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Japanese Feminism on the Eve of Sailor Moon

One of my goals with Shojo Power! is to learn more about feminism from the Japanese perspective. I’ve learned about how Beate Sirota Gordon wrote women’s suffrage into the Japanese constitution during WWII. Raichō Hiratsuka became a leader of the women’s rights movement in the early 1900s and fought for women’s suffrage twenty years prior. For my next exploration, I wanted a book with more recent information. This lead me to Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism by Sandra Buckley. In Broken Silence, Buckley, an Australian academic, interviews prominent Japanese feminists. Unfortunately, the interviews weren’t as recent as I hoped; published in 1997, the interviews in Broken Silence occurred from 1988 to 1991. However, I realized two things 1) This would give a good picture of the state of feminism in Japan just before Sailor Moon appeared in 1992 and 2) many of the topics covered are still relevant today.

Sandra Buckley opens Broken Silence with a story of how the book came about. One of her male colleagues was absolutely convinced that feminism didn’t exist in Japan. She explained to him that feminism in Japan mainly operates outside the academic sphere, but without an academic book, her colleague was not convinced. And with that, Buckley set out to bring Japanese feminist voices to the international community.

One of my favorite things about this book is the format. Buckley gives a very detailed explanation of what she wanted to achieve. She didn’t want a generic book about “Japanese women.” She also didn’t want her own perspectives to misrepresent these women. Each Japanese feminist is represented in three different ways: a short biography, an interview and a sample of their written work. At the end of the book, there is a timeline of significant events from 1868 – 1991. I found this timeline incredibly helpful; it gave me a better sense of feminist struggles in Japan. Buckley features eleven Japanese feminists in Broken Silence:

Yayoi Aoki-Yayoi Aoki is one of the most well-known feminists in Japan. She is a prolific writer and speaker. While her interview covers many topics, Aoki-sensei emphases Japan’s status as a first world, capitalist nation and how Japanese women are complicit in the exploitation of women in the third world and the environment. The sample work is a fascinating essay about how the emperor system is reflected in Japanese society. Namely, how an authoritative, but blameless emperor morphs into an authoritative, but blameless husband, company or politician.

Notable quote: “Perhaps the biggest single problem in our society today is a lack of imagination.” (page 9)

Sachiko Ide– Professor Ide is linguist and professor emeritus of the Japan Women’s University. Much of her work has centered around the analysis of language. I didn’t know much of the particulars of “women’s speech,” but her interview and essay covered quite a bit–from the ramifications of using the pronouns watashi and boku to the use of Chinese words. The issue of women’s speech is a theme throughout many of the interviews.

Notable Quote: “Another interesting point we found was that working women have a far wider vocabulary and range of politeness levels than non-working women…” (page 44)

Fumiko Kanazumi-Kanazumi-sensei is a lawyer who founded the Women’s Cooperative Legal Service in 1975. As a child, she witnessed her step-father abuse her mother. One of her goals is to end violence against women. Her interview focuses on the issues surrounding marriage, divorce and power. I loved how her essay focuses on the idea of self-determination in regards to issues such as abortion. That said, her essay explicitly excludes homosexuality in her analysis.

Notable Quote: “The concept ‘my body is my own’ affirms an assertion of our self-identity–‘I am what I am.’ I both feel and think that this approach incorporates, in an essential way, a philosophy of the dignity of all life.” (page 84)

Rumiko Kōra-Kōra-sensei is a well-known poet. Her writing and poetry focuses on female sexuality, identity, war and revaluing the feminine. She has made the point of promoting and translating the poetry from around the world, particularly from Africa and other Asian countries. I loved reading her interview, the way she speaks is so lyrical! I wish I could speak so beautifully in my every day life! Instead of an essay, several short poems are translated. Here’s my favorite:


I slip on the stairs and there’s a room
I enter the room and there you all are
(I don’t need you, let’s get rid of you)

I turn into a sword and run through the streets

The air faces me
and shrivels around me like a burst balloon
as I slash
between the gazes, my body writhing
at the folds in the air
at the invisible wall of words

another person who is me and is not me
will exchange warm greetings with you
slip on the stairs
and break down the door.

Notable Quote: “I felt even as child that language was not mine, that I existed outside the language that surrounds me, like a foreigner. The warmth and familiarity of a language that was my own, wrapped gently around me, remained a dream, unknown. In the absence of a language I could wear comfortably, I took the sounds and words around me and played with them. Language was one of my favorite toys as a child.” (page 128)

Yayori Matsui–Yayori Matsui was a journalist and first Asian General Bureau Correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun. She co-founded the Asian Women’s Association which seeks to build connections between Japanese women and the rest of Asia. Much of her work focused on the sexual and economic exploitation of immigrant women in Japanese society. Her interview and essay highlights the challenges of Filipina migrant women who work in Japanese restaurants, clubs and bars. Matsui-sensei passed away in 2002, but her legacy lives on.

