Fukuda Hideko (1865–1927)

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Fukuda Hideko (1865–1927)

Japanese pioneer in the women's liberation movement during the Meiji era and one of the few women in the early socialist movement, who was editor of Japan's first feminist journal and author of the first autobiography of a woman to be written in her country. Name variations: Kageyama Hideko; Fukuda Hideko. Born Hideko Kageyama in 1865 in Okayama, Western Japan; died in May 1927; daughter of Katashi (a provincial samurai) and Umeko (a school teacher); left elementary school to become an assistant teacher in 1879; married Fukuda Yusaku, in 1892 (died 1900); children: (with Oi Kentaro) one son, (with Fukuda Yusaku) three sons.

Joined women's rights movement after hearing Kishida Toshiko speak (1882); opened a school for girls and women (1883); moved to Tokyo after school closed by authorities (1884); joined group of radical liberal activists, arrested and imprisoned for her role as an explosives courier (1885); tried and sentenced to jail for ten months (1887); after release from prison, lived with Oi Kentaro and gave birth to a son (1890); became a socialist and started school for women (1901); wrote autobiography Half My Life and began campaign against restrictions against women in Meiji Civil Code (1904); founded feminist magazine Women of the World (1907), which was banned by Tokyo court (1909); wrote article in feminist journal Seito, banned (1913); continued feminist and socialist activities up to year of death (1927).

For three days, the voice of Kishida Toshiko had filled the Okayama lecture hall, thrilling the audience with her denunciation of Japan's "evil practice" of "respecting men and despising women." A former lady-in-waiting at the Japanese imperial court who had left her position because she found it "boring," Kishida declared Japan's need to build a new society based on equality between men and women. "Equality, independence, respect, and a monogamous relationship are the hallmarks of relationships between men and women in a civilized society," cried Kishida, while a teenage girl named Hideko and her mother, Umeko, sat enthralled.

Years later, Hideko Fukuda wrote of the effect of that speech, heard in 1882, that became her first step on the road to social activism as one of Japan's earliest feminists: "Listening to her speech, delivered in that marvelous oratorical style, I was unable to suppress my resentment and indignation … and began immediately to organize women and their daughters … to take the initiative in explaining and advocating natural rights, liberty, and equality … so that we might muster the passion to smash the corrupt customs of former days relating to women."

Hideko was born in 1865, in the Okayama prefecture, one of four children in the family of a low-ranking samurai named Katashi, who ran a small private school, raised vegetables, and later became a policeman. Hideko's mother Umeko was a teacher in a girls' middle school, who dressed and behaved like a "modern" woman and remained a strong influence on Hideko throughout her life.

Hideko grew up in the early years of the Meiji Period, which lasted from 1868 to 1912, when her country was undergoing a number of major reforms. At the beginning of the Meiji era, government policy was concerned with opening up Japan to Western influences, in the hope of making the country more modern and industrial. At the same time, some attention was also paid to the enlightenment of its women. In 1868, when Hideko was three, the Meiji government sent five young girls abroad to learn about Western life in order to become role models for Japanese women. Throughout the 1870s, the role of women in the family was an issue under frequent discussion. In particular, some debated that women should be treated with more respect, since mothers bore much of the responsibility for teaching a new generation of young Japanese to be more independent and think critically. According to this argument, women should be better educated and given more authority in the family. The "good wife, wise mother" was held up by reformers as the female ideal. The Popular Rights Movement of this period incorporated some ideas about women's political rights, and Hideko later became a member.

Hideko was a bright girl. After she finished elementary school, her parents encouraged her to become an assistant teacher, although they worried that the Western-style education she had received would not prepare her to become a traditional Japanese wife. At home, she was given traditional lessons in the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, sewing, and proper manners. Her parents also arranged for music lessons, as she said, "hoping to make me behave like a girl rather than a boy." In her autobiography, she wrote, "So I had to take daily lessons in how to play a string instrument like the two-string koto and the Chinese lute…. I worked at these lessons well into the night, day after day."

By the time Hideko was 16, she was receiving offers of marriage, which she rebuffed, placing her parents in an awkward position. She was making her own living by then, but she did not want to be pressured into marriage, so she proposed to her parents that she give them all her earnings, in return for being allowed to remain in their home. "I pleaded with my parents with all my heart," she wrote. "They must have concluded that I could not be easily dissuaded…. There are many women who, coerced by their parents, mechanically and ritualistically marry men who they do not love. After my experience, I vowed to help these unfortunate women so that they might follow the path of independence and self-reliance."

The year she was 17, she heard the speeches by Kishida Toshiko, expressing ideas that went far beyond the "good wife, wise mother" ideal. Following Kishida's appearances in Okayama, Hideko organized the first women's discussion and lecture groups ever held in Japan. At one of these meetings Hideko herself gave a speech called "The Theory of the Equality of Human Beings." She and her mother also joined in opening a private school for girls and older women who had never had the chance to receive a basic education.

