Divorce for Women, 1869–1939

By Karen Kobayashi
and Reika Zayasu


Divorce is not a recent concept in Japan. Japanese men and women have been getting divorces for centuries. However, the concept of divorce was far from what we know it as today. Today, the concept of divorce can be defined as a separation of a married couple and signing of divorce papers to finalize their divorce. For many women in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, divorce meant that a husband had decided to abandon them without her having much say. Inequality was evident in the laws and practices of divorce around 1868 to 1939, a time we will refer to as the pre-war era. With this project, we will guide you through the concept of divorce in the pre-war era by presenting laws, cases, and facts. We will begin by discussing what exactly divorce meant in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Then we will explore how that concept of divorce held inequality for women. Next, we will analyze why this certain period had a decrease in divorce rates, and finally, we will compare the concept of divorce in the pre-war era to ones of the postwar era.



Before we begin, it is important to understand the basic framework of marriage in the pre-war period, as divorce can only follow marriage. During the Meiji period, marriage was officialized when the husband confirmed the marriage at the local administrative office. However, in the pre-war era, the ideas of marriage were loose, and therefore, many of the marriages were not recognized or reported. This has been cited as a reason for why the information about divorce in the pre-war period may be inconsistent.[1]


Concepts in Meiji Society

Until 1945, a popularized version of Confucian ethics was widespread, emphasizing a hierarchical system. The Japanese government promulgated these Confucian ethics to maintain social order within society. Confucianism systematically made women subordinate in both the household and society by teachings in their childhood. Moreover, Confucianism was introduced into the Meiji Civil Code of 1898 with Japan’s primary goal of fukoku kyōhei (富国強兵 transl. “enrich the country and strengthen the armed forces”), stressed the productivity in Japan.

The household system, which was used by the Tokugawa shogunate for centuries, gave the right to the head of household to determine family property, occupation of family members, and to approve or disapprove marriages and divorces. The Meiji Civil Code, combined with the traditional family system and the popularized version of Confucianism, subjugated Japanese women to men both in law and society.[2]



With marriage came divorce. Divorce in the pre-war period had two patterns, either there was a mutual agreement or a settlement. Divorce by agreement happened when the spouses mutually agree on divorce due to either trying to maintain family harmony or personal feelings. The head of the household could simply inform the officials that they were divorced.[3] However, most of these cases were initiated by men and were, at times, forcefully accepted by the wife. The wife was usually unable to disagree as the constitution of marriage meant that the wife was marrying into the husband’s household, and divorce meant that she was forced out.[4] Therefore, when an agreement was not a plausible way to divorce, there were three other ways spouses could settle divorces, judicial divorce, divorce by conciliation, and divorce by adjustment.[5] Judicial divorces occurred when the marriage met one of the requirements for divorce as stated in the Civil Code section 770, which ranged from adultery, abandonment, and mental illnesses, to serious inevitable reasoning.3 Then, divorce by conciliation and adjustment occurred when an agreement could not be made, and a third party counselor stepped in. In the pre-war period, most divorce cases were settled with a simple agreement.


A husband wrote three lines and a half on a piece of paper when he wished to divorce. There were several variations, but most described the divorce in the first half and a permission for remarriage in the second half.

For a photograph of a mikudarihan (“letter of divorce”), please click here.


Inequality in the Grounds of Divorce

Divorce under the Meiji Civil Code had a lot of limitations for women and contained unequal treatment of women. First, there is a definite double standard for adultery, which was a ground for judicial divorce. In the Meiji Civil Code, it showed that wives could be divorced by husbands when they committed adultery, but husbands could only be divorced by wives if they had been sentenced to a penalty for unlawful sexual misconduct. That is to say, only women were severely punished for adultery. According to Tomohiro Otani’s research on the grounds for divorce in 1900, the percentage of husbands accusing wives of adultery as the reason for divorce was 27.6, while wives accusing husbands 0.6 percent. Although a husband’s adultery was to be tolerated, a wife’s adultery was not only grounds for divorce, but it sometimes led to criminal prosecution. Moreover, the death penalty was acceptable until 1908, and husbands could kill wives if they caught their wives committing adultery. Also, 86.2 percent of divorce trials were initiated by wives in 1900, but few were accepted.[6] This indicates another example of unfairness for women.

