Women in Japanese Society: Their Changing Roles
Seth Friedman
December 1992

The place of women in Japanese society provides an interesting blend of illusion and myth. There are two distinct Japanese societies - public and private. The popular Western image of the subservient Japanese woman is real, it is however, only an image. In their private family role, women quite often dominate the male members of the household. Judged by Western standards, the women of Japan are unusually dedicated to their families. The current position of women in Japanese society can be attributed to the vestiges of two old philosophies - Confucianism, and Samurai based feudalism. These influences are still strong, however in spite of these influences the public role of women has changed markedly since the beginning of World War II.

Japan, perhaps more so then any other country, has undergone numerous, radical transformations during the past 150 years. Beginning with those born in the early 1800's, every generation of Japanese has experienced some sort of revolutionary redefinement of society. Japan has evolved from its semi-feudal roots to become a world power. Along the way Japan struggled with the West, admiring, imitating, fighting, and ultimately, equalling its power. Its feudal lifestyle legislated out of existence, Japan turned to democracy, only to have it replaced by a right wing totalitarian government. This was followed by a devastating war, and then a socially devastating peace. Finally, the Japanese people have had to cope with the problems that came with their newly found economic power.

Japanese society has been formed from many influences, among the most important are Confucianism, Buddhism, and Samurai based feudalism. The Japanese, as in all societies derived from the Chinese Confucian heritage, value the group over the individual. The group, be it a family, or society at large, is greater then the individual, and group needs take precedence over individual needs. In practice this means that the Japanese define their well-being and sense of accomplishment through the success of the group. One women said: "The weight of trying to reconcile individual achievement and the family will always be heavy here because of our group oriented value system."1 In addition to the importance of the group, Confucianism emphasized the supreme position of the male, and a hierarchical power structure for society.

Confucianism and Buddhism combined with the military class of Japan to form the Samurai (warrior) class. The ascension of the Samurai code of life to become the law of the land drastically changed the place of women in Japan. Before the advent of the Samurai in the 15th century A.D., Japanese society had been ordered largely on matrilineal lines. The combined influences of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Samurai culture forever changed the place of the woman in Japanese society. These three institutions were all highly discriminatory towards women. Confucianism stressed the preeminence of men over women, stating: "A woman is to obey her father as daughter, her husband as wife, and her son as aged mother."2 A basic tenant of Buddhism is that salvation is not possible for women, and the Samurai believed that "...A woman should look upon her husband as if he were heaven itself."3 An example of how society viewed women is shown by an excerpt from The Tale of Genji, an 11th century Japanese novel, written by a woman; she said: "If they [women] were not fundamentally evil, they would not have been born women at all."4

Women living under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868), as the government of Japan was known, did not exist legally. Women could not own property, and according to a Portuguese trader, a woman's "...husband may kill his wife for being lazy or bad."5 Women could learn to write only hiragana, and thus were prevented from reading political and business transactions or great literary works, which were written in the more formal kanji. Women were in all ways subordinate to men. The key factor which prevented Japanese society from evolving was an exclusionary edict issued in 1637 by the ruler of Japan. This order cut Japan off from virtually all contact with non-Japanese. No foreigners were allowed to enter Japan, and no Japanese were allowed to travel outside of Japan. Japan became a time capsule which was not opened until 1853 with the arrival at Tokyo Bay of Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States. Thus Japan was thrust into the modern world with a societal structure that was barely discernable from that which had existed for the previous four hundred years.

Starting in 1858 Japan signed a series of unequal treaties with the Western powers. Japanese tariffs on imports were limited to 5%, a most favored nation clause existed in all treaties, and extraterritoriality was imposed.6 The Western countries viewed Japan as backward and barbarian, and felt these measures, particularly extraterritoriality, were necessary safeguards for foreign nationals. The Japanese population reacted to this humiliation with a revolution in 1868 which eliminated the Shogun system, embarked upon a massive modernization program, and in theory restored the power of the Imperial monarchy under the Emperor Meiji. Within thirty years of Perry's arrival all feudal lands had been seized, the Daimyo (feudal lords) were gone, class restrictions removed, conscription instituted, and the Samurai class eliminated.

