Feminism and the Fashioned Lesbian in 1910s Japan

The first issue of Seitō was published in 1911. Named by its founders in reference to the Bluestockings of 18th century England – a group who we might now call ‘proto-feminist’ – the publication was run by women, for women, promoting equal rights for women through literature. It ran for a period of 5 years, pushing against backlash from the press and the Japanese government the whole time. It was created by a group of 5 women and contributed to by over 100, but I’ll only be discussing two in depth in this article: Hiratsuka Raichō and Otake Kōkichi.

Seito members c. 1913-14. Hiratsuka Raichō stands second on the right. Courtesy of Okumura Naofumi via pen-online.com.

Before discussing how Seitō and its members are part of a lesbian fashion history, let me first give some broader context. Seitō emerged into a changing Japan. It was the end of the Meiji period, and the country was in the midst of transition from inward- to outward-looking. It had been half a century since Japan had opened its doors to trade with the world, and ideas, fashions and prejudices from Europe and the US were steadily creeping in. Japanese people, while embracing change on the one hand, were holding tight to their own culture with another, and the responsibility of this culture-conservation landed on the shoulders of women. 

While Japanese men were encouraged to take up the shirts and trousers of Western fashion, women were expected to wear traditional Japanese garments as a “reassuring, visual image.”1 The kimono especially was proper female attire, though it had only taken on the name and form of “kimono” in recent years; it was a newer version of an older Japanese garment, the kosode. Women, in wearing the kimono, had a responsibility to preserve Japan’s legacy and display Japan’s culture. 

Some women, of course, did not want to be told what to do or what to wear. ‘New Women’ were springing into action across the globe, from Suffragettes in the UK to dancers and radicals in Harlem to the Seitō society in Japan. ‘New Women’ everywhere, no matter if admired or respected by some, were demonised by others – most commonly by the means of political cartoons. Fashion was vital to this, because fashion was how they could be pinpointed as different to ‘old’ women; fashion was a tool that could be twisted in illustrations to mock and dissuade other women from the same path; fashion was how New Women created a visual image, in a similar way but with a different motive to the women encouraged to dress in kimonos. 

Schoolgirls in Japan, c.1910. Photographer unknown. 

Despite this, the clothing situation in Japan had specific circumstances. It wasn’t just a matter of preserving appropriate femininity, but preserving a whole history and culture. The language of garments, also, was different. There is the yukata, a more casual style of kimono typically worn around hot springs in the Summer. It’s a garment that did not carry the gendered responsibility that the kimono did in the early 20th century. There’s also hakama, which is often known as a wide, divided skirt. There are, however, two distinct kinds of hakama – the “andon” hakama, which is not split and is essentially a skirt, which was devised as a style specifically for women, and the “umanon” hakama, which is split in two and more trouser-like. This is the kind typically worn by men.2 Hakama of any kind are more practical garments than, for instance, the kimono, and as such were introduced as school uniforms in the Meiji period (around the end of the 19th century), coinciding with the opening of the first girls’ schools in Japan. The masculine hakama, though, was criticised as a uniform for girls as it was “linked to the samurai class and some considered the practice tantamount to cross-dressing.”3 This led to the “andon” skirt-like hakama. 

How, then, does lesbian fashion fit into this landscape? Let’s focus our attention back to the two women I mentioned earlier, Hiratsuka Raichō and Otake Kōkichi. Though Raichō was one of the founders of Seitō and Kōkichi only a contributor, together they were central targets for attacks on the publication by the media and wider society. This is because, in the words of Wu Peichen in her 2002 article ‘Performing Gender along the Lesbian Continuum: The Politics of Sexual Identity in the Seito Society,’ they “transgressed what was supposed to be male territory.”4 An in-depth study of Kōkichi by Religious Studies scholar Alexandra Loop suggests that “The young, outspoken, masculine Otake Kōkichi appeared at the time to be a perfect bogeyman for social conservatives to demonize and make the face of the kind of dangerous, pathological, modern femininity coming out of women’s colleges.”5 

Otake Kōkichi, photographed wearing a yukata on the cover of her only biography: Seito no onna, Otake Kokichi den (2001), by Sumiko Watanabe.

