Domestic Work as a Civic Duty

Japanese homes underwent significant shifts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Such changes can be viewed through John Agnew’s conditions for a meaningful location where he emphasizes location, the physical point on a map, the locale, the setting which facilitates social bonds and sense of place, the emotional connection and associated memories. [1]Japan’s industrialization facilitated the development of collective privacy amongst the family and the idea of the ‘happy home’ amongst the middle and upper classes.[2] Meiji officials actively engaged with women, encouraging the cultivation of what Jordan Sand terms ‘the housewife’s laboratory’ as a necessary part of the Japanese ‘happy home’. By this, he means the professionalization of domestic housework for women who became nutrition, healthcare, and hygiene experts educated and trained to protect bourgeoise households against outside threats.[3]Thus, what John Agnew would see as the locale of middle-class Japanese homes is altered considerably during this period.  

The Meiji adjustments saw the rise of familial privacy meaning the ousting of people like laborers, maids, and other members of the household previously included in daily activities like cooking, cleaning, and overall production. As industrialization encouraged a separation of work and home life, the collective family’s privacy was important and thus the criteria for household members were redefined. This new household order placed the housewife in an all-seeing position wherthe household activities came under her purview. Thus, the state deployed the housewife as its agent advancing the state through her work and embedding her duties into a socio-economic context.

However, this shift laid the groundwork for a system where women’s care of her household went beyond familial bonds but a duty to the state, a view still supported in the 1940s. In the immediate post-war years, food was scarce, and the government encouraged women to be more economical than ever before, avoiding waste as much as possible. Magazines disseminating ideas of using all food materials, including items not normally consumed for example sweet potato stems, in new recipes were common.[4]Once again, housewives and their managerial skills took on a new value to help the state in caring for its citizens in a tumultuous period. Housewives were encouraged to waste nothing however upon the subsequent rise in economic growth, increased consumption saw these habits challenged. Once the so-called ‘consumption revolution’ in the 1950s and 60s took off, the state encouraged women to buy more goods for their families and homes and enjoy the benefits of the progress of Japan embodied in such commercialism.[5]  

The state’s emphasis on the household made women a vital tool for its agenda.  Repeatedly encouraging women to take control of their homes in what they deemed productive ways, Japan relied on women’s role as household managers to monitor households across the country. While this encouragement of household work largely limited female talents to the domestic sphere, the education which opened to educated women in such affairs facilitated social interactions with other women of similar means and provide a springboard future woman could use to branch off into different industries. Thus, while not ideal the seed for female expertise in a chosen field was planted and would develop over time. 

[1] Tim Cresswell,  Defining Place: a short introduction (Malden 2004), p. 7

[2] Itsuko Ozaki, ‘Society and Housing Form: Home‐Centredness in England vs. Family‐Centredness in Japan’, Journal of Historical Sociology  14 (2002)p.  341

[3] Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space and Bourgeoise Culture, 1880-1930 (Cambridge 2005), p. 55

[4] Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan (New York 2018), pp. 21-22

[5] Ibid., p. 46

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