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Portrait Highlight - Ichikawa Fusae - Japanese feminist, politician and women's suffrage leader

Ichikawa Fusae (市川 房枝, May 15, 1893 – February 11, 1981) was a Japanese feminist, politician and a leader of the women's suffrage movement. Ichikawa was a key supporter of women's suffrage in Japan, and her activism was partially responsible for the extension of the franchise to women in 1945.

Fusae was born in Bisai, Aichi Prefecture in 1893 to parents Ichikawa Fujikurō (a farmer) and Ichikawa Tatsu. Her childhood interestingly reflects the contrasting ideals that had begun to emerge in Japan, on the one hand were traditional values and embedded hierarchies and on the other, modernisation and liberation. For whilst her father (and the majority of Japanese society) still considered it acceptable to beat his subservient wife whenever he deemed it appropriate, which he did on numerous occasions, he also considered it acceptable to educate daughters as well as sons. This latter, more progressive view was not shared by many of their neighbours in the village where they lived and the family received and tolerated much ridicule. Fusae later recalled seeing her mother cowering in a corner, unable to defend herself against her husband’s attacks and at the same time being raised to be "bold or aggressive," and to ignore convention. She attended public elementary and spent a short time at Joshi Gakuin (Girls' Academy), a progressive girls' schools in Tokyo, whose director, Yajima Kajiko, was an outspoken advocate of women's rights, before attending Women’s Teacher Academy. Teaching being the only respectable career open to women.

After graduating she got a job teaching in a girls’ public elementary school, but quickly became frustrated by the constraints she could see being forced upon her students, as well as those across the country. "Curiosity and self-consciousness have been ignored in the name of femininity… For no reason we are forced to be submissive, to sacrifice ourselves, and to be chaste…. We are molded into human beings who lack dignity, are inflexible, and cannot even manage our own lives.” She was also under increasing pressure to marry, but refused to give in to the pressure, “Whom should I try to please in this world? Society at large? Women? Myself? If I am prevented from doing what I want to do, I will not have confidence in myself or in my abilities. I know that I will be extremely lonely in the future. Yet, I am most content when I sit alone in my dark room or when I take an evening walk by myself.”

By 1916 she had had enough and left her job at the school, choosing to pursue a different direction. On returning to Aichi in 1917, she became the first woman reporter with the Nagoya Newspaper, covering women's organisations and educational opportunities for women. But Aichi soon became too small and Tokyo, with its liberal circles of young intellectuals and social activists, beckoned. In 1919, she was appointed secretary of the women's section of the Yūaikai (Friendly Society), Japan's first labour organisation, only to discover rife discrimination against women within its ranks. She reached the conclusion that "before I worked in a labor movement for women, I would have to work in a woman's movement for male-female equality. Although I tried very hard to raise the position of working women within the federation, I resigned when I realised that the consciousness of Japan's workers was extremely low."

Hiratsuka Raicho

When she had first arrived in Tokyo she had met Hiratsuka Raicho, Japan's most prominent feminist, and though they each came from very different backgrounds, the two had struck up a firm friendship. On leaving the labour movement, Fusae turned to the women’s movement and in 1920 co-founded the New Women's Association (新婦人協会, Shin-fujin kyokai) together with Hiratsuka Raicho. Formed expressly for the improvement of the status and welfare of women, the Association was the first of its kind in Japan, and in contrast to the Bluestockings of the West, the New Woman's Association sought to organise a broad cross-section of women, for political, rather than cultural purposes. Their overall goal was to achieve equal rights for all men and women. Fusae became editor-in-chief of Josei dōmei (Women's League), a newsletter which promoted the association's ideas.

"New Women's Association"

Under Ichikawa's leadership, the organisation campaigned for a higher standard of education for women, co-education in primary schools, women's suffrage, the protection of motherhood, and a revision of laws unfavourable to women, including the prohibition of women’s participation in politics. However, as women were barred from this sort of political campaigning (by the same law the organisation sought to overturn), they instead held events known as "lecture meetings" to further their reach, convene conferences for women activists, and offer personal consultation for women with problems.

