Saturday, March 1, 2014

Women in Early 1940s Japan

Earlier this month, The Japan Times reported that several thousand women in Tokyo had threatened to boycott sex with their husbands if they voted for Yoichi Masuzoe, one of the mayoral candidates in the upcoming election. Masuzoe had made comments at a press conference to the effect that women were unfit to make government decisions because their judgment was that erratic during their monthly period. After Masuzoe won, the same group is calling for all women to boycott sex with any man who voted for him.  Such a movement would have been unthinkable during the early 1940s, the setting for parts of my latest novel, Hold Back the Sun.

In pre-Pacific War Japan, women were decidedly second-class citizens. This had been true since the beginnings of the Samurai Period. The greatest value of women, especially in middle and upper class society, was as child bearers and sex objects to be enjoyed by men. The Japanese viewed sex drive, especially in men, as just another appetite that needed to be consistently satisfied. Among the peasant farmers, of course, women were also valued for their labor in cultivating crops.  When the push towards modernization began in the late 1800s, women were also viewed as a source of industrial labor, at least until they were married.

Women had few freedoms. They were always under the domination of a male. Before marriage, they had to obey their fathers. After marriage, their husbands assumed command. Widows were expected to follow the orders of their oldest son. Nowhere were the words of the old folksong sung by Joan Baez, The Wagoner’s Lad, truer than in Japan:

Oh heartache’s the portion of all womankind,
She’s always controlled; she’s always confined,
Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife,
A slave to her husband the rest of her life

In the home, the wife was the husband’s servant. When he returned from work, she took his coat and made him comfortable, holding his chair while he sat if they used western furniture. She prepared and served the food and was responsible for child care. If her husband was an eldest son, she was required to become his widowed mother’s servant also. If the husband desired sex, she could not refuse him. But the primary job of a wife was not sexual entertainment. It was bearing children to carry on the family. For pure sexual enjoyment, Japanese men frequented geishas and yûjos (courtesans).  Japan’s sex trade was extensive and sophisticated. The pinnacle of the trade was the famous Yoshiwara sex market in Tokyo. Girls as young as twelve were literally sold into this trade by their families. They became sex slaves. Of course, peasant farmers could ill afford to live by this standard. They were more likely to depend on their wives for sexual pleasure.

Some readers of Hold Back the Sun have suggested that I was too harsh on the Japanese arch-villain. But considering the culture in which he was brought up, is it any wonder that he viewed women primarily as sex objects? Or that he considered them incapable of complex thinking. As one of the militarist ultra-nationalists, he would have harbored hatred for European colonialists for the subjugation of Asians. Such a man would have been ashamed and enraged to lose a bridge tournament to a “mere woman,” and a white one at that. He would view revenge in the form of sexual slavery as a matter of simple justice.

The position of women improved a great deal after General Douglas MacArthur and his staff wrote political sexual equality for women into the new Japanese constitution. Women today are much more independent. A large percentage of educated young women have discovered that they don’t need a man to support them. Almost forty percent of these women are refusing to marry and assume the role of servants. A poll showed that about 30 percent of all Japanese between 18 and 30 years old have never had even one date.  Yet the attitudes of some politicians like Yoichi Masuzoe indicate that men still have a way to go in their attitudes. It will be interesting to learn how the boycott turns out.

Much of the information in this post was drawn from Cities of Sin, a 1930s publication of the League of Nations Commission on White Slavery.

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun is set in the war in the Pacific. 


  1. Enjoyed your comments. I treasure my trips to Japan over the years and can see cultural truths in your article. Times are a changing though.