Women in the Workforce: Pre-war, Wartime, and Postwar Japan

By Midori Nguyen



Japan boasts a wonderfully rich history with several strong and prominent female figures, such as the pioneering feminist and political activist Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1971), and social feminist Yamakawa Kikue (1890–1980). However, despite the numerous women who left their mark on Japanese history, upon closer inspection of the society that has been cultivated, a majority of its history consisted of being generally male-central. This male-central ideology permeated every aspect of Japanese lifestyle, particularly the workforce. However, due to changes in industry, wartime conditions, and women suffrage, a drastic change in the female workforce can be observed through time, the severity of the male-centeredness having considerably improved since. In the Taishō (1912 – 1926), and early Shōwa (1926–1941) periods, due to developments in agriculture and manufacturing, and an increase in population during the prewar period, labor demands dramatically increased. Women began to fill this deficit and assumed more active roles in several industries, with significantly higher numbers compared to before in the textile and agricultural industries. In the latter half of the early Shōwa period (1941–1945), when the Empire of Japan participated in World War II, labor shortages occurred, and women-based volunteer corps were formed to cover the weakening labor forces in factories and war plants. Following World War II in the late Shōwa (1945 – 1989), and Heisei (1989 – 2019) periods, women gained more rights and the inequality between men and women decreased, putting them on a more level playing field in the workforce. Women began to pull away from blue-collar agricultural and industrial jobs in favor of white-collar jobs requiring high profession and skill. All these changes in the female work force seem to correlate with a specific social cause that triggered the outcome. In this online exhibit, I would like to examine this change and analyze its relation to the social changes that occurred in each time period.


Prewar Japan (Taishō, Early Shōwa Period)

In a time before factory work existed, the Tokugawa period’s prime industry was agriculture. Rice was an important crop to the Japanese lifestyle, and fields could be seen in many parts of Japan, but depending on the area, the work that women contributed varied. In areas of low population, men hardly worked, leaving the women to do most of the cultivation. However, in areas of high population, women worked less. As the years passed, the agricultural industry saw technological developments and the demand for crops increased due to a growing population. More hands were needed to sustain the industry and to relieve this, women became more active.[1] This pattern of more working women in the agricultural industry continued until the end of the Tokugawa period when power over Japan was taken from the shogunate and restored to the emperor, marking the start of the Meiji period and the Meiji Restoration. During this time, Japan welcomed Western influences and underwent rapid industrialization. Factories were built, and the workforce began to spread over a larger variety of industries. Similarly, the number of women in other industries grew, e.g. the textile industry, employing a significantly large number of women in the changing work force.[2] In 1877 (Meiji 10), women occupied more than half of factory jobs, a majority of it in the textile industry, and many of those employed were girls and young women from the age of fourteen to twenty-four. In a 1909 central government survey, female operatives accounted for around 85.2 percent of the industry. In contrast, there were only 34.5 percent of women workers in the food industry, 33.5 percent in chemicals, 32.9 percent in miscellaneous work, and 2 percent in machinery and metal manufacturing industries.[3] While factories grew in numbers during the Meiji period and on, it, however, did not mean that the agricultural industry became insignificant. Many women, mainly in the rural areas away from the cities and factories, still worked on farms. In 1933 (early Shōwa Period), the majority of the workers aged from sixteen to fifty, with considerably large numbers in the age groups of women under fifteen years and ages fifty-one to sixty.[4] Below is a graph depicting the ratios of women and men working primarily in agriculture or working both at home and in agricultural industries.[5]


Women in agriculture (%)

Women in both home and agriculture (%)

Men in agriculture (%)

Men in both home and agriculture (%)

Under 15 years





16-20 years





21-30 years





31-50 years





51-60 years





61-70 years





Over 71 years





Figure 1. Ratio of Women and Men in Agriculture vs. at Home.[6]

While men worked an average of 8.9 hours a day, 241 days a year, women worked slightly less, averaging 7.9 hours a day for 210 days a year. The graph above shows that a larger number of men worked in the agricultural industry. However, this information only accounts for the work done on large-scale plantations. When looking at the combined statistics for women who worked on personal home farms and on large-scale farms, it is revealed that women worked much longer and largely supported the agriculture industry.

Please click here for Figure 2. Women in Textile Factories. The Tomioka Silk Mills in the 1870s by Leiden University. In E. Patricia Tsurumi’s Yet to be heard: The voices of Meiji Factory Women, p. 23.


