How should a civilized nation treat women?


Special To The Japan Times

In 1872, a Peruvian ship transporting Chinese coolies docked at Yokohama for repairs. One of the coolies jumped overboard and sought refuge, complaining of gross ill-treatment.

Gender and Law in the Japanese Imperium, by Edited by Susan L. Burns and Barbara J. Brooks.
University of Hawaii, Academic.
Rating: ★★★★★

What to do?

Japanese authorities investigated. Sure enough, they found, conditions on the Maria Luz were appalling, the coolies treated like slaves. Lawyers representing the ship raised objections. One was that it was none of Japan’s business, Japan having no jurisdiction in the matter. Another was more subtle. What is the difference, asked the lawyers, between coolie laborers and indentured prostitutes, who in Japan’s licensed pleasure quarters were also, arguably, treated like slaves?

It was a delicate time for Japan. Newly opened to the outside world after centuries of isolation, it had been obliged in the 1850s to sign a series of “unequal treaties” with the Western powers. The treaties imposed tariff regulations favorable to foreign commerce and prejudicial to Japan’s. Worse still was extraterritoriality — foreigners subject to their own countries’ laws, not Japan’s, Japan’s being deemed “backward” and “uncivilized.”

This was deeply mortifying to a proud but weak nation. At all costs the treaties must be repealed. Prerequisite to repeal was Japan proving itself “civilized.” And here was the Maria Luz episode, providing an opportunity. The ranking investigator, Kanagawa Prefecture deputy governor Taku Oe, upheld the coolie’s complaints, though he pardoned the ship’s captain. But he agreed that the ship’s lawyers had a point. Within five days bonded prostitution was banned in Kanagawa. The Justice Ministry, months later, followed suit. Bonded — that is, slavelike — prostitution was suddenly illegal nationwide.

Not for long, true — the ban was partially revoked in 1875. Still, a threshold had been crossed. “Gender and Law in the Japanese Imperium” is the story — more correctly a scholarly analysis — of the threshold, the crossing, and what lay beyond. It makes for fascinating reading.

The book consists of nine essays, each by a different author. The unifying themes are gender and law. Japan between 1868 and 1908 enacted four separate criminal codes, each more “civilized” — that is, “Western” — than the last. Does “Western” suggest freedom and enlightenment? Not where women were concerned. Nineteenth-century Europe was enshrining in law a “modern patriarchy.” Adopting that was probably the easiest part of Japan’s “Westernization.”

“Civilized,” like “moral,” is an ambiguous term. What does it mean? Is prostitution barbaric because it exploits women? Or civilized because it permits poor women to earn a living?

What about abortion? Is it murder pure and simple? Or is it a “civilized” way to dispose of an extra mouth to feed when food is scarce? Civilized, presumably, compared to infanticide, a common practice in Japan until well into the 19th century. What moral issues come into play? Is family honor more important than an infant’s life? Supposing not (though the argument that it is had its defenders) — who is most to blame? The father for not preventing the crime? The grandmother for urging it? The great-grandmother for carrying it out?

The child’s mother? Not her — that much, if nothing else, was agreed; she was considered merely a pawn in the proceedings. Is the killing of an infant born within legal wedlock more heinous — or less, or equally — compared to the disposal of one born to adultery?

Speaking of adultery — is it a crime? If so, against whom, or what? The injured husband, or the social order? Is it a capital crime? How can anyone think so? And yet so it was declared to be in 1742, and so it remained until 1871.

Is a husband who kills his adulterous wife committing murder, or merely exercising his legitimate rights? The latter, in Japanese law, until 1908.

What makes “Gender and Law” so absorbing is the variety of answers that emerge, among well-intentioned and intelligent people, at different times and even, when consensus is lacking, at the same time. From which we conclude — what? That “civilized” standards can never be absolute and universal? That “morality” is indeterminable, and “good” and “evil” are undefinable?

Nothing about Japan so bewildered the 19th-century West as its attitude towards prostitution. The trade is universal, but “civilization” professes to deplore it, while Japan celebrated it — in splendorous city-within-a-city pleasure quarters, in sentimental admiration of the “beautiful virtue” of girls submitting to be sold into prostitution to save their impoverished families from starvation. Climaxing a long westernizing evolution was the Prostitution Prevention Law of 1956. It passed, “full of loopholes,” over objections, for example, from brothel owners “positioned as defenders of poverty-stricken women,” or from Japan Socialist Party labor activists who sought to unionize the prostitutes (and brothel owners) on the grimly realistic grounds that “it has become a world where one must resort to prostitution in order to survive.” Which side can justly claim the “civilized” mantle?

We all want to be good, and, presumably, we all want to be civilized — but how, when one person’s good is another’s evil and one nation’s civilization is another’s barbarism? The conundrum afflicts us still — more acutely than ever, perhaps. But Japan, by the late 19th century, seemed to the West well on the way to “civilization.” The reward, in 1894, was repeal of extraterritoriality.

  • Nana Kwame Anthony

    I agree with Twain – ” The true pioneer of civilization is not the newspaper, not religion, not the railroad–but whiskey!” Ayn Rand made as much sense as trying to rid humans from ethnicity. Laws are social in nature not edits of god or representatives of god. Our conscious evolution has proven it as seen by the status of women even in Prostitution.

  • livingabroad

    History is relative….

  • Hanten

    I really want to read this book as I love Japan but I really struggle with the way women are treated here. How is it possible for a nation as polite and caring as this to allow women to be groped on the trains with rare negative consequences, paid less for the same work, fired as soon as they get married and stalked and murdered with relative impunity?

  • Daniel Francis

    It’s ugly that the question has to be asked. A civilized nation treats every law-abiding person with respect and honour. The question that needs answering is why does a nation that claims to be civilized so easily descends to barbarism in its treatment of law-abiding people?