Women's Liberation in Japan Primary Materials (ウーマンリブ)

As part of my postgraduate option Radical Japan, we look at the Japanese women’s liberation movement, known in Japanese as ウーマンリブ or simply リブ.

The problem, however, is that there is a dearth of primary materials in translation for my students to look at. We could do it in Japanese, and have done so in the past, but the language used by key theorists such as Tanaka Mitsu can be quite daunting!

So this year I decided to translate a few sources for my class. I also decided to share them here — feel free to make use of them in your own research and teaching!

1. Recollections of Women’s Experiences of the New Left (taken from Oguma, E. 2009. 1968 vol. 2: the End of the Youth Revolts and its Legacy. Tokyo: Shinyo-sha, pp. 686-687) :

Training Camps:

In the same way as men, female group members were given special training to become soldiers. At camp we would work with sandbags, work on self-defence techniques and so on… 

But for me, who although being a student already had a child, had been to Cuba and seen the activities of real revolutionaries, and who had come into contact with the women’s liberation movement in Canada on my way back to Japan, this military training was so childish, and the attitude of the male leadership (no matter how serious they were) was discriminatory [towards women]. 

For example, there is one scene that even now I cannot forget. At a training camp, the leadership and members of the organisation sat in a circle and made a ring. And in the middle of that ring, one by one, we were made to put on boxing gloves and fight until, quite literally, one of us collapsed with a bloody nose. Women were made to do the exact same thing while the male leadership booed and jeered. Or in another case, as training in preparation for violence between groups, the male leadership would grab the women, and we would practice kicking them in the crotch. But the attitude they took, and the way they spoke to us… I had this strange feeling that it wasn’t right, that it was discriminatory… 

Remembering Beheiren:

I’m not saying that this was always the case, but it is now well known that the movement, the struggle, which spoke of equality and liberation, was internally not the slightest bit equal. The jobs that were given to women were, for example, in the relief party, or looking after people who had been arrested (救対)and in extreme cases they were put to work in the kitchen. 

Allocation of jobs by gender, pretty much what was expected. The thing we now call 'women’s lib’ was born as a result of the anger and disappointment at the reality of the movement. And [women’s experiences in the New Left] are one of the sources of what we call the feminist movement today. 

Also, if you weren't careful, girls could become sexual targets. For example, a naive female university student decides to visit a hideout. And when she does, a male activist with a scraggy beard comes to door and, as if he’s been waiting for her, says ‘shall we have a quick chat?’ and takes her to a local cafe. And then, when he hassuccessfully got her on her own, instead of the standard sweet talk, scraggy beard starts saying nonsense like this: 

‘Yeah, its like, your, subjective positioning and outlook towards the struggle, your sense of determination you see, theoretically, yeah, let’s try and develop that here…' 

And the female student who hears this but doesn’t understand a word can only be beaten by it. And then if you’re beaten by it, what do you do? Yes! As a forfeit I’ll take off my pants… 

Mostly a funny story, but in actual fact this sort of stupid thing happened pretty often. 

Uneo Chizuko’s [one of Japan’s leading feminist intellectuals] view:

If women couldn't become useful in the war then they only had two options. Either become a Gewalt Rosa or become a Fuji Junko [a famous television actress of the time]. A warrior like the men, or an angel in support. Either or. And it was plainly obvious that both were caricatures. If you looked at how men dealt with Gewalt Rosa type women, you understood straight away the idiocy of trying to become like a man. On the other hand, the cute-girl was never any more than a man’s pet, and she became the ‘woman who waits’ while the man was at war. When the Equal Employment Law was passed, the Career Track (総合職)and Support Staff(一般職) routes were established. And at that time I thought, ‘I’ve seen this somewhere before’. Become like a man, or play nicely in the designated women’s area. That feeling that if we get onboard with this male logic there will be no place for us to belong. I wonder if that was the same feeling that the female students of Zenkyōtō experienced. 

