Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 43, July 2019

Julia C. Bullock, Ayako Kano and James Welker (editors)

Rethinking Japanese Feminisms

Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018
ISBN 978-0-8248-6669-3 (hbk); viii + 301 pp.

reviewed by Yasuko Sato

  1. Rethinking Japanese Feminisms is a collection of fourteen essays that reconsiders and reassesses a wide array of feminist practices in Japan over the last one hundred years. This anthology grew out of a conference sponsored by Emory University in 2013, drawing inspiration from the keynote addresses of Vera Mackie, Barbara Molony and Ueno Chizuko, leading academics in the field of Japanese women's studies. With a special emphasis on the plural 'feminisms,' this interdisciplinary volume features the richness and diversity of feminist approaches deriving from literature, cultural studies, history, anthropology, and sociology. Reflecting national and transnational dimensions of feminist activities in Japan, the volume consists of contributions from scholars in the United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore. Along with Ayako Kano, who wrote the book's conclusion, two of the fourteen contributors are its editors and the authors of its introduction.
  2. This book is divided into four parts, each of which is accompanied by a brief introduction that sums up its 3–4 chapters. The four thematic divisions are activism on various fronts, educational and employment opportunities, literary and cultural undertakings, and transnational boundary-crossing practices. These four areas, although pointing to multifaceted feminist critiques, do not hinder the reader from establishing internal connections among chapters through their similarities and differences. Especially notable is the concept of 'intersectionality,' a system of disadvantage arising from the compounded oppressions of race, gender, class, sexuality and nationality. The term is most prominently highlighted in Setsu Shigematsu's discussion of critical transnational feminism (CTF). The notion of intersectionality is useful in bringing together the Marxist proletarian movement and the Korean ethnic movement in Japan. Elyssa Faison's chapter on socialist activism (Part 1) and Akwi Seo's chapter on Korean diaspora in Japan (Part IV) illuminate each other, alerting us to recognise structural gender inequalities in male-dominated public campaigns. Despite differences in political agendas, both leftist movements exhibit similar patterns of male dominance and female subordination, with gender-neutral liberatory struggles prioritised over women's special needs.
  3. There are numerous other thematic continuities and interlocking concerns within the book. Some contributors, therefore, refer to one another and nurture mutually reflexive dialogues in their chapters. Although this linkage is not made in the book, James Welker's analysis of lesbian feminism comes remarkably close to Akwi Seo's account of the 1991 NWEC (National Women's Education Center) camp of Korean women in Japan concerning 'comfort women.' Notably, both lesbian and Korean feminists came under the influence of ūman ribu (women's liberation), the radical feminist movement led by Tanaka Mitsu (b. 1945) in the early 1970s. The two feminist groups originally took a dim view of the Japanese women's liberation movement, because their positionality as lesbians/Koreans was disadvantageous to that of heterosexual/Japanese women. The reader is thus exposed to diverse topics and allowed to acquire fresh insights into commonalities among seemingly unrelated feminist endeavours.
  4. The act of 'rethinking,' after all, is a means whereby conventional understandings are challenged, destabilised, and replaced with alternative arguments. It is unavoidable, therefore, that the entire book is permeated with deconstructive modes of analysis. Leslie Winston focuses on Takabatake Kashō's (1888–1966) 'hermaphroditic' portrayals of male and female subjects, which blur the distinction between masculinity and femininity. She sees feminist potential in this dismantling of static gender categories, as his androgynous images manifest a world in which 'female bodies are liberated from government demands for reproduction and motherhood' (150). Winston construes gender and sexual fluidity as a site of feminist contestation.
