20th century / Arts

‘In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun’ and the Foundation of Japan’s First Feminist Journal

By Polly Stannard

Hiratsuka Raicho

Although Hiratsuka Raichō’s career as a writer, campaigner and political activist spanned many decades, she is best known for her involvement with Japan’s premier women’s literary—and later feminist—journal, the aptly named Bluestocking (Seitō). In this article, I examine the impact of Raichō’s famous inaugural essay, ‘In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun’.

The women’s literary society Seitōsha was founded in spring 1911 and the first issue of its self-produced magazine, Seitō (inaugurated in autumn of the same year) featured Hiratsuka Raichō’s extraordinary essay affirming the need for female self-awakening. ‘In the beginning, woman was the sun,’ Raichō asserts triumphantly, ‘Now she is the moon, a wan and sickly moon, dependent on another’.

Written in a fit of inspiration the night before the printer’s deadline, Raichō’s intentionally unscientific essay is replete with religious and sacred imagery: ‘Together, we shall build a domed palace of dazzling gold atop the crystal mountain in the east of that land where the sun rises’. Such pseudo-religious language reflects Raichō’s interest in Zen Buddhism. The opening words of her rousing address to the women of Japan hark back to prehistoric times, symbolically linking the early twentieth-century woman with the splendid figure of Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, credited with giving birth to the Japanese archipelago according to native Shinto legend. As well as the recurring sun image, Raichō mentions several times the miko, or shrine maidens, displaying her admiration for these bold heroines (who appear in the ancient myths and chronicles of Japan).

At times, Raichō’s message—written with scant attention to logic or pragmatism, full of unfamiliar terms, esoteric language, and prophetic allusions—is hard to decipher. Yet her irrepressible vigour and energy is palpable, and it is therefore unsurprising that her words should have struck a chord with the young women of her era. Japanese historian Takamura Itsue calls Raichō’s declaration ‘the first public address declaring women’s rights in Japan’; years later, Raichō marvels at this in her memoirs, confessing that she never imagined the enormous impact her opening statement would have on the women of her generation.

Raichō says she wrote the essay based entirely on her own experiences, and thus it was a great surprise to her that something so intimate and personal apparently held such universal appeal. Regardless of the author’s original intentions, the essay has since been taken up as a feminist manifesto, its opening refrain synonymous with a cry for women’s equality. The image of the sun too was instantly transformed into a unifying symbol for women, an idea to rally around, and today it remains symbol of women’s liberation in Japan.

When Raichō’s male friend and literary mentor Ikuta Chōkō originally suggested founding a literary journal written by and for Japanese women, Raichō recalls that, preoccupied with other interests at the time, she was ‘less than enthusiastic’. Nevertheless, after much consideration, she reluctantly agreed to the idea, and Seitō was born.

The founders named the journal ‘Bluestocking’ as a cheeky and provocative challenge to society, throwing down the gauntlet to the male establishment. Interestingly, Raichō herself had never heard of the word before, and was obliged to consult an encyclopaedia, where she learned of their predecessors in Elizabeth Montagu’s literary society, the Bluestockings. The journal’s name thus invites open comparison between Japanese female writers in the early twentieth century, and their earlier English counterparts. Hiroko Tomida, a Japanese historian, suggests that the unfamiliar yet attractive, foreign-sounding term may even have had a ‘charismatic effect’ upon readers, drawing them in.

As the deadline for publication of the first issue rapidly approached, Raichō admits to finding herself increasingly swept up in their daring venture, and she began to commit herself more wholeheartedly to the cause, culminating in the inspired late-night writing session that produced her most famous and memorable essay.

The first issue of Seitō, published on 1st September 1911, sold one thousand copies, and was an unmitigated success, heralded by readers and pundits alike as remarkable proof of women’s ability to produce and market their own literary journal. It far exceeded even the moderate expectations of its own founders, including Raichō, largely thanks to the inclusion of her stirring opening essay as well as the equally impressive opening poem contributed by the famous female writer Yosano Akiko.

The first issue of Seito

Modelled on similar literary journals that circulated among the members of the almost exclusively male bundan (literary guilds), Seitō marked a radical departure from the types of publications traditionally aimed at female readers. The first recorded publication targeted explicitly at women, a magazine on child rearing, was published as early as 1877, and as many as 160 other publications for women were in circulation, yet the vast majority of these were notable chiefly for their religious or morally suasive tone and their deference to the government’s ryosai kenbō (good wife, wise mother) policy.

What made Seitō unique, however, was its solely female group of staff, editors and contributors. During the course of its five-year history, only women were invited to become shain (regular members), and only a handful of men were ever permitted to become “visiting members” (kyakuin). Seitō thus differed greatly from other earlier and contemporaneous magazines of the time for women.

Women at the time lacked a forum in which to explore, express, and educate themselves, and in this respect Seitō fulfilled a vital function. It improved women’s self-confidence and encouraged the development of female literary talent, and its achievements thus in many ways resemble those of its English namesake. It also succeeded in introducing key western feminist authors, via translation, such as Olive Schreiner and Ellen Key, to a Japanese audience, and it became the medium for lively and productive debate of feminist issues, fanning the flames of feminist consciousness in early modern-day Japan.

Although at first Seitō’s content consisted largely of poems, articles and short stories contributed by its largely young and unknown pool of talent, due to unavoidable external pressures, it later shifted its focus to women’s issues and, after its second birthday, began covering topics as diverse as abortion and birth control, chastity, prostitution and marriage. In particular, the debate conducted on the ‘new woman’ (atarashii onna) triggered a boom of journalistic and pedagogic interest in women’s issues, which finally exploded onto the scene as a serious matter for consideration in 1913.

On many occasions, Raichō’s spirited and timely counter-arguments were of vital importance when the magazine was forced to defend itself after falling foul of the censors and a number of public scandals embroiling its members tarnished its reputation. As time went by, Raichō increasingly found herself not only responsible for single-handedly running the journal, but also fighting back against a veritable barrage of media criticism. The demise of Seito in 1916 marked a turning point in Raichō’s life. Having devoted her life to the journal for five years, in her autobiography she admits to no regrets or guilt over its end, openly associating Seitō with the sunny days of her youth.

Thanks to the untiring efforts of its founder, Seitō was not only an important stepping stone, laying the groundwork for later Japanese feminism; it was also the first voice crying for women’s awakening, and arguing for their overdue restoration to their rightful place at the symbolic centre, as encapsulated in Raichō’s memorable words: ‘In the beginning, woman was the sun’.