transformation of Women in Socialist Japan

Having opened the discussion of women as an oppressed group that highlights the problem in capitalist society, this essay will further examine the transformation of women in socialist Japan by looking at three different aspects that existed in Japanese history. The first is the conversion of women from peasant family members to reform activists through marriage with Marxist supporters. Japanese scholar Mikiso Hane has compiled a book with very compelling diaries, memoirs, and testimonial accounts to show what ordinary Japanese people went through when the country experienced economic growth due to the development of capitalism. Among the figures that appear in her book, most of them come from lower-class backgrounds that scatter over the rural area. For example, Yamashiro Tomoe, the author of “Fuki no To” (Bog Rubarb Shoots), records women’s hardships in their lives on a farm during the prewar period. Tomoe married a Marxist labour organizer and had been imprisoned for five years when Marxist ideology was considered “dangerous thought” (Hane, 85). After the war, she devoted her time to participating in agrarian reform, anti-war movements and writing stories to reveal the privation of women based on real experiences. In the story of Fuki no To, Tomoe depicts a girl who spent her entire life as an exploited woman, from her early years serving as a maid to her role of being a wife, daughter-in-law, and mother, which exemplifies the hardship of women during that time. While such difficulties were not restricted only to women, many men also became Marxist agrarian reformers because there was an overall belief that the peasants were being exploited by the urban capitalist class. Tomoe’s experience is a sufficient example to reflect the situation of rural women in this period, and through their marriage with supporters of Marxism, they also embraced the ideas in the hopes of liberating themselves. Given the historical context, Germaine A. Hoston examines the rise of the dual economy and the revolution in the Japanese countryside. She suggests that the period in which the development of capitalism was hitting its stride in cities coincided with the remarkably backward countryside (Houston, 223). The extreme poverty and hardship created the conditions that fueled peasants’ anger and brought about the increase in the acceptance of Marxist economic theory among rural communities. While men tended to be the protagonists of the agrarian reform, women in the countryside were also undertaking the campaign against capitalism, particularly because of their marital relationship with Marxist upholders. Whether such cases should be deemed another patriarchal influence on women is beyond the scope of this essay.

Second, the shifting conception of reproduction and contraception could be seen as another type of evidence for the transformation of women in Japanese society. As Juliet Mitchell states in her book, it is fundamental and revolutionary that a woman can bear a child only if she can do so completely voluntarily; it is essential for women to have other options instead of elevating procreation to women’s paramount task (Mitchell, 11). Therefore, the contraception policy might have challenged the traditional relationship between women and the state in capitalist society. In her article discussing socialist women in Taisho and Early Showa Japan, Vera Mackie reveals the struggle of women confronting their traditional feminine responsibilities imposed by the state and men. She introduces Nakasone Sadayo, a member from the Sekirankai (Red Wave Society), who was arrested due to her participation in a political demonstration. Such an incident demonstrates the resistance of socialism in a capitalist society, particularly in the field that relates to childbirth, considered by many conservatives to be women’s primary role. While there had always been supporters stressing the importance of motherhood and rejecting contraception and abortion, a lot of women during this time argued that women should not be forced to fulfill such responsibilities, especially to give birth to children in unplanned situations (Mackie, 78). The female socialist Sakai Magara appeared in Mackie’s article, denying the nobility of motherhood which she defined it as a creation of capitalist society:

When there is a war and there are not enough soldiers, there are calls to bear children and to multiply. In such times, mothers with children will be given financial assistance. Does this also come under the name of respect for motherhood, and protection of motherhood? (Mackie, 79)

From the quote above one can see that Sakai Magara reveals an underlying contradiction by  stressing motherhood in pre-war Japan and encouraging conscription during wartime. Both serve the interest of the state but are given euphemistical names in different situations. On the other hand, the debate over the legalization of abortion in Japan demonstrates the existence of entrenched interest groups in the capitalist society. The social phenomenon described in Christiana A.E. Norgren’s book, the promulgation of legal abortion, implies the intersection of national and profession interests (Norgren, 36). It was during the post-war reconstruction period for Japan in which the society was endangered due to a series of economic crises. According to Norgren, the country experienced a dramatic increase in population, eleven million people, from 1945 to 1950, that resulted from repatriation of soldiers and civilians from the former colonies and the baby boom (Norgren, 37). This brought Japanese society a great amount of pressure and resulted in the final legislative process of the Eugenic Protection Bill. Aside from the national perspective, private groups also gained economically from the enforcement of laws that allow abortions, mostly in the form of private clinics. This example supports my point that Sakai Magara’s argument on the relation between motherhood and the state, as the issue of contraception and abortion in the context of Norgren’s book, is different from what female socialists like Magara are striving to achieve. The case discussed by Norgren is more about politics concerning reproduction in postwar Japan, while the point involved in Mitchell and Magara’s comments are the transformation of women in socialist perspective, which aims to overcome the obstacles in capitalist society.