In 1884, Hideko joined the Liberal Party, a reform group whose members clashed with the police that same year in an incident involving free speech. When the police retaliated by closing Hideko's school, she was ready to leave Okayama anyway and set off for Tokyo.

At the age of 20, Hideko quickly involved herself in the radical branch of Tokyo's liberal political circles. Her friends were activists who wanted to increase Japan's influence in the world. In 1885, she joined a plot to aid a liberal and revolutionary pro-Japanese movement involving Korean-born students in Japan who wanted their country to modernize along the same lines as Meiji Japan. When the Japanese government failed to support the group in their attempt to overthrow conservative rivals, Hideko became involved in a plan to supply the revolutionaries with explosives sent to Korea by ship. The plan was to create an incident that would undo a Sino-Japanese agreement whereby neither Japan nor China would maintain troops in Korea.

Inspired by a biography of Joan of Arc she had just read, Hideko dreamed of becoming Japan's St. Joan. But the radicals' plot was exposed, Hideko and her friends were arrested, and in May 1887, Hideko was sentenced to an 18-month term in prison as a state criminal in what became known as the Osaka Incident. "Even though I was a woman," Hideko later said about the episode, "I had decided to risk my life challenging the brutal government, and now I was learning the truth of the adage, 'If you win, you are a loyalist; if you lose, you are a traitor.'"

In prison, Hideko taught other female prisoners how to read and write, and sewed clothes to make money. In 1889, the group was awarded amnesty and released, and a huge crowd was present to greet them as they left jail, with banners congratulating them on their freedom. As the only woman in the group, Hideko became the focus of attention, made a public figure by the Osaka Incident.

That same year, Hideko began a relationship with a fellow conspirator, Oi Kentaro, who was a leader in the radical liberal movement. Promising to divorce his mentally ill wife, Oi proposed to Hideko, and meanwhile the two lived together. In 1890, the couple had a son, but Hideko later found out that Oi's wife was already dead, and that he was having several affairs while living with her. In Hideko's eyes, Oi's infidelities came to reflect the actions of a number of male activists who advocated the equality of the sexes while in reality holding women in low regard. Of her disillusionment, she wrote: "I could not understand how these men could party so, and I castigated them for their behavior…. I stayed awake, mulling over the fact that my comrades behaved as if we had enough money for them to spend their time in bordellos." Like other female reformers in the Meiji period, Hideko argued that the sanctioned practices of concubinage and prostitution were central to the question of women's status.

Hideko broke up with Oi in 1891. Eager to work for "women's rights and equality," she started a girls' vocational school with her family in Tokyo, but after the family suffered a series of misfortunes, she was forced to close the school. During this time, however, she met an American-trained scholar, Yusaku Fukuda, and despite the objections of his family, they married in 1892. In the years 1893–99, Hideko and Yusaku had three sons.

While Hideko was involved with raising her small sons, the Meiji government was backing away from its past support of reforms for women. As Japanese women insisted on a more public role for themselves and challenged the social institutions that blocked their opportunities for change, the government grew increasingly threatened by the democratic forces unleashed during the first two decades of Meiji period; then it was shocked by the involvement of women textile workers, who were the backbone of the textile industry, in a series of strikes. In an attempt to control the direction of change, the government began to crack down. In 1887, it passed the Peace Preservation Law, which placed strict police controls on political opposition. Article Five of the law was specifically aimed at women, allowing fines or imprisonment for women who tried to organize a political association, join a political group, or attend a political meeting. Women were also forbidden to attend the Japanese Diet as observers of legislative activities, to make political speeches, or even to take a course in political science. These were the harshest political regulations the country's women had ever faced.

When I look at the conditions currently prevailing in society, I see that as far as women are concerned, virtually everything is coercive and oppressive, making it imperative that we women rise up and forcefully develop our own social movement.

—Hideko Fukuda

In 1889, Japan's new Constitution went even further, with a Civil Code that recognized only men as legal persons. Married women, for example, were not allowed to bring legal action as independent beings, although husbands were free to dispose of their wives' property as they liked. The Code also shored up the patriarchal nature of Japan's family model by reinstating laws of primogeniture and patrilocality, while the status of Japanese women was reduced to that of mental incompetents and minors. The aim of public schooling for girls became more narrowly defined as a training for the roles of "good wives and mothers" who would manage the home skillfully and be obedient and submissive. By 1900, there were few reformers left in Japan who championed women's rights.

In 1900, Hideko Fukuda's husband died after a short illness, leaving her a widow with four children and her mother to support. In order to earn money, Hideko turned again to teaching, establishing a women's technological school to produce women who could be self-supporting. Helping her in the school was Ishikawa Sanshiro, a man 11 years younger than herself. That same year, Hideko moved in with Ishikawa.

In 1901, Hideko and Ishikawa joined the Japanese socialist movement, beginning the association that was to dominate her life from 1901 to 1907. Her primary work was through an organization called Heiminsha, or the Commoner's Society, which published a newspaper known for its pacifist stand against the Russo-Japanese War. It is not clear if Hideko wrote for the paper, but she helped raise funds for its support and advocated its antiwar position.

