Understanding the History of Sexism in Japan

Japan, renowned for its vibrant culture and customs, has encountered various gender-related obstacles throughout its history.

This article explores the complex journey of the History of Sexism in Japan, emphasizing significant events and societal changes that have influenced gender dynamics in the country.

1. Ancient Japan: A Patriarchal Society

The society of ancient Japan was characterized by a deeply ingrained patriarchal system, which limited the roles of women and placed them in a subordinate position to men. Women were primarily responsible for household duties, while men held political and economic power.

It is worth noting that this gender-based division of labor was not unique to Japan, as many other cultures around the world had similar structures. Under the “ie” system, women in ancient Japan were subject to the authority of the male head of the family, known as the “ie no kami,” and had little control over their lives. This patriarchal structure endured for centuries.

2. Confucianism’s Influence

 Confucius Statue

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Confucianism had a significant impact on Japanese society. Confucian principles emphasized the importance of hierarchy, order, and filial piety. Confucianism reinforced traditional gender roles and emphasized the importance of women’s obedience and men’s responsibility as providers and protectors of their families. These ideals continued to shape Japanese culture for centuries.

While Confucianism was influential in shaping gender relations, it’s important to note that Japan’s interpretation of Confucianism was often less rigid than in some other East Asian countries. There was still room for women to exert influence and authority within the family structure.

3. Meiji Restoration: Early Feminist Movements

The Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century marked a turning point in Japanese history. It modernized Japan and allowed for the emergence of early feminist movements. Women began to seek education and rights, challenging societal norms. This period saw the establishment of schools for girls, which was a significant step towards women’s empowerment. Some women also began writing literature and participating in social reform activities.

One notable figure from this era is Tsuda Umeko, who studied in the United States and returned to Japan to promote women’s education. Her efforts laid the foundation for future generations of Japanese women to access higher education and participate in public life.

4. World War II: Mobilizing Women for the War Effort

people standing beside building

During World War II, women in Japan played a crucial role in the workforce to support the war effort. Many women worked in factories and offices, contributing significantly to the Japanese economy during the war. However, their contributions were often downplayed, and after the war, they were expected to return to traditional roles as homemakers and caregivers. This post-war shift illustrates how gender roles could be temporarily transformed during times of necessity but then revert to the established norm once the crisis passed.

While Japanese women were instrumental in supporting the war effort, their roles were largely confined to the production of munitions and supplies. Their experiences during this period, along with the disillusionment caused by the war’s outcome, led to growing demands for women’s rights and gender equality.

5. Postwar Gender Roles and Reforms

The postwar era brought about important legal and societal changes. The 1947 Constitution of Japan granted women equal rights, and gender equality became a goal. Women’s participation in the workforce increased, and they gained more opportunities for education and career advancement. This period they have marked the beginning of a more inclusive approach to gender roles and rights in Japan.

The “Japanese Women’s Liberation” movement gained momentum in the postwar period. Women’s groups and activists advocated for a reevaluation of traditional gender roles and for greater gender equality in society. These efforts led to important legal reforms and increased social awareness of gender issues.

6. The Modern Gender Gap

Woman in Black Blazer Sitting at the Table, History of Sexism in Japan
History of Sexism in Japan

Despite progress, Japan still faces challenges in achieving true gender equality. The gender pay gap is a persistent issue, with women earning significantly less than men for the same work. Additionally, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions in both politics and the corporate world. The “glass ceiling” phenomenon, where women find it difficult to ascend to the upper echelons of power and management, continues to be a concern.

Japan’s corporate culture often places long working hours and commitment to the company above all else, making it challenging for women, particularly those with family responsibilities, to advance in their careers. However, there is a growing awareness of these issues, and some Japanese companies are implementing measures to promote diversity and inclusion.

7. #MeToo Movement in Japan

Image: #MeToo

History of Sexism in Japan, MeToo in japan

The #MeToo movement, which began in the United States, had a global impact, including Japan. Women in Japan spoke out against sexual harassment and assault, sparking a national conversation about these issues. Japanese women, encouraged by the global movement, shared their experiences, helping shed light on the prevalence of such problems in Japanese society. The #MeToo movement underscored the importance of addressing issues like sexual harassment and assault.

The #MeToo movement in Japan prompted discussions about workplace harassment and the need for cultural changes. It encouraged individuals and organizations to reevaluate their attitudes and behaviors towards women in the workplace and society.

8. Ongoing Struggles and Progress

Image: Women’s Rights Activists

Women's Rights Activists

Japan continues to make efforts to address gender disparities. Initiatives like “Womenomics” aim to promote female participation in the workforce and leadership roles. Women’s rights activists advocate for greater gender equality and continue to push for legislative and cultural changes to address issues like the gender pay gap and the underrepresentation of women in positions of power.

“Womenomics” is a term coined by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to promote women’s participation in the workforce as a means of boosting economic growth. The Japanese government has introduced policies to encourage companies to hire and promote women, such as setting targets for the percentage of female executives.


The history of sexism in Japan is a complex narrative, marked by cultural traditions, historical events, and societal shifts. While the country has made significant progress towards gender equality, there is still work to be done to address issues like the gender pay gap and the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.

As Japan moves forward, it is crucial to acknowledge the strides made and continue working towards a more equitable and inclusive society for all its citizens. The journey towards gender equality is ongoing, and the lessons from Japan’s history can guide future efforts to create a more just and equitable society for all.


I am a freelance writer and blogger who specializes in technology and travel. I have been writing for over 5 years and has contributed to several online publications. In my free time, I enjoys hiking, photography, and exploring new places.

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