Throughout history the relationship between men and women in Japan has been constantly changing. In ancient times men and women had the same rights within families; leaders were women as well as men.
In the Nara period (646-794) things changed and men started to have more power within the aristocracy and, after many years, women started to loose their succession and heir rights in the families.
During the same era a new organization system known as ie 家 was developed; a concept that is usually translated as house but has a much wider meaning, that could be translated as clan. The ie system created a complete hierarchy within families, from servants to the chief, who was usually the father. In this system the first son inherited the right to be the new chief in the ie. The woman role was limited to nurturing children and creating links between different ies by marrying with the leaders of other families.
In the Edo period (1603-1868) things changed again and with the influence of Confucianism women were put further aside from the system. According to Confucianism women should be at home and men outside the house. This way of thinking became deeply ingrained in Japanese society and nowadays still persists to certain extent in Japan.
From the Meiji period (1868-1912) and on, Western influences started to appear in Japanese society, the education system changed but the role of women was still to be good nurturers and nothing more. The final change came at the end of Second World War, when a new constitution was written that guaranteed equal rights for men and women.
However, even so, the social status of women in Japan compared to other developed countries is quite low. In part due to the fact that many ideas that originated since the Edo era and the influence of Confucianism still persist in the mind of the Japanese people. Even the Japanese language reflects some of these ideas. Let’s see some easy examples:
Another interesting thing is that there are two kinds of marriages in Japan. Arranged marriages (omiai) and love marriages. As I explained before arranged marriages have been considered traditionally not only a man and woman relationship but a link between families. In the past it was very common and every decisions was taken by the fathers of both parts. Nowadays there are still omiai marriages but they have “more freedom”. Parents just arrange a date for their children and if it works out, then great for everybody, but if it doesn’t work out, then nothing happens as there’s not much pressure involved. Nowadays 1 in every 10 marriages in Japan are omiai marriages.