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Towards an Independent Movement: Feminism within Movements

Page history last edited by PBworks 14 years, 8 months ago

There are precious few resources or accounts of women in the Japanese socialist movement or popular rights movement on the web. The histories of the movements themselves are quite spanning. We can date the beginning of the formal socialist movement in Japan to the founding of the Japan Socialist party, Nihon Shakaito, to 1901. It continued to be active in various forms and incarnations throughout the tweentieth century up until today. The Popular Rights movement, Jiyu Minken Undo, was active for several decades in the early Meiji period. Hence, these are somewhat out of our scope. However, the status of women within these movements is of critical importance. Our hope is for readers to understand some of the reasons that an independent movement became necessary and why broader social movements proved historically inadequate.




Prior to the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s, women’s issues in Japan were voiced in the framework of much broader social movements. These larger movements variously attempted to reconfigure the place of women in society, but it is clear that the problems that faced women were subordinate to each movement’s fundamental concerns. However, some women in these movements were able to contribute to an overall radical critique of society by consistently drawing attention to questions of gender both outside and inside the movements themselves. In particular, the Japanese socialist movement provided a theoretical basis from which many of the earlier feminist critiques of society took shape. While these were certainly not the only feminist voices to be heard on the matter of modern Japanese society, they are among the most clearly articulated.


Marxist-Leninist theories of history and the structure of modern society provided some tools for thinkers trying to diagram the problems of women in Japan. Indeed, although later feminists broke away from the socialist movement itself, many continued to use Marxist theory as the basis of their radical critique. Women were able to consider inequality between both gender and class lines as integral to the workings of the modern capitalist state. The notion of patriarchy itself evolved; incorporating the family system and the overall capitalist superstructure, society could be seen as a complex array of mirrors. Power structures seen at the state and social levels were reflected at the individual and family levels. In this way, the answer to thousands of years of sexism became revolution and the overthrowing of the state. In this way, women (and society itself) would be freed from the prison of sex.


Participation in these movements was by no-means necessarily liberating. The subordination of women's issues within the movements also held deeper and personal consequences for the women who gave themselves to their cause. For one, women rarely had any role outside of support. They cooked, cleaned, delivered messages, and otherwise served the movement while their leaders handled tasks better suited to the "responsible minds of men." For example, in the socialist movement, women known as "sympathizers" entered marriage-like arrangements with male party members. These "marriages" provided a facade of normality to prevent party members from drawning unwanted attention to their more clandestine activities. Women in these relationships amounted to little more than housekeepers, couriers, and objects of sexual desire. Thus, even amongst radicals, traditional gender relations were maintained. Naturally, cases of sexual abuse and rape were commonly mentioned.






Brief Biographies of Notable Women

This is by no means complete, but hopefully it provides some element of individual struggle to the reader's understanding of women in non-feminist movements. There are many more women that could and should be considered, but the following examples provide a convenient backdrop for further study.


  • Mikiso Hane, ed. and trans., Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan (1988)
  • Yukiko Tanaka, ed. and trans., To Live and To Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 (1987)

Fukuda Hideko

Fukuda Hideko was born in 1865 and raised in Okayama prefecture. She is most closely associated with the Popular Rights and Freedom Movement, to which she was an early convert. Her autobiography, Warawa no Henseigai, was the first (Western-style) autobiography by a Japanese woman.


Fukuda was inspired by Joan of Arc, and she dreamed of promoting liberal patriotism throughout Japan. She continued to be drawn deeper into a radical circle of thinkers led by Oi Kentaro, and eventually joined him in a plot to undermine the Sino-Japanese accord. Her involvement led to her arrest in 1885 for being part of what became the Osaka incident. She was released under general amnesty following the promulgation of the Meiji constitution.


After their release, Oi proposed (under false pretenses) to Fukuda. She admired him, but as she became aware of his deceit, she was driven away. His hypocrisy, supporting equal rights while at the same time playing patron to brothels, was too much for Fukuda. Her disillusionment with Oi and the Liberal Party in general led her towards socialism as the best possible solution for society’s problems.


Fukuda wrote for several publications during her life, each offering criticisms of the present government. In 1907, she founded and wrote articles for Sekai Fujin on a number of topic,s including women’s right and conditions in textile factories. She believed not in the freedom of women but rather in a “freedom of humanness,” where all people could feel free to explore the humanity in themselves. Fukuda died at the age of 61.



Kanno Sugako

With the failure of her father’s small mining operation and the death of her mother coinciding, Kanno Sugako’s youth proved traumatic. When her father remarried, his new wife quickly targeted Sugako, even going to far as to encourage the rape of her stepdaughter at age fifteen. The experience was formative and Kanno came to the socialist movement shortly afterwards.


