General

Women's lib pioneer Hiratsuka -- feminist or individualist?

by Maya Kaneko

“In the beginning, woman was the sun,” is the famous manifesto issued by Raicho Hiratsuka, Japan’s pioneer feminist, nearly 90 years ago. Her character, however, remains little known except among researchers of her achievements.

Efforts to shed light on Hiratsuka’s personality have been made by Japan’s leading female documentary director, Sumiko Haneda, 74, who plans to shoot a new film this year for release in 2001, the 30th anniversary of the feminist’s death.

Hiratsuka’s followers have launched a nationwide campaign to collect 50 million yen to produce the film, which is intended to raise awareness among the public, especially the young, about the women’s liberation trailblazer.

Haneda, who turned 20 in 1946 and obtained the right to vote in the first election under universal suffrage in Japan the same year, said in an interview that she has long “admired and respected” Hiratsuka as a symbol of the women’s movement and felt it wasimperative to produce a film about her.

However, the director said she believes Hiratsuka, a native of Tokyo, was not an archetypal campaigner for the women’s movement.

“Raicho was not a type of fighter for women’s liberation. She started by questioning her own existence as a human being and a woman, and explored how to live without oppression, while other feminists bypassed that point and engaged in campaigns addressing social problems,” Haneda said.

In 1911, at the age of 25, Hiratsuka, whose real first name was Haru, founded Seitosha (The Bluestocking Society) together with other graduates of her college after leaving Japan Women’s University. She also published the literary magazine Seito (Bluestocking), aiming to develop women’s talent.

In 1920, she founded the New Woman’s Association with the late Fusae Ichikawa and Mumeo Oku, both of whom became Diet members after World War II, to wage a battle to improve the social and legal status of Japanese women.

The group achieved some success in 1922 with an amendment to the Public Order and Police Law, which, to a degree, legitimized women’s participation in political activities.

She also strenuously campaigned for women’s suffrage, which was realized in December 1945, and became the first president of the Federation of Japanese Women’s Societies in 1953. She fought for world peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons until her death in 1971.

Although Hiratsuka’s achievements are well remembered, what is unique about the feminist is her philosophy, Haneda said. Hiratsuka, who reflected on life in her youth, was enlightened after undergoing Zen training and established her own philosophy, she said.

“I guess Raicho did not have any desire to become distinguished for her achievements,” Haneda said. “She was involved in many activities only to conform to her own philosophy. She was very honest with herself and did not care what others thought of her.”

As an example, Haneda said the reason Hiratsuka reportedly tried to commit suicide in 1908 with Sohei Morita, a writer and disciple of novelist Natsume Soseki, was to “pursue her curiosity.”

“Raicho was really interested in the idea that Morita, who sympathized with her philosophy, would write about his experience of killing her. She was willing to give up her life to fulfill her curiosity. The incident was far from a case of tragic love,” Haneda said.

The attempted suicide aroused widespread public criticism, leading to Hiratsuka’s expulsion from the alumnae club of the women’s university. Her membership was not reinstated until 1992, long after her death.

Haneda, since directing her first film in the late 1950s, has produced more than 80 documentaries, covering subjects such as nursing and Japan’s traditional performing arts. She feels her life resembles that of Hiratsuka in some respects.

“I was determined to grasp the ‘truth in human beings’ in shooting documentary films, and vowed that I would never give up my career just because I am woman. In that sense, I have also stuck to my principles, like Raicho.”

In the film industry, where “feudalism and apprenticeship” were prevalent, Haneda said that as one of a very few female directors, she faced more challenges than her male counterparts, as staff were often uncooperative and refused to do what she asked.

As to the present, Haneda said women’s social status has greatly improved, to the point that Hiratsuka and other pioneer feminists dreamed about. Now various measures promote gender equality, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Law.

However, she said numerical changes in the system will not immediately bring about new thinking on gender issues and predicted that more generations will pass before discriminatory thinking is completely eradicated.

Haneda indicated Hiratsuka was “new and special” because she first created changes in the mind — the invisible stage.

The director said that in the upcoming century, women’s roles will further expand and each woman will be required to take on more responsibility. “Women cannot be too dependent on men. They should be prepared to accept duties,” she said.

Haneda, who is currently working on the film’s script, plans to include Hiratsuka’s own remarks in the production so that viewers can feel as if they had met her.

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