Refreshing and pure, yet subtly moving -- such an emotional remark about scholarly work is not appropriate, I know. But this is my honest impression after reading.

The theme of the book is Woman-Ribu (Women’s Liberation or second-wave feminism) at the beginning of the 1970’s. According to the afterword, the author was born in 1985. Not a Ribu-daughter but rather a Ribu-granddaughter to my generation. This book is a celebration of the birth of a star successor to Japanese Ribu. Moreover, it opens up a new dimension of feminism: Feminism in Kegai, the outback.

*What is Kegai?

Kegai originally meant the uncivilized, primitive outback that was outside the Japanese royal court’s rule. Since the ancient times, Tohoku has been marginalized and othered as Kegai. This marginalization applies to Ribu as well, the author says. Tokyo has been the center of Ribu, In particular, Tanaka Mitsu and her activities have been considered the central movement. Women’s Studies, which had been derived from there, has also been focusing on women, mainly housewives, in urban areas. Farmer women in the rural areas have not drawn much attention.

This criticism was a slap in my face. I’ve been following the Ribu movement at times; last autumn, WAN held a symposium entitled “Women on the Homefront: This is How War Starts – The Grandchildren’s Generation Meets.” At the symposium, we examined a series of our publications, Notes to Homefront History. The last volume of the series was Zenkyoto to Ribu (1996). The nearly 500-page book consisted of conversations between and letters from the people who had been involved in the affair. However, these testimonies were mainly about activities in Tokyo. Rural areas, especially Tohoku, were not really my interest.

Of course, as Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name,” it was meaningful to problematize female repression within neat modern families in highly advanced industrial society. But a nation is not monolithic. There are differences regarding regions, industrial structures, etc. We cannot afford to be unaware of that.

On the other hand, the author Yanagiwara actually participated in a session at Urara-sya Book Club in Iwate upon writing the book. In the book, she refers to real-life stories, especially of the organizer, Obara Reiko, and her comrade, Ishikawa Junko, and traces the path of Tohoku’s Ribu movement, positioning it within Japanese Ribu history. The reason they call it “feminism in Kegai” is not to accommodate Tokyo or the center, but to take advantage of being an “Other” and critically redefine modern Japan from their standpoint. *Embodyment of onago

The word onago [woman] in the subtitle has a similar connotation [as Kegai]. Obara started to use the word in a private journal titled Correspondence/Onago established in 1976. Not a “lady,” nor “woman” or “female,” she dared to use the discriminative dialect because she thought: “After all, we must take actions in the country to make changes; “real problems lie in our daily lives.”

The significance of second-wave feminism is, first and foremost, the realization of the idea that “personal matters are political.” Hence, their relationships with men in their everyday lives and the notion of “home” and so on are problems. Onago like Obara, who claims “real problems lie in our daily lives,” were the embodiment of Ribu.

Onago and the war

The idea also applies to her ways of understanding World War II. Surprisingly, Obara says that war-widows already existed before the war. In Iwate, aka “the origin of faithful soldiers,” war-widow problems frequently happened, which were reported in My Man Didn’t Return (Omura Ryo; Iwanami Shoten). There we can find numerous cases of women sexually assaulted by their fathers-in-law. There is even a term “awa maki,” or strewing millet seeds, which referred to the consequent undesired pregnancies resulting from such attacks. Millet is planted in between ridges and ridges where wheat is planted. Obara says that this was not a tragedy caused by the war but an everyday problems that had continued from before.

This is a criticism against the peace movement that emphasizes only the misery of war experiences. Likewise, we tend to consider comfort women collateral war victims, ignoring mundane colonialism, racism, and sexism that is rooted in people’s minds. She explores the question and eloquently expressed her thought in a poem “Daughter of Fire, Daughter of Ice Pillar.” In her poem, Obara fiercely questions fathers and brothers who’d been to the war: “You / to daughters and sisters in foreign countries / what did you do them?”

Even more shocking for me was “Senzoki.” Senzoki is a ceremony to celebrate a grave, which was built by a poor farmer and wife, Takahashi Seki, for her fallen son, Senzo. It has been Urara-sya Book Club’s signature event since 1985, and each time it was reported in Onago: Special Issue. In fact, I had long been interested in Seki, and so three years ago, in my lecture at the National Women’s History Studies gathering in Iwate, I showed a picture of Seki praying in front of the grave. However, now I realize what a superficial understanding I had of her! (

The grave that Seki built is different from an ordinary tomb; only a Buddhist chant is engraved on it, standing on the roadside. What we learn from the author’s interview with Obara and Ishikawa is not of a heroic action where a poor mother built a grave for her fallen son out of pocket, but feminism. Usually, a mother’s beautiful tale is supposed to be the one that supported the national war ideology. Whereas Seki’s grave is standing on the roadside, which is a public space, turning its back on their house, calling passersby Namuamidabutsu.

