From 1912 through 1926, Japan was ruled by Emperor Yoshihito, better known as Taisho. The son of the legendary Meiji, who had “modernized” Japan and built it into a world power, Taisho was a weak man who suffered from chronic illness and lacked his father’s ability to exercise authority. This infuriated nationalists within the Japanese government; but it also allowed the country to experience a brief flourishing of cultural and political progress. Movements for universal manhood suffrage, labor organization and feminism organized; Western influenced dress and archteture, a vibrant artistic and popular culture and free press began to challenge the notion of Kokutai (national identity) in favor of a more progressive state.
The country’s left wing, long quiescent, began organizing in earnest during the later years of Meiji’s reign, protesting expansion in the Russo-Japanese War abroad and the lack of labor protections for workers at home. Women’s rights were rarely in the forefront, but a small group of female activists and intellectuals began challenging male chauvinism. Like most societies of the time, Japan offered women few legal or political rights while pressing them into restrictive gender roles. Kaibara Ekken, the well-known Confucian philosopher, had advised “such is the stupidity of her character that it is incumbent on her, in every particular, to distrust herself and to obey her husband.” Things scarcely improved by Meiji’s time; the Civil Code of 1898, for all its liberal reforms, denied women the right to own property or engage in political activity and restrited educational opportunities.
Thus women’s rights became tied into radical politics, as illustrated by the High Treason Incident of May 1910. Police uncovered a supposed plot to murder the Emperor and arrested dozens of left wing activists, mostly anarchists. Among the 12 radicals executed was Kanno Sugako, a 29 year old writer who’d gained fame arguing against the cultural shaming of women. “The trial’s shocking and outrageous results show that the government is planning to take advantage of this incident to adopt extreme, repressive measures,” Sugako wrote in her diary. She warned, however, that “for every force there is a counterforce” and rejoiced at her ongoing freedom. “Here I am bound by this barred window, but my thoughts still spread their wings in the free world of ideas. Nothing can bind my thoughts or interfere with them.”
Sugako’s example inspired Ito Noe, one of the Taisho Era’s most remarkable figures. Born to a wealthy family on Kyushu, she learned about socialism and radical politics at college in Tokyo, learning English so she could read the works of Emma Goldman their original language. When her parents forced her into an arranged marriage, Noe fled home. She married a doctor, by whom she had two children, and drifted into the orbit of feminist writer Hiratsku Raicho. Raicho edited the magazine Seito (Blue Stockings), Japan’s first feminist periodical, and invited Noe to write for them. By 1915, at just 18 years of age, Noe took her place as editor of the periodical, and used it as a voice for increasingly radical politics.
Fighting in the face of criticism, government censorship and threats, Noe and Raicho embodied the “New Women” who, in Raicho’s words, “scorned Japan’s traditional gender roles in favor of “is not satisfied with the life of the kind of woman who is made ignorant, made a slave, made a piece of meat by male selfishness.” Japanese law of the time outlawed any political involvement by women, which was seen as antithetical to their place within Kokutai. But Blue Stocking published everything from essays on feminist issues like abortion and birth control, to editorials on labor reforms and political liberalization, to poems and short fiction exploring the repression of women in society.
Unsurprisingly, Blue Stocking‘s writings provoked the ire of authorities, even under the comparatively liberal rule of Taisho. The magazine was censored frequently for violating laws against indecency and insulting the government; police raided its headquarters and occasionally arrested its authors. Noe discovered that her and her husband were under constant police surveillance, complaining that their harassment turned her home into a prison. After the magazine published an article by communist Fukuda Hideko in 1912, a mob attacked Raicho’s home and threw stones through her windows. Right wing periodicals, parroting government attacks, began to slander the writers, even spreading rumors that Raicho molested children in an effort to discredit her.
Noe’s writings focused heavily on abortion and free love, arguing they were essential to the liberation of women. She also wrote a deeply controversial piece arguing for the legalization of prostitution, arguing that for women, “it was merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man…or to many men.” She criticized Christian missionaries’ battling against prostitution, arguing it straightjacketed women rather than liberating them further. The piece caused increased censorship; they also invited reproof from Marxist contributors to her magazine, who viewed the issue of free love as unhelpful, at best, to the class struggle. After a year of editing the magazine from her home, under constant police surveillance and harassment both from rightists and alleged allies, Noe was forced to close Blue Stockings.
Soon afterwards, Noe (who had previously written a short story about her dissatisfaction in marriage) left her husband to live with Osugi Sakae. Sakae was a fellow anarchist and veteran of the political battles of the late Meiji era, having been arrested repeatedly for demonstrations and pamphleteers; he had gained notoriety for translating Emma Goldman and Mikhail Bakunin into Japanese, and traveled abroad to attend meetings of the Communist International. Like Noe, Sakae was under surveillance by the Kempeitai, the government’s military police, who spied on his home and tapped his telephone. The two lived together for several years, in relationship that resulted in five children. Theirs was an open relationship which suited Noe, if not all of Sakae’s partners; Ichiko Kamachika, a fellow feminist and sometime-lover of Sakae, grew jealous of their relationship and, in November 1916, stabbed Sakae in the throat.
