Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

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.

Ichikawa Fusae: The First Woman of Japanese Politics

Essay   Posted on February 12, 2019 in history, feminism, women of japan • By Jay Andrew Allen • Read Related Articles

In this series of posts, I'll introduce the people featured in our site's banner, going from left to right. The information below (as always) is gleaned from Japanese language sources; all errors and misinterpretations, however, are mine, and I welcome corrections to anything below.

Part 1 - Tokugawa Ieyasu: The Hero That Everyone in Japan Hates
Part 2 - Murasaki Shikibu: The First Lady of Japanese Literature
Part 3 - Akutagawa Ryonosuke: A Life of Intense and Fleeting Genius
Part 4 - Sakamoto Ryoma: The Samurai Who Ended the Samurai

It's tough to be a feminist in the best of circumstances. It was especially hard in Imperial Japan from 1890 to 1945. Women were not only prevented from voting, but were shut out from participation in politics in general. Various laws, such as the Public Peace Preservation Law and the Thought Crimes Probation Law, gave the government the power to suppress free thinking and nascent political movements. Fighting for women's equality wasn't simply hard in Imperial Japan - it was downright dangerous.

That didn't stop a band of strong-willed, dedicated women from fighting for change. One of these women went from disenfranchised citizen to one of Japan's most beloved politicians - and she didn't stop fighting for change until the day she died.

Not Raised To Be a "Good Wife, Wise Mother"

Ichikawa Fusae in her youth
A photo of the young Ichikawa Fusae.

Ichikawa Fusae was born in 1893 in a small farming town in Aichi prefecture. She was the third daughter of Toukurou, a local shopkeeper and farmer, and Tatsu, the daughter of a nearby family of farmers who married Toukurou when she was 19.

The world into which Ichikawa was born was one of steadily narrowing options for women. In 1873, women could finally receive official recognition as heads of household, and could even own property. However, in 1890, the authors of the Meiji Constitution decided that even female property owners and taxpayers would be excluded from the voting populace, which would consist solely of men 26 and older who paid more than 5 yen in taxes every year. In 1889, the Imperial Law officially banned women from the Imperial line of succession. Other laws - such as the adultery law, which allowed a husband to kill his wife if her caught her in the act with a lover, but did not grant the same privileges to the wife - reinforced the basic inequality between the sexes in Imperial Japan.

In short, women were reduced to second-class citizens who were thought to "lack the capacity" to make political and legal decisions for themselves; their job was to become "Good Wives and Wise Mothers" (良妻賢母; ryousai kenbo).

Ichikawa Toukurou seemed to have not gotten this message. Toukurou was reportedly a violent man. But he was also a man determined not to let any of his children follow in his footsteps:

自分は学問をしないから百姓をしているのだ。百姓は馬鹿がする仕事なので子供たちには一生懸命働いて学校に行かせてやる。

I'm a peasant farmer because I have no education. It's stupid work, which is why I work my ass off and make my kids get an education.

(JP) Link: Ichikawa Fusae - Wikipedia

市川房枝 - Wikipedia
市川 房枝(いちかわ ふさえ、1893年(明治26年)5月15日 - 1981年(昭和56年)2月11日)は、日本の婦人運動家、政治家(元参議院議員)。

This applied not just to his sons, but to his daughters as well. This bias for education likely inspired Ichikawa's own sense of morality, and her passion to secure the right to an education for other women.

Ichikawa demonstrated her fighting spirit at a young age. When she was younger, Ichikawa attended the local Normal School for girls. Like most girls' schools at the time, her school's education focused on making girls into "Good Wives and Wise Mothers". Ichikawa was so disgusted by this philosophy that she not only campaigned against it at her school, but organized other students and led a boycott. It was the first of many battles she would fight in her long career.

The New Woman Society Makes History

First Meeting of the New Woman's Society
A photo from the first meeting of the New Woman's Society (新夫妻協会). Ichikawa Fusae is pictured on the left edge; Hiratsuka Raichou sits right of center.

