Meiji Nation-state Formation and the Status of Women

Credit: Hot Off the Press— The Status of Working Women in Japan

In Patricia Tsurumi’s essay titled “Whose History is it Anyway? And Other Questions Historians Should be Asking. In This Case About the Cotton and Silk Thread Factory Women of Meiji Japan”, she discusses the importance of these working women and how they contributed to the larger economy of Japanese society. Her argument, as well as many other historians, relates to the idea that these women factory workers were the backbone to Japan’s success during its first Industrial Revolution in the 1880s and beyond. Not only were they given low wages to maximize the amount of company profit, but their large amounts of physical labor provided for efficiency above any factory machine could (pg. 17). In other words, if these mill women were missing from the picture, then Japan’s economy would likely be in shambles.

What comes with factory work, unfortunately, is the exploitation of such laborers. Tsurumi explores this idea, focusing on whether or not these women were victimized. She contrasts the women’s personal identities versus outside society’s perceptions of these women’s identities. To put it simply, the Meiji mill laborers viewed themselves as working for the greater good— for their families in order to keep a stable income. They too saw their skilled work as a crucial contribution to Japan’s economic stability, and because of that, they were deserving of respect (pg. 33). This is a very positive outlook, to say the least. Historians and others who viewed these women from an outside standpoint were able to recognize the victimization that they experienced: cases of poor labor or housing conditions, health issues spawning from these conditions, and sexual harassment.

Observations such as these directly relate to Anne McClintock’s message on nationalism, focusing primarily on how nationalism is gendered and designed to oppress women. Mill work had become a feminized field of work, given the sheer amount of females who had engaged in this type of labor. It would make sense how such workers were given lower wages, but one can argue that all factory workers (no matter the gender) were given lower pay. However, by taking McClintock’s argument into account, it’s completely clear that women were mostly unable to occupy jobs that had a wealthy income, given that they were directly discriminated against by Meiji Japan’s systemically misogynistic government.

Credit: UWC South East Asia— MS Humanities: Industrial Revolution: Silk Factory Workers

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