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  • “Female Students Ruining the Nation”:The Debate over Coeducation in Postwar Japan
  • Julia C. Bullock (bio)

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Occupation authorities extended to women a host of new rights that abolished the legal authority of the prewar paternalistic household (ie) system. The U.S.-authored draft of the postwar Japanese Constitution included an article explicitly mandating “the essential equality of the sexes,” which required the Japanese to rewrite those parts of their Civil Code that conflicted with this basic precept.1 As a result, Japanese women were granted many new rights, including the rights to vote and hold office, to choose their own spouses, and to enjoy equal opportunity in education. But while these Occupation-era reforms established a legal basis for gender equality, women attempting to exercise these newly awarded rights found that these efforts conflicted with persistent cultural values and beliefs upholding more conventional roles for women in Japanese society. In the early 1950s, as the Occupation ended and Japan reevaluated its postwar legacy, conservatives began organizing to repeal some of the more progressive legal reforms. They were met with fierce resistance from grassroots organizations of citizens from all walks of life, who feared a return to prewar militarist autocracy and passionately defended the new freedoms granted to them by these reforms.2

In this heated debate between conservative and progressive camps, the “problem” of new roles for women in Japanese society featured prominently. Men fretted that their wives had become “scary” by failing to behave with due deference to the household patriarch. An influx of women into the workplace incited heated debate about women’s role [End Page 3] in the public sphere. Girls who competed successfully for admission to elite universities, now open to them under the postwar system of coeducation, faced resentment from fellow students and criticism from pundits who worried that such education would be “wasted” on future housewives. In 1962, these tensions exploded in the form of a high-profile debate in the mass media that came to be referred to as joshigakusei bōkokuron, or “female students [are] ruining the nation.” Although this debate is of great historical importance in understanding contemporary attitudes toward the legacy of Occupation-era reform, to date there has been no scholarly analysis of it in English.3 It is my hope that this essay will serve as a modest step toward clarifying the context, content, and consequences of these arguments against changing gender roles in postwar Japan.

This essay explores the conservative backlash against postwar gender-equality legislation through a close look at some of the rhetoric employed in this debate over the fruits of coeducation. I first survey the historical context and content of the reforms themselves, setting the postwar system of coeducation against the ideological backdrop of gender roles prior to 1945. Next, I demonstrate how the controversy over female university students can be understood as part of a larger effort to work through (and contain) these new roles for women, by means of a brief discussion of other debates concerning gender roles in the 1950s and early 1960s. Finally, I analyze the rhetoric of the debates themselves, with particular attention to the way postwar reforms empowering women were experienced by conservative pundits as an attack on male status and privileges. In the process, I hope to demonstrate that the controversy over “female students ruining the nation” can be understood as a microcosm of the value conflicts and historical contradictions surrounding women’s roles in the early postwar period.

From Education for Motherhood to Coeducation

Prior to 1945, the Japanese educational system was largely sex-segregated. While both sexes were required to complete an elementary level of education, the law specified separate instruction for girls after second grade, substituting coursework in home economics for some of the academic instruction that boys received.4 After completing primary school, boys had a diverse array of educational options, from vocational and technical training to the elite and highly competitive trajectory leading from middle school to higher school, to university, and possibly to graduate school, depending on ability. Girls were barred from this elite track; those aspiring to the highest level of education...