Children and Young People at Work, 1925-1945

Throughout the period from 1900 to 1945, the majority of Japanese children left the formal education system not later than age 14. Indeed, until the second decade of the twentieth century, most left formal education on graduation from ordinary elementary school (jinjō shōgakkō) at age 12, and this was still true for a significant minority of 10 to 20 percent even in the 1930s. Of those who left formal education at 12 or 14, some girls continued their education informally, usually at sewing classes (saihō kyōshitsu) with a private teacher, either part-time or full-time. Otherwise, however, the vast majority would start work, either as part of the family labour force in the household, farm, or business, or else in apprenticeship, domestic service, or paid employment.

Although work from 14 was the experience of most Japanese young people during this period, there has been relatively little research on the subject. However, some of the most important forms of employment included apprentice, domestic servant, and factory worker. Census results indicate that between 1920 and 1940, 10 to 20 percent of boys were employed as commercial apprentices, for example. This included one of our interviewees, who was apprenticed at 13 with a draper’s (gofukuya) in Kyoto; two further interviewees recalled that there were live-in apprentices at their family businesses. Typically, apprentices would be paid a minimal wage; their remuneration was considered to come mainly in the form of board, lodging, and learning a trade on the job.

Domestic service was also a significant form of employment for girls, even though limited data makes it hard to know exactly what proportion went into such work. As with apprenticeships, domestic service was generally a live-in position with minimal remuneration for the individual, and many girls who became maids seem to have done so partly to learn the manners and skills that would equip them to be wives and mothers later, as well as to reduce the financial burden on their own family. The protagonist of Simon Partner’s book Toshié provides a good example of a girl employed as a live-in childminder.

Work in silk-reeling and other textile factories employed many girls. Although few of our interviewees had experienced such work themselves, several interviewees brought up in Nagano prefecture commented that many classmates who left school at 12 went into silk-reeling factories (seishi kōjō). Interviewees who worked in silk factories confirmed the long hours and hardship of separation from family; however, in at least some cases they seem to have enjoyed better food than at home.

In cities, it was possible for female higher elementary graduates to gain employment in positions such as telephone operator (denwa kōkanshu), bus conductor, or receptionist, all of which were more popular jobs than domestic service or factory work. However, even by 1940 such clerical jobs employed many fewer girls than agricultural or industrial work.

Only a few of our interviewees graduated from ordinary or higher elementary school before the start of the Pacific War. Of the boys who did, two worked in construction; both of these considered going to Manchuria with the Pioneer Youth Corps (Manmō kaitaku seishōnen giyūgun), and one actually went, in the belief that it offered better prospects than were available for him in Japan. Another worked at a Tokyo factory that made tanks. Four others remembered attending youth school (seinen gakkō) part-time while working. One of these was a draper’s apprentice in Kyoto; a second worked at an Osaka factory that made bearings; a third went to work in a paste-making workshop (糊屋) run by relatives in Kanazawa. One other man worked on the family farm, being the eldest son. The exact content of what was taught at youth school varied with the locality – the Kyoto apprentice learned dyeing, while the farmer’s son learned agriculture – but it always included a large element of military drill. Of the girls, two went to work in silk-reeling factories at age 12, one returning after two years to work in her family’s small silk-reeling business. Another, raised in the centre of Osaka, was employed as an errand and tea girl (o-tsukai/kyūji) at a large Osaka post office for about five years after graduating from higher elementary school. A fourth girl worked on the family farm and paper-making (紙すき)business, while a fifth also worked on the family farm, but then went to Manchuria to help her aunt in the house there, later spending three years helping with housework for a friend of her aunt in Manchuria. Though a small sample, this gives insight into the variety of kinds of work that Japanese adolescents were engaging in at the time.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

Peter Cave, ‘Children and Young People at Work, 1925-1945’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].