Notable Quote: “It is not possible to discuss the status of Filipino prostitutes in Japan or the nature of the sex industry without looking at questions of sexuality and gender in the Japanese family.” (page 141)

Yoshiko Miya– Yoshiko Miya is a freelance writer and critic. She has written many books spanning such topics as rape, disability and sexuality. There are several excerpts from her book Sexuality. Her scathing opinion of the mizuko jizō industry is one of the most fascinating essays in Broken Silence. Mizuko Jizō are statues that can be bought to memorialize the death of an unborn child. This can include stillborn deaths, miscarriages and abortions. She describes how the Temple of Shiun, built in 1971, was supported by conservative Prime Minister Satō. The chief priest, Hashimoto, claimed misfortunes were caused by aborted fetuses. By buying a mizuko jizō, women could satisfy these spirits. Generally, I think of Japan as having a much more liberal stance on abortion than the United States, but this book makes it clear that abortion rights do come under fire there as well.

Notable Quote: “…rape is not something that happens out on the street, but, in the Japanese case, it is located within the family. This only adds to the problem of silence.” (page 164)

Toyoko Nakanishi-Toyoko Nakanishi founded Shōkadō Women’s Bookstore aka Women’s Bookstore YUU. Nakanishi-sensei used her bookstore to spearhead the Japanese edition of the influential book, Our Bodies, Ourselves. One of their objectives was to change the Japanese vocabulary used describe sexual organs. In Buddhism, blood is considered “polluted” so words that use the character of “blood” also connote “polluted.” Many Japanese women could not utter these words, even if their health was on the line. The Japanese editors replaced the character for blood with the character for sexuality. For example, the characters used to describe labia were “dark/shaded lips”(陰唇) and were changed to “sexual lips” (性毛). Their efforts were not in vain and current dictionaries do use some of these revised words. Instead of an essay, several excerpts from the Japanese edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves is included. I had no idea that Japanese feminists went to such lengths to get this book translated. It gave me a greater appreciation of just how influential Our Bodies, Ourselves has been around the word.

Notable Quote: “A book like this is essential if we are going to prevent the gap from growing between the theoretical debates taking place among feminists and the reality of most Japanese women’s experience of their own bodies.” (page 194)

Keiko Ochiai-Keiko Ochiai is the author of the influential novel The Rape and owner of Crayon House which serves to support the needs and interests of women and children. The controversy surrounding The Rape and its subsequent movie brought public awareness to the issue of sexual violence. The essay is an excerpt from The Rape where the protagonist Michiko Yahagi struggles with the debilitating effects of the assault.

Notable Quote: “I had initially written it with the title Gōkan, the Japanese word for rape, but they rejected this. I had deliberately chosen not to use the Japananized version of the English, rēpu. This word often comes up in romance fiction and television dramas, but the girl usually falls in love with the rapist, discovers her sexual desire through the experience, or some other equally outrageous thing. I wanted to use the Japanese word gōkan because it carries all the weight of the reality of rape. I finally gave in and let them use the softer word rēpu.” (page 232)

Chiyo Saito– Chiyo Saito is the founding editor of Agora, the longest running feminist journal in postwar Japan. Agora seeks to provides a wide range of perspectives and information their readers normally wouldn’t have access to. Her essay is an exploration on the definition of feminism.

Notable Quote: “It is often said that northern European feminism is nature while American feminism is radical, and yet surely there are many feminisms in America…Isn’t it problematic to speak in terms of ‘American feminism’ or ‘European feminism’? In this sense, it is equally strange to speak of ‘Japanese feminism.’ There are so may forms of feminism in Japan, and I would argue that the more variations and the greater the number of theoretical positions, the better.” (page 268)

Chizuko Ueno– Professor Ueno is a sociologist and professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo. She is Japan’s most well-known feminist. Her books sell well and she is in high demand for speaking engagements. You can watch her 2013 Najita Distinguish Lecture called Forty Years of Japanese Feminism: What It Has Achieved … and What It Has Not. Her essay cautions against “reverse orientalism.” She argues that the rejection of Western models in favor of a Japanese-centric solutions is a slippery slope, and one that can precariously lead to fascism and war. (Professor Ueno is responding to the prewar feminist Itsue Takamure who had argued that fascism valued womanhood because it encouraged women to have more children.) Professor Ueno runs the Women’s Action Network and they have a blog available in English.

Notable Quote: “Japanese men are quick to respond to a feminist strategy for the feminization of the male. They argue that because they are already so much more feminine than their Western counterparts, they should not have to give any more than they already have. Some of the cleverer Japanese male intellectuals have developed quite elaborate antifeminization arguments around the difference between Western and Eastern men.” (page 282)

All in all, I highly recommend Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminism. While it didn’t help me make any direct connections to Sailor Moon and feminism, I can definitely see how Sailor Moon became the huge success it was. These women pushed feminists issues to the forefront in the 70s and 80s, paving the way so young women throughout Japan could envision themselves as champions of love and justice.

[Note: This post does not cover all aspects–negative and positive–of these women’s work. If you have anything to add, please include it in a comment below.]

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