How Seitōsha Impacted Abortion During the Late Meiji Period to Taishō Period

By Yasuka Mihara and Satsuki Iizuka



In the beginning, woman was truly the sun.[1] The short but influential journey of Seitōsha (The Japanese Bluestocking Society) began from this inspirational quote. Seitōsha was established by an intellectual woman named Hiratsuka Raichō in 1911 with the aim of promoting women’s literacy interests. However, this group of “beauty with brains” is especially famous for its contributions in spreading the awareness of gender issues during the Meiji period and encouraging women to stand up for their rights.[2]

The promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in 1889 and the adoption of the Civil Code in 1898 mark the origin of the patriarchal system in Japan.[3] After these systems were implemented during the Meiji period, Japanese women were deprived of political, economic, and marital rights. Although women had more opportunities to receive an education due to the enactment of the Fundamental Education Law in 1872, the decline in women’s status during the Meiji period was significant.[4] The publication of the Seitō magazine was an important tool for Seitōsha to report some of the unfair treatments of women in Japanese society.[5]

This digital exhibit focuses on Seitōsha’s impact on abortion. After explaining the impacts of Westernization on Japan’s implementation of the patriarchal system, establishment of Seitōsha, and changes in abortion laws, this digital exhibit will explore Seitōsha’s views on Japanese society, focusing on their views regarding the criminalization of abortion.

Meiji Constitution and The Civil Code

One of the achievements of Westernization was the promulgation of the Constitution of the Japanese Empire in 1889, which is often called the Meiji Constitution.[6] The government aimed to shift the feudal system to bureaucracy in order not to take back from the West. It clarified that all sovereignty is given to the emperor, and thus citizens are under the emperor under any circumstances. Moreover, not all citizens were treated equally, there was a gap between rights given to not only poor and rich but also men and women. Only men who are the age of twenty-five or older and paid tax over fifteen yen could vote at the first lower house election in July 1890. Furthermore, “the Law on Political Assembly and Association prevented women from attending or speaking at public meetings or joining political associations.”[7] To sum up, it seems that Japanese citizens in the Meiji period were given rights to some extent, but inequality within gender should not be ignored.

Figure 1: Constitution of the Empire of Japan signed by Prime Minister Kuroda Kiyotaka on 11 February 1889
Kuroda Kiyotaka 黒田清隆, Constitution of the Empire of Japan 大日本帝国憲法. (Cabinet/Prime Minister’s Office 内閣・総理府, 1889), p. 3, National Archives of Japan.

In addition to the fact that only men were allowed to vote in the Meiji period, the Meiji Civil Code, which took effect in 1898, promoted a male-dominant society.[8] Regarding marriage, inheritance, property, and divorce, women had limited rights. Women under twenty-five were required to have consent from their parents to marry a man due to Article 772. In the process of marriage, Article 747 states that husbands would be the koshu, the head of the family and that the wife will be joining the husband’s household. In addition, a single surname of the husband was common according to Article 746.  When it comes to inheritance and property, wives were treated as inferior in the Civil Code. Their property was possessed by their husbands and could be used without her consent according to Article 801, and Article 970 prohibited the wife’s inheritance and allowed men’s single inheritance (both husband and their son). Lastly, it could be said that the Civil Code made it difficult for wives to make the decision to divorce. According to Article 813, adultery of wives was recognized as a reason for divorce, but the husbands were not. Furthermore, Article 877 proposed that only husbands have custody. Therefore, the Meiji Constitution and the Civil Code clarified gender roles in society and households that women are generally inferior to men.

Hiratsuka Raichō and The Establishment of Seitōsha

After the proclamation of the Meiji Constitution and the adoption of the Civil Code, Japanese women were deprived of political, economic, and marital rights.[9] This caused many Japanese women to question the significant decline of their status. Despite the strengthened notion of patriarchy in Japan, the Fundamental Education Law in 1872 increased women’s literacy rates. The enactment of this law expanded job opportunities for Japanese women. More specifically, women had choices to enter the field of journalism, art, philosophy, and sociology.[10] This opportunity for women to manifest their talents triggered Hiratsuka Raichō to establish Seitōsha, the Japanese Bluestocking Society.

Figure 2: Hiratsuka Raicho, 1955.