  5. If we live in a 'post-poststructuralist age' (257), as J. Keith Vincent mentions in his portrayal of Takemura Kazuko (1954–2011), postmodernism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction may no longer be the most viable theoretical frameworks. Nonetheless, the transgressive performativity of gender in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) is enshrined in Chris McMorran's observations about the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). Although the tourist industry tends to be exploitative, he regards ryokan work as 'a stylized repetition of acts' (126) that liberates female employees. His search for feminist agency in unlikely places is highly analogous to Nancy Stalker's identification of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, as an example of feminist praxis. Exemplifying the conventions of femininity, Japan's traditional arts are not typically associated with such modern constructs as feminism. Likewise, Barbara Hartley's reading of Sono Ayako (b. 1931) and Ariyoshi Sawako (1931–1984) represents an attempt to discern feminist aspirations in literary texts that are not commonly regarded as feminist.
  6. Since Rethinking Japanese Feminisms is geared toward challenging existing views and assumptions, counternarratives are one of the most striking features of the book. Elyssa Faison demonstrates how socialist feminist Yamakawa Kikue (1890–1980) fully embraced 'women's rights' and spoke for them as 'proletarian rights' after World War II. Yamakawa, a fervent advocate of revolutionary socialism, had viewed suffrage with disdain, ascribing liberal political rights to 'bourgeois' women's associations. Faison offers a succinct explanation of this perplexing ideological conversion by pointing to 'the end of the authoritarian and militarist state against which she [Yamakawa] had fought her entire adult life' (29). Sarah Frederick, too, brings a new perspective to less known aspects of Yamakawa's legacy. Frederick throws into relief Yamakawa's queer inclinations through an analysis of her translations of English sexologist Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) and of her seemingly romantic attraction to anarchist feminist and martyr Itō Noe (1895–1923). The process of rethinking Japanese feminisms thus entails bringing to light what has hitherto remained obscure and little known.
  7. Despite the advantages of more nuanced and enriched interpretations, the book gives the impression that what is reexamined anew is not necessarily 'feminisms,' but individual research topics. With regard to Yamakawa's feminist position, the blurring of Marxism and liberal democracy and of heterosexuality and homosexuality does not generate innovative perspectives or insights. The above two chapters on Yamakawa are more like the advancement of specialised knowledge than the creation of significant new feminist paradigms.
  8. In much of the book, categorising seemingly anti-feminist or non-feminist engagements as feminist is essentially tantamount to seeking women's liberation on the personal level. Especially noteworthy is Chris McMorran's identification of the ryokan as a 'refuge for women (kakekomidera)' (122–23), namely, 'a refuge from abusive spouses, unhappy marriages, and financial reliance on a man' (120). Nakai, women employed to create ryokan hospitality, usually lack job skills after running away from their husbands. Their feminine occupations greatly resemble those of female ikebana teachers in Nancy Stalker's chapter who 'use conventional femininity as a tool to create spaces for individual freedom and enrichment despite gender inequalities that remain in Japanese society' (120). She explores postwar ikebana as a means of promoting women's financial independence, while acknowledging that such a profession capitalises on rather than defies the norms of femininity.
  9. In Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, transgression and displacement are major analytical techniques, but none of its authors frontally challenge the 'good wife, wise mother' (ryōsai kenbo) ideal. 'Rethinking' familial ideology is a necessity, if Abe Shinzō, the current prime minister of Japan, expects from women nothing other than '"good wives, wise mothers" in the conventional sense' (267), as Ayako Kano astutely observes. Julia C. Bullock examines Koizumi Ikuko's (1892–1964) advocacy of coeducation in the early twentieth century, when women were trained to behave as 'good wives, wise mothers.' Devoting her attention to women's education, Bullock inadvertently circumvents knotty issues involving 'women with children' (94), which Hiratsuka Raichō (1886–1971) tackled head-on in the 'motherhood protection debate' (bosei hogo ronsō).
