One of the popular introductory books on Japan and feminism is Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha. It paints a brilliant, albeit fictionalized portrait of the geisha world of tedious fashion, the pressure of performance and the nexus of a male centric and male favouring culture. What is really alarming about the geisha culture, is its inherent violence towards women, and of taking them as performers, servants, entertainers but never human beings. It involves selling girls to geisha training agencies, of winning the best client by her wooing and constant entertainment, and turning all other geisha companions as one’s enemies in professional interest. It is remarkable how the geisha culture is celebrated as a tradition, but never equated with prostitution, though technically there is not much difference between the two in ideology. All those descriptions about hair, kimono, dance training, and how to show your sexy arm while pouring tea has an inherent male serving idea behind them. They are exotic to a western male audience.
So what is the state of Feminism in a culture that is the hub of the Geisha tradition?
The country has never had a female leader, and the government is predominated by balding and aged overweight males .Middle class working men are least bothered about their families and spend most of their time on bars or pubs. Though more women can be found in professional fields nowadays, the idea of a woman is directly related to the domestic space of the kitchen still now, in a very prominent way.
Feminism in Japan began in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries due to the infiltration of western thinking that reached Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the women’s rights movement in Japan.
The first stirs of feminism in Japan were felt after the formation of New Woman Association in 1919under the leadership Raicho Hiratsuka. Firslyt, they wanted to protest against and amend the Public Peace Police Law, a revised version of the 1890 Law on Political Association and Assembly, which banned women from joining any political party or attending or participating in any kind of political event. Secondly, they wanted legitimate protection of women from husbands and fiancés with venereal diseases.
Also, the Revised Civil Code of 1898 stated that a woman who gets into an extra marital affair, or has illegitimate sexual relations with anyone is subject to divorce and may end up to two years in prison. However, a woman was unable to divorce her husband if he was adulterous. Challenging patriarchal society, the New Woman Association wanted reforms so that women could reject infected husbands or fiancés and safe keep their fundamental rights. After a lot of petitioning and campaigning, in 1922, Article 5 in the 1900 Police Law was amended, allowing women to attend political meetings, but not allowing them to join political parties or vote.
The Red Wave Society, Sekirankai, was the first socialist women’s association.It was formed by Yamakawa Kikue and others in April 1921. The Red Wave’s manifesto condemned capitalism, arguing that it turned women into slaves and prostitutes. Actually capitalism had a very strong connection with the money economy involved in the geisha tradition. It treated geishas and theor skills as commodities. Ever since Suffarge and the second wave of feminism with its awareness of women’s bodies with the agenda of birth control rights, Feminism has become quite popular in Japan. The Family Planning Federation of Japan, part of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, is Japan’s main reproductive rights organization campaigning for the legalization of oral contraceptives and for the continued legality of abortion, and offereing free education on family planning, household management and kids’ education in case of working mothers. . Educated middle class women are consciously breaking the codes of onnarashi- the codes of proper behaviour stipulated for a woman to follow as she speaks or articulates. The ūfu bessei that is, the system which prefers that women maintain their own name and not adopt the husband’s after marriage is now coming into practice by the influence of many feminist groups. Japanese women are increasingly learning non-traditional activities and interests such as computer technology .
Today, the situation is so improved, that the Disney animated movie Frozen was a huge box office hit in Japan. Only because, it portrayed a strong, independent female protagonist that subverted the general image of the Disney princesses, something that I have elaborated on in an article about Sexism in Children’s Literature and Entertainment media. Elsa of Frozen defies all social expectations by bursting into a cadence of “Let It Go”. She erejects the shame that her parents, and along with it the rest of the society had made her feel, just because she is a woman, and thereby emerges as being different from everyone. Her kingdom is in a state of deep-freeze. However, this is an eye opener. This instant of acceptance of her individuality with all its flaws and imperfections with harden her self confidence. In Japan, this strain of thought was gorged on by the public. “Let it Go” became an anthem of sorts for many oppressed women.