Japanese Women and the Japanese War Effort

Photos from the popular Japanese pictorial weekly Shashin Shuho issued by the Japanese Cabinet Bureau of Information during the war, reveal the late war propaganda encouraging women to work in factory positions.

Like the Allies, those on the home front of the Axis nations were called upon to make sacrifices for the greater goal of victory. Embroiled in World War II, and specifically the Pacific War, from 1937 to 1945, Japan was a nation mobilized for warfare and much of that mobilization involved the toil and talents of women. Just as war broadened the sphere of their American counterparts, war revolutionized the lives of many Japanese women. In some ways, because of Japan’s staunch traditionalism, the changes in women’s lives were even more revolutionary. 

From the time of Japan’s industrialization early in the 20th century, women had constituted a significant number of workers in silk, textile, and weaving factories. These women, however, were typically poor or unwed. After marriage, Japanese women were generally expected to stop working for wages. A majority of the Japanese female population toiled in unpaid agricultural labor on family farms or plots. Wives were expected to be subservient, obedient, and passive—but hard workers for the family. This traditional role actually grew more rigid in the first four decades of the 20th century. Thus, when the Pacific War began in 1937, cultural conventions prevented the Japanese government from encouraging women to enter the war mobilization workforce, despite the loss of men who went into the military.

In the early years of the war, Japanese women were relegated to various volunteer associations, which did not involve direct factory work. However, by 1943, the loss of men required that able women work in factories. A women’s volunteer labor corps was formed and by 1944 more than four million women worked in seventeen important industrial sectors, such as aircraft manufacturing, munitions, electrical factories, pharmaceuticals, and textiles. In fact, all women who were “able”—that is unmarried and old enough to leave school, or about age 15—were required to work. Even married women were strongly encouraged to work. 

Although the number of Japanese women who labored on the technological home front during World War II didn’t come near the percentage of American women who went to work in industry, their presence is still historically significant and is similar to the U.S story. Like American women, Japanese women experienced the double-edge sword of being encouraged to work in industry, while cultural constraints went against the very premise of women working for wages, especially in occupations viewed as technological in nature. Japanese women were paid much less than their male counterparts in these new factory positions. In some ways the Japanese story was worse. Food was scarce at the end of the war and Japanese women were haunted by continual hunger. In addition, the industrial work was hard, noisy, and dirty and many young women were kept in restrictive barracks near the factory during their wartime work service.

After the war much of Japan lay in ruins and American forces occupied the nation. Japanese women were “liberated” by their occupiers, which essentially meant they were granted rights equivalent to those women in Western societies. The reality, however, was that neither the abrupt move into industrial and technological work, nor the imposition of new cultural standards fostered any true social change in equality for Japanese women.