Splendid and Confident – Taiwanese Career Women in the Japanese Colonial Period
The profile of modern career women in Taiwan has gone through a lot of changes over the past hundreds of years. At its very beginning, the type of work done by women was merely family-based handiwork on an avocational level. After the government opened the harbors of Taiwan in the late Qing Dynasty, the flourishing of trade led to an increase in the number of local products being sold and shipped overseas. The process production and export of agricultural, forestry, fishing, and mining products needed a large labor force, and to reduce cost, industries started to employ female workers at a low wage. Taiwanese women began to step out of their homes and enter various small and medium-sized businesses to earn a small amount of money to help with household expenses. These women marked the first step of career women in Taiwan.
During the Japanese Colonial Period, a series of modernization policies were implemented, propelling Taiwan into a new era. Among these policies, the abolition of foot-binding and the promotion of education were the most influential on traditional Taiwanese women. The former symbolized women breaking free of physical constraint, and the latter represented attention toward women’s intellectual development. Although the reforms did not gain instant success because society in general was still under the dominance of old customs, they laid a foundation for the next stage.
Photo of the first female doctor in Taiwan, Cai Axin (center in the first row) with her midwife students, taken at the main entrance of Qingxin Hospital (founded by Dr. Cai) in Taichung. 
(Archiving Institute: Institute of Taiwan History, Academia Sinica)
Taiwan’s economy was rapidly growing at that time, and the colonial authority was ambitiously developing local industries. Hence, various new factories were built one after another, such as ones for tobacco, pineapple products, and the textile industry. Since the Japanese women living in Taiwan then seldom engaged in jobs requiring labor, such labor-intensive work was mostly undertaken by local Taiwanese women. Taiwanese women thus transitioned from part-time support to full-time workers. Due to the emphasis on management in the new factories, the women workers gradually broke away from the traditional life style. Besides a more regular life, they were able to support themselves financially in entertainment and studies. Society also began to think positively of career women.
The hand-operated sewing machine produced by Singer Manufacturing Company, sold in Taiwan as early as before 1911, was very popular among local women and tailors.
(Image Source and Archiving Institute: Taiwan Folklore Museum of Taichung Folklore Park)
In addition to the process production industry, the number of educated Taiwanese women also increased significantly. The Japanese language and other skills they learned at school enabled them to work in the service industry or become school teachers or tutor after graduation. They could also take up professions in medical treatment, such as nursing and midwifery, which were in high demand at that time. Educated waitresses were also favored by restaurants and cafés in cities around the country. Even the Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan employed female phone operators. As the local authority started to operate municipal bus services, conductresses in Western costume became a new and attractive identity. Some women even joined the transportation industry as female drivers. In Volume 6 of Creative Comic Collection, the character Yingjie in “Little Tailor” was adapted from the female driver Tian Yingmei of the Hsinchu Bus Company (previously known as Hsinchu Automobile Chamber of Commerce).
The address and telephone number of the Fashion Style store, opened by Ms. Chen Xingcun in downtown Kyo-machi in Taipei.
(Image Source: Kangyo-ka, Taipei City (ed.) (1940). Business Directory of Taipei City, 1939 version. Taipei: Taipei City Government Office)
During that period of time, Taiwan was going through the process of urbanization, and new specialty store factories and many service providers were located in major cities.  This opened the women working in these sectors to urban cultures, which broadened their horizons and experiences. Some of them even went on to found their own businesses. Taking the emerging dress-making tailors as an example, there were more than ten woman-owned tailor shops listed in the Business Directory of Taipei City published in 1940, which showed Taiwanese career women’s professional confidence and independence. In the late Japanese Colonial Period, Taiwanese women still faced serious unfairness at work and sexual discrimination in society, and the problems were not straightened out for decades. But general values have been gradually shaken and adjusted. With their knowledge and insight, Taiwanese women are making confident strides toward a new era!
Chen, P. T. (2009). Transforming Traditional Taiwanese Costumes into Modern Western Costumes (1895-1970). Taichung City: Master’s thesis at the Graduate Institute of History and Historical Relics, Feng Chia University (unpublished).
Ye, L. C. (2001). History of Taiwanese Costume and Fashion. Taipei City: Shinning Culture Publishing Company.
Shen, Fang-Ju. (2003). The Development of the Public Bus in Taipei City (1912-1945). Taoyuan County: Master’s thesis at the Graduate Institute of History, National Central University (unpublished).