Temperance comes to Japan


REFORMING JAPAN: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the Meiji Period, by Elizabeth Dorn Lublin. University of Hawaii Press, 2010, 176 pp., $35.95 (paper)

A temperance movement supports a reduction in consumption or total abstinence from alcohol beverages. It found followers in Europe and North America at the beginning of the 20th century.

But a temperance movement would seem unlikely to succeed in Japan where beer and sake flow like water. Yet, temperance did find a place in Japanese history, and the story of this movement follows the rise of feminism and Christian activism in Japan as well.

“Reforming Japan” tells the story of the women’s temperance movement in Japan and the early pioneers who aimed to promote alcoholic abstinence in the country.

The individual stories of these pioneers enlivens the text and gives a solid, intimate portrait of women banding together “for God, home and country.”

The temperance movement started with the spread of Protestant Christianity in Japan after the country opened its doors in 1858. By 1859, mere months after the Treaty of Amity and Commerce came into effect, which opened the ports of Edo to American trade, six separate Protestant missionaries had been established in Nagasaki and Yokohama.

Although traveling American Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) members influenced the union with their visits to Asia, particularly Mary Clement Leavitt, the true leaders of the WCTU in Japan were all Japanese nationals.

One of the most interesting sections of the book deals with these leaders and their differing views on a woman’s role in society at large: working for the empowerment of women versus working to improve women’s circumstances by empowering males to make better decisions for women and society. The difference is a crucial point, and is still seen in attitudes today concerning women and their role outside the home in Japanese society.

The WCTU Japan later branched out into many areas of social reform, campaigning to change the Japanese laws on concubines, working for better education and health benefits, and fighting for women’s suffrage.

According to Lublin, their hard work to unite with other women’s groups caused unprecedented growth, and by 1939, the society boasted more than 9,100 adult and youth members and 186 branches around Japan.

The WCTU celebrated its centennial of activism in Japan in 1986.