New York, 1917. Fifth Avenue is the setting for a huge women’s suffrage parade, with more than 20,000 women marching for their right to vote. Men harassed and catcalled the women. Among the woman proudly marching strode a beautiful, unassuming, almost dainty Japanese woman dressed in a kimono, holding two flags — one of the US, and one of Japan.
This is Kimura Komako (木村駒子), a suffragist, stage actress, magazine editor, theater manager, and writer. She had come all the way from Japan to learn more from her fellow suffragist sisters and to learn English to bolster her own feminist efforts in Japan. Beyond her elegance and charm was a determined, headstrong perseverance that got her into more than one clash with the Japanese government. She was the kind of woman who didn’t let anything stop her.
The Scandalous Life of Kimura Komako
Kimura Komako was born in Kumamoto in 1887. Her family manufactured, of all things, pumps and tools for fire extinguishing equipment. Komako's mother was heavily involved in the arts, so it was almost inevitable for Komako to be drawn into that world. When she was 4 years old she took to the stage, training in traditional arts such as the shamisen, dancing, and drama. This element became crucial to her success later in life, as well as her endeavors in feminism.
She attended various schools in her formative years, notably Kumamoto Girls School (熊本女学校). Komako drew great inspiration from Swedish feminist Ellen Key, a suffragist and staunch supporter of government-funded child support. The school headmaster, Takezaki Junko, also helped Komako form her fledgling feminist ideals. Not content with teaching them to be just mothers or wives, Takezaki encouraged the girls to nurture their personalities, explore their interests, and stand up for what they believed in.
These two women, among others, sparked a passion in Komako that would stay with her the rest of her life.
Komako also proved to be an indomitable force. Despite her small stature and demure looks, she possessed a fiery passion that wasn’t so easily extinguished. She rejected conventional Japanese norms and expectations, much to her family's dismay. At the age of 14, on her way to her marriage ceremony to a man she had never met, Komako thwarted her family’s matchmaking by escaping her carriage and hightailing it to the city of Nagoya. Once there, she sold her wedding clothes and accessories and started working as an apprentice dancer. For a young Japanese female to refuse marriage in this manner was considered a huge scandal in early 20th century Japan. This was only the beginning of Komako’s numerous challenges to Japanese cultural and societal expectations.
As if flaunting her rebellion in front of her family once wasn't enough, she met and later eloped with the young doctor Kimura Hideo. Also born in Kumamoto, Hideo had studied at Doshisha, the university that trend-setter Yamamoto Yae helped establish. Sources quote different timelines, but at some point, either before or after marrying Komako, Hideo traveled to the US to study at the prestigious UC Berkeley in California. There, under the auspices of American yogi Pierre Arnold Bernard, he learned a "secret tantra" that he carried with him to his return to Japan, where he founded his own spiritual organization called Kanjizai-shuu (観自在宗), named after the Buddhist deity for compassion. Whatever the correct timeline, in the end Komako became an integral part of this organization.
After Komako gave birth to her son Shouji (生死) in 1907, the young family headed off to Tokyo:
The couple proceeded to the capital in the year Meiji 42 , with Komako serving the role of Hideo's spiritual assistant, where she garnered a reputation for her clairvoyant powers and the dangerous art of sticking needles in her arm.
The needles, as far as I can tell, were related to acupuncture, sensible given the nature of Hideo's mixture of yogi tradition, Indian mysticism, and other forms of spiritualism. While she supported him in this endeavor, Hideo also encouraged her to pursue her goals, and it was in Tokyo where Komako began her work as a feminist.
A New Woman Emerges
Japan in the early 1900s wasn't an easy time to be a progressive-thinking woman. While Japan embraced modernization in industry and technology, its attitudes towards women turned towards a strict Confucianism, with women denied many basic rights, including a voice in political affairs. The government had a habit of suppressing whatever they didn't like, and that included anything related to feminism. Some women put their reputations at risk to make their voices known.
Kimura Komako was one of them.
(JP) Link: The Anatomy of Modern Women: “Inner Observations of the New Real Women’s Society”
現代女の解剖 - 国立国会図書館デジタルコレクション
In 1913, with fellow feminists like Nishikawa Fumiko (西川文子) and Miyazaki Mitsuko (宮崎光子), Komako established the "New Real Women’s Society" (新真婦人会; Shin shin fujin kai). They believed women should struggle against the patriarchy, instead of meekly living a dull life under man's oppressive shadow. The society was established with the objective that women all across Japan should rise up and demand change for the betterment of themselves and their country.
Komako also helped edit and publish an accompanying magazine called "New Real Women" (新真婦人; shin shin fujin). The name was a slight dig at members of another feminist society "Bluestocking" (青鞜; Seitou) who called themselves new women, or 新婦人(shin fujin), as Komako and company believed themselves to be the "genuine" new women:
Komako and the others were unconventional and strange women…. She possessed a poetic aspect of ardent love somewhat resembling [Nishikawa] Fumiko…. But in any case, Komako was unable to fake her personality, and stoked the flames of her passion in her own way.
