Women of Japan unite: Examining the contemporary state of feminism


Staff Writer

On Oct. 21, 1970, hundreds of women marched through the streets of Tokyo, an occasion that is often referred to as the birth of the women’s liberation movement in Japan.

The movement, called ūman libu (women’s lib) in Japanese, was eventually adopted by women who embraced the concept of feminism, striving to define, establish and achieve political, economic, cultural, personal and social rights for women.

It’s based on the principle of the “personal” being “political,” and manifests itself in such diverse issues as marriage and abortion to the U.S. military presence in Okinawa and the “comfort women” who were forced into sexual servitude in wartime military brothels.

Instead of being applauded for their achievements, however, the media continued to label feminists as “unattractive, hysterical” women — a negative image that persists to this day.

The Japan Times talks to four key women in an attempt to discover what the future holds for women in Japan.

Mitsu Tanaka, acupuncturist

Mitsu Tanaka

Mitsu Tanaka was one of the leading members of the country’s women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s.

In just one night, she wrote a manifesto titled “Benjo Kara no Kaiho” (“Liberation from the Toilet”), which called for women to stand up and free themselves from male sexual oppression. Published in 1970, it became arguably the most famous manifesto of the domestic women’s liberation movement.

Why toilet? Tanaka says she chose the word because it was a derogatory expression that described women as little more than repositories of men’s bodily fluids. It originally stemmed from the word “kyōdō benjo” (“public bathrooms”) that was used with disdain toward promiscuous women and those engaged in prostitution.

As far as men are concerned, the manifesto says, women were condemned to be “mothers” or “whores.”

“I realized that men only saw women as a convenience — either as mothers or ‘toilets,'” Tanaka says. “While it might have been difficult (to stand up to men) as individuals, it ultimately became possible when women stood together, side by side.”

Tanaka was sexually abused as a child by a man who worked for her parents’ restaurant. Just 5 or 6 years old at the time, she had no real idea of what that man was doing and it was only later that she realized what he had done was despicable.

“I blamed myself, but you can’t live your life in self-denial,” Tanaka says. “I realized I needed to accept myself for who I was. The problems I suffered directly connected me (to the women’s liberation movement).”

Tanaka looks back on the 1960s and ’70s and remembers how repressed women were back then — the way they talked, the way they dressed, everything centered around what men viewed as “feminine.”

“We couldn’t be who we really were because we were women,” Tanaka says. “We were living the lives of women who didn’t actually exist and that anger spread through the female community.”

The demonstration on Oct. 21, 1970, was the start of a series of activities organized by the country’s fledgling feminists, including a “lib camp” in Nagano Prefecture in August the following year, where about 300 women gathered from all over Japan to discuss various issues related to being a woman.

In 1972, the women opened Lib Shinjuku Center, which not only served as an administrative center for their activities but also became a refuge of sorts for women with problems that ranged from obtaining contraception and abortion to divorce.

A unique aspect of the domestic women’s liberation movement was that the founding members did not create a pyramid organization. While Tanaka is believed to be one of the movement’s leading members, she stresses that each woman was there as an individual and all she did was invite people to participate. She likens it to current protest groups such as Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, which has individual students participating without a specific leader.

“The liberation movement was based on the desires of individuals,” Tanaka says. “It was about how we wanted to live our own lives, think about what we wanted and decide what we wanted to do on our own. We were already doing this (in the late 1960s and ’70s) but people couldn’t understand what we were about back then.”

Much of Europe and the United States were experiencing gender equality movements in the late 1960s and ’70s, demanding such things as equal employment opportunities and abortion rights. Women protested against the Miss America beauty pageant and tossed bras into a trash can as a sign of independence from men.

Some believe that Japan’s liberation movement was imported from the United States, but Tanaka denies this was the case.

The women’s liberation movement in Japan was not about winning equal rights with men, she says. Instead, it addressed the fundamental repressed role that women were forced to play, and called for liberation from their sex.

Tanaka notes that measures such as burning bras or refusing to wear makeup did not interest her because the domestic women’s liberation movement focused on how to be yourself.

“It’s never black or white,” Tanaka says. “Sometimes you might want to wear makeup, other days you might not. We were ordinary women just trying to live our lives truthfully.”

In 1975, she visited Mexico to attend the U.N. World Conference on Women and ended up living there for more than four years. During her time in the Central American nation, she gave birth to a son as a single mother. After returning to Japan, she studied acupuncture and has since worked as an acupuncturist.