In 1904, Heiminsha published Hideko's account of her life up to the turn of the century. Called Half of My Lifetime, it was the first autobiography of a woman written in Japan, and described her involvement in the Osaka Incident, her years in jail, and her unhappy relationship with Oi Kentaro. The book was an immediate success and remains in print. The following year, Hideko published a novel called My Reminiscences, which was less well received.

Heiminsha was forced by the government to disband in 1905. The socialist movement was splintering into small, ideologically diverse groups at the time, and Hideko joined one that was leading a nationwide petition campaign to revise the "insulting" constitutional restrictions of Article Five. In 1908, the Lower House of the Diet responded by voting in favor of allowing women to join political parties, but the petition was rejected by the more conservative Upper House, and Hideko was furious. "What bigoted men they are! How ignorant!" she wrote. "They simply maintain their opposition, saying 'Observing the courts and the Diet, and reading political debate in the newspapers are acceptable, but women may not listen to political lectures.'"

Hideko was also upset by the position of her socialist colleagues, who claimed that women's liberation would automatically arrive with the economic liberation of everyone. Hideko feared that "economic liberation" might allow women to be treated even worse than before, unless attitudes about the roles of men and women changed first. Convinced of the need for women to become financially independent, she believed they must be allowed to earn money and to keep it.

In 1907, concluding that socialist journals never adequately covered women's concerns, Hideko formed a women's group and began publication of a journal called Sekai Fujin, or Women of the World. In its first issue, dated January 1, 1907, Women of the World proclaimed its goal: "To determine the real vocation of women by extracting it from the tangled web of law, custom, and morality that are a part of women's experience. Then, we hope to cultivate among all of you a desire to join a reform movement founded on what will be the true mission of women."

As the title suggests, the aim of Women of the World was to inform women about suffrage movements around the world, and of the important roles of women in historical events, like Madame Roland during the French Revolution. Hideko also tried to attract women of diverse interests by covering practical topics, including recipes and advice on cooking and sewing. But the deeper purpose of Women of the World was to inspire women to action. At best, Hideko wanted to create a movement among women which would improve their status in Japanese society. At the very least, she wanted to draw them into the campaign against the hated Article Five. Hideko argued that it symbolized the "double burden" of oppression forced on women, by the wealthy and by men.

At age 43, Hideko had embarked on her most ambitious project to date, and the one for which she would be best known. Published bimonthly for more than two years, the journal has been cited by one scholar as the "beginning of the rise of a conscious, organized feminist movement in Japan." Beyond women's issues, Women of the World tackled other concerns, including the dangerous working conditions in the Japanese textile factories and the plight of people along the Watarase River, whose waters were being poisoned by the Ashio Copper Mine. After 1908, the journal became the target of systematic government harassment, with some issues banned or heavily fined. Hideko received cancellation letters from subscribers who were being pressured by family and friends to cut their association with the magazine. Young women in one school were forced to cancel their subscriptions under threat of punishment. Hideko tried to make the journal less political and more literary, but in 1909, the government officially banned it; as Hideko said, "beginnings are easy, it's continuing that's difficult." In 1910, Hideko ceased trying to keep the journal alive and retreated to Ishikawa's family home.

Hideko's efforts to keep the journal going left her penniless. But if Women of the World had proved to be a financial failure, it did succeed in opening up a new world of ideas for a number of women by raising issues and giving them a sense of purpose. Hideko herself became a role model for Japan's "second wave" feminists. In 1911, the next generation of young and well-to-do female intellectuals, calling themselves the "Bluestocking" Group, began their own magazine, called Seito. An article by Hideko appeared in Seito in 1913, advocating the establishment of a community system that would use "all scientific knowledge and mechanical power" for the "equality and benefit of all," and that issue of the journal was banned. That same year, Ishikawa left Japan to escape the government's harassment of socialists and used his departure to end his relationship with Hideko. In her later years, Hideko was much less involved in political affairs, and lived in extreme poverty. She died in 1927, at the age of 61.


Hane, Mikiso, ed. and trans. Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Women in Prewar Japan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989.

Sievers, Sharon L. Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.

——. "Women in China, Japan, and Korea," in Restoring Women to History: Teaching Packets for Integrating Women's History into Courses of Africa, Asia, Latin America, The Caribbean, and the Middle East. Bloomington, IN: Organization of American Historians, 1988.

Ushioda, Sharlie C. "Fukuda Hideko and the Woman's World Of Meiji Japan," in Japan in Transition. Hilary Conroy et al., eds. London: Associated University Presses, 1984.

suggested reading:

Fujimura-Fanselow, Kumiko, and Atsuko Kameda, eds. Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present, and Future. NY: Feminist Press, 1994.

Sproule, Anna. Solidarity: Women Workers, Women History Makers Series. London: Macdonald, 1987.

Tanaka, Yukiko. To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938. Seattle, WA: The Seal Press, 1987.

Lyn Reese , women's history author and director of Women in the World Curriculum Resources, Berkeley, California