Women, although ruthlessly exploited, became the key to the country's success. In a time of social upheaval, women were encouraged to be the moral foundation of the country. The traditional notion of the Confucian family, ie.- father to son, senior to junior, husband to wife, was pushed by the government as it attempted to increase the birth rate so that Japan could compete on a more equal footing with the countries of the West. Women were urged to live according to the saying "umeyo fuyaseyo" - produce more babies and increase the population.7

In the commercial sector the labor provided by women became the key to the country's economic success. One author said: "Without the work of Japan's women, the apparent miracle of Japan's economic growth might not have been possible..."8 Japan needed a way to finance its modernization effort, and it found this means in the industry of textile export. The Japanese imported whole factories from England, and employed hundreds of thousands of women to work in them. By 1900 250,000 women worked in the textile industry, and they accounted for 63% of the industrial labor force.9 Women were forced by economic realities to work in the factories. The women who worked there were paid low wages, lived in crowded and often diseased dormitories, where they were virtual prisoners.

The position of women changed little during the fifty year period leading to World War II. Educators spoke of "equality between men and women" as a corollary with the notion of "equality of all classes"10 which was instituted after the Meiji restoration, but women gained nothing. In 1887 laws were established which limited women's rights. Women did not have the vote, (universal suffrage for men came in 1924) and they still suffered from the vestiges of Samurai culture which kept them subservient to their husbands. They could not divorce their husbands, while they were subject to easy divorce by their husbands. The Mainichi, a Japanese newspaper, commented on the position of Japanese women during the 1920's: "...Japan maltreats and insults her women to a graver extent than any other country on the globe."11 World War II changed everything.

During World War II the role of women changed. Almost 2.5 million men served in the Japanese armed forces, this represented 10% of the male population or 17% of the male working population.12 At the end of the war 7,190,000 men were serving in the armed forces.13 With millions of men removed from industry, women found themselves working in coal mines, steel mills, and arms factories. With their husbands gone, wives were now in complete control of the home. Japanese wives found themselves doing double and sometimes triple duty. One said: "All day and everyday, when not called to an air raid drill, or to community labor service for building an emergency waterpool, or to overhaul an evacuated house, I was to labor for food for the family."14 The war, the same women said, brought about a "general levelling down...throughout the social structure of Japan."15

By the close of the war Japanese society had been transformed. One Japanese city after another had been subjected to terrible bombings. In March 1945 a raid on Tokyo killed 83,793, injured 40,918, and left more then one million people homeless.16 The bombings hit other cities with similar results, culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most Japanese cities had been literally levelled, uncounted millions were homeless. The Japanese people were disillusioned with the traditional bearer of power - their military. General MacArthur wrote "It was not mearly the overthrow of their military might - it was the collapse of a faith, it was the disintegration of everything they believed in and lived by and fought for. It left a complete vacuum, morally, mentally, and physically."17 An American-educated Japanese woman said:

"The war brought to Japan both economic bankruptcy and the bankruptcy of our social traditions. In the economic and social anarchy that followed, everyone, except just a few strangely tucked away individuals, had to pick a living by himself. ...This desperate situation helped to foster a basic democratic tendency, and worked as the principal factor for the shattering of our feudalistic family system."18

The arrival of the Allied Occupation, led by General MacArthur, ensured that the social revolution which had started would continue. The Japanese people were ready for a change. The Americans, particularly General MacArthur, made a positive impression upon the Japanese. From The Japanese viewpoint, MacArthur presided over Japan much as the Shogun had earlier. Edwin Reischauer, the Ambassador to Japan under Kennedy, said that "Many Japanese felt that since the militarism and authoritarianism of the past had led to catastrophe, then the democracy the Americans extolled, or else the socialism or communism of other Western lands, all of which their recent leaders had condemned, must be right."19

The Americans introduced many reforms to Japanese society. They rewrote the Japanese Constitution, outlawing war, ensuring Parliamentary rule, encouraging union activity, and reducing the Emperor to the position of a normal human being. MacArthur was a godsend for women's rights in Japan. MacArthur spoke of the "essential equalities"20 of the sexes, women suffrage came in 1946, all inequalities in laws were ended, high schools became coed, 26 women's universities were opened, and nationwide there were now 2,000 female police officers. A Labor Standards Law was passed in 1947, it had regulations which covered equal pay, working hours, maternity leave, menstruation leave (2 days a month), and holiday leave. Unfortunatley, the provisions of this law are rarely, if ever, enforced. It is worth noting that in spite of lax enforcement, Japan enacted the equal pay for equal work law 16 years before a similar law was passed in the United States.

