It was close to 10 p.m. on a spring night in Tokyo in 1912 when Kazuko Mozume heard a dog barking behind her father’s house. It would not stop. At the back gate, she found three men waiting for her: a policeman, and two others. They didn’t say what they wanted; they only asked her if this was the office of Seitō, the women’s literature magazine she had started with four other young women.
She led the men through the large house and down a long corridor to the rooms that served as the magazine’s headquarters. The men looked around and spotted a single copy of the latest issue. They seized it and, as they were leaving, finally told the surprised young woman why they had come. This issue of Seitō had been banned, they told her, on the grounds that it was “disruptive of the public peace and order.”
The young women who had created the magazine less than a year before had known it would be controversial. They’d started it in order to feature women’s writing for a female audience—in Japan, in 1911, it was daring for a woman to put her name in print on anything besides a pretty poem. The magazine’s name, Seitō, translated to “Bluestockings,” a nod to an unorthodox group of 18th-century English women who gathered to discuss politics and art.
But Seitō was not intended to be a radical or political publication. “We did not launch the journal to awaken the social consciousness of women or to contribute to the feminist movement,” wrote the magazine’s founder, Haruko Hiratsuka (who went by the pen name Raichō, or “Thunderbird”), in her autobiography. “Our only special achievement was creating a literary journal that was solely for women.”
Raichō was most interested in self-discovery—“to plumb the depths of my being and realize my true self,” she wrote—and much of the writing in the magazine was confessional, a 1910s version of the personal essays that are now found in BUST and other women’s magazines. But Seitō also published a wide range of literary work—poetry and plays; essays about class, marrying for love, and giving birth; short stories that dramatized secret love affairs and argued for the right to abortion; and commentary on and translations of Western thinkers from Ellen Key to Emma Goldman.
Seitō’s no-holds-barred approach to women’s stories turned out to be a provocative challenge to the social and legal strictures of this era, when a woman’s role was to be a good wife and mother. The Seitō women imagined much wider—and wilder—emotional and professional lives for themselves. They fell in love, they indulged in alcohol, they built careers as writers, and they wrote about it all—publicly. The story that prompted policemen to visit the magazine’s office late at night was a piece of fiction about a married woman writing to her lover to ask him to meet her while her husband was away.
As they attracted public attention, disapproval, and even censorship, instead of shying away from the controversy they’d created, the editors of Seitō confronted political questions more baldly, and this, in turn, resulted in more banned issues. In the pages of their magazine, they came to debate women’s equality, chastity, and abortion. Without originally intending to, they became some of Japan’s pioneering feminists.
Starting the magazine hadn’t been Raichō’s idea. At first she had no interest in being a professional writer or editor. At the time that her old English professor and mentor, Chōkō Ikuta, suggested starting a magazine, Raichō had been immersed in practicing zen meditation, learning English, and pursuing a self-directed course of literary study. She was 26 and living at home with her parents, so she wasn’t worried about supporting herself. She may also have been reluctant to re-enter Ikuta’s world. Her experience with his last literary society had ended when she ran off to a mountain retreat with a married man, where they spent a night outside in the cold—a romantic, failed attempt at suicide, and a scandal for her upper-middle-class family.
Raichō was part of a generation of Japanese women who had unprecedented access to education—women’s high schools started in the late 19th century, and Japan Women’s University was established in 1901. But even as women’s education improved, they were still expected to conform to increasingly restrictive ideas about women’s roles and behaviors. Rigid moral codes were creeping up around chastity, and arranged marriages, once a practice reserved for the highest classes of society, were becoming more common among the middle class.
Although she lived at home, Raichō had a roommate, Yoshiko Yasumochi, a friend of her older sister. When Raichō mentioned the idea of a literary magazine, Yasumochi, who had recently graduated college, jumped on it. “She had no desire to return to her home in Shikoku,” Raichō later recalled. “This was just the sort of job she had been looking for.”
The two women started making plans for the magazine and a literary society that would accompany it. They recruited three other founding members, including Mozume, who offered her house as an office. Raichō was too worried about her own father’s continued support to offer hers, but her mother secretly funded the printing of the inaugural issue. At Ikuta’s urging, the Seitō founders canvassed for submissions and support among the few female writers of Japan and the wives of literary men. The first issue contained a poem from the famous poet Akiko Yosano, who wrote: “…Believe only this / Now all the women who lay dormant are rousing themselves.”
Even in the months leading up to publication of Seitō’s first issue, though, Raichō did not throw herself into the project with the same energy as Yasumochi and other recruits. In her autobiography, she writes that she took on the task of writing the magazine’s manifesto—a piece that would launch her to fame and notoriety—only because her hardworking friend had no time for the task. But once she began writing, Raichō gave herself over to the magazine and its mission. “Everything I had read, heard, thought about, experienced, and stored in my subconscious had emerged and taken shape in those words,” she later explained. The resulting piece became known as the first public address on Japanese women’s rights, and Raichō became Seitō’s most iconic new voice.
