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 the long corridor to the rooms that served as the magazine’s headquarters. The men looked around and spotted just a single copy of the magazine’s latest issue. They seized the publication 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. It was created by women, to feature women’s writing to a female audience. In Japan in 1911, it was daring for a woman to put her name in print on anything besides a very 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, which was an extraordinary activity for their time.

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 penname Raichō, or “Thunderbird.” “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 and personal, a 1910s version of the essays that might now be found in Catapult.

Women’s feelings and inner thoughts, however, 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 stories were radical enough that the government censored them. The story that prompted policemen to visit the magazine’s office late at night was a piece of fiction about a married women writing to her lover to ask him to meet her while her husband was away.

As they attracted public attention and disapproval, instead of shying away from the controversy they’d created, the editors of Seitō were forced to confront more baldly political questions, and this in turn earned them 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.

Increasing education for girls, like this group of students learning to write around 1915, created a generation of women looking to be more than good wives and mothers.
Increasing education for girls, like this group of students learning to write around 1915, created a generation of women looking to be more than good wives and mothers. OSU Special Collections & Archives/Public Domain

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 mentor, Chōkō Ikuta, suggested it, Raichō had been immersed in practicing zen meditation, learning English, and pursuing a self-directed course of literary study at the library. 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 reenter Ikuta’s world. Her experience with his last literary society had ended when she ran off with a married man to a mountain retreat, where they spent a night outside in the cold—a romantic, failed attempt at suicide.

This incident had been a scandal for her upper-middle-class family, and though her father and mother had supported her through it, she was still expected to settle down in a respectable marriage. Raichō was part of a generation of Japanese women who had unprecedented access to education, in women’s high schools started in the late 19th century and at Japan Women’s University, which was established in 1901. Women like Raichō studied the literature of naturalism, full of ideas about self-awakening (for men, at least). Even as women’s education improved, they were expected to conform to increasingly constrictive ideas about women’s roles and behaviors. Strict 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.

“A lot of these young women had developed intellectual curiosity and ambition and wanted to do something more than be a good wife and mother,” says Jan Bardsley, a professor of Asian Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of The Bluestockings of Japan.

Living 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 wrote in her autobiography. “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 did secretly fund the printing of the inaugural issue. At Ikuta’s urging, the Seitō founders had 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:

The day has arrived when the mountains are about to become active
People do not believe me when I say this
The mountains have simply been dormant for awhile …
… Believe only this
Now all the women who lay dormant are rousing themselves.

Raichō herself wrote the magazine’s manifesto and call to action, which became known as the first public address on Japanese women’s rights. “In my wildest dreams, I did not imagine how much my opening statement would stir the young women of my generation,” she wrote later. She had sat up through the night, writing “with every fiber of my being,” an expansive, rambling, impassioned piece that opens, “In the beginning, women was the sun … ” and builds to a call to arms, “Even if I collapse halfway, or even if I sink to the bottom of the ocean, a shipwrecked soldier, I will raise both my paralyzed hands and yell with my last breath, ‘Women! Advance! Advance!’”

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.

The cover of the first issue of <em>Seitō</em>.
The cover of the first issue of Seitō. Courtesy of Jan Bardsley/Public domain

In the first issues, the Seitō editors published essays, poems, and works of fiction that plumbed their inner worlds. “There was a vogue at the time to write in the first person, as if you were sharing your innermost thoughts,” says Bardsley. These weren’t political provocations, but they attracted an impassioned following, mostly young women. Letters from around the country poured in, and the magazine’s most ardent fans 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. Within the first year of publication, the office started receiving frequent letters, which, Raichō wrote, “stood out for their pure idiosyncracy.” They came from Kōchiki 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. In her first letter to Seitō, she wrote, “I’ve said so many foolish things, but that’s the kind of person I am—I just can’t be dishonest about myself. So I’ll just go ahead and send this letter .... When I go to Tokyo, I’ll visit your office and apologize in person in my crude, childish way.”

“She was absolutely uninhibited,” Raichō wrote.

This particular quality of Otake’s 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 she became a regular presence in the office, Otake’s taste for adventure and eagerness to share her experiences fueled the gossip swirling around the editors.

