A writer, feminist, and women’s liberation activist of modern Japan. Hiratsuka Raicho was an important figure who played a pivotal role in the women’s rights movement. Additionally, she bravely stood for peace in the midst of a raging war.
During her time, women had no voice and oppression was the norm. But Raicho wasn’t afraid to stand up. Her bravery paved the way for what would become the dawn of a new era in the realm of women’s rights.
A Tomboy in a Ladylike Age
Hiratsuka Raicho was born as Okumura Haru, the youngest of two sisters, on February 10, 1886, in Tokyo. She was born with vocal cords that were naturally weak and had trouble speaking in the very beginning. But this minor inconvenience wouldn’t hold her back from having a strong, influential voice in the future.
Her father, Hiratsuka Sadajiro, was the son of a samurai and served as a high-level official of the Meiji government. Her mother, Tsuyu, was the daughter of a physician of the Tokugawa lineage and was skilled in dance and music. (However, her strict husband forbid her from continuing to practice upon marriage). Her family was no common family and Haru was raised in a rather strict household.
Having spent time in the United States and Europe, her father had unique views on how to raise his children. As a result, he did things a little differently than most common families of the time. They were dressed in more Western-style clothing, as opposed to traditional Japanese garb. In addition, their parents sent them to school from an early age. It was rare for common children to attend kindergarten. It was rarer still for girls to attend primary school at all.
As if all this wasn’t unusual enough for a typical girl, Haru also had a unique personality to match. Haru was known to be quite competitive and strong-minded “for a girl”. Yet the times didn’t allow for girls to pursue “masculine” interests, so she was forced to conform to “feminine” standards.
Along with her tomboyish nature, she was said to have a rather masculine appearance. Her own family lamented that she was “not beautiful,” especially as compared to her sister, who was much more ladylike. Because of this, Haru was subject to rather intense “treatments” by her mother, who obsessed over her daughter’s appearance. Her mother would comb a thick liquid into Haru’s hair to “tame” it and make her look more “beautiful.”
The Girls’ High School Order of 1899 by establishing girls’ high schools around the country. This brought about a higher quality of education for women. Haru was forced to continue her education, which primarily sought to teach girls how to become a “good wife and mother.” Unsurprisingly, Haru did not take very well to this idea. She rebelled continuously, skipping classes when she could.
Finally, she found a place she felt she could really belong: college. She discovered the works of writer Naruse Jinzo, a man who pushed for women’s’ rights to education. Har was deeply inspired by him and his works. After a bit of hard work, her parents permitted her to attend the school that Naruse founded: Japan Women’s University.
It was here, at last, that her life could begin.
Through Naruse’s education, Haru learned things she had once only dreamt of. She took a strong liking to reading. She consumed philosophy books avidly as a form of soul searching. In 1905, she discovered Zen, and found her “enlightenment”. She graduated Japan Women’s University in 1906 while still practicing Zen and entered a women’s English school in 1907. It was here that she discovered literature, and had her second “awakening.”
The Shiobara Incident
While fully flexing her new independence, Haru joined several new groups and classes. One of them was Keishu Bungakukai, a women’s literature study group organized by writer and translator Ikuta Choko. While attending this group, she became familiar with one of the lecturers, writer Morita Sohei. Despite being married, Morita became close to Haru – even writing an overture dedicated to her.
In 1908, after spending much time together, the two escaped to Nagano. Haru was willing to lose her own life by allowing Morita to kill her. She would “live on” on only through a novel about their affair that Morita promised to write.
However, police discovered the plan. The media had a field day with the scandalous incident upon their return to Tokyo. The Alumnae Association of Japan Women’s University even removed her name from its roster.
Haru was unsure of how to deal with the repercussions of her careless actions. Plus she was disappointed that Natsume Soseki – a famous Japanese author and one of her idols – suggested she marry Morita. So she ran away once again to Nagano. This time she went alone, to spend time in seclusion and to avoid the public eye.
The Birth of “Raicho”, Bluestockings, and the “New Women”
This incident is in part what sparked Haru’s interest in the liberation of women’s suppressed ego. Upon returning to Tokyo after her retreat, Ikuta Choko strongly recommended she start a literary journal. It would become Japan’s first literary work written for and by women. Haru thus adopted the name Raicho as her pen name. The inspiration was the name of a bird she often saw during her time spent in seclusion in Nagano.
Raicho published the first issue of her literary journal, entitled “Seito” (青鞜せいとう), or Bluestockings, in September 1911. It elicited extreme reactions from both men and women alike due to the controversial nature of the topics covered. Raicho’s journal tackled the oppression of women in marriages and criticism of the patriarchy.
The ensuing generated angry letters from readers and critical reviews in the newspapers. It also prompted more than a few delinquents to throw stones at the Hiratsuka residence. Despite the stigma, Raicho and her authors continued to write. Eventually, the authorities banned some of their works. Some teachers who were known to subscribe to the journal were also disciplined or fired.
The women writers of these journals became dubbed “New Women” by their haters. Yet, contrary to the original intention to bring her down, this criticism only further proved Raicho’s point. The backlash motivated her to continue speaking out. She wore the title of “New Women” as a badge of honor .
Raicho and her team continued picking apart the inequalities women faced in common marriages. (For example, marriages weren’t even officially recognized until a woman had changed her surname.) During this period, Raicho met Okumura Hiroshi, a young painter, who would later become her lover.
