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  • Reforming Japan: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in the Meiji Period
  • Thomas W. Burkman (bio)
Reforming Japan: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the Meiji Period. By Elizabeth Dorn Lublin. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2010. x, 252 pages. $85.00, cloth; $32.95, paper.

In the spring of 1893, a National Industrial Exposition opened in Osaka. The relatively new beer brewing industry, a burgeoning enterprise of the Meiji period with a distinctly Western appeal, was on full display. The [End Page 221] Osaka Beer Brewing Company topped its exhibition hall with two huge Asahi beer bottles. Ebisu constructed its hall in the shape of a gigantic keg. Beer halls were scattered throughout the fairgrounds, and little sake and cigarette stands lined the walkways. The Murai Tobacco Company offered a panoramic view from a tower observatory that hoisted a grandiose ad for cigarettes. Nearly hidden among the clutter of monuments to Bacchus and his related vices was a quaint rest house offering nonalcoholic drinks, displays, and daily lectures on the dangers of addictive substances and the benefits of total abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. A sign for the “Temperance Booth” bore the name of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

The exposition vignette is typical of the lively scenes in Elizabeth Dorn Lublin’s Reforming Japan, a well-researched account of the founding, development, and activities of the Japan branch of the WCTU. Lublin, a Japanese historian at Wayne State University in Detroit, raises in this her first book pertinent historical questions along the way: What roles did addictive substances and practices play in the building of modern Japan? How could and did women organize for social reform in the Meiji period? What were governmental and societal impediments to female activism in Meiji Japan, and how did women circumvent them? What adjustments did a reform movement with roots in the West have to make to function effectively in Japan? What were the relative roles of women and men and of native and missionary Christians in Christian-based reform movements? What impact could a faith-based abstinence movement have in a society in which alcohol inhabits a deeply vested place? While treating the WCTU history as a subject of importance in its own right, the author addresses these broader issues with insight and clarity. Like the Japan WCTU itself, the scope of the subject matter goes beyond teetotaling to encompass campaigns against prostitution and other forms of gender exploitation. The product is a highly useful work in social history, international history, and feminist studies.

The book is organized in two parts: the first details the institutional history of the WCTU in Japan from its founding in 1886 until the end of the Meiji period, and the second treats major components of the WCTU reform program in those years. A concluding epilogue brings the story up to the present, including the Japan WCTU’s postwar adoption of a pacifist stance in the place of its previous just-war position. The reader is aided throughout by extensive biographical information on major figures and background treatments of the phenomena of drinking and sex work in Japan. A constant leadership presence in the Meiji-era WCTU was Yajima Kajiko, principal of a girls’ school and divorced from a violently abusive, inebriated husband. Self-educated and converted to Christianity after moving to Tokyo from rural Kumamoto, Yajima in her periodic roles as WCTU president and magazine [End Page 222] writer kept the organization in the temperance mold. Lublin’s research was aided by large collections of WCTU publications in Japan and North America, by a centennial history, and by the fact that the WCTU in Japan is still active and conscious of its heritage. The organization is, in fact, the only early Meiji women’s reform movement in continuous existence.

The state and health of the Christian temperance enterprise in Meiji Japan were always intertwined with developments in allied movements, most importantly Protestant Christianity in Japan and the world WCTU. Lublin follows conventional narratives in reviewing the early history of Protestant evangelization in bakumatsu and early Meiji years, but with a pointed observation tuned to her project: early male and...


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pp. 221-224
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