M.A.I.S. Thesis

Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies University of Washington (Submitted Spring 2008)

Reconstructing Womanhood:
How Japanese and American Gender Roles and Educational Policies Affected Japanese Women Who Studied in the United States from 1868 to 1930 and from 1980 to 2008


This thesis analyzes how the Japanese women who studied in the United States during the periods from 1868 to 1930 and from 1980 to 2008 were affected by Japanese and American educational policies, practices, and principles, and by the roles assigned to women in each culture. This analysis first studies the pre-1868 Japanese and American social and educational systems which helped to establish the patterns of socialization and education found in those countries between 1868 and 1930. Beginning in 1871, Japanese women travelled to the United States to seek educations. The cultural differences between Japan and the United States had a profound impact on the women, as well as on the attitudes towards womanhood with which they returned to Japan. Their time in the United States made some of them determined to change the social conditions of their countrywomen to more closely resemble their own, more liberal experiences in the United States.

The thesis then assesses the ways in which the divided path between marriage/motherhood and a full-time career remains the norm in Japan. Since marriage/motherhood does remain the norm, this thesis considers what that
division between marriage/motherhood and career might mean for the current and future societal status of Japanese women educated in the United States. Japanese women who have come to study in the United States since the 1980s have tended to indicate a preference for certain aspects of American society. They have appreciated the fact that in America women are less constrained and have more freedom to choose when or whether to marry, when or whether to work, and when or whether to have children. In defiance of cultural norms, some Japanese women have now begun refusing to marry, and if married, to have one, two, or no children. These women are instead pursuing careers and seeking education beyond the previously-expected junior colleges level, including earning 4-year or higher degrees at both Japanese and foreign, especially American, colleges and universities.

The number of educated women who are now refusing to marry and have children has caused Japan’s birth rate to plummet. By 2040, the elderly will outnumber children nearly four-to-one. The total population is expected to decline by one-third within the next fifty years and by two-thirds within the next one-hundred years if the birth rate remains as low as it is currently. This thesis proposes that input from progressive Japanese women, particularly American-educated Japanese women, is needed in order to begin to change Japan’s social expectations and social structure, helping to solve both the career/family and population crises before Japanese society ages out and disintegrates.