2. Extract from an NHK interview with Tanaka Mitsu in which she discusses her concept of ‘koko ni iru onna’ [the woman right here], the full version of which can be found here: http://cgi2.nhk.or.jp/postwar/shogen/movie.cgi?das_id=D0012100332_00000

We can talk about ‘koko ni iru onna’ as seeing the mother as someone who is a combination of both sex and reproduction. But in this world women are split into either mothers or toilets. In other words, men want women who are good at doing the modesty thing as potential brides. And as sexual objects, men want women who enjoy playing at love. So women are split into mothers (potential brides) and toilets (sexual objects): we can even say ‘normal wives’ and ‘prostitutes’. They put women into categories in this way. 

In response to this, we tried to bring to light the truth that within any one women there is both the mother and there is the woman who enjoys sex. And to do this shakes the most basic foundations of the family. You get it right? As a result we were pilloried. It's an incredibly scary thing. The fact that a mother can also be a women that has sexual urges means that, for men, they don’t know whether their child is actually their flesh and blood. That is a scary thing! Women making their sexuality public affirms the fact that women are sexual beings. This is a terrible thing for men who want to make sure their household is continued by their children. And that is why we were attacked. 

3. Translation of an article written by Tanaka Mitsu discussing the issue of child murder / child abandonment in 1970s Japan. The article appeared in the Yomiuri Newspaper on 14 July 1973, p. 16.

Ah! This exasperating society. For those who don’t kill, what will tomorrow bring…

Tanaka Mitsu

Whenever there is a story of child murder or child abandonment in the newspaper, because so much is made of the incident, you feel like there has been a sudden outbreak [of these events]. However, when you consider the background to these cases, you realise that even those who do not kill their children are in a precarious position: only able to get by without doing so because of a lucky confluence of circumstances.

For example, according to our surveys, a large number of child killings occur in areas where industry is packed together — such as Edo, Arakawa, and Oota — and people are living in apartments or as lodgers. I wonder whether, if thrown into a situation in which you have a child but cannot look after it, there is anyone out there who could say definitively that they would not kill their child. Isn’t it the case that even people who do not physically harm their children are in fact, by pushing upon their children the frustrations of daily life, killing them?

Men speak badly of mothers who kill or abandon their children because men do not want to think that their mothers may have considered killing them [as children]. But during the war, with tears in their eyes and the words ’die gloriously!’, mothers killed their children. In the past, you produced lots of children then killed them for the nation. Now because you are not in the situation to have children you have an abortion; you have an abortion and to raise the national GNP you are made to work; and then you are told that abortions are a bad thing. I think women need to recognise that no matter when, the fake humanism of politicians is always concentrated and directed towards women.

First, milk poisoned with arsenic, thalidomide, mercury, PCBs — overwhelmingly it is these things that are responsible for the murder of children. And all of these things come from industry. The self-serving attitude in this world that asks ‘how many fish am I okay to eat?’ is no longer tenable. I think that if we don’t individually recognise that killing a child, abandoning a child, represents [for that mother] being killed by the world, and direct our anger at society, then who knows when even those who have up to now been unaffected might harm their child.

Further Reading:

Shigematsu, Setsu (2012) Scream from the shadows: the woman's liberation movement in Japan. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

- Chris




A Horrifying Comeback

Japanese horror films became popular during the 1990s with Takeo Nakata’s The Ring (リング、1998) and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (呪怨、2000). Not only were these films visually invigorating and revolutionary for their time, they also directed the audience’s attention to the ignored problem of abused women during the 1980s in Japan. They were interesting because instead of overusing jaded jump-scares, Nakata and Shimizu exploited psychological scares to instill fear about societal dangers.

But if we look at some recent horror films, we find a lack of emphasis on the significance of the content and more of a focus on the use of good-looking models for poor recreations of past successes, an example being Nakata’s latest film Ghost Theater (劇場霊、2014), which did not do well at the box office and received poor reviews.  Likewise Takashi Muike’s Kuime (食い女2014), which was enticingly scary and engaged once again with the issue of abused women in Japan, was ultimately rushed and confusing. Thus I was left asking: have Japanese horror films had their day? The answer, in my opinion, is that they have made an incredible comeback.

Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Inerasable (残穢, 2015) has brought new life to the Japanese horror scene. In the film a novelist referred to as ‘I’ and her helper, Ms. Kubo, work together to learn about past tragedies in order to write a novel. With its frequent use of hors-champ (off screen) eerie audio, prolonged camera shots of slow movement, and first-person visual shots, the film produces real suspense and authentic scares.

