New Women’s Association and Women’s Suffrage in Japan

By King Man Chan

For more images please visit
Ichikawa Fusae Center for Women and Governance
and for Ichikawa Fusae and Yoko Nuita. Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist. (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), p. 60. Image from Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies.

For trailers of the movie about the life of Ichikawa Fusae 映画 『八十七歳の青春–市川房枝生涯を語る– 』by 株式会社桜映画社 please watch these videos (in Japanese).

 

Introduction

In 1945, the right of universal suffrage in Japan was finally given to both sexes. Before that, only male suffrage was put into practice from 1928.[1] The New Women’s Association, the first organization concerning welfare of women in Japan, aimed to improve the women’s status in Japan starting from the 1920s. Ichikawa Fusae (1893-1981), one of the founders of New Women’s Association, started the first feminist suffrage movement in Japan. During the process of obtaining women’s suffrage, various organization were founded to promote political rights.

 

The Evolution of Women’s Suffrage in Japan

The Women’s Suffrage was Initiated from the Patriarchy in Japan

Starting from the 1920s, the issue of women’s suffrage had been addressed in Japan, which was in an early stage of fighting for the political rights of women among the whole world.[2] As a family state, the emperor of Japan is treated as the father of the nation and Japan created a patriarchal society in which men had more rights than women before the World War I.[3] However, with the progress of modernization during the Meiji period,[4] the ideas of democracy, labor, social movements and the suffrage movement arose from capitalism and European culture to protect women from societal or economic exploitation.[5]

In fact, the position of women in the Japanese society was not as low as it was during the prewar period. Yet, the status of women began to decline after entering feudalism and was affected by Confucianism in the Meiji period.[6] The philosophy of “being a good wife and wise mother”[7] was also branded as the Japanese idea of women. Although the Japanese women today have almost complete equality of rights by law. However, in a long period of conservatism, there was a long struggle before gaining the success of women’s suffrage in Japan.[8]

 

The Long Struggle was faced when Fighting for Liberation of Women’s Political Rights

In 1887, Article 5 of the constitution was amended to exclude of women from joining political parties and attending political gatherings or lecture meetings, which highly limited women’s political actions.[9] With the formation of the New Women’s Association by Ichikawa Fusae, Hiratsuka Raichō (1886-1971) and Oku Mumeo (1895-1997), Hiratsuka drafted and submitted a petition to the Diet to revise Article 5 in 1919, but the Diet did not make it out until February 1920. Therefore, they resubmitted the petition to later parliamentary sessions and finally got the approval to amend Article 5.[10] However, the amendment was rejected by the House of Peers in late Meiji period.

By then, after a few months of fighting by the liberal feminists through Josei Domei, the journal published by NWA, the journal’s issues supplemented the earlier demands for revision of Article 5 to allow women to participate in political activities in December 1920 and the protection of wives and fiancées from marriage to syphilitic men in January 1921. Finally, the lobbied Diet politicians delivered a favorable vote in March 1922.[11]

As a matter of fact, the women’s suffrage movement started before the establishment of men’s suffrage. When the verdict for men’s suffrage was decided in 1924, Ichikawa and other leaders of the women’s suffrage argument gathered and formed the Alliance for the Realization of Woman Suffrage to officially start the suffrage movement for women in Japan. Meanwhile the universal men’s suffrage was established in 1925 and the first general election was held in 1928.[12] With the success of universal suffrage for men, the opinion arose that women should also be given the same right to stand in elections for local governing parties. Then, the government proposed a bill with the right to vote for married women, which the NWA was not satisfied with because the rights were not given to all women and so they opposed the bill eventually.[13]

 

The Public Reaction towards Women Political Rights was Polarized

At that time, there were arguments about women’s political rights. Surprisingly, men were supporting women rights, while some women opposed the voting rights for women. At the opening ceremony of the New Women’s Association, one-third of the attendants were men giving their support to the NWA and numerous members of the Diet agreed to grant the right to vote for women. However, the people opposing the equal rights for women argued that the right to vote is useless and harmful when it came to women due to their low status during the 1920s.[14]

