Anarchist women of imperial Japan: lives, subjectivities, representations.

Author:Raddeker, Helene Bowen


In this essay I address competing representations of Kanno Suga, Ito Noe and Kaneko Fumiko, who were each closely connected with Japan's pre-war anarchist movement. In one sense they were not unusual; for they were amongst the many radicals in imperial Japan who before long 'collided with power' and, as Foucault eloquently put it, were 'marked ... with a blow of its claws' (1979, p79). Nevertheless, the notoriety they were accorded in their own time was premised as much upon their gender as their putative political crimes. Hence, in the following discussion I consider depictions of the three by contemporaries and later commentators, with a view to contrasting them with the women's self-representations in texts that range from journalistic works to trial testimonies and prison writings.

This also serves to highlight the ways in which the hierarchical gender constructs of the day conditioned each woman's subjectivity. One crucial factor in the oppositional identity each embraced was to be treated by antagonists and comrades alike as the insignificant 'other half' of a male leader. The dominant gender constructs of the time ensured that the women's male partners would be more respected by comrades and more feared by the authorities. Hence, as we shall see, the two imprisoned women went to great lengths to demonstrate that they posed the same threat to state and status quo as their men; though all three seemed to want to lay claim to political subjectivities that were in some ways independent of those of their partners. This was not unusual for leftist women then or since, who have often embraced a 'feminism of equality' (Raddeker 2002, pp1-10). Nevertheless, despite common conflations in feminist theory of sexual equality standpoints with assumptions of 'sameness' with men (e.g., Gross 1986, pp190-204), these women took this no further than demanding the same respect paid to their partners or other male comrades.

This demand for recognition of an equality attuned to individual difference does not suggest that Suga, Noe or Fumiko would necessarily follow the lead of her male partner, politically or philosophically. Nor do their works suggest that the political stance of any one of the three could convincingly be reduced to feminine self-sacrifice (for her man), or to the deranged passions of the typically feminine 'hysteric'. Sadly, however, historians and biographers have been amongst those guilty of an unthinking recourse to conventional gender constructs of feminine subjectivity, as I demonstrate below.

Commentators on the lives and deaths of these women have also tended to paint them in 'either/or' terms as tragic victims or heroic victors. A more nuanced approach is suggested both by narrative theory and their own accounts: for example, the diary Suga penned in the last days of her life, and the prison memoir Fumiko wrote at the behest of a judge (he wanted her to explain more about how her experience of life had led her to her nihilistic/egoistic standpoint). Although it may not have been their conscious intention, in their late writings we see multiple narrative emplotments at work: epic heroism, tragedy, and even irony. No life is inherently heroic or tragic, even where a subject feels forced by circumstances to ascribe a single meaning to that life. When an individual is on trial facing possible execution, she might well feel that resistance and struggle had defined her life; and represent it in such a way regardless of whether intimates or antagonists were the intended audience of a diary or memoir. Yet conventional emplotments have a way of subverting themselves, leaving a text open to multiple readings. The identities of their authors, too, should be interpreted in a manner that is alert to their complexities rather than being reduced to one essentialised feature or meaning. I draw on narrative theory in the main part of the essay where I contrast the women's self-representations with those by contemporaries and later scholars. First, however, I need to provide a little more information about Suga, Noe and Fumiko, especially about the circumstances surrounding their deaths.


Kanno Suga began her short career of political activism in 1902 when she became one of Japan's first female journalists, though most scholars have paid little attention to that facet of her life. Between 1902 and 1909 she contributed to a range of progressive newspapers in the Kansai area that includes Osaka and Kyoto, and then also in Tokyo, publishing articles that championed women's rights and reflected the gradual radicalisation of her political sympathies. Not many years had passed when, in 1910, she was charged with conspiring with a few comrades to raise a rebellion that would include an attempt on the Meiji (1868-1912) emperor's life. The result of the infamous 'Meiji High Treason Case' was Suga's execution in January 1911 together with eleven male comrades, including Kotoku Shusui who was her lover and the intellectual leader of the Meiji anarchists. A further twelve defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment even though the charges were for conspiracy or intent, not an actual attempt. Furthermore, according to trial testimonies such as Suga's of 13 June 1910 (Kanno's Collected Works, 3, 1984, pp248-50), most of the defendants sentenced had been entirely ignorant of the conspirators' plans. Clearly, the authorities were keen to rid themselves of as many radical opponents as possible, especially influential figures such as Kotoku. Hence, anarchists and other radicals around the world were justifiably angered by the case; some even organised campaigns of support (like the one waged by Emma Goldman and others in the pages of Mother Earth) but failed to save the twenty-four defendants from the draconian penalties.

