Women’s Role in Society

Image: Graduating class, 1894, U.S. Naval Academy. Source: Library of Congress

On May 4, 1872, the group detoured from Washington D.C to visit the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Upon arrival, the delegation was surprised to see women entering government buildings. Kunitake Kume remarked on this, saying the strangest custom he witnessed in America was the relation between the sexes. He had seen husbands serving their wives inside and outside of the household, and intimate dancing between the men and women in public. Just months after their visit, Susan B. Anthony would convince a group of women to cast ballots in the presidential election. Although it would be 50 years before women would be granted the right to vote in America, many were already engaged in fierce debates about equal rights. Kume’s views on the “natural principles,” what he saw as innate differences between men and women, were common in Japanese society at the time. He was taken aback by the progessive politics of women’s equality. While the Meiji era led to the creation of women’s organizations and liberal activism in the form of the Freedom and People’s Rights movement (Jiyū minken undō), it would not be until after WWII in 1945 that women in Japan would gain the right to vote.


Kume, Kunitake. “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” In Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe, edited by Chushichi Tsuzuki and R. Jules Young, 72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Anderson, Marnie S. “Women and Political Life in Early Meiji Japan: The Case of the Okayama Joshi Konshinkai (Okayama Women’s Friendship Society).” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, vol. 44, no. 1 (2013). http://scholarworks.smith.edu/hst_facpubs/1/.