Tanaka has more recently been involved in opposing the plan to relocate Futenma air base in Okinawa to the Henoko district.

Tanaka felt compelled to get involved after seeing a photograph of a young girl who had been killed by a U.S. military truck in 1965.

She now leads tours to Okinawa to show people from the mainland what the situation is like in the southern archipelago. She has led three tours so far, with another planned for November.

“I can’t believe I didn’t know what was happening in Okinawa for 70 years,” Tanaka says. “I am embarrassed, and that is why I decided to do something about it. It is not about seeing how many people I can gather. … Whether it is 10 people, 100 people or by myself, I will never stop going there.”

Chizuko Ueno, sociologist

Chizuko Ueno

Sociologist Chizuko Ueno grew up watching her mother languish in an unhappy marriage. Ueno’s mother would often complain that she couldn’t file for a divorce because of her children — even if she wanted to.

Ueno sympathized with her mother at first, but eventually understood that she would continue to be unhappy even if she remarried. Ueno’s mother was miserable because of the institution of marriage.

Therefore, Ueno did what her mother couldn’t — never get married.

“There is nothing wrong with loving someone — that itself makes your life rich,” Ueno says. “However, marriage based on monogamy is the root of all evil. A sexual relationship becomes one based on ownership. Marriage is especially repressive for women.”

The first wave of feminism in Japan began in the early 20th century, with writers such as Akiko Yosano and Raicho Hiratsuka, who founded the women’s magazine “Seito” (literally, “Bluestocking”), leading calls for a spiritual revolution. The second wave of feminism took place around the period of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s.

The 1975 U.N. World Conference on Women was a major turning point for feminism throughout the world, including Japan. It led to the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979 that requires all member states to ensure equal rights for women and take measures in all fields, including enacting legislation for the advancement of women.

Japan ratified the convention in 1985 and a couple of legal frameworks were codified around the same time. In 1984, the Nationality Law was revised to allow Japanese nationality to be obtained through an individual’s mother, while an equal employment opportunity law was enacted the following year. These developments ultimately led to the adoption of the gender equality law in 1999.

Ueno remembers those days when sexual harassment was frequently used as a tool to reduce tension in the workplace and groping on trains went unchecked.

“It is hard to say that feminism changed society but it did change some things,” Ueno says.

Ueno is one of the pioneers of women’s studies in Japan and retired from her 18-year career at the University of Tokyo in 2011. She fought for her sex in the field of academia and is often referred to as “bilingual” in both female and male languages, acting as an “interpreter” between the two sexes.

“You have to speak the language to get your message across … so I learned to speak like a male,” Ueno says. “I am known as a woman of logic and I try to break it down and explain things to men in a way that they could understand.”

Toward the end of the 20th century, perspectives appeared to be — slowly but surely — changing. As Japan entered the 21st century, however, feminism experienced a powerful backlash.

“In the beginning, I thought the backlash was evidence of the growing feminist activity and was even secretly a bit proud,” Ueno says. “However, it turned out to be a lot fiercer than we expected and it actually did quite a lot of damage.”

Local municipalities canceled lectures by feminists because of their “biased” viewpoints and the central government cut budgets for public women’s centers nationwide.

In 2005, Shinzo Abe of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party headed a group of lawmakers to “investigate radical sex education and gender-free education.”

Today, the prime minister has vowed to create a society in which “women can shine,” recently enacting a law to increase the percentage of corporate female executives to 30 percent by 2020.

At the same time, he and the ruling LDP-Komeito bloc steamrolled a bill through the Diet that enables employers to use temp workers — of which about 70 percent are women — for as long as they wish.

“Neoliberalist politicians (such as Abe) are so understanding of gender equality because of one thing — they want females in the workforce because women are the last resources,” Ueno says. “They no longer say women should stay inside their homes because they want women to have babies and work.”

Ueno is currently the head of Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit organization established in 2009 to provide various information related to feminism and to connect individuals and groups, both private and public, to improve the situation for women. The group has also begun digitalizing and archiving women’s magazines to be stored as important historical documents for future feminists.

“One day, I hope to hand over the baton of feminism to the next generation,” Ueno says.

Minori Kitahara, writer

Minori Kitahara
Minori Kitahara | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, Minori Kitahara saw feminists as the object of ridicule and scorn. Perhaps that is why so many people ask her why she became one.