The Seitō editors put a small ad in the paper to announce the first issue. They priced it at 25 sen, slightly more expensive than other magazines of its kind. None of them expected it to be a publishing success. The first issue sold out in a month. Seitō was a phenomenon.
In early issues, the Seitō editors published personal essays, poems, and works of fiction. The stories attracted an impassioned following, mostly of young women, some of whom showed up at the office looking for advice or a glimpse of the writers they admired. From this outpouring of enthusiasm, the inner circle of Seitō began to grow—widening to include Kōkichi Otake, the daughter of a prominent artist. In person, Otake was tall and loud, and dared to wear men’s clothing. But in her writing, she sounds like an eager kid. Raichō described her as “absolutely uninhibited,” and referred to her as "my boy."
Otake’s lack of inhibition became a problem for Seitō. The popular media had taken an interest in the lives of the unusual women who were producing the magazine. As many feminists have found, their ideas and work mattered less to the press and public than how they conducted their personal lives. After Otake became a regular presence in the office, rumors began to swirl that she and Raichō had become lovers, and her stories—including one about learning how to make cocktails and another documenting a night she spent (along with Raichō and others) in a high-end brothel in the company of a courtesan—attracted criticism not only from the press, but also from some of Seitō’s members.
As criticism of Seitō increased, teachers, worried for their jobs, canceled their subscriptions. Mozume’s father forced her to resign (though she kept writing under a pen name). Yasumochi, who had been so important in the founding of the magazine, wrote to Raichō, “In the earlier stage Seitō was indeed a heartfelt, trustworthy and distinguished magazine, but it has lost these good qualities.... Because of your thoughtless conduct, all these women have gained a bad reputation for doing away with past conventions and attempting things women have never done before.”
By 1913, Seitō had reached a turning point. The group’s collective journey of self-exploration had led them into trouble, but rather than turning away from the controversy, they leaned into exploring questions about the rights of women and the control they should have over their bodies.
The topics weren’t unprecedented. The editors had discussed women’s issues on occasion, most notably in a special issue on Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, and in the 1912 story that provoked the first censure from the government. In a special 1913 issue on women’s rights, Seitō commissioned an essay from Hideko Fukuda, a feminist known as a radical activist, on “The Solution to the Woman Question,” in which she advocated not just for equal rights between genders, but also for a communal system to create equality among classes.
The government banned the latter issue for being “disruptive of public peace and order.” A couple of months later, another issue was banned because of an article opposing arranged marriages. Censors returned for a 1914 issue containing a fictional story about a woman leaving her husband, and again in 1915 for a fictional story about a woman who did not regret having an abortion. That story, “To My Lover From a Woman in Prison,” was inspired by real-life events, and the main character offers a pro-choice argument that must have seemed incendiary at the time. “As long as a fetus has not matured, it is still just one part of the mother’s body,” she writes to her lover. “There, I believe it is well within the mother’s rights to decide the future of the fetus, based on her own assessment of its best interests.” The government called the story “injurious to public morals.”
As they provoked government censors with their writing, the women of Seitō tried to live according to the principles of freedom for which they advocated. They left husbands and started affairs. They became pregnant and considered abortion. Raichō started a relationship with a younger man, and moved in with him, although they weren't married. Pursuing an unconventional life and publishing a controversial magazine, though, strained her emotional resources. In 1915, she handed over editorial control of the magazine to Itō Noe, who pushed further into contentious territory. But the magazine had been struggling financially and, after Japan entered World War I, attention began to fade. It closed, without warning, in 1916, after 52 issues.
For many years after that, Seitō’s creators dropped out of the spotlight. But after World War II, the occupying Allies pushed for women’s equality, through coeducation and the right to vote. All of sudden, interest in the Bluestockings rose again, and they were seen as a pioneering feminist organization in Japan. Today, anyone who studies the history of women’s rights there learns about their work.
“Too often the perception is that women’s movements come from elsewhere to Japan,” says Dr. Jan Bardsley, a professor of Asian Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of The Bluestockings of Japan. The story of Seitō, though, shows that Japanese feminism has its own legacy. “It’s mixed in with ideas from abroad, but there are Japanese ways of thinking about these issues. In its own day, what was so bold about Seitō was just that these women stood up and wrote, ‘I think this. I want this.’”
A version of this story originally appeared on AtlasObscura.com, © Atlas Obscura Inc. Reprinted by permission.
top photo: Members of the Bluestocking Society, taken on December 11, 1911, after a meeting in the garden of the Shōrin-ji Temple in Tokyo, published in the January 1912 issue. Raichō Hiratsuka is third from left.
Photos courtesy of Jan Bardsley/Public Domain
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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