It is said that Japanese society is inhospitable to individualism (kojinshugi), with the most vocal anti-individualists being conservative educators and politicians; though some of them might defend individualism if it means “economic self-reliance.”

Things were different a century ago. Then individualism was a byword for Japan’s reforming intelligentsia, inspired by pioneering modernizer Yukichi Fukuzawa’s proclamation of “national independence through personal independence.”

So the early 20th-century philosopher, Kitaro Nishida, wrote that “it is only when individuals in society fully engage in action and express their natural talent that society progresses.” Like other intellectuals, he found his individualist heroes in the plays of the Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen.

Yet there is an often remarked upon disagreement between early Japanese understandings of individualism, regarding what individual expressions of “talent and action” should be valued — and protected.

For one understanding, their value depends on their capacity to secure cultural, scientific or economic benefits for the nation.

Another, more diverse understanding values individual expression that serves a much wider range of public or personal goods, or it just values the freedom to noncoercively express talents or preferences. The heroine of Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House,” Nora, who deserts her suffocatingly paternalistic husband and family to find her “true self,” fits with this perspective.

Some may assume that the latter understanding of individualism is “Western” and that, being Western, it is incompatible with Japanese culture. But this assumption begs the question at issue: whether such a philosophy is immovably bound to its culture(s) of origin, or whether it can be exported to and domesticated in other cultures.

Anyway, 100 years ago some Japanese intellectuals upheld this latter understanding. One of them, Raicho Hiratsuka, made a high profile stand in 1913 on behalf of Japanese women’s freedoms. Her actions of that year still have something important to say to us today.

Born to a wealthy family in 1886 and well educated, Hiratsuka decided early to follow an independent path. She immersed herself in Western thought and Zen Buddhism, caused a scandal with her love life, and in 1911 became editor of a new women’s literary journal, Seito (Bluestocking).

Seito made quite an impression on Japan’s literary world. It opened with Hiratsuka’s legendary metaphor for women’s lost spiritual independence — “In the beginning, woman was the sun” — and her mystical exhortations to women to cultivate their “hidden genius.”

A 1912 issue’s supplement on the first Japanese performance of “A Doll’s House” contributed to public discussions about Nora as the liberated “New Woman,” though Hiratsuka was dismissive of Nora’s naivete. In the public eye, the Seito writers were soon identified as “New Women.” However, public opinion turned against them as the mainstream press spread exaggerated stories about their love affairs and nonconformism.

In January 1913 Hiratsuka published a poetic defense of the “New Woman.” She began by identifying the New Woman (and herself) with the ever-renewing powers of the sun. Then, revealing her growing feminist convictions, she launched into a fiery polemic:

The New Woman brings down a curse on “yesterday.” The New Woman will not endure to be someone who silently walks the path of the oppressed, old-fashioned woman. The New Woman is not satisfied with a feminine existence reduced to ignorance, to slavery, to being a mere slab of meat for the sake of male egoism. The New Woman hopes to destroy the old morals and laws created for the sake of male convenience.

Though Hiratsuka’s manifesto was much praised, public criticism of Seito continued.

Weakened by desertions but radicalized, the Seito writers increasingly criticized conventional marriage and the state ideology for Japanese women, ryosai kenbo (good wife and wise mother).

To understand what they were up against, consider the aforementioned conflicting understandings of individualism. The modernizing Japanese state needed bold innovators who could break with past thinking and make scientific and economic advances that would put Japan on an equal footing with the Western powers. Individualism that served these goals was acceptable.

But such innovation, and the public labor that supported it, were largely jobs for men. The state expected women to be obedient helpmates for their husbands, homemakers and guardians of the physical and moral health of their children, whom they would educate to become dutiful citizens. At this time, women had little say in choosing their husbands and no access to birth control.

In the Japanese government’s eyes, women who rejected these prescribed roles were practicing an individualism that threatened morals, family life and society.

Yet historian Shizuko Koyama has shown that, for all its promotion of Confucian, “Japanese women’s” virtues, ryosai kenbo, resembled mainstream European and American thinking about middle-class women’s roles in industrializing societies. The New Woman cursed “yesterday,” but she was fighting a largely modern ideology.

Hiratsuka’s April 1913 Seito essay “To the Women of the World” denounced this ideology with a vehemence that drew the attention of government censors:

“Is there to be no other business for women than the business of procreation …? Is it women’s sole vocation to be a wife and a mother. ..? I wonder how many women have, for the sake of financial security in their lives, entered into loveless marriages to become one man’s lifelong servant and prostitute.”

This essay helped provoke an official crackdown on women’s magazines that “disturbed public order.”

Ultimately, government censors would decide the compatibility of individualism and “Western ideas about women” with Japanese culture.

But the year was not over. In mid-1913 Hiratsuka rekindled a love affair with Hiroshi Okumura, an artist five years her junior. They talked over what to do next, since they both rejected conventional marriage. Finally, in rather Ibsenist fashion, Hiratsuka deserted her parents’ home and moved in with Okumura in January 1914.

Though Hiratsuka later advocated state-provided incomes for stay-at-home mothers, she was the main breadwinner in the family she raised with Okumura, and they remained unmarried for 27 years.

Weighed down by public criticism and the declining fortunes of Seito, Hiratsuka handed over its editorship to a rising young feminist, Noe Ito, in 1915.

She emerged, re-energized in 1919 to co-found the New Woman Association, which campaigned for women’s suffrage and labor rights.

Today Hiratsuka  is remembered as a pioneering Japanese feminist. I think she has something to say to today’s young Japanese women who, while not consciously individualist, often do express an individualized attitude in their love, family and career aspirations.

Sociologists have researched the collision of these aspirations with conservative gender ideologies and workplace discrimination. Hiratsuka’s uneven record in political activism may not provide the best inspiration for women struggling against these realities.

Yet, her early defiance of ryosai kenbo ideology, her advocacy of working women’s rights and her lyrical affirmations of women’s “hidden genius and latent talent” all remain inspirational.

Finally — with all today’s talk of declining marriage and birthrates in Japan — perhaps Hiratsuka’s and Okumura’s unconventional bond points to an alternative for those caught between rigid gender-role expectations and an economy less supportive of male breadwinners.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University.

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