‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’
A 'ryosai kenbo' is a treasure, a true boon to a man and a household
Shimoda Utako is probably not a household name in America. She isn’t very well known in Japan, either, although Japan is the land of her birth. This has not always been the case, though. Shimoda Utako was famous more than a hundred years ago as a model woman of Meiji Japan, someone devoted to the care of her family and the education of her children. She was also dedicated to female education, not just for Japanese girls but for young women from throughout Asia. Although her books are rarely checked out of libraries today, Shimoda was once a prominent public figure whose influence on Asian society was considerable.
Shimoda’s life and thinking were complex, very much attuned to the social and political realities of her time. She is well worth studying. However, in many contemporary scholarly works in which Shimoda’s name appears, Shimoda is rather reductively connected to her ryosai kenbo teaching, the complexities of her philosophy reduced to four simple Chinese characters. Ryosai kenbo means “good wife, wise mother” in Japanese, and helps explain Shimoda’s understanding of the social roles that women should play. In recent scholarship I have seen some attempts to appreciate the complexity underlying Shimoda’s ryosai kenbo ideal. But for many years the literature on Japanese history and culture was rife with dismissive mentions of ryosai kenbo as an archaic relic, a samurai-era holdover which prevented Japanese women from achieving “liberation” and encouraged militarism by upholding rigid social hierarchies.
It is not hard to see why ryosai kenbo has not been a big hit in the American academy. “Smash the patriarchy!” posters used to be plastered on the walls of feminist spaces at the graduate schools I attended in the United States, and the notion that a woman would want to be a wife and a mother—much less a wise and good one, are you kidding me?—was seen as implicitly misogynistic. I remember attending, as an undercover cub reporter of sorts, a socialist protest in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was handed a flyer—by a man, no less—featuring a cartoon of a uterus giving the world the middle finger. As Groucho Marx might have said, “I’ve hoid of ‘keep your rosaries off my ovaries,’ but that’s ree-diculous.”
And yet, that’s pretty much the standard American-academic feminist view of things. If women are giving birth and caring for their families, then they have been tricked, at best — probably threatened or worse. No woman in her right mind would want to use her womb to reproduce with. No militant socialist worth her sleeveless leather jacket and safety-pin earrings would dream of letting some oppressive male (and they’re all oppressive males) tell her what to do.
What is interesting about the subtle shift in how scholars think about ryosai kenbo is that it seems to portend a move away from this hardline but also mainstream feminist assumption that society is a kind of patriarchal plot. Perhaps even American academics are getting in touch with reality. (Forgive me, I just had to suppress an unkind thought.) It seems to me that women don’t need to be tricked or cajoled or coerced into being good wives and wise mothers. They need to be lured away from those roles, most of the time.
In Japan in recent years, the government has been trying to have it both ways, getting more women into the workforce while also encouraging families to have more children. The population is shrinking and also aging, which means bureaucrats are (very creepily, in my view) spending a lot of time dangling money and incentives in front of young couples to try to get them to have babies, while also pushing women to put those babies in childcare and get back to the office (for tax revenue).
But after all the propaganda, many women here still say that marriage is one of their life goals. Their career, their real calling, is to be a mother and take care of their husband and kids. Ryosai kenbo. Having children is a dream of many women, and I suspect not only in Japan. Being a good wife and a wise mother is not a “social construct” (as the sad ghosts still dragging their chains up and down the now-deserted halls of postmodern humanities buildings like to say). It is something that many women take to very naturally.
When I was a boy-hellion, nobody had to tell me to go find a stick and wage war against my brother with it. Destruction and mayhem come naturally to knee-high males like me forty years ago. Conversely, the girls in my kindergarten class back then had an inexplicable fondness for dollhouses and fake tea parties. I could never make heads or tails of it. But now I see that these differences are deeply meaningful and beautiful. It’s almost as though God made us male and female, made us in a certain way and gave us certain inborn traits—defense of the home outside, care for the home inside—which allow the human family to thrive. If that’s so, then a good wife and wise mother is, as Proverbs 31:10-31 tells us, a treasure, a true boon to a man and a household. Ryosai kenbo is not a Meiji-era Japanese social phenomenon. It’s an homage to the, well, feminine mystique.
I am not sure if the faint ripples of change in ryosai kenbo discourse in Japan Studies signal a bigger movement away from the “smash the patriarchy” ideology which dominates feminism. Probably not, but even the slightest deviation from the extremism heretofore does make one wonder. Why do so many people have to expend so much energy to keep alive a narrative which, if it were true, should easily find adherents without any propaganda effort at all?
My sense is that ryosai kenbo is indestructible. And thank God for that, because my own mother and my own wife are the very picture of ryosai kenbo — and a happy man am I. Our Blessed Mother was a ryosai kenbo, too. By that most beautiful aspect of human nature, our Savior came into the world, and everything was made new.
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