biography · why not woman · woman writers · writing

daughters in boxes: first Japanese feminists

13454570675_bc82ac1614_b.jpgShe was a writer, activist, and one of the first women in Japan to speak publicly about women’s rights. She began lecturing when she was just 20 years old! Who is she? 

At the period of reform in the Meiji-Taisho, Japanese male nationalists argued that improving the status of women was essential if other technologically advanced nationals were to accept them. This opened the door for a small group of women who called for new rights and freedoms. The phrase “good wife, wise mother” was coined, meaning that in order to be good citizens, women had to become educated and take part in public affairs.

One of the first women speak out was Kishida Toshiko (岸田 俊子 Kishida Toshiko, 14 January 1863 – 25 May 1901), afterwards Toshiko Nakajima (中島 俊子 Nakajima Toshiko), born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1863, into a family of cloth merchants; died in 1901; married Nakajima Nobuyuki (a political activist), in 1884. She was one of the first Japanese feminists. She wrote under the name Shōen (湘煙).When she was a teenager, because she had excelled in her study of the Chinese and Japanese classics, Kishida Toshiko was the first commoner to serve as a lady-inwaiting to an empress, Empress Haruko , the consort of the Emperor Meiji. But she left after two years describing the court as “far from the real world” and a symbol of the concubine system which was an outrage to women. She also wanted parents to stop ruining their daughters by turning them into “maidens in boxes.” She claimed that with the present family system there was no way for a young woman to develop her potential. The only appropriate” box” for daughters, said Toshiko, should be one “as large and free as the world itself.”

Kishida set off on a speaking tour addressing huge crowds all over Japan. She was a powerful, dynamic speaker. She often was harassed by the police, and once was jailed. Her words, nonetheless, were heard by thousands of women who found in them encouragement to become politically involved.

One of Kishida’s most controversial speeches was her 1883 speech, “Daughters in Boxes”. After she delivered the speech, she was “arrested, tried, and fined for having made a political speech without a permit” which was necessary under Japanese law at the time.

Excerpts from Toshiko’s Speeches:

“In ancient times there were various evil teachings and customs in our country, things that would make the people of any free, civilized nation be terribly ashamed. Of these, the most reprehensible was the practice of ‘respecting men and despising women.’…We are trying, through a cooperative effort, to build a new society. That is why I speak of equality and equal rights. Yet in this country, as in the past, men continue to be respected as masters and husbands while women are held in contempt as maids or serving women. There can be no equality in such an environment…”

“Equality, independence, respect, and a monogamous relationship are the hall marks of relationships between men and women in a civilized society…Ah, you men of the world, you talk of reform, but not of revolution. When it comes to equality, you yearn for the old ways, and follow, unchanged, the customs of the past…”

“I hope in the future there will be some recognition of the fact that the first requirement for marriage is education. Today, we have come to feel that we have ‘managed’ if eight out of ten daughters who are married do not return home in divorce…One of the first requirements ought to be learning what it is to manage after marriage…Daughters must be taught basic economics and the skills that would permit them to manage on their own…”

“If it is true that men are better than women because they are stronger, why aren’t our sumo wrestlers in the government?”

The “Daughters in Boxes” speech discussed and criticized the family system in Japan and the problems it raised for young Japanese girls. Although the speech criticized the family system that was in place in Japan, it also acknowledged that the system was a cultural fixture and many parents did not understand the harm that they could have potentially been causing their daughters by restricting them. Kishida recognized that upper and middle class Japanese parents did not mean to restrict their daughters’ freedom. This ignorance existed because the parents were blinded by their overwhelming need to teach certain values in order to fit into Japanese culture and society.

In her speech, Kishida introduced the three “boxes” present in Japanese families. These boxes are not actual boxes but mental and emotional limitations. The boxes represented how Japanese daughters were locked into certain requirements. The first box is one in which parents hid their daughters, who not allowed to leave their room and any elements belonging to the outside world were blocked out. The second box demanded the obedience of the Japanese daughters. In this box, “parents refuse to recognize their responsibility to their daughters and teach her naught”. These daughters receive no love or affection and are expected to “obey their [parent’s] every word without complaint”. The final box presented by Kishida was one in which daughters were taught ancient knowledge. In this box, parents passed down an appreciation for knowledge to their daughters. Out of the three boxes, this final box was the one that Kishida valued the most. Because this box valued “the teaching of the wise and holy men of the past”, Kishida felt that its inclusion and focus on education empowered women.

Kishida also discussed her own version of a box. Her box would have no walls and be completely open and inspired by freedom. Kishida’s box “[allowed] its occupants to tread wherever their feet might lead and stretch their arms as wide as they wished”. Unlike the other boxes Kishida described, her wall-less box, like the reformist movement hoped, would allow Japanese daughters to be educated and become active members of society. The speech also suggested that the boxes created for Japanese daughters should not be created in haste. She explained that if a box that was hastily constructed, the daughters would resent being placed in that box. Kishida not only warned about the construction of the boxes but recognized that the daughters trapped inside the boxes would run away because of their restrictive foundation. “Daughters in Boxes” analyzed and critiqued Japanese society and its treatment of Japanese girls. The absence of women’s rights in Japan sparked the feminist and reformist movement which Kishida Toshiko was a major part of. Kishida’s speech challenged the cultural norms of Japanese society in general. The speech also cemented the place of women and women’s movement in Japan’s history.

(The above are excerpts from various internet sources including: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toshiko_Kishida)

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