Hiratsuka Haru (1886–1971), who is well-known as Hiratsuka Raichō, is the daughter of Hiratsuka Sadajirō, a high-ranking government official in Japan. Having been born and raised in a middle to an upper-class family in Tokyo, Hiratsuka had privileged access to elite education, so she was relatively well-educated compared to other women around her age in the Meiji period.[11] After graduating from the Ochanomizu Girls’ High School in Tokyo, she continued her studies at the Japan Women’s University from 1903 to 1906.[12] During her school years at the Japan Women’s University, Hiratsuka studied Western philosophy, Western art, and Japanese and European history.[13] What especially deepened Hiratsuka’s appreciation of Western literature was her encounter with Elizabeth Hughes, the first principal of Cambridge Training College of Female Teachers. After listening to Hughes’ lectures at the Japan Women’s University, Hiratsuka began learning English and translated numerous works of Western literature.[14] Her interests in Western literature encouraged her to join Keishū Bungakukai, translated as the Keishū Literary Society. This organization was established by Ikuta Chōkō with the aim of producing outstanding female writers in Japan.[15] As Hiratsuka learned more about Japanese and Western literature in this study group, she acquired new skills including writing novels and composing poems called haiku and tanka.[16]

After acquiring knowledge of literature and skills in writing a variety of texts, Hiratsuka became the founder of Seitōsha, the Japanese Bluestocking Society.[17] Seitōsha was named after the Blue Stocking Society established by Lady Elizabeth Montagu in eighteenth century England.[18] Hiratsuka established this organization with the aim of promoting women’s writing and literacy interests after getting persuaded by Ikuta Chōkō to publish a magazine that is written and edited entirely by women.[19] The major activities of Seitōsha were holding regular meetings, publishing magazines, and giving public lectures to female audiences. The most significant of these activities was the publication of the Seitō magazine. Being the first magazine to be edited and controlled entirely by women, the publication of the Seitō magazine proved that women are literate and are capable of running a magazine. Moreover, it played a significant role in spreading awareness of gender issues that existed during the Meiji period.[20]

Contributions of Seitōsha

Publication of the Seitō Magazine

Hiratsuka Raichō and the four women, Kikuchi Teiko, Nakano Hatsuko, Mozume Kazuko, and Yasumochi Yoshiko worked together to publish a total of fifty-two issues of the Seitō magazine that covered a variety of unfair treatments of women in the Japanese society.[21] The first issue of the Seitō magazine was published on 1 September 1911.[22] Hiratsuka opened the first issue of the Seitō magazine, The Seitō Manifesto: “In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun” with an inspirational poem as follows:

In the beginning, woman was truly the sun. An authentic person.

Now, woman is the moon. Living dependent on others, reflecting their brilliance.

She has the moon’s face, and is unhealthy pallor. And now, Seitō cries, newly born.

Created by the brains and hands of today’s Japanese women. Seitō cries, newly born. 

Women’s undertaking is only sneered at, but I am convinced that there is hidden potential there…

Make us continue ceaselessly with our ardent prayer and spiritual concentration. 

Make us do these to the best of our ability until the day when we bring hidden female talent into the open, until the day when the hidden sun begins to shine again. 

On that day we will rule everything, the entire world will fall into our hands. 

On that day woman will no longer be the moon.

On that day she will become the sun, as in the beginning.

She will become an authentic person.[23]

In this poem, Hiratsuka highlights the changes in the roles of Japanese women by using the sun and moon as metaphors. More specifically, Hiratsuka uses the word “sun” to describe an authentic person, a Japanese woman with power and authority. The word “moon,” on the other hand, is used to describe Japanese women who are underprivileged under the patriarchal system in the Meiji period. Hiratsuka uses this poem to make female readers recognize their innate, unlimited potential and to encourage them to stand up for their rights.[24] This inspirational poem written by Hiratsuka represents Seitōsha’s opposition to the concept of ideal womanhood described in the principle of ryōsai kenbō, which had been the essence of gender-based education until the end of World War II in 1945. This principle describes Japanese women as “good wife and wise mother,” expecting women to serve a role as supporters of their husbands and children under the patriarchal family structures.[25]

In the Seitō magazine, the members of Seitōsha used poems, stories, essays, plays, personal experiences, and translations of Western literature to criticize this principle of “good wife and wise mother” and to bring to light some of the gender-based societal limitations that Japanese women regularly faced during the Meiji period. As well as various forms of literature, the members included a section titled “notes from editing room” (henshushitsu yori) in the Seitō magazines which introduced comments by the editors. It sounded like official messages in the beginning, but the content eventually shifted to jokes or silly talks within workers.[26] For instance, they reported the pregnancy of Hiratsuka and illustrated her as a woman who worked hard as ordinary woman, rather than “New Women,” which the media often expressed. They shared their own experiences as women so that readers can relate themselves to those elite women. In short, the section “notes from the editing room” visualized what kind of workers were in Seitōsha so that readers could feel intimate and familiar with those women, which gave a sense of partnership among all the women in the society.