While Noe and Sakae’s domestic drama played out, their country continued to flex its muscles on the world stage. Japan joined the Allies in World War I, using the conflict to seize German possessions in the Pacific and issue expansive territorial demands on China. The war led Japanese companies to raise prices, exploiting the lack of foreign competition; this in turn shrunk wages and ballooned food prices, leading to bloody food riots and labor strikes among miners, fishermen and even business owners. Although the government blamed the newfound Soviet Union for inciting the violence, in fact the riots were stirred by angered proletarians and small business owners resentful of corporate greed.
The drama of the war years convinced Noe to develop a more expansive view of radical politics. In 1920 she visited the Sanshusa Company offices in the Tokyo ward of Kanda (now part of Chiyoda), which had begun employing women during the war years. In a stirring account of her visit, Noe recounted how nominally “progressive” employment policies did little to help, and perhaps even harmed the status of women by forcing them to do menial labor for unfair wages. One woman related her experience with the company:
“Early it would be seen as usual to be working from seven in the morning till over eleven at night. We hardly came back home before midnight. If we imagine how things were then we are happy about the twelve hour day today. At that time, we had never thought in dreams about a day of rest every Sunday. It seemed inevitable that the wages would not be raised for two or three years by one sen (1/100 of a yen). We were truly urged to work, and treated as badly as they wished. But we accepted this in silence. When we think about it, it seems incredible that our bodies could withstand this. We can’t imagine something as beautiful as an eight-hour day or a six-hour day, but if it became reality, the twelve-hour days for which we are now so thankful would seem most awful.”
Such commentary convinced Noe that reforming capitalism wasn’t enough:
While I listen to the tales of these women about their normal work conditions and other things, the feeling overwhelmed me that the demands of the strike for shorter work hours and a pay increase did not simply constitute a way to make production more effective, which part of the capitalists find to their taste, or that they come from the men’s side who join for education and leisure time, but rather that the requirements attack especially strongly the truly insoluble needs of these women. It emerges from the comments of these women that, although the factory law thankfully give women and children special attention as protected workers, it guaranteed them no protection, that the capitalists mainly used it at the time of wage increases not to raise the wages of single female workers.
Thus, Noe made anarchism central to her vision of feminism. In 1922 she cofounded the Red Wave Society, an attempted fusion of labor activists, socialists and anarchists calling for a radical change to Japan’s system. Although small in number (one historian estimates it never boasted more than 42 members), the Red Wave Society proved an outsized influence, organizing demonstrations of sympathetic demonstrators, along with a stirring manifesto written by Noe and her comrade Yamakawa Kikue: “The Sekirankai declares all-out war on the cruel, shameless society. Women who wish to to be liberated, join the Sekirankai. Socialism offers the only way to save human kind from the oppressions and abuses of capitalism. Sisters, who love justice and humanity, join the socialist movement!”
Noe’s writings were not widely translated outside of Japan, but her activism earned attention across the world. Her writings and activism earned foreign admirers like the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who met in 1921 during Russell’s visit to Tokyo. Russell and his wife Dora were deeply impressed by Noe’s fluent English and forceful intelligence, and engaged her in a long discussion of radical politics. When Dora Russell asked Noe “are you not afraid that the authorities will do something to you?” she responded by “drawing her hand across her throat.” She told the Russells “I know they will sooner or later.”
Noe’s comment unfortunately proved prescient. On September 1, 1923 Tokyo was rocked by the Great Kanto Earthquake, a catastrophe which killed over 100,000 people and destroyed much of the city. Riots broke out in the aftermath of the earthquake, largely targeting Korean workers and other minority groups. When Emperor Taisho declared martial law, reactionary officials used the chaos to settle scores against radical leaders. Noe and Osugi were already under surveillance by the Kempeitai, and thus proved natural targets for retaliation.
On September 16, Noe, Osugi and their six year old nephew Munezaku were arrested by a squad of Kempeitai officers and disappeared. A few days later, their battered bodies were found in a nearby well, having been beaten, tortured and strangled to death by police. Their killer, Lieutenant Masahiko Amakasu, was arrested and convicted of murder, receiving a lenient seven year sentence; he was pardoned by the Emperor in 1926 and later founded a propaganda company in the puppet state of Manchukuo. Soon after Amakasu’s pardon, Taisho died and was replaced by Hirohito, whose Showa Restoration replaced democracy with authoritarian nationalism.
Over the next few decades, the Taisho movement died in the face of official repression (Hirohito authorized a mass arrest of radical and democratic organizers in 1933, effectively crushing the Japanese Left), “government by assassination” and an Emperor more willing than Taisho to assert his divine authority. Women gained political rights in the post-World War II era, and became more active in politics, business and media; however, modern Japan remains low among developed nations in terms of gender equality and female opportunity. Ongoing battles by feminists continue to face resistance among conservative Japanese, ensuring that the battles of Ito Note and her comrades continue to this day.
Note: Besides the linked article, this essay draws upon Sharon L. Sievers, Flowers in salt : the beginnings of feminist consciousness in modern Japan (1983).