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More than the “Wife Corps”: Female Tenant Farmer Struggle in 1920s Japan


AbstractStruggles over social reproduction intensified and took on new forms in Japan during the interwar period, as the state found it increasingly difficult to secure the foundations for the continued accumulation of capital. Landlord-tenant disputes that erupted nationwide in the midst of Japan's post-World War I agricultural recession was one concrete manifestation of these struggles. While the significance of tenant disputes has been analyzed in great detail by scholars, there has been a surprising lack of historical scholarship on the role that female tenant farmers played within them. This absence is a manifestation of two tendencies: First, gendered assumptions surrounding the figure of the tenant farmer have led scholars of agrarian social movements to work from a relatively limited understanding of what constitutes struggle and by extension, who its protagonists have been. Second, the conflation of waged work as productive work and by extension, non-waged work as unproductive has unwittingly relegated many forms of struggle that working women participated in to the realm of the pre-political. This paper contends that far from being mere supporters – the wife corps – of what was ultimately a male-driven movement, female participants in tenant disputes produced their own powerful critiques of the way that the Japanese state and capital undervalued their lives and labor. As such, they should be understood as one link in a rich history of proletarian feminist struggle both within and outside of the Japanese empire.

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