Figure 3: The Seitō Magazine (Volume 3 Issue 4) published on 1 April 1913, Seitōsha 青鞜社, The Seitō Magazine 3:4 (Aizu Wakamatsu City Library会津若松市立会津図書館), 1913. National Institute of Japanese Literature.

Other Activities of Seitōsha

Other than publication, Seitōsha organized general workshops, literacy workshops, lectures, receptions, and so on. Workshops were advertised in the section “notes from editing room”. The first workshop took place on 5 April 1912, and from that time on, Seitōsha held workshops regularly every Tuesday and Friday from 3 pm to 5 pm. The time was set in the afternoon so that female students could join after school.[27] The monthly fee was fifty sen, and content included not only listening to guest speakers but also exchanging opinions among workers in Seitōsha and audiences. In short, regular workshops enabled women to build intimate relationships.

Moreover, the regular workshops later expanded to literacy workshops, which aimed to give women an opportunity to educate themselves and acquire choices and means for their own lives. The first literacy workshop took place on 7 April 1917, requiring participants to pay a monthly fee of one yen. They discussed the Conversion of Women’s Issues by using various forms of academics. Moreover, workers kept records of each workshop so that they could self-explore. The Records of Literacy Workshops in Seitōsha (seitōsha-ken kyukai bungei gijiroku) was published, and men could purchase them even though the registration of workshops was limited to women.[28] The literacy workshops gave women new insight into societal change, and Seitōsha served as the pioneer of the female movement by not waiting for the government to change social order, but by taking action themselves.

The lecture was held just once by the Seitōsha, but it had a huge impact on them. The first and the last lecture were held on 15 February 1913 from 12:30, requiring an entrance fee of twenty sen. The purpose of the lecture was to talk about the purpose of Seitōsha and to introduce their writings to women. However, even Seitōsha asked men to participate with women, even though two-thirds of the thousand audiences were men. At this point, Raichō evaluated the courage of those women who came alone.[29] However, since the majority of the audience were men, they evaluated that the lecture was not enough to hook the attention of women, which discouraged them from holding another one. On the other hand, it gave female writers to express themselves outside texts, which gave them confidence and a place to grow; the lecture was one of meaningful progress for Seitōsha.

Seitōsha not only treasured relationships with women in Japanese society, but also treasured their relationships within the company. They often held receptions to build and sustain their relationships. According to Seitō jinbutsu jiten, workers in Seitōsha were from different regions, twenty-three of which were from Tokyo, and 75 were from South of Oita prefecture to North of Hokkaido.[30] Whenever workers visited Seitōsha in Tokyo, they held welcome receptions and exchanged their thoughts on their locals. Thus, the reception was not simply to enjoy having dinner together, but also to make sure they are aware of what is happening in every region.

As was mentioned previously, the main purpose of the Seitōsha movement was to promote women’s writing and literacy interests. However, this movement not only played a significant role in introducing writings to women, but also in spreading women’s self-awareness of the gender-based problems and obstacles they faced in everyday life. Through the publication of the Seitō magazine, regular meetings, workshops, and a public lecture, the members of Seitōsha covered a variety of topics related to gender issues in the Meiji period. Some of these topics are poverty, unemployment, prostitution, arranged marriages, and legalizing abortion.[31] One of these issues that the Seitōsha members particularly focused on was abortion. The members of Seitōsha questioned the government policy of anti-abortion in the Meiji period and engaged in a heated discussion on marriage, prostitution, and abortion.[32]

Women’s Rights and Abortion Before and During the Meiji Period

Abortion Before the Meiji Period

Before Japan experienced Westernization, abortion and infanticide were performed by many Japanese women. Although there was some essence of patriarchy, Japanese society during the medieval and classical periods was not centered around male leadership. Since women had rights and power, they had the freedom to perform sexual practices, flee their marriages, travel without informing their husbands, and perform abortions and infanticide. Due to this non-authoritarian atmosphere for women, there were many cases of unwed mothers. Since parenting in poverty was difficult for many Japanese women, abortion and infanticide continued to be a trend throughout the Medial and Classical Japan.[33]

Abortion often took place inside houses. Even though it was common throughout Japan, methods used in the Edo period lacked knowledge on both female and fetuses’ bodies, which often led to mistreatment. For instance, women bathe in cold water in winter and drink medicine made by plants “in order to cause the womb to shrink.”[34] Sometimes, they asked someone to pressure their stomach. The reason many families decided to abort with such risky methods was “a result of poverty and was an inevitable choice for parents.”[35] Famine impacted society, and population control was one of the serious issues that the Tokugawa government faced. In addition, female fetuses were often targeted to abortion since male fetuses were often expected to be effective labor of the family and they are regarded to inherit properties.[36] Thus, abortion in the Edo period took place without modern concepts of medicines but was regarded as the last hope for families to survive.