At age 20, Ichikawa graduated the school in Aichi, and became an elementary schoolteacher. Health issues caught up with her, however, and she was forced to quit a year later. In 1917, she became a reporter for the Nagoya Shinbun.

In 1919, through a connection of her brother's, she met Hiratsuka Raichou (平塚らいてう), a passionate Japanese feminist who shared Ichikawa's zeal to improve the lives of Japanese women under Imperial rule. The two became fast friends, and made a decision that was as radical as it was dangerous: they would form a political society.

(JP) Link: About Ichikawa Fusae in Five Minutes! Person Episodes and Activities

5分で市川房枝について!人物エピソードややったこと | れきし上の人物.com

Why was this dangerous? In addition to the limitations on women's rights I discussed above, women in Japan faced another severe restriction: not only could they not vote, but Article 5 of the Public Safety Code prevented them from engaging in any political activity or association whatsoever. Women were wholly excluded from Japan's political sphere. Ichikawa and Hiratsuka, along with friend and feminist Oku Mumeo (奥むめお), thought that was bonkers. The only way they saw to change it was to create the very thing they were forbidden from creating.

Thus in 1919, the New Woman's Society (新夫妻協会) was born. Their publication, The Alliance of Women (女性同盟; josei doumei), argued vociferously for the repeal of Article 5. The organization argued that its members, while not permitted the right to engage in political activity, nevertheless had the right to petition the government for change. The group's numbers grew in multiple cities, but met resistance in Hiroshima, where local authorities initially clamped down on the organization when its ranks among local schoolteachers swelled.

In 1920, the group collected over 2,000 signatures demanding a change to the law, which they submitted to the House of Representatives. Ichikawa, Hiratsuka and others continued to make public addresses calling for the law's repeal. In 1921, the law came close to repeal, but failed when Baron Fujimura Yoshirou came out against it.

In 1922, Ichikawa left the Society. Hiratsuka followed shortly after her. However, the work they put in wasn't for naught. Oku Mumeo and others persisted in their battle, and in 1922, they convinced the faction led by Fujimura to drop its opposition. On March 25th, 1922, the law was officially repealed. It was an historic victory, and to this day remains one of the largest victories for the women's rights movement in Japan.

Ichikawa Survives the War

Ichikawa, feeling there was a larger fight ahead, traveled to America in 1921 to study and work in Chicago. While there, she also studied up on the American women's rights movement. Upon her return to Japan, she founded the Association for the Establishment of Women's Suffrage (婦人参政権獲得期成同盟会; fujin sanseiken kakutoku kisei doumeikai), which fought to give women the right to vote that had been denied them in 1890. She also spent some time researching women's issues as a member of the International Labor Organization.

As Japan turned more towards war and conquest, Ichikawa found herself faced with a difficult decision. At root, Ichikawa was pro-democracy, pro-peace, and anti-fascist. She had been critical of Japan's military activity in Manchuria, and had been opposed to her country's military build-up. But as it built up a larger wartime footprint, the government was brutally suppressing "radical" differences of opinion. Most of this oppression was targeted at the Communist movement, which the government was dead set on stopping in its tracks. But the government didn't hesitate to suppress not only other left wing groups, but even fringe right wing groups who agitated against what it saw as Imperial Japan's pro-capitalist, anti-rural policies.

Feminists faced a choice: speak out against the War and risk long-term imprisonment, or support the war and preserve the opportunity to promote their agenda of women's rights. Ichikawa chose the latter path. She dissolved her own women's suffrage organization, and melded it with a larger, pro-war party. Her support for "Great Japan" wasn't fervent, but perfunctory - a convenience that allowed her, when the chance arose, to continue to speak up for the rights of women and children. Hiratsuka Raichou made a similar choice to support the war, and live to fight another day.

(JP) Link: Ichikawa Fusae and the Great East Asian War: How Did Feminists Survive the War?

