National Geographic : 1938 Jan
WOMEN'S WORK IN JAPAN BY MARY A. NOURSE DURING the fourteen years I lived in China I went often to Japan for one to three months. Each time I was more fascinated with this oriental coun try and hoped sometime to visit it more thoroughly. After twelve years' absence from the Orient my wish came true, and in the summer of 1936 I returned to Japan for a year to study its history, institutions, and social customs. Always I was struck with the unique part the women of Japan play in its eco nomic and industrial life. As I visited Japanese families, went through factories, offices, and schools, and walked miles both in city and country with my camera, the bending backs and placid faces of the women, old and young, became a vivid im age which I never could quite dismiss from my mind. Everywhere I was confronted with women working at all manner of jobs. Only in two places did I miss her-in jobs requiring skilled manipulation of ma chinery, and in government and profes sional positions. Everywhere else, bowed often under the weight of a child on her back, she cheerfully bears her full share of the work of the Nation; frequently the heavier end of the load is hers. HOUSEKEEPING A LIGHT TASK One reason for her undertaking so many outside occupations is that homemaking appears a minor problem of Japanese women. Houses are fragile wooden struc tures, unpainted, with sliding paper win dows and partitions. The tiny one or two rooms with matting-covered floors are bare of furniture and decoration except for chests of drawers and the single scroll hung in a recess. Low, individual, traylike tables and a few saucers and bowls for dishes are brought in from the entrylike kitchen at meal time (page 103). Beds are simply quilts pulled from the cupboards and laid on the floor at night. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the Government orders house cleaning, and floor mats and quilts are taken out of doors for this purpose. Cleaning is thorough, for the policeman who inspects the houses will not give his stamp of approval if he sees a torn partition or dusty mat. A minimum of time and labor is required to get the family started every morning. Bed quilts are rolled up and put away in a closet. Chopsticks and bowls are rinsed out in either hot or cold water and left to dry. Even the daily cooking takes little time. Fish and rice are the staples. Fish is often eaten raw, and rice may be cooked at any time and set aside in a wooden tub to be served cold. Vegetables are few. Peas are cooked in the pod, and the big white carrots and cab bages are pickled. In slack seasons they are cut up and salted down in large wooden buckets and kept ready for instant con sumption. Other household duties are quickly done. Except among the well-to-do, the general custom of going to public baths and buying ready-made clothing frees the women from many hours of housework. The cotton kimonos are washed out and hung to dry on poles run through the sleeves. Stretching on the pole is the only ironing necessary. The country woman, after giving the family a quick breakfast of rice, pickles, and hot tea, ties the baby on her back and makes for the fields. With kimono tucked up, she engages in any kind of farm labor. Sometimes she works alone, more often side by side with husband or son (pages 104, 105, and 106). In the spring she hoes or weeds, trans plants the young rice, or cuts the winter wheat. In autumn, she moves with bent back down the field with a sickle, helping menfolk cut and thresh the rice-the major crop of Japan. Two farm jobs seem ex clusively hers-the picking of tea leaves and the tending of silkworms. EVERY FAMILY MEMBER WORKS As I wandered through the country in the Kyoto-Nara region during the rice-har vesting season, I came upon one family after another working on the small farms of two or three acres. In one group the small children played on a matting spread out on the ground. A youngish man threshed at a handmade de vice, his mother sifted the rice on a large round sieve, his wife carried up bundles of rice from the drying racks, and his sister dragged away the stalks.