Abortion During the Meiji Period

Abortion laws in Japan drastically changed during the Meiji period due to Western influences. The modern Western European thoughts influenced Japan to implement a patriarchal system .[37] Although there were movements to increase women’s position in society such as increasing enrollment rate and employment rate of women due to the Fundamental Education Law in 1872, the foundation of the policy for fukoku kyōhei (“rich country, strong army”) downgraded women’s status.[38] Since the Japanese government thought implementing a patriarchal system was the key to achieve the goal of fukoku kyōhei, many changes were made to policies and laws. This enforcement of the idea of “rich country, strong army” and the patriarchal system in Japan brought a big change in abortion laws.[39]

Changes in laws regarding abortion and infanticide can be seen from 1870 due to the enactment of Shinritsu Kōryō by the Meiji government on December 27th. This law protects women and acknowledges an infant as a person, since it punished men by sentencing them to third-degree exile if the woman and infant died due to abortion. The revision of this law happened two years later with the enactment of Kaitei Ritsurei on 13 June 1873.[40] Unlike Shinritsu Kōryō, which punished men for “plotting double suicide,”[41] Kaitei Ritsurei punished unmarried couples who had committed adultery and abortion. As can be seen, the criteria for judging people to be punished is not based on who performed abortion but based on if the person was involved in abortion or not.[42]

In order to create a compilation of new criminal code that replaces Shinritsu Kōryō and Kaitei Ritsurei, the Meiji government decided to use laws from the Western countries as a reference. Since France was the first country to establish criminal codes of abortion, Japan decided to take France as a model and partnered with Gustave Boissonade, an assistant professor at the University of Paris. After getting advice from Boissonade, the Criminal Code of abortion took effect in 1882.[43] This law considered abortion as one of the “crimes against the body and property.”[44] Since abortion became criminalized due to the enactment of this law, women who had an abortion were punished heavily. According to Article 330, “Pregnant women who have abortions, induced by medicine or other means, shall be punished by one to six months’ imprisonment.”[45] Such severe punishments were not only given to women who had an abortion but also given to physicians and midwives who performed an abortion for those women.[46] However, this criminal code had an unfair imposition of punishment based on sex. Although women were penalized for having an abortion, adultery by men was condoned during the Meiji period.[47]

Abortion and The Seitō Magazine

In the issues of the Seitō magazine, the members of Seitōsha engaged in a heated discussion on abortion. One of the Seitō writers who criticized the criminalization of abortion was Harada Satsuki (formerly Yasuda Satsuki). Although she was not the main contributor to the Seitō magazine, her argument on abortion was very influential. Harada argued that women should not be penalized for having an abortion because they can decide what to do with her body. Since a fetus is a part of a woman’s body, women should be able to choose to get rid of it under avoidable circumstances such as poverty.[48]

Harada’s argument on abortion is published in the issues of the Seitō magazine. She wrote a story, “From a Women in Prison to a Man” and questioned the criminalization of abortion. It was about a woman who was kept in a prison due to having an abortion. Being kept at the prison, she wrote a letter arguing that having an abortion is the right women should have in order to save her potential life.[49] Her decision of having an abortion was to avoid her child from being forced to spend a poor life. Since abortion was criminalized at that time, the story written by Harada sparked debates on whether abortion was a crime or not. There were different views within Seitōsha, which influenced their publication and public reactions.

Hiratsuka, the founder of Seitōsha, thought that women possess the right to make decisions by themselves, including abortion. Receiving university education and being capable in English, she was exposed to diverse thoughts on women’s rights.[50] Such experiences made her question the principle of ryōsai kenbo and encouraged her to spread the idea of “New Woman”, that women should be independent and have the whole control over her decisions.[51] To sum up, Hiratsuka considered abortion as part of women’s control of her body and thus had a similar idea with Harada.

