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How Are These Depictions of the “Modern Girl” in Taishō Japan and “Post-Modern” Girl in Contemporary Japan Similar? How Different?

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Japan underwent amazing transformations from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. In the 1850s, Japan was politically divided into many competing warlord domains. The people were socially divided into hierarchical classes. The most powerful warlord, the shogun, ruled almost as a dictator. He did not allow popular participation in government

Leaders severely limited contacts with the outside world. Japan was seen as a “closed country” that engaged in diplomacy with few of its neighbors.

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Constraining the definition of “feminism” to women who opposed the state worked in conjunction with the idea that all state-sponsored women's organizations were inherently oppressive and never served as a source of female empowerment. These two ideas resulting in casting all women who participated in state-sponsored women's groups as individuals who had betrayed the higher cause of feminism and women's rights for personal gain or out of fear of persecution. Women's groups grew more polarized as the nation moved closer to the Second World War: some women were eventually jailed for their “subversive” thoughts, while others joined groups that were under direct state, even military control. The latter came to be viewed as “collaborators” with the wartime regime, and have been admonished by scholars for working with the militaristic state, and achievements they may have made have been minimized or completely ignored. More problematically, the idea of “collaboration” soon extended beyond wartime cooperation, and came to be used to discuss all women's groups that were ever connected to the state, even those that were subject to temporary or loose state-sponsorship before the rise of militarism

The tendency to define “feminism” or “women's movements” as linked intrinsically to the suffrage movement, is not only a problem in Japanese history scholarship, but in all studies of feminist history. This has the tendency to minimize all women's activism unrelated to suffrage, while simultaneously taking all suffrage-related activity and overemphasizing its impact on a society. The idea that a feminist movement exists outside of a suffrage battle is something that seems secondary to Western feminist scholars. The study of Japanese feminism is no exception to this rule.

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Looking closely at women’s roles in Japan during this time can reveal the complexity of the relationship between the imperial state and its people. As reform and modernization moved through society, women’s roles, particularly, were sometimes co-opted by the government to further the growth and strength of the state, while at the same time the images of the modan gaaru or moga (“modern girl”) were popularized to show Japan’s entry into the modern world. This modern image caused problems, however, as fear of this new female construct and the roles that it entailed caused the rise of a traditional backswing for and towards women. The late Meiji period was the time of the “Good wife, wise mother,” advocated by the government to strengthen the social fabric of the state along traditional lines

However, given the rapid industrialization and new social structures implemented under the Meiji Restoration, Japan was experiencing a great diversification of social and cultural identities. Socially, the Taishō Period is often remembered as the so-called “jazz age” of Japan. Both influenced by and similar to the Roaring Age of innovation and excitement of the 1920s in the United States, the period saw a proliferation of social expression through magazines, movies, cafe and urban culture. This was the period of the moga who was, in essence, the Japanese flapper: a sexually liberated, urban consumer who symbolized a new freedom of the individual and liberation of that individual from the past. While some in the state insisted that modern and imperial could continue hand in hand, the apparent disagreement was evident in the varying role and portrayals of women (Huffman, James L., 2010). As the Taishō period came to an end, in 1925 the Universal Law of Male Suffrage was passed (notably barring women from voting). Tension regarding the roles of women would continue to exemplify an aspect of Japan’s ongoing complex experience of modernity. In 1888, the Japanese government under the Meiji emperor adopted its first written Western-style constitution. The Constitution was modeled after the Prussian constitution of the time, providing for a government in which authority emanated from a hereditary emperor whose government ruled for the people. In seeking to define the role of the people, the Meiji Constitution outlined the responsibilities of subjects to the emperor and nation, with discussion focused on duties rather than rights. The promulgation of a written constitution was also orchestrated as part of a massive effort to modernize the nation, drawing upon Western ideas of liberalism and social modernization. Such renovations, Japan’s leaders understood, would help to give it international standing in the world of increasingly democratizing modern states (Goto-Jones, Christopher, 2009).

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In conclusion, to be sure, there are as many ways to approach this topic as there are conceptions of ‘the state’ and of ’women.’ Both of these terms are embedded in complicated and historically contingent discourse fields, making it impossible to posit just one or two types of relationships linking the two categories, as they are not fixed. Some scholars look at women as the target of government policies; some examine women as agents of some part of the state; some are interested in women in organized or institutionalized politics or movements; some study women in groups that articulate with state power; and others look at the discourses about women and the state.

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Goto-Jones, Christopher. Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Huffman, James L. Japan in World History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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