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  • Women and Political Life in Early Meiji Japan:The Case of the Okayama Joshi Konshinkai (Okayama Women's Friendship Society)
  • Marnie S. Anderson (bio)

The Formation of Women's Groups in Meiji Japan

In 1882, one Murasame Nobu, a woman from Aichi prefecture, sent a letter to Itagaki Taisuke, the leader of the Liberal Party, and included 5 yen from her home employment (naishoku), which was making fireworks, to support the Party. Murasame would go on to become one of the founding members of a local women's organization, the Toyohashi Fujo Kyōkai (Toyohashi Women's Cooperative Association), about which most information has been lost. She later met famous liberal male activists and was even arrested for her involvement—along with her husband and other activists—in a failed uprising against the government (the Iida Incident), although she was eventually released due to a lack of evidence. Years later, she wrote a preface for the activist Ueki Emori's Tōyō no fujo (Women of the East), revealing her commitment to raising women's status, her high level of education, and her deep knowledge of famous women in Japanese history.1

What is surprising about Murasame's story is that it happened at all, for the links between politics and masculinity in Japan have deep roots, and women's political involvement has largely been cast as a twentieth-century tale focused on the quest for suffrage.2 Even in contemporary Japan, women can and do play a political role, but as Robin LeBlanc has demonstrated, female politicians and activists tend to highlight their femininity and "mak[e] creative use of the widely accepted stereotype that women are closer to the home than men are."3 Obscured in the emphasis on the masculinity of [End Page 43] politics in Japan is the fact that Japanese women have demonstrated political engagement throughout the modern period.4 While many scholars have examined the activities of women throughout the twentieth century, my own interest lies in the lives of women, such as Murasame, who formed local women's groups during the Meiji period (1868-1912). These groups drafted charters, sponsored debates and speeches, founded schools, and in some cases formed their own political parties.5

In thinking about women and political life, I have been inspired by the work of gender historians who have begun to call attention to some of the ways that women have engaged in politics both by drawing on a more expansive definition of the political and by exploring some of the ways in which women have engaged in political activities outside of voting.6 I attempt such an analysis of Meiji women in this essay. Although historians have traditionally defined "politics" rather narrowly (and consequently ignored the role of women), a larger conception of the political permits an appreciation of various degrees within it, so that we can include examples of women engaging in social reform, including the founding of schools. In short, I wish to stress that women were acting politically and making political statements even when they were not entirely aware of it.7

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the shape of Japanese women's activism changed dramatically. Prior to and during the Meiji Restoration era of the late 1860s, female peasants joined in uprisings, and some women fought alongside men in the Restoration Wars.8 Moreover, there are a few cases where loyalist women such as Matsuo Taseko worked alongside men in order to achieve the goal of restoring the emperor to what they saw as his rightful place at the center of the polity.9 But such actions were part of larger, male-led movements, and the parameters of women's activities were circumscribed by their gender and other variables.10 The situation changed dramatically with the advent of the Meiji period, when most examples of female activism occurred within the context of women-only organizations.11 By the turn of the century, this burst of associational activity had led to the formation of women's groups of various persuasions, including patriotic associations, Christian groups (notably the Woman's Christian Temperance Union), Buddhist groups, and other charitable associations.12

The first women...


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