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Tuesday, July 20, 1999

Battle for women's rights in Japan

THE RISE OF THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT IN JAPAN, by Akiko Tokuza. Tokyo: Keio University Press, 1999, 302 pp., 3,000 yen (cloth), ISBN 4-7664-0731-8.

Buddhism instructed wives that " . . . even if (your husband) seems more lowly than you are, man is the personification of the Buddha . . . (and) you must bear in mind that you have married a Buddhist saint."

There were many hurdles to the founding and development of the feminist movement in Japan, just one of which was established religion and its perception of women as naturally and spiritually inferior to men. The historical legacy of feudal society also left its indelible mark on social and family structures, and the idea that women could never be men's equals was deeply entrenched.

In short, women were perceived as incompetent and rightfully lacking autonomy. The exclusion of Japanese women from political life meant that even alerting them to the injustice and inequality of their position was no easy task.

Because of this, the form that consciousness-raising has taken has been vital in the development of a strong movement of feminist activism, and it is precisely this aspect of the rise of feminism in Japan that Akiko Tokuza examines in her book.

Tokuza uses theories of communication and social movements to provide a model for and understanding of the Japanese feminist experience. It is academic in approach, based as it is on her doctoral dissertation, and little has been done to adapt the style or subject matter of the book to a more general readership.

Tokuza explores the successful institutionalization of the feminist movement in Japan, which she says is due both to the organizational abilities of an early leader of the movement, Mumeo Oku, and Oku's effectiveness as a communicator of ideas.

Oku's capacity to garner broad-based support for the movement was critical in establishing a strong and active foundation for legislative change. As Tokuza points out, "women do not normally see themselves as actual or even potential agents of change. Thus, an effective feminist rhetoric must not only energize, unite and mobilize an audience, it must also fundamentally transform each member's sense of her right to, and capacity for, the necessary action." Oku evidently was effective in raising the expectations and consciousnesses of many.

Oku emerged as a central figure in the feminist movement at the beginning of the Taisho Period. Although the Meiji Civil Code of 1898 introduced the concept of individual rights to Japan, it also defined women as legal nonentities -- women had no rights as individuals and were under a principle of absolute paternal authority.

During the Taisho Period, a new wave of liberalization swept Japan politically, economically and socially. This, Tokuza says, assisted in creating an environment in which women could take new initiatives. Notably, there was a resurgence of interest in the West and, in particular, in the role of women in Western societies. This led to a renewed struggle for women's rights.

Women in Japan sought amendments to the Public Order and Police Law, under which they could not legally organize even to demand the right to vote. Women's organizations began to be formed, among them the Shin Fujin Kyokai (New Women's Association)). The principal objectives of such organizations were the abolition of the family-head system, equal opportunities for men and women, the abolition of licensed prostitution and a fixed standard living wage.

The NWA was launched with three strategic goals in mind: amending the Public Order and Police Law to repeal the prohibition on women attending political assemblies and joining political organizations; providing women with legal protection against venereal disease; and extending suffrage to women.

Its practical focus was to generate support for its petitions to the legislature, and it therefore depended on the persistent efforts of its members. It failed because it did not develop a strong foundation of support and depended too much on the efforts of its key leaders. However, the NWA was important in stimulating public awareness and in providing a training ground for female activists -- among them, Mumeo Oku.

After the NWA folded, Oku continued to promote its strategic goals. In 1925 she wrote "Fujin Mondai Jurokko" (Sixteen Lectures on Women's Problems), in which she sought "to improve women's awareness and understanding by creating means of communication to transmit information and ideas dedicated to this end; . . . [and] to improve women's living conditions by creating social structures to support and assist them."

Publications such as Oku's book and the monthly journal Fujin Undo played a vital role in disseminating information and perspectives to improve women's identity and position in society.

In 1930, Oku established the Hataraku Fujin no Ie (House for Working Women) in Tokyo, which was open to working women from anywhere in Japan. It was a focal point for the mobilization of her efforts, and it clearly tied the feminist movement to everyday concerns. She also established, in 1948, Shufu Rengokai (the Japan Housewives Association), and this, according to Tokuza, "represents, more than any of [her] other efforts, the consequences of effective persuasive appeals and calculated modes of operation necessary for sustaining a social movement and bringing about changes of substance." It was fueled by postwar concerns about basic human needs, and Oku appealed to so many women because of her participatory leadership style and down-to-earth approach.

The slogan for which Oku was famous was "there is a direct connection between politics and the kitchen." In short, she appealed to the concerns of the average woman: family, education and work.

Despite the interesting subject matter of Tokuza's book, its greatest flaw lies in its approach and that it is stylistically in the form of an academic dissertation rather than a book. As a consequence, too much emphasis is placed on proving a theoretical point about theories of communication and too little on drawing out for a more general readership why this point is particularly significant or interesting, particularly in a contemporary context.

This is a great shame, because Oku's achievements are considerable; the general public would be better served by a less theoretical study of her leadership. She led a very active and fulfilling life, and she made a substantial contribution to the feminist movement in Japan. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that those to whom Oku would have appealed in her campaign for women's rights are unlikely to pick up a book that is in many respects a testimony to her efforts.

Nevertheless, Tokuza's book is not inaccessible, and for those with a historical interest in how the feminist movement was established in Japan, this serves as a very useful and interesting introduction.

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