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Modernity in Japan: 1910-1920

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How did changes to Japanese society in the 1910s and 1920s make modernity a lived experience?

Japanese society, much like with other societies, has seen many changes over the course of history. Due to Western influence, it can be argued that changes to Japanese society and way of life became more prominent from the nineteenth century onwards; as the rest of the world changed, Japan did as well. Despite initial fears about a 'Westernized' society, change still occurred. As well as this, it is often proposed that Japanese society in the 1910s and 1920s also underwent a great amount of change, especially after the First World War. Whether or not these changes had a positive impact on society remains debatable, as interpretations of Japan during this period are continuously changing.[1] The change to society, as well as the economy, was brought about due to industrialization during the time which affected many other countries as well as Japan. Japan saw an increase in population partially because of industrialization, as the population had grown from 35 million in 1872 to 55 million by 1920.[2] By 1908 the population of Tokyo had risen to 2 million.[3] As it is evident that various groups of society experienced change due to this, the question remains: to what extent were these groups effected by industrialization and the changes to Japanese society? This essay shall explore the various changes that different groups in society faced, as well as whether or not these changes were drastic or not.

When looking at the history of Japan, especially when looking at a period of great change, it is important to note that there are many different opinions on how the changes to Japanese society impacted different social groups. As previously mentioned, Waswo states that interpretations on Japan are continuously changing and evolving. Andrew Gordon argues that the lives of men and women were extremely different, as well as the lives of the rural population and those in the cities.[4] This appears to be agreed by many other historians, as the differences between urban Japan and rural Japan are very different indeed. Totman writes that young men, the rural population, the industrial working class, and women were expressing anger during this period, resulting in protests from many.[5] From these two statements it can be safe to assume that despite initial romanticism of this period, there were many hardships for those who weren't part of the social elite. Much like in other nations, the working-class struggled to keep up with this idea of 'modernity', mostly due to the lack of money and the attitudes of the government at the time. Gordon also writes that in the 1920s the countryside '… was a troubled place',[6] most likely due to troubles concerning landlords. Life during this period was not easy for many according to historians, with each part of Japan experiencing modernity in different ways.

The lives of women during the 1910s and 1920s were, for the most part, full of challenges. Working-class women appeared to struggle the most. Despite beliefs about women's lives at that time, prostitution was a large problem within Japan. While brothel prostitution had begun to decline in many European states, in Japan it was a growing industry, especially in the 1920s.[7] The idea of prostitution and sex work was far from 'modern', and Garon explains that Tokyo's policies towards prostitutes at time would potentially embarrass the government internationally.[8] While prostitutes in Japan had to be licensed in order to work, this did not prevent it becoming a large problem. Geisha, as trained performers, were not allowed to engage in sexual acts; by 1929, however, it was estimated that three quarters of geisha were doing so.[9] Prostitutes came from the poorest parts of society, with most coming from the families of farmers and laborers. Many of these women did not have any form of education, with 13 per cent of licensed prostitutes in 1924 never attending school.[10] By 1925, one-in-thirty women between the ages of 18 and 29 had become involved with prostitution, with licensed prostitutes working in brothels and others working wherever they could.[11] Indeed, it is clear that prostitution was a large problem in Japan during the 1910s and 1920s, and little was done to combat it until the 1940s. Despite problems with prostitution, protests for women's rights during this period were also prominent. The idea of women's rights is seen as modern by many, mainly due to the fact that the idea of equal rights for both men and women is associated with a 'modern' state. Activists began to emerge, with names such as Itō Noe becoming well-known. Although many Japanese women began to fight for equal rights, Yamada Waka noted that many of the problems these women faced were essentially 'middle-class' concerns; there was no real confrontation concerning the conditions of working-class women who worked in the mines, textiles industry, or sex industry.[12] Regardless, many middle- and upper-class women went on to higher education despite being excluded from male institutions, and these women soon began to join the 'white-collar' workforce, such as teaching and nursing.[13] As a result of this, by the mid-1920s a third of all teachers were women, and while in 1914 there were only 14,000 nurses by 1924 there were 42,000 nurses in the workforce.[14] The situation for women during the 1910s and 1920s was vastly different depending on social class. Whilst many working-class women were inevitably forced into prostitution, middle- and upper-class women began to experience the working world like never before, through nursing and teaching. It can be argued that while the middle- and upper-class women of Japan fit this criteria of a 'modern' state, working-class women were the opposite. Each woman, therefore, experienced this idea of 'modernity' in different ways. upper-class women seeing the positive.

