Margaret Sanger, "The New Women of Japan," 1923.

Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of CongressLibrary of Congress Microfilm 130:247."

Margaret Sanger wrote at the top of this draft "Prepared for Asia, rejected." For an earlier draft, see Libray of Congress Microfilm 130:238.

The New Women of Japan

By Margaret Sanger.


Our average Occidental conception of that mysteriously elusive creature, the Japanese woman, has been created out of a number of romantic fallacies. It is built up in part, I think, out of those three little maids from school who giggle and simper through Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado". It is drawn to no small extent from the gaudy theatricalism of "Madame Butterfly". The color-prints that aroused so much enthusiasm toward the end of the last century, but which date from a much earlier period, strengthened our romantic illusion and the unrestrained exoticism of writers like the late Lafcadio Hearn further exalted this perfect flower of Japanese civilization and completed the apotheosis of a creature it has now become almost sacrilege to lock upon as a human-all-too-human being.

This view of the Japanese woman is based not upon the observation and study of the Japanese today, working and toiling in fields, factories and workshops, but upon the decorative ladies of the old feudal regime, phantoms today of the irrevocable past. There may be a considerable element of truth in those romantic pictures of the ladies of old Japan. Despite their unrestrained romanticism, they are not absolutely false to the women of Japan today. But it is infinitely more worth while for us, in the interests of international understanding and amity, to give up once and for all, all highly colored generalizations concerning such distant folk as the Japanese. Too long have we been told and shown how posteresque and how picturesque are the women of Japan, how different they are from our own flappers and feminists, or the plodding workaday women of our drab Western civilization. It is my conviction, strengthened by a limited but intensified visit to the "land of the cherry blossom", that it is our first duty to find out, not how mysteriously Oriental the Japanese are, but how alike fundamentally they are to the rest of us. Skim over the surface of the Japanese scene in the manner of the average American tourist, and only the decorative differences appear. Delve beneath the surface and gradually, inevitably you cannot escape the conclusion that contemporary Japan is confronted by the same complex problems generated by modern industrialism. Accentuated, intensified by the swiftness and the impact of the industrial revolution in the little island empire, they are nevertheless the same problems.

To acquire an adequate conception of the living Japanese women of the present generation and the next, one must understand something not only of her past, but also of the changes wrought in her character and outlook by the new industrialism. Practically half of the total female population of Japan--a number conservatively estimated at thirteen millions, are engaged in gainful occupations, in fields, mills, factories, workshops, or engaged in home industries. And yet, few are economically independent. To understand why, let us survey rapidly the early history of Japanese women.


It is true that the Japanese woman is the product of centuries of self-sacrifice, almost countless ages of self-abnegation. But historians have discovered unmistakable traces of an early matriarchate. Worshipped as the greatest of the sun-goddesses, Tenshe-daijin , who is still honored as the first ancestress of the Imperial family, is depicted as a most powerful and efficient deity, dominating the military, political and agricultural destinies of an invincible race. Japanese historians surmise that far in the prehistoric ages, when the islands were first invaded by that indomitable race, the prevailing economic system was a primitive communism dominated by the material gens. During the reign of Jimmu (about 600 B.C.) many women warriors flourished among the native tribes of Kyushu. There were not merely women generals, but whole battalions of such Amazons. In this respect Japanese mythology parallels closely the Norse, with its Valkyries and its other radiant goddesses.

When Japanese society entered the period of recorded history, the family had evolved out of the definitely matriarchal stage. The descent of woman from the high position of goddess began. With the private ownership of property and land her position began steadily to decline. Nevertheless, there are innumerable recorded instances of women active and even dominating in political and social fields. There is the notable instance of the Empress Jingu, who in the third century conquered Korea and for half a century ruled over Japan with a vigor that suggests Catherine of Russia.

There seems to be evidence, if we accept the authority of Madame Kikuye Yamakawa, that in those heroic and epic days, Japanese women enjoyed freedom and equality with men, and were their inferiors neither in mental or physical capacity.

With the advent in the eighth century of the first code of laws--the Taiho-rei -- not only was private property firmly established, but monogamous marriage was definitely codified. A man might have but one legal wife, though the code permitted him to support as many mistresses as he desired. Though the Taiho-rei still recognized their right of inheritance, women were banished from public life. In the next four centuries the conduct of women was gradually but progressively circumscribed. In the Fujiwara era, the woman of the upper classes could not speak directly to any male acquaintance. Friendly intercourse with any member of the opposite sex--with the exception of her husband--was deemed not only immodest but immoral. Such women, however, remained under the protection of their blood relatives. They were not financially dependent upon their husbands. Divorce was possible. A second marriage was possible. Since these women remained members of their own families, they were not absolutely the property, body and soul, of their husbands. The great race of heroic superwomen had not yet died out. It is true that they were prescribed from military or political activities. Their pent-up energies found expression in literature. The Fujiwara era is noted fro its renowned literary women. I find a curious parallel here with the nineteenth century of our own Anglo-Saxon world, surely the most circumscribed for women, and yet notable for its George Eliots, its Bronte sisters, its many poetesses and women novelists.