In one incident that made it into newspapers, for instance, Otake visited a café known as a haunt for local artists, where the proprietor taught her to make a trendy cocktail with five brightly colored liquors. Women weren’t supposed to drink, and Otake was less interested in imbibing than in the delight of mixing the concoction. But when she described it in the magazine, it seemed as if everyone involved with Seitō had been getting drunk on fancy cocktails.

The <em>Seitō</em> editors caused a scandal when they visited a red-light district to meet a courtesan.
The Seitō editors caused a scandal when they visited a red-light district to meet a courtesan. Library of Congress/ LC-DIG-ggbain-32961

More scandalous was a visit arranged by Otake’s uncle to the Yoshiwara quarter of the city, a red-light district that only men were supposed to frequent. A small group of women, including Otake and Raichō, spent the night in a high-end brothel, in the company of a courtesan named Eizan. The Seitō editors had little sense of the lives of women of lower classes, and the visit was meant to open their eyes to the problems faced by women of different circumstances. That is not how it was received when Otake told a reporter about it.

“Some key members of the ’Seitō Society’ have absurdly and outrageously been to the Yoshiwara,” one paper wrote. “They have gone so much on the loose that even men would have been put to shame.”

“They also write about iconoclastic and unconventional things,” the article noted, almost as an aside.

The newspaper reporters weren’t the only ones who thought Otake and Raichō had gone too far, though. The Yoshiwara trip in particular caused divisions among Seitō’s members. The magazine’s subscriber base had been growing, but after this incident, teachers, worried for their jobs, canceled their subscriptions so they couldn’t be associated with this group of wayward women. 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 that, “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.”

Another <em>Seitō</em> cover.
Another Seitō cover. Courtesy of Jan Bardsley/Public domain

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 the questions of women’s rights and lives that they’d raised.

In the first year of publication, the editors had discussed women’s issues on occasion, most notably in a special issue on Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, itself a controversial work about the place of women in society, which had run in Tokyo. And the 1912 Seitō story, “The Letter,” which provoked the first censure from the government and the seizing of the issue from the office, read: “thinking of the nape of your neck and the delight of the first night your crimson lips met mine …. What I want … is to feel completely enveloped by an earnest and human love.”

They increasingly began to confront controversial questions about the rights of women and the control they should have over their bodies. 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 as well.

“Only under such circumstances will real women’s liberation come about,” she wrote. “Unless this first step is taken, even if women get voting rights, and even if courts, universities, and government offices in general are opened to women, those who enter these, will, of course, only be women from the influential class; the majority of ordinary women will necessarily be excluded from these circles. Thus, just as class warfare breaks out among men, so class warfare will occur among women.”

Raichō Hiratsuka in 1949.
Raichō Hiratsuka in 1949. Public Domain

The government banned this entire issue for being “disruptive of public peace and order.” A couple months later, another issue was banned because of an article opposing arranged marriages. The next year, one of the magazine’s writers sparked a debate on chastity when she wrote (in vague terms) about losing her virginity to a boss who threatened to fire her if she wouldn’t have sex with him. Though that question aroused the feelings of the magazine’s contributors, who argued over whether the writer’s decision was analogous to accepting an arranged marriage, the government allowed the discussion to proceed.

Censors returned for a 1914 issue containing a fictional story about a woman leaving her husband, and one 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.”

The women's suffrage movement came later, but <em>Seitō</em> was later considered a pioneering organization in Japan's feminist history,
The women’s suffrage movement came later, but Seitō was later considered a pioneering organization in Japan’s feminist history, Library of Congress/ LC-DIG-det-4a28014

As they provoked government censors with their writing, the women of Seitō tried to live according to the principles of freedom and exploration that they advocated for. They left husbands and started affairs. They found themselves pregnant and considered abortion. Raichō started a relationship with a younger man, left her parents’ house, and gave up their financial support. 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.

For many years after that, Seitō’s creators dropped out of the spotlight. “They were notorious in the 1910s, but then you don’t hear too much from them,” says Bardsley. 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 movements come from elsewhere to Japan,” says Bardsley. 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,” says Bardsley. “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.’”