A writer, feminist, and women's liberation activist of modern Japan, Hiratsuka Raicho was an important figure who played a pivotal role in the women's rights movement, and bravely stood for peace in the midst of a raging war. At a time when women had no voice and oppression was the norm, Raicho was not afraid to stand up and pave the way for what would become the dawn of a new era in the realm of women's rights.
A Tomboy in a Ladylike Age
Hiratsuka Raicho was born as Okumura Haru, the youngest of two sisters, on February 10, 1886 in Tokyo. She was born with vocal cords that were naturally weak, and had trouble speaking in the very beginning. However, this would prove to be a minor inconvenience, as having weak vocal cords would not hold her back from having a strong, influential voice in the future.
Her father, Hiratsuka Sadajiro, was the son of a samurai and served as a high-level official of the Meiji government. Her mother, Tsuyu, was the daughter of a physician of the Tokugawa lineage and was skilled in dance and music (however was forbidden from continuing the practice of these arts upon marriage due to the strictness of her husband). Her family was no common family, and Haru was raised in a rather strict household.
Having spent time in the United States and Europe, her father had a slightly different view on how to raise his children, and did things a little differently than most common families of the time. They were dressed in more Western style clothing, as opposed to traditional Japanese garb, and were sent to school from an early age. It was rare for common children to attend kindergarten, and even more so for girls to attend primary school at all; this certainly established them as upper-class citizens.
As if all this wasn't unusual enough for a typical girl, Haru also had a unique personality to match. Haru was known to be quite competitive and strong-minded "for a girl," which didn't exactly help the fact that her parents had already lamented at not having had any boys. Yet because the times didn't allow for girls to pursue "masculine" interests, she was forced to conform to "feminine" standards. Along with her tomboyish nature, she was said to have a rather masculine appearance, and according to her family, was "not beautiful," especially as compared to her sister, who was much more ladylike. Because of this, Haru was subject to rather intense "treatments' by her mother, who was obsessed over her daughter's appearance. Her mother would comb a thick liquid into Haru's hair in an attempt to tame it and make her look more "beautiful."
After the Girls' High School Order of 1899 brought about more equality in terms of education by establishing girls' high schools around the country, Haru was forced to continue her education, which primarily sought to teach girls how to become a "good wife and mother." Unsurprisingly, Haru did not take very well to this idea, and continuously rebelled, skipping classes when she could.
Finally, she found a place she felt she could really belong: college. She discovered the works of writer Naruse Jinzo, a man who pushed for women's' rights to education, leading her to become deeply inspired by him and his works. After a bit of hard work, she was given permission by her parents to attend Japan Women's University, the school that Naruse himself had founded. It was here, at last, that her life could begin.
Through Naruse's education, Haru was at last able to learn so many of the things she had once only dreamed of. She took a strong liking to reading. Eventually finding herself particular to books on religion and philosophy, she started to consume them avidly as a form of soul searching. In 1905, she discovered Zen, and found her "enlightenment." She graduated Japan Women's University in 1906 while still practicing Zen, and began attending a women's English school in 1907. It was here that she discovered literature, and had her second "awakening."
The Shiobara Incident
While fully flexing her new independence, Haru joined several new groups and classes, including Keishu Bungakukai, a women's literature study group organized by writer and translator Ikuta Choko. While attending this group, she became familiar with one of the lecturers, writer Morita Sohei. Despite being married, Morita became close to Haru - even writing an overture dedicated to her.
In 1908, after spending much time together, the two escaped to Nagano where Haru was willing to lose her own life by allowing Morita to kill her, living on only through a novel about their affair that Morita promised to write. However, unable to carry out the deed, the couple was discovered by police and the scandalous incident was made widely known through the media upon their return to Tokyo, gaining enough momentum to the point that her name was even removed from the Alumnae Association of Japan Women's University.
Unsure of how to deal with the repercussions of her careless actions, and disappointed in the suggestion to marry Morita by a well-respected author, and one of her idols, Natsume Soseki, she ran away once again to Nagano, this time alone, to spend time in seclusion and avoid the public eye.