Ito Noe's political career was similar to Suga's in that she, too, became a commentator on women's issues, in increasingly radical magazines. The first of these was the journal Bluestocking (Seito) from 1911, in which Noe's contributions included translations of a few essays by Emma Goldman (on Seito, see Sievers 1983, and Mackie 1997). Noe was the magazine's last editor in 1915-16 and, after that, even if ultimately she was the mother of several children, she still contributed to a number of leftist magazines. Unlike Suga (or Fumiko), Noe did not advocate political violence, yet still she met a violent end at the hands of military police together with her partner, Osugi Sakae, the leading anarchist (-syndicalist) theorist of the day. A young nephew of his, who happened to be with them when they were arrested, was also murdered. This was amidst the martial law declared in Japan's Tokyo-Yokohama area after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1 September 1923, a time when paranoia was rife amongst the authorities and in the newspapers, and thus also ordinary Japanese, about revolutionaries and other 'malcontents' taking advantage of the devastation and chaos to stir up more trouble. The result was that amongst the many murdered by legal forces or extra-legal vigilantes were not only Japanese radicals such as Noe and Osugi and some communists, but also some Chinese nationals resident in Japan, as well as Koreans numbering in at least the thousands, if not tens of thousands (on the massacre of Koreans, see Weiner 1989).

Koreans were under automatic suspicion because Korea was by then a Japanese colony (formally from 1910, but really after the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05). So, in early September 1923, amongst those arrested for 'their own protection' just after the earthquake was a group of mostly Korean activists. They had parodied the attitudes of the authorities by giving themselves the name of 'Malcontents' Society' (Futeisha). The group was led by a Korean 'nihilist', Pak Yeol, whose Japanese lover was Kaneko Fumiko. It was because of an admiration for western traditions of egoism (Max Stirner, in particular) and 'nihilism' --more the moral nihilism of Stirner and Nietzsche than Russian political nihilism --that the two preferred the term nihilist to anarchist. However, following Stirner, Fumiko also referred to herself as an egoist at times (and her egoism/nihilism will be discussed below). Once the charges against the two had escalated from vagrancy to an Explosives Control Law violation to high treason by mid-1925, many in Japan suspected a 'frame-up'. By this time, most of the Futeisha had actually been released for lack of evidence but for one Korean convicted with Fumiko and Pak for violations of the explosives law: conspiring to import bombs from the mainland. The further charge of high treason, which like in 1910-11 was mainly for a conspiracy to assassinate members of the imperial family, was subsequently applied only to Pak and Fumiko. A frame-up was suspected by sympathisers partly because this purported Korean-led 'conspiracy' was treated by conservatives as a post-facto justification for the earlier mass murder of Korean 'malcontents'.

Perhaps the case was thought suspicious particularly in the case of Fumiko, after she cast doubt on her own guilt during the final treason trial. This was when she admitted that, regardless of her earlier declarations to the contrary, she had not known of Pak's plans to import bombs from the mainland to use, allegedly, on the Taisho emperor and/or crown prince. It should be acknowledged at this point that even when one is familiar with the testimonies of the two--all the available trial records having been published in one weighty volume by the anarchist publishing house, Kokushoku Sensensha (Black Fighting Front), in 1977--it is still difficult to know how guilty of the charges the two really were. If Fumiko had initially pretended to be guiltier than she actually was, it is possible that Pak acted with the same sort of bravado, simply agreeing with whatever he was accused of. We also need to...

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