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Wednesday, October 6, 2010


The day the mountains move has come.
I speak, but no one believes me.
For a time the mountains have been asleep.
But long ago they all danced with fire. 
It doesn't matter if you don't believe this,
My friends, as long as you believe:
All the sleeping women
Are now awake and moving

Yosano Akiko, Seitō, Vol. 1. No. 1, September 1911

A new publication appeared in Japan in 1911, written, edited, and published by women of a group called Seitō -sha.  Named “Seitō” (blue stocking), it was both a tribute to and named after the eighteenth century women’s group of England known as the Bluestockings. Its first issue of 1,000 copies sold out the first month, with 3,000 requests for subscriptions and membership.

Naganuma Chieko's cover for the
inaugural issue  
The authors wrote in all conceivable genres of the day – from traditional haiku and waka, to modern poetry, stories, essays, and criticism.  They included translations of works by Western dramatists, essayists, and feminists.  Most importantly, they addressed “The Woman Question” – examining the whys of a society where suing for divorce was acceptable, but divorce itself was dishonorable; where adultery was sanctioned for men, but illegal and punishable by a two-year prison term for women; where abortion was criminalized, and many other inequities existed. 

The popularity of the journal proved that many literate Japanese women were not happy with their lot of being “good wives and wise mothers.”  But the government and the press soon retaliated by banning the journal (on three separate occasions whole runs of an issue were removed from bookstores after being censored as “injurious to public morals”), and representing the women as dangerous influences and over-educated, self-indulgent corrupters of family values (hmmm…so that’s where that phrase came from).  Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House was first staged in Japan the same month that Seitō was launched.  The press raged about it as the audience was sympathetic toward the character of Nora, a home wrecker.  A special issue of Seitō was dedicated to essays condemning Nora and other female characters of contemporary Western plays for being selfish and impulsive.  Despite this, the press compared the Seitō-sha with these characters.

Yosano Akiko
Although the Seitō-sha had not intended to use the journal to fight a feminist war (they had only intended to allow women to express themselves), the reactions against them caused them to reconsider.  By 1913, the writings became more defiant.  There were debates published among the members and other women on very controversial subjects.  One of their famous debates focused on the issue of chastity.  Author Ikuta Hanayo had published an essay in a different magazine stating that chastity was a saleable commodity in a time of economic hardship, and a woman should be able to sell hers without censure.  Yasuda Satsuki writing for Seitō opined that a woman should keep her chastity no matter what. Ito Noe and Raicho, writing in Seitō, entered into the debate stating that chastity was a male-generated concept, and female chastity should not be an issue when male chastity wasn’t.

While it is easy to sympathize with the hopes and vexations of the Seitō-sha, it is important to remember that as much as they suffered from their roles in their society and their government, theirs was a concern of gender and not class.  There were so many more women who were impoverished, illiterate, and who suffered a lack of both creature comforts and opportunities.

Seitō barely lasted five years.  Original issues are rare and hard to find, and were published, of course, in Japanese.  The complete set of Seitō spans fifty-two issues.  An amazing output for women fighting to express themselves.


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