As previously discussed, the middle-class in Japan appeared to be thriving off of this new idea of modernity in the 1910s and 1920s. However, it should be noted that a middle-class was not officially recognised by the government until after the First World War after the urban white-collar population began to grow.[15] Although the definition of 'middle-class' was still somewhat uncertain during this period, the idea of what a 'home' was began to change, especially for this new class. As the structure of homes took on different forms, with chairs and tatami mats now appearing within homes.[16] These homes, which were now being inhabited by this new middle-class, were more Western than 'traditional' Japanese homes, meaning that this new class embraced the idea of modernity and Westernization. Homes were not the only thing to be Westernized. During the Meiji restoration, although there was resistance, many members of the Japanese upper-class changed their way of dress and lifestyle. Though this was not as prominent, a few members of the middle-class adapted this way of life. As Japan was a family-based society (katei hon'i), family and home remained an important part of life.[17] Many middle-class businesses, which were mainly small home-based businesses, were family operations that meant that wives could work alongside their husbands for the first time.[18] As previously mentioned, during the 1910s and 1920s many women began to work in various areas of work such as nursing and teaching. Many middle-class daughters worked as typists, though pay was much less than that of men.[19] While today unequal pay is not seen as 'modern', the middle-class evidently embraced other aspects of a modern society. With consumerism depending mainly on the middle- and upper-classes, department stores began to flourish around Japan. Department stores were mainly located near train stations in urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka and were '… a new way to enjoy the fruits of one's labor, especially for families whose husbands worked in salaried middle-class jobs.'.[20] Imported products made appearances in department stores, such as clothing and cosmetics. Department stores quickly became a central part of life, especially for the middle-class who could afford the luxuries offered at the department stores.[21] Overall, it can be safe to assume that the middle-class fit the criteria of 'modernity' quite well. As the middle-class progressed, meaning that architecture and lifestyles changed, so did Japan. Although there was a fear that quick progression would lead to Japanese tradition disappearing, this was not the case; this can be demonstrated by Japanese family ideals during this period, which for the most part remained mainly unchanged.

Unlike the middle-class, it is argued that the working-class of Japan faced many more hardships and challenges during the 1910s and 1920s. Urbanization and industrialization meant that the number of factory workers increased, though this did not come without problems. After the war there was an increase in demand for skilled labor, especially men, in heavy industries.[22] With an increase in labor came an increase in strikes. Between 1914 and 1918 the number of strikes had risen to 417, though these were not often resolved.[23] Whilst wages rose, rising prices and profits meant that the rise in wages did little to help workers live comfortably. By 1919, the number of labor disputes rose to 2388 following a series of wage cuts and lay-offs the year before.[24] Although the main attitude towards workers during this period was that they were selfish, some politicians thought that it would be best to improve their conditions. For example, Kenseikai-Minseitō leaders agreed that adopting new policies would help restore social peace, and during the 1920s the Diet introduced social welfare laws to help the working class. A national health insurance law, minimum age law, and additions to the original factory law were also introduced.[25] Despite the issues that the urban working-class faced, it can be agreed that there was some reform in order to help improve their conditions. Though it is argued that many factory owners wished to aid workers in their own way, many workers did receive better working conditions during the 1920s. This reform, in some ways, can be seen as modernization. However, Duus notes that many of those who moved to urban areas soon moved back to the countryside during times of distress. There they found that conditions in rural Japan were no better than they had been back in the city, if not even worse.[26] It can be proposed that even though the life of a working-class citizen was difficult, there was some attempt at reform and 'modernizing' Japanese industries; to what extent, however, depends solely on the individual factory and industry. Life in the city, arguably, was much better than it was in the country.

