Japan in 1946 looked decidedly run-down at the heels. Scarred by war, made dreary by deprivation, the country hadn’t seen good times in almost a decade. Food, shelter, and running water were so scarce as to seem nonexistent.

Early one February morning that year, women and men, many clutching leeks or radishes, began gathering outside a Tokyo building. Drawn by a three-line notice in a local paper, they formed a line that wrapped twice round the building by the start of the business day.

The notice promised not housing or health care but the release of the first postwar issue of Style, a popular women’s magazine. Those without money hoped to use vegetables to barter for a copy. “I find it amazing that so many people were willing to trade the little they had for a magazine,” Jan Bardsley says.

An associate professor in the Curriculum in Asian Studies, Bardsley studies how an exaggerated image of the American woman and her life—an image gleaned from Japanese women’s magazines published in the 1940s and 1950s—beguiled Japanese women and affected their sense of identity and goals. “These magazines portray the American woman as a successful, assertive, and self-actualized Donna Reed character, so I was curious how Japanese women were affected by this blond, non-Asian ideal,” she says.

To satisfy her curiosity, Bardsley translated numerous articles from Japanese women’s magazines and researched the cultural and political climate of the postwar period. She found Japanese women in a state of flux.

In the wake of Japan’s crushing defeat in World War II, much of its citizens’ ethos seemed discredited. “Suddenly it wasn’t wise to follow the teaching of mothers or grandmothers, and the government was suspect because it had led the country into a disastrous war,” Bardsley says. Women’s magazines of the time often demonized Japanese men because of their autocratic role in the family system and their lack of support for their wives.

So, people believed that Japan was starting over,” she says. And where better to look for role models than the home of one of the victors—the United States? Conveniently, Americans were not only close at hand but interested in shaping a new Japan.


After Japan’s surrender to Allied powers in August 1945, American occupation forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur, governed Japan until April 1952. The occupation administration often was referred to as SCAP, the acronym for MacArthur’s title (supreme commander of Allied powers). Among SCAP’s many goals was encouraging the Japanese to embrace democracy and capitalism.

But promoting abstract ideas can be tricky—especially to people consumed with the daily struggle of a hardscrabble life. SCAP’s Civil Information and Education Section hit upon the brilliant plan of using women’s magazines to portray the American woman’s glorious life; a life only possible in a democratic, capitalistic society. “Japanese women’s magazines gave a material reality to democracy and capitalism—I call it ‘when fashion became democracy,’” Bardsley says.

No magazine escaped scrutiny. Every publisher submitted its magazines to SCAP before publication; SCAP translators then prepared English versions of all tables of contents and any articles that seemed potentially offensive because they criticized SCAP or the United States. SCAP killed articles it deemed offensive. “For example,” Bardsley says, “an article on author Pearl Buck proposed for the March 1946 issue of Fujin-Gahô (women’s pictorial) was deleted because Buck criticized American segregation practices.” While SCAP allowed no visible trace of censorship in published magazines, evidence of its guidance is apparent in magazine content.

SCAP planted articles about American popular culture in magazines,” Bardsley says, “and encouraged Japanese writers’ utopian stories of American life.” In these articles, the American housewife takes on mythic proportions. In an article summarizing a typical day, she prepares attractive, nutritious meals for her family; quickly has her house gleaming because she’s so efficient; uses her free time to read and improve herself; is an active, responsible citizen; and is always perfectly dressed for every occasion.

Bardsley notes that unlike the Japanese wife who toiled alone, the American wife who emerges from these articles “receives help from her children and her husband, who treats her as an equal.”


Photographs of lithe women in glamorous clothes and articles about vibrant American women, who led accomplished lives with the loving support of male family members, were irresistible to Japanese women, who led sheltered lives and had arranged marriages. “Japanese women believed that democracy would improve their lives—they would feel and look good, they’d be drawn out of their homes into exciting lives, and gender relations would become equal,” Bardsley says. “SCAP wanted people to be positive and to perceive that they were moving toward the life laid out in the magazines.”

