Essay / Drudgery & Barbarism: The Interplay of Gender and Labor on Imperial Japan’s Frontiers

by Naomi Szabo-Wexler

edited by Sasha Staggs

The discussion of labor relations in regions controlled by Imperial Japan prior to the second world war is a complex one. Despite Japan’s obfuscation via Pan-Asianism rhetoric, which positioned the Japanese nation as a first among equals in East Asia, Japan’s economic motivations and control of other Asian territories resembled that of Western imperial powers in other colonial holdings. Introducing the element of gender to these labor relations further adds to the complexity.

To narrow this discussion, I primarily focus on the positions of historians Wendy Matsumura and Theodore Jun Yoo in their respective works, The Limits of Okinawa and The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea, which present contrasting images of female labor relations in interwar Okinawa and Korea respectively. Their analysis of labor relations, before the second world war, indicate that the experiences of female laborers on Japan’s frontiers depended largely on women’s positions within the labor structures of Okinawa and Korea prior to colonial rule. Parallels between female laborers’ economic position preceding and following Japanese colonization comes with a caveat. Okinawa and Korea faced different degrees of exogenous pressure, as a result of diverging Japanese colonial policies in those regions, as Okinawa was considered a part of the Japanese interior while Korea was considered a colonial frontier. In Okinawa, reformers like Ōta Chōfu sought to transform women’s traditional roles as family breadwinners to fit the Japanese mold[1]. Unlike their counterparts on the Japanese mainland, Okinawan women were expected to be rugged and actively engaged in business, hawking their cloth wares on the open market.

By contrast, Okinawan men were expected to be above such direct sales and show personal refinement. Okinawan reformers viewed the reversal of these social expectations as “a prerequisite for the establishment of a new sexual division of labor that subjugated women’s labor and reproductive functions to the reproduction of capitalist society”[2]. In effect, these reformers wanted independent female Okinawan weavers to abandon their private, uncontrolled businesses for a factory-type system which would give the reformers and their economic proponents the ability to more effectively extract female labor and pay little for the privilege. The efforts of the Okinawan reformers were thus two- pronged: first, to reform gender relations via public shaming and policing of women’s more independent activities, and second to restrict women’s labor to traditional capitalist modes in a factory setting via market regulation and coercion. The former shame-based campaigns tended to be more successful than the latter as Okinawan weavers strenuously resisted all efforts to establish a factory economy based around mechanization. One notable case of resistance occurred on October 31st, 1901 when Governor Narahara attended a general meeting of the Ryūkyū woven cloth dealers’ association. A cohort of outraged female weavers protested the association’s efforts to police their business and stormed the waiting rooms, offices, and houses of the association’s officers to make sure that, in Matsumara’s words, “their displeasure was duly noted”[3]. This resistance was made possible because of the entrenchment of independent skilled female workers in the Okinawan economy and because their weaving was conducted without oversight at home where government regulation or suppression was nearly impossible.

By contrast, contemporaneous conditions in rural Korea forced already-devalued female laborers away from traditional gendered work and into the factory system. While Okinawan women had historically worked as independent agents earning income for their families, the traditional status of Korean women was quite different. Under a patriarchal Confucian system, rural Korean women were expected to match their husbands’ field work while simultaneously running their households, a double load which historian Yoo de- scribes as “drudgery” and which modern sociologists term ‘the reproductive labor double burden’[4]. While Okinawan women had sufficient sway to reject factory work, Korean women could not. In Korea, excessive economic demands from Imperial Japan for rice and industrial goods weakened Korean family structures. By 1933, Korea exported 66.3 percent of its rice crop to Japan[5]. The high demand for rice from Japan caused famine and death in the Korean countryside in the 1920s and ‘30s forcing rural women, young and old, to seek work in factories despite the extreme social and economic exploitation that ensued[6].

Though more constrained than Okinawan women, female laborers in Korea resisted the factory system in various ways. Over the course of the interwar period, absenteeism from prison-like factory dormitories became widespread[7]. While desertions were commonly attributed to the search for better wages, a 1940 survey indicates that a third of the surveyed women left the factory due to family considerations (marriage or household duties). More obviously, factory wages failed to increase even as the cost of living rose, forcing female factory workers into cycles of poverty when they were unable to pay off the debt accrued from living in the factory dormitories. When this economic burden would cyclically reach a boiling point, female laborers would strike. The labor movement grew over the course of the 1920s. Demands were sometimes met under the more lenient colonial state but such compromises often came with strings attached. In one example, strikers from the Pyongwon Rubber Factory succeeded in preventing a wage cut in the spring of 1931[8]. This win came at a cost. Factory leaders demanded the termination of the 20 female strike leaders who were promptly fired and lived the rest of their lives in abject poverty in Seoul. Factory owners often struggled to replace workers lost from both absenteeism and strikes. In response, owners would sometimes resort to hiring male workers. This gendered employment shortage came about in part because, as the reputation of factory employment became tantamount to sexual slavery, as a result of the rampant abuses of male managers rural families would prevent their daughters from entering the system to avoid the associated “shame”[9]. Thus, female laborers in Korea, too, found methods to resist the imposition of a factory system.

The continuity of female labor exploitation, between the pre-colonial and colonial period, created contradictory forms of colonial resistance within the Korean intelligentsia on the topic of female factory workers, or yugong[10]. On one side of the issue were Korean thinkers, often socialists, who were sensitive to the plight and the sacrifices of the yugong as a class at the hands of Japanese managers and even Korean industrialists. On the other side were Korean nationalists who called for a return to traditional ways as part of a new Korean nationalism. For female laborers, this Confucist framework dictated either leaving the factory to act as a homemaker or, failing that, becoming patient and compliant workers within an exploitative system[11].

Yoo’s description raises an important question: did adherence to traditional Confucian values in pursuit of a new Korean national identity represent more an act of resistance to Japanese rule or a capitulation to a system which undervalued and racialized female labor? At some level, the reinforcement of traditional gender roles by some intellectuals seems an attempt to paper over economic inequities, which Korea had previously tolerated, and to transfer blame for female labor exploitation entirely to the Japanese colonial empire. This is certainly not to free Imperial Japan of culpability for the egregious social and economic exploitation of colonial Korea. However, the contrast between Okinawa and Korea suggest that the quality of gender expectations and labor relations prior to colonization had significant effects on the experiences of female laborers under Japanese rule.

Naomi Szabo-Wexler is a final year biochemistry major minoring in history. In her free time, you can find her reading speculative fiction, trying out a new recipe, or planning her next board game night with friends. After graduating she looks forward to returning to her hometown of Boston and working in clinical research.


1. Wendy Matsumura, The Limits of Okinawa: Japanese Capitalism, Living Labor, and Theorizations of Community (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 84, digital file.

2. Matsumura, The Limits, 80.

3. Matsumura, The Limits, 109.

4. Theodore Jun Yoo, The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910-1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 152, PDF.

5. Sorensen, Clark W., Yong-Chool Ha, and Hong Yung Lee. Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013), 24.

6. Yoo, The Politics, 105.

7. Yoo, The Politics, 143. 8. Yoo, The Politics, 147.

9. Yoo, The Politics, 145.

10. Yoo, The Politics, 152.

11. Yoo, The Politics, 153.


Matsumura, Wendy. The Limits of Okinawa: Japanese Capitalism, Living Labor, and Theorizations of Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. Digital file. 

Sorensen, Clark W., et al. Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945. University of Washington Press, 2013. Project MUSE

Yoo, Theodore Jun . The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea : Education, Labor, and Health, 1910-1945. University of California Press, 2008.

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