Tamura Toshiko: The ‘New Woman’ Feminist in Early Modern Japan

Tamura Toshiko: The ‘New Woman’ Feminist in Early Modern Japan

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A black and white picture of a young Tamura Toshiko in front of a faded image of books, transposed on a faint scene from 1920s Asakusa.
In Taisho era Japan, Tamura Toshiko emerged as one of the preeminent writers of the "New Woman" movement. Her legacy extends farther still, beyond Japan's borders.

In 1911, the Japanese production of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House premiered in Tokyo. The three-act play follows housewife Nora and her growing disillusionment with her belligerent husband, which ultimately ends with Nora walking out on him to reclaim her life. Nora, played by the beautiful Matsui Sumako, became one catalyst for the burgeoning “New Woman” (新しい女; atarashii onna) ideal: strong, independent women shrugging off the “good wife, wise mother” rhetoric to embrace a lifestyle unfettered by Meiji-era traditional norms.

Challenging the status quo was Tamura Toshiko (田村俊子), who was one of the first Japanese women to make a living off her writing in the modern era. Yet her legacy extends beyond the New Woman era, as her focus expanded from gender to social issues involving racial discrimination and class oppression. From her childhood and early adulthood ensconced in theater, to organizing labor unions in distant Canada, and running a women’s magazine in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Tamura didn’t let labels limit her from engaging in causes important to her.

Tamura Toshiko: Setting the Stage

Tamura Toshiko portrayed in a black and white photograph, dressed in a black fur coat and cap, with glasses affixed.
Tamura Toshiko prior to 1945. (Source: Wikipedia)

Tamura Toshiko was born Sato Toshi on April 25, 1884, in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. Her father hailed from a long line of rice merchants, and her mother was an accomplished stage actress, adept as a gidayu chanter (義太夫) in the puppet theater, and as a nagauta singer (長唄). After her parents separated, her mother went on to have various affairs with kabuki actors [1]. Growing up in that world cemented Tamura’s passion for the theater and the potential it held for modern women.

At seventeen she enrolled in Japan Women’s University to study literature, but had to drop out due to illness. This setback didn’t deter Tamura; in 1902, she began her apprenticeship under writer Kouda Rohan, known for his heroic, mythical love stories. Within Kouda’s circle of disciples was Tamura’s future husband, Tamura Shogyo.

Kouda Rohan (Source: Wikipedia)

Over the years the classical style Kouda espoused lost its appeal to Tamura, who wanted to experiment with more modern forms. She eventually left the writing circle in 1906 and, wanting to express her creativity without restraint, decided to go back to her roots in the theater [2].

From 1906 to 1910, Tamura immersed herself in the theatrical world, studying the same arts her mother excelled in. She debuted on the stage in 1907 and graduated from the Imperial Actress Training Institute [1]. While her acting generally received positive reviews, critics often castigated her physical appearance. The social scrutiny, paired with her own self-consciousness, eventually prompted her to get a nose job, a rare procedure at the time [2].


New Woman, New Theater

While acting, she honed her writing skills by contributing essays to various theater and art magazines. Just as A Doll’s House was one catalyst for the New Woman phenomenon, it also paralleled a reckoning in the form of the Shingeki (新劇) movement. Shingeki adherents sought to incorporate Western-style techniques and focus more on stories imbued with social commentary and logical plots instead of the aesthetically traditional production typical of kabuki.

At the time, several feminists and women writers struggled to explain a woman’s place in a modernizing theater. Tamura, with her upbringing and education, didn’t shy away from contributing to these discussions. Indeed, doing so seemed to have sparked her deeper interest in women’s issues. Of particular concern to her was where women stood in relation to onnagata (女形), the male actors playing female roles in kabuki. Should these actresses supplant onnagata completely based on the merit of their own gender, or merge in a symbiosis founded on traditional and modern values? Tamura believed that “breaking down the conventional ways of onnagata and making progressive plays should be the mission of modern actresses” [1].

An onnagata kabuki actor in 2011. (CC BY-SA 3.0, 藤崎智也.)

