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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Bluestockings of Japan

“In the beginning, woman was the sun, the true human being.  Now she is the moon!  She lives in the light of another star.  She is the moon, with a pale face like that of a sickly person….This is the first cry of the Bluestockings!....We are the mind and hand of the woman of new Japan.  We expose ourselves to men’s laughter, but know that which is hidden under that mockery.  Let us reveal our hidden sun, our unrecognized genius!  Let it come from behind the cloud!  That is the cry of our faith, of our personality, of our instinct, which is the master of all instinct.  At that moment we will see the shining throne of our divinity.”

 The Manifesto of Seitō, Vol. 1. No. 1, September 1911

Ito Noe
During Japan's Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), efforts were made to become more competitive with the West’s superior military and industrial powers.  The government instituted a civil code that positioned the patriarchal family in place with the household head given power over the family members. Legislation was reinstated in the Civil Codes of 1898 where women were equated with minors and the mentally challenged.  (Women haven’t come much farther today if you consider that the Catholic Church earlier this year stated women priests ranked lower than pedophiles!)  Birth control was prohibited, adultery was a crime for women, but not men (interesting, since men would need – in most cases – to have a female partner), and women weren’t allowed to vote or even attend a political function.  Schools were segregated, and women were taught classes applicable to their future as good wives and mothers.  Choices for all but the most elite women at the time were an arranged marriage or being a mistress or geisha.  There was little employment to be had, and abortions were illegal, which was problematic if a woman could not garner some sort of financial support or wasn’t in some kind of relationship.  In this light there was a desire for independence from both men and a restrictive society.

Out of this emerged “Atarashii Onna” – the “New Woman” – women who were modern and sought self-expression.  They were depicted by the popular press as rather wonton spirits, interested only in sex and fashion (the early Japanese version of Paris Hilton, if you will, in a culture where that behavior would be most unacceptable).  But a group of well-to-do women started a new group – Seitō -sha – which in 1911 published the first issue of a literary publication Seitō, literally “blue stocking”, both named after the British Bluestocking salon.  (More on Seitō tomorrow.)  Besides writing in contemporary literary styles about chastity, abortion, and other issues seemingly without fear of censure, they also translated works by Western authors (i.e., Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Emma Goldman, Olive Schreiner, Havelock Ellis.)  They discussed the latest plays, such as "Hedda Gabler" and "A Doll’s House".  The ones who lived near each other developed close friendships.

Yosano Akiko
Members of this group included Hiratsuka Haru (known as Raicho, founder of the publication), Asahi Shimbun, Yosano Akiko (one of the most famous female poets in the Meiji era), Okamoto Kanoko (who brought a Buddhist slant and spirituality), Ito Noe (who along with her husband, anarchist Osugi Sakae, were captured as political prisoners, then murdered by military police in 1923), and Hayashi Fumika (as a counter to Kanoko, she explored the economic survival of women without men).

These intelligent, literate women were troubled by their legal and cultural inferiority as women.  Through their publication, they endeavored to awaken other women by displaying their literary skills and talent with not only artful pieces, but critical and thoughtful ones as well.  However they were never portrayed as such in the press.  Instead the press, as today, focused on their sex lives (several of the women were lesbian), divorces, and misrepresented many of their actions.  Censors banned their magazine and removed copies from bookstores.  Police and government authorities caused so much negative attention that many members and their families succumbed to fears of losing their jobs and marriage prospects, which eventually lead to attrition in membership.  It is a testament to their spirit and endeavors that they aroused such intense interest and focus of the media and the government. That most of them were graduates of the new Japan Women’s College may have reflected well on women’s higher education for some, but provided a reason against it for others.
Raicho and Yamada Waka

Unfortunately the New Women of Japan did not have the political leverage that made other suffrage movements more successful.  Perhaps they never had the chance to really observe and learn enough about the system to develop political savvy.  But even more interesting, and proof that history is decidedly not linear, is to consider that what is considered the first novel was written by a Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu, in the early eleventh century – The Tale of Genji – albeit in a different era, the Heian where a lady of the court was allowed and encouraged to write, but most likely under a male sponsor and on prescribed subjects.

Seitō-sha, during its limited existence, made an impact in pre-war Japan, and its legacy is worth studying and honoring.


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