In early twentieth-century Japan, educators, journalists, and government bureaucrats debated the “proper” roles for women in society. They approached this “woman problem” as a struggle between two competing moral ideals for women: the “good wife/wise mother” and the “new woman.” Proponents of the former condemned the latter as a dangerous threat to “traditional” gender norms. Yet new women—few in number and with their publications closely regulated by government authorities—did not appear to present a threat commensurate with the attacks its critics launched. How should we assess the outcry against the “dangerous” new woman? I approach this question by analyzing the “woman problem” within the context of the broader moral discourse of the time. I show that the good wife/wise mother and the new woman positions were linked, respectively, to the national morality movement and the ethics of personalism. Moreover, as both the good wife/wise mother and the new woman were moral ideals grounded in ontological claims about women, I suggest that the woman problem be approached as both an ontological and a moral problem. Whoever controlled the ontological terrain so as to speak for what a woman “is” possessed the greater authority to legitimize a specific moral ideal for women, for how a woman “ought” to be. In short, the new woman movement was perceived as dangerous not merely because it questioned the good wife/wise mother ideal, but because it drew upon the subversive potential of personalism to destabilize the ontological foundation that grounded the good wife/wise mother ideal and, ultimately, ran counter to the state-sponsored national morality movement as well.
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Richard Reitan; Claiming Personality: Reassessing the Dangers of the “New Woman” in Early Taishō Japan. positions 1 February 2011; 19 (1): 83–107. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-2010-025
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