Gendering Japan: The promotion of U.S. Ideals on Womanhood and beauty in occupied Japan

Almost immediately following the United States victory over Japan in 1945, America’s relationship with its former enemy changed considerably. While many in the U.S. had conceptualized the people of Japan as a menacing evil during the war, the Japanese had to be reconceptualized as partners in the new postwar world. American policymakers regarded nurturing democracy in Japan as a necessary measure needed to limit Soviet influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The end of World War II thus signaled the start of a new cultural campaign by which the U.S. government sought to “educate” Japanese citizens about freedom, democracy, and American cultural sensibilities. Looking at America’s Cold War campaign from the perspective of gender relations, my scholarship argues that American ideals of womanhood and beauty served as important vehicles through which the U.S. military promoted American values and beliefs throughout the defeated nation.

In contrast to male soldiers who had fought against the Allies during the war, Occupation officials hoped to more easily influence the opinions of Japanese women, who had coped with deplorable living conditions on the home front during World War II. Indeed many Japanese women had become frustrated with the militarists that had led Japan into war. American Occupation officials sought to capitalize on this resentment and transform Japanese women’s bitterness toward the old guard into a greater receptiveness for America’s postwar agenda. When Japanese women gained suffrage in December 1945 occupation leaders quickly observed that the enfranchisement of Japanese women would not necessarily ensure a more democratic nation. Indeed, they were highly concerned that women might vote uncritically by choosing the candidate their husbands or fathers told them to support. Instilling American political and cultural sensibilities in Japanese women therefore became a primary objective for the Occupation. This, military leaders believed, would ensure that Japanese women would vote with American interests in mind. It was within this context that Occupation officials and their Japanese collaborators used gender ideals to promote the Americanization of Japan. By encouraging Japanese women to look, stand, talk, and walk like American women, the Occupation believed it could make them think, act, and even vote like their American counterparts.

Between 1945 and 1949 Occupation forces used three military bodies to Americanize and democratize Japanese women. First, the Occupation’s Civil Information & Education Section (CI&E) made a concerted effort to present convivial images of American women in Japanese press, especially women’s magazines. By working with Japanese writers, editors, translators and others in the Japanese publishing industry, the CI&E actively promoted American ideals of beauty, fashion, and womanhood throughout Japan as a method of getting Japanese women interested in the American way of life. Women’s magazines were some of Japan’s most popular and widely read periodicals during the mid-twentieth century. Through a survey of prominent postwar Japanese women’s magazines including, Shufu no Tomo (Ladies Friend), Fujin Kurabu (Ladies Club), Sutairu (Style), and Sutairu Bukku (Style Book), and an interpretation of the censorship records that pertain to these periodicals, my research shows how occupation censors actively advanced American ideals of femininity in the Japanese press by providing copy and giving publications specific topics to cover. For example, Sutairu (Style) offered Japanese women advice on food choices. The publication promised readers they could have a more elegant and American shape if they stopped eating rice, which the publication argued made Japanese women fat, and instead fed their families an American diet. Directly guided by the hands of the Occupation’s Civil Information & Education Section, postwar women’s magazines such as Sutairu aimed at giving Japanese women American role models whose lifestyles they could imitate.

In addition to promoting its ideal concept of Americanized womanhood as the norm in a new Japan, the occupation also censored Japanese publications that deviated from this line. It was in this capacity that the Occupation’s Civil Censorship Detachment (CCD) also promoted American interests in Japan. Charged with enforcing a strict press code, the CCD banned the Japanese print media from disseminating negative propaganda about the United States. Questing American women’s aesthetic supremacy, or even critiquing popular U.S. fashion trends, was incorporated under the Occupation’s understanding of propaganda. For example, the publication Shufu To Seikatsu (The Housewife and Life) was censored for attempting to print the following lines: “Young women in Japan are now busy imitating American styles, but from the point of view of natural features and taste”¦Japanese women can not be satisfied with the taste of such primary colors as used by the Americans.” According to U.S. records, censors deleted the above quote because it qualified as anti-American propaganda. Policing representations of femininity was thus a second way in which the Occupation attempted to persuade Japanese women of their American counterparts superiority.

Finally, in addition to using the press, the Women’s Affairs and Activities Division, headed by headed by Women’s Army Corps officer Lieutenant Ethel B. Weed, took the Occupation’s message directly to Japanese women. Women’s Army Corps members distributed democratic literature, created public exhibitions, and organized large conferences and local meetings for Japanese women across the nation. At such events talk of American fashion, style, and grooming often served as a means for U.S. occupation officials to begin their discussion of American women’s lives and the roles of Japanese women in the emerging postwar society. Charged by the Occupation with the formidable task of instilling a democratic culture in the women of Japan, Lieutenant Weed, her American staff, and their Japanese collaborators, used a white American female prototype as the model that Japanese women were encouraged to emulate. Portrayed as beautiful, confident, and modern, this idealized American woman was the means of expression through which democracy was marketed to Japanese women as exciting, sexy, and progressive.

In one such forum, the Japanese schoolteacher Tomekichi Nakayama wrote and performed a skit entitled “An Awakening Home” with fellow members of the Hishikari Women’s Association, a group supported by the Women’s Affairs and Activities Division. Nakayama’s drama illustrates the types of discussion that Occupation forces hoped to foster in Japan. The skit dealt both with changing postwar gender dynamics and the struggles that young Japanese women would face in mapping a more democratic path for their lives in a new Japan. In Nakayama’s skit, a young bride spoke with her mother-in-law about attending a women’s association meeting that was being held at a local beauty shop. Symbolizing the old guard of Japanese society, the mother-in-law served as a highly dramatized version of the pre-war womanly ideal in Japan. She took pride in the blind subservience she had shown her deceased husband and now deferred to her son. By contrast, the daughter-in-law was a modern woman, influenced by both Western aesthetics and political ideals. She wanted to go to the women’s association meeting for its political purposes and to get her hair styled like an American woman. In the skit, the mother-in-law forbade her daughter-in-law’s request and argued that beauty shops were places where young “girls who thrust their noses into everything” go to get their “hair bobbed” and have “the strange words democracy, freedom, or sex equality on their lips.” The Women’s Division encouraged Japanese women to perform skits such as “An Awakening Home” in order to prepare them for the resistance that they might get from members of their families for participating in political activities. Indeed, at times the Women’s Division encouraged conference attendees to extemporaneously act out their own ending to skits such as the above as a means of training them for real life situations.

By analyzing the agenda of Occupation’s Civil Information & Education Section, Civil Censorship Detachment, and Women’s Affairs and Activities Division, my work will highlight the ways in which gender ideals were a crucial part of America’s war for peace and partnership in Japan. The Occupation’s widespread use of American beauty culture demonstrates the power and centrality that gender ideals played in mid-twentieth century foreign relations. Few scholars in the field of military history or foreign policy have looked at diplomatic relations from the cultural perspective that my scholarship incorporates. In addition, my research gives a valuable historical perspective in understanding America’s most recent Occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in regards to American forces treatment of non-Westernized Muslim women. As my work demonstrates, during the U.S. occupation of Japan, American fashion and beauty were transported alongside guns and ammunition to forcibly convert a foreign enemy into a familiar friend. Gender ideals and the politics of women’s lives were not inconsequential topics; rather they were an important part of the feminized diplomacy the American Government used to help realize its postwar political agenda.