This “dangerous, pathological, modern femininity” was one imagined to be steeped in a new cultural fear – dōseiai. Dōseiai was a new term for homosexuality in Japan, and one that related to love between women. It was not just a new term, but a new conception – at least, in public and in language. Before the 1910s, the predominant term for same-sex love in Japanese was danshoku, which applied only to male same-sex love.6 Lesbianism, though that was not yet its name, was a threat. It came from the combination of European influence and ideas of “sexual inversion” from the likes of Havelock Ellis, or from women’s schools and colleges with their close female friendships. A Japanese newspaper article from 1911 listed a selection of words that schoolgirls used to refer to “passionate love” between one another, supposedly trying to expose the phenomenon. The words, taken here from Leila J. Rupp’s Sapphistries, included:

‘goshin’yu’ (intimate friends), ‘ohaikara’ (stylish, from the English term ‘high collar’), ‘onetsu’ (fever or passion), ‘ome’ (possibly a combination of the words for “male” and “female”), and ‘odeya’ (an honorific attached to the Japanese version of the English word ‘dear’).7

The public fear of – and disgust for –  dōseiai reached a fever pitch. Raichō and Kōkichi were easy targets. Their actions, their feminism and their clothing all pinpointed them as different. Most damningly, they had taken their ideals onto the streets; in 1912, Raichō, Kōkichi, and another Seitō member visited Yoshiwara, an entertainment district – something very much not done by respectable women. In Yoshiwara, they hired a geisha for the evening, in order to talk about the needs of geisha within the women’s movement. Loop defines this as “an act of cross-class solidarity.”8 It was politically motivated, but these were political motivations that the press could and would not condone. The trip was transformed into something else: an indulgence, a deviance, a transgression. 

‘Dalliance in the Yoshiwara’ (Yoshiwara tōrō), a political cartoon showing Bluestocking (Seitō) members including Hiratsuka Raichō visiting a geisha. Published in Tokyo Puck, 1st Aug. 1912. Via Jan Bardsley, ‘The New Woman Meets the Geisha: The Politics of Pleasure in 1910s Japan,’ Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 29 (2012).

Shortly afterwards, articles and cartoons were published in numerous Japanese newspapers that condemned and satirised the Seitō women, but particularly Raichō and Kōkichi. They were unambiguous. Firstly, in their writing: Kōkichi had written stories for Seitō about her passionate feelings for Raichō, while Raichō published an essay called “Ichinen Kan” (One Year) about the pair’s year-long relationship in the publication. Their unambiguity was also evident in their clothing, and this is what I come to analyse in depth now. 

In the above political cartoon, Raichō is shown to be wearing a hakama. It is combined, in the illustration, with spectacles and an open book in Raichō’s hand, which Jan Bardsley (author of The Bluestockings of Japan) suggests symbolise “the New Woman’s intellectualism and love of literature.”9 While this may be true, I think it is more likely that in the case of this cartoon, they are meant to refer to Raichō’s masculinity – masculinity, here, not being so much only the possession of masculine traits, but the dismissal of those considered properly feminine. It is also important to consider the inclusion of the hakama. It’s accurate to Raichō’s self-presentation, in that she did customarily choose to wear hakama. In none of my research have I found confirmation whether she wore the “andon” (skirted) or “umanon” (divided) hakama, but I think that it is likely that her preferred style was the divided hakama, as she is consistently referred to as a cross-dresser, and the divided hakama was ordinarily worn by men.10 This contests the point made by Bardsley that “despite being seen as masculine, [hakama] had become the uniform of the time for girl students.”11

However, even if Raichō had been wearing a skirted hakama, I would argue that the association with girl students is as much a signifier of non-womanhood as the divided hakama. As explained earlier in this article, Japanese women in the period were expected to wear kimonos – they were also expected to fulfil the role of ‘good wife, wise mother.’ Raichō’s choice to wear hakama of any kind could be read as a conscious denial of the role of wife and mother, focusing her energies instead on women-lead communities and relationships with women. This choice was notable even to her contemporaries in Seitō such as Tamura Toshiko, who hovered for a time around the possibility of a relationship with Raichō. In Toshiko’s story Nikki, she describes Raichō’s dress and appearance, “emphasiz[ing] Raichō’s “masculinity” by pointing out her custom of wearing hakama and wooden clogs.”12

Seitō women at a New Years Party in 1912. Hiratsuka Raichō sits on the far right. Courtesy of Okumura Naofumi via pen-online.

I think of Raichō’s hakama-wearing as fashioning lesbianism because it is part of a tradition of women-loving-women dressing to remove themselves from hetero-patriarchal norms. I will not say that Raichō is a lesbian because she had a long-term, seemingly passionate relationship with a man, and was even described in an article from 1912 as being bisexual.13 The way that she dressed, however, can be considered as a fashioning of lesbianism, if not the dressing of a lesbian body. Wu Peichen discussed this in 2002, writing that “Though keenly aware of the risk of using the term “lesbian” in my argument, I maintain that there is continuity as well as difference between the notion of dōseiai attached to the Seitō members and our contemporary notion of lesbianism.”14 I am a strong believer that lesbians, though deserving of specific historic analysis, also frequently have histories and stories that overlap with bisexual and transgender histories. This is one of those times. 