Since the 1950's women have sought a more individualized means to provide themselves with a sense of well-being. The evolving role of women has been most apparent in their attitudes toward marriage and the family system. Since World war II women have drifted from group-oriented thinking to a more individualistic approach to life. Women have started to wait till later in life to marry, in the process they have been living at home, vacationing in Hawaii, and pumping money into the economy with their disposable income. In recent years there has been a trend away from arranged marriages, "Many young women acknowledge that they took paid employment mostly in order to find a husband on their own."21 In spite of this and other influences a 1982 figure showed that almost 40% of marriages were still arranged.22 This figure is however half the size of a 1955 poll which showed that almost 81% of marriages were arranged.23 Once married, many women now continue to work, and increasingly they return to work after childbirth, something which was inconceivable a generation ago. A woman's role in the family is evolving as well, becoming more and more dominant, albeit in a somewhat passive-aggressive framework.

Women have sought more personal satisfaction from their lives in the past few decades. During their pre-marital lives women constitute an almost free-wheeling segment of Japanese society. A survey of new brides reported that only 12% expected their marriage to be happy.24 There is an old Japanese saying, "Kekkon wa josei no hakaba de oru" which translates as "marriage is a women's grave."25 One author noted that "Japanese still regard marriage not as the culmination of a romance but as a commitment that is primarily social and practical in significance."26 As a result Japanese women take full advantage of their years prior to marriage. Most women remain at home while working, living with their family in a sort of extended dependency. One woman commented: "My parents have a home in Tokyo so why would I live anywhere else?"27 Another woman, older and married, commented on a younger, unmarried co-worker of her husband: "She's twenty-four and still lives at home, so she has little to spend her money on except herself."28 Japanese women however, must be careful to maintain themselves within acceptable social standards, one woman being told: "If you act like that, you will not be wanted as a bride."29 A woman who drifts past thirty and remains unmarried will become the topic of gossip and comment, the assumption being that there must be something wrong with her to explain her marital status.

Once married a Japanese women finds herself in a role opposite of the perceived sex roles in Japan - the female is dominant in the house. The relationship between the partners of a Japanese marriage clearly shows the evolving role of women. It must be remembered that a short one hundred years ago the attitude towards women was that "She [women] has five blemishes in her nature. She is disobedient, inclined to anger, slanderous, envious, stupid... In everything she must submit to her husband."30 By the 1980's the role of women had changed, as one author described it, "the typical Japanese household is a disguised matriarchy - and a rather thinly disguised one at that."31

A Japanese woman has almost unquestioned authority within the family system of today's Japan. Typically the wife will make all decisions regarding the raising of the children, and will have absolute control of the family's finances. There are two factors which explain this, first that "...the mother-son relationship in Japan breeds in most Japanese boys a taste for dependence."32 Secondly, and the factor which accounts for the first reason, is that the wife often assumes household dominance because the husband is simply not at home often, and the wife fills the vacuum created by his frequent absences. In Japan, a typical workday, already long by Western standards, is made even longer by commutes which often add three hours to the husband's day. As a result the raising of children is left almost entirely in the hands of the wife. One women said: "I know that our mother really ran the family..."33 She then commented on the financial situation in her household, saying: "Of course I am the one who handles the family funds. ...I give Toshiro-san an allowance..."34

For whatever reason, women in Japan seem to have an almost contemptible attitude towards their husband's abilities. A Japanese women commented: "...the middle class wife in Japan regards her husband as if he were the oldest son, who must be respected, but who is not fit to handle delicate matters..."35 Another Japanese women said: "what most Japanese women really think about their husbands is 'oh, he's just a child and can't be expected to take big responsibilities.'"36 The wife of former Prime Minister Miki publicly said that her husband "hardly knows how to wash his face properly."37 Fifty years ago these statements would have gone unspoken. The fact that women speak about their husbands in this manner shows that they no longer consider themselves subservient. Women's feelings of equality, if not superiority, are starting to come into the public view.