The most important and effective way in terms of transformation of women is the mobilization of women which turns this group into the auxiliary forces of the socialist camp in Japanese society. The two aspects discussed in the previous paragraphs are embodiments of the third point. Guided by the Marxist scheme on women’s liberation, women in the industrial workforce and their efforts to create organizational structures give them a greater participation in social labour and political affairs. Since the 1920s, the socialist movement employed various strategies to organize proletariat women. The first stage was through socialist propaganda with particular contributions made by female intellectuals to bridge the gap between women socialists and the uneducated working women. In another book of Vera Mackie, she provides the statistics that nearly one third of women were classified as having a position in “gainful employment” and most of them engaged in agriculture work (Mackie, 100). However, Mackie considers another rising problem as the high proportion of women workers in agriculture had not helped carry out socialist expectations. The second highest proportion of women were factory workers and home servants, but stereotypes often applied in gender segmentation according to industry (Mackie, 101). The mobilization of women in the public workforce with the infusion of socialist ideology has laid the foundation for shifting women away from their traditional roles, though at this stage the ingrained gender segmentation reveals the fact that women’s interests were often neglected by men in Japan’s society. This situation has been explained by Rodger Swearingen in a book co-authored with Paul Langer. Even though the communist propaganda in Japan had always prescribed the “liberation of women from their feudalistic bondage,” the percentage of women in the Japanese communist party until 1945 was still small (Swearingen and Langer, 172). It was partly because of the inferior social status of Japanese women and the militant characteristics of the party that prevented women to gain a voice in an essentially male-dominated party. In my opinion, such a case does not prove that women did not play a role in socialist movements, as Marx and his disciples all recognized the importance of women emancipation. Rather, one should look at the problem with respect to the setting of Japanese norms and culture. Although many socialist conservatives did not pay much attention to the struggles of women, the enthusiasm of Japanese women has granted them more power to affect the political discourse. For instance, the year of 1946 witnessed the historical moment during which Japanese women went to the polls for the first time and presented a surprisingly heavy proportion of votes in the election (Swearingen and Langer, 171). With the effort of suffragettes, women had the opportunity to voice their opinions and demand actions to improve the well-being of proletariat women, ranging from the abolition of the household head system to the implementation of a standard living wage regardless of sex or race (Mackie, 106).

While the socialist movement liberated women from their traditional responsibilities, some also suspect that it is an alternative of primitive accumulation, which forces a large group of women to join the workforce, ultimately benefitting the capitalists. I think there is a fundamental difference in the starting point of mobilizing women into the public workforce. Silvia Federici considers housework under capitalist household as “a labour of love” and that capital has been very successful in defining housework as an act of love (Federici, 17). Although workers receive wages from the capital, Marxist scholars calculate the hidden unpaid work that contributes to profit. The story written by Yamashiro Tomoe in Hane’s book provides us the most intuitive way to understand the difference. The oppressed woman in the story was simultaneously asked to work hard for the sake of their families without any rewards, and for the peasants in general; their accumulative discontent has given the rise of socialist beliefs. In addition, the socialist movements which appear attractive to most of the proletariats are attractive because of their utopian vision that denies the privatization of property and favours state-owned enterprises to secure people’s basic living. It is hard to distinguish whether this echoes the primitive accumulation in capitalist society, as it requires further investigation into the economic structure in Japan during this period. Since in the current model of socialist society the most ideal conditions will not be achieved, I think the emphasis should be on the working-class women’s consciousness of what they are doing, as they are the socialist upholders and they should choose what best serves their interests.


In summary, Juliet Mitchell’s work is an inspiring source for me to examine the transformation of women’s role with a Marxist approach, and my argument is supported by different cases or historical events in the pre-war or post-war periods. Although many controversies remain in the study of gender and class, there is no doubt that the issue of women is very important to Marxist thought. The mobilization of women into the workforce enables women to deviate from their traditional, domestic responsibilities and to form a separate work structure which help them gain increased rights.

Works Cited

Engels, Friedrich. The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Marx and Engels Selected Works, Volume II, 1884.

Federici, Silvia. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. PM Press: 2012.

Hane, Mikiso. Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

Hoston, Germaine A. Marxism and the Crisis of Development in prewar Japan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986.

Mackie, Vera. Creating Socialist Women in Japan: Gender, Labour and Activism, 1900-1937. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Mackie, Vera. “Socialist Women and the State in Taisho and Early Showa Japan”. In Japanese Studies Bulletin. Vol. 14, No.1, 1994.

Mitchell, Juliet. Women: The Longest Revolution. Detroit, MI: Radical Education Project, 1971.

Norgren, Christiana A.E. Abortion before Birth Control: The Politics of Reproduction in Postwar Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001, 36.

Zhijun Zhou is a fourth year student majoring in History and East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, her interest lies in East Asian political and cultural history particularly centering around the 20th century.

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