Japan, Women and the Home Front, World War II

Effort of the Japanese government to win the active support of Japanese women during World War II. During World War II, the Japanese government attempted to reinforce national patriotism and popular support for its ambitious expansionist efforts not only among the military but also among civilians by building the home front. National patriotism and support were especially important for the government as Japan’s military campaign in China and Southeast Asia during World War II stretched the human and economic resources of the country to its limits. Japanese women became the primary target for the political propaganda and social and economic engineering by the country’s leaders. This campaign brought about significant changes in the social status of Japanese women.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912) women were traditionally viewed as a part of the "family system." They were discouraged from active participation in public and political life and were expected to conform to the image of "Good wife and wise mother," silently obeying fathers and, after marriage, husbands. This situation changed slightly in the 1920s and 1930s as rapid urbanization, modernization, and the development of mass education had an effect on Japanese women. For the first time in Japanese history women became workers in secondary and tertiary industries. They gained some degree of economic and social independence, and they were able to actively participate in the public life. For example, in 1930 the number of working women increased to approximately 28 percent of the total labor force in the industrial sector of the country (Ohasato 1996, 53).

During this period the concept of a "modern girl" or a "career girl" emerged in the country. For many young women in Japan, this concept often implied a professional woman who had independent income, who could voice her opinion in public, who wore western clothes, and who spent time at coffee shops, restaurants, movie theaters, or dance halls. At that time Japanese women started their own organizations, such as the Greater Japan Young Women’s Association (1927), the Foundation of Mother’s Day (1928), the All-Japan Women’s Economic Convention (1929), the Greater Japan Allied Women’s Society (1931), and the Greater Japan National Defense Women’s Association (1932). These organizations, however, were relatively small and often remained under the strict control of various government agencies.

In 1937 the Japanese government began its occupation of China and in 1940 sent its military forces to different parts of Southeast Asia. In December 1941 it attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. These military campaigns consumed enormous human and economic resources and immediately led to a sharp increase in hardship and poverty in Japanese society. Labor productivity in the war industries was low compared with the United States. The workforce of Japan therefore had to be shifted to war industry more dramatically than in the United States. In addition, mass conscription of peasants and farm workers led to a significant drop in agricultural production. This caused a shortage of food as well as consumer goods.

Most Japanese experienced shortages of food, clothing, and housing. In 1940 the government introduced the rationing of rice, sugar, matches, and many other products. For example, an adult received 345 grams (12.17 ounces) of rice per day. Annual consumption of rice decreased from 160.8 kilograms (354.5 pounds) per person in 1940 to 122.1 kilograms (269.2 pounds) in 1945; consumption of sugar decreased from 13.54 kilograms (29.85 pounds) per person in 1940 to 0.64 kilograms (1.41 pounds) per person in 1945 (Ohasato 1996, 354-355).

In order to justify spending and to build up domestic support for the war, the government launched a massive propaganda campaign between 1941 and 1943. In December 1941 the war in China and the Pacific was proclaimed to be the "Greater East Asia War." This was portrayed as a battle against the immoral and imperialistic West and in defense of the colonized people of Asia.

It was, however, the strategic bombing of Japanese cities and major industrial centers from the autumn of 1944 through August 1945 that brought the war directly to the door of ordinary Japanese people. According to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, The Effects of Strategic Bombing on Japan’s War Economy, the strategic bombing impacted 66 cities, where between 25 and 90 percent of the houses, public buildings, and other facilities were destroyed. Urban residents experienced the destruction of housing and the collapse of food distribution. Many civilians were evacuated from large industrial cities to towns and villages. This negatively affected the morale of ordinary citizens throughout the country.

The home front actions included large media campaigns and strict control over the patriotism of the mass media publications. It also promoted hard work by all civilians in order to help the military. Journalists were encouraged to write only positive articles about military actions and about popular support of the government among the Japanese people, including the contribution of women to the eventual victory. This propaganda campaign changed the image of Japanese women in mass media because they were portrayed not only as important contributors to the family system but also as responsible members of the society who contributed significantly to the home front. Any publications that were suspected of pessimism or criticism of the Japanese government were censored, and there were dire consequences for the authors.

In order to broaden popular support, government agencies created several large organizations that eventually enrolled all Japanese citizens from schoolchildren to pensioners. This campaign included creating mass women’s organizations for the first time in Japanese history. It was during World War II when a large class of working women emerged in Japan, significantly changing the social fabric of Japanese society. Japanese authorities understood these changes, and in 1942 they created the Dainihon Fujin Kai (Greater Japan Women’s Association) by merging the Aikoku Fujin Kai (Patriotic Women’s Association) with other groups (Kurihara 2001, 305). Upon reaching the age of 21, every Japanese woman was encouraged to join the newly unified organization, and by 1943 its membership had grown to 19 million. The Greater Japan Women’s Association members organized various public actions, such as fund-raisers, collected such personal items as gold jewelry and clothes, and performed various duties at military hospitals and elsewhere.

With more than 7 million Japanese men in active military duty at the end of World War II, Japanese women replaced them in factories, farms, and offices. In 1941 the Japanese government introduced the Kokumin Kinrou Houkoku Kyouryoku Rei (Ordinance for Cooperation with the National Patriotic Labor Corps) that obliged every single woman between the ages of 14 and 25 to start labor service within 30 days. In addition, in August 1944 the Joshi Teishintai Kinrou Rei (Women’s Volunteer Labor Corps Work Ordinances) was introduced, mobilizing all women between the ages of 12 and 39 to engage in various public works (Momose 1990, 305). Yet the Japanese government refused to conscript women to fight even during the most difficult period of the war. Nevertheless, in June 1945 the government enacted the Kokumi Giyu Heieiki Hou (Volunteer Army Military Service Code). According to the code, Japanese women were organized into a Kokumin Giyu Sentou Tai (National Volunteer Army Combat Corps). The war ended, however, before Japanese women engaged in fighting (Mo-mose 1990, 270-271).

All the actions on the home front were vigorously enforced and helped to mobilize economic and social resources for the war. The organizations often propagated extreme nationalist sentiments and anticolonial feelings. After the Japanese capitulation in 1945, however, the propaganda machine of the home front and all militant public organizations were dismantled. But the changes of the era continued to shape social and economic development in Japan for decades.

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