The changing role of women in Japanese society is also shown by their employment patterns. Traditionally Japanese women have worked until marriage and then they "retired" to become housewives. In recent years women have increasingly worked longer until "retirement." In 1949 a woman could expect to work 3.2 years, by 1975 she was working for 6 years.38 The number of women in the work force increased from 7,160,000 in 1960 to 13,540,000 in 1980.39 The nature of women's work has changed as well. In 1900, 63% of the industrial work force was composed of women, in 1960 the figure stood at 36.1%, in 1975 29.6%, and in 1980 27.1%.40 Of the total Japanese work force in 1980, 33.8% were women, however only 19.8% of their positions were considered permanent.41

Much of the work which women are involved in is part time. Many women work in the "kagyo" - household business. A kagyo can range from sewing or typing to running a farm or a fishing enterprise. By engaging in a kagyo a wife can attempt to balance the responsibilities of being a Japanese wife with the desire or need to work. The head of a large Japanese cosmetics company said: "...in our society young mothers have more incentive to work because they want their families to have better homes and more luxuries."42 A kagyo also offers more opportunity for a woman. In corporate Japan a woman must compete with overt sex discrimination, and a clique network that is almost impossible to break. A Japanese wife who started her own kagyo said: "The odds are so high against a woman succeeding in a Japanese company that women like me are much better off working on their own..."43

In spite of the 1947 Labor Standards Law women face almost insurmountable discrimination in the work place. A violation of the law carries an almost meaningless, rarely enforced punishment - six months in jail or a fine of 5,000 yen ($ 40.65). A Japanese woman commented that "...the law requires that workers doing the same job receive the same pay, regardless of sex, and you know what a laugh that is."44 In 1974, women were paid 53.9% what males were paid.45 The discrimination even reached into the government; in 1979 Social Security payments to women were 1/3 those of men.46

With little to inhibit companies, they engage in blatant discrimination. One woman who worked in television wrote "It is still a grim reality in the office that men, while flattering women as "shokuba no hana" [office flower] hinder those who want to work for life and selfishly plan to use women as tea servers and sub-workers."47 Another woman, seeking to return to work after childbirth, was told, "Being a wife and mother is the best thing for a woman."48 Another woman commented "...it's the same in all professions. Japanese men really believe that women are inferior..."49

For the reason just stated women rarely try to mix a full time professional career with motherhood, this level being estimated at 4% or less.50 Those women who do attempt this mix often face criticism for their actions, one survey showed that 56% experienced some form of criticism.51 One woman said: "For me the children come first... Nowadays there are many people [women] who think children and mothers are separate beings. That worries me."52 Another woman expressed the opposite view stating that "...too many people still believe that having married women work is a threat to family stability."53 In addition to institutional corporate road blocks women must deal with a shortage of child care facilities. In 1972, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, parents sought day care for 2,420,000 children.54 Two years later 7,342 day care centers existed, and they could provide care for only 1.5 million children.55 Many women were forced to seek other means of day care. One said: "we have plenty of built in baby sitters, my mother in law lives with us, and my own parents live next door."56 To succeed, one woman said, that the "Sympathetic cooperation of the family members is most necessary. But then we have to work three times harder than ordinary women if we want to succeed...three times harder mentally, and ten times harder physically."57

The field of education was one area where women were able to make large inroads in terms of employment. The Teachers Union (Nikkyoso) ensured that women would receive equal pay for equal work, as well as ensuring continued access to work after marriage or childbirth. In 1970 women held 50% of the jobs in elementary schools, 25% in junior high schools, and 40% in junior colleges.58 It must be pointed out that a glass ceiling exists in the education field, as it does throughout Japan, and indeed throughout the world. In 1981 men filled 98% of the positions for elementary school principals, 99.8% of those in junior high schools, and 97.5% in senior high schools.59 It is obvious that even in this field where women have made progress, relative to other professional areas, there is still much ground to cover.

