A Japanese proverb from the WWII post-war period says:「戦後強くなったのは女性と靴下。」It translates as “After the war, two things became stronger: women and socks.” Women had gotten stronger thanks to new laws that granted them the right to vote, and other rights. The socks had gotten stronger because of nylon.
To see how much has changed, read Sidney L. Gulick’s “Working Women of Japan.” It shows what the life of working Japanese women was like in 1915 and the years before.
The purpose of this book is to give some information as to conditions prevailing among working women, which conditions have called for the establishment of institutions whose specific aim is the amelioration of the industrial and moral situation. Two classes of workers have not been considered—school-teachers and nurses.
Specifically treated were farm workers, workers in domestic industries, silk workers, wives of artisans and merchants, baby-tenders, household domestics, hotel and tea-house girls, factory workers, geisha, and licensed prostitutes. None of these were fun occupations. The hours were long, the conditions were harsh, and the pay was small.
For instance, he gives this description of conditions of a cotton thread spinning factory in Matsuyama, on the island of Shikoku.
In 1901, when Mr. Omoto began to work in the factory, he was amazed to see how many were the children taking their turns in work along with the older girls by day and by night. Large numbers ranged from seven to twelve years old, the majority, however, being from fifteen to twenty. They worked in two shifts of twelve hours each, but as they were required to clean up daily they did not get out till six-thirty or seven, morning and night. The only holidays for these poor little workers came two or three times a month, when the shifts changed; but even then there was special cleaning, and the girls who had worked all night were kept till nine and even ten in the morning. He was also deeply impressed with their wretched condition and immoral life. The majority of them could neither read nor write; their popular songs were indecent, and they were crowded together in disease-spreading and vermin-breeding, immoral boarding-houses, where they were deliberately tempted. Some of the landlords were also brothel keepers.
As a missionary in Japan for twenty-five years, the author’s distaste for the “native religions” was evident in passages such as this:
The reader will naturally ask what the native religions have done to help women meet the modern situation. The answer is short; practically nothing. They are seriously belated in every respect. For ages the native religions have served by doctrine and practise to hold women down rather than to elevate them. The doctrine of the “triple obedience” to father, to husband, and when old to son, has had wide-reaching and disastrous consequences. It has even been utilized for the support of the brothel system.
Also evident was his distaste for the “loose morality” of the Japanese culture. Speaking of prostitution, he wrote:
while in Occidental Christian lands no girl can voluntarily enter this sphere of life without being conscious of its shame and immorality, many of the girls of Japan may have no adequate knowledge of these inevitable consequences until their fate has been sealed.
Finally, also evident was his strong conviction that adoption of the Christian system of beliefs was necessary for Japan to become an ethical and moral country. This led him to be a tad dismissive of the strengths of native culture.
This book is not an objective look at the role of working women in Japan, instead it was a call for support of the missionary movement. That movement was not a general success, with only about 1 to 2% of the Japanese becoming Christian. Still, the book does have insights into the situation that did exist at one point in time in Japan, viewed through the mindset of a missionary living there.