Steady shots of Ms. Kubo slowly looking over her shoulder at uncanny noises in the distance instills a natural and analogous feeling with viewers, for humans have an identical response when we fear what we cannot see or comprehend. In addition the director uses a dark and grainy color palette during flashbacks or inside of a house, which is a similar and very successful technique for creating a disturbing atmosphere found in Ju-on

There is also a message imbedded within the film’s plot. Several references to death, murder, suicide, and hate compounded with the theme of construction, develop Nakamura’s allusion that Japanese society is built on these attributes. Society continues to build on top of past tragedies of death and anger, and these negativities become foundational frameworks of Japanese metanarratives. Just as Shimizu subtly provided the audience a warning at the end of Ju-on, Nakamura, too, seems to suggest that Japanese society has been plagued with sadness, death, and anger from the past, and if Japan continues to walk the same path, society will become consumed by this evil. Nakamura’s revolutionary national level of fear in Inerasable has achieved new expectations and for me has restored faith in Japan’s horror film industry. 

Jonathan Pelz is studying on the MSc in Japanese Society and Culture at the University of Edinburgh

The Challenge of the Year Abroad

I know this is a postgraduate blog, and postgrad degrees don't tend to have a compulsory period abroad (our MCS Master of Chinese Studies is of course an exception to this rule).  But a great deal of us will have been on a compulsory year abroad at some point and then, once back at our home institutions, been required to complete an independent research project.  I remember this experience well, and not for the best of reasons.  So bear with me and if when you’ve finished reading you have any ideas, please do get in touch.
How can we make the best use of our time in Japan as researchers?  This is a quite the tricky proposition.  Why?  Because quite frankly Japan is profoundly distracting.  The food is too good, the cities at night are too good, the beer is just far too good to be spending time in libraries and/or archives with notepad and pencil, deciphering yet another blurry kanji compound or trying to work out how the photocopying system works (I’m looking at you National Diet Library).
For students tasked on their year abroad with becoming fluent in Japanese the challenge is even greater.  The reasons are obvious and completely understandable: new country, new culture, new institution, new people and a host of new obstacles to be overcome.  So research tends to drop off the bottom of the list of priorities.  
But there is no getting away from the fact that research must be done.  Dissertations won't write themselves.  And let’s face it, dissertations without primary data are not much good.  So what can Area Studies departments do to help?
Enter the Japan Foundation!  The JF have invited year abroad coordinators from a across the country to London in November for a discussion of the year abroad and all the opportunities and problems it presents.  I’ve been asked to talk a little bit about making the most of the year for dissertation preparation, something I have been pondering since I became a year abroad coordinator myself back in 2012.

 The sights and sounds of Akihabara can also tempt one away from those newspaper databases...

The sights and sounds of Akihabara can also tempt one away from those newspaper databases...

So I have been thinking about this question for a while now.  And one thing I am certain of is that there is no easy fix.  But I do think that expecting students to suddenly become active researchers in third year is unrealistic and a bit unfair.  My feeling is that by then it’s too late.   If the dissertation is an afterthought, or something to happen in the future then even with the best intentions in the world, as soon as Japan hits, research will drop off the agenda.  And if we don’t give our students the tools to do research before they go, how can we expect them to get research done?
As such I think the only way for research to happen in the third year is to get students thinking about dissertation from the off — from first year or at the very least second year.  If a culture of research is encouraged — embedded, reinforced and practiced — from day one, then when students get to Japan in third year the idea of research will hopefully be second nature.
Degree programme design should therefore take this goal of embedding a culture of research as a central organising principle.  We need to start early with research training, data gathering, and independent research projects.  
For example, in week one of his second year research training course my colleague Mark McLeister in Chinese Studies asks students to leave the classroom and bring back an object that helps us understand Chinese communities in Edinburgh.  The classroom melts away and the city becomes a field for research.  I think it’s this sort of exercise that will equip students as researchers for their experience abroad, be it in Japan, China or Korea, and make the best of this invaluable opportunity.
I am very much looking forward to discussing these ideas with colleagues in a month’s time, and wish to thank the JF for this wonderful initiative.  As I said at the start of this post, if you have any comments or ideas, please do get in touch!

