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」 (

By Nanami Yoshimoto



Gender was essential for national identity. Throughout Japanese history, due to economic developments and international relations, the relationship with the nation for both women and men drastically changed. In each time period, especially women’s roles for society and household were different. Their level of freedom was associated with their social status, but commonly, women engaged in both productive and reproductive fields. In the Tokugawa era, women were considered as productive labor. Childcare responsibilities were shared among family members which meant the concept of motherhood varied among family types. In the Meiji Era, when the basics of modern Japan took place, a modern educational system for both boys and girls was established. This educational change brought more work opportunities for women and for elite educated women who could take on an important role in their society. Due to the impacts of Western countries, the Meiji government recognized the importance of education for women, consequently women’s education became liberal tradition. From the Meiji era, the ideology of “good wives and wise mother” was widely spread and emerged as a center idea of women’s education. In the Taishō era, industrialization occurred, and almost half of the women were promoted to work in industry-related fields. Both unmarried and married women were working which indicate that women had an important role in labor society. 

At the beginning of Shōwa Era, World War Ⅱ brought radical changes into the Japanese society. Firstly, the expectations of women did no longer include productive workers. Women were strongly promoted to marry, have children, produce a large family, and sacrifice their sons. This was the beginning of shufu culture that started to take place in Japanese society.[1] Notably, the strategy of constructing shufu culture in Japan by the government brought huge impacts on the later development of the Japanese economy and the shaping of strict gender identities. Ruszel mentioned that “building man-oriented society, economy, and politics in order to establish ideological ‘strong’ nation Japan, the whole Japanese society came up with new form of family.”[2] Women were trained to become professional housewives. For example, there were several skills that women were asked to obtain as housewives such as stitching, washing, cooking, child raising, and house cleaning. Due to the emergence of a new type of Japanese family, women were expected to fulfill their duties as “good wives and wise mothers” (ryōsai kenbo) and having desires other than being housewives were considered as immoral.[3] Women did not have political rights, social status, and status among their family compared to what the men had. However, the new gender expectations, which were installed by the government, meant that being shufu was considered a “successful life” among many women. During Shōwa, the modernization of Japan happened drastically under the influences of Western countries and the United States. The Shōwa era lasted sixty-four years and beginning, middle and later Shōwa women had gone through different situations in which their rights and status changed in multiple ways. Besides the modernization in the cities and positive improvements in people’s quality of life, people in rural areas faced completely different situations. This paper will particularly focus on the establishment of shufu culture, social requirements for shufu and social reformation for women, and different types of women’s struggles during Shōwa period.


The emergence of Shufu culture

The origin of shufu culture goes back to Meiji period (1868-1912), when shufu started to be considered as the head of the household. During Meiji Period, Japan was shifting their old customs to new westernized ideas. Modernization was promoted by the Japanese government, which accelerated the differentiations of work based on gender. Due to the eyes of Western powers, the Meiji government recognized the importance of education for women since the accomplishments of women were part of the measurements of the level of civilization. When the Meiji government started to focus on women’s education, at the same time the idea of “good wives and wise mother” became the center idea of women’s education. The new idea of women continued to the Taishō era (1912-1926). The norms of women contributing to reproductive and man contributing to productive fields spread to ordinary families. The origin of the word of shufu was created by the famous magazine Shufu no Tomo (“Friends of Housewives”) during Taishō. By explaining the meaning of shufu, “shu” means the head, and “hu” means woman. The word of shufu was created intentionally to deliver the meaning of the word to ordinary married women. Shufu no Tomo intended to create the image of suitable women during Taishō. For example, the first edition of Shufu no Tomo was about beauty. Shufu must focus on inner beauty and using too much makeup is not appropriate for shufu. Such ideal shufu images were based on the image of women as men’s belongings, that women wearing makeup to attract other men should not be tolerated. Such idealistic images of shufu were strongly promoted by the nation in favor of the man-oriented society. In the postwar era, there were two themes mainly discussed in Shufu no Tomo. First, it was about the spiritual aspects of maintaining a peaceful household. The second topic focused on financial aspects for successful economic management of the household. Hence, the information spread by Shufu no Tomo about the ideal housewives and mothers contributed to constructing images of idealistic shufu at that time and the mindset of being shufu as a successful happy life. [4]


Please click here for Figure 1. Daily life of Shufu in early time of Shōwa 主婦の友, Nippon no Shufu Hyaku-nen no Shokutaku,ニッポンの主婦 100年の食卓, (March, 2017).  