 

The Women suffragists had to Deal with the Difficulties and Attacks During the Movement

Though the NWA received support from the public, they faced criticism and even attacks from other, Diet members or female politicians with an opposite stance during the 1920s within the conservative atmosphere. They received not only verbal insults by men, but also attacks from left-wing women. The police even prevented them from attending political meetings and rallies, which provided a hard time to continue the women’s movement. Despite the opposite opinions, another toil was the difficulty to find a person representing their cause who could ignore the public opinions and was willing to stand up to the Diet as in a conservative society.[15]

 

The Turning Point was When the Time People Needed to Stand Together

In 1945, Japan was defeated in the war and this arose life issues and problems that people had to face. These issues allowed people with different opinions to join together to tackle their problems including the social, labor, and political sectors. People started to desire the right to vote with the reasons of hoping to change and improve the legal system as well as increase the welfare. For long-term goals, they would also like to bring people together and pursue peace by cleaning up politics.[16] Therefore, the women’s movement has continued to this day.

 

The First Organization of Women’s Suffrage in Japan was formed

The New Women’s Association (NWA), which is also known as Shin Fujin Kyōkai in Japanese,[17] was founded on 1919.[18] It was the first organization of the women’s suffrage movement in Japan.[19] It embraced two types of feminism, the demand for protection of women as subjects of the family state and the civil rights of inclusion. With Hiratsuka word’s, they formed NWA as women had to identify as a class. They pressed the revision of Article 5 of the Public Peace Police Law to allow women to participate in political activity, as well as the passage of legislation that would allow women to break engagements or divorce from men diagnosed with syphilis.[20] Afterwards, the NWA was disbanded and new organizations were formed after 1940 to continue the women’s movement in Japan which involved lifelong careers for most of the Japanese feminists in Japan.[21]

 

Ichikawa Fusae Worked as a Women’s Suffragist in Japan for Her Whole Life

Ichikawa Fusae is one of the NWA’s leaders and founders, and one of the first woman suffragists of Japan as an equal-rights feminist.[22] Ichikawa was also elected as a member of the House of Councilors and served for 20 years with the goal of being involved in achieving the right to vote for women, which shows that her achievements for the women’s movement are recognized by the people. Before composing the NWA, she worked in the women’s department of Yuaikai Friendship Association, which was the first labor union group in Japan.[23] To devote more time on the principle of women’s rights (Jokenshugi), Ichikawa remained a political independent and focused on solving women rights’ issues.[24]

 

Ichikawa was influenced by the Women’s Suffragist in the United States

A year after the success of women’s suffrage in the United States, Ichikawa wanted to see the success of their women’s movement firsthand, so she went to the United States for two and a half years starting from the summer of 1921. Dring her time in the United States, she joined several feminist organizations in Chicago, Washington and New York, where she met various leaders of the movement, she also gathered literature and materials.[25] The journey in the United States also marked the beginning of a change in the character and direction of the women’s movement of Ichikawa afterwards.[26]

The feminist leaders in the United States caused a great impact to Ichikawa. One of them is Alice Paul, who was the organizer of the National Woman’s Party that fought for the complete equality for women in economics and education.[27] Ichikawa formed a strong bond with Paul during her stay in the United States, which helped facilitate the connections between the Japanese suffrage movement and international feminist movements.[28] Paul also suggested for Ichikawa to concentrate on the women’s movement, Another one was Carrie Chapman Catt, who was the organizer of the League of Women Voters[31] and the forefront of the drive to gain the right to vote for women.[32] These connections with noted feminists in the United States contributed to her women’s movement in Japan.

