Femme Friday #2: Hiratsuka Raichô (part 1)

In the first edition of Femme Friday, I spoke about Emma Watson’s UN speech on feminism, gender equality and her HeForShe campaign (click here to read it). This time, I’d like to take you back to 20th century Japan and introduce you to Hiratsuka Raichô (1886-1971), a woman who had a major role in the establishment of early Japanese feminism. As this essay originally had over 2000 words, I decided to split it in two and post it accordingly. This first part will concentrate on Hiratsuka’s biography, the next part will deal with the Seitôsha, a literary society that was founded by Hiratsuka. Enjoy reading 🙂

The young Hiratsuka Raichô
The young Hiratsuka Raichô (source: wikimedia.org)


In the beginning, woman was the sun.

Hiratsuka Raichô


These words, written in reference to the shintô goddess Amaterasu Omikami, who is considered the origin of the emperor’s family in Japan, would become the leitmotif of Japanese feminism over time. It’s undeniably a very strong picture. In Hiratsuka’s manifesto which was written for the women’s literature magazine Seitô (Bluestocking), women, suppressed by the patriarchal society, are compared to the moon which looked sick and pale. They are called upon to awaken, to unfold themselves and to take back the position of the sun which is currently claimed by men.

Coincidentally with the above declaration, Hiratsuka Raichô became a central figure of early feminist movement in Japan. For numerous young women, she symbolised a modern Japanese woman and was therefore considered an inspiration and a role model. Influenced by zen buddhism which she practised until her death in 1971, Hiratsuka called upon women to awaken their slumbering talent and develop the literary genius that she believed to be part of every single woman. In 1911, in order to support the literary development of Japanese women, she founded the literary society Seitôsha (Bluestocking society) nd published its own literature magazine, Seitô. This magazine allowed women to discuss not only literary topics but also the society and its conventions, politics, their lives and their problems.

Even though Hiratsuka stayed mostly unpolitical in her young years, she showed clear signs of her political bearing as she declared herself a “New Woman” in 1913, and participated in the bosei hogo ronsô (debate about the protection of motherhood) with poet and established literary figure Yosano Akiko, among others, which started at around 1915 and achieved its peak in the years 1918 to 1919. In late 1919, Hiratsuka Raichô founded the Shin Fujin Kyôkai (Assembly of New Women) alongside Ichikawa Fusae and Oku Mumeo. Together, they fought for the alteration of article 5 of the Police Law which denied women every kind of political engagement. Hiratsuka’s participation in the Shin Fujin Kyôkai and later in the peace movement following World War II show clearly that she had discarded her passivity and was ready to engage in politics actively.

In this first part, I’d like to cast some light on the biographical background that was necessary for the development of Hiratsuka Raichô’s lilterary and political career, and which was indispensable for her becoming a leading role in the early Japanese feminist movement.


Biographical background

Hiratsuka Raichô was born on the 10th of February 1886 as the youngest daughter to Hiratsuka Sadajirô and his wife Tsuya. Her parents descended from samurai families, were both educated and wealthy. In her autobiography Genshi, josei wa taiyô de atta: Hiratsuka Raichô jiden (In the beginning, woman was the sun: autobiography of Hiratsuka Raichô; 1971-73, 4 volumes), Hiratsuka describes her sheltered upbringing in a very modern family situation. The omnipresent drive for modernisation which found its way into Japan in the aftermath of the Meiji Restauration in 1868 apparently also affected Hiratsuka’s family.

Thus, Hiratsuka was to not only able attend elementary school which had become mandatory for boys and girls with the 1872 gakusei (school system) law, she was also allowed to continue her education in the Ochanomizu Kôtô Jogakkô (Ochanomizu Girls’ High School). Hiratsuka perceived the lessons at Ochanomizu as feudalistic and boring. She boycotted the mandatory lessons on shûshin (morale) that were supposed to teach girls how to become ryôsai kenbô (good wives and wise mothers), and founded the so-called Kaizoku gumi (Pirate gang) in which she discussed future married life and possible careers with four other dissatisfied students. The boycott and the foundation of such a discussion group indicate Hiratsuka’s assertiveness and her free spirit that wouldn’t be stifled by the rigid and unfavourable school system. Hitatsuka thus joins a group of feminists who already in their school days began to rebel against existing rules and obligations imposed upon girls and women.

Hiratsuka and the Kaizokugumi
Hiratsuka and the Kaizoku Gumi (source: Hiroko Tomida: Hiratsuka Raichô and Early Japanese Feminism, 2004)

After her graduation from Ochanomizu, Hiratsuka desired to study English at the Nihon Joshi Daigakkô (Japanese Girls’ College). Unfortunately, her father who considered a high school education to be sufficient for a woman, denied her. With her mother as an intermediary and as a compromise with her father, she was allowed to enter the College on the condition that she study domestic science. Even though she criticised the relatively low educational level, she enjoyed the freedom to follow her own interests and attended courses from other departments.

Following her college graduation, Hiratsuka worked part-time as a stenographer in order to finance the private lessons she took in English literature and Chinese classics. In addition to that, she entered the Keishû Bungakukai (Literary society for extraordinary women) which supported the development of women’s literary abilities. There, she made the acquaintance of Yosano Akiko and others who would write for and support Hiratsuka’s own literary society and magazine. Hiratsuka’s first novel, Ai no Matsujitsu (Last day of Love), was published in Keishû‘s literary magazine. Her novel’s heroine who showed similarities with female characters from the works of New Women Fiction originating in the 1890s’ England, can be described as the first “New Woman” character in Japanese literature.

The Keishû Bungakukai had to be disbanded in 1908 in the aftermath of the so-called Shiobara Incident. Hiratsuka who had a platonic affair with a married teacher of the society, Morita Sôhei, was persuaded by Morita to run away and commit suicide with him. The suicide plot failed as Morita couldn’t bring himself to stab Hiratsuka and kill himself afterwards. The couple was found by a police officer, walking hand-in-hand along a snow covered mountain pass in Shiobara. The incident was reported in various newspapers and soon developed into a social scandal because both persons were highly educated members of distinguished families and the notion of shinjû (double suicide out of love) was considered to be old-fashioned, out-dated, and only something that uneducated people of lower classes did. Morita would later use this incident to write his novel Baien (Smoke, 1909) which made not only him famous but also Hiratsuka.

Even though many, among them the famous author Natsume Sôseki, tried to convince Hiratsuka to marry Morita, she declined. For her, who hadn’t taken the relationship with Morita seriously and who had denied his sexual advances, the experience had only been made for the sake of “experiencing something new”. She wouldn’t be bound to a man she didn’t love only to save face, even if such the scandal demanded it. Especially educational institutions scolded Hiratsuka as a bad example and crossed her off their alumni lists. Young students on the other hand sympathised with her. The literary training, the contacts made in various institutions, the wide news coverage after the Shiobara Incident and also the fame she was bestowed upon after Baien became a best-selling novel, helped Hiratsuka in establishing her own literary society, the Seitôsha which I will talk about in the upcoming third edition of Femme Friday.

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