This book shows the lifestyle of Shufu in early Shōwa. The title explains how becoming shufu is  seishun which means the “springtime of life”. Before marriage, freedom of women was restricted. Before the engagement, women were considered as hakoiri which means women were kept in a family and not allowed to go outside of their households. It demonstrates how marrying a salaryman during Shōwa was considered as the best way to obtain an enjoyable life for women.   


Please click here for Figure 2. Shufu’s cooking struggles under food shortage during postwar era, Shufu no Tomo, 主婦の友, Nippon no Shufu Hyakunen no Shokutaku,ニッポンの主婦 100年の食卓, (March, 2017).


Due to the lack of food supply, several dishes using potatoes, taros, and pumpkins, which could be replacements of rice, were introduced. Because women were taking charge of the kitchen work, women were having difficulties managing meals for the family members with the ongoing food shortage.


Please click here for Figure 3. Boom of making westernize food, Shufu no Tomo, 主婦の友, Nippon no Shufu Hyakunen no Shokutaku,ニッポンの主婦 100年の食卓, (March, 2017).


Marketing campaigns such as seen here were published during rapid economic growth during later Shōwa. During this time, the government launched a new policy of consuming beef and milk. Before the war, the staple food was rice and seasonal vegetables. Most of the housewives tried to learn about Western style dishes from Shufu no Tomo. There were several recipes with pictures so housewives could easily understand how to prepare these new types of dishes.[5]


Suffrage of Shufu and social expectations towards Shufu

Japanese society drastically modernized from Meiji to Shōwa so that the society shifted from agricultural to industrial society, however, the idea of “good wife, wise mother” continued, which restricted women’s freedom in various ways. One of the representative articles is 「夫の意気地なしを欺く妻へ」 written by Inazō Nitobe. He mentioned that having a coward for a husband will lead the wife to an undesirable future, so the wife had to be able to cheer up the husband to make him reliable again. Even though the marriage wasn’t good for the wife, the wife had to understand shōganai, which means “it is what it is”. Endurance and patience were considered the best way for a wife to deal with such undesirable situations. In addition, he mentioned how a wife was likely to see the negative aspects of her husband instead of focusing on positive aspects. Wives had to understand the importance of supporting the husband, and should not complain about the husbands’ cheating, personality, and undesirable economic situation. The article clearly demonstrated that even when the wife was not satisfied with her marriage, she was expected to keep silent. These were unfair social norms since women were forced to serve as perfect housewives and mothers while their husbands were considered shōganai for their failures. Moreover, proposing divorce from women’s side was seen as impatience and self-indulgence. Furthermore, there was the article explaining about the twenty favors from husband to good wife, wise mother. These rules projected how women were living under social pressure which required patience and obedience. By taking examples of these rules, wives should not complain in front of their husbands, wives should be able to know the husband’s feelings without having a direct conversation, wives must be loyal to their husbands, wives should not be upset about financial problems, mothers should stop children from crying, and wives should be at home to welcome back the husband. Shufu no Tomo also posted “Favors to husband from wife”. For instance, please don’t oversleep, please play with kids, please let us know what time you will be back, please eat dinner at home, please don’t shout or use abusive words in front of the children, and demand for unchangeable love. By comparing the difference between these favors from both, it demonstrates that demands from the wife were much smaller than what women were expected to do to fulfil their tasks as a good wife and mother. The ideas of twenty favors clearly explain that fundamental gender discrimination was strongly connected to social norms. During the later Shōwa period, the society became more innovative, although, most of the married women had to deal with those gender stereotypes. [6][7]


Please click here for Figure 4 and 5. Sazae-san kōshiki Homepage サザエさん公式ホームページ,

Figure 4 and 5 are from the famous Japanese animation “Sazaesan”. Sazaesan started in 1969 is still continued today. Sazae who is a young lady is sewng clothed in the figure 4 and welcoming her husband at the house entrance in figure 5. These behaviors were considered the perfect image of shufu during Shōwa and represent the classic style of the Shōwa household that was widely practiced.


