Feminism is commonly assumed as a universal concept, applicable in certain ways to every society. However, the term feminism itself and the equality it demands is strongly influenced and determined by the cultural and socio-political environment that the feminist activism is taking place in.
Starting in the Meiji period (1868–1912), a period characterised by Japan’s ambition to create a modern state and society modelled on the European nation states, womanhood was closely intertwined with the national goal and was an integral to societal organisation. The Meiji Constitution elevated the patriarchal family structure as the determining structure for societal and political relations. The patriarchal family structure clearly gendered roles within the family, the father as the breadwinner and head of the family, the mother as the one responsible for the household and child rearing. It served as an ideological framework to rationalise every subject’s purpose within the entity of the state.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Japan’s industrialising society experienced a period of a changing socio-economic environment. Women entering the workforce, increased levels of women’s education, and the emergence of radical thoughts such as communism, socialism, anarchism, and nationalism, alongside discussions about the relationship between family and the state opened up a discursive space of feminist activism. However, feminist activism in the early 1900s was not yet primarily influenced or motivated by such radical ideas that fundamentally question the state’s authority, rather it was carried out by educated women from the middle and upper classes of Japanese society. Their form of feminism was only able to promote equality within the existing framework of the Meiji state. As the Meiji State was fundamentally of patriarchal nature, feminist activism of that time did not mainly focus on achieving absolute equality between the sexes, rather it was about enabling both genders to fulfil the potential of their assigned gender roles.
With the establishment of the Seitōsha (Blue Stocking Society) in 1912 by a group of highly educated, bourgeois women led by Hiratsuka Raichō, came the magazine Seitō. This gave women a platform to express themselves independently, whilst initiating a public discourse on womanhood and female identity. Seitō was the first magazine breaking the societal taboo of thematising female sexuality in public. This was mainly possible because of a more liberal and pluralistic social and political environment surrounding the Taishō period (1912-1926).
For socialist feminist activists, such as Yamakawa Kikue and Fukuda Hideko the experiences of the bourgeois Seitōsha women were classist and neglected the experiences and realities of working class women. These ideological differences made bridging the gap between working class and bourgeois women especially difficult, and consequently the formulation of a united stand for equality impossible. Naturally, socialist feminists saw women’s liberation closely intertwined with the liberation of the proletariat and therefore understood a fundamental restructuring of the State and society as necessary to achieve the liberation of both. In light of this, the pursued restructuring required a direct call and challenge to the persistent political and social system. The struggle of radical activist women for recognition of their contribution within their radical movements in pre-war Japan was central to their feminist and emancipatory endeavours. Indeed, there are significant similarities in these women’s motivation to fight for and promote gender equality to those of the women departing the leftist student movement and creating their own feminist agenda almost 50 years later.
The approach of radical feminism in the 1970s Japan represented by the women of the radical feminist ribu movement (a Japanese rendering of liberation), can be characterised as significantly different to the second wave feminism and radical feminism in Europe and the United States. Even though it advocated for a radical transformation of Japanese society, most of ribu’s theory and activism focussed on internal change. The ribu movement emerged from the New Left in the late 1960s. It was a heterogeneous movement tied together by a profound unease over the place of women in radical politics. Women of the ribu movement criticised the more mainstream politics as tied to ideologies of masculinity, and held the goal of bringing about a revolution in female subjectivity in Japan. Ribu’s aim was centred on creating the understanding within society that women have the right of self-determination: ergo women define what it means to be a woman and not the patriarchal, male-centred capitalist society.
Alongside public demonstrations and rallies, most notably the demonstrations against the restriction of access to abortions, ribu activists organised summer camps for a diverse range of women of all ages and occupations across Japan. These camps were a place for women to learn and discuss their experiences and published newsletters such as the “Onna kara Onnatachi-e” (From Women for Women) where women were given the space to write about their own experiences and challenges in their daily lives. They also founded communes all over Japan as a direct challenge to the established family structures and gender roles within Japanese society. Through the praxis of communes as an alternative model to the state-sanctioned family system, women of ribu lived their anticipated sexual liberation on a daily basis defying the heteronormative male-headed family. Ribu’s activism also showed an emphasis on internal revolution first before demanding change and transformation through the established institutions. Their demands were not affiliated with a party or formulations of any legal propositions.
Ribu’s demand for women’s sexual liberation from existing gender roles and oppressive societal constraints formed the core of Tanaka Mitsu’s manifesto “Liberation from the Toilet”. In her ground-breaking piece for the ribu movement, Tanaka depicts the discriminatory dualism of women’s identity of either being a loving ‘mother’ or a ‘toilet’, a vessel for the management of lust, which provides the impetus to challenge the persisting gender roles and relations in Japanese post-war society themselves. “Liberation from the Toilet” does not negate a woman’s role as a mother. Rather, it identifies the reduction of women to either being a tender mother or an object to satisfy men’s sexual desire as part of the oppressive marriage system and the sexual division of labour, rejecting the institution of motherhood but not motherhood itself. The restrictive system of marriage leaves women unable to become economically independent and it can only be overcome by women’s sexual liberation. Tanaka emphasises the need for sexual liberation from the repression of female sexuality as integral part in order to successfully transforming Japanese society for the better.
For ribu women liberation meant that women were enabled to fully evolve as a woman, act out their sexual desires without being limited to the socially prescribed roles as wives and mothers.
If this blog post got you interested in ribu and radical feminism in Japan I strongly recommend Setsu Shigematsu’s book “Scream from the Shadows – The Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan“ published by University of Minnesota Press in 2012. Reading her book was very inspiring to me and made me decide to focus my research on radical feminism in Japan in the first place.
Parts of this blog post strongly build upon my unpublished Masters dissertation I handed in August 2017 as part of my MSc in East Asian Relations at the University of Edinburgh.
1. After 1868 periods in Japan are named after the reigning Emperor at the time.
2. Mackie, V. C. (1997). Creating Socialist Women in Japan: Gender, Labour and Activism, 1900-1937. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p.156
3. Molony, B. (2000). Women’s Rights, Feminism, and Suffragism in Japan, 1870-1925. Pacific Historical Review. Vol. 69(4). p.644
4. Tomida, H. (2005). The Association of New Women and its Contribution to the Japanese women’s movement. Japan Forum. Vol. 17(1). p.51
5. Mackie, V. C. (2003). Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p.79
6. Shigematsu, S. (2012). Scream from the Shadows – The Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. p. 99
7. Kato, M. (2009). Women’s Rights?: The Politics of Eugenic Abortion in Modern Japan. Amsterdam, NED: Amsterdam University Press. p.66
8. Mizoguchi, A., Saeki, Y. and Miki, S. (1992). Shiryō Nihon ūman ribu-shi – Volume 1 1969-1972. Tokyo, JPN: Shōkadō. p. 194-195 and p. 206-207
I completely agree that feminism is largely influenced by culture