According to Gordon, '… by the 1920s the Japanese countryside was a troubled place',[27] and this was mainly due to the changes surrounding landlords and land. Independent farmers transferred land to landlords meant that mainstay owner-farmers (chÅ«ken jisakunō) had smaller plots of land to work with or ended up becoming tenants.[28] Tenants were seen as socially inferior to landloards, and were expected to move aside if encountered by someone with a superior social status on roads or footpaths.[29] The idea of the 'socially inferior' performing such actions is, to many, not seen as modern. It is due to this that it is argued that rural Japan was behind the urbanized areas, which were rapidly changing. While agriculture was a key industry in Japan, by 1920 it fell into a depression. Many farmers began to struggle, and by 1929 it is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of farm households had to rely on sericulture for extra income.[30] This could have also contributed to the idea that rural Japan was not having a positive experience with modernity. Rice and silk prices continuously dropped throughout the 1920s, meaning that many farmers faced a continuous struggle to pay rent and buy food. There were disputes with landlords concerning lowering rent in the mid-1920s, though politicians remained mainly silent on the issue in the country. As imported goods became more common and the demand for exports declined, 5.5 million farm families continued to struggle; half the population could not live properly.[31] Although the government eventually tried to help, their policy of increased subsidies did very little to help and the problem surrounding agriculture became much more serious towards the end of the 1920s. Rural Japan had some clear problems concerning landlords and income, though it can be proposed that as the government were more focused on helping these new modern cities flourish they did little to help the rural areas of Japan. Due to this, it is highly probable that many of those who lived in rural Japan saw modernity as a threat, meaning that they felt alienated and did not like the idea of modernity.

The many changes to Japanese society during the 1910s and 1920s did, overall, have a large impact on all aspects of life in the 1910s and 1920s. While little was being done in order to aid the working-class, which inevitably resulted in strikes and protests, the middle- and upper-classes appeared to be thriving on the introduction of 'modernity'. The working-class and rural population struggled with wages and fair treatment, something that is not necessarily associated with a modern state, though the middle-class did not appear to have this problem. Women's rights had emerged and white-collar employment was on the rise. Many middle- and upper-class families also adapted to this idea of 'modernity' and Westernization, meaning that for many their way of life changed, from their eating habits to their clothing. In Japan during the 1910s and 1920s, modernization had a different impact in different parts of society. It is hard to tell whether or not the modernization of Japan was a positive or not when looking at the country as a whole, however it can be argued that the middle- and upper-classes were effected by modernity much more positively than the rural population and the working-class.


Secondary sources:

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities, London, 2016.

Beasley, W. G. The Rise of Modern Japan, Oxon, 2011.

Duus, Peter. Modern Japan, Boston, 1998.

Gluck, Carol. Japan's Modern Myths, New Jersey, 1985.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan, New York, 2014.

Gordon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life, New Jersey, 1997.

Holcombe, Charles. A History of East Asia, New York, 2011.

Low, Morris (ed.). Building a Modern Japan, New York, 2005.

Sand, Jordan. House and Home in Modern Japan, Massachusetts, 2003.

Tipton, Elise K. and Clark, John (eds.). Being Modern in Japan, Sydney, 2000.

Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan, New Jersey, 2005.

Waswo, Ann. Modern Japanese Society, Oxford, 1996.

[1] Waswo, Ann. Modern Japanese Society, p. 95.

[2] Waswo, Ann. Modern Japanese Society, p. 57.

[3] Gluck, Carol. Japan's Modern Myths, p. 159.

[4] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan, p. 139.

[5] Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan, p.p. 390-391.

[6] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan, p. 144.

[7] Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life, p. 93.

[8] Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life, p. 88.

[9] Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life, p. 92.

[10] Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life, p. 94.

[11] Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life, p. 94.

[12] Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan, p. 393.

[13] Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan, p. 393.

[14] Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan, p. 393.

[15] Sand, Jordan. House and Home in Modern Japan, p. 162.

[16] Sand, Jordan. House and Home in Modern Japan, p. 163.

[17] Sand, Jordan. House and Home in Modern Japan, p. 165.

[18] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan, p. 148.

[19] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan, p.p. 149-150.

[20] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan, p.p. 154-155.

[21] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan, p. 154.

[22] Duus, Peter. Modern Japan, p. 190.

[23] Duus, Peter. Modern Japan, p.p. 190-191.

[24] Duus, Peter. Modern Japan, p. 191.

[25] Duus, Peter. Modern Japan, p. 192.

[26] Duus, Peter. Modern Japan, p. 193.

[27] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan, p. 144.

[28] Gluck, Carol. Japan's Modern Myths, p. 188.

[29] Waswo, Ann. Modern Japanese Society, p. 66.

[30] Duus, Peter. Modern Japan, p. 195.

[31] Duus, Peter. Modern Japan, p. 195.

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