Different economical situations of middle-class women and women in agricultural and industrial fiends 

By focusing on women’s daily life practices and behaviors during Shōwa, it is significant to recognize that there were huge economical differences between middle-class housewives and women in an agricultural community.[8] The education for women which began to be promoted by the Meiji government was continued in the Shōwa era. The number of women of the middle class who were able to obtain education increased. Many girls’ educational institutions were established in every prefecture. The leaders who took on important roles promoting women’s education also took actions such as in the Daily Life Reform Movement and Cultural Life Movement. These social movements shaped the modern values which promoted successful women who can have important roles for their households, local communities, and nation. Those leaders encouraged middle-class women’s education, pushed future middle-class housewives to expand their knowledge and to become activists. Importantly, those reformers were not against the idea of housewives. So instead of denying the traditional women’s role, they sought to combine the “good wife, wise mother” role with new values of an active role for women in society. In the later 1920s, the role of housewives was introduced as “science” (kaseigaku) and domestic science was created as a new subject for girls’ higher education. The traditional value of being hard-working and the financial manager of the households continued as a subject which took an important role for educating the second generation of housewife culture. As well as keeping traditional idea, these reformers cast doubt on maintaining women’s inferior status so they began to focus on the cultivation of women’s further abilities to keep up with modernization. By nurturing women for the new era, housewives required adequate time to educate themselves which was difficult for most of the women during that time due to all the house chores. Punctuality and efficiency were considered important aspects so the educators encouraged the housewives to think of ways how they can spend their daily lives effectively by cutting or replacing their excessive housework.[9] Firstly, reformers focused on the change in clothing culture. Japanese traditional clothes such as kimono require time and efforts to keep and wear. Especially the care of kimono was time consuming and women had to sew and wash it by themselves. Also, because dressing up nicely was one of the requirements for housewives, typically women had many clothes to match with different occasions. The reformers promoted western clothes as a substitute since it is less complicated to put on and easier to clean and maintain.[10] In addition, by urging women to work time effectively, the government promoted a change in house layouts. The focus of house reformation was especially the kitchen since most of the housewives spent a lot of time there. The goals for the change of kitchens was saving time for cooking, and promote a better nutrition and hygiene environment. In the kitchen, stoves, floor and chairs were installed so that women had to no longer cook in smoky and dusty environments. The culture of wearing a white apron began in the 1920s and learning new types of foods from magazines or cookbooks became common for housewives.[11] The idea of house reformation was to change the nuclear family of the new urban middle class to promote emotional connections among family members.[12] Moreover, the President of Women’s Cultivation (Fujin Shokai) emphasized the significance of letting women expose themselves outside of the house which means that women should socialize with other housewives rather than staying at home. This was considered to broaden women’s intellectual curiosity and positively affect their mental health. Entertainment such as decorating a house, eating Western style luxury food, socializing and having family time by working less time on house chores positively affected women’s emotional happiness and physical well-being. The women’s status in an agricultural community during the Shōwa era, including their lifestyles and struggles, was remarkably different from middle-class women. Women in rural areas were not considered to be only housewives. They had to work in the agricultural field with men as well as fulfilling their work as housewives. By looking at the data of women working in Gunma prefecture, during the busiest months in a year they had to work seven to fourteen hours on the fields and four hours for their house chores a day. This indicated that the women had six to nine hours a day for eating and sleeping which technically means they probably had only four to five hours of sleep. Moreover, financially managing the household was the women’s job. Consequently, they had to deal with the pressure of managing all the incomes and expenditures. Women often sacrificed themselves first, so they sometimes had to work as prostitutes to make up deficits. Furthermore, the women were asked to fulfill their job as mother. Even after childbirth, women were expected to get back to their agricultural work within a week. These women’s hard work was considered to be beautiful in the agricultural society. Maruoka, who conducted a survey about women’s conditions in agricultural and industrial fields, mentioned that women in agricultural fields were living under such extraordinary working conditions that they were excluded from the proper protections by society. During the 1930s, there were more than four million women working under these harsh environments, which Maruoka claimed that without improving standards by giving secured working environments and women’s status in agricultural fields, the situation of women in industrial fields would not improve. Under the patriarchal system, women’s roles as wife, mother, and the financial manager of the household were beyond their capacity and the consequence of neglect from the society. Housewives in rural areas of Japan were victims of the idealism of perfect women. Therefore, in order to liberalize women from all these responsibilities, society had to recognize the importance of supporting them financially and make improvements in their working conditions.[13]