Chris Perkins is Head of Japanese in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh and Programme Director of the MSc in Japanese Society and Culture.

The Olympics and Japan: A Retrospective

As the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games move from primetime viewing to public memory, we must once again endure the long four-year wait for the 2020 Olympiad in Tokyo. The Summer Games will be an important event for Japan: emblematic of the reconstruction and recovery following the aftermath of the Triple Disaster of March 2011, and a powerful projection of Prime Minister Abe’s vision of Japan as a proud “beautiful country” within the international community of nations. Abe himself even took centre stage as the culmination of Japan’s impressive handover video

Tokyo 2020 also provides an opportunity to revisit and reflect upon Japan’s previous Olympic milestones. I have selected three such landmarks for discussion today - 1912,1940, and 1964. 


Japan first participated in the games during the fifth Olympiad in Stockholm in 1912, becoming the first Asian nation to do so. The Japanese team consisted of two athletes, Mishima Yahiko (track and field) and Kanakuri Shizō (marathon).  

Neither athlete was able to return home with a medal, but Kanakuri did cause quite a stir in the marathon. A combination of inadequate footwear (Kanakuri ran in split-toed padded tabi) and the searing summer heat resulted in Kanakuri retiring from the race after 27km. Kanakuri returned to Japan promising to do better next time, however he had neglected to make his withdrawal from the marathon known to Olympic officials. As a result, he was recorded as “missing” in the final race results. 

However, the story doesn’t end there.  Kanakuri would later be invited to return to Sweden to officially “finish” the race, although not until 1967. Despite being in his seventies, Kanakuri leapt at the chance, allowing officials to finally stop the clock that had started ticked all the way back in 1912. His final time? Fifty-four years, eight months, six days, five hours, thirty-two minutes and 20.3 seconds. Kanakuri, in obvious good spirit, commented, “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”(*1) 


The second major Japanese Olympic milestone is “the missing Olympics” - the cancelled 1940 Tokyo Games.(*2) As the first non-western nation to be awarded the games, Japan was afforded an opportunity to present a distinctly Asian perspective on the competition. Furthermore, 1940 would be a particularly auspicious year for Japan as it marked the 2,600th Anniversary of the Ascension of Emperor Jimmu and the founding of Japan as a nation (Kigen 2,600-nen), a fact quickly capitalized upon by the organising committee. Although ostensibly an international event, much of the ideology behind Tokyo 1940 was aimed towards the domestic audience to foment national pride and strengthen the "kokutai" (i.e. the “national essence” of Japan). Likewise, the games would act as a forum for “people’s diplomacy” through which Japan could justify its burgeoning empire free from the criticism of the international community. This was particularly significant given Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 following the Manchurian Incident. 

Interesting parallels can also be drawn between the 1940 games and the upcoming 2020 games given the geographical and economic situation of the period. Most noticeably, the Japan of 2020 will have overcome many similar challenges to those of the late 1930s: reconstruction following a devastating natural disaster (the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 versus the 3.11 Triple Disaster of 2011); increased tourism as an aid to recovery from economic malaise (the 1929 Wall Street Crash versus the 2008 Lehman Shock); and a government keen to stress the value of tradition and national culture (the commemoration of Kigen 2,600-nen versus Prime Minister Abe’s vision of a “beautiful country”). 

However, Tokyo 1940 was not to be. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, heralding the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, brought renewed threats of boycotts and increasing international pressure on Japan to forfeit the games. Domestic pressure also grew, both from a materiel perspective but also a moral one. Was it right to compete while soldiers were fighting overseas? Believing the war would soon be over, Japan persisted in its pursuit to host the 12th Olympic Games, however as hostilities dragged on this position grew increasingly untenable and Japan officially forfeited the games in July 1938. 


The Olympic flame would not return to Asia until 1964, when for the second time Tokyo was designated host city. This time, however, Japan's aims were very different. Postwar recovery, international rehabilitation and solemn remembrance were key elements of the opening ceremony. This was most apparent during the lighting of the Olympic flame, with the honour given to nineteen-year-old Sakai Yoshinori, born in Hiroshima on the morning of the atomic bombing. 