But it was with the rise of the powerful military lords, all bent on conquest and reducing the majority of the race to slavery and servitude, that the women of Japan were completely subjugated, spiritually as well as physically. At the beginning of the Kamakura era in the thirteenth century the great structure of Japanese feudalism was raised--a structure not merely of outward government and tyranny, but one that rigorously determined every act, every thought, every impulse of the Japanese people. In its outward or external aspect, this feudalism did not fall until the middle of the last century. But the rigorous mental and spiritual discipline it enforced upon generation after generation of men and women still lives--a powerful unseen force, silent, intangible, resisting with the inertia of centuries every effort to implant in the Japanese mind the seeds of Western democratic ideals.

More obviously than the men, the women of Japan today incarnate this ancient tradition, this unchanging code of conduct. Not in a mere half century can the women of Japan free themselves of the severely imposed discipline of five. For according to the code imposed by the feudal empire, woman has deprived of every personal and economic liberty. Even the right of inheritance was taken from her. Property descended to the eldest son, his younger brothers and sisters becoming his subjects. There was no freedom of choice in love. Obedience became the crowning virtue for women, and with obedience, chastity. The blackest crime was adultery and it was punishable by death. She was denied the right of divorce. Her husband was chosen for her by her father, or by her eldest brother if the father were dead. Upon her departure for the house of her husband, the parting warning of her parent was that she should never return to them alive. A widow of the Samurai caste was forbidden to remarry.

The Onna Daigaku (the Moral Code for Women) formulated the morality for women of the feudal ages. To a great or less degree, it remains valid today. Woman is a slave from birth to death; first to her father; then to her husband; finally to her eldest son, who becomes head of the family. For almost any reason, the husband might cast her out--if she were not obedient to her husband or to her parents-in-law, if she were childless, if she were talkative, if she gossiped about her relatives, if she suffered from a malignant disease. She must look upon her husband "as upon Heaven"--with awe, fear and reverence. Even though her lord and master be unfaithful, the Onna Daigaku warns her to bear him no grudge--she might remonstrate only in a quiet, persuasive and modest fashion. The Onna Daigaku summarizes the all too prevailing masculine opinion that women are inherently stupid, spiteful, disobedient, slanderous and jealous. It therefore counsels: "Women shall get up early in the morning and go to bed late in the evening. She must never take a nap in the daytime, and she must always be careful in her household duties. She shall be industrious at sewing, weaving, spinning, and embroidering. She shall not take much tea or wine. She shall not visit places of amusement, such as theatres of musicals." In everything, woman is advised to admit he superiority of man. She must only follow and obey him. "A woman must never get angry, even when she is despised and insulted. . . . she must bear everything, and always be careful and timid."

Lest we congratulate ourselves too rapidly upon our own superiority, let us recall that there is nothing essentially Oriental in this attitude. Is it not identical with that voiced by Petruchio, who spoke for the men of his own generation and a good many of ours when he exclaimed;

"I will be master of what is mine own.-- She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house. My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything..."

And when Katharine, tamed at last, voices--perhaps with her tongue in her cheek--her allegiance to her lord, her king, her governor, she expresses the attitude of the typical Japanese woman of past centuries, and even of the present:

"Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper. Thy head, thy sovereign... Such duty as the subject owes the prince, E'en such a woman to her husband owes, And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour What is she but a foul and contending rebel And graceless traitor to her loving lord?"


Such was woman's place in the rigid, inelastic structure erected by Japanese feudalism, a society which might be described as a hierarchy of loyalties and self-sacrifices. Woman in this hierarchy is lowest in the social scale, deprived of the rights of personality or individuality. The legitimate wives were reduced to the position of menials. Their chief function was the bearing of children, who were not valued so much as individuals but as future units to uphold the Empire. Fully to comprehend Japanese society we must realize and remember always that under the ancien regime, the individual was subordinated always to the larger social organism. Legally and morally he existed only as a function of the State. As similarly, a woman existed only as a function of her husband; she was his housekeeper and the bearer of his children. When she was married, she had to shave off her eyebrows and dye her teeth black. Her hair was then done in the Maru-mage coiffure, a style of hair-dressing for the married only. The persistence of the Onna Daigaku code, and of the ancient feudal ideas of womanhood is painfully evident in the prevalence of these fashions. To this day most married women do their hair in the Maru-mage fashion. I saw many women with dyed teeth. And a large proportion of women cut their hair upon the death of their husbands. Until a few years ago, short hair among our own women bespoke defiance of convention; with the Japanese, tradition rather than fashion dictates the arrangement of a woman's hair. But these are minor customs which accentuate our essential samenesses rather than our differences.

