During the Second World War, the American war machine made history in employing the power of Hollywood to propagate negative image of their enemy. The results still resonate today.
One of many ideas they successfully spread was the ill treatment of Japanese women at the hands of Japanese men.
American women who have lived in Japan for years still have trouble realizing that the plight of Japanese women was never as bad as advertised. One White woman told me that Japanese women tolerate the infidelities of their husbands because there is nothing they could do about it. They would be economically helpless if they split with their husbands. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the men who would be helpless without their wives.
A missionary in the 16th century noted that Japanese women chose their sexual partners of their own free will, had the right to instigate divorce, had the right to travel without permission from men, owned property, kept their own money, and even collected interest on loans to their own husbands. Wives were not the property of their husbands but held their own places in society. None of this was even imaginable for the European missionary.
Later on, the Tokugawa Shogunite (Edo period) prohibited female ownership of farmland and commercial real estate but they could still own, buy and sell residential houses. They had right to their own property and if a husband sold off their possessions, it was grounds for divorce. Some women loaned money to their husbands and there are documented cases where the court ruled in favor of the wife who collected the money with interest.
The travel of women were also restricted during the Edo period. “Guns coming in and women going out” were scrutinized carefully. This was basically to prevent insurgence. Regional warlords were required to keep their wives in Edo, the shogun’s capitol. The lords themselves traveled back and forth between their mansions in Edo and their domains in the provinces. Wives and children were effectively hostages of the shogun. To keep these hostages from escaping the city disguised as commoners, every woman was carefully checked. This intruded significantly to the freedoms of commoner women, but that was a side effect of a security policy rather than discrimination of an entire gender.
The samurai, as usual, lived with a different set of rules. Adultery was punishable by death. Absolute chastity was required of the women. This was primarily because if there were any dispute about who was the heir, it would cost lives. In fact there were lots of government bodies devoted to deciding who was the heir of whom and in what order. In the samurai’s world, whose mother you were defined a woman’s position. Whose wife you were counted for less.
Contrary to common belief, Japanese women have always had the right to choose their mates. Japanese women have rejected advances from Emperors since Heian times. Of course, economic conditions defined your rights in those days. Poor people sold off their daughters to brothels until the early 20th century. Many women were obliged to go into unhappy marriages or become mistresses due to economic reasons. But all things being equal, women had the right to reject an undesirable suitor.
The Meiji Restoration brought Western influence into Japan. Laws were written in the image of the French model which took away the right to instigate divorce from women. Also, women were no longer allowed to inherit fortunes. The Imperial government propagated the myth that Japanese women had always valued chastity more than their lives. This was against all documented evidence. Of course there were cases in which faithful wives committed suicide rather than face gang rape by incoming troops, but examples like that do not speak for the whole of society in peace time. Still, many people bought the story and a lot of women were extremely chaste until the fall of the Imperial government after WWII, but a chunk of them were probably people of the samurai lineage who would have been very prude anyway. The morality seeped to other classes by osmosis and the period between the fall of the Tokugawa shogunite and the fall of the Japanese Empire was probably the most sexually restricted time in the history of Japan.
For most of its history, women in Japan had more rights than women elsewhere. There is no doubt that there were plenty of cases in which women were mistreated or taken advantage of, but those things happened in other places as well. You have to put the comparison in the context of the times. It is true that women could not hold many professional jobs until modern times, but some businesses, such as hotels and inns, were traditionally ran by women. In fact the employment status of women was the same or worse in Western countries until well into the 20th century. The literacy rate of women in Japan was always higher than those of Europe or North America for as long as there are records. Western influence has arguably diminished more than enhanced the status of Japanese women until the latter half of the 20th century.
The power dynamic of the sexes were quite different in Japan. Men never opened doors for women and women held umbrellas for men. When walking in couples, women were supposed walk half a step behind her man, never abreast of him. This is why acts of male chauvinism, such as opening doors for women (an imported idea), was confused with feminism (another imported idea), and the word “feminizumu” in Japan often means something entirely different from what Westerners call “feminism”. But women always had control of their own finances and often controlled the finances of their husbands. There were many cases in which the samurai men could not obtain loans but their wives could.
The situation still applies today. Most husbands in Japan today hand over their paychecks to their wives who manage the money and grant small allowances to their husbands for buying cigarettes or paying bus fare and such. The short-lived Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, noted as a poor and honest man, demanded that every member of his coalition cabinet disclose the fortunes of themselves and their immediate families to the public. It was meant to enhance his squeaky clean image. He was shocked to find that his wife had amassed a fortune in excess of three million dollars, all quite legally. Such is the financial savvy of Japanese wives.
I can tell you first hand that it is a myth that Japanese women are helpless. I am married to one.