The roles of Japanese women in the interrelated areas of politics and consumer activism offer an interesting paradox. Women comprise a larger voting bloc then men, yet the number of women elected to the Diet (legislature) is pitifully small. Hundreds of thousands of women belong to various organizations, and engage in public demonstrations ranging from protests against airport noise, to boycotts of dangerous products. In spite of this women do not consider themselves politically active. In a 1975 poll only 16% of women felt that they were considerably or very interested in politics, compared to 43% of men.60

Japanese women seem to exercise political power at the grass roots level as opposed to the governmental level. In 1973 Prime Minister Tanaka said that "Women don't vote on big national issues but on things which affect their daily lives."61 Women were enfranchised in 1946, and in their initial election 96.3% of those who were eligible voted 39 women to the lower house of the Diet. However, by 1981, of the 761 seats in the Diet, women held only 26.62 Women voters were courted by politicians, one said: "...I knew I was popular among the women. My public pledges...were all on subjects of interest to women."63 Former Prime Minister Miki said: "Seeking the understanding and cooperation of Japanese women, I should like to exert my efforts to build up a 'beautiful and peaceful Japan.'..."64 Miki's "beautiful and peaceful Japan" was an attempt to attract the support of the many environmentally active organizations in Japan, the majority of their members being housewives.

According to a Japanese newspaper there are "around 3,000 active grass - roots conservation organizations throughout the country, most of which have no more then a few hundred members."65 In addition to these groups there is a "loose network of recycling groups in the Japan Recycling Citizens Center...with an estimated 40,000 supporters,"66 There are also many cooperative organizations throughout the country, many boasting memberships of more then 150,000. It is clear from these figures that a large segment of Japanese society takes an active role in so called "green" issues. These organizations are mostly gender specific, according to the National Center for Citizen's Movements, "Almost all environmental groups are run by housewives."67

These organizations focus on consumer and environmental issues. One woman said that the "Government should listen to the voiceless voice."68 The groups protested against the high prices of beef and rice, price fixing of color televisions, and most importantly, environmental pollution. Japan has paid a high price for its rapid rebirth. People have endured mercury poisoning, polluted rivers and lakes, PCB tainted cooking oil, and air pollution so dense that sometimes Mt. Fuji cannot be seen.

In 1972 a leading member of the Shufuren (Japan Housewives Association) said that "Ten years ago no one knew the meaning of 'shohisho' - consumer. Today everyone knows."69 The organizations functioned as consumer advocates, and they could muster huge support if it was needed. In 1970 the numerous groups combined to form a group 15 million strong that staged a boycott of Japan's color television market. The boycott lasted six months, when it was over Matsushita (Panasonic) admitted that it had illegally fixed prices. Boycotts were only effective when targeted at non staple goods, but one woman realized that "...even if not so effective, boycotting does make the government think."70 The actions of these groups "...connected the kitchen with politics,"71 but the goal was not "'women's lib.' We are just making efforts to change the pattern of our living at home."72

There are two main factors which account for the heavy involvement of housewives in these issues. One Japanese author concluded that "As a professional housewife, [a woman] might offer some time for volunteer work. Furthermore, her responsibility for monitoring the family health may induce her to be alert to health hazards like industrial pollutions, food poisoning, medical malpractice, which may include her in consumer movements and ultimately in politics."73 The second factor which explains the large involvement of women returns us to an earlier point - the husband is not physically available to participate. As in other issues which touch upon the home, the woman assumes a dominant position through the vacuum created by the absence of the husband.

The role of women in Japanese society will continue to evolve. Having already achieved a dominant role in issues involving the household it will only be a matter of time till women start acquiring public power. This process is being accelerated by a declining birthrate, families can now expect to have 1.7 children.74 Japan increasingly will be forced to turn to women to fill job vacancies.

