Kusunose Kita (1836-1920), a 45-year-old widow, resented her situation. After her husband’s death, she assumed his property tax responsibilities, but was denied his political rights. In September, 1878, to make a point, she attempted to vote in a local election. After she was turned away, she wrote a bold letter to government authorities. It read in part:
I do not have the right to vote. I do not have the right to act as guarantor. My rights, compared with those of male heads of households, are totally ignored. Most reprehensible of all, the only equality I share with men who are heads of their households is the onerous duty of paying taxes.
Kusunose Kita, “Grandmother Popular Rights”
Kusunose’s letter, the first known public petition written by a woman in Japan, was reprinted in newspapers across the country. Overnight, Kusunose earned the honorary appellation Minken Baasan, “Grandmother Popular Rights.” Because she dared question the status quo, she became a symbol of women’s new struggle for empowerment during the Meiji period (1868-1912).
The Home Ministry was not impressed by Kusunose’s insistence that “rights and duties must go together” and demanded that her back taxes be paid immediately.
One man who was impressed, however, was Ueki Emori (1857-1892), the leader of Japan’s popular-rights movement and champion of women’s rights. After reading the letter, he met with Kusunose and several other women to hear their ideas. In 1879, he published a series of essays promoting women’s equality.
The new ideas of justice made sense to other progressive thinkers as well, especially in Kōchi Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku, the birthplace of Japan’s human rights movement in the Meiji period. There, both men and women worked outside of the home to make ends meet. A mother’s movement helped establish numerous daycare centers. Kōchi is sometimes called the “Kingdom of Nursery Schools.”
And it was in Kōchi that the local government found a legal loophole and allowed women to vote in assembly elections in 1880. The national government closed the loophole in 1884, but it was a start. The seeds of a new day had been planted, thanks, in part, to Kusunose’s brave protest.
TO GO DEEPER
Anderson, Marnie S. A Place in Public: Women’s Rights in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Asia Center, 2011.
Hane, Mikiso, ed. “Introduction” from Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Voices of Japanese Rebel Women. NY: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Sievers, Sharon L., Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.
“Aspects of Women (1888), the woodblock art of Taiso Yoshitoshi” (2:16 mins.)
“Women’s Suffrage Around the World” by Encyclopaedia Britannica (4:30 mins.)