Wartime Japan (Early Shōwa Period)

Throughout the Meiji and Taishō period, and into the early Shōwa period, Japan worked on expanding its power to overseas. As a result, many new industries with different motives began to emerge. According to the 1930 peacetime census, only 35 percent of total jobs were nonmilitary. A total of fifteen million women were employed, 60 percent  of whom were working in agriculture, 9.3 percent in manufacturing, and 3.7 percent working government or professional jobs. Of all the jobs in industrial labor, women occupied only 25 percent, as male laborers were preferred. In the peacetime census of 1940, women in nonmilitary jobs increased to 39 percent, and industrial jobs decreased to 24 percent. When the Empire of Japan entered World War II in 1940, after signing the Tripartite Pact between Germany and Italy, there were not many immediate changes seen in the distribution of women labor. Women were asked to participate in jobs that supported soldiers, such as seeing soldiers off, comforting wounded veterans and grieving families, encouraging self-sufficient and patriotic movements, lecturing, promoting health programs, and conducting fund drives. In 1941, to secure labor during wartime, the Empire of Japan passed the Kokumin Tōroku Seido, enlisting women for factory services. Originally, this was taken as a pre-measure, as throughout the war the government highly urged women to stay at home to raise children and take care of the household. However, the Empire of Japan was not prepared for a full-scale war and as the war prolonged and the situation overseas worsened, the Empire of Japan faced a labor shortage in 1943. To counter this, volunteer labor corps enlisting women were created and directed to work industrial jobs. In February 1944, the Empire of Japan called for national mobilization and a new registration for enlisting work was required. Women in nonmilitary jobs increased to a mere 42 percent, despite the heavy drafting of young men in the war. By spring of 1944, nearly 90 percent of the 5.4 million women registered were working and by October 1944, over four million women were working in war industries. By November 1944, over 5.7 million women were enlisted, and the number of registrants not working dropped from 592,000 people to 486,000. As the loss of World War II was becoming more evident for the Empire of Japan, Japan suffered many bombing raids and the number of women workers in war plants decreased drastically due to people fleeing. After the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan surrendered and was forced into a new phase. However, during the entirety of the war, despite the near doubling of working women and the loss of over 300,000 men in the workforce, female labor increased a mere 10 percent during the span of 1940 to 1944, continuing the male-central idea of labor in Japan.[7]

Please click here for Figure 3. Women and Wartime Factory Labor. Japanese university student performing wartime factory labor service. In Thomas Haven’s Women and War in Japan, p. 923.


Postwar Japan (Late Shōwa and Heisei Period)

Following the end of World War II, the women of the Japanese workforce saw many major changes. In December 1945, women received the right to vote and, on 10 April 1946, through the addition of a segment in the new constitution, gender equality was enforced.[8] Urged by this new sense of freedom, women thus began to branch away from manual labor into more professional jobs. In 1955, the ratio of working persons (RWP) in urbanized areas was 45 percent, and 64 percent in nonurbanized areas. From 1955 to 1985, these numbers changed, and urbanized areas saw an increase of more that 5 percent, while nonurbanized areas saw an equal decrease in RWP. Female labor during this time period occupied only 30 percent of the industry and gradual shifts from agriculture to other trades could be seen in urbanized areas.[9] On the other hand, in nonurbanized areas, a sharp decrease in agriculture was observed, since work was largely provided by agriculture in these areas. As women began to take less socially restricted roles, the younger generations began to pursue higher education, decreasing the RWP in younger age groups. 

Please click here for Figure 4. Female surgeons from the University of Nagasaki. Photo by Nagasaki University Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

With degrees and more knowledge, women dove into different classifications of highly skilled jobs and female employment increased postwar.  However, since young women began to prioritize education over starting work earlier, and married women had households to care for full-time, the number of employable women decreased, and labor shortages began to appear in the 1960s. To solve this, middle aged women began to be employed to cover the gap. Below is a table of the types of jobs and the percentage of women who occupied each classification by age group.[10]


Figure 5. Ratio of Workers in different Industries by Age. Kamiya Hiroo and Ikeya Eriko, “Wagakuni ni okeru joshi shūgyō no suii to chiikisa” (Geographical review of Japan, Series B, 67:1, 1994), p. 21.[11]


Furthermore, as an increasing number of young women began joining the workforce, the age of marriage and birthing children delayed, which reflected a longer period of service in the workforce. Despite this, women still faced inequality in the contracts of the employment they held. Even though numerous women had a degree in higher education, many of them were only able to acquire semi-professional or semi-technical jobs and many women became freeters or dispatch workers. Furthermore, a considerably large portion of these employed women only held a part-time or temporary job (23.2 percent). This was because of women leaving work due to childbirth and raising children. As Japan reached an all-time high in economic growth during the bubble economy of the 1980s, pressure was lifted off the need to work as hard as before and leniency began to show in the Japanese lifestyle. More women began choosing to become housewives, as they did not see the need to work, decreasing the contribution of women to the workforce. Even after the end of the bubble economy phase, it was still difficult for women to actively join the workforce again, due to tax and security systems employed by the Japanese government. Married women were allowed exemption from taxes for households that did not exceed a 1.03-million-yen yearly income, and their spouses also received a special deduction. Due to such laws, women were reluctant to enter paid employment.[12] In the 1990s, just 50 percent of women were employed, and the population of which could be divided into two major categories: single women in their twenties, and married women from their mid-thirties to mid-sixties.[13]

Please click here for Figure 6. The Changed Image of Working Adults. The image of a working adult is no longer limited to males. “18-sotsu shin-shakaijin ni kīta ‘hataraku riyū’wa? ‘Seikatsuhi o eru tame’ ‘Shōrai no takuwae o eru tame’ ga saita (Shin-shakaijin hakusho 2018)” by Mynavi Gakusei no Madoguchi, 2018.