To Kitahara, however, becoming a feminist felt like a natural thing to do.

“I initially became interested in feminism because I was frustrated about the difficulty of living in this world as a woman,” Kitahara says. “I think that frustration is what gets many feminists started. I watched women such as Chizuko Ueno show their anger in public and grew up realizing that it is OK to speak up.”

Society and the media have played a role in painting feminists in an unflattering light, depicting them as unattractive, hysterical women or women who possess radical thoughts.

Having studied feminist claims and studied books written by a wide variety of women since she was in elementary school, Kitahara attempted to become a “likeable feminist.”

It was an idea, however, she quickly abandoned.

“It is impossible to be a feminist who is liked,” Kitahara says. “No matter how nicely you phrase your words, you are still, in effect, speaking out against men. People say that feminists are responsible for their negative image in the press, but I don’t think this is the case. I think the negative image (people generally have toward feminists) reflects the prejudice society harbors toward such women.”

Kitahara has definitely pushed the boundaries further by becoming the first female owner of an adult-goods shop for women in Japan called Love Piece Club. At her showroom in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward are rows of colorful dildos and vibrators, lubricants in cute packaging, and books and DVDs on sex. The products are available online.

Kitahara says that discussing women’s sexual desires in a positive note is often difficult in the world of feminism, since some of the key issues women take up are related to sexual harassment and violence.

“It’s difficult to talk about victimization in sex crimes and women’s sexual desires in the same breath,” Kitahara says. “I wanted to create a safe place for women’s desires.”

Like Ueno, Kitahara recognizes that the pace of change has been slow.

Kitahara points to endless examples, especially in the world of politics.

In recent research, Kitahara found that the first female politician to give birth was Tenkoko Sonoda in 1950. Shockingly, she says, the next woman to have a child as a politician was Seiko Hashimoto in 2000 — half a century later.

When Hashimoto became pregnant, she was criticized for taking time off to give birth. As a result of her situation, however, both chambers of the Diet revised their rules to allow women to be absent from public proceedings to have a baby.

Still, very few women have had children during their time in office. Since Hashimoto, only nine women have given birth while in office, including Seiko Noda at the age of 50.

“Women have been pressured into giving up their careers if they can’t work like a man,” Kitahara says. “Corporations, the LDP and the world of politics have excluded women and turned this world into a wretched state. That said, I think people are finally beginning to recognize the merits of having diversity in the workplace.”

Even on a more basic level, sexist comments made by fellow lawmakers appear to continue unabated.

Ayaka Shiomura, a female Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly lawmaker, last June faced sexist jeers such as “Why don’t you get married soon?” as she discussed women’s policies.

LDP member Akihiro Suzuki later admitted making the remark on marriage but Shiomura says that others were involved. No further investigation was conducted by the local government to identify any other hecklers.

And in August, Kagoshima Gov. Yuichiro Ito also made a sexist gaffe, asking prefectural government education board members if there was any point teaching women the sine, cosine and tangent trigonometric functions in high school.

While deploring a clear reluctance on the part of men to change, Kitahara says women are now beginning to stand up for themselves.

Women, whether they call themselves feminists or not, are no longer letting men off the hook with sexist remarks, sexual harassment, derogatory statements and groping on trains.

“You don’t need a license to be a feminist, but I think the number of individuals interested in feminism is on the rise,” Kitahara says. “It is up to each individual to choose whether to call themselves feminist or not, but the fact is that these women are feeling the pain of other women. Men have now been handed their homework — it is up to them to do it.”

Hisako Matsui

Hisako Matsui, film director

Director Hisako Matsui had avoided tackling the world of feminism in film for a long time.

But when Kimiko Tanaka, former managing editor of women’s magazine Wife, saw a short film Matsui had created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the magazine, she asked the director to document the activities of her fellow feminists.

The request eventually inspired Matsui to make a documentary titled “What Are You Afraid Of?”

“It was fate,” Matsui says. “Feminism was not something I had thought much about when I was younger. … Thinking about it now, I realize I’m also feminist in my own way.”

The film includes interviews and video footage of 15 women at the center of the domestic women’s liberation movement. The documentary shows how the women’s liberation movement and feminism developed in Japan through the words of the women who led the evolution.

It covers such diverse themes as child abuse, marriage, rape, nuclear energy and war.

