Culture

8 Influential Women and Girls in Modern Japanese History

Celebrate International Women's Day this month by learning about these eight impressive Japanese women.

By 6 min read

In Japan’s greatest and most progressive moments, we tend to overlook those on the sidelines—instrumental but forgotten. More often than not, these integral components are women.

Women have stirred the world into action as writers, artists, politicians, astronauts, entertainers, mothers and advocates—and I think it’s about time we remember their names.

Here are eight Japanese women who have influenced the world.

1. Ichiyo Higuchi

Photo:
The Japanese ¥5,000 bank note features Ichiyo Higuchi (1872–1896).

You might recognize Ichiyo Higuchi’s face from the ¥5,000 note in your wallet. However, she is renowned as much more than Japan’s first female professional writer.

As with many great writers, Higuchi was never out of the shadow of hardship. After the death of her brother and father, she decided to become a novelist to support her family.

“Maybe a poem will help those who may read these words understand how I feel when this tree is withered away: it may die with every new leaf, this lonely tree, let it grow now.” — Ichiyo Higuchi, Wakabakage (In the Shade of Spring Leaves)

Her work is often peppered with her own experiences and recurring motifs: unrequited love, grief, gender politics and class divides, to name a few. This is especially true in her acclaimed personal diaries, which caught the public’s attention for their untapped honesty in the Meiji Period.

Having a brief but powerful literary career, Ichiyo Higuchi died at age 24 in 1896.

2. Shidzue Kato

Photo:
Shidzue Kato was deeply moved by Margaret Sanger who advocated birth control and established the Birth Control League in 1931.

Shidzue Kato was the pioneer of the birth control movement and one of the first women elected to join Japan’s Diet. While living in America, she met with Margaret Sanger, a prominent feminist and birth control activist of the early 20th century.

Without the liberation and improvement of women, it is impossible to build democracy in Japan.

Inspired by the work Sanger was doing in America and with a passion for bringing this autonomy to Japan, she began campaigning for easier access to birth control.

The road wasn’t easy, and she even spent time in prison for her liberal views, but her work paved the way for the eventual legalization of the birth control pill. In Japan, that wasn’t until 1999.

3. Sadako Sasaki

Photo:
The Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima is dedicated to Sadako Sasaki.

The brief yet meaningful life of Sadako Sasaki started in 1943, only two years before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. This catastrophic event shaped Sasaki’s future, and at the age of 12, she was diagnosed with leukemia, a tragic after effect of the bomb’s radiation.

During her time at the hospital, she was told of the ancient Japanese legend that your wish would come true if you made 1,000 origami cranes.

Under the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima, it is inscribed, ‘This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world.’

This spurred her to begin making her cranes with the hope of getting better. She exceeded her task, but unfortunately, Sasaki eventually succumbed to her disease. Her memory and resilience are still commended throughout Japan and remind us of the power of hope and peace.

4. Ichikawa Fusae

Photo:
Japanese feminist, politician and women’s suffrage leader, Fusae Ichikawa (1893-1981).

When Japan finally gave women the right to vote in 1945, it was at the behest of the occupying American forces. But while crediting General Douglas MacArthur for his decree, we often forget the name of the woman who had been fighting for suffrage long before: Ichikawa Fusae.

No equality without peace; no peace without equality.

Originally a journalist, Fusae’s thirst for knowledge took her to the United States in 1921. After returning, she formed the Women’s Suffrage League of Japan and had a pivotal role in changing the Japanese cabinet’s mind on women’s right to vote. She championed women’s rights her whole life until she died in 1981.

5. Marie Kondo

Photo:
Marie Kondo at Web Summit in 2015 in Dubline, Ireland.

In recent years, a minimalist lifestyle has shot into the zeitgeist, and Marie Kondo might have had something to do with directing that bullet. We’re not the only ones to find her influential; she graced Time‘s Time 100 Most Influential People 2015 list (#15 in “Artists”) after helping millions declutter and reorganize their homes with her KonMari method.

When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.

She has made many TV appearances in Japan and abroad and even has her own Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. When doing the spring cleaning, many of us will look at our worldly possessions and ask ourselves: “Does this spark joy?”

6. Chiaki Mukai

Photo:
STS-65 payload specialist Chiaki Mukai on Columbia’s mid-deck (9/9/1997).

Chiaki Mukai can be proud to hold many firsts. The first Japanese—and Asian—woman in space, the first Japanese astronaut to be aboard two spaceflights and the first woman to become a cardiovascular surgeon at Keio University Hospital.

“So throughout my life, I never thought that there was anything I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I’m a woman.” — Chiaki Mukai, Tohoku University interview

She thought becoming an astronaut was a pipe dream when she was young as Japan did not form their JAXA space program until 2003. So, instead, she put her passion into helping people as a doctor. This expertise eventually got her noticed by the Japanese government, inviting her into space.

7. Yoko Ono

Photo:
November 2012 – Yoko Ono at ELIA Biennial Conference in Vienna.

A divisive figure of the 21st century, there’s no denying the impact Yoko Ono made on culture in Japan and elsewhere. She rose to fame after partnering with one of the most famous singers of the time, John Lennon. However, her name was a fixture on the avant-garde art scene long before then.

A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.

Her controversial 1964 art performance, Cut Piece, invited onlookers to indiscriminately cut off pieces of her clothes while she remained stoic. She was—and still is—outspoken and passionate about her beliefs and activism and has been involved in many philanthropic efforts throughout her life.

8. Yumi Ishikawa

The instigator of the #KuToo movement, Yumi Ishikawa, opened Pandora’s box on gender issues in Japan with just one tweet (Japanese).

Ishikawa shone a light on the unfair policy that Japanese women had to wear heels and pumps even while working grueling long hours on their feet. #KuToo is a play on kutsu (shoes) and kutsu (pain) and was inspired by Hollywood’s #MeToo movement.

#KuToo isn’t a fight against heels, but a fight for the freedom to choose.

As her Twitter thread became viral and took on traction, more and more Japanese women shared their personal stories of discrimination in the workplace.

If you’d like to find out more about amazing Japanese women, take a look at Iconic Faces: 5 Renowned Japanese Women You Should Know.

With so many inspiring women, we were bound to miss some. Who are the women that inspired you, and what did you learn from them?

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