Throughout the years, Japan’s workforce has evolved, and women within the workforce have gradually come to take on a more equal position compared to men in contrast to previous time periods. The occupations of women have been upgraded from mere manual labor to jobs that require high skill and profession, and from the Taishō period until recent years, the workforce has seen increasing numbers of women joining to contribute. This stems from the differing expectation from industries and social changes that occurred from 1603 until now. Throughout Japanese history, women spent a lot of time at home, in charge of household duties and raising children. During the prewar years, demands from developing agriculture and budding manufacturing industries urged large numbers of women to work to relieve the burden on men. As women began to flood into the workforce, specialization in industries other than agriculture began to emerge. Then, during World War II, women were asked to fill in the gaps, caused by the drafting of men, to support the strained economy of wartime Japan. After the end of World War II, women received many overdue rights, such as the right to vote, and began to take upon a freer social position. More women began to advance to higher education and took up occupations requiring higher levels of skill. However, in modern times, women still face inequality in terms of occupation in comparison to men. The workforce has come a long way from stereotyping the role of women as homemakers or as an aid in manual labor, but Japan still has a long way to go to fix these inequalities that exist and move away from a male-central society and workforce. It will be exciting to see how women in the workforce will evolve to achieve their rightful equality in the coming years.


[1] Saitō 1991, pp. 31–41.

[2] Ajia Rekishi Shiryō Sentā, Senzen no Josei-tte shakai de hataraiteita no?.

[3] Odaka 1993, pp. 15–36.

[4] Saitō 1991, pp. 31–41.

[5] Saitō 1991, pp. 31–41.

[6] Translated from Japanese: Saitō 1991, p. 35.

[7] Havens 1975, pp. 913–934.

[8] Iwasawa 2003.

[9] Kamiya and Ikeya 1994, pp. 15–35.

[10] Kamiya and Ikeya 1994, pp. 15–35.

[11] Kamiya and Ikeya 1994, p. 21.

[12] Macnaughtan 2006, pp. 31–57.

[13] Ushijima and Iikura 1996, pp. 47–56.



Ajia Rekishi Shiryō Sentāアジア歴史資料センター. Senzen no Josei-tte shakai de hataraiteita no? 戦前の女性って社会で働いていたの?. http://www.jacar.go.jp/glossary/tochikiko-henten/qa/qa21.html.

Eguchi Amane 江口普. Josei gekai o mezasu kata e女性外科医を目指す方へ. https://www.med.nagasaki-u.ac.jp/surgery2/joi/index.html.

Havens, Thomas R. H. “Women and War in Japan, 1937–45.“ The American Historical Review 80:4 (1975), 913–934. doi:10.2307/1867444.

Iwasawa Yuji. International Law, Human Rights, and Japanese Law: The Impact of International Law on Japanese Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.

Kamiya Hiroo神谷浩夫 and Ikeya Eriko 池谷江理子. “Wagakuni ni okeru joshi shūgyō no suii to chiikisa” わが国における女子就業の推移と地域差. Geographical review of Japan, Series B, 67:1 (1994), 15–35.

Macnaughtan, Helen. “From ‘Post-war’ to ‘Post-Bubble’: Contemporary Issues for Japanese Working Women.” In Perspectives on work and employment in Japan, (1st ed.), ed. Wim Lunsing and Peter C. Matanle, 31–57. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Odaka Kōnosuke. “Redundancy utilized: The economics of female domestic servants in pre-war Japan.” In Japanese Women Working, ed. Janet Hunter, 15–36. London: Routledge, 1993.

Saitō Osamu 斎藤修. “Nōgyō hatten to josei rōdō: Nihon no rekishiteki keiken” 農業発展と女性労働–日本の歴史的経験–. In Keizai Kenkyū 経済研究 42:1 (1991), 31–41. doi:10.15057/21321.

Mynavi Gakusei no Madoguchi マイナビ学生の窓口. “18-sotsu shin-shakaijin ni kīta ‘hataraku riyū’wa? ‘Seikatsuhi o eru tame’ ‘Shōrai no takuwae o eru tame’ ga saita (Shin-shakaijin hakusho 2018)” 18卒 新社会人に聞いた「働く理由」は?「生活費を得るため」「将来の蓄えを得るため 」が最多【新社会人白書2018】. Mynavi Gakusei no Madoguchi マイナビ学生の窓口 (2018.03.16) https://gakumado.mynavi.jp/freshers/articles/52839.

Tsurumi, Patricia. “Yet to be heard: The voices of Meiji factory women.” In Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 26:4 (1994), 18–27. doi:10.1080/14672715.1994.10416166.

Ushijima Chihiro and Iikura Akira. “Women’s Working in Postwar Japan: The M-Pattern and the Gender Differentiation of Occupations and Labor Markets.” In Review of Japanese Culture and Society 8:0 (1996), 47–56.