The greatest mystery today concerning the women of Japan is the perpetuation of the feudal psychology. The feudal system fell just before the outbreak of our Civil War. The industrial revolution accomplished in our Western countries gradually and over a long period of years, invaded the island Empire of the Mikado with an impact and a shock the repercussions of which are still evident. Industrialism, dynamic, a force of relentless iron energy invaded a society not only ill-prepared to receive it, but aggressively hostile to the materialism of machinery. Completely isolated for centuries, the Japanese had believed that they had nothing in common with the other nations, that their race was made up of finer and nobler stuff, that their history, their ideals, their customs and usages were all exclusively their own. The family system especially was held as a unique treasure of the race, unparalleled in any other society. But with the rapid industrialization of Japan--a process by the way that has not yet been completed--most of the feudal ideas have degenerated or dissipated. Seemingly the most rigid, the most persistent, the most immovable, is the tradition concerning woman.


We need not seek far for a convincing explanation. Like the ancient tradition of Japan, modern industry is also feudal. Machinery is a rigorous disciplinarian. Industrialism has not brought freedom to the women of Japan. The low status of women was admirably, if sinisterly, suited to the purposes of modern industrialism and of the factory system with its ever increasing demand for cheap labor and unskilled operatives. And so today, instead of the decorative ladies and the geisha girls of the old regime, we find in Japan millions of women and girls working long hours in factories, in cotton and silk mills, a million women in commerce and communications, women miners, (at least one hundred thousand of these), women fishers, with a lesser but ever increasing number as teachers, doctors, nurses, dentists, midwives and chemists. They are leaving the countryside by the thousands to enter factories. Dr. Ishiwara of the Home Department has estimated that fully two hundred thousand country girls leave home for the cities and industrial centres every year.

Most of these girls are recruited by means of the term-contract system. They are bought as apprentices for a certain specified term generally from three to five years, though this apprenticeship may extend over a period as long as ten years. These girls are called "kako"--"the bought ones". It is not the girls themselves, but their parents, who receive their wages, small as they are, during this apprenticeship. The girls themselves receive but scanty allowances for their personal needs. The employers furnish the girls with food, lodgings, clothing and other necessities of life, but as a rule they are of poor quality. To no small extent personal liberty is curtailed; and the prohibitions of the old feudal system are not noticeably lightened. In some weaving districts, I was told, the mothers sometimes scold their children by shouting, "I'll sell you to the weavers!"

These girls and young women are of course recruited from the poorest peasantry. Resident recruiting agents, usually ex-policemen or petty officials, are said to keep a close watch over promising material for the factories. Besides these factory agents residing in the country districts, there are traveling agents who are generally called "hito-kai" or "man buyers". As in our Western countries, there has been a growing protest against the worst evils of this industrial slavery. But due in great part to the low value placed upon women except in their capacity as child bearers, it has taken practically nineteen years of protest and agitation to enact an effective law for the protection of female labor. But this factory law concerned itself only with establishments employing more than fifteen persons or occupied with dangerous trades. It did not touch the smaller workshops where conditions are the worst, and it did not concern itself with the protection of men above the age of fifteen. The main points of this law which became effective in September 1916 are as follows:

"Children below twelve years of age may not be employed. They work in the smaller work shops and the home industries, outside the protection of the law. "The working day for women and children under fifteen shall not exceed twelve hours. A clause permitting two hours overwork is effective until 1930). "Children under fifteen and women cannot be employed between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. But exceptions are made in factories when continuous operation is necessary, and where the workers are divided into more than two daily shifts."

Incomplete as the present factory laws of Japan are, their enforcement is even more fragmentary. Competent authorities in Tokyo told me of open violations of the law. Only two hundred inspectors, said Madame Yamakawa, had been appointed to supervise more than twenty-three thousand factories. The World War, which gave a strong impetus to Japanese industry, also had the effect, due to the abnormal situation, of throwing factory laws into abeyance. In the silk filatures, no less than three hundred thousand young girls are employed. I visited one of these plants near Nagoya where I found at least seven hundred young girls. I was informed that during the rush season their work began at five in the morning and ended not before half-past seven in the evening. An American missionary has written a vivid picture of these filatures:

"'O God, that bread should be so dear And flesh and blood so cheap!"

"I read that when I first began to be interested in Japan, and to know that it was her woman who were bearing the heaviest burdens, and it has been thrumming through my head ever since. It sang itself over and over again in my brain two days ago when I went through a silk spinning mill, and saw some little girls, about ten years of age, swiftly twirling off the slender threads from the cocoons and catching them on the spindles. From six in the morning until five at night; with all windows closed to keep the room moist and hot, they work; and then dinner, a bath, and bed, to get up for the next day's work. Two Sundays a month vacation, and about seven dollars a month pay, of which one and a half goes for board. Practically prisoners in the dormitory--little girls whose olive cheeks should be rosy, and whose black eyes should be snapping from racing and dancing about!" A few minutes in these rooms, which I myself visited not only in Japan but also in Korea and China, and one feels sick. The air must be kept hot and moist; and these children and young women must slave out their young lives in that enervating steam.

In the cotton mills conditions are even worse. I was invited to visit the Kanegafuchi plant, the largest cotton mill in the Empire and spent half a day there as the guest of the directors. There I found beautiful gardens, playgrounds, an emergency hospital, rest rooms, baths and the most advanced sanitation. There was even a kindergarten where the women employees might "park" their infants during the working hours. This type of paternalistic welfare work, splendid as it appears to the casual visitor, who might be disarmed by the extreme courtesy of his hosts, is at best palliative, a compensatory effort to divert attention from those young women and girls who, with weary manner and sleepy eyes, toil at the spindles, many of them on the night shift. In the average Japanese cotton mill the working shift is twelve hours, day and night. Dust and fine particles of fabric fall like minute snowflakes upon the toilers, amid the deafening roar of the relentless power engines. The growth of these young girls in the cotton mills is stunted; their resistance to infectious and malignant diseases is broken down. From standing so many long hours, they develop flat feet, with more serious maladies. Tubercular arthritis has made deep inroads upon this section of Japanese womanhood. I am not making these statements from my own necessarily limited observations. They are based upon the investigations of Dr. Ishiwara of the Home Department and of Mr. Koiyama, an expert in the department of Agriculture and Commerce.


There is of course a grave danger in any attempt to arrive at a complete and final generalization concerning the women of any race. There are women and women. We would scoff if any Japanese visitor to our own country should generalize concerning "the American woman" as a distinct and separate entity. We American women are of all sorts and conditions. We are highly differentiated as individuals. Our civilization is unceasingly producing new "types"--new "sports" in the biological sense. It has taken us but a decade or two to swing from the majestic Gibson girl to the perplexing "flapper". About the only thing we are absolutely sure of as far as American women are concerned, is that we may be sure of nothing. The American woman is heterogeneous, changing, plastic. She has evolved beyond the stage of homogeneity. She is no longer a general, easily defined type. She has become an individual.

Such is not the case with Japanese women. In Japan it is impossible to discover any such wide variation in type and spirit that is so inescapable to the observer of the women of American and Europe. The range of variation narrows down to the point of complete non-existence. From the lowest serving maid to the finest and most beautiful production of countless generations of aristocracy, certain indelible traits immediately impress themselves upon you. First of all there is the low voice, fluttering and birdlike; there is the universal demeanor of modesty-- modesty carried to the point of shyness; there is the silence and the subservience to the male, particularly to the husband; there is that almost impersonal and ritualistic politeness in behavior, most noticeable in those relations where we would naturally expect Japanese women to throw aside their habitual and conventional reserve. This trait was most eloquently revealed to me during a visit in one of the aristocratic homes of Tokyo. There I had the opportunity of observing the beautiful relationship exhibited between a Japanese mother and her two grown daughters. In striking contrast to the spirit of comradeship between parents and children that has now become ordinary in our own country was the ceremonious, almost ritualistic respect shown by these two daughters, representative of the young generation, toward their mother. There was neither intimacy nor familiarity. There was a consideration almost distant in the respect shown to the mother, as a representative undoubtedly of that most permanent of all Japanese institutions, the family. Yet it would be a mistake to assume, because of this delicate formality that existed here in the very bosom of the family, that love and fondness were absent. It is rather that old Japan had succeeded in extending its esthetic sense into the realm of everyday life. In conventionalizing these relationship Japanese society has undoubtedly produced a thing of beauty. Yet here, as in other fields, I cannot escape the conclusion that the individual, especially the individual woman, has been taught to sacrifice her own self-development and self-expression to an external superimposed ideal.

Exquisite and decorative as the upper-class Japanese woman is in her home, her example has not been a happy one upon her less fortunate countrywomen, for whom she serves as an example for all the feminine virtues. She is protected and cherished; she is a living work of art articularly created by the imagination of numberless generations of men. Her interests may be confined to her house, her garden, her children. Modesty, shyness, silence and beautiful clothes may become her. But for the millions of working women of Japan, thrust by the new industrialism into factory and workshop, doing double duty not merely as wage earners but as the bearers of the next generation, silence and intellectual dependence is no longer desirable. "A Japanese woman must be silent in public if she wishes to be respected." This ancient rule is almost universally and implicitly obeyed today, even by the most educated and emancipated woman of Japan. But that radical changes are imminent is evident by the abolition--at the very time of my visit in Japan--of Article Five of the police law of the empire, which prohibited women from attending any political meeting, promoting any such meeting, or joining any political association. That they have finally, after a long struggle, won this right must not be interpreted as a sign that the women of Japan are aggressively determined to enter the field of politics.

On the contrary, it is a sign, I think, of the decay of the traditional and feudal ideas concerning woman among the younger generation of Japanese men. The men of Japan, rather than the women, have assimilated our Occidental ideals of individualism and personal ambition. The men are forging ahead rapidly, due to their swift emancipation from the feudal ideals of loyalty and submission to the liege-lord.

I have spoken of the inertia and the deadweight of ancient Japanese tradition which acts as a silent, mysterious power upon the Japanese people. It is the Japanese woman, the "flower of countless generations, reaching back through the ages of tradition, centuries of self-abnegation", as Mr. Julian Street has expressed it, who not only bears the burden of this unseen power, but is indeed the perpetuator of it. Essentially conservative, essentially the product of this strange and so little understood past, the Japanese woman in my opinion does not possess in her typical psychology, the strong desire of rebellion or of change. The initiator of the change, in my opinion, will not be the Japanese woman, but the changing environment itself, which will continue to change the masculine outlook.

To realize the power of ancient feudalism over Japanese women, one must study them only at home, but in the Japanese colonies of Hawaii, Korea and

Once outside the sphere of that ancient discipline, once brought into friendly intercourse with the men and women of other countries and other races, the Japanese woman may be observed actually to "blossom out" as an intelligent, gentle, outspoken human being. In Korea and China, especially, I was surprised to discover her distinct intellectual gifts and the shrewd penetration of her observations concerning the fundamental truths of human nature and of life in general. This fact, for me at least, presages a glorious future for the self-development of the women of Japan.

Unlike the men, the majority of whom have with amazing rapidity taken to "foreign" clothes and foreign habits within Japan, the women on the whole still wear the traditional kimono, which though it may possess the distinct advantage of freeing her from the cruel dictates of passing fashion, presents the most complex difficulties from the point of view of washing and laundering. I do not believe that the women of Japan will discard their beautiful costumes or sacrifice their aesthetic and decorative sense upon the altar of Occidental progress and Western materialism. Her emancipation, which will come very slowly and very gradually, will not be effected by the adoption of "knickers" or any other form of bifurcated garment, nor by the "bobbed hair route". Essentially a conservative creature, she will never go to the superficial extremes of our own feminists, who in their hurry to have paid too much attention to surface values and altogether too little to a study of woman's basic nature and most deep-seated needs. Not by the mere imitation of the masculine element of the community, not by the noisy conquest of equal suffrage, not by any sentimental interest in political palliatives may this emancipation be brought about. Because she is shy, because she is self-effacing, we must not make the mistake of believing that the woman of Japan does not conceal a treasury of wisdom stored up by the accumulated experience of centuries.

The Japanese woman of the future, it is my prophecy, will sacrifice not the slightest element of her womanhood. Her self-realization will come through a gradual assertion of her power in her own sphere rather than in that of men. Already the fine flower of a highly conscious civilization, she will not sacrifice the beauties of the past for the uncertain gains of the future. Yet change is inevitable. Our romanticists, our worshipers of the faraway, may be rudely disillusioned. But is it a necessity that the women of the future must be less beautiful, less attractive than those of a past society that is now irrevocable? I do not think so.

The costume of the Japanese woman seems symbolical of her present position and the future unfolding of her nature. Today her kimono is her chrysalis. Outwardly it is of a dull, drab color, of some thick, serviceable goods--a dull brown or black, shot through with threads of purple or blue. It is often lined with silks of the brightest and most flaming hue, or which we catch only a fleeting glimpse now and then. Such, it seems to me, is the very nature of the women of Japan. Beneath her drab and often colorless exterior lies the unquenchable flame of her new spirit.

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