Kanno escaped her stepmother’s tyranny by entering marriage at age seventeen, however, after her stepmother abandoned the household four years later, Kanno returned home. It was during this time where Kanno decided to take up writing. She managed to apprentice herself to Udagawa Bunkai, with whom she became romantically involved. Kanno’s interests continued to shift over the next five years, but she eventually ended up serving as the substitute publisher for a local newspaper whose publisher had been jailed for writing seditious articles. In 1907, she contracted tuberculosis.


Nearing the end of her life, Kanno’s involvement in the party became truly commited. She saw the situation of women in Japan as “slavery,” and she believed the only solution was socialism: equality amongst all classes of people. She was imprisoned in 1908 for attempting to visit friends who had been jailed during a raid of a socialist-anarchist rally. After being released, she became involved with activist Kotoku Shusui. Like many other male leaders of the socialist movement, Kotoku’s professed belief in the equality of women did not extend to practice, and so he frequently visited brothels.


Together, Kanno, Kotuku, and several others conspired to assassinate the emperor. The plot was exposed while Kanno was already serving time for publishing a radical journal and became known as the Great Treason Incident. The trial began in December 1910, and at its conclusion, twelve were executed under the charges. Kanno Sugako was the first socialist woman to face execution for high treason.



Sata Ineko

Sata Ineko was forced to work in factories at an early age. While she was unable to advance her formal education past the fourth grade, she spent much or her youth reading in libraries and at home as she shifted from job to job. The sum of her experiences amongst the working class and her time in factories were to become the subject matter of her writings.


At age 20, Ineko married in the hopes of escaping continuous toil in the various factory jobs that had until that point overshadowed her life. In the end, the marriage proved abusive and she was left on her own with a child to support. She took up work as a café waitress where she quickly fell in favor with a number of socialist poets. These men introduced Ineko to Marxist theory, and thereafter she became involved with the movement, eventually marrying leftist writer Kubokawa Tsurujiro.


As Japanese military aggression began picking up steam abroad, censorship and suppression of seditions thoughts became much more active at home. As a direct result, Ineko’s husband was imprisoned, and she was pressured to recant as a socialist and support the dominant regime’s ideology. Ineko defected (a decision that would come under heavy attack from the left in later years), and began writing stories that some might consider nationalist propaganda.


After the war, Ineko was kicked out of the Communist Party (which she had joined in 1932). She continued writing through the next several decades, publishing stories that focus on the difficult, everyday lives of ordinary women.








  • Patricia Steinhoff, "Three Women Who Loved the Left: Radical Woman Leaders in the Japanese Red Army Movement" in Anne E. Imamura, Re-Imaging Japanese Women (California,1996:301-23)


Shiomi Kazuko

She originally became involved with the Japanese socialist movement in the mid-1960s as a student at Shizuoka University. There, she performed secretarial duties for the leader of the Marxist Front Faction. It was through this role that she met her future husband: Shiomi Takaya.


As the movement escalated in radicalness and violence, Kazuko found herself alone in the support of her family. As her husband became further entrenched in revolutionary politics, Kazuko began teaching. To maintain her career after pregnancy, Kazuko left her child in day-care.


Shiomi Takaya was arrested one year after the birth of his son, March, 1970. The long imprisonment (twenty years) of her husband and accompanying raise in infamy proved formative for Kazuko. She became an instrumental figure in a support system for political prisoners. Despite her activism during Shiomi Takaya’s imprisonment, after his release, Kazuko reassumed a supportive role as her husband made a return to the public eye.


Public treatments of Shiomi Kazuko have tended to focus on her maternal and wifely virtues. Her individual involvement with the socialist movement has been in some ways effaced by praises of loyalty to her husband.




Nagata Hiroko

Nagata Hiroko was set on track by her mother to become a pharmacist at an early age. However, she gave up this secure lifestyle in favor of a committed involvement in the socialist movement following a political demonstration that must have deeply moved her. In August, 1969, she was raped by the leader of her faction, Kawashima Tsuyoshi.


Despite her rape at Kawashima’s hands, she continued to serve him and the movement as best she could. Even after Kawashima was arrested, Nagata functioned as his courier, delivering his orders to the Revolutionary Left faction and constantly eluding police surveillance. In September, 1969, she agreed to marry Sakaguchi Hiroshi, and the pair served as part of the leadership of the Revolutionary Left in Kawashima’s absence.


After stealing guns to break Kawashima out of prison, Nagata and company merged--in what was intended to be a cooperative relationship--with the Red Army of Mori Tsuneo, forming the United Red Army. A bloody internal purge ensued that later was to prove damning for the movement. After Mori’s suicide, the brunt of legal power focused on the New Left and the investigation of the purge fell on Nagata.


Nagata’s strong-spiritedness and courtroom behavior (along with her history in the movement) have all contributed to an overall media impression of crazed histrionics.





Japanese Communist Party Homepage (in Japanese)

Social Democratic Party Homepage (in Japanese)--formerly known (before 1991) as Japan Socialist Party

Popular Rights Movement in Japan (English)

New Japan Women's Association (English)

Anarchy in Japan (English)

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