荒野に向かって、吼えない… 『市川房枝と「大東亜戦争」  フェミニストは戦争をどう生きたか』

Ichikawa's Political Career

Ichikawa Fusae wins a seat in the Diet
Ichikawa Fusae after winning elected office for the first time.(Picture: Wikipedia)

The end of World War II brought the Allied Occupation, and a sudden shift in Japan's political winds. Under the auspices of General Headquarters (GHQ), Japan was to become a modern, liberal democracy. Ichikawa wasted no time using this new-found freedom to assume her original positions. She teamed up with several fellow feminists to found the Committee for Post-War Measures for Women on August 26th of 1945, a mere month after Japan signed the Potsdam Declaration. This merged with the New Japan Women's Alliance in November, which pressed the fledgling Japanese democratic government to grant universal suffrage.

On December 17th, 1945, the right for both men and women to vote was secured. And in December 1946, the 22nd Lower House Elections saw the election of the first female representative.

Ichikawa, however, did not vote in that election, nor did she stand as a candidate. Any hope that she had to enter politics was delayed by the Purge of Public Officials (公職追放; koushoku tsuihou), an effort spearheaded by GHQ to identify individuals who had been key to the war effort and bar them from political life. As a vocal supporter of the war effort, Ichikawa was the first woman to receive a ban, in 1947. But her ban was lifted in 1950, and she returned to political life. Her newly re-christened Alliance of Japanese Women Voters campaigned for an end to legalized prostitution, and opposed any efforts to re-arm Japan in the wake of World War II.

In 1953, Ichikawa won her first elected office in Japan's upper House of Councilors. She would go on to serve five terms over the next 30 years, for a total of 25 total years in office. Ichikawa was known for being fiercely independent: she never relied on organizational or political party support, instead allying herself with an organization of other independents in Japan's Diet.

For the duration of her political career, Ichikawa did whatever she could to lift other women up as well. It was at her urging that Japan sent its first female representative, Ogata Sadako, to the United Nations. The appointment sparked a decades-long career for Ogata, who is credited with strengthening Japan's international relations.

In 1980, at age 87, Ichikawa was still speaking across the country, and campaigning for her own re-election. She won the 1980 election by the widest margin of any candidate. However, she suffered a myocardial infarction the next year and passed away. Ichikawa Fusae died doing what she had always longed to do: serve as a powerful voice for the underprivileged in Japanese politics.

Above: A video of Ichikawa Fusae, age 87, speaking to a crowd in support of her candidacy for the Diet. Ichikawa won the election, but died in office the next year.

After Ichikawa Fusae

The impact and example set by Ichikawa Fusae can't be underestimated. Her life continues to serve as an example for Japanese women, who are entering politics in larger numbers than ever before.

In many ways, however, the work of Ichikawa, Hiratsuka, Oku, Kimura Komako and others remains incomplete. While the number of women participating in Japanese politics has increased, in a recent survey of 193 countries, Japan ranked a mere 158th in female representation. And a string of scandals - such as the Tokyo Medical School grade-fixing incident and the Yamaguchi Maho assault scandal - show that women are far from being regarded as equal in the eyes of men.

In a recording from 1931 advocating for the vote, Ichikawa declared:

たった一票と言えば一票でありますが、しかしこの一票を持ってこそ、女も初めて男子と同様に一人前の国民として認められることになります。そのうえ、この一票が欲しいがために、政府や政党、および議員には、いやいやながらも婦人の望む政策を取り上げ、これの実現に努力するようになります。

You might say it's only one vote, but just by virtue of having a vote, women will for the first time be regarded as full human beings by men. And in order to win this vote, politicians, political parties, and representations will come to work to craft policies desired by women and to make them reality, even if they don't like it.

While that dream may still be a ways in the distance, there's no doubt that Ichikawa Fusae helped set her country in the right direction.

Additional Sources

Sasamoto-Collins, Hiromi. (2017). The Emperor's Sovereign Status and the Legal Construction of Gender in Early Meiji Japan. The Journal of Japanese Studies. 43. 257-288. 10.1353/jjs.2017.0036.

I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.

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