Why did Seki do such a thing? In the course of pursuing this question, Ishikawa came across to a folk belief or “underground Buddhism” that is deeply rooted in this area. Ishikawa, who has been publishing a personal magazine since the 70s, and the author of an interview-based book Matsuo the Old Woman: The Power to Live until One Hundred Years Old, was trying to complete Onago’s Senzoki with the given historical background. But she lost her battle with cancer and could not finish the book.

As if taking over her will, Yanagiwara talks about Seki, who built her son’s grave on the roadside. In the scope of the national system, that is, Yasukuni Jinja Shrine, her son’s soul was supposed to be worshipped as a war hero. She, in a sense, was a traitor who recaptured her son from the Nation by employing the local, antiestablishment folk belief among onago women in Waga[Iwate]. This is precisely Kegai’s feminism that relativizes the Nation.  

* “Concept of Pregnancy” by Takamure Itsue

Yanagiwara’s encounter with onago, in the first place, was through Ishikawa’s text that was reprinted in the mini-comi [mini communication] magazine Woman: Eros at a university library. Since then, Yanagiwara and Ishikawa became further acquainted with each other. Their last interview took place three days before Ishikawa’s passing. For Ishikawa, who was in her deathbed, working with Yanagiwara must have meant something tremendous. You cannot read Ishikawa’s email, which is quoted in the afterword of Yanagiwara’s book, without tears.

After graduating from Tohoku University, Ishikawa became a high school teacher. In the midst of the world of “modern knowledge” dominated by men, she developed aphasia. Nevertheless, as she experienced pregnancy and childbirth, she published A Letter from Tarachine that explored a woman’s inner world from the viewpoint of the splitting identity of a “pregnant individual.” I, for one, was also attracted to her prose when I read her Woman: Eros and Takamune Itsue Magazine.

However, the reason I did not read her further was my disagreement with her beloved Takamure Itsue. In the scope of second-wave feminism, Takamure was often read as an advocate of Women’s Liberation that was not limited to “equal to men” by “female expansion.” I also poured over Diaries of a Woman in a Fire Country [Kumamoto] and History of Women. I was attracted to her notion of “maternal persona” too. However, her pro-war speech activities during the war, and her nonchalant transformation to a Love-and-Peace figure after the war, was not something I was easily able to accept.

According to Yanagiwara, Ishikawa’s house was homage to Takamure’s “Forest House.” If so, Ishikawa must have kept respect for Takamure till her death. I wonder what the author thinks about that fact, as well as Takamure’s speech activism during the war. Two years ago, I talked about the war-time criticism of her speech activism and what had caused it, acknowledging a certain meaning to Takamure’s “Maternalism,” amongst the current neo-liberalism trend of “self-responsibility,” at a Gender Forum titled “Takamure Itsue and maternalism” at Wako University. You can watch it on the WAN website (

*Multiple Feminisms and Mini-Communication Library

In the end, the author explains the significance of “feminism in Kegai” by onago as follows:

Feminism is a philosophy of modern criticism, but from a “dark place” like Kegai, we can see the contradiction that Japan’s modernization and industrialization cause.

Feminism in Kegai by onago relativizes Japanese feminism from the dark place, and provides a historical view of “multiple feminisms” that confronts various types of modernization that exist in Japan.   If so, the mini-communication library at WAN would be of great use. Currently, the resources that this book was based on, such as Communication Onago and Onago: Extra Issue, as well as other mini-comi journals, which are tokens of hard work by women in liberation, are in-house. When the author wrote this book, she must have had a hard time collecting and reading paper materials, but now, all you have to do is to access the mini-comi library.

Currently, Yanagiwara lives in Santiago, Chile. Perhaps because she knows its significance better than anyone else, she, as a leading member of the mini-comi library, is pretty quick to fix the system disorder, which is way over my head, from the other side of the planet utilizing her IT technology.

I hope that this book will help the mini-comi library thrive and the younger generation create “multiple feminism,” which could relativize modern Japan.

◆ Megumi Yanagiwara

Born in 1985. She received her Ph.D. from Ochanomizu University. Having worked several years for a private company, she is now a special researcher at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and a postdoctoral fellow in Gender Studies at the University of Chile. Having grown up in Iwate, she learned from Iwate’s senior feminists by interviewing and sharing activities with them. She came to realize and now asserts that such women, who had searched for a new way of living and taken actions, certainly existed the time when a term “Ribu” or “feminism” did not even exist. She wants to be their successor. Currently, she lives in Chile.

◆ Mikiyo Kano

Born in 1940. Female historian. The author of Women's Homefront, Postwar History and Gender, Between Hiroshima and Fukushima: From the Viewpoint of Gender, among others.

Source: Translated by Yoko Morgenstein