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Shifting Gender Roles in Postwar Japan: The On-Screen Life of Actress Hara Setsuko

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Hara Setsuko (born Aida Masae, 1920) is one of Japan’s most admired actresses from its golden age of cinema. During her twenty-eight-year career, spanning the mid-1930s to early 1960s, she appeared in over one hundred feature films. Best known for her portrayals of ordinary, middle-class women, Hara’s performances were anything but ordinary. With large, expressive eyes and striking features, her unforgettable depictions of women from all stages of life, including daughters, wives, mothers and widows, came to embody idealized notions of Japanese femininity on the big screen for a generation. The biographical narrative that grew up around her on-screen persona was reinforced by the fact that she frequently played similar but unrelated characters, often with the same name and with many repeat cast members. Although she is regularly described as the quintessential self-sacrificing Japanese woman, a large part of her appeal was due to her ability to convincingly express the conflicted emotions of societal pressures impinging on individual desires and independence. These tensions frequently reflect the giri (social responsibility, social duty) versus ninjō (personal feelings, individual desires) conflict, a prominent theme in many Japanese narrative traditions from premodern times up to the present day, but also underscore the complex status of women during this transformative time in Japan’s history.

This article examines the tensions between gender expectations and individual desires in the on-screen persona of Setsuko Hara as reflected in two of her best-known postwar films by director Ozu Yasujirō (1903-1963): Late Spring (Banshun, 1949) and Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953). Hara’s work can serve as an ideal framework for a discussion on gender issues in postwar Japan because many of the characters she portrayed so clearly highlight the contradictory aspects of the traditional and modern in the lives of ordinary women of the time.1 The first section below provides a socio-historical framework from which to view, analyze, and discuss some of these issues. Following this, each film is discussed in detail, including a plot summary emphasizing the relevant gender issues and suggestions for classroom use.

Women in the Modern Period: A Brief Overview

Japan’s modern period is generally traced back to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The early decades of the Meiji period (1868–1912) were characterized by rapid Westernization, including social and economic reforms designed to bring Japan into the modern world. However, this did not result in significant changes in the legal status of women. On the contrary, the Meiji Civil Code of 1891 reinforced the traditional Confucian role of women in the home, placing them under the legal jurisdiction of the ie, the oldest male in the family household, to which they belonged, which through the course of a lifetime typically meant submission first to one’s father, then husband, and finally, for widows, to the eldest son. Education for girls was promoted from the late nineteenth century onward, but only insofar as it helped prepare them to become “good wives and wise mothers,” an ideological construct used to describe the model role of women in society. This adage, which increasingly emphasized the notion of women willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the family, would intensify during the war years.

The postwar Constitution of 1947, drafted under the authority of Occupation forces, guaranteed women a number of new rights, including the right to receive an equal education, own property, choose their own spouse, and even divorce. Because of these new rights, the influence of Western culture during the postwar period is often seen as the transformational factor in the liberation of women in modern Japan. However, the early decades of the twentieth century are replete with challenges to the traditional image of the self-sacrificing wife and mother. The term “modern woman,” associated with feminist Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1971) and her journal Seitō(Blue Stocking, 1911–1916), challenged Japan’s patriarchal social structure and advocated the notion of an educated, independent woman.2 The moga (modern girl), a phenomenon that emerged in the 1920s, referred to young, single working women who followed modern Western flapper fashions such as short skirts and bobbed hair. Because of their financial independence and indulgence in the pleasures of fashion and city life, moga were perceived as selfish, frivolous, and even promiscuous. Unlike the women’s suffrage movement, which also intensified in the 1920s, the moga were not associated with any particular social or political agenda, but their very presence on city streets highlighted the increasing sociopolitical challenges to the “good wife, wise mother” adage during the interwar years.3 Feminist movements of the early twentieth century would fade as military aggression intensified in the 1930s, but they highlight the status of Japanese women in the modern period as a complex set of factors drawing on both indigenous movements and Western influence. I now examine how Hara’s films highlight some of these issues.


1. Hara’s career is closely tied to Ozu. Although she worked under many other directors, her best-known films were done with Ozu. Those interested in learning more about Ozu’s style will find no lack of critical studies in English. Two of the best-known works are Donald Richie, Ozu: His Life and Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977) and David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 1988). Unfortunately, there are no monograph-length works on Hara in English, and few articles. However, she is frequently referenced in the above-mentioned works on Ozu.

2. For more on Hiratsuka Raichō, see In the Beginning Woman Was the Sun: The Autobiography of a Japanese Feminist, Teruko Craig, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). For more on the Seitōjournal, see Jan Bardsley, The Bluestockings of Japan: New Women and Fiction from Seitō, 1911–1916 (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2007).

3. In 1921, women were granted the right to attend political meetings, but would not receive the right to vote until 1946. For an in-depth study of Japanese women in the 1920s, see Barbara Sato, The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media, and Women in Interwar Japan (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003). For more on the role of Japanese women in the 1950s, particularly housewives, see Jan Bardsley, Women and Democracy in Cold War Japan (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).

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