The Birth of "Raicho", Bluestockings, and the "New Women"
This incident is in part what sparked Haru's interest in the liberation of women's suppressed ego, and society's sexual discrimination between men and women. Upon returning to Tokyo after her retreat, Ikuta Choko strongly recommended her to start her literary journal, which would become Japan's first literary work written for women and by women. It was then that she adopted the name Raicho as her pen name, inspired by the name of a certain bird she often saw during her time spent in seclusion in Nagano.
The first issue of Raicho's literary journal, entitled "Seito" (青鞜), or Bluestockings, was published in September of 1911, and triggered extreme reactions right from by men and women alike due to the controversial nature of the topics covered, including the oppression of women in marriages, and criticism of the patriarchy. The outrage sparked by some of their writings went so far as to provoke not just angry letters from readers and critical reviews in the newspapers, but also delinquents passing by the Hiratsuka residence just to throw stones. Despite the stigma, the women continued to write these articles, resulting in some of their works being banned by the authorities, and even having teachers fired who were known to be subscribers to their journal.
The women writers of these journals became dubbed "New Women" by their haters, yet contrary to the original intention to bring her down, this criticism only further proved Raicho's point, and she used it as fuel to continue speaking out, wearing the new title of "New Women" as a badge of honor.
(JP) Link: Hiratsuka Raichou in 5 Minutes: What was the Women's Liberation Movement?
５分で平塚らいてうについて！女性解放運動とはどんなものだったの？ | れきし上の人物.com
In 1912, in the middle of all the drama unfolding for the "New Women," and ironically around the time Raicho and her team were picking apart the inequalities women faced in common marriages (such as a marriage not being officially recognized until the woman has changed her surname, etc.), Raicho met Okumura Hiroshi, a young painter, who would later become her lover.
Aware of the controversy it would cause, Raicho nonetheless began living together with Okumura, despite being unmarried, and stated her independence and her right to do so publicly in an article in Seito, entitled "To My Parents on Becoming Independent." Causing an initial stir, many believed this to be a mere act of rebellion, and thought that the relationship would eventually fall apart. But the opposite proved true. Later on, fully aware of the controversy it would cause, Raicho would go on to give birth to two children with Okumura out of wedlock.
The couple continued to live and raise their children together in this way until 1941, when Raicho at last finally agreed to marry and take her husband's surname, yet only for the sake of her son, who she feared would face consequences as an illegitimate child when drafted if not properly registered under the family name.
Maternity and Politics
After the end of WWI, the injection of democracy and capitalism into Japanese society also brought more awareness to women's place in the world (or at least in Japan). It was becoming increasingly common to see pieces related to women's issues circulating through media such as magazines and newspapers, and one of the biggest issues being focused on at this time was the "Controversy about the Protection of Motherhood."
This issue highlighted the clash between the new wave of women seeking to claim independence and join the working world, and the traditional role of women as the wife and mother of he household. Raicho countered the argument put forth by another women's activist, Yosano Akiko, who believed that women should not need to rely on men or on the state for support during pregnancy.
However, making any real dents in the issue beyond writing articles and holding debates would prove to be no easy task, with women still being unrecognized in the political sphere, leading Raicho to realize and decide what the next step must be: women would have to become more active in politics if they wanted to change anything.
(JP) Link: The Maternity Protection Controversy: Akiko and Raicho
The New Women's Association
In 1919, Raicho paid a visit to a textile factory in Nagoya, and shocked by the conditions for the female workers, solidified her decision to attempt a stronger role in politics in order to drive change. The following year, she gathered two other fellow women's rights activists, Oku Mumeo and Ichikawa Fusae, and established the New Women's Association, announcing it as a "women's suffrage movement."
Together, they published a new journal called Josei Domei (女性同盟), or Women's Alliance, whose primary purpose was to campaign for the revision of Article 5 in the Public Order and Police Law. Article 5 prevented women from becoming involved in politics, or politically-driven gatherings of any kind. Despite facing hardships such as illness during the time of this campaign, Raicho would soon see the fruits of her labor in 1922, when that clause would be removed.