During the 1920s and 1930s, because of the impacts from other foreign countries, Japan had to modernize the country to recover its economy from losing the war. Therefore, the introduction of gender work roles as a new concept to the male-oriented social structure contributed to the rapid growth of the Japanese economy. Through women’s dedications as shufu, giving a birth and raising children, and some of them working in productive fields, women went through different kinds of struggles in different times of the Shōwa era. In the early Shōwa period, shufu were considered a successful models for women’s lives so that many women dreamed of becoming housewives of salarymen. Being a housewife was considered the happiness and status of a woman that education for becoming shufu for the second generation emerged. During the postwar era, women had an important role in managing the house and supporting daily lives. During the rapid economic growth, the life of women became more liberal and many of them were allowed to enjoy their lives outside of their households. The changes in social development influenced the shape of the traditional household, however women who lived in the rural areas were living under such crucial environments that welfare support was necessary. In the later Shōwa era, due to the improvements of women’s education, feminist movements that encouraged women to obtain social equality became common. Still, in modern days, the conservative ideas remain in society in different places. The access to the emergency birth control pill for women is still not legally permitted. Women are less likely to get promotions and there are income gaps between men and women. In the Reiwa era, Japan’s aging society, decline of birthrate and late marriage are further social problems. There is still a long way to promote women candidates and political activists to change the male-oriented society. Women’s rights in the society have been taken for granted for many years. Yet, by considering women’s physical and mental toughness, which is historically proven, it is necessary to reconstruct gender stereotypes to make a gender equal society by acknowledging women’s intelligence and strength.


[1] Hastings 2007, pp. 373–380.

[2] Ruszel 2019, pp. 21–35.

[3] Haruta 1996, pp. 10–14.

[4] Molony 2000, pp. 639–661.

[6] Haruta 1996, pp. 17–27.

[7] Matsunoo 2016, pp. 1–24.

[9] Molony 2000, pp. 639–661.

[10] Tipton 2009, pp. 95–110.

[11] Ronald 2006, pp. 177–204.

[12] Sand 2005, pp. 3–8.

[13] Matsunoo 2016, pp. 1–24.



Hastings, Sally A. “Gender and Sexuality in Modern Japan.” In A Companion to Japanese History, ed. William M. Tsutsui, 372–382. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Haruta Kunio春田 国男. “Ryōsai kenbo shisō no tōjō to Nihon josei no seikatsu-shi” 良妻賢母思想の登場と日本女性の生活誌. Bulletin of Beppu University Junior College 15 (1996), 17–27.

Matsunoo Hiroshi. “Hideko Maruoka (1903―1990) and Her Study on Womenʼs Labor and Livelihood in Pre- and Postwar Japan.” The History of Economic Thought, 57:2 (2016), 1–24.

Molony, Barbara. “Women’s Rights, Feminism, and Suffragism in Japan, 1870-1925.” Pacific Historical Review69:4 (2000), 639–661.

Ronald, Richard. “The Japanese home in transition: Housing, consumption and modernization.” In Housing and Social Transition in Japan, ed. Hiroyama Yosuke and Richard Ronald, 177–204. Routledge, 2006.

Ruszel, Julian Brook. “The Fall of the Family-State and Rise of the Enterprise Society: Family as Ideology and Site of Conservative Power in Modern Japan”. The Arbutus Review, 10:1 (2019), 21–35.

Sand, Jordan. House and home in modern Japan: Architecture, domestic space, and bourgeois culture, 1880-1930. Vol. 223. Harvard University Asia Center, 2005.

Tipton, Elise K. “How to Manage a Household: Creating Middle Class Housewives in Modern Japan.” Japanese Studies, 29:1 (2009), 95–110.