Aware of the controversy it would cause, Raicho nonetheless began living together with Okumura, despite being unmarried. She defended her choice publicly in an article in Seito, entitled “To My Parents on Becoming Independent”. Causing an initial stir, many believed this to be a mere act of rebellion. The relationship, many thought, would eventually fall apart. But the opposite proved true. Later, Raicho would go even further and give birth to two children with Okumura out of wedlock.
The couple continued to live and raise their children together in this way until 1941. Raicho finally agreed to marry and take her husband’s surname. She did so only for the sake of her son. She feared he’d face consequences as an illegitimate child if not properly registered under the family name when drafted for the war.
Maternity and Politics
After the end of WWI, the injection of democracy and capitalism into Japanese society also brought more awareness to women’s place in the world (or at least in Japan). It was common to see pieces related to women’s issues circulating through media such as magazines and newspapers. One of the looming issues of the time was the “Controversy about the Protection of Motherhood.”
This issue highlighted the clash between two ideals. On the one hand was the new wave woman who sought to claim independence and join the working world. On the other was the traditional role of women as the wife and mother of the household. Raicho countered the argument put forth by another women’s activist, Yosano Akiko, who believed that women should not need to rely on men or on the state for support during pregnancy.
However, making any progress beyond writing articles and holding debates would prove to be no easy task. Women still had no rights in the political sphere. Raicho realized what the next step must be: women would have to become more active in politics if they wanted to change anything .
The New Women’s Association
In 1919, Raicho paid a visit to a textile factory in Nagoya. She reeled the conditions for the female workers. The visit convinced her to create a stronger role in politics in order to drive change.
The following year, she gathered two other fellow women’s rights activists, Oku Mumeo and Ichikawa Fusae. The three women established the New Women’s Association, announcing it as a “women’s suffrage movement.”
Together, they published a new journal called Josei Domei (女性同盟), or Women’s Alliance. The journal’s primary purpose was to campaign for the revision of Article 5 in the Public Order and Police Law. Article 5 prevented women from becoming involved in politics, or politically-driven gatherings of any kind. Raicho faced numerous hardships, such as illness, during the campaign. But she would soon see the fruits of her labor in 1922 when the legislature finally abolished Article 5.
Serving as an inspiration to future women’s movements, Raicho didn’t stop there. She continued writing articles and petitions calling for political reforms. Raicho also organized a consumers’ cooperative in 1930 to gain more equality in the capitalist system. She also submitted articles for yet another women’s journal, Fujin Sensen (婦人戦線), or Women’s Frontline after joining the Proletarian Women’s League.
One of her most controversial campaigns included an attempt to ban men infected with STDs from marrying. Though unsuccessful, it created yet more controversy around her. Some saw it as evidence of her alignment with the eugenics movement in Japan. In Raicho’s view, the spread of STDs had a “detrimental effect on the Japanese ‘race’.”
Raicho continued campaigning for these and more issues in the face of controversy and social stigma. But in 1938, the war in China led the government to increase its control over society. She took this time to relocate with her family to the countryside. Raicho became a vegetarian and spent her time growing crops. During this time, she actively avoided the political limelight and any other “consumer activities.”
The War is Over…But Activism Isn’t
After the Second World War, Raicho’s former political companion Ichikawa Fusae invited her to join her newly formed Women’s League for New Japan. Raicho initially turned her down, preferring to watch from the sidelines. However, in 1950, political tensions increased once again, particularly between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Raicho decided it was time to get back into action and reemerged in the peace movement.
Raicho traveled to the United States with another writer and activist, Nogami Yaeko, and several other members of the Japan Women’s Movement (婦人運動家). The group presented the US Secretary of State with a request to keep Japan neutral and pacifist. In 1951, Japan signed a peace treaty with 48 non-Communist nations.
The group continued to petition for peace, issuing multiple public statements and letters to the Senate. They expressed their opposition to the occupancy of Okinawa and the continued presence of the American military in Japan.
In 1953, Raicho went on to establish the Japan Federation of Women’s Organizations, becoming its first president. She even held the position of vice president of the Women’s International Democratic Federation. Additionally, she acted as the prime mover in of the World Mothers Conference. She also became a member of the Committee of Seven for World Peace. There, she actively gathered women to fight for her stance against war and nuclear weapons.
There was already a heaping serving of activism piled on her plate. Nevertheless, Raicho also continued her contributions to the expansion to grassroots movements for women’s organizations and women’s rights in Japan. In October of 1962, she formed the New Japan Women’s Association (新日本婦人の会).
The Association sought to further promote equality by opening its doors to all people, regardless of religion or ideology. Eventually, it expanded to Vietnam during the Vietnam War in an attempt to forge ties with Vietnamese women.
A Final Touch
Raicho continued to press for equality for women and movements for peace all the way until the very end.
In 1970, while revisions to the security treaty were still being discussed, Raicho was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 84. Aware of her dwindling time remaining to make an impact, she nonetheless continued to fight for her ideals. She even led a march of female demonstrators continuing the push for women’s advancement in society.
She continued to write and lecture until her soul at last found peace with her passing in 1971, leaving her legacy behind, along with her autobiography which she worked on through illness, titled In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun (元始、女性は太陽であった).
Hiratsuka Raicho’s activities and works continue to inspire and move women to action not just in Japan, but around the world.
What to Read Next
 母性保護論争－晶子とらいてう. https://www.eqg.org/lecture/hogo1.html