Digital Japanese History

絵本水や空、耳鳥斎 画、3冊 (合1冊) ; 23cm、平安、八文字屋八左衛門、安永9 [1780]、、出典:国立国会図書館「NDLイメージバンク」 (

Figure 5: 和田英子, Tomioka Nikki富岡日記 (古今書院 1931). Gunma Prefectural Library Collection群馬県立図書館所蔵. (CC 4.0).

The women who worked at these factories in the Meiji and Taishō periods all came to these factories for their own reasons and under their own circumstances. The working conditions of these women also varied depending on the factory and company which they worked for, so the factory workers naturally had their own experiences and opinions about their work situations. While there were undeniably many who were not content with their situation, there were also many who were either indifferent or at the very least might not have considered themselves victims at the time. One survey conducted of 580 surviving members of Nagano silk reelers featured the following results:[1]

Regarding the provided meals:

90% of them thought the meals were delicious
10% thought they were average
no one thought they were poor

Regarding the working plants:

22% considered work in the plants enjoyable,
75% had neutral feelings toward it
3% regarded it as hard

Regarding the pay they received:

70% thought the pay was high
30% thought it was average
no one thought it was low.

Although the argument can be made that there was selection bias, with the selected participants being the more fortunate workers who survived due to working in better conditions, it still shows that there was a wide range of opinions amongst the workers themselves regarding their work situation. Generalizing the experience of all the women in a singular manner and labeling them all victims would be ahistorical and does not honor the opinions of all the women who actually worked at these mills.

So, while it is important to acknowledge the hardships women of the past might have suffered from due to inequality, and while it should also be emphasized that these women were only able to exercise their agency within their capable bounds at the time, it is also important to take a closer look at what women of the era actually thought and did in order to get a balanced and realistic lens with which to view the past. 


[1] Yamamoto, Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi, cited by Liao “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 30.



Hasegawa Koichi 長谷川公一. “Honpō ni okeru fujin rōdō undō no sūsei to sono kentō” 本邦に於ける婦人労働運動の趨勢と其検討. In Nihon fujin mondai shiryō shūsei dai 3-kan 日本婦人問題資料集成 第3巻, ed. Akamatsu Ryōko 赤松良子, 465. Domesu Shuppan, 1977. 

Hosoi Wakizō 細井和喜蔵. Jokō aishi 女工哀史. Tokyo: Iwanamishoten, 1954.

Liao, Tim. “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan.” Social sciences 2 (2013). 23–39.

Loftus, Ronald P. Telling Lives: Women’s Self-Writing in Modern Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2004.

Molony, Barbara, “Activism Among Women in the Taisho Cotton Textile Industry” In Recreating Japanese Women, ed. Gail Lee Bernstein, 217–238. University of California Press, 1991.

Nakamura Masanori 中村政則. Nihon no rekishi 29: Rōdōsha to nōmin 日本の歴史 29 労働者と農民. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1976.

Tsurumi, Patricia. Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan. Princeton University Press, 1990.

Tsurumi, Patricia. “Yet to be heard: The voices of Meiji factory women.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 26:4 (1994), 18–27.

Watanabe Etsuji 渡辺悦次 and Suzuki Yuko 鈴木裕子, Tatakai ni ikite: senzen fujin rōdō undō e no shōgen たたかいに生きて : 戦前婦人労働運動への証言. Domesu Shuppan, 1980.

Yamamoto Shigemi 山本茂実. Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi あゝ野麦峠―ある製糸工女哀史. Asahi Shinbunsha, 1972.