IN THE BEGINNING, WOMAN WAS THE SUN: The Autobiography of a Japanese Feminist — Hiratsuka Raicho, translated with an introduction and notes by Teruko Craig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006, 432 pp., $35 (cloth)

One of the earliest among those who battled to reform the social and legal position of Japanese women, Raicho Hiratsuka (1896-1971), toward the end of her life wrote the story of her eventful, inspirational life. This was “Genshi josei wa taiyo de atta,” published 1971-73 and translated here into English for the first time.

This English version comprises the first two volumes of the original four-volume edition. These are written by Raicho herself, the following volumes being put together by someone else. They cover the period 1896-1917.

Raicho took her title from her most famous publication, “Seito, a literary journal created by women for women.” In its prospectus she wrote: “In the beginning, woman was the sun. An authentic person. Now she is the moon, a wan and sickly moon, dependent on another, reflecting another’s brilliance . . .”

The year was 1911 and the author was only 25. Yet, already, she was (as Teruko Craig has phrased it) “calling out to Japanese women to reclaim their sense of self-worth, reaffirm their creativity, and fulfill their human potential.”

Margaret Neuss (who translated Raicho into German) has written that the author was “expressing the feeling of young women whom in the liberal climate of the Taisho period (1912-26), pressed for a better position in society.” Raicho was also, as Craig has written, “at once idealistic and elitist, fearless and vain.”

Raicho, in writing of her childhood, says that she was “a loner to begin with.”

From early on, “I seem to have been predisposed to the theoretical and philosophical aspects of life, rather than to emotional and literary concerns.” She was also impatient with authority, particularly parental. “When I came across a photograph of Mori Ogai, I instantly recognized the expression on his face — the same as my father’s and typical of Meiji bureaucrats.”

Indeed “my aversion to authority has lasted to this day, and will probably stay with me until the end of my life.” This admirable aversion led to her greatest achievement: her writings, the influential magazine she published, “Seito,” and her own example.

At the same time, however, she scrupulously tells us that “I was not advocating women’s political or social liberation. Rather, in my belief that women had to awaken to their true selves as human beings, I was calling for a spiritual revolution that aimed at total liberation and was not thinking in terms of women’s rights.”

The awakening she had in mind was Buddhist, particularly the school of Rinzai Zen, in which she had early immersed herself and whose precepts she tried to live by. She told Sohei Morita, a young novelist whose lover she became, that “Zen did not deny sexuality, and no one practiced zazen [seated meditation] in order to rid of physical desires. Rather, zazen brought liberation from such desires.”

Morita later wrote a best-seller about their relationship, which brought her a degree of notoriety as well as a more complicated life. Despite this, Raicho always remained her own private person and initially read very little on women’s issues; she was “simply not interested.”

To call her a feminist in any textbook sense is, from her point of view, inaccurate. At the same time “the public had branded our members as the New Women and as this became more of a problem, I concluded that the subject deserved serious study.”

She also felt it deserved serious attacks, which can be seen in the pages of her magazine: “Does the policy of the Education Ministry meet the needs of the times? I must answer in the negative. What does it hope to accomplish by its recent decision to, instead of extending the years of study to raise intellectual standards [in girls’ high schools], propose allotting precious hours to more classes in cooking, crafts and sewing?” The official proposers of that Meiji image, “good wife, wise mother” had met a real opponent in Raicho.

She tells her story with verve and candor, some special pleading, and a wonderfully retained memory of the smells and tastes of being young. This quality is well captured in the translation (and the afterword that wraps up her career and ends the book), which is precise and yet colloquial. What we see on the page is Raicho herself, a very real and admirable person.

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