Japan’s first movement for civil rights emerged in the 1870s, and a small number of women were part of it. Women’s legal status was significantly inferior to men’s in the pre–World War II era, and feminists struggled for decades to improve it. Their activism in transnational organizations often gave them a voice they did not have at home. For example, the Japanese branch of the International Woman’s Christian Temperance Union worked to end international sex trafficking, licensed prostitution, and marital inequality. The Japanese cultural world took a feminist turn in the second decade of the 20th century. Increasing numbers of women entered the classroom as teachers, nurses served on the battlefield and in hospitals, and actresses performed in plays like A Doll’s House. Many of these women were called “New Women,” and an explicitly women’s rights organization, founded in 1919, called itself the New Woman’s Association.
When the Tokyo earthquake killed 100,000 people and destroyed millions of homes in 1923, women’s organizations of all types—Christian, Buddhist, alumnae, housewives, and socialists—coalesced to carry out earthquake relief. The following year, several of those groups decided to address women’s political rights. The Women’s Suffrage League grew from this collaboration in 1924. Annual Women’s Suffrage Conferences brought together women of diverse organizations from 1930 to 1937. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Japanese feminists also made their voices heard through transnational organizations, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association. When Japanese militarism at home and abroad repressed freedom of expression in the 1930s, feminist groups continued to meet, turning to community activism (like improving municipal utilities) and nonthreatening feminist legislation (the Mother-Child Protection Law of 1937). During World War II, many feminists accepted government advisory positions to improve the lives of women and families, viewing this as a step toward greater political integration. By the 1980s, however, feminists strongly critiqued prewar feminists for collaboration with the wartime government.
Women voted for the first time in 1946. In 1947, the new Constitution granted equal rights, the new Civil Code eradicated most of the patriarchal provisions of the 1898 Civil Code, and the Labor Standards Law called for equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, women continued to face discrimination in the workplace, at home, and even in the law. Feminists supported the United Nations International Women’s Year (1975) with vigor. Since then, they have successfully advocated for strengthened employment and child-care leave laws as well as anti–domestic violence laws. But gender-neutral legislation has been hotly contested and has led to a backlash against feminism in general.