When not trying to make feminism take root, Komako stayed busy with other endeavors. She managed two theatres in Tokyo, the Kimura Komako theatre and the Tokiwaza theatre. Her roles on stage, notably those from Shakespeare's works, were frowned upon by the Japanese government. Komako responded to this criticism by throwing open the doors to her theaters and admitting people free of charge, an act which led to her arrest. Her arrest didn't daunt her at all, and once released, she went right back to promoting the feminist agenda.
The feminist societies and their publications were constantly under threat of suppression by the government. Some of Komako's fellow colleagues who began the society and magazine with her backed out due to pressures from husbands and employers. Komako, however, continued to work on the publication, stalwart in her determination. Finally, when funds slowed to a mere trickle and left her cast in self-doubt about her mission, Komako decided to broaden her horizons and travel to the US, thinking that maybe American feminism would help her cause.
Making Waves in the West
In 1917 Komako traveled to New York with her supportive husband and son with the intent of learning English and more ways to promote feminism in Japan. One of the most widespread photographs of her was taken during this time when she marched with other suffragists in New York.
Komako eagerly did numerous interviews with various American newspapers, no doubt hoping exposure would warrant attention to her pioneering efforts. One reporter noted how she spoke "in the softest of voices, and with the most delightful accent imaginable; but the softness of the expression could not conceal the decisiveness of the convictions."
Link: Mme. Kimura Here to Study Feminist Movement Which She Hopes to Promote in Her Native Land
Komako Kimura (1918). - Newspapers.com
Reading these interviews as a 21st-century woman, I can't help but cringe at the reporters' occasional usage of "little lady" and other disparaging terms embedded in otherwise perfunctory articles. (Don't even get me started on one reporter's allusion to Madame Butterfly). The newspapers' almost mocking underlying tones didn't deter Komako or the women who reached out to help her during her time in the States. Her profession as a stage actress drew great attention, so much so she even performed at Carnegie Hall and on Broadway to awed audiences.
A Transformative Homecoming
After eight long years in America, Komako and her family returned to Japan in 1925. While I couldn't find much on her feminist efforts post-homecoming, it's clear she never stopped seeking to improve the lives of others. She refocused herself on the arts and her husband's spiritual organization. She wrote a few books, notably A Textbook on the Art of Dancing (舞踊芸術教程; Buyou Geijutsu Kyoutei), and one on breathing techniques for meditative purposes called The Art of Kannon (観自在術; Kanjizai-jutsu).
At some point Komako tried to open an school for the arts:
…芸術大学の構想を抱き，三河島に仮学舎を建てるが，それは成就しなかっ た, それから後も奔放に生き続け，1980 （昭55） 年，92歳11ヵ月の生涯を閉じた。
...Komako embraced the idea of starting an arts college and even built temporary school buildings on Mikawa Island, but that dream was never fully realized. From then on she continued to live a wild life until in November 1980, at the age of 92, her life story came to a close.
In 1945, Japanese women finally earned the right to vote. The legacy Komako established with other feminists claims a unique aspect of early modern Japanese history. We have to recognize and admire the determination and bravery of those early Japanese feminists, and Komako especially, who traveled to a foreign country for the sake of Japanese women. I can’t help but wonder what Komako would think of post-modern feminism in Japan today, and all over the world. Would she be pleased with the changes made, or sobered by all the work still left to do?
Blackwell, Alice Stone. The Woman Citizen, Volume 1, Issues 3-26, p. 183. Ebook. Accessed Dec 9 2018.
Chan, Portia. "Komako Kimura: the Japanese suffragist on the streets of New York." April Magazine, Nov 8 2018. Accessed Dec 9 2018. https://www.aprilmag.com/2018/11/05/komako-kimura-the-japanese-suffragist-on-the-streets-of-new-york/.
"Japanese Actress Is Here to Study the Feminist Movement." Star Tribune, 26 May 1918, Sun, Page 64. Web. Accessed Dec 12 2018. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/10051072/komaku_kimura_1918/
"OUR MUTUAL COLUMN." Daily Herald (Adelaide, SA : 1910 - 1924) 15 January 1918: 4. Web. Accessed Dec 10 2018. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article105450063.
吉永進一. "木村駒子と観自在宗." 2002/2007. Web. Accessed Dec 10 2018. http://archive.is/BZ7Wh.
Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance Japan and mental health content writer living in Chico, California with her partner and one cat. She graduated in 2015 from Willamette University with a B.A. in Japanese Studies and continues to improve her Japanese language skills. She is also a published poet and fiction writer. You can check out her freelance writing work at The Japanese Pearl.
You May Also Enjoy Reading...
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.
Jay Andrew Allen · October 23, 2018 • Tagged with feminism, women's rights, culture, anime, manga, womenBy
Is anime "The New Orientalism"? A Twitter controversy over a virtual YouTuber has Japanese women questioning how the media depicts them both at home and abroad.
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.