One more inequality that we can see during the Meiji period was the education called “good wives and wise mothers,” that was strongly pushed by the government in order to strengthen the patriarchal family system in the Meiji state. “Good wives and wise mothers” did not allow women to have higher education, but rather wanted them to become subordinate, supporting their husbands in the household. This ideology shows that women could not have the same education as men and had no choice for a future career. Finally, there was little a wife could do to prevent from being divorced. One of the House of Councilors argued that there were a countless number of women who were divorced by their husband without any notice. Eventually, the wife was unable to revoke the decision and she helplessly followed it.[7] Considering these facts, it is apparent that there was inequality in the grounds of divorce during the pre-war period. 


Inequality After Divorce

Women were also treated unequally after divorce. First, they could not always retain their property upon divorce. It is easy to imagine that they were put in a difficult situation in which they were left nothing once divorced. Children could only remain in the custody of the ex-husband as the head of the household, so the wife did not receive any compensation from her ex-husband. Moreover, although a divorced woman was free to remarry, they were viewed as “damaged goods” and suffered a decline in social status.[8] It can be said that inequality for women after the divorce was also serious.


A Decrease in Divorce Rate During the Pre-war Period

In the pre-war era, divorce was infrequent so that some years did not have any records of divorce, such as the sixteen-seventies and eighties, the seventeen-forties, and the eighteen-forties.[9] Granted, the lack of records may have been due to the loose nature of marriage and divorce as mentioned previously, yet divorce was uncommon nonetheless. 


Reasons for divorce

There are three main reasons for divorced in the Meiji period. First was sexual infidelity, mostly when committed by wives. As mentioned above, adultery by wives could be the reason for divorce, in contrast, a husband could only be divorced in case of a penalty. This kind of gap was constructed with the idea of “male chauvinism” (男尊女卑), and also the prevalent thought of wives’ adultery disturbing bloodline and the family system. This clearly shows the conservative ideology in the Meiji period. In addition, a woman who was unable to conform to the household had also been divorced. Wives who failed to bear a child within three years were likely to be divorced by their husband and parents of the husband, as it was considered rebellious, unmanageable, and an indicator that she failed to learn how to become a part of the household.8 Therefore, it strongly suggests that being good wives and wise mothers should be the primary goal of women. Another reason for divorce was, for example, the failure on her part to produce the family heir, a son. According to the predominantly held view of the time, women were to blame for the majority of divorces in Meiji Japan.

Comparing the reasons for divorce in postwar Japan to pre-war Japan, there are big differences regarding equal rights, which had been attained after the war even though incomplete. In postwar Japan, women cited lack of financial support from their spouses as a primary reason for divorcing their husbands. Other reasons for both women and men to initiate divorce were incompatibility and extramarital affairs. Now, the majority of divorces are filed by women, while men’s percentage of filing for divorce accounts 45 percent.[10] Unlike before when women’s divorce was not accepted, the increasing number of divorces filed by women and the fact that adultery can be the reason for divorce for both men and women indicate an advance in terms of gender equality. 



Before the Meiji period, there was no paperwork needed for divorce arrangements so that people could easily be divorced. Mostly, men were able to divorce women with a simple three-lined letter. However, the Meiji Civil Code stipulated institutionalization of both marriage and divorce arrangements, making divorce into a complicated process, and people were more reluctant to divorce.[11]

 The influence of the “good wives and wise mothers” education and political ideology in Meiji Japan is thought to have affected a decrease in divorce. Creating “good wives and wise mothers” made them more subordinate, adapted to the household, therefore leading to the decrease of divorce disputes between husbands and family. Also, some scholars pointed out that the political ideology of seeing women’s charity as virtue boosted the idea of “good wives and wise mothers.”[12] One example, which shows that the “good wives and wise mothers” spread broadly in society and led to a decrease in divorces,  are the consultation sections of women’s magazines and newspapers, where contributions from women who wanted to part with their husbands were printed. However, the response stated that half of this was their fault and advised to take the blame for the husband’s’ sexual infidelity.11 Thus, this kind of advice discouraged women to divorce and brought about a decrease in divorces. 