On the other hand, Ito, the second editor-in-chief of Seitōsha, was against the ideas proposed by Harada and Hiratsuka. Since her life was not as wealthy as Hiratsuka, she considered abortion as an unnatural act especially for families who are economically unstable.[52] She viewed birth and death as natural life events and thus if a child cannot survive, he or she would die anyway. Therefore, economic destruction influenced Ito’s thoughts on abortion.

The debates on abortion within Seitōsha hooked public attention since women at that time were not allowed to gather and discuss political issues as mentioned in the Law on Political Assembly and Association.[53] There were no other magazines or literature in which women actively raised their voices on the criminalization of abortion. Of course, the government paid attention to their magazines that wrote about abortion and as a consequence, “government opposition led to the complete suppression of five issues of Seitō, and increased tensions that ultimately led to a dip in membership as many members could not take the pressure”.[54] In short, Seitōsha provoking new insight into abortion became one of the factors their publication was banned.


Seitōsha, established by Hiratsuka Raichō, stood up for women’s rights from the late Meiji to Taishō period. They challenged the principle of ryōsai kenbō and aimed for women to be able to live their own lives as a person. From magazine publication to events such as workshops and lectures, Seitōsha gave opportunities for not only women in the society but also workers in the company to discuss and exchange their thoughts. By doing so, women were able to rethink who they are and have the sense that they are not alone.

Progress was made in bringing up debates on the criminalization of abortion. Although opposing the government threatened the existence of Seitōsha, they kept fighting for women’s reproductive rights. Their controversial activities might not be appreciated in late Meiji to Taishō period but according to Coates, Fraser, & Pendleton, Japan decriminalized abortion in 1948, which was relatively fast compared to other countries.[55] This indicates that the debates Seitōsha brought up could be the turning point for Japan to start rethinking women’s rights on abortion. Thus, Seitōsha could be described as the pioneer of women’s rights organizations in Japan. In retrospect, their arguments and achievements might give us more clues to solve the current gender inequality in Japan.

[1] Tomida 2016, p. 136.

[2] Bardsley 2007, pp. 80–118.

[3] Akira 2018, p. 5.

[4] Tomida 2016, pp. 131–132.

[5] Bardsley 2007, pp. 80–118.

[6] Akira 2018, p. 5.

[7] Mackie 2018, p. 349.

[8] Hamauchi Shoten 2013, p. 259.

[9] Brown 2018, p. 220.

[10] Tomida 2016, pp. 131–132.

[11] Bardsley 2007, pp. 80–118.

[12] Rappaport 2001, pp. 300–301.

[13] Hiratsuka 2010, vii–xiii.

[14] Tomida 2016, p. 130.

[15] Hiratsuka 2010, vii–xiii.

[16] Tomida 2016, p. 130.

[17] Hiratsuka 2010, vii–xiii.

[18] Tomida 2010, p. 130.

[19] Bardsley 2007, p. 80–118.

[20] Tomida 2016, pp. 133–134.

[21] Bardsley 2007, pp. 80–118.

[22] Tomida 2016, p. 135.

[23] Tomida 2016, p. 136.

[24] Tomida 2016, pp. 129–145.

[25] Kiguchi 2017, pp. 133–146.

[26] Yauchi 2012, p. 130.

[27] Yauchi 2012, p. 128.

[28] Yauchi 2012, p. 133.

[29] Yauchi 2012, p. 132.

[30] Yauchi 2012, p. 129.

[31] Tomida 2016, pp. 129–145.

[32] Sievers 1983, pp. 163–188.

[33] Amino 2012, pp. 217–244.

[34] Toyoshima 2016, pp. 77–86.

[35] Toyoshima 2016, pp. 77–86.

[36] Toyoshima 2016, pp. 77–86.

[37] Kiguchi 2017, pp. 133–146.

[38] Kiguchi 2017, pp. 133–146.

[39] Kiguchi 2017, pp. 133–146.

[40] Kanazu 2003, pp. 35–58.

[41] Kanazu 2003, p. 38.

[42] Kanazu 2003, pp. 35–58.

[43] Kanazu 2003, pp. 35-58.

[44] Kanazu 2003, p. 36.

[45] Kanazu 2003, p. 36.

[46] Kanazu 2003, pp. 35–58.

[47] Kiguchi 2017, pp. 133–146.

[48] Kano 2019, pp. 31–40.

[49] Kano 2019, pp. 31–40.

[50] Hiratsuka 2010, vii–xiii.

[51] Hiratsuka 2010, vii–xiii.

[52] Kano 2019, pp. 31–40.

[53] Mackie 2018, p. 349.

[54] Burdick 2017, pp. 1–16.

[55] Kano 2019, pp. 31–40.


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