General Assembly of "New Women's Association"

Fusae and Raicho brought two petitions before the Imperial Diet (the national legislature), the first, signed by more than 1,500 women, sought to repeal the section of the Peace Preservation Law which denied women the freedom of assembly, the second sought to prohibit men with venereal disease from marrying and to provide women with recourse to divorce husbands with a sexually transmitted disease. This second petition was immediately rejected by the Diet because it was not in "accord with the standard of Japanese custom which gave predominance to men over women”, and so the New Women’s Association went diverted all their energies into lobbying for their first petition. They made themselves conspicuously present in the small women's section of the visitors' gallery where they sat behind wire netting, prompting one woman to say that they "listened to the Diet men quietly, like tiny animals in a cage” and submitted appeals to Diet members on pink and lavender name cards. Despite, or perhaps because of, Fusae and Raicho’s arrest at a YMCA meeting, for violating the Peace Preservation Law, public support for the Association grew ever stronger. After several failed attempts, the petition was finally approved on February 25, 1922 and women won the legal right to organise and participate in public meetings.

Members of the Association carrying 20,000 petitions to the imperial Diet

Not long after their victory the Association disbanded, in part due to the conflicting ideologies of Fusae and Raicho. Raicho was beginning to steer the association towards promoting the interests of married women only, and putting great emphasis on the "principle of mothers' rights," while Fusae was more concerned with the broader principle of women's rights. She decided to leave for the United States, intent on making contact with leaders in the American women's suffrage movement and discussing labour issues with women trade-union leaders. In the two years she spent in America, she met with Jane Addams and learnt about her federation of women for peace and freedom, and followed the work of Carrie Chapman Catt, who established the League of Women Voters and developed a women's movement for war prevention. She also established a lifelong friendship with Alice Paul, who led the radical wing of the U.S. suffrage movement and established the National Women's Party.

Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul

After her experiences in America, Fusae’s return to Japan in 1924 was what she referred to as "the period of hope”. She came back with a focused commitment to work exclusively for Japan's suffrage. She took a job at the Tokyo branch office of the International Labour Organisation, where she investigated women's labor conditions and proposed strategies for improvement. She then went on to found Japan's first women's suffrage organisation, the Women's Suffrage League of Japan (日本婦人有権者同盟, Nippon fujin yûkensha dômei) and by 1927 was working full time for the League. Women’s rights appeared to be a hot topic following the 1928 general election and there was the expectation that with the gradual expansion of the electorate, women would eventually be included. Riding on this momentum, the League held the country's first ever national convention on the enfranchisement of women in Japan. It wasn’t long before the heat died down though and politicians, increasingly concerned with economic problems relating to the depression and escalating militarism, decided to shelve the ‘women problem’. Government forced the women's movement to shift its emphasis from political rights, to issues explicitly affecting women's daily lives as housewives and mothers, and the League experienced fierce opposition and criticism from both the right and the left as Fusae continued to her efforts to educate women about political issues.

Conservatives criticised her for lacking sensitivity and womanly virtue. "The conservative public opposed women's suffrage," she wrote, "believing that a woman's place was in the family, for the ideal of Japanese womanhood was to be a good wife and mother, and if a woman should have equal rights politically with men, conflicts would probably arise within the family, thereby destroying the traditional family system which had been the centre of Japanese life since ancient times." On the left, the communists and socialists were critical of the women's suffrage movement because it did not oppose the political and economic institutions of capitalism. Moreover, Fusae was beginning to receive kickback from within the League itself as members grew weary of her demands for tireless devotion and personal financial sacrifice for the cause.

Ichikawa Fusae photographed by Shigeru Tamura

In 1933, through the the Tokyo Fujin Shisei Jōka Renmei (Tokyo Women's Alliance for Honest City Government), Fusae brought together representatives of various non-government women's groups to take part in different community-based political activities. This organisation was designed to involve women in "clean government" activities, including tax reform, opposition to price hikes for home fuel, the decentralisation of Tokyo wholesale markets, and efficient refuse collection. The following year members of the Women's Suffrage League formed the Bosei Hogo Renmei (Motherhood Protection League) to work for welfare programs for single mothers. Though less militant in approach, Fusae saw these campaigns as a way to provide women with a political education and a preferable, alternative role to that of the supplicant. The 1930s however, saw the government setting up its own women’s organisations with very different goals. Instead of promoting freedom of thought and emancipation, the Japanese government expected their members to sacrifice their personal well-being for the good of the country, to uphold the "natural order" of society, to maintain the sanctity of the traditional family, and to support the troops fighting in China.

By 1936 Fusae was under government surveillance due to her increasingly vocal criticisms of the war Japan was fighting in China. A year later she convinced prominent women from several organisations to join her in establishing the Nihon Fujin Dantai Renmei (Japan Federation of Women's Organisations) to develop programs addressing the problems that women faced during the war: the hardships of women-headed households, the conscription of women labourers, and the shortages of consumer items. With her agenda becoming further submerged in wartime objectives, Fusae, along with 29 other national figures went on record in 1938 recommending that all civilian organisations should encourage their members to engage in practices of civic and personal responsibility, including emperor worship, fiscal restraint in household budgets, personal austerity with respect to appearance, devotion to the well-being of their neighbours, and the judicious disciplining of children.

