Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For the first time in Japan’s modern history, women received political, social, and economic rights under a new constitution written under U.S. guidance after Japan’s surrender, which ended World War II.

Summary of Event

On March 10, 1943, the U.S. State Department began planning changes for Japan following its surrender at the end of World War II. The State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee[State War Navy Coordinating Committee] (SWNCC), formed in December, 1944, became the primary U.S. agency for formulating policy guidelines in Japan and continued in that role until its dissolution in November, 1947. Formulated by May, 1944, was a plan called “The Post-War Objectives of the United States in Regard to Japan,” which became the basis for the more detailed plan, “U.S. Initial Policy” (SWNCC 150/4), which was radioed to General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), on August 29, 1945. [kw]Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women (May 3, 1947) [kw]Constitution Grants New Rights to Women, Japanese (May 3, 1947) [kw]Rights to Women, Japanese Constitution Grants New (May 3, 1947) [kw]Women, Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to (May 3, 1947) Constitutions;Japan Japan;Constitution of 1947 Women;political and legal rights SWNCC-228[SWNCC two twenty eight] Japan;postwar occupation Sh{omacr}wa Constitution (1947)[Showa Constitution] Constitutions;Japan Japan;Constitution of 1947 Women;political and legal rights SWNCC-228[SWNCC two twenty eight] Japan;postwar occupation Sh{omacr}wa Constitution (1947)[Showa Constitution] [g]Asia;May 3, 1947: Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women[02060] [g]Japan;May 3, 1947: Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women[02060] [c]Government and politics;May 3, 1947: Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women[02060] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 3, 1947: Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women[02060] [c]Social issues and reform;May 3, 1947: Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women[02060] [c]Women’s issues;May 3, 1947: Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women[02060] Sirota, Beate Borton, Hugh Whitney, Courtney Kades, Charles L. MacArthur, Douglas [p]MacArthur, Douglas;governorship of Japan Matsumoto Joji Yoshida, Shigeru Hirohito Shidehara, Kij{umacr}r{omacr}

Earlier, the Potsdam Declaration of July 26 had demanded Japan’s immediate surrender and stated that Japan would be occupied until the government had been democratized, preferably by the people, as stipulated in the Atlantic Charter (1941). The Japanese government rejected Potsdam, as it did not guarantee the existence of Japan’s emperor system. On August 6 and 9, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito addressed his people over the radio and asked that they surrender to the Allied forces and peacefully accept the first occupation in Japan’s history.

On August 30 the U.S. military quickly established general headquarters in Tokyo. U.S. president Harry S. Truman signed SWNCC 150/4 on September 6, making it official U.S. government policy, and gave MacArthur almost unconditional authority to implement U.S. policy. On September 18 and October 22, MacArthur received more definitive orders regarding occupation policy from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Neither of these orders mandated constitutional reform or mentioned women’s rights.

MacArthur’s Civil Liberties Directive to the Japanese government, issued on October 4, stated that there would be no discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, creed, or political opinion; gender was not addressed. This directive was supported by the Japanese people but not by the conservative government headed by Prime Minister Kijūrō Shidehara. On October 11, MacArthur told Shidehara to liberalize the 1889 Meiji Constitution; emancipation of females was listed first as an objective. This was a statement or suggestion, not a directive or order; however, Shidehara responded by appointing Matsumoto Joji and other cabinet ministers to rewrite the Meiji Constitution.

Between November 27, 1944, and December 19, 1945, the SWNCC-228 and 228/1 documents mandating the reform of the Japanese constitution and government were written, primarily by Hugh Borton, a State Department official. These documents were forwarded informally to MacArthur and his immediate staff by the Tokyo-based State Department political adviser, George Atcheson, Jr., on December 13, and formally sent to MacArthur on January 11, 1946, by the SWNCC. They were sent as information rather than as official directives but became the blueprint for the American rewrite of the Japanese constitution.

In December, 1945, the Japanese diet (legislative body) revised the election law, granting women the rights to vote and to run for political office. Japanese suffragists had been fighting for these rights since the 1920’s and had actively lobbied both the SCAP and their government for these rights since the war’s end. These rights, however, had no constitutional protection.

