For a brief moment in autumn 2017 — before some ill-considered Machiavellian comments scuppered her chances — it seemed as though the conservative governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, might sweep to power as Japan’s first female prime minister.

Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, Edited by Julia C. Bullock, Ayako Kano and James Welker.
312 pages

There seemed nothing particularly momentous — especially when compared to Hillary Clinton’s run for the U.S. presidency — about a Japanese woman rising to ultimate executive power, yet it would have been symbolic of enormous social change.

“Rethinking Japanese Feminisms” is a collection of short essays by 15 academics on diverse aspects of gender issues in Japan. Topics range from the androgynous eroticism in the art works of Taisho Era (1912-1926) illustrator Kasho Takabatake to reactions to the enactment of the 1999 Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society.

We start the journey in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when women were encouraged to be “ryōsai kenbo” (“good wives and wise mothers”), supporters of the monumental national exertion to attain parity with Western powers. Pioneering feminists such as Raicho Hiratsuka (1886-1971), founder of Seito (Bluestocking) magazine and the socialist Kikue Yamakawa (1890-1980) — discussed here in chapters by Elyssa Faison and Sarah Frederick — led the charge for female emancipation.

Voting rights were extended to women in 1945 and in one fell swoop equal rights between men and women were enshrined in the American-imposed constitution of 1947, albeit that the Civil Code was still studded with discriminatory relics from the previous era.

The worldwide women’s liberation movement took hold in Japan in the 1970s and, from then on, an increasing number of scholars and activists have considered how feminist concerns in Japan interact with other aspects of identity, whether nationality, ethnicity, familial status, sexuality or economic class.

Gender revolutions have sometimes taken place across Japanese society, politics and culture, in ways we might not realize — such as the female takeover of the world of ikebana in the 20th century, a traditional art that was previously a mostly male domain, discussed here in a chapter by Nancy Stalker.

One of the hot topics of our age is thinking about whether the construction of our society — its hierarchies and privileges — are the result of the natural scheme of things or conditioned thinking. Yet these debates are far older than we might think. At the 1955 Mothers’ Congress, as discussed by Hillary Maxson, it was suggested that the phrase “yome o morau” (“receive a bride”) be replaced by the more neutral “kekkon suru” (“to marry”) and that the feudal word for husband “shujin” (literally “master”) be replaced with the less lordly “otto.

Much of this book, however, deliberates on gender politics, such as Setsu Shigematsu’s chapter discussing “hegemonic feminist paradigms.”

The “ūman ribu” (“women’s lib”) movement of the 1970s, analyzed by James Welker, was initially skeptical of lesbianism at a time when others were embracing lesbianism “for political reasons.” At the same time, Mitsu Tanaka, the leader of the ribu movement and determined to tear down the oppressions of Japanese patriarchy in the 1970s, was apparently known by her feminist sisters as “the Emperor” and was resented for acting like a high-handed, occasionally violent male.

Deciding whether you give primacy of identity to gender, sexuality, nationality or any other construct has been at the heart of multiple other debates. This includes that between Japanese and Korean feminists over “comfort women” (women forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II) — discussed here by Akwi Seo — where judging whether the primary abuse was that of men against women or colonizing Japanese against colonized Koreans, can greatly color judgment.

In a book laden with academic jargon (“praxis,” “transnational,” “logofratrocentric”) there is little space for self-deprecating humor, but if you perform your own excavations on the endnotes, you can unearth the odd comic gem such as the lesbian group of the 1970s that, with brilliant wit, called itself “mainichi daiku” (“everyday dyke”), a play on the phrase “nichiyō daiku” (“weekend DIY-er”).

Throughout the book, women tend to be represented as a repressed class in need of liberation, in what Kathryn Hemmann describes as “internalized misogynistic phallocentric economies of desire.”

Hemmann argues that portrayals in fiction can “remove these women from the anonymity of statistics,” though it would actually be beneficial in this book to have more hard data about the positive transformation in Japanese women’s social roles in recent decades or real-world feedback from women forging successful careers.

There are numerous sideswipes at “anti-feminist conservatives,” particularly in the chapter by Tomomi Yamaguchi. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his campaign to promote a society in which “all women can shine” is given very short shrift, caricatured as primarily concerned with the types of toilets women use.

The volume concludes with a discussion of whether leading feminist thinkers such as Chizuko Ueno, Barbara Molony and Vera Mackie feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Japanese feminism. In a subject area that has powerful relevance to contemporary society and yet which attracts heated oppositions of over-arching political belief, you might be not be surprised to hear that they agree to disagree about just what feminist Japan’s future might look like.

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