Since she called for women to actively participate in modernizing the theater world, it only made sense she contribute as well beyond simple critiquing. Tamura wrote her own spin on A Doll’s House with her play Slave (奴隷; Dorei). Slave follows successful writer and New Woman ideal Fujiko and her unemployed partner Shinnosuke, a mirror to Tamura’s own fraught marriage. Both attempt to adhere to societal norms while asserting autonomy as their true authentic selves [2]. While Nora flees her home and its conventions, Fujiko takes ownership of the home and accepts Shinnosuke as her “slave” to do her bidding.

Tamura, sporting a “high collar girl” haircut.

Tamura Makes Her Public Literary Debut

1910 was a momentous year for Tamura’s literary career, one largely born out of necessity. When her husband returned from school in the United States, he pressured her to pick up writing again to help pay the bills, essentially ending her acting career [2]. Her novella Resignation (あきらめ; Akirame) won first place in a literary contest hosted by the Osaka Asahi Shimbun. Resignation tells the story of fledgling writer Tomie and her rise to fame after winning a writing contest — an eerie foreshadowing of Tamura’s own sudden acclaim. Admittedly, favoritism and experience may have played a role in her win. Kouda was one of the judges, and Tamura had already been published under various pen names for years prior. Still, the victory effectively cemented Tamura’s place in the male-dominated literary world [3].

In her following works, Tamura plays up the New Woman ideal, blending the confessional with social critique and the inner turmoil of being a modern woman pursuing her art. Her most well-known story, “A Woman Writer” (女作者; Onna sakusha), follows a nameless woman writer struggling to hone her craft while embroiled in an unhappy marriage [3]. As with any writer, Tamura inevitably faced criticism, partly due to how the media chose to present her. Shincho‘s 1913 special on Tamura presented her as a decadent, salacious figure, with only a brief commentary on her writing. Her husband seemed almost resentful of her when featured in a Chuo Koron special, likening her to a courtesan weaponizing her body to charm others [3]. Seito founder Hiratsuka Raicho thought Tamura had too much of Tokyo’s materialistic downtown district (下町; shitamachi) in her to be truly considered progressive [4]. But soon enough Tamura would dismantle those assumptions.

An old collection of Tamura Toshiko’s writings.

Moving to Canada and Embracing Socialism

Tamura’s rocky marriage ended in divorce in 1918. That same year she followed her lover, socialist and former Asahi Shinbun journalist Suzuki Etsu, to Vancouver, British Columbia. At that time, the Japanese government had signed the Lemieux Agreement with Canada that limited the number of Japanese immigrants to four hundred per year. It was a period of intense anti-Asian sentiment, when Japanese laborers were often hired as “scabs” to replace striking white workers [4].

Adjusting to her temporary home was a struggle, as Tamura witnessed firsthand what it meant to be discriminated against not just as a woman, but as a Japanese woman. She took on the pen name Tori no Ko (鳥の子; Baby Bird) and shared her struggles in the Japanese-Canadian newspaper Tairuku nippo:

This traveling bird has begun to feel even more sorrowful these days…. The sorrow of the sound of my shoe that resonates on the soil of this country! You…who walk by treading only on the Japanese soil will probably not be able to imagine this sorrowful feeling [5].

As she got her bearings, she eventually found her voice — and a new cause to take up. Suzuki strove to unify Japanese and white Canadian labor workers, and his work emboldened Tamura to focus on the plight of Japanese migrant women. She wrote poetry and an advice column for women for the Tairiku nippo, and contributed to Suzuki’s labor activism newspaper Nikkan minshu [3], with much of her writing centering the female body as a foundation for social and political progress.

In 1930, Tamura and Japanese women workers formed a labor union and worked in concert with Canadian women’s unions. Tamura was quite proud of this achievement, later writing, “I experienced an instinctive feeling of friendship for members of the same social class even though we were different in race and nationality” [4].

A Brief Return to Japan

Tamura’s efforts with the labor union were finally taking off when Suzuki suddenly passed away while visiting Japan. Suddenly adrift and losing her zeal for life in Vancouver, Tamura relocated to Los Angeles in 1933 and picked up regular work with the Japanese-English newspaper Rafu Shimpo. For three years she wrote about immigrant experiences before returning to Japan in 1936 [4].

