Home Academic A Stability Operation Goal: Women’s Emancipation in Postwar Japan

A Stability Operation Goal: Women’s Emancipation in Postwar Japan

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A Stability Operation Goal: Women’s Emancipation in Postwar Japan

General MacArthur’s “Women’s Emancipation” Policy for Post-World War II Occupied Japan: A Case Study of the U.S.’s Role in Increasing or Decreasing Women’s Legal Rights Post-Conflict

“Emancipation of the women of Japan.” General Douglas MacArthur’s first demand, as the Supreme Commander of post-WWII Occupied Japan, when he issued his “expectations” to the Japanese government. To fulfill the mandate of the Potsdam Declaration, MacArthur required that “the traditional social order under which the Japanese people for centuries have been subjugated will be corrected.” General MacArthur ordered: “The entire government lives by my sufferance, I shall authorize all these changes – get busy.”

Initially MacArthur’s demand for women’s emancipation addressed only women’s suffrage. While “experts” opined that “culture” would prevent women from voting and running for office, MacArthur’s “Women’s Affairs” officers trained Japanese women how to vote and how to campaign for political office. The result: On 10 April 1946, Japanese voters elected 38 women to Japan’s House of Representatives, a body of 466 members. In Japan in 1946, female candidates had a 50% chance of being elected. Male candidates had only a 15% chance of being elected. And, as in the U.S., women’s suffrage in Japan transformed from controversial to an ingrained understanding of what constituted “democracy.”

Like today in the U.S., psychological violence against female politicians occurred. Unlike today, the U.S. took countermeasures. When a Tokyo newspaper proclaimed that many women elected were former prostitutes and mistresses, a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) officer called in the editor. She made him publish an apology and print extensive biographies of the women to prove he had lied. But backlash continued, including by the next election year, requiring candidates to deposit 5,000 yen to become a candidate (and to also lose their 5,000 yen if they did not receive one-tenth, or more, of the votes). The result: In 1947, a more than 50% drop in women elected to Japan’s House of Representatives.

While initially limited to suffrage, MacArthur’s “women’s emancipation” policy expanded to include, in the re-written Constitution of Japan, equal rights for women. Yet Beate Sirota, the 22-year-old drafter of the women’s rights provisions in Japan’s Constitution, drafted not only “equal rights”; she drafted provisions that went beyond the “equal rights” in today’s constitution of Japan.

Sirota’s military bosses, before submitting the U.S. drafted constitution to the Japanese government, stripped many of women’s rights provisions that Sirota had written. Colonel Kades (the head of the Steering Committee) said: “Beate, you have given women more rights than there are in the U.S. Constitution!” Her response? “That’s not difficult, since the U.S. Constitution does not even mention the word woman.” In justifying excluding many women’s rights in the draft Constitution, a U.S. male lieutenant colonel maintained: “It isn’t the Government Section’s job to establish a perfect system of guarantees. If we push hard for things like this, we could well encounter strong opposition. In fact, I think there is a danger the Japanese government might well reject our draft entirely.” Yet the U.S. head of the Government Section, when he ordered the drafting of the constitution by the Government Section, told the U.S. drafters that if the Japanese government “hope to protect the Emperor and to maintain political power, they have no choice but to accept a constitution with a progressive approach, namely the fruits of our current efforts.” He declared: “I expect we’ll manage to persuade them. But if it looks as though it might prove impossible, MacArthur has already authorized both the threat of force and the actual use of force.”

A review of the 2016 CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) Committee’s Observations on Japan, in highlighting gaps that harm today’s Japanese women, demonstrates that the stripping of women’s rights from the Constitution continues to harm Japanese women today.

International law and international law “experts” also endangered Japanese women. The Occupation had invited “expert commissions” to Japan to provide recommendations. The 1946 Labor Commission recommended:


· “restrictions on the use of women in heavy work [should be] extended,”


· “the exceptions which permit women to work underground in certain mines should be eliminated,” and


· “an absolute limit of nine hours work per day, six days per week should be prescribed for women.”


The Labor Commission made these anti-women recommendations (“protective legislation”) while recognizing that “provisions proposed elsewhere would permit adult males to work longer hours under certain conditions, with premium pay.” Recommendations became law. Women fired from their jobs included female stevedores. They tried to fight back. They sent delegates to the Minister of Labor and the Women’s and Minors’ Bureau to request “revision of the provisions on weight lifting.” Instead of protecting women by fighting for their jobs, the Bureau simply stated: “[T]he law must be upheld.” Women then faced the choice of either starvation or male-servicing jobs like prostitution.

The post-WWII Occupation of Japan highlights why it is important for militaries and other entities to employ “gender-aware” thinkers and doers. When General MacArthur issued his “women’s emancipation” order, CEDAW, UN Security Council resolution 1325, and explicit feminist foreign policies did not exist. Yet General MacArthur was able to comprehend, unlike militaries and governments today, that women’s emancipation must be a priority. (And here, I ask that we simply think about the current on and off negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan for “peace” and whether this “peace” will fulfill the promise made years ago by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the women of Afghanistan: “[W]e will not abandon [you].”)

(The above are a few highlights of a longer article https://ideaexchange.uakron.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2498&context=akronlawreview)


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Cornelia Weiss is a retired military colonel, having served in the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific. Honors received include the US Air Force Keenan Award for making the most notable contribution to the development of international law. She holds a BA in Women’s Studies from the University of Utah, an MA from Chile’s national academy of strategy and policy studies (ANEPE), and a JD from Vanderbilt University School of Law. She first learned about UNSCR 1325 in 2010-2011, when she was the sole female military officer in her class at the Inter-American Defense College.

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