The Matsumoto constitutional draft was submitted to MacArthur on February 1, 1946, and was promptly rejected by him on the grounds that the emperor system was left largely intact and that few civil rights were accorded to the people. MacArthur had also rejected other constitutional drafts, written by political and civilian groups, on the same bases. Only one of these rewrites included woman suffrage; other civil rights for women were not mentioned.

Also on February 1, a local newspaper disclosed the Matsumoto draft’s inadequacies to the general public. Brigadier General Courtney Whitney, head of the government section, told MacArthur how to get a constitution drawn up legally before the Far Eastern Commission Far Eastern Commission (FEC), a joint allied oversight committee, convened in late February. Once the FEC came into being, MacArthur would have to submit all work on the constitution to it for approval and face a probable Soviet veto. He wished to avoid this.

MacArthur ordered Whitney to construct a model draft. Whitney created a steering committee (Alfred Hussey, Milo Rowell, and Charles L. Kades, the principal drafter) to orchestrate the entire process. SWNCC-228 was divided up line by line and distributed to nine groups, consisting of one to four personnel each, for restructuring. Each group was to work quickly and in total secrecy. The civil rights sections were given to Beate Sirota (later known as Beate Sirota Gordon) and Harry Emerson Wildes, both civilians, and Lieutenant Colonel Pieter R. Roest. Sirota, a twenty-two-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen (born in Vienna, reared in Tokyo), secured from local libraries copies of European constitutions, which this civil rights committee used as models. She was then given the task, among others, of writing the sections on civil rights for women. The sections Sirota created became Article 14 (a Japanese equal rights amendment), Article 24 (equal rights in marriage, divorce, inheritance, property rights, and choice of domicile), Article 26 (equal educational opportunity), Article 27 (equal right and obligation to work), and Article 44 (equal rights to run for and hold political office). Article 15, universal adult suffrage, was not written by Sirota. These rights were more sweeping and inclusive than existed in most extant constitutions. Sirota’s original sections included even more rights and protections for women than those listed above, but they were eliminated by Whitney and Kades.

The entire model draft was complete and endorsed by MacArthur by February 12. The next day, the steering committee presented it to Matsumoto at Foreign Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s home. The Japanese cabinet rewrote two versions of what came to be called the MacArthur Draft and submitted them to MacArthur on March 2 and 5; MacArthur accepted the March 5 draft. Hirohito endorsed that draft, and it was made public almost immediately. On June 26, both houses of the Diet began ratification debates, which lasted until October. This constitution had wide public support, but the government opposition, led by Yoshida, who had become prime minister in the July, 1946, elections, and his prewar conservative allies, kept trying to change it, especially the sections on women’s rights. The various Japanese women’s groups, organized primarily by Army Lieutenant Ethel B. Weed Weed, Ethel B. , along with Sirota, MacArthur, and others, fought these maneuvers. The final outcome was that few changes were made in the MacArthur Draft.

Hirohito proclaimed the new constitution to be the law of the land on November 3, 1946, the Emperor Meiji’s birthday. (The date was suggested by Yoshida.) The new constitution would be called the Shōwa Constitution, after the dynastic era that began in 1926. On May 3, 1947, the constitution officially came into effect.


The first postwar elections for the lower house of the Diet were held on April 10, 1947. Day-care centers were set up at election sites. Thirty-eight women won seats. This date is still celebrated as the Day of Women’s Rights.

Fusae Ichikawa Ichikawa, Fusae founded the Japanese League of Women Voters at the end of 1945. In spite of her fears of a low turnout, in the 1946 lower house elections 67 percent of women and 78.5 percent of men voted, and slightly lower percentages cast ballots for the upper house. By 1976, women outvoted men. Women, however, were not engaging in politics to the same extent as men. In 1974, the Japanese diet was 3.4 percent female. Even fewer women occupied political offices below the national level, such as in prefectural, municipal, town, and village assemblies. As of 1971, only 1.2 percent of high government administrative posts were held by women.

Other legislative reforms solidified some constitutional guarantees. These events were largely the result of the active Japanese women’s groups organized by Weed, Weed’s own work in teaching Japanese women about democracy (there are no words in Japanese for democracy or freedom; they are foreign concepts, as is liberty in the Western sense), and MacArthur’s strong support for women’s rights.

