Femme Friday #3: Hiratsuka Raichô (part 2)

Last time, I introduced you to Hiratsuka Raichô, a leading figure in early Japanese feminism, focusing on her biographical background (read here). In this second part, I will talk about the literary society Seitôsha (Bluestocking Society) which was founded by Hiratsuka, and the two scandals which raised awareness of “New Women” in Japan and led to a wave of publications about women.

Hiratsuka and the Seitôsha
Hiratsuka and the Seitôsha (source: Hiroko Tomida: Hiratsuka Raichô and Early Japanese Feminism, 2004)

The Seitôsha

Hiratsuka Raichô founded the Seitôsha in early 1911 with the help of Yasumochi Yoshiko, a school friend of Hiratsuka’s older sister Taka, who was then lodging in Hiratsuka’s house. Seitôsha‘s foundation was initiated by Ikuta Chôko, a former lecturer at the Keishû bungakukai (Literary society for extraordinary women). Ikuta wanted to promote female literary creativity after the disbanding of the Keishû bungakukai. He suggested some supporting members who would support the society’s literary magazine Seitô with their experience in writing and publishing. The name Seitôsha in reference to England’s Bluestocking societies from the 18th century was also Ikuta’s idea. While these societies had a good reputation in the beginning, soon the women’s behaviour and appearance which was considered as unfitting of women caused some social uproar. Ikuta was aware that a literary society consisting only of women would have to deal with some scrutiny from the society so he chose the name accordingly.

Main themes of the literature of naturalism (Shizen shugi bungaku), such as self-fulfillment, self-actualisation, the breaking with old conventions and the obtainment of freedom, had a lot of influence on the publication of Seitô. Even though writers and protagonists of this type of literature were male, its influence on the Seitô women is undeniable. Thus, Seitôsha was founded with the aim of self-actualising yourself as a woman and to awaken the suppressed literary genius. In form and content, Seitô was similar to other literary magazines rather than to other women’s magazines. The first issue’s modern cover design, Yosano Akiko’s feminist poem which introduced a lot of new readers to Seitô, and Hiratsuka Raichô’s now famous manifesto reached a huge readership and helped Seitô become a full success. The society gained many new members who wrote letters, stories, poems, articles and translations for the magazine. Special editions to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Sudermann’s Magda in which the women discussed topics such as the separation from a cheating husband and an abusive father as well as issues regarding self-discovery, lead to the Seitô women’s label of “New Women” (atarashii onna).


Cover of Seitô's first issue
Cover of Seitô’s first issue (source: wikimedia.org)

Two scandals

Although the label “New Woman” had a positive connotation in the beginning, its image changed in 1912 because of two scandals surrounding some Seitô members. The first scandal, known as the “five-coloured liquor incident” (Goshiki no sake jiken), resulted from a visit to a bar and the following story by Otake Kôkichi. Otake wrote a short story in which a “beautiful young man” visited an older woman (Hiratsuka) after drinking a colourful cocktail. At first, it was rumoured that Hiratsuka had taken a lover. Later, it was revealed that it was Otake herself who was the “beautiful young man” (Hiratsuka’s nickname for Otake) and who was in love with Hiratsuka. The scandal, influenced heavily by developments in Western sexual research that had reached Japanese society through articles in various magazines, couldn’t be averted.

The second scandal, called the “Incident of the visit of Yoshiwara” (Yoshiwara Hômon Jiken), resulted from a visit of three Seitô members, among them Otake and Hiratsuka, to one of the pleasure houses of the Yoshiwara district in Tokyo. They had been invited by Otake’s uncle to spend one night in Yoshiwara, a then licensed prostitution district, to get an insight into the lives of prostitutes. Both incidents were reported by the media which put emphasis on the shockingly immoral behaviour of the Seitô women who supposedly drank alcohol (something only men did) and were entertained by prostitutes. The scandals caused Seitô‘s reputation to worsen drastically, leading to the resignation of numerous members. Those who stayed continued writing under pseudonyms, in fear of losing their jobs.

Even though many Seitô members demanded that Otake who was responsible for both scandals leave the society, Hiratsuka didn’t respond to those demands. One reason for that may be the romantic relationship in which the women were engaged. Hiratsuka broke off the relationship when she met her later partner and husband Okumura Hiroshi. Only after breaking up with Otake, did Hiratsuka speak quite strongly and negatively about Otake’s homosexuality. Hiratsuka who was influenced by writings of the Swedish feminist Ellen Key and who had seen the relationship with Otake only as a passing phase, sought fulfillment in motherhood and criticised Otake’s clinginess and her “introverted sexuality” in later Seitô issues.

In the next and last installment of this essay, I will talk about the consequences of the two aforementioned scandals and the ways in which the literary society Seitôsha developed. Further, I will discuss the influence Seitôsha had on the development of a feminist movement in Japan.

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