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A Place in Public: Women’s Rights in Meiji Japan by Marnie S. Anderson (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 438-441 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0071

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Quite a lot of research has been published on women in the early Meiji period (1868–90) during the past few years, showing that there is still much to say on this fascinating and complicated period of Japanese history and on the roles women played in it. Marnie Anderson’s book, which argues that gender was a central category in the making of modern Japan, should be located within this larger framework.

In the introduction, Anderson discusses the political impact of the transition from the Tokugawa to Meiji period on gender relations. Chapter 1 analyzes who had voting rights and who could become household head during these periods and considers the predominantly male debates surrounding these topics. Chapter 2 introduces a number of male and female individuals interested in the new gendered discourses generated by the Meiji state and explores how they understood new ideas such as citizenship, (political) rights, and equality. Some of these individuals, such as the members of the Meirokusha, are already familiar to those working on gender in modern Japan, whereas others (for example, Inoue Nao and the members of the Fujin Tokugikai) are less so, and Anderson’s translations of their printed writings help us to understand their positions. Chapter 3 focuses on female speakers and writers, especially on the political activist Kishida Toshiko, whereas chapter 4 continues the discussion of the themes outlined above but in relation to the year 1890, when women (and men) successfully protested against exclusion from listening to the meetings of the Diet.

Anderson introduces a number of activists whom scholars of Meiji Japan were not necessarily aware of, and her work has helped us understand how some women considered themselves, and worked, as citizens in early Meiji Japan. However, her work does not provide enough evidence to support her arguments that “these conversations and debates percolated throughout society” (p. 194) or that “[b]y the late 1890s, then, there was a widespread acceptance of the notion that women should work outside the household within the social sphere” (p. 188). It also does not disprove “the widespread assumption that women were entirely excluded from political and public life after 1890” (p. 6). While I agree that such a study is much needed, I also think it requires more evidence to support it than Anderson appears able to provide.

Anderson argues that one of the results of the debates described above “was the rise of ‘women’ as a defining political and social category, a historically unprecedented phenomenon in Japan. This is not to say that gender did not matter before, but rather that it came to outweigh other markers, most notably status and class” (p. 2). It could, however, be argued that “women” were a defining political and social category in previous ages as well and that the difference was that during the Meiji period a new understanding of how “women” could play a role in their nation was developed. It was not the case that:

Our job is made even more complicated by the fact that during the Tokugawa period, the state . . . was not for the most part interested in regulating the gender order. The contours of gender relations were quite different from the modern system where “women” constituted an all-important social, political, and legal category. . . . The period was marked by tremendous geographic diversity in attitudes toward gender. This point is worth stressing because the premodern period is often treated as a time of static “tradition.” It emerges without texture and nuance, as modernity’s other, lacking vitality or dynamism.

(pp. 19–20)

In the past 20 years, scholars have demonstrated that the Tokugawa period was everything but static and that gender relations were complex, but Anderson’s understanding of Tokugawa society does not appear to reflect this. Thus, her claim that “gender went from serving as one marker of identity and experience—sometimes more important than others—to the defining marker in the modern period” (p. 27) is difficult to defend. Gender was certainly an important factor in the Meiji state’s policies and legislations, but it did not outweigh others, as Anderson herself sometimes shows (pp. 110–11 and 158). The difference, one that Anderson does not...

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