How has the modern image of traditional Japanese women as obedient, chaste and domestic come to dominate our understanding of what constitutes customary female attitudes and behavior? My central thesis is that, in the half century prior to the end of the Asia-Pacific War, village women helped shape modern concepts of tradition by abandoning longstanding rural customs regarding appropriate female behavior and replacing them with a modernized version of an older, Edo-period ideal. By tracing the processes by which rural women constructed tradition and gender roles among themselves and in relation to rural men, I will address three central concerns in gender studies and the history of modern Japan: how tradition is constructed, what role rural men and women played in the modernization of Japan, and how modernity was incorporated into daily life practices and beliefs.
Building on Sharon Sievers’ concept of women as “vessels of tradition”—the idea that women physically embody tradition and, thus, both maintain longstanding beliefs and practices and signal change—I intend both to supplement and supplant widely accepted notions regarding rural men’s and women’s roles in the family. I also challenge the generally accepted view that Japanese women progressively gained more rights and freedoms as Western influence in Japan became more pronounced, and that Japanese men had no role nor any interest in household affairs. Rather, I argue that village women had been able to claim some of the rights and freedoms typically associated with women’s liberation within their communities prior to the introduction of these ideas from Western sources, and that, over the course of the half century prior to the end of the Asia-Pacific War, rural men were gradually pushed out of the household. Though I will focus primarily on Japanese village women, I hope to suggest themes and raise questions that will stimulate a broader discussion of the tension between modernization and tradition, and its impact on male and female gender roles.
Christina Ghanbarpour is a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently studying Japanese in Osaka, Japan, through a grant provided by The Japan Foundation.