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Historical biography captures the spirit of early feminist Japan

by Kris Kosaka

Time distorts, concealing the individual drops of humanity within the great tide of history. “Beauty in Disarray” attempts to reveal one such individual threatened to be lost in time, a woman named Noe Ito. In telling Ito’s tragic story, biographer Harumi Setouchi (now known by her Buddhist name Jakucho) also reveals early feminist Japan. Setouchi’s work itself threatens to go out of print, but a Kindle version made available this year brings Ito’s story to the digital age.

BEAUTY IN DISARRAY, by Harumi Setouchi. Translated by Sanford Goldstein and Kazuji Ninomiya. Tuttle Publishing, 2013, 354 pp., $18.20 (digital edition)

Set in the turbulent Taisho Era (1912-26), Setouchi discovered the existence of Ito while researching a more famous writer of that era, Kanoko Okamoto, as both women worked on the early feminist journal Seito (Bluestocking). In 1911, Henrik Ibsen’s controversial feminist masterpiece “A Doll’s House” was performed in Tokyo, setting off a tide of controversial thought consummated in an all women’s literary society being formed, Seitosha (Bluestocking Society). Their infamous journal became a symbol of the “New Woman” — and later a platform for Socialism. Ito joined the society while still a teenager and became its editor during the journal’s final persecuted year, 1915-16.

“Beauty in Disarray” illuminates an important historical period leading up to Imperialistic Japan, when seething new ideas like feminism and socialism overwhelmed a patriarchal, traditional society with tragic results — both in Japan and later the world. It’s a compelling read that details a turbulent woman juxtaposed against a turbulent time.

Setouchi’s style, however, takes some acclimation, especially if the reader expects scholarly discourse. The book at times reads like a racy harlequin romance (her earlier novels were labeled “pornographic”), although Setouchi does prove to be a thorough researcher, often including snippets or pages of the actual poetry or letters published in Seito. Bluestocking’s famous “sun” manifesto is included, as are other journalistic perspectives from the period. Her inclusion of research is often uneven, thrown into the main story line and occasionally too much of a contradiction to her steamy prose.

She frequently meanders, giving a full biographical sketch of a new historical figure upon introduction, repeatedly interrupting the main story line depicting Ito.

Even with these stylistic flaws, “Beauty in Disarray” successfully captures the fecund spirit and fierce drive of the early feminist movement in Japan. As the manifesto for Bluestocking states: “I am a new woman. At least day by day I am endeavoring to really be a New Woman. It is the sun that is truly and eternally new. I am the sun.”

In telling Ito’s story and thus revealing the women and men who surrounded her in this time of struggling idealism, Setouchi boldly illuminates a fresh perspective of Japan in the early part of the 20th century.

In addition to her work with Bluestocking, Ito translated important feminist thought into Japanese, including the works of anarchist Emma Goldman, and started a tumultuous relationship with the famous Japanese socialist and anarchist, Sakae Osugi. Her tragic death in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, when she and Osugi were arrested while transporting their 6-year-old nephew to safety, shocked Japan: All three were beaten to death by military police.

Setouchi herself defies the boundaries of feminist or traditional thought, as a celebrated writer and passionate individualist who shook the literary world by taking Buddhist vows in 1973 and becoming a nun. Born in 1922, a year before Ito’s death, Setouchi won the Tanizaki Prize in 1992 and famously translated in 10 volumes “The Tale of Genji” to modern Japanese in 1998.

For anyone interested in how one life permeates toward the lives of many, pick up “Beauty in Disarray” to relive the 28 short years that Ito existed.

Kris Kosaka teaches literature and writing at Hokkaido International School.