  10. Hillary Maxson highlights the pivotal role that Hiratsuka played in creating the Mothers' Congress (Hahaoya Taikai) of Japan in June 1955. Maxson explicates such a maternalist movement in terms of 'motherhood in the interest of mothers' (34), contrasting it with wartime motherhood, or 'motherhood in the interest of the state' (34, 36, 45). She demonstrates how 'martial motherhood' (gunkoku no haha) (35), the wartime state's appropriation of motherhood, was supplanted with an authentically mother-centred movement in the early postwar era. In the wake of World War II, feminist motherhood spread worldwide and culminated in the World Congress of Mothers in Lausanne, Switzerland in July 1955. Hiratsuka's involvement in international motherhood activism prompts Maxson to argue that 'rethinking modern Japanese feminisms' is 'rethinking global feminisms' (42). The devastation of the Second World War compelled women from around the globe to politicise motherhood and to rise up for a mother-centred movement. Maxson also attributes political agency to mothers in line with Canadian scholar Andrea O'Reilly's matricentric feminism. Despite all this, Maxson fails to call into question what Chandra Talpade Mohanty designates as the 'exploitative structures and systems' (154, 157).
  11. Rethinking Japanese Feminisms lacks holistic approaches to problem solving, while investigating a large variety of feminisms and their contribution to women's empowerment, including 'housewife feminism' (125). Feminist pluralism can easily succumb to fragmentation and does not necessarily entail grasping the big picture or addressing definitive questions. This point can be illustrated by Tomomi Yamaguchi's study of a conservative backlash that reached its peak between 2002 and 2006. It rose in opposition to the mainstreaming of gender equality policies, such as the 1999 Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society and municipal gender equality ordinances. According to Yamaguchi, danjo kyōdō sankaku (equal participation of men and women) was such an ill-defined concept in Japanese that conservatives considered it 'non-threatening' (79), as their anti-feminist grassroots networks achieved success. As it turned out, 'many of the backlashers have lost interest in criticizing it' (79). In this context, Yamaguchi observes that feminist leaders and scholars were virtually the only visible propagators of danjo kyōdō sankaku, serving on governmental committees and giving lectures at municipal centers. What we have here is the ineffectuality of elite women's feminist initiatives in the face of pragmatically oriented citizens. Yamaguchi writes that 'conservative women and the wives and mothers of male conservatives whom I met were mostly working women' (74). What this suggests is that top-down feminist interventions were unabashedly elitist, detached from the general populace.
  12. A vision for a 'gender-equal society' (68) is fundamentally at odds with the stark realities of the Japanese portrayed by celebrated crime fiction writer Kirino Natsuo (b. 1951). Kathryn Hemmann calls attention to manifestations of 'real-world unpleasantness' (175) by remarking on the misogyny internalised by Kirino's characters and on their lack of freedom, with men dominating Japanese society. In Real World (2003), four high school girls despair of and rebel against the adult world. Their youthful vulnerability is pitted against the kind of adulthood represented by the mother whom Worm, a male student at the same school, despises and murders. In Grotesque (2003), Kirino portrays women's misery, including impossible standards of physical attractiveness, 'within a phallocentric economy of desire' (175). In Hemmann's analysis, Kirino's feminism consists in allowing her characters to 'exercise a modicum of personal agency … by telling their own stories' (179). These are the depths of hopelessness and psychological distress among contemporary Japanese females.
  13. The question that now arises is this: is it possible to rethink feminisms without addressing real-world problems? What sets this anthology apart is an exclusive focus on feminist struggles. While deeply concerned about the future of feminisms in Japan, Ayako Kano refrains from equating scholarship with activism. She limits herself to claiming that a scholar's 'narrative choices … can become intertwined with her prognosis of social and political afflictions' (276–77). Setting up the pessimism/optimism dichotomy, Kano dwells on sociologist Ueno Chizuko's pessimism since Abe Shinzō's political comeback in 2012. Ueno, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, has been a vibrant public intellectual committed to the popularisation of feminism in Japan. She is likely to reckon that, after decades of strenuous feminist agitation, Abe's neo-conservative administration only heightens a feeling of powerlessness. If the study of 'feminisms' is not a way to effect change, feminist academics are not creative agents for change. In Japan, the emergence of women's studies (joseigaku) coincided with the end of 'women's lib.' It is time for us to examine whether 'academic feminism' since the 1980s is a site of feminist praxis, because Rethinking Japanese Feminists is a collection of essays by specialists and observers rather than by visionaries and activists.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 29 July 2019 1301