For instance, Matsui talked to Tomoko Yonezu, who became physically disabled at the age of 2 because of polio. As a woman with physical disabilities, Yonezu vehemently opposed a bill that would legalize the abortion of fetuses that were likely to have mental or physical disabilities. The proposed legislation was later scrapped.

“I wanted to capture the expressions of each of the women in the film to show how powerful their words are,” Matsui says.

Prior to the documentary, Matsui has directed three films that also focus on women: “Yukie” (1997), which tells the tale of an elderly couple in an international marriage dealing with Alzheimer’s disease; “Oriume” (2001-02), which is based on a true story about a family’s struggles with dementia; and “Leonie” (2010), a film about Leonie Gilmour, mother of renowned sculptor and architect Isamu Noguchi.

“In every film I have created, I have always considered how women live,” Matsui says. “I didn’t take an ideological approach but, instead, listened to the stories of each woman in order to shed light on issues related to feminism. Rather than forcing my own views onto the audience, I want people to be able to make a personal connection by recognizing parts of the film that reflect their own lives.”

The director spent about four hours with each woman and because so much of the footage ended up on the cutting room floor, she also published a book under the same name.

“I chose the title (“What Are You Afraid Of?”) because so many women live in fear, trying not to upset the status quo in a male-dominated society — both at work and at home,” Matsui says. “I want the audience to realize that it’s OK to live life without fear. They should be able to live a life in which they are true to themselves.”

Matsui’s initial impression of feminism was not exactly positive. At first, she thought feminism was an ideology that was based on a judgmental perspective, which rejected everything and focused on turning against men to establish women’s rights.

Talking to these women, however, changed her perspective.

“After meeting the women, I realized that diversity is the key because they themselves are so diverse,” Matsui says.

Completed in August 2014, “What Are You Afraid Of?” has been screened both at home and abroad since last September. Working on the film certainly opened Matsui’s eyes to a few home truths that had been staring her in the face.

“I realize I’ve been stuck in a male-dominated society,” Matsui says.

“It was easier for me to avoid conflict because that is what I had to do to survive in the (film) industry,” she says. “I don’t deny my past but I believe that’s why I think I can act as a bridge between the feminists and the next generation.”

  • skillet

    I know little about Japanese feminist politics.

    My Japanese wife considers herself a feminist. And her feminism is quite workable. It has enhanced freedom for me and her. Win win for both of us. And I have no problem with the mainstream feminism of my own generation. I was so happy she worked, had a job, helped me pay off our 30 year mortgage in 12 years (before getting burned out from corporate grind). Now she feels she has paid her dues, and partially retired, in a sense, to freelancing on her own terms and homemaking. (She considers cooking an art and also a form of self-realization unlike modern Western feminists who resent any female contribution to the home and family. They are more into Sodom and Gamorah style “slutwalks” than carrying on society and providing for the next generation).

    I do, hope, however, that Japanese feminists of today do not emulate the dysfunctional west. Which has a hysterical rape culture and has become the enemy of human biology.

    Western feminism has become a hotbed of misandry and paranoia. One day the cultural marxist videoes of “how to have sex” will by viewed in the same way and with the same level of disgrace as McCarthyism and the red scare.

    It is as if Western feminists feel biology has given them a raw deal and men must be made into women and androgenous freaks to appease them. This is done by promoting promoscuity, LGBT culture, fat acceptance, etc. so that nature does not express itself properly. I particularly resent the “fat acceptance” movement. Such women feel that encouraging them to live a healthy lifestlye and avoid issues such as cardiovascular disease is oppression. They would rather be celebrated for destroying their health by wolfing down 20 bags of Cheetoes. My own wife is over 50 and looks like she is in her 30’s. Her feminism was not the beer drinking, pizza gobbling Lena, Dunhan style feminism, but rather a feminism of women who had pride in themselves rather than the narciisstic brand of self-indulging craving of acceptance for their own decadence.

    Traditional cultures had tremendous insist on how to encapulate sexual desires and needs in such a way that morality and civilization could be built on solid foundations.

    Presenting DNA and gender as a choice is nothing more than a war on nature itself.

    If Japan can avoid listening to gender studies radfems, they may be able to do feminism right.

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  • Tracheal

    Male dominated societies always come with female subjugated cultures.

    • Tracheal

      Typo: that’s ‘gynocentric traditional tyranny’ above

      • calabasa

        No, you had it right the first time, you delusional creep…tyranny IS male-traditional.