The Japan she returned to was a far cry from the wealth and democratic glitz of Taisho Japan that Tamura had left eighteen years ago. Heightened nationalism left no room for socialism to flourish unpunished. As if in response to the claustrophobic times, Tamura didn’t return to the sensual, emotionally fraught narratives of her earlier years. Her output was just as impressive in volume, if not necessarily attracting the critical attention of her lauded “golden era” works. Instead of women creatives struggling with inner emotional turmoil, Tamura wrote about life in North America, usually centering immigrant experiences like in her story “Scorn” (侮蔑; Bubetsu), which follows young Jimmy and Mari as they negotiate their mixed Japanese identities in Los Angeles and Japan in the 1920s. Her work found homes in major journals, who soon began turning to her as a North America expert [4].

Fighting for Emancipation in Shanghai

Japan’s unyielding militarism began to rankle Tamura, who hungered to continue working toward the emancipation of women. Finally fed up, Tamura pulled up stakes in 1938 and moved to Shanghai as a correspondent for the Chuo koron [4].

At the time, Japan had a strong foothold in Shanghai following the brutal 1937 Battle of Shanghai. That foothold expanded rapidly in 1941, when Japan took complete control of Shanghai. The following year Tamura took on the role of editor-in-chief of a Chinese women’s journal Nu Sheng (Women’s Voice). On the surface, Nu Sheng operated like most Japanese-controlled periodicals, churning out tame propaganda in the form of essays, stories, movie reviews, and women’s interest articles. Yet most of its staff were Chinese Communist Party members recruited by writer Guan Lu, Tamura’s assistant. Guan Lu was originally sent by the CCP to gather intelligence on Japan. The party deemed Tamura a “socialist sympathizer” who could help their cause [6].

Nu Sheng provided Tamura with another opportunity to realize her dream of transnational solidarity, this time between Chinese and Japanese women. She dedicated most of her efforts to the popular letters-to-the-editor column. She couldn’t read or write Chinese, so after having the letters translated into English, she responded in kind and had Guan Lu translate into Chinese. Contrary to Guan Lu’s insistence on tackling larger overarching social issues, Tamura had no qualms responding to the individual plights of the women writing for help or advice [6].

An older Tamura Toshiko in Chinese garb.

Tamura’s Legacy

Sadly, Tamura Toshiko never saw the end of the war. On her way back from a dinner party in 1945, she suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage and died three days later. But her work lived on, attracting more public attention and scholarship post-WWII. In 1961 Tamura’s royalties were used to establish the Tamura Toshiko Prize for women writers. Prominent winners include playwright Akimoto Matsuya and poet Ishigaki Rin [7].

Despite her prolific work in Japan and abroad, today Tamura is often overshadowed by New Woman figures like Yosano Akiko and Hiratsuka Raicho. Yet Tamura is perhaps one of the most inclusive New Woman creatives for writing about and actively working with women from different backgrounds. Tamura lived her art to the fullest and pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a progressive woman by looking out not just for herself, but for all women.


[1] Yamamura, T. (2005). Forging “Home” on the Stage: Tamura Toshiko, Shingeki, and the New Woman. U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, 28, 11–31.

[2] Sokolsky, A., & Yamamura, T. (2010). “Dorei” (Slave): A Play by Tamura Toshiko. Asian Theatre Journal, 27(2), 203–245.

[3] Yoshio, H. (2014). Performing the Woman Writer: Literature, Media, and Gender Politics in Tamura Toshiko’s Akirame and “Onna sakusha.” Japanese Language and Literature, 48(2), 205–236.

[4] No Place to Call Home: Negotiating the “Third Space” for Returned Japanese Americans in Tamura Toshiko’s “Bubetsu.”

[5] Horiguchi, N. J. (2005). The Body, Migration, and the Empire: Tamura Toshiko’s Writing in Vancouver from 1918 to 1924. U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, 28, 49–75.

[6] Wu, P. (2005). Satō (Tamura) Toshiko’s Shanghai Period (1942-1945) and the Chinese Women’s Periodical “Nü-Sheng.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, 28, 109–124.

[7] 田村俊子賞受賞作一覧. Prizes World

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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