For those under twenty-five years also needed parental consent to divorce, which contributed to discourage the youth.12

There were more subtle or unconscious influences such as the media and Christianity. In the pre-war era, various forms of media such as books, magazines, newspapers, and movies portrayed the ideals of marriage.[13] Christianity spread ideas of treasuring monogamy and family. These ideas have led people away from ideas of divorce because marriage was seen as something that needed to be treasured and preserved.[14]

Finally, one more reason for the decrease in divorces is that the economic development in the Meiji period directly influenced women’s ideals. Since there were more opportunities for women regarding work, more women obtained jobs. Through their employment, they discussed ideals of marriage and learned that marriage was not a requirement. This new idea prompted many to halt the search for spouses and wait for “the one”.7


Pre-war Divorce vs. Postwar Divorce

The concept of divorce has gone through a drastic change throughout the years. Described here are differences that can be seen in the economy, law, and society from the pre-war era to the postwar era.


Economic Difference

With the changing economic situations, the divorce situation changed as well. A major change can be seen in women’s independence in modern society. Nowadays, it is common for there to be single mothers and unmarried women. This is partly due to the ability of women to support themselves financially. Women around the Meiji era relied heavily on the head of household for income, while the wives were responsible for housework. Therefore, if a woman were to be unmarried or divorced, especially as a single-mother, she would struggle to support herself or even a child (this is if she was granted custody) with the minimum resources she would receive.[15] In the modern world, women have more opportunities to work, and single mothers also receive support from the government.


Legal Difference

There have also been legally changes that were positive for women’s equality. First, the method of filing for divorce has changed drastically. In the pre-war period, men were able to divorce their wives by sending them a three-lined letter, which simply stated that he wished to divorce them. Now, in this society, there needs to be an agreement among the spouses, and they are both required to sign divorce papers to complete a divorce. Women have received much more say in the matter than they did back in the pre-war period. Another development in the law is that women are now allowed custody of their child after a divorce, which was almost impossible in the pre-war era, when the husbands were given full custody of the children. However, women in Japan today have won custody of their children in over 80 percent of divorce cases.[16] Finally, according to Dauer, women were not given any type of support after a divorce even when wives were usually dependent on their husbands for a living. Now, women are able to negotiate with their husbands to settle a divorce and many are given assets and other once shared resources.


Social Difference

Lastly, the views and workings of society have developed over time. As mentioned previously, there were two different ideas of marriage and divorce, namely traditional and nontraditional. Since postwar couples prioritized happiness in the marriage, there was an increase in divorce rates. The societal views on the rights of women have developed as well. The pre-war codes evidently included very little rights for the women to determine their futures, for instance in divorcing her husband. Furthermore, women were rarely able to initiate or even decline divorces as men were the heads of household. Now, women are able to negotiate and are included in the conversation about getting a divorce.[17] On top of this, women are often approved to receive custody of their children. Moreover, another prominent social difference is the political participation of women. In the pre-war era, women were rarely allowed to participate in politics whether it be in the form of voting or becoming a political leader.[18] Therefore, women faced difficulty in influencing the laws in favor of themselves. Women had to live with laws that were evidently unequal, such as the laws for marriage and divorce. After the implementation of the new constitution, women were given political rights and have since gradually influenced marital laws to give more rights to women.



Divorce under the Meiji Civil Code had many limitations for women and women were evidently treated unequally in the aspect of adultery, education, and generally concerning their rights. Moreover, inequality for women existed even after divorce, such as being left without any assets or alimony once divorced, given no custody of the children, and they were seen as “damaged goods” by society.  There was a decrease in divorce rates during the Meiji period mainly due to institutionalization of divorce arrangement, the influence of “good wives and wise mothers” education, media, and other aspects. Furthermore, Japanese law, the strengthening of the family system, and political ideology also brought a decrease in divorce rates during this time. On the other hand, under the postwar constitution, more equal rights were granted to women.  They gained the right to own property, the right to divorce on the same grounds and the right to vote. Although it seems that Japanese women gained freedoms in marriage and divorce, some restrictions still exist. In Japan, where married couples must have the same surname, 90 percent of couples select the surname of the husband. The right to remarry is limited only to women, while men are allowed to remarry the following day. Divorced women who cannot get special allowances struggle to raise their children. In addition, children of divorced couples are listed under the ex-husband’s family register. Considering these restrictions, though many equal rights had been guaranteed for both men and women, there are still some prominent discriminatory practices for women in marriage and divorce in Japanese society.


