Kanno Sugako: The Neglected Memory of a Radical Woman

For my final project, I will look at the early stages of the women’s rights movement in Japan focusing on Kanno Sugako, one of the pioneers of the feminist cause in the early twentieth century. Although the Meiji Restoration inflamed an extensive ‘Westernization’ of a patriarchal feudal society that was Tokugawa Japan, the new era hardly changed the status of women.[1] In fact, reforms that specifically addressed the political and legal status of women worsened women’s political position in society.[2] “A woman’s vocation was to be that of the nurturer. Her role was to be centered on the home. Women were barred from politics, from inheritance, and from any independent legal standing in civil law.”[3] Yet, in late nineteenth century there was an increasing number of women fighting for women’s rights. Awareness for women’s rights began to spread in 1870s. There were five young women sent on the Iwakura Mission of 1871,[4] of whom the youngest, Tsuda Ume, became a powerful figure who advocated for the expansion of social roles of women and women’s education. Throughout the decade, women such as Kishida Toshiko and Fukuda Hideko played important roles within the Movement for Freedom and Popular Rights.[5] The women’s movement at the time condemned the ideology of “contempt for women and respect for men,”[6] advocated for women’s education and for equality within the household while arguing against concubinage.[7] This was the political atmosphere around the time Kanno Sugako was born. Known as one of the most radical early Japanese feminists, Kanno was the only female political prisoner hanged in 1910 for the Great Treason Incident, the infamous plot against the Emperor.[8]

[1] Mikiso Hane, "Introduction," Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan, ed. Mikiso Hane (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 7.

[2] Ibid., 8

[3] Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 111

[4] Ibid., 87

[5] Ibid., 88

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sharon L. Sievers, Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1983), 133.


Cansu Colakoglu