Technology also played an integral role during the 1964 Games. This was the age of rapid economic expansion and consumerism, when owning a car, cooler (air conditioner) and colour TV meant that you could count yourself among an ever-expanding middle class. As a result, Tokyo 1964 marked the first time the games had been broadcast internationally via satellite. Likewise, the newly constructed Shinkansen “bullet train”, which had opened just a few days ahead of the opening ceremony, was able to shuttle competitors, tourists and businessmen alike between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka at record speed. This was a far cry from the devastation of a generation before. 

The introduction to the Olympics of new sports such as judo also gave the Japanese a newfound sense of pride. Likewise, the nationalistic ideology which had dominated the 1940’s bid was replaced with images of multiracial athletes lined up together, emphasising international cooperation and peaceful competition. Indeed, Tokyo 1964 would “not only be a display of sportsmanship by the world’s athletes, but would also serve to highlight the continuing efforts of the Japanese people as a worthy member of the world family of nations.”(*3)

  Left: Official Poster of the 1940 games. Right: Promotional poster from 1964.

Left: Official Poster of the 1940 games. Right: Promotional poster from 1964.

2020 - A NEW DAWN 

So what can we expect for Tokyo 2020? From the video shown during the closing ceremony of Rio 2020 it appears that Japan is going all-out on the soft power front, with references to popular video game and anime characters such as Captain Tsubasa, Pac-Man, Doraemon, Hello Kitty and Mario. There are also clear references to the imagery of Tokyo 1964, which are echoed in the promotion of the technological aspects of the games,4 with plans to showcase emerging technologies such as self-driving taxis, instantaneous language translation, and ultra-HD broadcasts. Environmental concerns, highly pertinent in light of events in Fukushima, will also be addressed with plans to run the Olympic Village on hydrogen.(*5) 

  Above: Screengrab from Japan’s official handover video echoing promotional artwork from 1964

Above: Screengrab from Japan’s official handover video echoing promotional artwork from 1964

As for the man taking centre stage, Prime Minister Abe seems to be playing to the crowd, perhaps keen to show a lighter side to his personality and cast aside recent controversies such as the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (the so-called “peace-clause”) to allow for collective self-defence, the introduction of the State Secrecy Law, and his continuing visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Abe will also be keen to show a welcoming face, particularly to Japan’s closest neighbours with whom tensions have been rising in recent years over various territorial disputes. Indeed, the idea of a “people’s diplomacy” may be alive and well in the 21st century. However political ambitions aside, Tokyo is sure to wow the crowds in four years’ time. Faster, higher, stronger may be the Olympic motto, but it could equally apply to Japan’s Olympic ambitions. I, for one, cannot wait. 

Roddy McDougall is a PhD candidate in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.


1 A full account of this story is available at The Japan Times. 2012. Better late than never for Japan’s first, “slowest” Olympian. via https://goo.gl/NZ5oaD (Accessed 02/10/2016) 

2 For a comprehensive overview of the 1940 Tokyo Games, refer to Collins, Sandra. 2007. The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics. Routledge: Oxford 

3 Quote taken from McClain, James L. 2002. A Modern History of Japan. Norton: New York. 

4 An interesting infographic on the proposed technological innovations can be found at Futurism.com. 2016. Tokyo 2020: The Olympics of the Future. via http://futurism.com/images/tokyo-2020-olympics-future (Accessed 02/10/2016) 

5 Refer to Popsci.com. 2016. The Olympic Village of the Future. via http://www.popsci.com/olympic-village-future (Accessed 02/10/2016)

Welcome to all our new MSc and PhD students!

Before the new academic year kicks off in earnest we would like to extend a warm welcome to all our new MSc students!

This year has seen a the biggest cohorts yet in East Asian Relations and Japanese Society and Culture, and we are very excited to begin working with such a varied and talented group of students.

Yesterday we held the postgraduate wine reception at the rather opulent Abden House, and from the photographic evidence it appears much fun was had by all.