Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Primary Sources


The Meiji Reforms and Obstacles for Women
Japan, 1878-1927

When the Meiji-Taisho era (1868-1926) began, Japanese leaders were open to new ideas. Responding to this more liberal environment, male and female reformers created the “Popular Rights Movement” which called for new rights and freedoms. Most of the women in the movement became known as Japan’s “first wave” feminists. They set out to identify the ways in which women were oppressed, and to ask for legislation to ensure women’s rights. They also challenged the restrictions of the traditional family structure.

Although the reformers saw that it was important to improve the status of women, they often did so motivated mainly by feeling that this was essential if other technologically advanced nations were to accept Japan. At the same time, they were reluctant to alter the traditional role of women which had prevailed in the past. The ruling elites in particular reacted negatively to pressure by these female calls for reform. Their response was to enact laws designed to keep women from taking part in any political activity. These restrictions were legalized in:

  • the Meiji Constitution of 1889 and the Law of Election in which females were denied voting rights.

  • the Law on Assembly and Political Association of 1889, which became the hated Article 5 of the Peace Police Law of 1890. This law denied Japanese women the right to join political parties, attend political gathering, or even take political science courses.

  • the Meiji Civil Code of 1898 which gave the male head of the family absolute authority over family members. Men had the sole right to control family property, determine where each family member could live, approve or disapprove of marriages and divorce, and control inheritance. The male head of each household was authorized to control his household members and assets. If a woman who had children divorced, she normally had to leave them with her former husband and his family. One provision stated: “Cripples and disabled persons and wives cannot undertake any legal action.”

Obstacles such as these slowed the feminist movement and forced some members into acts of direct confrontation with the government. It took a "second wave" within the feminist movement, a new generation of young intellectuals, in 1922 to finally win the right to attend political meetings. Women’s right to vote, however, wasn’t achieved until after World War II.

Kishida Toshiko, (1863-1901) - Japan
“Maidens in Boxes”

During the period of reform in the Meiji-Taisho, Japanese male nationalists argued that improving the status of women was essential if other technologically advanced nationals were to accept them. This opened the door for a small group of women who called for new rights and freedoms. The phrase “good wife, wise mother” was coined, meaning that in order to be good citizens, women had to become educated and take part in public affairs.

One of the first women speak out was Kishida Toshiko. When she was a teenager she served the Empress at court, but left after two years describing the court as “far from the real world” and a symbol of the concubine system which was an outrage to women. She also wanted parents to stop ruining their daughters by turning them into “maidens in boxes.” She claimed that with the present family system there was no way for a young woman to develop her potential. The only appropriate” box” for daughters, said Toshiko, should be one “as large and free as the world itself.”

Kishida set off on a speaking tour addressing huge crowds all over Japan. She was a powerful, dynamic speaker. She often was harassed by the police, and once was jailed. Her words, nonetheless, were heard by thousands of women who found in them encouragement to become politically involved.

Excerpts from Toshiko's Speeches:

“In ancient times there were various evil teachings and customs in our country, things that would make the people of any free, civilized nation be terribly ashamed. Of these, the most reprehensible was the practice of ‘respecting men and despising women.’…We are trying, through a cooperative effort, to build a new society. That is why I speak of equality and equal rights. Yet in this country, as in the past, men continue to be respected as masters and husbands while women are held in contempt as maids or serving women. There can be no equality in such an environment...”

“Equality, independence, respect, and a monogamous relationship are the hall marks of relationships between men and women in a civilized society…Ah, you men of the world, you talk of reform, but not of revolution. When it comes to equality, you yearn for the old ways, and follow, unchanged, the customs of the past..."

“I hope in the future there will be some recognition of the fact that the first requirement for marriage is education. Today, we have come to feel that we have ‘managed’ if eight out of ten daughters who are married do not return home in divorce…One of the first requirements ought to be learning what it is to manage after marriage…Daughters must be taught basic economics and the skills that would permit them to manage on their own...”

“If it is true that men are better than women because they are stronger, why aren’t our sumo wrestlers in the government?”

Women lost most of the gains they had made when the ruling elite reacted negatively to their pressure by enacting the most conservative and oppressive model of the family in the Civil Codes of 1898. Men were enshrined as head of the family with absolute authority over family members. One provision stated: “Cripples and disabled persons and wives cannot undertake any legal action.” The Codes also attacked traditional means of birth control by promoting high birth rates. The patriarchal family model thus became a part of the state, not private, policy which extended neoConfucian principles to all women, not just to the upper class.

Source: Sharon Sievers, Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan.

Discussion/Activity Suggestions:

  • What problems did Toshiko feel she had with male reformers?

  • Make a list of the reforms she promoted. What arguments did she use to forward her cause?


  • Look up the complete text of the Japanese Civil codes of 1898. Identity those most restrictive toward women.

  • Look up the 1803 French Napoleonic Code. In what ways are the two codes similar with regard to the position of women within the family?

  • Research the “second wave” 1920s feminist movement in Japan.What new freedoms did it promote?

  • Find out about the status of women in Japan today. Have the changes the 19th century feminists fought for occurred?

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
Click for Author Information

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