Surprisingly, in 1942, Fusae was appointed to the advisory board of the Dai Nihon Fujinkai (Greater Japan Women's Association), an organisation established by the government for the sole purpose of restoring "the fundamental nature of women that has been harmed by Western ideas.” Fusae was later criticised for having agreed to this role as it was seen as a betrayal by many, and a collaboration with the government during the war, but she stated that she had remained a critic of the organisation (she was the only member of the advisory board to have been fired by the government) and, "I had been a leader of women and I could not retire abruptly from them. I decided to go with the people, not to encourage the war, but to take care of the people who were made unhappy by the war.” By the end of the war, little ground had been gained in the fight for women’s emancipation. Women were still prohibited from joining political parties, voting, participating in government, or holding political office. However, it was the American military occupation that followed the war that brought about a change in politics which ultimately made these reforms possible.

Not one to waste any time, Fusae organised the Sengo Taisaku Fujin Iinkai (Women's Committee on Postwar Countermeasures) to work for women's suffrage, only ten days after the Emperor’s surrender. This new organisation maintained that, "suffrage is not something to be granted, but something to be attained by the hands of women themselves”, and argued that the political empowerment of women might have prevented Japan's entry into such a destructive war. Pressured by the American occupation forces, the Diet granted women the vote in 1945 and women's suffrage was enshrined in Japan's postwar constitution. That same year, Fusae founded the Nihon Fujin Yūkensha Dōmei (Japan League of Women Voters) and the Fusen Kaikan (Women's Suffrage Hall), a research institute designed to increase women's political consciousness. She embarked on an ambitious national tour to promote democratic principles and encourage women's participation in the political process and was herself, a candidate for the House of Councillors (the upper house of the Diet, the national legislature).

However, one month before the first national election held after the war (in which over a third of the votes would be cast by women), Fusae was purged from public life. Not by the Japanese authorities, but by American occupation officials, the very same occupying forces who had enabled the emancipation of women. In an unfortunate twist of fate, the Americans saw that Fusae had been involved in the government-run Greater Japan Women’s Association and deemed her to have been a government collaborator. She was consequently barred from the Women's Suffrage Hall, prohibited from participation in any political activity, and her efforts to publish were censored. Friends fell by the wayside and colleagues ceased their contact with her. It was a tremendous blow and an unbearable irony that, arguably the strongest living advocate for democracy in Japan, and the woman most responsible for women's participation in the political process, was banned from public life. Even a petition with more than 170,000 signatures protesting against the purge was unsuccessful; the purge was not lifted until 1950. Effectively prevented from earning a living, and with no friends left in Tokyo, Fusae was forced to return to her family’s farm in Aichi where she lived scratching out an existence by raising vegetables and chickens. But she was not easily cowed. Back on the farm she began writing a history of Japan's women's movement.

Fusae elected into the 3rd House of Councillors 1953

After the purge was finally lifted, Fusae went on to become one of Japan’s most respected politicians. In 1953 she was elected to five terms in the House of Councillors and by the 1970s she was winning the largest percentage of the nationwide vote. One of the keys to her political success was her aversion to political party affiliation. Her success in running as an independent was, in large part, due to the years she devoted to campaigning in the women's movement, but in the postwar period her constituencies expanded to include consumers, peace advocates, and environmentalists. Fusae consistently ran as an anti-establishment candidate, nationally recognised as a critic of political corruption and excessive spending in political campaigns.

She was a fierce critic of the Japan-U.S. alliance, in 1967 sought an end of the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and the reversion of Okinawa. On the 25th anniversary of women's suffrage in Japan in 1970, Fusae identified peace, pollution, and prices as the most important issues for the women's movement to address. In 1974, at the age of 81 she was was asked to run for office again, and earned a fourth term in the Diet. That same year she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for her efforts in support of social equality. In 1980 she was re-elected to the House of Councillors, with the highest number of votes from the national constituency, and emerged as the leading voice in urging the Japanese government to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Fusae continued campaigning for women’s equality until her death in 1981 and in doing so laid the foundation for the anti-establishment fervour which swept Japanese politics in the 1980s and 1990s.


Ichikawa Fusae, pen on paper (2021)

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