      • Tracheal

        You wish, you filthy ‘creep’ shaming c**t. Tyranny is female biological and social because women are ruthless tyrants when they have a (false) cause between their teeth.

  • Andre Leonard

    I applaud all 4 women featured here. Japanese culture has not always allowed the women any voice much less a right to self determination. To come of age when they did and promote new ideas and roles for women in Japanese society makes them icons for their time.. There is still much work to be done in this area. Let’s hope todays generation can find women who will keep pushing the envelope forward for Japanese women.

  • Samantha Siva

    “burned bras as a sign of independence from men.” This is a myth. Please don’t perpetuate it.

  • Toolonggone

    Mitsu Tanaka and Chizuko Ueno. You can’t talk about Japanese feminism without them.

  • kyushuphil

    Please, women — to improve over (us) men, cite more from the humanities.

    Make allusions to novels, films (not only one’s own), poems, plays, songs, wood-cuts, architecture, landscape and interior design.

    Men who don’t do this end up as Orwell said — drifting, bereft of human
    perspectives, unable to see much of any wider context. That’s the main reason the patriarchy rumbles on — the men are all literacy-limited, imaginatively damaged. The patriarchy resembles all those group games that in schools protect human mediocrity.

    • Tracheal

      You obviously haven’t enjoyed an overt matriarchy yet. As Camille Paglia said in Sexual Personae you’d still be living in grass huts had the patriarchy not been there to do your work for you.

  • Magic Mike

    Great thing these women have had such strong effects on young Japanese women that they now see men as anything more than a wallet, reputation, and future stabilizer. Oh wait..

    • calabasa

      And why do you think Japanese women see men that way? For much the same reason American women did in the 1950’s, before they had their own job opportunities. They were forced to get married to survive. Why do you think there are now so many bitter, single men (much more bitter than their female counterparts, who’d rather stay single than settle for one of them)? Men complain about women seeing men as a “wallet, reputation, and future stabilizer,” feminism comes along and liberates women, forces society to give them the right to work (and TRIES to equalize salaries), teaches women to expect better treatment, and voila! Women don’t want to date mediocre, sexist men anymore. And then out come the MRA types whining about “hypergamy” and women’s sexual choice and how no one wants to marry them. Women will happily stay single rather than marry their ass (or, as you put it, “wallet, reputation and future stability”) if they have their own purse, their own cultural capital and their own 401k. So which is it–you hate women’s subjugation that requires them to marry for survival and thus seek the best provider? Or you hate feminism which frees them up from even having to look at most pathetic men twice?

      • Ivan

        Yisus… This comment is absolutely amazing.

      • calabasa

        Buddha, this comment did nothing to enlighten me!

      • Magic Mike

        You completely missed the point. Are we even talking about the same country? Have you heard anything about women working in Japan besides the optimistic feminists in this article? Japanese women are not liberated, equalized, and especially the younger ones have no concept of why they should get better treatment, and have no desire to. They are satisfied with the status quo of trolling around for mediocre men who make over 6 million yen. I never said anything that the women don’t want to marry or be with pathetic men, they need to out of necessity. Your employer telling you not to get pregnant because “it’d be trouble for everyone else in the office” or practically forced to get an abortion or quit is not liberation. What young Japanese woman has cultural capital, unless you consider pin-up girls or exploited teenagers as queens of cultural capital. And what Japanese woman has a 401k? Are you serious? I hate the compliance and willingness of young Japanese to participate in a system that devalues them as sex objects in exchange for money.

      • calabasa

        I’ve lived in Japan and had a lot of Japanese female students and friends.

        I was talking about women in the Western world being freed from having to see men as “wallets and future stabilizers” and now men complaining about that fact when women don’t want to marry them.

        Or is that what you want (Japanese women–who I agree are very far from equal in Japanese society–to be liberated)? Why make fun of them that way then? Why criticize them for being gold-diggers and caring about a man’s wallet if they have little else in the way of opportunity? Or were you not? Because that’s how it came across to me.

  • Tracheal

    “How is wanting men to treat women with respect, not as objects but as equals, and to stop their violence, as well as wishing to abolish restrictive traditional gender roles “tyranny?”

    How is low-down lying about the ends of your vile, vicious, and vapid hate movement likely to en-‘gender’ ANY (much less equal) respect for your ‘gender’ (really sex) or for you.