New Women and a Century of Japanese Feminism

By Kohei Usuda

Though it may come as a surprise to many, the history of Japan’s feminist awakening – nowadays rarely discussed outside the confines of academia – traces as far back as the waning days of the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

According to historian Marius Jansen’s authoritative The Making of Modern Japan, the origin of the country’s first-wave feminism dates back to 1911 – several years before either Britain or the United States signed women’s enfranchisement into law. Jansen attributes its birth to a young trailblazing iconoclast by the name of Raicho Hiratsuka (1886-1971), who proclaimed herself as a “New Woman” in her infamous manifesto, “In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun.” The then 25-year-old’s battlecry, published in September of that year in the inaugural issue of her own literary journal, Bluestocking, would forever alter the trajectory of the status of Japanese womanhood.

With incisive foresight, Raicho declared that the New Woman is someone who does not shy away from seeking “to destroy the old morality and laws created for male advantage….” She added prophetically that this new breed of Japanese woman “seeks power to complete her mission, to be able to endure the exertion and agony of learning about and cultivating issues now unknown to her….”

During the span of half a decade the magazine was in existence (1911-1916), Bluestocking contributed immeasurably in raising awareness of matters such as reproductive rights, female suffrage, as well as more sensitive subjects including female chastity and the notion of “free love” (as opposed to arranged marriage which was by then the norm), for a female readership clamoring for new ideas.

Written for, about, and by women, Bluestocking’s influence was far-reaching. By shedding light on women’s issues that had been previously off-limits, Bluestocking sparked controversies as well as passionate debates pertaining to women’s rights – during the period the country still subscribed to feudal-era patriarchal values, which praised the “good wife, wise mother” model of femininity.

Some of Japan’s brightest, most extraordinary women of the 1910s – poet Akiko Yosano, suffragist Fusae Ichikawa, anarchist Noe Ito, just to name but a few – coalesced around a nascent women’s liberation movement spearheaded by Raicho, a fierce nonconformist unencumbered by traditions. As a graduate of the newly established Japan Women’s University, the first of such private institutions to open its doors to girls, she was exceptionally well-educated by the standards of her time.

Those pioneering New Women belonging to Raicho’s Bluestocking Society “received a great deal of attention for their writings, debates, and public appearances, and they enjoyed a prevalent place within the cultural imaginary,” wrote scholar Michiko Suzuki in her 2009 book Becoming Modern Women: Love and Female Identity in Prewar Japanese Literature and Culture.

The womenfolk within the Imperial Japanese society were deemed inferior subjects at the dawn of the 20th century, prohibited from even taking part in any political activities whatsoever under the stringent restrictions outlined in the Law on Political Assembly and Association. (The ban was only partially repelled in 1922, thanks to appeal from the New Women’s Association, an organization Raicho cofounded with fellow suffragettes Ichikawa and Mumeo Oku.)

Suffice it to say that a number of Bluestocking’s issues drew the ire of state censorship and confiscated, while its writers vilified by sensationalist press coverage condemning their purportedly debaucherous lives. Noe Ito, a Raicho protégée, subsequently took over the journal’s editorship in 1915. Ito was later rounded up and gruesomely murdered at the age of 28 for her political belief at the hands of the Kempeitai – the feared imperial military police – in the chaotic aftermath that followed 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake.

What is revealed by reassessing the overlooked genesis of feminism in Japan is that, contrary to popular belief, it is by no means intrinsic, or culturally preordained, for Japanese women to be acquiescent and deferential in the face of subjugation by the powers that be. Once dusted off the pages of the history books, the legacy of Raicho Hiratsuka and the New Women’s struggles for female emancipation should dispel any notion that Japanese women of generations past passively submitted to the patriarchal status quo. On the contrary, there is a long track record of feminist activisms to improve women’s standing in this country – a century-old heritage at that.

And that should come as heartening to those #MeToo-era activists and campaigners pinning hopes for effecting positive change in present-day Japan.

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