[1] Cornell, “Peasant Women and Divorce in Preindustrial Japan,” pp. 710–32.

[2] Akiba and Ishikawa, “Marriage and Divorce Regulation and Recognition in Japan,” p. 589.

[3] Akiba and Ishikawa, “Marriage and Divorce Regulation and Recognition in Japan,” pp. 592-593.

[4] Kawashima and Steiner, “Modernization and Divorce Rate Trends in Japan,” pp. 213-239.

[5] Mukai, “Modernization and Divorce in Japan,” p. 751.

[6] Otani, “Meiji 31-nen ikō no rikon funsō no genshō to shakai tōsei: Rikon dōkō no hō shakai-gaku-teki kaidoku,” pp. 16-18.

[7] Steiner, “Postwar Changes in The Japanese Civil Code,” p. 302.

[8] Smith, “Making Village Women into ‘Good Wives and Wise Mothers’ in Prewar Japan,” p. 75.

[9] Kawashima and Steiner, “Modernization and Divorce Rate Trends in Japan,” pp. 213-239.

[10] Dauer, “Confucianism and its Influence on Marriage in Japan under the Meiji Civil code and the Post-war Constitution,” p. 90.

[11] Otani, “Meiji 31-nen ikō no rikon funsō no genshō to shakai tōsei: Rikon dōkō no hō shakai-gaku-teki kaidoku,” pp. 19, 23.

[12] Fuess, Divorce in Japan: Family, gender, and the state, 1600-2000, pp. 19-20.

[13] Mukai, “Modernization and Divorce in Japan,” pp. 21-23.

[14] Ballhatchet, “Christianity and Gender Relationships in Japan: Case Studies of Marriage and Divorce in Early Meiji Protestant Circles,” p. 179.

[15] Cornell, “Peasant Women and Divorce in Preindustrial Japan,” pp. 710-32.

[16] Dauer, “Confucianism and its Influence on Marriage in Japan under the Meiji Civil code and the Post-war Constitution,” pp. 88, 90.

[17] Fuess, Divorce in Japan: Family, gender, and the state, 1600-2000, pp. 12-14.

[18] Dauer, “Confucianism and its Influence on Marriage in Japan under the Meiji Civil code and the Post-war Constitution,” p. 93.



Akiba Junichi and Ishikawa Minoru. “Marriage and Divorce Regulation and Recognition in 

Japan.” Family Law Quarterly 29:3 (1995), 589-601.

Ballhatchet, Helen. “Christianity and Gender Relationships in Japan: Case Studies of Marriage and Divorce in Early Meiji Protestant Circles.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 34:1 (2007), 77-201.

Cornell, Laurel L. “Peasant Women and Divorce in Preindustrial Japan.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15:4 (1990), 710-732. 

Dauer, Harry. “Confucianism and its Influence on Marriage in Japan under the Meiji Civil code and the Post-war Constitution.” Journal of humanities 54 (2006.1), 87-95.

Fuess, Harald. Divorce in Japan: Family, gender, and the state, 1600-2000. Stanford University Press, 2004.

Kawashima Takeyoshi, and Steiner, Kurt. “Modernization and Divorce Rate Trends in Japan.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 9:1 Part 2 (1960), 213-239. 

Mukai Motonobu. “Modernization and Divorce in Japan.” M.A. Thesis, Marshall University,  2004.

Otani Tomohiro 小谷朋弘. “Meiji 31-nen ikō no rikon funsō no genshō to shakai tōsei: Rikon dōkō no hō shakai-gaku-teki kaidoku” 明治31年以降の離婚紛争の減少と社会統制 : 離婚動向の法社会学的解読. Yamaguchi chiiki shakai kenkyū やまぐち地域社会研究 9 (2011), 13-26.

Smith, Robert J. “Making Village Women into ‘Good Wives and Wise Mothers’ in Prewar Japan.” Journal of Family History 8:1 (1983), 70-84.

Steiner, Kurt. “Postwar Changes in The Japanese Civil Code.” Washington Law Review 25:3 (1950), 286-312.