 

Ichikawa was Back in Japan After the Stay in the US

After that, Ichikawa was influenced by several Western feminists and found the women’s suffrage movement in Japan was at a low point, so she decided to end the stay in the United States and go back to Japan.[33] Then, Ichikawa was invited to work in the Tokyo branch of International Labor Organization and continued her women’s movement career.[34]

 

Ichikawa’s Family was the Initial Stimulus for the Participation in Women’s Suffrage Movement

During her childhood, Ichikawa observed the relationship of her parents in which her father treated her mother like a tyrant, so she wanted to improve the women’s position of that time. At first, Ichikawa was mainly involved in women’s movement and politics, but she felt the necessity for women to have the right to vote, so she decided to participate in the women’s suffrage movement.[35] After the postwar period, she was also aware of the linkage between political participation and the issues of war and peace due to the Manchurian Incident.[36] Therefore, she continued the participation in the women’s movement and aimed to protect mothers and their children from suicides and would like to keep trying to enlighten the political world and raise the status of women in the future.[37]

 

Conclusion

With all the efforts by the New Women’s Association and Ichikawa Fusae, Japan successfully granted the right to vote for both men and women in an early stage in the world. Although there was a lot of struggle during the process of the women’s suffrage movement, people eventually came together due to the issues caused by the war. Moreover, Ichikawa chose to continue her career in the feminist movement with the connections and influence of new ideas she received during her stay in the United States. As a result, the women’s movement has shown great progress and women’s status in Japan risen to become almost completely equal to men.

[1] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 59.

[2] Forestell and Moynagh, Documenting First Wave Feminisms – Volume 1: Transnational Collaborations and Crosscurrents, p. 109.

[3] Edwards and Roces, Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy, p. 130.

[4] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 406.

[5] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 58.

[6] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 403.

[7] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 407.

[8] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 434.

[9] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 408.

[10] Edwards and Roces, Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy, p. 131.

[11] Edwards and Roces, Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy,” p. 132.

[12] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 59.

[13] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 59.

[14] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” pp. 58-61.

[15] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” pp. 412-17.

[16] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” pp. 60-61.

[17] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 411.

[18] Edwards and Roces, Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy, p. 127.

[19] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 58.

[20] Edwards and Roces, Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy, p. 131.

[21] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 424.

[22] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 402.

[23] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” pp. 58-59.

[24] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 416.

[25] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” pp. 58-59.

[26] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 414.

[27] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 414.

[28] Shibahara, Japanese Women and the Transnational Feminist Movement before World War II, p. 65.

[29] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 58.

[30] Edwards and Roces, Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy, p. 131.

[31] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 414.

[32] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 58.

[33] Vavich, “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage,” p. 414.

[34] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 59.

[35] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” p. 58.

[36] Shibahara, Japanese Women and the Transnational Feminist Movement before World War II, p. 69.

[37] Ichikawa and Nuita, “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist,” pp. 59-62.

References

Edwards, Louise and Mina Roces, ed. Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.

Forestell, Nancy M. and Maureen A. Moynagh, ed. Documenting First Wave Feminisms – Volume 1: Transnational Collaborations and Crosscurrents. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

Ichikawa Fusae and Nuita Yoko. “Fusae Ichikawa: Japanese Women Suffragist.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 3:3 (1978), 58–62.

Molony, Barbara. “Women’s Rights, Feminism, and Suffragism in Japan, 1870–1925.” Pacific Historical Review 69:4 (2000), 639–61.

Nolte, Sharon H. “Women’s Rights and Society’s Needs: Japan’s 1931 Suffrage Bill.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 28:4 (1986), 690–714.

Shibahara Taeko. Japanese Women and the Transnational Feminist Movement before World War II. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014.

Shibahara Taeko. “Not Only for the Welfare of the Nation but for the World and Humanity: The Interwar Suffrage Movement in Japan.” Journal of Women’s History 24:2 (2012), 62–88.

Vavich, Dee Ann. “The Japanese Woman’s Movement: Ichikawa Fusae, A Pioneer in Woman’s Suffrage.” Monumenta Nipponica 22:3/4 (1967), 402–36.