Serving as an inspiration to future women's movements, Raicho didn't stop there. She continued writing articles and petitions calling for political reforms, including organizing a consumers cooperative in 1930 to gain more equality in the capitalist system. She also submitted articles for yet another women's journal, Fujin Sensen (婦人戦線), or Women's Frontline after joining the Proletarian Women's League.
One of her most controversial campaigns included an attempt to ban men infected with STDs from marrying. Though unsuccessful, it created yet more controversy within her career, as it was seen as evidence of her alignment with the eugenics movement in Japan. In Raicho's view, the spread of STDs had a "detrimental effect on the Japanese ‘race'."
Raicho continued campaigning for these and more issues in the face of controversy and social stigma until 1938, when the war in China gave rise to increased control of the government on the society and consumerism. She took this time to relocate with her family to the countryside where she became a vegetarian and spent her time growing crops, actively avoiding the political limelight and any other "consumer activities."
The War is Over...But Activism Isn't
After the Second World War, Raicho was invited by her former political companion Ichikawa Fusae to join her newly formed Women's League for New Japan, which she initially turned down, preferring to watch from the sidelines. However in 1950, when political tension increased once again, particularly between the United States and former Soviet Union, Raicho decided it was time to get back into action and reemerge through the peace movement.
Raicho traveled to the United States with another writer and activist, Nogami Yaeko, and several other members of the Japan Women's Movement (婦人運動家) to present the US Secretary of State with a request to keep Japan neutral and pacifist. In 1951, a peace treaty was signed with 48 non-Communist nations, and she continued to petition for peace, issuing multiple public statements and letters to the Senate, expressing their opposition to the occupancy of Okinawa and the presence of American military in Japan.
In 1953, Raicho went on to establish the Japan Federation of Women's Organizations, becoming its first president. She even held the position of vice president of the Women's International Democratic Federation, acted as prime mover in of the World Mothers Conference, and joined as a member of the Committee of Seven for World Peace, where she continued to actively gather women in the name of peace, and fight for her stance against war and nuclear weapons.
As if this wasn't a heaping serving of activism already piled on her plate, she also continued her contributions to the expansion to grassroots movements for women's organizations and women's rights in Japan. In October of 1962, she formed the New Japan Women's Association (新日本婦人の会), an organization that sought to further promote equality by opening its doors to all people, regardless of religion or ideology, and would eventually expand to Vietnam during the time of the Vietnam War in an attempt to form ties with the women there and continue in the direction of anti-war movements as well.
A Final Touch
Raicho continued to actively press for equality for women and movements for peace all the way until the very end. In 1970, while revisions to the security treaty were still being discussed, Raicho was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 84. Aware of her dwindling time remaining to make an impact, she nonetheless continued to fight for what she stood for, and even lead a march of female demonstrators continuing the push for women's advancement in society.
She continued to write and lecture until her soul at last found peace with her passing in 1971, leaving her legacy behind, along with her autobiography which she worked on through illness, titled In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun (元始、女性は太陽であった).
Hiratsuka Raicho's activities and works continue to inspire and move women to action not just in Japan, but around the world.
(JP) Link: Hiratsuka Raichou: An Amazing Woman
平塚らいてう～平塚明(ひらつかはる)はこんなスゴイ女性だった【とと姉ちゃん】 - 幕末維新
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.
You May Also Enjoy Reading...
Alyssa Pearl Fusek · December 18, 2018 • Tagged with women, feminism, history, culture, women of japanBy
Born in an era in Japan when women's rights were more oppressed than ever, Kimura Komako never gave up the fight - even when that meant taking the fight overseas.
Jay Andrew Allen · February 12, 2019 • Tagged with history, feminism, women of japanBy
In an age when women had few rights, Ichikawa Fusae fought for hers - and used her hard won career to give a voice to the voiceless.
Jay Andrew Allen · November 08, 2018 • Tagged with fiction, literature, history, Heian era, feminism, women, whos whoBy
How a grieving widow came to write two classics of world literature: a sprawling novel, and an 11th-century Twitter account.