Yamada Waka (1879–1956)

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Yamada Waka (1879–1956)

Writer, translator, and social reformer, an ardent advocate for underprivileged and abused women, who became one of the most respected women of prewar Japan. Pronunciation: Yah-mah-dah Wah-kah. Born Asaba Waka on December 1, 1879, in the village of Kimura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan; died of a heart attack on September 6, 1956; daughter of Asaba Kunihisa (a farmer); left school after fourth grade; married Araki Hichijiro, on August 20, 1896 (divorced); married Yamada Kakichi, in 1905.

In the 1890s, when she was in her midteens, her family's fortunes were declining and the farm was mortgaged, and Yamada Waka felt obligated to earn money to help rectify the situation. She left her native Japan and sailed for the United States, lured by the promise of opportunities for fabulous wealth that would enable her to fulfill her filial duties. As was not unusual for Japanese and Chinese women who believed such promises, Yamada was seized by pimps upon her arrival on the West Coast and sold to a brothel. Known as "Arabian Oyae," she remained in forced prostitution in Seattle, Washington, until a man who loved her, Tachii Nobusaburo, helped her escape. In her essay "Myself and My Surroundings," she wrote: "When I emerged from the underground, I was burning with hatred for people, especially for men. I kept wondering what I could do to get revenge on those devils who'd taken advantage of a poor woman and had sucked her blood. I thought of pouring gasoline on their heads and setting them afire. Fighting those men to avenge the poor suffering women—it was a fantasy that filled me with courage. Later, whenever I met a woman who cried because she was being abused by a man, I felt like fighting for her."

She had been born Asaba Waka into a farming family in the village of Kimura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, in 1879. Because of the family's precarious finances, she received no more than a fourth-grade education, and at age 16 married Araki Hichijiro in hopes that he might contribute to the family coffers. Apparently he refused, and she left him and sailed to America. By 1902, Yamada Waka was on the run. She finally arrived in San Francisco, where she sought protection and assistance from the Cameron House, a Methodist home for the rehabilitation of prostitutes. There she received vocational and religious instruction and served as an interpreter. Part of Waka's vocational training included English-language instruction at a school run by Yamada Kakichi. A sociologist by training, he taught Western languages and lectured in sociology and economics. "Although Waka was uneducated she was remarkably intelligent," he said, "with a fine memory and an ability to grasp subtleties. She seemed anxious to learn, anxious to be given the opportunity. I, in turn, wanted to teach her everything she requested, certain that given the chance, her natural talents would help her overcome a late start in life." Kakichi proposed marriage to Yamada as a way of avoiding the gossip which might have resulted from the special attention he was paying her. They married in 1905 and returned to Japan.

In Tokyo, Kakichi opened a language school which became popular with many young intellectuals and left-wing political activists. Through these contacts, he introduced Yamada to the young female activists of Seitōsha (The Bluestockings) who published a literary feminist journal, Seitō. It was in this journal that she began a prolific career as a translator and writer, first by translating the essays of South African feminist Olive Schreiner , in whom she sensed a kindred spirit. Yamada's book-length translations included the works of Lester Ward, an American sociologist who wrote Women's Natural Instincts and Women's Education. Later she translated the works of Swedish feminist Ellen Key , including Love and Marriage and The Centuryof the Child. Yamada also wrote her own essays and articles for mass-circulation magazines and newspapers. A collection of her essays was published in 1920, concerning labor unions, working conditions for women textile workers, female suffrage, Jane Addams ' Hull House, the New Women's Association in Japan, and new trends in women's issues.

Yamada's attitudes had changed over the years. Initially, she had been at pains to remind women that they would be forever vulnerable to indignities and abuse if they were uneducated. Wanting women to be educated for a trade or profession, she encouraged them to find work that paid a just wage—on farms, factories, and offices (she excluded domestic labor). In short, she wanted women to become self-reliant. Later, however, she minimized the importance of women's work outside the home, maintaining that only exceptionally talented women should go to work. In an ongoing debate on women's issues with Hiratsuka Raichō and Yosano Akiko that appeared in Seitō in 1916, Yamada took the maternalist-traditionalist position. "Most women should stay home and create the proper environment for their husbands and children," she said. "Children grow up healthier if they have a mother's nurturing. A husband finds strength and energy in a home that is cared for by a loving wife." She concluded, finally, that "a happy home should be a woman's first concern, not the production of goods."

In 1926, Yamada began publishing a popular advice column in the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, a mass-circulation daily. Particularly poignant were her responses to women who were physically abused. Her reputation grew throughout Japan due to the popularity of her column, and women suffering from personal problems, particularly victims of rape and abuse, flocked to the Yamada home to seek solace and support. Like the Cameron House in San Francisco to which she herself had fled for help, Waka and her husband offered troubled women a place to stay and the hope for a new beginning, with education and vocational training. "I guess she was the only person in the world who could have cured the wounds that cut into my being," said one woman.

In the 1930s, as the worldwide depression began to affect Japan, Yamada moved from writing and personal charity to political activism and coalition-building. With increasing poverty, mother-child suicides had become an almost daily occurrence. In 1935, women activists organized the Motherhood Protection League, of which Yamada was unanimously elected chair. Two years later, this group succeeded in persuading the national legislature to provide financial assistance to impoverished mothers. Yamada then launched a program to build a home for mothers and their children and a nursery school. She created a funding campaign by organizing women volunteers who collected used household goods for re-sale. In 1939, the Hatagaya House for Mothers and Children and the Hatagaya Nursery School opened. Regrettably, Yamada's political activism and philanthropy on behalf of underprivileged women and children were coopted by the military state during the war years, which would diminish her credibility in the postwar era. Nonetheless, immediately after Japan's surrender in World War II, she began a campaign for contributions for the Hatagaya Girls' School for the rehabilitation of former prostitutes. This school remained the focus of Yamada Waka's attention until her death in 1956.


Yamazaki Tomoko. The Story of Yamada Waka: From Prostitute to Feminist Pioneer. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1985.

Linda L. Johnson , Professor of History, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota