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 3: 上州富岡製糸場 (by 一曜斎国輝), Meiji Period. National Diet Library.

When looking at the facts regarding the factories and their poor conditions, the poor pay and the methods used by recruiters to increase their labor force, it is very easy to paint a picture of the women of these mills as being completely helpless victims who could not and did not do anything about the situation. However, this narrative is both untrue and potentially problematic. This sort of rhetoric serves to potentially deprive the women of the era of their agency and erases the efforts of the women of the era who did make attempts to change their situation.

An important place to start, is to ask whether these women actually saw themselves as victims to begin with, and if they did, who exactly were their victimizers? Given that these women were individuals who often left the house on their own to make money for their families, there were some women, that might have disliked their working situation, did not see themselves as victims, given that those two thoughts are not mutually exclusive.  However, based on the lyrics of “work songs” that women created on the job, it is evident that many might have seen themselves as victims to a certain extent. But who did these women see as their victimizers? The most common victimizer was framed as being their employers/higher-ups.[1]

Factory work is prison work.
All it lacks are iron chains.
Like the money in my employment contract,
I remain sealed away.
How I wish the dormitory would be washed away,
The factory burned down,
And the gatekeeper dead of cholera!
Neither silk-reeling maids nor slops
Are kept for long [2]

Some mentioned the foremen who directly supervised their works as primary victimizers.

We must follow the regulations; We must look at the foreman’s nasty face.[3]

To kill a factory girl
You don’t need a knife;
You just strangle her
With the weight and denier of the thread.[4]

Some also rarely described their family as being victimizers or doubt towards their parents’ motives:

Their [family/parents] letters say they are waiting for the year’s end. Are they waiting more for the money than for me? [5]

Beyond the bad working conditions in terms of pay, accommodation, and workstations, many women also expressed themselves as being victims of sexual harassment or being used and manipulated by the male supervisors in the factories.

It’s no good to fall in love.
The winding boss only
Cares about wound thread.
He’s heartless.
Don’t become infatuated.
The male workers in this company
Will throw you out afterwards
Like used tea leaves.[6]

In Suwa geisha get thirty-five sen.
Common prostitutes get fifteen sen.
Silk reelers get one potato.[7]

Other women might have considered themselves as active participants in their sexual interactions with the foremen, even if they still held disdain for their overall situation:

This company is like a brothel; We are whores who live by selling our faces.[8]

[1] Tsurumi, “Yet to be heard: The voices of Meiji factory women,” p. 21.

[2] Yamamoto, Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi, p. 388–389.

[3] Yamamoto, Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi, p. 391.

[4] Nakamura, Nihon no rekishi 29: Rōdōsha to nōmin, p. 98.

[5] Yamamoto, Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi, p. 391.

[6] Hosoi, Jokō aishi, p.331.

[7] Yamamoto, Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi, p. 395.

[8] Yamamoto, Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi, p. 394.