Some major magazines acknowledged that Japanese women weren’t even close to the American ideal displayed on their pages. “An article published in a 1946 issue of Style warns Japanese women that they’re wearing too much makeup to compensate for their raggedy, ill-fitting clothing,” she says. “I find the article poignant because it’s obvious that no one had enough clothing, and yet women made a determined effort to look stylish.”

Smaller magazines such as Femina adopted the editorial stance that Japanese women had achieved the ideal and featured articles on how to organize a full closet and what to wear to enjoy oneself at the beach. “When I read these magazines, I have to remind myself of the realities of life at the time—people waiting in line for food and sleeping in railway stations,” Bardsley says.

By the mid-1950s, Japan’s economy was improving, the occupation was over, and women were beginning to debate whether they’d gone too far in emulating the American ideal. “They didn’t want to return to the traditional family system of their past because so much of that they didn’t like,” Bardsley says, “but they wondered if they’d adopted a way of life that didn’t quite fit.”

Fujin kôron (women’s review) ran The Desires of Modern Woman, a cartoon series by Okabe Fuyuhiko. The cartoon titled “Desire for a Washing Machine,” published in December 1956, reveals the ambivalence many Japanese women felt about the increased materialism that accompanied their quest for the idealized life. The cartoon shows a salaryman (a man with a white-collar job) who obligingly has morphed into a washing machine for his wife’s convenience. Yet, his wife appears uncertain that his sacrifice was worthwhile.

It’s satirizing the ideal life,” Bardsley says. “This couple has become successful in American terms—they have a washing machine, the most sought-after appliance of the time; she’s a full-time homemaker, a rarity in Japan; and he has a white-collar job. But to achieve this lifestyle, he’s had to become a machine.”

The so-called housewife debate ensued, as women deliberated which bits of the American lifestyle they should keep and which they should jettison. The nation as a whole considered whether housewives were using their newfound leisure time productively. Men and women aired their opinions in letters that were published in newspapers, and the topic was debated in Japan’s parliamentary body, the Diet. “Not surprisingly, only conservative men advocated a return to the traditional family system,” Bardsley says.


Since 1949, some Japanese women had voiced their growing awareness that many American women fell short of the ideal. One woman, Mrs. Mogi, touched off an avalanche of letters when her letter to Pearl Buck, criticizing an American woman living in Japan, was published in the Nippon Times. Mrs. Mogi commented that while the woman’s house and clothes were lovely, the woman herself didn’t seem well educated and couldn’t hold up her end of the conversation.

I think the image of the American woman was so overwhelming that Japanese women had to cut it down; then they could begin putting together something that would work for them,” Bardsley says. Even so, vestiges of the ideal are preserved in Japanese ideas about nationality.

In the course of her research, Bardsley became increasingly aware that people often hold fast to preconceived notions about nationalities, and it can be disturbing when an individual doesn’t meet those expectations. “Japanese women who are assertive may be viewed as too Western by their countrymen,” she says. And Japanese may think of Americans who aren’t chatty and perennially cheerful as anomalies.

This awareness, coupled with knowledge of Japanese women who had lived abroad, sparked an idea for further study. Bardsley and Joanne Hershfield, associate professor of communication studies, are making a documentary that explores how Asian women with international, multicultural experiences reconcile their perceptions of themselves with others’ reactions to them.

Forty-nine years after SCAP left Japan, remnants of the idealized life it promoted linger. For many Japanese women, the American woman continues to be synonymous with a modern, independent woman. “The weight of the American woman as an idea is still very powerful in Japanese popular culture,” Bardsley says. “In some ways, it’s hard to consider the postwar history of the Japanese woman without taking her American counterpart into account.”

Janet Wagner was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.

Funding for the documentary was provided by the UNC-CH Arts & Sciences Foundation, the Curriculum in International and Area Studies, and the Japan Foundation. Jan Bardsley participates in the Carolina Speakers program.