In 1947, the Labor Standards Act Labor Standards Act (1947) made discrimination in pay by gender illegal. Discrimination in hiring, training, promotion, work conditions, and benefits were not prohibited, providing the loopholes employers needed to discriminate against women.

After intense resistance from the Japanese government, the SCAP successfully pushed the creation of the Women’s and Minors’ Bureau in the Ministry of Labor (1947). The bureau’s primary function was to protect women’s rights after the occupation ended (April 28, 1952). Weed and her coalition of Japanese women’s groups were instrumental in getting the SCAP to insist on this bureau’s creation. On January 1, 1948, the new civil code came into effect. In it, the constitutional guarantees of gender equality in marriage, property rights, and inheritance were upheld. Nevertheless, by 1982, 40 percent of marriages were still arranged, many times by the woman’s corporate employer.

The Eugenics Protection Law of 1948 was not encouraged or introduced by the SCAP. Rather, Japanese women who had worked with Margaret Sanger in New York or who had met Sanger on her two trips to Japan in the 1920’s secured the right to have access to family planning information and contraceptives. Limited legal abortion was authorized, and securing adequate and safe contraception was still considered a problem by Japanese women because of various regulations. Constitutions;Japan Japan;Constitution of 1947 Women;political and legal rights SWNCC-228[SWNCC two twenty eight] Japan;postwar occupation Sh{omacr}wa Constitution (1947)[Showa Constitution]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birth of the Constitution of Japan. National Diet Library. http://www.ndl.go.jp/constitution/e/. An excellent and highly recommended resource for any study of post-World War II Japanese government and policy, namely the making of the Japanese constitution. Documents with commentary, primary sources, chronology, list and brief biographies of historical figures, a glossary, a bibliography, and much more. Invaluable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burks, Ardath W. Japan: A Postindustrial Power. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. Excellent general reference on Japan. Some material on women, but nothing extensive. College-level reading. References provided.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hellegers, Dale M. We, the Japanese People: World War II and the Origins of the Japanese Constitution. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Reaffirms the traditional view that MacArthur ordered his staff to write the 1947 constitution and compelled Japanese leaders to accept authorship of it with few changes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNelly, Theodore, ed. Sources in Modern East Asian History and Politics. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967. A book of original documents concerning China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Includes SWNCC-228, the 1952 peace treaty, and the Meiji and Shōwa constitutions. References and maps provided.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Ray A., and Donald L. Robinson. Partners for Democracy: Crafting the New Japanese State Under MacArthur. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Provides a history of the formation of the Japanese constitution and Japan’s constitutional government following World War II. Focuses particularly on the United States as an occupying nation regulating and overseeing that formation. Good for background on the political and diplomatic process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Robin, ed. Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology. New ed. New York: Feminist Press at City University of New York, 1996. Contains demographic material on the status of women in each country listed. Includes material on the women of Japan. A classic resource, with a new preface.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pharr, Susan J. Political Women in Japan: The Search for a Place in Political Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Excellent cross-cultural study on Japanese and other women’s political lives. College-level reading. References provided.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “A Radical U.S. Experiment: Women’s Rights Laws and the Occupation of Japan.” In The Occupation of Japan: Impact of Legal Reform, edited by L. H. Redford. Norfolk, Va.: MacArthur Memorial, 1977. Excellent source on who actually wrote the women’s rights sections of the Japanese constitution. References and documents provided.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pyle, Kenneth B. The Making of Modern Japan. 2d ed. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1996. Easy reading at the college level. Some discussion of status of Japanese women. This is a good general source of information. Chapters 12 and 13 discuss the occupation. References provided.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sugisaki, Kazuko. “From the Moon to the Sun: Women’s Liberation in Japan.” In Women in the World, 1975-1985: The Women’s Decade, edited by Lynne B. Iglitzin and Ruth Ross. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1986. Excellent chapter on the history of Japanese women and women’s activities since 1945. References at the end of each article. College-level reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Robert E., and Sakamoto Yoshikazu, eds. Democratizing Japan: The Allied Occupation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. This book resulted from a joint U.S.-Japanese conference on the Allied occupation. Divergent perspectives are presented. College-level reading. References provided at the end of each chapter.

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Categories: History