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Japan: Women of Influence

by Sheila A. Smith
March 8, 2017


Today we celebrate International Women’s Day. This comes five days after Japan’s Hinamatsuri, or Girls’ Day, the day in which the nation celebrates the bright future of its young daughters. On this special day, I want to feature seven inspiring women who led the way in the Japan field.

Beate Sirota Gordon

Beate Sirota Gordon was a young woman, raised and educated in Japan in the years leading up to World War II. She left Japan to attend college in the United States in 1943 at the age of fifteen. She returned to Japan after the war and was asked by U.S. Occupation authorities to help draft the women’s rights provisions of the Japanese constitution. Her memoir, so aptly titled The Only Woman in the Room, describes that experience, and should be required reading for all women interested in Japan and U.S. history. But everyone should listen to her talk about women—in Japan, in the United States, and everywhere—in a commencement address at Mills College, her alma mater.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sadako Ogata

Sadako Ogata served as the High Commissioner for Refugees at the United Nations (UNHCR) from 1991-2000, and became Japan’s most well known global activist. She taught at Sophia University for much of her academic career, and authored books on Japan’s foreign policy in the early 1930s as well as on Japan’s postwar normalization with China. Ogata’s voice reached across party lines within Japan and across national boundaries around the globe. Her call for greater attention to the growing plight of refugees continues to resonate today as we confront an ever growing wave of migration out of areas beset by conflict. Perhaps most inspiring was her intrepid spirit. As a teenager in 1951, she left occupied Japan on a ship, headed for study at Georgetown University. She told me she stopped by San Francisco to see how the peace treaty negotiations were going before heading to her new school. As UNHCR, Ogata was always on the move, visiting refugee facilities, wartorn socieites, and advocating to governments to protect their most vulnerable citizens.

Photo: Sadako Ogata (R) speaks to ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo, staying in the open in Kukes on April 8, 1999. After two weeks of a massive exodus that drove thousands out of their homes, the border was shut by the Yugoslav authorities. (Reuters)

Empress Michiko

Born Michiko Shoda, Japan’s Empress Michiko was the first commoner to marry into Japan’s Imperial family in 1959, one of the nation’s most tradition-bound institutions. She has been a quiet but ever present companion to Emperor Akihito, rarely making her own thoughts known, and yet to many in Japan and abroad, she represented a new beginning for women in postwar Japan—a symbol of postwar Japan’s transformation. She and then Crown Prince Akihito were featured on the cover of Life magazine during their courtship, and in her official role as crown princess and empress, she has represented the Japanese people at home and abroad ever since.

Photo: Japanese Empress Michiko (R), honorary president of the Japanese Red Cross Society, pins a Florence Nightingale Medal on Reiko Takahashi of Kobe, western Japan, at the thirty-ninth Florence Nightingale Medals award ceremony in Tokyo on June 19, 2003. Three distinguished Japanese nurses were awarded the highest honor in modern nursing on Thursday. (REUTERS/Chiaki Tsukumo)

Suzuyo Takazato

Suzuyo Takazato is an advocate for women and peace activist from Okinawa. As one of the founders of Women Against Military Violence, a movement focusing on women in U.S. base communities subjected to violence, she calls for  protections for women in Okinawa and around Asia. Traveling to the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995, she came home to find her community in outrage over the rape of a young girl by U.S. military personnel. Since then she has worked with Okinawa’s police to educate them on how to treat victims of sexual crimes and has served on the Naha City Council. Over the years, she has built strong networks with women across Asia who have little voice and virtually no trans-border protections in human trafficking across the region. She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and continues to work as a global peace activist, arguing for a conception of human security that is not based on violence but on the equality and needs of all—especially women. (Photo: World Citizenship)

Carol Gluck

Carol Gluck, George Sansom professor of history at Columbia University, has inspired and educated generations of Japan scholars. Her book, Japan’s Modern Myths, remains the classic historical analysis of Japan’s emergence as a modern nation. Yet Gluck’s influence has gone far beyond the confines of academia. She was an advisor to PBS on the documentary Sugihara’s Conspiracy of Kindness, the story of a Japanese consul who facilitated the exit of Jews from Berlin in the summer of 1940. She has tirelessly sought to inform public debate over on the often misunderstood history of U.S.-Japan relations, and remains a committed global scholar working on issues of war memory across national and cultural boundaries. In 2006, Gluck was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government for her contributions to the understanding of international relations and of Japanese culture.

(Photo: Columbia University)

Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy was the U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2012-2016, the first woman to serve in that post. From the time that she arrived in Tokyo to present her credentials to the emperor to her departure in the wake of the historic visits by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe to Hiroshima (May) and Pearl Harbor (December), Kennedy was hailed in Japan for her role beyond the narrow channels of diplomacy. She made her views known—about dolphins, about democratic values, and about the role of women in modern society. She felt deeply about those in Japan whose voices U.S. government officials rarely heard—often those who protested against U.S. policy decisions, and she was a strong proponent of adapting the U.S.-Japan partnership to meet the rapidly changing geopolitics of Asia.

Photo: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy speaks after writing her condolences in a book at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, western Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo on December 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Kyodo)

Aiko Doden

Aiko Doden is the senior commentator and producer of Asian Voices, an NHK news program designed to introduce listeners to the leaders and citizens of Asia. Her interviews have included the Nobel Laureates Malala Yousafzai, Professor Muhammad Yunus, Professor Amartyr Sen, World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Myanmar President Thein Sein, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director General Irina Bokova, United Nations Development Program Administrator Helen Clark and Thai Interim Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Ratan Tata, India, and Bill Gates.

Doden is also an active advocate for changing the working culture for women in Japan, and for women around the world. She explains the complex hurdles professional women continue to face in Japan in policy fora around the globe, such as the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, and the Brookings Institution.

Photo: NHK

These women are also featured on my Facebook page using #shemeansbusiness.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Nicole Gordon

    Dear Ms. Smith,

    As the daughter of Beate Sirota Gordon, I could not be more proud to see her listed at the top of your tribute to women who have had influence on Japan.

    I would point out one correction, however, which is that she was not selected by the US government to return to Japan in order to write the women’s rights section of the constitution. She applied to return to Japan in order to find her parents, and was hired as an interpreter on MacArthur’s staff–one of some mere 65 Caucasians in the US who were fluent in Japanese at the time (Nisei were not eligible). After the Americans decided to write the Japanese constitution, she was given the opportunity to write the women’s rights section (among others) and is fairly credited with the success of her efforts to persuade the American hierarchy to include women’s rights in a serious fashion. Many years later, when she became known in Japan, she became a prominent spokesperson not just for women’s rights but for he Article 9 “Peace Clause” provision of the Japanese constitution.

    In response to your invitation to add some other names, and although I am not an expert of any kind in this area, I would suggesy Ichikawa Fusae (suffragette), Doi Takako (first female Lower House Speaker in Japan), Akamatsu Ryoko (minister of education at the Japanese Diet) , Hayashi Kyoko (Hiroshima survivor and celebrated writer), and Ono Yoko (performance artist and political activist), as prominent women who have supported equal rights for women and peace, among other causes.

    Thank you for including my mother in your message for International rights day. It is an honor to have her remembered in this way.

    Finally, for readers who might be interested in the speech you mention, the link is:


    Nicole Gordon

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