The current generation of Japanese women are in some ways victims of the past, trapped by the conflicting poles of old and new. This conflict is clearly shown by a woman trying to come to terms with her position in Japanese society, she is a housewife with a child and a kagyo which generates more income than her husbands salary. She said:

"...Toshiro - san had brought along his wife to participate in the discussion. It is not usual, and it is a sign that things are changing at least in the way some men regard women. ...but we like our formalities, including the fact that there are feminine ways to say certain things and masculine ways, even though that may be based on the old Confucian male supremacy idea.75


1 Robert C. Christopher, The Japanese Mind(New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1983), p. 116.

2 Masako Murakami Osako, "Dilemmas of Japanese Professional Women," Social Problems, XXVI(October 1978), p. 17.

3 Mikiso Hane, Modern Japan: A Historical Perspective(Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), p. 36.

4 ibid., p. 35.

5 ibid., p. 36.

6 Edwin Reischour, Japan: The Story of a Nation(New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Co., 1990), p. 97.

7 Dorothy Robins-Mowry, The Hidden Sun: Women of Modern Japan(Boulder: Westview Press, 1983), p. 76.

8 Sharon L. Sievers, Flowers in Salt(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983), p. 57.

9 Mowry, p. 36.

10 Takashi Koyama, The Changing Social Position of Women in Japan(Geneve: UNESCO, 1961), p. 11.

11 Mowry, p. 69.

12 Hane, p. 332.

13 ibid., p. 332.

14 Sumie Mishima, The Broader Way: A Women's Life in the New Japan(Westport: Greenwood Press, 1971), p. 9.

15 ibid., p. 18.

16 Hane, p. 326.

17 William Manchester, American Caeser(Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1978), p. 466.

18 Mishima, p. 133

19 Reischour, p. 185

20 Manchester, p. 499.

21 Sonya Blank Salamon, In the Intimate Arena: Japanese Women and theirFamilies(AnnArbor: University Microfilms, 1980), p. 56.

22 Christopher, p. 62.

23 Koyama, p. 47.

24 James Trager, Letters from Sachiko: A Japanese Women's View of Life in the Land of the Economic Miracle(New York: Atheneum, 1982), p. 167.

25 ibid, p. 167.

26 Christopher, p. 63.

27 Salamon, p. 27.

28 Trager, p. 19.

29 Takie Sugiyama Lebra, Japanese Women: Constraint and Fulfillment(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984), p. 80.

30 Sievers, p. 5.

31 Christopher, p. 64.

32 Christopher, p. 68.

33 Trager, p. 20.

34 ibid., p. 23.

35 Osako, p. 17.

36 Christopher, p. 66.

37 ibid., p. 65.

38 Trager, p. 77.

39 ibid., p. 185.

40 ibid., p. 185.

41 ibid., p. 186.

42 ibid., p. 66.

43 ibid., p. 66.

44 ibid., p. 44.

45 ibid., p. 201.

46 ibid., p. 200.

47 Mowry, p. 170.

48 Lebra, p. 229.

49 Mowry, p. 171.

50 Osako, p. 18.

51 ibid., p. 18.

52 Lebra, p. 224.

53 Trager, p. 97.

54 ibid., p. 74.

55 ibid., p. 73.

56 Christopher, p. 101.

57 Mowry, p. 174.

58 ibid., p. 175.

59 ibid., p. 176.

60 Eileen Carlberg, "Women in the Political System", in Joyce Lebra, ed., Women in Changing Japan(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976, p. 236.

61 Mowry, p. 254.

62 Christopher, p. 104.

63 Mowry, p. 254.

64 ibid., p. 255.

65 Mary Goebel Naguchi , "The Rise of the Housewife Activist," Japan Quarterly, (July- September 1992), p. 339.

66 ibid., p. 339.

67 ibid., p. 340.

68 Mowry, p. 201.

69 ibid., p. 209.

70 ibid., p. 206.

71 ibid., p. 200.

72 ibid., p. 209.

73 Naguchi, p. 348.

74 Christopher, p. 64

75 Trager, p. 130.


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