Education About Asia: Online Archives

Women in Japan: Memories of the Past, Dreams of the Future

Back to search results
Download PDF

English version—Joanne Hershfield/Jan Bardsley
2001. 52:25 Minutes. VHS/DVD. Color.
Web site:

Reviewed by DAVID H. PARIS, JR.


The stereotype of the Asian woman as subservient, selfless, and obedient to her husband has dominated Western think­ing for over 150 years. The video, Women in Japan: Memories of the Past, Dreams of the Future, presents quite a different version of the modern woman in Japan. Award-winning filmmak­er Joanne Hershfield, Professor of Film and Video Production, and Jan Bardsley, Associate Professor of Japanese Language and Literature Curriculum in Asian Studies, both from the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, undertook this film project, funded in part by UNC-CH and in part by the Japan Foundation, to examine the nature (role) of women in modern-day Japan.

Photo courtesy of Jan Bardsley.
Photo courtesy of Jan Bardsley.

The film consists of interviews with an eclectic group of women, some Japanese who have traveled abroad, others non-Japanese, who marry Japanese men and choose to live in Japan. The Japanese interviewees represent leaders in educa­tion, international Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), and the arts. A common thread that links the group is their perception of their mothers as classic examples of the selfless Confu­cian wife and mother, product of a pre-arranged marriage, devoted to husband and fami­ly—and their strong-willed independent reaction to that perception. Perhaps the most radical departure from a gener­ation of tradition-bound females is exemplified by the life story of the internationally famous painter Taeko Tomiyama, who not only chooses an unconven­tional occupation, but also refuses to marry her lover and the father of her children because she does not wish to be subservient to (owned by) his family.

Photo courtesy of Jan Bardsley.

This modern-day willful independence is demonstrated in the non-Japanese interviewees, as well. The trend among young Japanese to move from the rural villages to the ever-expanding urban areas has created a void in marriage-age women in the traditionally agricultural areas of the country. Lourdes Matsumoto, who trained as a professional dancer, ran away from her home in Cebu, Philippines, to work towards a career in Japan, despite the anti Nippon feelings of her father. Even though she returns home, she makes her Japanese suitor wait five years before marrying him and moving to a small farm town in Japan. Chinese immigrant Rohei Shimada, a multi-degreed university graduate, defies her family’s concerns and chooses to marry a Japanese farmer, settling to raise melons and a family rather than pursue an academic career. These foreign brides lead a lifestyle that traditional Japanese women were once made to endure; however, they demonstrate the same self-determination as their Japanese sisters in that they choose to stay out of love for their family and husband, rather than follow the blind devotion of past generations.

Photo courtesy of Jan Bardsley.
Photo courtesy of Jan Bardsley.

Women in Japan: Mem­ories of Past, Dreams of the Future seems to imply that freedom of choice is the defining characteristic of the women in modern Japanese society. After generations of stifling subservience, the women of today are free to pursue a more self-fulfilling life. The end of the film touches on the possible consequences of this newly instilled freedom as the interviewers ask members of the next generation about their future plans. Teenage girls, who appear more western in dress and atti­tude than older Japanese interviewees, may see the struggle for self-fulfillment as being too difficult or costly when they laugh­ingly (?) wish for a future centered on a husband who will take care of them. The next generation of documentary-makers will have to see if this is a generational reaction to the liberation of Asian women, or not.

Photo courtesy of Jan Bardsley.

This video can be a part of a high school class in sociology, world/comparative cultures, or be equally at home in a college sociology, media, or women’s studies class. The subtitles make it easy for viewers to follow the documentary. A Web site that com­plements the film,, gives biographical information on the interviewees and a variety of useful resources for research topics related to Japan, its history, and its culture. The lesson plans offered on the Web site are geared toward a media class, but are thought provoking and could be used in any writing or discussion setting.