But what about the clothing of Otake Kōkichi? Kōkichi has, unlike Raichō, been referred to time and time again as lesbian – though she married a man and had two daughters, they later divorced on the grounds that Kōkichi was a lesbian. Their separation was also caused by ideological differences that had grown more and more opposed over time, with Kōkichi’s politics being in line with Marxist feminism and her husband becoming a Nationalist. Her politics was the product of seeds sown in her youth, when she was a member of Seitō and in love with Raichō. Kōkichi’s first daughter, Akira, was named with the Japanese character for sun, thought to be a reference to the opening lines of the first ever issue of Seitō, written by Raichō: “In the beginning, woman was the sun.”15 Kōkichi stayed true to herself throughout her life, and this included her clothing.

Kōkichi, quoted by Wu Peichan, describes how she dressed in her youth: “I (boku) wore the male student’s hat, straightened my mantle’s collar, put on the dark blue tabi [traditional Japanese socks] and a man’s wooden clogs, and smoked while I walked with my sister.”16 Here, she was very clearly and purposefully wearing men’s clothing. Her clothing was not just masculine in form but in colour, with dark blue often being the colour used for Japanese male garments. The effect of Kōkichi’s clothing was reproduced by her actions. Her words, for one – “boku” is a first-person Japanese pronoun (“I”), but one usually used by boys or young men. Smoking, too, was not typical behaviour for women. 

As well as the garments noted above, Kōkichi was also fond of wearing men’s yukata, dressing in them throughout her life despite backlash from her husband while she was married.17 What I want to stress about the use of men’s traditional garments by Kōkichi, as well as by Raichō with her hakama, is that men were not wearing these clothes – at least, they were encouraged not to. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that at this time in Japan it became popular for men to dress in Western-inspired fashions, while women were urged to wear kimonos. It is a bigger story than just gender transgression through fashion, but a stance on the power of women in Japan. 

Lesbians, consistently in history, have dressed in a masculine way. This is not to say that all lesbians have been masculine, but that the ones whose fashions tend to have been recorded are the ones who stood out as anomalies. There are different circumstances for this story depending on when and where it’s told, but it’s a thread that weaves separate years and lives and fashions firmly together. The case of lesbian (and lesbian-adjacent) style in Japan in the 1910s splits off from the central story, because the masculinity that people like Raichō and Kōkichi were claiming was one that no longer belonged to men. Perhaps this made them more of a threat; they were creating something new with the clothes on their bodies, and men were not a part of it. The fashioning of lesbianism in this period was radical in a way that was unique, and the activism of the Seitō society reached further than the pages of the publication. It walked the streets of Japan with every step of the members’ clogged feet.

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1: Cynthia Green, ‘The Surprising History of the Kimono,’ Jstor Daily, 8th Dec 2017. daily.jstor.com.

2: YABAI Writers, ‘Hakama, the Traditional Japanese Trousers,’ YABAI, 21st May 2017. Yabai.com.

3: Nanba Tomoko, ‘Breaking the Dress Code: The Changing Role of Japanese School Uniforms,’ Nippon.com, 6th Nov. 2018. nippon.com.

4: Wu Peichen, ‘Performing Gender along the Lesbian Continuum: The Politics of Sexual Identity in the Seito Soceity,’ U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal. English Supplement 22 (2002): 71-72.

5: Alexandra Loop, ‘Literary Lesbian Liberation: Two Case Studies Interrograting How Queerness Has Manifested in Japanese Value Construction Through History,’ Thesis, McMaster University, 2020. Via MacSphere. 

6: Wu, ‘Performing Gender along the Lesbian Continuum: The Politics of Sexual Identity in the Seito Soceity,’ 68.

7: Leila J. Rupp, Sapphistries, (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009) 164.

8: Loop, ‘Literary Lesbian Liberation,’ 58-59.

9: Jan Bardsley, ‘The New Woman Meets the Geisha: The Politics of Pleasure in 1910s Japan,’ Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 29 (2012). 

10: Wu, ‘Performing Gender along the Lesbian Continuum: The Politics of Sexual Identity in the Seito Soceity,’ 68; Rupp, Sapphistries, 171.

11: Bardsley, ‘The New Woman Meets the Geisha: The Politics of Pleasure in 1910s Japan.’

12: Wu, ‘Performing Gender along the Lesbian Continuum: The Politics of Sexual Identity in the Seito Soceity,’ 76.

13: Wu, ‘Performing Gender along the Lesbian Continuum: The Politics of Sexual Identity in the Seito Society,’ 72.

14: Wu, ‘Performing Gender along the Lesbian Continuum: The Politics of Sexual Identity in the Seito Soceity,’ 66.

15: Loop, ‘Literary Lesbian Liberation,’ 84.

16: Wu, ‘Performing Gender along the Lesbian Continuum: The Politics of Sexual Identity in the Seito Soceity,’ 79.

17: Loop, ‘Literary Lesbian Liberation,’ 82.

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